Socialism emerged as an attempt to find an alternative to capitalism, seeking to find a more humane economic system.
As such, it is often seen as the ideology of the working classes, as it seeks to reduce or remove class divisions in society. A difficulty in considering socialism as an ideology is that it could be understood in different ways. It could be seen as an economic model of state collectivisation; an alternative to capitalism. Although, in practice, most socialists have attempted to include elements of both systems, and socialists today wish to reform rather than abolish capitalism.
Alternatively, socialism could be seen as an instrument of the labour movement to make capitalism more responsive to worker’s needs. However, socialist ideas have been popular amongst many groups in society, not just workers. Finally, it could be seen as an ideology, although Karl Marx saw ‘ideologies’ as ways of covering up the truth, whereas his ideas were scientific analysis of how things are. However, socialism seems to meet the criteria for an ideology, not least because there is a core set of principles.
At the heart of socialism is the idea that people are unified by the concept of community. They can use this to overcome any difficulties, both economic and social. Socialists believe this because they agree with the idea that the group as a whole is more powerful than that of individual efforts.
They therefore believe in collectivism- following group goals and not trying to follow individual self-interest. Many socialists have quoted the ideas of English poet John Donne who said, ‘no man is an island’. People share commonality and have common goals and therefore share fraternity (humans are bound together by common interests and inclinations).
Socialists believe that human nature is not formed at birth and claim that it is entirely flexible or ‘plastic’ and is shaped by the environment and experiences of every moment of life. They think that people are therefore inseparable from society and it creates all aspects of a person’s identity. People are not self-sufficient individuals and they can only be understood in relation to society. Their behaviour can only be understood in this way and not because they were born with a ‘natural character’.
Socialists have linked the ideas of competition, individualism and selfishness to the idea of private property, property not being personal possessions such as clothes, but personal ownership of what is produced or made. Socialists criticise private property for many reasons:
- Private property is unjust as there is always more than one person involved in its creation and so they all should share it.
- Private property makes people greedy to acquire possessions and therefore creates a lack of morality and causes competition when pursuing wealth.
- Property is divisive as it causes conflict between those with different priorities related to that property – for example – owners of factories against their workers.
Some socialists such as Marxists believe that collectivism is best achieved through the abolition of private property. They believe that all property should be ‘collectivised’ through being owned by the group (the state). This could be done through ‘nationalisation’; the state would own all property and business. This results in communism, a system where there is no private property or class division, as the means of production is owned collectively. Others, such as social democrats, believe collectivist goals should be promoted through ideas such as progressive taxation, welfare and public services. This would mean using a ‘mixed economy’ such as the one Keynes suggested in the UK in the post-war era. This was designed to achieve ‘social justice’ (or fairness) rather than complete equality. In these systems, capitalism (where wealth is privately owned and goods and services are produced for profit) is retained, but the inequalities resulting from it are addressed.
Socialists believe that people have a natural relationship that should be based on cooperation (working collectively to achieve mutual benefits) and not competition, as competition leads to conflict which leads people to ignore their natural relationships with others. As a result, people who are in conflict learn negative traits such as aggression and selfishness, and people who work together learn to care and have affection for each other. Peter Kropotkin said that the human race thrives due to ‘mutual aid’, the desire to help each other out, knowing that the favour will be returned. Socialists tend to have a very positive view of human nature, suggesting that people are naturally inclined towards sociable cooperation.
Socialists believe that cooperation rewards people for hard work on a deeper moral level rather than the material rewards of liberal capitalism. They think that people will be motivated to aid the ‘common good’ rather than just their own short term aims. Many socialists believe that individual material rewards can be balanced in harmony with community based moral rewards. For example, people who work hard will not only benefit themselves but they will create more wealth to provide welfare for society.
The socialist commitment to equality (egalitarianism) is the core feature of socialism and is what makes it very different from the other two main ideologies (liberalism and conservatism). This belief focuses not just on equality of opportunity or legal equality, but on social equality- equality of outcome. They believe in this for three main reasons;
Social equality upholds the ideas of justice and fairness that are taken away when people compete against each other. The inequality that exists in society has been created by the competitive and selfish nature of capitalism. Socialists do not believe that people are naturally equal in skills but do believe that each person plays a role in society and therefore should receive an equal reward. They think that the differences between people are exaggerated by the competitive nature of society.
Equality underpins community and cooperation. If people are more able to identify with each other they are more likely to work for the common good. Equality therefore strengthens a feeling of solidarity with each person and their fellow humans. They believe that inequality causes conflict and selfishness and leads to a breakdown of society.
Socialists believe that ‘need satisfaction’ is the key element of freedom and not the ability to act as each individual chooses. Each person should be treated by society according to what they need (not want) and therefore the whole of society benefits. Karl Marx said ’from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’, meaning that as everyone contributes to society (albeit in different ways), everyone should have their needs satisfied in society.
Different kinds of socialists disagree about the extent to which equality should exist in society. Marxists and communists believe in total equality whereby private property is abolished and the state / society distributes everything according to needs. There is common ownership, meaning that the means of production are owned commonly, by everyone, so that everyone benefits from the wealth of society. Social democrats on the other hand believe in the reduction of inequality through progressive taxation and welfare. They do not wish to destroy capitalism but only limit and tame it. This slightly blurs the desire for equality of outcome and equality of opportunity. Marxists would reject equality of opportunity, suggesting that it does not address the fundamental inequalities created by capitalism.
Opponents of social equality argue that treating everyone in the same way fails to recognise the difference in talents and efforts amongst people. By rewarding everyone similarly, it also saps motivation to work hard. In addition, as such an outcome can only really be achieved by state intervention, this potentially restricts the liberties of individuals.