"What is class anyway? Is it how much you make? Why is it important?"
The heart of socialist politics is the self-emancipation of the working class. In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx wrote: "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles."
But what exactly is class?
The answer to this, according to most sociologists, is how much money you make. In America, most people are considered and consider themselves "middle class". The middle class is defined by some sociologists as people who make anywhere between $50,000 to $100,000 a year; others say it's between $35,000 and $75,000 a year. Below the middle class is the working class, which according to the first definition is anyone who makes less than $50,000 a year. Determining class by examining income is like determining what species an animal is by looking at how big or small it is. But in order to determine what species an animal is, you must compare it to other animals and examine their structural differences.
Class is not dependent on how much money you make. If two people have the same job, work in the same factory or office right next to eachother, but one makes $49,000 a year and the other $51,000, are they in different classes? NO! A person's class is defined by how they are related to the means of production and how they are related to other people in the process of production.
A slave is a slave because he is owned by someone else as a tool in the process of production. A serf is a serf because he must work for a lord to pay for the rent of the land. A worker is a worker because he owns no means of production, and therefore must sell his ability to work to someone else, a capitalist, in order to survive. A manager is not in the same class as a worker, even though he too does not own the means of production and, as a result, must sell his ability to work to the capitalist. Why are the worker and manager in two different classes? Because the manager has the power to hire or fire the worker, while the worker does not have the power to hire and fire the manager. The manager's daily bread comes from forcing the worker to work harder. Failing to extract as much as possible out of the workers under him would lead to the capitalist firing him and replacing him with a sterner, meaner, more inhumane manager who could get the job done.
Why is class important?
Class is the key to understanding history, politics, economics, ideas, the dynamics of struggles and the motive forces behind revolutions.
The American Civil war, for example, was not primarily a fight between the idea of freedom and the idea slavery, although the conflict had an ideological dimension. The Civil War was a conflict between classes - between the Northern capitalist class, whose wealth was derived from exploitation of free labor, and the Southern slave-owning class, whose wealth was derived from the exploitation of slave labor. The battle was not only fought on the fields of Pennsylvania with roaring cannons, it was fought on an ideological field as well, in the press, in cartoons, in speeces and on pulpits. Each class declared its side to be the "moral" side, the "just" side, the "right" side - as every class waging a life and death battle has done in the past and the future.
For socialists, the working class is central in overthrowing capitalism and establishing a society based on meeting human need. But why? Why the working class?
Unlike any other class, the working class has the power, the potential, to get rid of capitalism and eventually abolish classes altogether. It and it alone has the collective power at its finger tips, in the shops, factories, offices, mines and mills to bring the capitalist system to its knees. In the past, workers have used this power, usually by going on strike. But workers have also taken over the toolshops, factories, offices, mines and mills and operated them in their own interests.
The reason socialist politics focus on the working class, or rather are centered on the working class, is because of its potential to overthrow capitalism and to establish a socialist society.