A2 Edexcel Government and Politics - Unit 3B - Socialism

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  • Advances a number of criticisms of society - particularly the type of society than emerged with the onset of industrialisation and free-market capitalism in the late 18th century.
  • It proposes that human beings are naturally sociable creatures - prefer to achieve goals collectively and are content to cooperate with others to serve the common good.
  • Therefore, prefer cooperation over competition.
  • Believe peope are fundamentally off equal worth, and therefore believe in equal rights/equality of opportunity/social equality.
  • Socialists believe that social equality is the essential guarantee of social stability and cohesion, and that it promotes freedom in the sense that it satisfies material needs and provides the basis for personal development.
  • Divisions within socialism: about means and ends.
  • E.g. Marxists or communists have supported revolution and sought to abolish capitalism through the creation of a classless society based on common ownership of wealth.
  • In contrast, democratic socialists/social democrats have embraced gradualism and aimed to reform or 'humanize' the capitalist system through the narrowing of material inequalities and the abolition of poverty.
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Origins and development

  • Origins lie in the 19th century.
  • Socialism arose as a reaction against the social and economic conditions generated in Europe by the growth of industrial capitalism.
  • Although roots in Enlightenment - like liberals - socialism emerged as a critique of liberal market society and was defined by its attempt to offer an alternative to industrial capitalism.
  • Character of early socialism - influenced by the harsh and often inhuman conditions in which the industrial working class lived and worked. As a result - early socialists often sought a radical - even revolutionary - alternative to industrial capitalism.
  • in late 19th century - character of socialism was transformed by a gradual improvement in working class living conditions and advance of political democracy.
  • Socialist political parties adopted legal and constitutional tactics - encourages by the gradual extension of the vote to working-class men.
  • By WW1 - socialist world was clearly divided between socialists who sought power through the ballot box and those that proclaimed a continuing need for revolution. Russian Revolution (1917) entrenched this split.
  • Since late 20th century - socialism has suffered a number of spectacular reverses - leading some to proclaim 'the death of socialism'. The most dramatic of these reverses - the collapse of comunism in the eastern European revolutions of 1989-91.
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Core themes: Community

  • Socialism offers a unifying vision of humans as social creatures - capable of overcoming social & economic problems by drawing on the power of community rather than individual effort.
  • Human beings are therefore 'comrades', 'brothers' or 'sisters' - expressed in the principle of fraternity (brotherhood).
  • They believe human nature is plastic - moulded by experiences and circumstances of social life.Therefore side with 'nurture' over 'nature' determining human behaviour.
  • Whereas individuals draw a clear distinction between the individual and society - socialists believe the individual is inseparable from society.
  • Individuals can only be understood, and understand themselves, through the social groups to which they belong.
  • The radical edge of socialism derives not from its concern with what people are like - but what they have the capacity to become.
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  • Human beings are social animals - natural relationship amongst them is cooperation, not competition.
  • Competition promotes selfishness and greed - whereas cooperation makes moral and economic sense. Individuals who work together, rather than against each other - develop bonds of sympathy, caring and affection.
  • Socialists believe humans can be motivated by moral incentives and not merely by material incentives.
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  • The political value that most clearly distinguishes socialism from its rivals - notably liberalism and conservatism.
  • Socialist egalitarianism(belief that equality is the primary political value) - is characterised by a belief in social equality, or equality of outcome. Advanced 3 arguments in favour of this:
  • 1) Social equality upholds justice or fairness. They are reluctant to explain inequality of wealth in terms of innate dfferences. Justice demands people are treated equally in society in terms of rewards.
  • 2) Social equality underpins community and cooperation - equal outcomes strengthen social solidarity. Social inequality leads to conflict/instability.
  • 3) Need-satisfaction is the basis for human fulfilment and self-realisation. A 'need' is a necessity: it demands satisfaction. Basic needs are fundamental to the human condition - which means their satisfaction is the very stuff of freedom.

Marxists believe in absolute social equality - brought about by the abolition of private property and collectivisation of productive wealth.        Social democrats - believe in relative social equality- through redistribution of wealth through welfare state and a system of progressive taxation.

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Class Politics

  • Socialists traditionally viewed social class as the deepest and most politically significant of social divisions.

Divided about the nature and importance of social class:

  • Marxists: class is linked to economic power - as defined by the individual's relationship to the means of production. Class divisions between bourgeoisie and proletariat. Characterised by irreconcilable conflict between two classes - leading inevitable overthrow of capitalism through a proletarian revolution.
  • Social Democrats: tend to define social class in terms of income and status differences between 'white collar' and 'blue collar'. Believe the advance of socialism is associated with the narrowing divisions between the middle class and the working class brought about through economic and social intervention. Therefore believed in class harmony/social amelioration rather than class war. Link between socialism and class politics has declined since the mid-twentieth century - consequence of class solidarity and shrinkage of traditional working class - reflected in decline of traditional labour intensive industries.
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Common ownership

  • Often traced the origins of competition and inequality to the institution of private property. Attitude to private property sets socialism apart from liberalism and conservatism.
  • Criticise private property for a number of reasons:
  • Unjust - wealth is produced by collective effort and should therefore be owned by the community, not individuals.
  • Breeds acquisitiveness - morally corrupting. Encourages people to be materialistic. Those who acquire property wish to accumulate more.
  • Divisive - fosters conflict in society between the rich and the poor.

Therefore, propose abolishment of private property and be replaced by common ownership of productive wealth - or - that the right to property be balanced against interests of the community.

Marx and Engels - envisaged abolition of private property and creation of a classless, communist society in place of capitalism.

Stalin - 'second revolution' - 1930s - witnessed construction of a centrally planned economy - a system of collectivisation - developed form of state socialism.

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Roads to socialism

  • Two major issues have divided competing traditions and tendencies within socialism:
  • 1) the goals 'the ends' - hold very different conceptions of what a socialist society should look like. Principal disagreement here - between fundamentalist socialism (seeks to abolish capitalism and replace it with a different kind of society) and revisionist socialism (revised its critique of capitalism and seeks to reconcile greater social justice with surviving capitalist forms).
  • The 'means' - roads to socialism.
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Revolutionary Socialism

Many early socialists believed that socialism could only be introduced by the revolutionary overthrow of the existing political system - and accepted that violence would be an inevitable feature of such a revolution.

One of the earliest advocates - Blanqui - who proposed  the formation of a small band of dedicated conspirators to plan and carry out  a revolutionary seizure of power.

Marx and Engels - envisaged a 'proletarian revolution' - in which the class conscious working masses would rise up to overthrow capitalism

First successful socialist revolution - 1917 - when a dedicated and disciplined group of revolutionaries - led by Lenin and the Bolsheviks - seized power in Russia.

During 19th century - revolutionary tactics - attractive to socialists because:

  • The early stages of industrialisation produced injustice as the working masses were afflicted by poverty and unemployment.
  • Working classes had few alternative means of political influence - excluded from political life.
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Revolutionary Socialism continued...

  • Revolutionary socialists viewed the state as an agent of class oppression - acting in the interests of 'capital' and against those of 'labour'.
  • In second half of 20th century - faith in revolution - most evident amongst socialists in developing world.
  • Post-1045 period - many national liberation movements embraced the 'armed struggle' in the belief that colonial rule could neither be negotiated nor voted out of existence.
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Evolutionary socialism

Early socialists often proposed idea of revolution.

As 19th century went on - enthusiasm for popular revolt declined.

Capitalism itself had matured - and by late 19th century - urban class lost revolutionary character and was being integrated into society - wages/living standards began to rise, advancement of popular democracy led to extension in franchise to the working classes.

Combined effect of this factors - shift attention away from violent insurrection and to persuade them that there was an alternative evolutionary 'democratic' road to socialism.

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  • Fabian Society - established in Britain 1884.
  • Notable founders - Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells.
  • Fabian Society - named after Roman General Fabius - who won his battles through a gradual process rather than a single decisive blow against his enemy.
  • This showed their character - opposed revolution - expecting instead that socialism would come about through a long-term gradual process.
  • This would occur through a combo of political action and education.
  • Political action - form socialist party - which would compete for power - rather than prepare for violent revolution.
  • Therefore accepted liberal belief of the state as a neutral arbiter - rather than Marxist belief that it's an agent of class oppression.
  • The Webbs - actively involved in formation of UK Labour Party and helped to write its 1918 constitution.
  • They believed elite groups could be converted to socialism through education.
  • Bernstein - agreed with Fabians belief in gradualism. Particularly impressed in the development of the democratic state. Working class could use the ballot box to introduce socialism - which would therefore develop as an evolutionary outgrowth of capitalism.
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The inevitability of gradualism?


  • 1) progressive extension of franchise would eventually lead to establishment of a universal adult suffrage and therefore - of political equality.
  • 2) Political equality would work in interests of the majority - power of the working class.
  • 3)Socialism was seen as natural 'home' to working class.
  • 4) Once in power - would be able to carry out fundamental transformation of society through process of social reform.


  • Democratic socialism is founded on a contradiction - in order to respond successfully to electoral pressures - socialists have been forced to 'water down' their ideological beliefs.
  • Does the working class any longer constitute the majority of the electorate in advanced industrial societies? Traditional proletariat declined.
  • Means - socialist parties are either forced to appeal more broadly to classes or form a coalition - doesn't represent true socialism.
  • Is the working class socialist at heart? Is socialism still in interests of w.c? - has become associated with making capitalism work rather than abolished.
  • Can socialist parties carry out socialist reforms?
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Orthodox communism - Lenin

  • Russian Revolution dominated images of communism in twentieth century.
  • Bolshevik Party - Led by Lenin - power in 1917.
  • Enjoyed authority within communist world - at least until 1950s. Soviet communism became dominant model of communist rule.
  • Differed from Marx:
  • 1) forced to adapt Marx's ideas to tasks of winning and retaining political power.
  • 2) Marx anticipated - communist parties would achieve power in developed capitalist states of western Europe. 
  • However - it didn't - instead, in largely rural countries - urban proletariat was small and unsophisticated - quite incapable of carrying out a genuine class revolution. Thus became rule of communist elite.
  • Central feature of Leninism - a belief in a vanguard party - didn't believe proletariat would develop revolutionary class consciousness - only a 'revolutionary party' could lead the working class to class consciousness.
  • This party - therefore act as 'the vanguard of the proletariat' because - armed with Marxism - would be able to perceive genuine interests of proletariat.
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Stalin - 'second revolution' 1930s. Most important doctrine - 'Socialism in One Country'.

  • From 1929 - agriculture was collectivised and Soviet peasants - forced to give up land and join state/collective farms.
  • Economic Stalinism - thus took form of state collectivisation/state socialism.
  • Capitalist market entirely removed and replaced by system of central planning.
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Modern/western/neo marxism

  • Attempt to revise classical ideas of Marx while remaining faithful to certain Marxist principles:
  • 2 principal factors shaped character of modern marxism:
  • 1) When marx's prediction about imminent collapse of capitalism failed to materialise - modern marxists were forced to re-examine class analysis. Took greater interest in Hegelian ideas and in stress on 'Man the creator'. Class struggle was no longer treated as the beginning and end of social analysis.
  • 2) Usually at odds with the Bolshevik model of orthodox communism.
  • Lukacs - one of the first to present Marxism as a humanistic philosophy - emphasising process of 'reification' - where capitalism dehumanises workers - reducing them to passive objects or marketable commodities.
  • Gramsci drew attention to the degree to which the class system is upheld not simply by unequal economic and political power, but also by bourgeois hegemony - brought through spread of bourgeois beliefs and values - media church trade unions etc.
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Social Democracy

  • Took shape around mind-twentieth century. Most fully developed post-1945.
  • Abandoned goal of abolishing capitalism and sought to humanise it instead.
  • Major features:
  • Endorses liberal-democratic principles and accepts political change can and should be brought about peacefully and constitutionally.
  • Capitalism - accepted as only reliable means of generating wealth.
  • Nevertheless - viewed as morally defective - associated with structural inequality and poverty.
  • Defects of capitalism can be rectified through state intervention.
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Revisionist socialism

  • End of 19th century - some socialists had come to believe the analysis of capitalism was defective.
  • Clearest theoretical expression of this belief - Bernstein - Evolutionary socialism - undertook criticisms of Marx and first major attempt at Marxist revisionism.
  • Rejected Marx's method of analysis - historical materialism - the predictions Marx had made had proved to be incorrect.
  • Capitalism - showed to be flexible and stable.
  • Bernstein suggested - capitalism was becoming increasingly complex and differentiated - shown through ownership of wealth widening as a result of introduction of joint stock companies, owned by a number of shareholders -  instead of a single powerful industrialist.
  • Believed capitalism no longer a system of naked class oppression. Could therefore be reformed by nationalisation of major industries and extension of legal protection and welfare benefits to the working class - Bernstein confident this could be achieved democratically.
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Revisionist Socialism continued...

The abandonment of planning and comprehensive nationalisation - left social democracy with three more modest objectives:

  • 1) mixed economy
  • 2) sought to regulate/manage capitalist economies in order to maintain economic growth and keep unemployment low.
  • 3) attracted to welfare state - form of humanising capitalism - reducing poverty. - promotes social equality.
  • Capitalism no longer needed to be abolished - only modified through establishment of reformed/welfare capitalism.
  • Crosland - subscribed to managerialism - theory that a governing class of those who possess technical and administrative skills - dominates both capitalist and communist societies.
  • Believed the ownership of wealth had become divorced from its control.
  • Whereas shareholders were principally concerned with profit - salaried managers have a broader range of goals. i.e public image of their company.
  • Crosland recast socialism in terms of politics of social justice rather than politics of ownership.
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Neo-revisionism and the third way

  • Since 1980s - reformist socialist parties across the globe have undergone a further bout of revisionism - where they have distanced themselves to a greater or less extent - from the principles and commitments of traditional social democracy.
  • The central thrust of neo-revisionism - attempt to develop a 'third way'.
  • Broadly encapsulates - idea of an alternative to both capitalism and socialism - represents an alternative to old-style social democracy and neoliberalism.
  • Certain third way characteristics:
  • 1) the belief that socialism - at least in form of 'top-down' state intervention - is dead. UK Labour party's revised Clause IV 1995 - 'a dynamic market economy' - building on neoliberalism rather than reversing it.
  • 2) emphasis on community and moral responsibility. The 'Blair project' - attempt to fuse communitarian ideas with liberal ones - creating a form of communitarian liberalism - which resembles in many ways New Liberalism of the late 19th century. Cornerstone belief - rights and responsibilities bound together - so called 'new individualism' - endorses autonomy but stresses individuals operate interdependently.
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  • 3) Supporters of third way - tend to adopt a consensus view of society - in contrast to socialism's conflict view of society. A faith in social harmony and consensus reflected in the value framework of the third way. Endorse enterprise and fairness, opportunity and security, self-reliance and interdependence etc.
  • 4) Substituted a concern with social inclusion for the traditional socialist commitment to equality. Evident in the stress placed on liberal ideas such as opportunity,  and even meritocracy. Egalitarianism - scaled down to just 'equality of opportunity'. Welfare benefits targeted to the socially excluded - follow modern liberal approach 'helping people to help themselves'.
  • 5)  Third way characterised by new thinking about proper role of the state - embraces idea of a competition state or market of the state - principal role is to pursue strategies for national prosperity in conditions of intensifying global competition. Thus - state should concentrate on social investment and strengthening skills and knowledge of the workforce. Focus on education because it promotes employability and benefits the economy.
  • From this perspective - government shouldn't take a social engineering role but instead - shape the populations attitudes, values and skills.
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