Socialists view class (a way of classifying people according to occupation, income, social status and so on) as the most important social division for understanding politics. They think that the way capitalist society has been divided means that people develop common bonds with people in their own class rather than with society as a whole. They view class in two different ways.
Firstly, people have analysed history and the development of human society in terms of the class system. Socialists have suggested that people act with others in their class for the interests of that class which causes division in society. For example, working class people forming trade unions to try and get higher wages.
Secondly, socialists have focused upon the nature of the working classes and suggested that these are the people that change society. Socialism has often been viewed as the ideology of the working classes and that it is designed to improve or ‘free’ workers from those that claim to own the property or the ‘means of production’ (owners of factories, for instance). Socialists understand capitalist society in terms of class but do not support a class system or the existence of a ‘working class’ as these labels are divisions in society and therefore divide people causing conflict and competition.
Different socialists have different interpretations of the importance of class. Marxism sees class as a division between ‘capital’ (property and wealth) – these people are called the bourgeoisie - and ‘labour’ (the workers who work for the people who have capital) –these people are called the proletariat. Marxist socialists believe that these two classes will always come into conflict as they want two opposite outcomes (more profit and higher wages). Eventually, this conflict will result in a revolution in which the proletariat overthrow the bourgeoisie, leading to the establishment of a classless communist society.
By contrast, social democrats have talked more about the differences in opportunity and wealth between the middle classes and the working classes and have stressed the need to reduce the differences and the wealth gap between the two groups for the good of society.
Socialists have faced a huge problem since the 1970s. The decline in the traditional working-class professions has led to less people feeling as if they are working class. This lack of identification with socialism has resulted in socialist parties having to appeal to the middle classes for electoral support, in many cases moving away from the core principles of socialism. The creation of ‘New Labour’ in the 1990s in the UK is an example of this.
This refers to workers owning part or the whole of the business or factory in which they work, or, in a wider sense, worker’s control of the state. Control could refer to decision-making powers of workers, or the creation of trade unions to guarantee basic working conditions and rights. This is justified by socialists as workers are the most important aspect of the means of production, so they should have the right to have some control over it. It is also a way of avoiding alienation (workers feeling detached or isolated from the work they are doing). Critics argue that worker’s control reduces the effectiveness of industry, since workers may be less good at identifying what works best than, for example, investors or risk-takers.
Socialist Views On
- Human nature: human nature viewed in a positive light and regards progress and human development as natural. Human nature is shaped by events and experiences so sides with nurture as opposed to nature. Co-operative social life seen as the natural condition of human nature.
- State: differing views- revolutionary socialists see the state in a capitalist system as an instrument of oppression supporting the ruling class, but in a post-revolutionary society the state will ‘wither away’. Evolutionary socialists (social democrats and supporters of the Third Way) see the state in a capitalist system as having the potential to intervene in all aspects of life to create a fair and equitable society.
- Society: all socialists are believers in social interaction as being normal; that ‘no man is an island entire unto himself’. This leads them to address the needs of the group before the needs of an individual. All socialists see society as currently unfair and unequal towards different classes, with the most exploited group in society being the working class. This inequality leads revolutionary socialists to call for a radical and fundamental shift in how society is run, whereas evolutionary socialists see that society can be changed incrementally.
- Economy: a productive economy is a good thing; the problem is how the wealth which is created by the economy is shared. Revolutionary socialists wish for the wealth created by the economy to be equally shared or distributed and owned in common rather than in private hands, so support the abolition of the capitalist economic system. Evolutionary socialists are less hostile towards capitalism, believing it can be reformed and/or harnessed to work for the good of all in society.
Many early socialists were worried that they were far away from power and that they would be prevented achieving their aims by a capitalist conservative establishment.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels discussed a ‘proletarian revolution’ whereby the class-conscious working class would rise up against capitalism and overthrow it. This would happen due to dialectical materialism, the concept that events were caused by conflict between social forces, driven by material needs.
The first actual example of such a revolution was in Russia in 1917, although this was more of a coup (overthrow of the government) by an armed group- Lenin and the Bolsheviks- rather than a mass class revolt. It was however an example to other revolutionary socialists of what could be achieved.
Revolutionary tactics were attractive to socialists for two reasons. Firstly, industrialism and capitalism in the 19th century were producing mass poverty and social inequality, so the working classes wanted a chance to change their circumstances. Secondly, the working classes had very few alternatives to revolution- there was no real representation or way of engaging in political life. In monarchies, the country was dominated by royalty and privilege. In constitutional democracies, the vote was restricted. A revolution was the only viable way of achieving socialist goals.
Revolutionary socialists also believe that the state is a device of class oppression, acting for ‘capital’ against ‘labour’. This means that the political state will always reflect and preach the interests of the property-owning classes. Therefore, in order to build socialism, the ‘bourgeois’ state must be overthrown, resulting in a total transformation of society. This would be the only way of ensuring the revolution would succeed.
Revolutionary socialism has been seen through the establishment of the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. In each case, the existing order was overthrown and replaced with a one-party state which controlled the economy. Opposition was removed and totalitarian methods were used to remove dissent. The credibility of revolutionary socialism was damaged by the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s/early 1990s.