The Nature of Socialism
All of the documents [including this one] in the Political Ideologies section of this website were written prior to the introduction in 2017 of the new Government and Politics Specifications Changes in the new Specifications and in particular the emphasis placed upon particular key thinkers within each ideology mean that the documents on this page do not currently adequately reflect the requirements of the new Specifications. Consequently my advice to students following the New Specification would be to rely upon advice from your teachers and recently published A Level texts on Political ideas rather than the documents posted here. I hope eventually to rewrite these documents to reflect the new Specifications but this is going to take a long time.
Although the origins of Socialism may be traced back to some of the ideas of Plato, Christian ethics, Sir Thomas More and the Levellers and Diggers of the English Civil War its modern foundations derive in various ways from the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution and the development of industrial capitalism.
The study of all ideologies involves complex and controversial issues about which even eminent experts disagree. Thus in her text “Using Political Ideas” Barbara Goodwin describes Socialism as a “theoretical genus” containing different species: Marxism, Anarchism, Democratic Socialism and Social Democracy and believes that Communism is best viewed as a political practice rather than an ideology. Contrastingly John Hoffman and Paul Graham [Introducing Political Theory], referring to the work of Barbara Goodwin and John Vincent, note that Anarchism overlaps with both Liberalism and Socialism but that “whatever the overlap between some kinds of anarchism and socialism, there is also an anarchism that is explicitly non-socialist and in some of its forms even anti-socialist”.
We may conclude that within the broad ideology of Socialism we must distinguish between Marxism, Socialist Anarchism, Social Democracy and Democratic Socialism and that we must note also the distinction between Marxist theory and Communist practice. Given the variety of “Socialisms” it is easy to see why John Vincent has stated that “there is no such single thing as socialism. There are rather socialisms which often overlap with other ideologies. No pristine doctrine exists.”
Writers on the different variants of socialist ideology seek to analyse them in terms of their core principles although there are some divergences among different writers as to which core principles should actually be included Leaving the controversies surrounding Socialism and Anarchism until we have studied anarchism we shall concentrate initially on the analysis of the core elements of Socialism in General and then in more detail on Marxism and Communism and Social Democracy and Democratic Socialism.
We shall note also that although Socialism is distinct in important respects from other ideologies there are also some importance similarities between some variants of Socialism and other ideologies such as Liberalism, Anarchism, Feminism, Environmentalism and even some variants of Conservatism.
- Socialists and the Analysis of Capitalism
Early socialist ideas predate the emergence of industrial capitalism but it is certainly true that C19th socialist ideology included a powerful critique of C19th industrial capitalism based upon laissez faire. Although some socialists, including Marx, recognised the dynamism and potential for increased efficiency of industrial capitalism they argued that laissez faire capitalism was nevertheless a flawed system based upon economic and political inequality, class division and class conflict in which the benefits of capitalism were enjoyed mainly by the property owning upper class [and to a lesser extent by the middle classes] while the working class and especially its lower sections experienced widespread absolute poverty, poor working and living conditions, high rates of infant mortality and low life expectancy and negligible educational opportunities for working class children many of whom were in any case employed for long hours in dangerous conditions. The situation for the working class could sometimes deteriorate as a result of the periodic economic slumps to which capitalism was subjected and, furthermore, working class political influence within the C19th political system was also limited due to the restricted franchise and laws which inhibited the growth of trade unionism.
Socialist critics of capitalism further claimed that it was an economic system owned a controlled by a rich capitalist class in which production was organised not in order to meet the real needs of the people but in order to generate large profits for the capitalist class. Resources are used to produce luxury goods for the rich while sufficient food, clothing and housing for the poor are not produced because it is not profitable to do so. As a result of this many individual workers could be said to be alienated from their work because they may recognise that they are working to only to produce profits for the rich rather than necessary goods and services for the majority of the population.
Some socialists and especially Marxists emphasised the extent of social class division which existed in C19th Capitalism. Thus according to Marx Capitalist societies could be divided into two major social classes [the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat] whose relationships to each other were based upon exploitation and conflict. Marx would argue that this class conflict could be resolved only by the end of capitalism as a system which would probably be achieved via revolution although where there was universal suffrage Marx did believe that a parliamentary transition to socialism might be possible.
Other socialists argued that revolution was unnecessary, that cooperation between the social classes was possible and that parliamentary methods should be used to reform the capitalist system significantly but gradually. By the late C19th it would come to be argued by the Fabians in the UK and by the German “revisionist” Eduard Bernstein that Marxist theories of capitalism were inaccurate, that revolution was unnecessary and that gradual parliamentary democratic socialist reform was possible.
Furthermore by the mid C20th revisionists within the UK Labour Party such as Anthony Crosland and Hugh Gaitskell were suggesting that changes in the nature of capitalism had already improved the conditions for working class people significantly and that further government reforms would certainly enable “Democratic Socialism” could be introduced by parliamentary means, conclusions which Marxists, of course, rejected. Under the leadership of Tony Blair Labour governments have, by accepting reforms such as privatisation and trade union laws introduced by previous Conservative governments, shown that further socialist intervention in the capitalist system is likely to be relatively limited.
In summary, therefore, we may conclude that socialists have been critical of C19th laissez-`faire capitalism and have recognised the need for changes to that system but they have disagreed as to whether capitalism should be reformed or abolished and in their assessments of the changes to the capitalist system which have actually occurred in the last 100 or so years.
- Socialists and the Nature of the Individual.
Socialists argue that individual talents, attitudes and values are influenced heavily by the nature of the societies in which they exist. They would claim, for example, that social class and/or ethnic differences in educational achievement are to be explained primarily in terms of the social and economic disadvantages which affect many working class and ethnic minority pupils rather than in terms of genetically inherited differences in intelligence.
They would argue also that individuals are not inevitably self-interested and competitive but that these widely observed character traits develop because individuals have been socialised to accept these self- interested and competitive values on which capitalist societies depend for their survival. By contrast socialists would tend to argue that individuals have a natural impulse to cooperation and community spirit [or “fraternity” as French Revolutionists might have said] which can be developed further if societies were organised along socialist lines where individuals would be prepared to work hard not for their own narrow self-interest but in order to contribute to the good of society as a whole while the organisation of work would be more efficient if it were organised on principles of cooperation rather than competition.
The socialist belief that individuals can be cooperative and community spirited rather than self-interested and competitive has important implications for socialist beliefs in economic equality in that while supporters of capitalist economic inequality argue that it essential in order to provide the financial incentives to persuade people to undertake the more difficult work tasks, supporters of socialism would argue that in socialist societies individuals will be willing to work hard for the good of the community without the need for massive economic inequality. We should not however that there as disputes among socialists as to how quickly and to what extent economic inequality should be reduced.
- Some Elements of Socialism. [From 3 different textbooks on political ideology.]
- Equality, Class Conflict, Justice, Equality of Opportunity, Collectivism, Common Ownership.
- Community, Cooperation, Equality, Social Class, Common Ownership.
- Concern with poverty, class analysis of society, egalitarianism, communal ownership, human interdependence human creativity and sociability, virtues of cooperation, idealisation of work as unalienated labour, freedom as fulfilment, internationalism.
In considering these lists it is important to distinguish between socialist methods of analysis which are heavily related to class structures and relationships between classes, the possible ends or goals of Socialism and the means by which Socialism is to be achieved or organised. [Also in these notes I shall follow Barbara Goodwin’s approach in arguing that several of the ends or goals of Socialism are linked in various ways to the Socialist commitment to Equality.
- Class Conflict, Social Class, Class Analysis of Society
In their analyses of capitalist societies socialists give considerable attention to the analyses of capitalist class structures although they have increasingly recognised the importance of other aspects of social inequality. As we have seen C19th socialists were very critical of C19th laissez-faire capitalism and they often linked their criticisms with analyses of the class structures of these capitalist societies. The best known class-based analysis of C19th capitalism is that of Marx who argues that
|Capitalist societies can be divided into two major social classes -- the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat. The Bourgeoisie owns almost all of the land, banks, factories etc, whereas the Proletariat owns little or no property and work for wages. Intermediate classes may exist but in Marx's best-known theory, they will eventually be incorporated into one or other of the two main social classes--i.e. the size of the intermediate or middle classes will decline. (There are some problems with Marx's analysis of the middle classes because in his later work, he predicted that the size of the middle classes would increase.)|
| The relationship between the two classes is one of exploitation and conflict. The Proletariat (the working class) are poorly paid, work long hours in dangerous conditions, are poorly housed, poorly educated and in bad health. They are also unrepresented politically. Trade unions are weak or non-existent; no political party represents the interests of working class people who in case have no voting rights. Meanwhile the Bourgeoisie (the upper class) exploits the Proletariat. They earn high profits and enjoy a privileged life style at the expense of the Proletariat who earn low wages exactly because the Bourgeoisie earns high profits. Diagrammatically, we can show the relationship as follows: If you imagine the Capitalist system as it operated in 19th Century Britain, it seems that Marx was providing a fairly accurate description of it
|Marx also believed that the economic organisation of capitalist societies would heavily influence other characteristics of these societies. In Marx's terms, the Economic Base of capitalist societies would heavily influence the Superstructure of these societies. For example:|
- The Bourgeoisie was the economically dominant class but was also a politically dominant Ruling Class because all of the political leaders were drawn from the Bourgeoisie and could be relied upon to represent the interests of their own class.
- Meanwhile as already mentioned the Proletariat were unrepresented politically.
- The legal system protected private property and heavy penalties were imposed for minor thefts, with no account taken of mitigating circumstances. The legal system also discriminated against trade unions.
- The Ruling Class attempted to maintain its power by spreading a so-called Ruling Class Ideology via the Family, the Church, the Schools and the Media, designed to encourage the working class to accept their own exploitation and the dominance of the Ruling Class without question.
- Therefore, education was mainly for the rich and any education given to the poor was designed to keep them firmly in their place. According to Marx, religion played a similar role. This point is developed a little in the following extract, although many would disagree with Marx` view of religion, arguing that many religious leaders have always spoken up against poverty and injustice.
|Marx believed that the capitalist system was unstable and contained within itself the seeds of its own downfall.|
- Although capitalism would improve living standards for some, it would also lead to increasing unemployment, poverty and misery for many.
- Industrialisation would lead to urbanisation and this would make it easier to organise trade unions and political parties to represent the interests of the working class.
- As a result, the Proletariat would eventually become aware of the reasons for its exploitation. It would develop a consciousness of its class position. That is, in Marx's own terms, it would change from a class in itself to a class for itself. It would protest, demonstrate and finally rise up and overthrow the Bourgeoisie. Capitalism would eventually be replaced by Communism which was to be a classless utopia.
Marxists argue also that since social class membership, class exploitation and class conflict all revolve around the ownership or non-ownership of the means of production, class conflict is inevitable under capitalism and can be removed only by the abolition of the capitalist system and the taking over of all private property by the new revolutionary state.
Several important criticisms have been made of Marx’ class theory most notably by another classic sociologist Max Weber in the early C20th and by functionalist sociologists of the 1950s who actually argued that in several respects class inequality [or social stratification as they called it] is actually desirable and inevitable. [We can pursue Marxist class theories and their criticisms as a background topic later]
Social Democrats or Democratic Socialists have tended to agree that modern capitalist societies continue to generate class structures which result in economic and social inequality but that class conflict is not inevitable under capitalism and that gradual social democratic reform of capitalism involving, for example, progressive taxation and increased welfare spending can increase equality without the need for the abolition of capitalism and the transfer of all private property to the state.
In the UK the social democratic reforms of Labour governments 1954-51, 1964-1970 and 1974-79 did have some success in increasing economic equality but even by 1979 the UK remained an unequal society in terms of the distribution of income and wealth. Economic inequality actually increased under Conservative governments 1979-1997 and New Labour governments since 1997 have had little success in reversing the increased economic inequality which occurred under the Conservatives.
Perhaps the central principle of Socialism is Equality. However with regard to equality we may distinguish between rights to equal respect, equality before the law, political equality as operative in liberal democratic political systems, equality of opportunity and equality of economic outcome as measured by income and wealth statistics. By the late C 19th many liberals were prepared to accept the first four types of equality mentioned but socialists argued further that greater economic equality of outcome was also desirable.
Statistics on the distribution of income and wealth were not readily available in the C19th but by the early C20th the existence of very substantial differences in income and wealth both within and between countries were obvious for all to see and socialists argued in favour of a far more equal distribution of income and wealth although there were disputes among socialists as to how much economic equality was desirable. The most radical egalitarians tended to argue not for total equality but for the distribution of income and wealth according to need while social democrats, although they support greater economic equality may argue also in favour of the maintenance of some economic inequality because of their belief that such economic inequality provides incentives for harder work resulting in greater efficiency from which even the poor can benefit.
Socialists argue for greater economic equality because without it individuals are unlikely to be granted the other kinds of equality mentioned above: the rich are likely to receive more social respect than the poor; the rich may be able to afford expensive defence council not available to the poor; liberal democratic regimes are based on universal suffrage but the rich have much more time and opportunity for political participation; and according to socialists equality of opportunity or meritocracy is impossible in a seriously economically unequal society because poorer children for a variety of reasons may be unable to take advantages of educational opportunities even when they are offered.
Although socialists have focused their attention on economic inequality as between social classes, they note also the existence of economic inequalities and unequal rights related to gender, ethnicity, age, sexuality and disability and would seek to see the removal also of these inequalities.
- Equality, Cooperation and Community Spirit
Socialists argue that Equality helps to promote Cooperation and Community Spirit which according to Andrew Heywood are further core principles of Socialism. Cooperation and community spirit have already been discussed earlier in these notes and you may like to include a summary of these materials in the space provided.
- Equality and Internationalism
Socialist Internationalism [which Barbara Goodwin sees as part of the nucleus of socialist ideology] means that they socialists seek an entire world organised according to principles of anti-imperialism and equality. Barbara Goodwin comments: “Internationalism is the highest ideal of socialist ideology with its demands for worldwide equality and peace yet the strength of nationalism and the fierce competitiveness of globalized capitalism- not to mention people’s myopia where remote countries are concerned- make it the hardest ideal to pursue in practice.”
- Equality and Justice.
Attitudes to justice vary as between different political ideologies. Socialists emphasise that justice requires a considerable degree of economic equality because without it all individuals cannot possibly have equal opportunities to develop their talents and abilities. In particular socialist justice requires that absolute and relative poverty be ended because these conditions are particularly likely to inhibit personal development.
Socialists argue further that resources should be distributed not entirely equally but in accordance with need: for example they consider it to be just for sick and/or disabled people to receive a share of resources which enables them to live well and happily.
There are divergences within Socialism as to the degree of economic equality which is necessary to secure justice and there are also some things which are considered just in socialist ideology but not in other ideologies. For example it might be considered by Conservatives and some Liberals that high progressive rates of income tax, high rates of inheritance tax, the abolition of private property, the abolition of private schools or generous social security benefits for the unemployed are all unjust. Many socialists would disagree in each case.
We can return to these controversies in connection with our studies of Liberalism and Conservatism. Meanwhile read your textbook on Socialism and Justice: it refers to the work of John Rawls which we must consider later.
- Equality and Liberty
Non-Socialists may well support equality of respect, equality before the law, equal voting rights and equality of opportunity but may argue nevertheless that high levels of economic equality undermine personal liberty for example because economic equality may be achieved via high rates of taxation which destroy the liberty on individuals to spend their money as they so choose or because state ownership of industry or the state regulation of private industry denies the liberty of individuals to own their own businesses or to organise them as they see fit.
However socialists argue that individuals cannot be free to develop their talents to their full potential unless they have the economic resources to do so. This means that a reasonable degree of equality is necessary for all individuals to have this kind of liberty. It should be noted also that if individuals are not free to develop their talents in this way they may be obliged to accept the kind of work that denies them equal respect and restricts their opportunities for human creativity in their work.
The main interconnected and international ends or goals of Socialism may be listed as follows:
Full human self–development.
However we must now consider two important principles which might be involved in the actual organisation and management of socialist societies. These are Common Ownership and Collectivism which should be seen as the means that socialists might use in order to achieve the above ends or the goals of Socialism
Socialists have argued that economic inequality is inconsistent with liberty, justice and full political rights and that it undermines economic efficiency. They have argued also that this economic inequality derives in large part from the private ownership of the means of production which enables the owners [the Bourgeoisie in Marxist terminology] to exploit the non-owners of the means of production [the Proletariat].
In C19th capitalism especially working and living conditions for the proletariat were desperate and this led Marxists [and some non-Marxist socialists] to claim that their situation could be remedied only by the abolition of private property and the capitalist system and their replacement by public or common ownership of the means of production in a socialist society. This public ownership would enable resources to be used to satisfy the needs of the majority rather than to generate large profits for the few.
There were however disputes most notably between Marxists and Socialist Anarchists as to whether resources would be owned or controlled by a centralised bureaucratic state or by local community organisations which according to Socialist Anarchists would be more in tune with the needs of local individuals than would be possible under centralised state socialism.
Attitudes to the common ownership of the means of production changed considerably as a result of the development of social democracy during the C20th. In the UK the 1945-51 Labour governments did nationalise some major industries [coal, gas, electricity, railways etc] but these were mainly non-profitable industries and the generous compensation paid to their owners meant that, if anything, economic inequality increased as a result of these measures. Labour’s vision of socialism involved not the ending of private ownership and the capitalist system but the development of a mixed economy containing both a nationalised, state owned sector and a much larger private sector which Labour would seek to regulate so as to ensure greater overall levels of economic equality. In this view it was unnecessary to substitute full public or common ownership for private ownership: instead the private sector was to be regulated in order to secure more “socialist” outcomes. Opposition to full public ownership increased further as a result of what were seen as the economic failures of the USSR and its Eastern European satellite states.
In the event the industries which Labour had nationalised were later returned to private ownership as a result of the privatisation programme implemented by Conservative governments between 1979-1997 and Labour governments since 1997 have shown absolutely no sign of wishing to renationalise them which would in any case be expensive and administratively difficult. However we have clearly seen a significant change in attitudes to public ownership under the premiership of Tony Blair suggesting a further retreat from socialist principles by New Labour.
Socialists have also been influenced by values of collectivism which imply that [as already discussed] individuals tend to value collective, collaborative activity rather than individualistic and possibly self-centred activity and that important social problems are more likely to be resolved by collective rather than individual actions.
Socialists have introduced a variety of strategies based on the principles of collectivism. As we have seen Marxist-influenced governments abolished private property and thereby abolished the capitalist system and replaced it by a system of state ownership and control of the means of production. By contrast social democratic governments tended to take only a few major industries into public ownership but they have also introduced other collective measures.
- They have introduced macroeconomic policies based on principles of aggregate demand management which are used in an attempt to promote higher levels of employment and faster rates of economic growth and improving living standards than would be possible if governments continued to accept the principles of laissez-faire.
- They have recognised that individuals have rights to influence government via their membership of pressure groups and in particular post –war Labour governments have sometimes [but certainly not always] welcomed the involvement of trade unions and business pressure groups in government decision making in a so-called tripartite system.
- Liberal governments at the beginning of the C20th and particularly the Labour governments of 1945 -51 have been instrumental in expanding the scope of the Welfare State. It has been recognised that the problems of poverty, poor housing, poor health, unemployment and limited education required governments to raise additional funds via taxation and National Insurance contributions and to spend these funds via the institutions of the Welfare State on the alleviation of these problems.
We must recognise that not only socialists favour the use of collectivism to deal with social problems but there are ideological and party political differences surrounding the ideal extent and the nature of collectivist solutions. In particular New Right theorists and their supporters on the right wing of the Conservative Party have argued that between 1945-1979 reliance on collective solutions has been EXCESSIVE!