Russell Haggar

Site Owner


Evolutionary and Revolutionary Socialism


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. 



  • Democratic Socialism and Social Democracy



The terms “democratic socialism” and “social democracy” are sometimes used more or less interchangeably but other theorists and practising politicians have noted important differences between these terms. In relation to “social democracy” we must note first of all that Lenin’s revolutionary socialist political party was originally called the Russian Social Democratic Party and that it was not till 1923 that Lenin’s Bolshevik wing of the party took the name of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union [CPSU]. Thus in Russia Social Democracy was associated with socialist revolution.

Within the British Labour Party the relationship between social democracy and democratic socialism is certainly complex and it could be argued that in this context social democracy has perhaps come to be associated with greater moderation than democratic socialism. It can be argued that the Labour Party contains both social democrats and democratic socialists. However whereas  Labour social democrats have been more closely associated with the Croslandite revisionism of reduced emphasis on public ownership and increased reliance on the capitalist market mechanism as a means of securing greater equality via the redistribution to the poor of the benefits of economic growth , Labour party democratic socialists might be seen as more likely to identify with more widespread public ownership, greater reliance on state planning and with a faster movement toward greater economic equality for example by more progressive taxation.

However the comparison of social democracy and democratic socialism has been complicated by the formation of the Social Democratic Party by breakaway labour politicians in 1981: consequently moderate Labour politicians who prior to 1981 might have been content to describe themselves as social democrats might have become more disposed to describe themselves as democratic socialists if only to distinguish themselves from the SDP renegades.

Furthermore even though Tony Blair might be seen as leading the Labour Party to the right of Croslandite revisionism by ending the Labour Party’s constitutional commitment to the common ownership of the means of production, the Labour Party constitution as revised under Tony Blair’s leadership actually describes the Labour Party as a democratic socialist party! However some political theorists provide definitions of democratic socialism which suggest that the Labour party under the leadership of Tony Blair cannot reasonably be described as a democratic socialist party. For example the political theorist Luke Martell’s definition of democratic socialism appears below. It seems to me to be a very acceptable definition but it is not one that all Right wing members of the Labour party would accept.

 “While democratic socialism may share many characteristics with social democracy – the commitment to pursuing change through existing and extended institutions of democracy, for example – it is concerned with the reform or transformation of capitalism, rather than just mitigation of its worst effects. It aims at change to a society which in the long run may not be so easily or purely identifiable as capitalism but more based on collective control and equality than the dominance of private capital and a social structure determined by market forces.”


Neglecting now the complex distinctions between democratic socialism and social democracy let us now consider the broader differences between evolutionary, parliamentary reformist socialism and revolutionary socialism.

  • Evolutionary Socialism
  • Early evolutionary socialists believed that there were powerful ethical and possibly Christian arguments against unbridled capitalism which also produced waste inefficiency, poverty and inequality so that it should eventually be possible to persuade people through rational argument to vote democratically for socialism via the ballot box rather than to risk the dangers associated with violent revolution and possible subsequent civil war as would later occur in Russia.
  • Evolutionary and revolutionary socialists provide differing analyses of the development of capitalism from the C19th onwards. Both evolutionary and revolutionary socialists were critical of the class inequality and poverty of C19th capitalism but from the late C19th onwards evolutionary socialists such as the German Eduard Bernstein and the members of the British Fabian Society began to argue that capitalism was changing in directions not predicted by Marx and by the mid 1950s it was being argued as in Crosland’s revisionist theories that capitalism was now almost unrecognisable in comparison with Marx’ description of C19th capitalism. For example the managerial revolution reduced the economic power of the capitalist class; the development of political pluralism reduced the political power of the capitalist class; the class structure of capitalist societies was changing in ways not predicted by Marx; and Keynesian economic policies combined with the expansion of the welfare state meant that workers’ living standards were improving steadily, contrary to the predictions of Marx.
  • Crosland’s revisionist analysis in The Future of Socialism [1956] included the following points. [This provides more detail but can be omitted for exam purposes…the above summary will do!]
  1. By the mid C20th capitalism had changed in ways not predicted by Marx such that his analysis of C19th capitalism had become irrelevant to the analysis of capitalism in the mid C20th.
  2. The nature of the capitalist class had changed as a result of the managerial revolution [or the divorce of ownership from control] such that large capitalist firms were increasingly controlled by specialist managers whose objectives included the job security and satisfaction of their workers and the public image of their company as well as its profitability.
  3. The recent history of capitalism indicated that it could provide for significant improvements in working class living standards rather than the immiseration or pauperisation of the working class as predicted by Marx. Indeed according to Crosland poverty had been virtually abolished in the UK by the 1950s.
  4. Capitalist class structures had become more complex and the growth of the middle classes undermined the Marxist theory of class polarisation which suggested an increasing economic and social gap between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat.
  5. Points 2, 3 and 4 meant that there was therefore no reason for inevitable conflict between managers and workers equivalent to the class conflict which may well have existed in the C19th.
  6. Whereas Marx had claimed that states in capitalist societies inevitably governed in the interests of the dominant economic capitalist class Crosland argued in accordance with the theory of democratic pluralism that states in modern capitalist societies were neutral and that elected Labour governments would be able to use the powers of the state to regulate capitalism as appropriate [e.g. by anti-monopoly legislation and welfare reform] in order to improve the economic and social \conditions of disadvantaged citizens.
  7. The experience of the 1945-51 Labour Governments indicated that capitalist firms and industries were in general more flexible, dynamic, efficient and better able to respond to changes in consumer demand than were the recently nationalized industries which Crosland saw as comparatively inflexible, bureaucratic, wasteful and inefficient.
  8. Crosland believed therefore that Socialism was to be achieved not by increased public ownership but by the government’s promotion of capitalist efficiency and social responsibility which in turn would increase economic growth and provide the resources which would enable socialist governments to increase equality.
  9. Nationalisation was at best a means to an end and according to Crosland an ineffective means to an end whereas the end or goal or ultimate objective of Socialism was Equality, not Public Ownership. But what did Crosland actually mean by Equality?
  • Evolutionary socialists believe that once socialist parties have been democratically elected to form socialist governments these governments will be able to rely on state institutions such as the Civil Service, the Judiciary , the Police and the Army to help them to implement socialist policies. That is: they believe that state institutions can be relied upon to accept neutrally the outcome of democratic elections.
  • Evolutionary socialists have accepted liberal arguments in favour of liberal democracy. They believe that competing political parties, regular fair elections, mass media free from state control, parliamentary control over the executive , the independence of the judiciary , the existence of autonomous pressure groups and citizens’ civil liberties are all essential for a fair effective democratic political system.
  • Evolutionary socialists do not seek the abolition of capitalism and private property and social democrats , if not democratic socialists, have increasingly argued from the 1950s onwards that the extent of public ownership should be limited because of its bureaucratic inflexibility and inefficiency and because the dynamic capitalist economy, regulated and controlled by government in accordance with the public interest can result in the ending of poverty, reduced inequality and rising living standards for all.
  • Since capitalism is to continue so too will the social class system but evolutionary socialists aim to redistribute income and wealth from rich to poor by means of progressive taxation and redistributive social security benefits although they will also allow some economic inequality to persist as a means of maintaining the economic incentives assumed to be necessary to secure fast economic growth.
  • Evolutionary socialists also support collective measures, [for example Keynesian methods of aggregate demand management] to manage the overall economy and they wish to raise taxation revenues to expand the welfare state in order to deal with issues of poverty, unemployment, homelessness, ill-health . Further extended educational provision will help to promote equality of opportunity even though some economic inequality will remain. Reduced economic inequality will also contribute to increased individual liberty.
  • In sum evolutionary socialists wish to humanise capitalism rather than to abolish it and to do so while retaining the central features of liberal democracy. The state will play a very significant role in the humanisation of capitalism: Keynesian methods may be used in an attempt to secure full employment; major industries may be taken into public ownership or at least heavily regulated by the state and expanded welfare services will be provided financed partly by progressive taxation. However there are disputes within evolutionary socialism between democratic socialists and social democrats as to the desirable relative sizes of the private and public sectors respectively.
  • In practice significant social democratic reforms were introduced by Labour governments of 1945-51 and subsequent Labour governments of 1964-70 and 1974-79 attempted to govern broadly in accordance with social democratic principles. However effective social democracy presupposes steady economic growth to help to finance improved welfare provision and greater equality but the poor performance of the UK economy in the 1960s and 1970s restricted the effectiveness of social democracy. Labour responded with a drift to the Left culminating in massive electoral defeat in 1983 followed by a gradual move back to moderate social democratic principles under Neil Kinnock which nevertheless resulted in two further general election defeats in 1987 and 1992. In 1992 Neil Kinnock was replaced as leader by John Smith who died unexpectedly in 1994 and was replaced as leader by Tony Blair.
  • Tony Blair introduced fairly significant changes to Labour ideology and policy and political theorists continue to debate the extent to which Tony Blair has:
  1. simply tried to govern in accordance with social democratic principles modified to meet the changing circumstances of the modern world;
  2. simply taken over Thatcherite policies as a means of securing electoral success;
  3. adopted a so-called Third Way which draws on both updated social democratic ideology and Thatcherite ideas.
  4. If we accept that he has adopted strategy three we then have to assess the relative importance of social democracy and Thatcherism in the ideology of Tony Blair.
  • Revolutionary Socialism

Revolutionary socialism is identified mainly with Marxism and Marxist ideology differs in several respects from evolutionary socialist ideology.  Marxists claim to have a more scientific analysis of capitalism and of the factors involved in the revolutionary transition from capitalism to socialism which orthodox Marxists claim to be inevitable. However Marx did argue also that in capitalist societies which had introduced universal suffrage a parliamentary and non-revolutionary road to socialism might be possible,

·       In his analysis of C19th capitalism Marx argued 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:

a. 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.

b. Meanwhile as already mentioned the Proletariat were unrepresented politically.

c. 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.

d. 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.

e. 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. 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.

a. Although capitalism would improve living standards for some, it would also lead to increasing unemployment, poverty and misery for many.

b. 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.

c. 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.

Revolutionary socialists therefore seek the abolition of capitalism by revolutionary means .This implies that private property will be abolished and since in the Marxist scheme social class membership derives form the ownership of private property, the abolition of private property is said to mean also that social classes will also be abolished and a classless society will be gradually introduced. The economy will be controlled and planned by central government in an attempt to secure greater economic efficiency.

It will, however, be necessary for a transitional period to allow some economic inequality as a means of providing financial incentives but eventually production will be organised to meet the most important needs of the people and incomes will be distributed according to the needs of the people. This means that there will be a significant degree of economic equality but not total equality because for example the needs of the old and the sick will be greater than the needs of the “average person.”

It is claimed also that since competitiveness and selfishness derive not from individual human nature but from the competitive self-interested principles of capitalism, the abolition of capitalism will eventually result in the replacement of capitalist selfishness and greed by socialist cooperation and community spirit.

In practice revolutions have not occurred in advanced western capitalist economies as Marx had predicted and where they have occurred as for example in Russia they have not occurred according to the theoretical scheme proposed by Marx thereby undermining the Marxist claim to have developed a scientific theory of socialism.

However in the case of the Russian revolution important modifications to the Marxist theory were suggested by Lenin who argued that in the case of Russia it would be necessary to create a small vanguard party of revolutionaries to advance the revolution rather than to wait for the further development of capitalism to create the conditions for revolution as suggested in orthodox Marxist theory. Lenin and others did create such a party [the Russian Social Democratic party] and Lenin’s faction of this party [the Bolsheviks] and it did play a central crucial role in advancing revolution in Russia.

Click here for In Our Time on Lenin

Click here for a link to a series of BBC programmes available on BBC iplayer on the USSR from the 1940s to the 1970s

Revolutionary socialists agree that socialist revolutions have tended to result in the development of One Party States dominated by Communist parties as in the former USSR and China. Marxist theoreticians have argued that in the immediate aftermath of revolution it would be necessary to outlaw non-communist political parties to remove the possibility of counter revolution. They have argued also that the main reason for the existence of competing political parties in capitalist societies has been the need for the political representation of different social classes. However since Communism eliminates private property, it also eliminates social classes and according to Marxist theoreticians this removes the need for competing political parties. Also the Marxists claim that eventually the State can wither away under communism because of the absence of conflict produced by capitalism

Several criticisms have been made of Marxist theory.

  • Once the Bolsheviks took control they believed it necessary to impose a one party dictatorship as a means of preventing counter-revolution but one party dictatorship continued until the ”fall of communism” in the late 1980s resulting in the erosion of liberal democratic civil liberties and millions of deaths under the autocratic leadership of Stalin who replaced Lenin as leader in 1924 and remained as leader till 1953. The violence of Stalin’s leadership dealt a severe blow to the credibility of Marxist ideology but Marxists argued that Stalinism in practice bore no relationship to how Socialism was supposed to operate in theory.
  • However life in Stalin’s USSR indicates to non-Marxists the value of the liberal democratic freedoms that citizens enjoy in the West.
  • Social classes did not wither away in the USSR; senior members of the Communist Party enjoyed a very privileged lifestyle while the inefficiencies of the USSR economic system based upon central planning meant that average living standards in the USSR were far lower than in the Western capitalist countries. However prior to the revolution Russia was far less developed than the West and in some respects Russia did catch up economically under Stalin.
  • As we have seen the Marxist analysis of C19th capitalism was seen by revisionists such as Bernstein and Crosland as irrelevant to the analysis of capitalism as it developed in the C20th. For example the managerial revolution reduced the economic power of the capitalist class; the development of political pluralism reduced the political power of the capitalist class; the class structure of capitalist societies was changing in ways not predicted by Marx; and Keynesian economic policies combined with the expansion of the welfare state meant that workers’ living standards were improving steadily, contrary to the predictions of Marx.
  • [You could add to this section by thinking how the Marxist theory might be criticised from the perspectives of liberalism, evolutionary socialism and conservatism.]
  • Modern Marxists have rejected revisionist ideas. For them the theories of the managerial revolution and democratic pluralism are inaccurate and despite Keynesian economic policies and the expansion of the welfare state  the capitalist class retains both its economic and political powers and class inequality and poverty continue to exist on a massive scale .
  • The continued existence of class inequality and poverty in the West suggests to Marxists that liberal democratic institutions merely hide the indirect economic and political power of the capitalist class and that all ideologies other than Marxism are simply different forms of a ruling class ideology which prevents us from realising the extent of our own exploitation, a view which supporters of all other ideologies of course reject while claiming that Marxism is the ideology which produced Stalin’s USSR.

And so the ideological battle continues!