Socialism Theory
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Origins and development

  • Arose as a reaction against the social and economic conditions generated in Europe by the growth of capitalism.
  • Character of early socialism was influenced by the harsh conditions in which the working class lived.
  • Early socialists sought a radical, even revolutionary alternative to capitalism.
  • Fourier and Robert Owen subscribed to utopianism in founding experimental communities based on sharing and cooperation.
  • Marx and Engels developed a more complex theory – revolutionary overthrow of capitalism was inevitable.
  • Democratic socialists – gradual movement. Growth of trade unions, working class political parties etc.

Core values

Collectivism – humans are social creatures, capable of overcoming social and economic problems by drawing on the power of the community rather than simply individual effort. Collectivist vision – stresses the capacity of human beings for collective action as opposed to striving for personal self-interest.

Believe that human nature is ‘plastic’ – individuals are not atomised. The radical edge of socialism derives not from its concern with what people are like, but with what they have the capacity to become.

Cooperation – natural relationship among humans is cooperation. Socialists believe that humans can be motivated by moral incentives and not merely material incentives. The moral incentive to work hard is to contribute to the common good, which develops from a sense of responsibility for fellow human beings.

Equality – in many respects is the defining feature of socialist ideology, equality being the political value that most clearly distinguishes socialism from its rivals. Socialist egalitarianism is characterised by a belief in social equality or equality of outcome. Socialists have advanced at least three arguments in favour of this: social equality upholds justice or fairness. Socialists are reluctant to explain the inequality of wealth in terms of innate differences of ability among individuals. Socialists believe that the most significant forms of human inequality are a result of unequal treatment in society.

Justice therefore demands that people are treated equally. Formal equality in its legal and political senses is clearly inadequate as it disregards the structural inequalities in the capitalist system. Equality of opportunity legitimises inequality by perpetuating a myth of innate inequality.

Social equality underpins community and cooperation. If people live equally, they are more likely to identify with each other and work together for common benefit. Equal outcomes therefore strengthen social solidarity.

Equality of opportunity is ‘tadpole philosophy’ – Tawney.

There are NEED-satisfactions – it is a necessity – basic needs such as food, water etc. are fundamental and thus are the stuff of freedom: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” Marx.

However, Marxists believe in absolute social equality brought about by the abolition of private property and collectivisation of productive wealth. Social democracy believe in relative social equality, achieved through redistribution of wealth through the welfare state.

Common ownership – often traced the origins of competition and inequality to the institution of private property, by which they usually mean productive wealth or ‘capital’. View it as unjust: wealth is produced by the collective effort of human labour and should therefore be owned by the community, not private individuals. Also seen as breeding acquisitiveness and thus is morally corruption. Encourages materialism and is divisive: fosters conflict in society between employee and employer for example.

Marxists envisaged abolition of private property.

Social democrats also attracted to the state as an instrument through which wealth can be collectively owned and the economy rationally planned. This is applied more selectively in the West, with a mixed economy.

Class Conflict - Radical socialists always see this as crucial as it is the vehicle by which real change can be enacted, not through democratic means as they are inevitably in favour of the middle classes.

Marx called it the ‘class consciousness’ others call it ‘common class interest’ but by achieving this the workers will be those people who will look to lead the revolution.

Evolutionary socialists would seek to alter capitalism pushing for economic and social equality, which would be achieved through democratic means but with the interests of the working class at their heart.

Democratic socialists modify capitalism with controls through state intervention on a huge scale e.g. Atlee government through welfare but also through nationalisation and the role of the state being to provide jobs for people. Class is less important the state is a neutral arbiter

Modern Socialists would claim that class is no longer important e.g. New Labour but their ideas on promoting equality and social justice remain.

Social Justice - Marxists believe that the distribution of wealth cannot occur under capitalism as it relies on incentives and inequalities

Moderate socialists believed it can work with capitalism e.g. minimum wage higher taxation of the rich

Rawls although a liberal provided a description of social justice for moderate socialists calling it distributive justice. The establishment of a fair and just principle for the distribution of rewards

Although their ideas have changed the basic premise is that free market is unjust and there has to be some state intervention. Particularly ensuring the provision of liberty, equality of opportunity, no restrictions on the individual and a society that does not allow the richest to profit at the poorest expense

All socialists believe that completely free markets do not produce a just society


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