How to answer an Edexcel exam question on socialism

You could get asked two questions on socialism in Paper 1. There is no guarantee that the two questions will be on more than one idea. All questions start with ‘To what extent…?’, so they are looking for you to evaluate the extent of agreement or disagreement.

Question topics

Questions will focus on the agreement and disagreement within the various strands. In socialism this is more complex, as you have three strands: revolutionary (Marxist), social democracy and the Third Way. Within these strands you also have division over the means (how to achieve goals) and ends (what kind of society you are trying to create). Do not worry about the strands within social democracy — you do not need to explore the difference between democratic socialism and social democracy. Questions may ask generally about agreement or disagreement between strands or will focus on specific areas such as the state. Make sure you are clear which type of question you are answering.

Divisions in socialism

·        Human nature: How collectivist is human nature? How important is the concept of common humanity? To what extent are we the product of our environment? Marxists examine how human nature is damaged by capitalist society, but supporters of the Third Way believe that individuals can flourish within the globalised free market.

·        Society: Revolution or evolution as a means to achieve goals? Are socialists aiming for a completely equal society (in economic terms) or a more equal society? Socialists do not agree on what is meant by equality: while revolutionaries want social equality, social democrats wish to narrow the gap and Third Way supporters favour equal opportunities and reducing poverty.

·        State: Should the state — as a tool of the bourgeoisie, according to revolutionary socialists — be abolished by revolutionary means? Or, as social democrats believe, can you use the neutral state to achieve equality of outcome using intervention, such as nationalisation and progressive taxation?

·        Economy: Should capitalism be abolished via revolution or other means? Or can it be tamed and regulated, and economic growth used to help the many and not the few? Third Way supporters go even further and pragmatically support the free market.


These essays are quite short (Edexcel 24 marks so about 25-30 minutes) So a one or two-line introduction will do. Explain the debate, e.g.:

Although all socialists agree that society should be much more equal, there is significant disagreement over how to achieve it and what exactly it would mean.

Then add your line of argument, e.g.:

The divisions within socialism over the role of the state far outweigh the areas of agreement.


Socialists used to disagree significantly over the means of achieving their goals — revolution or evolution — but there is now much less disagreement, as revolutionary socialism has been discredited.

This is AO3, and must not be left to your conclusion — the examiner will expect to see it throughout the essay.

Main body of essay

The danger here is that you focus on the areas of division, as there are so many within socialism. Another hazard is that you simply describe the three strands in separate paragraphs and lose focus on the question until your conclusion. As all questions ask ‘To what extent…?’ you must look at agreement as well as disagreement (AO2). If your line of argument is that there is more disagreement than agreement, then start with a paragraph highlighting all the areas socialists agree on, in relation to the topic.

Use an agree disagree sandwich. This means three paragraphs in the main body of your essay with agree/disagree/agree or disagree/ agree/ disagree- depending on your line of argument. Your middle paragraph i.e. the line you are not arguing should be qualified - e.g distance yourself with phrases like 'It can be argued....' and end the middle paragraph with a restatement of your line. e.g 'Granted there are some differences/agreements  over ........however more fundamental differences/ agreements are 

 Add in a key thinker.

Areas of agreement:

·        A critique of capitalism as fundamentally damaging to human nature and society.

·        Common humanity and cooperation are natural.

·        A belief that inequality is not due to differing ability or effort but is the result of the fundamentally unfair structure of a society based on inherited privilege.

·        The plasticity, sociability and malleability of human nature — a positive and optimistic view of the possibility of improvement and the role of our surroundings in creating our personalities.

·        Equality of outcome — the need to eradicate or narrow the gap between rich and poor to ensure fairness, freedom and justice for all.

Finish your paragraph with a clear judgement (AO3) and link back to the exact wording of the question, such as:

Although there are significant areas of agreement over capitalism, the areas of disagreement between the strands are much more significant.

Then move onto the areas of division and pick out 2–3 significant aspects to write on. Use key thinkers to show contrast, e.g.:

Marx argued that capitalism created two classes, whose interests were utterly in conflict and irreconcilable. However, Crosland, writing in the mid-twentieth century, updated this view to argue that there was now a large and growing managerial class in the middle, and that instead of focusing on capitalism, socialists should focus on how to create a more equal society using progressive taxation and a generous welfare state.

Differences within socialism

Make sure you use the Edexcel specification terminology. For example, ‘bourgeoisie and proletariat’ is much more accurate than ‘rich and poor’ or ‘upper and lower class’.

Integrating the thinkers

You need to cite at least two thinkers or your mark will be capped. Three would be wiser. Use them to support and explain your ideas, rather than adding them to the end of a paragraph as an afterthought. For example, you can use Marx’s analysis of capitalism to explain the revolutionary socialist approach to the economy. Beatrice Webb is useful, as she bridges the gap between revolutionary and evolutionary socialism, rejecting violence and revolution but seeking radical alternatives to capitalism. She could be used to show how socialists agree in terms of their analysis of capitalism, even if they don’t agree on methods.

Do I need examples?

It is not necessary to include recent examples in socialism, such as Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn. There is probably no time, although you could include them in a conclusion if linked to the question, for example mentioning Sanders to show how Third Way ideas have not necessarily triumphed. Examples can be used to develop your AO2 evaluation and analysis points, such as showing how the creation of the welfare state by the postwar Labour government demonstrates how social democrats used the mixed economy and state intervention in order to create a more equal society. That said, you are very limited for time and it is much more important to include the key thinkers.


Do not sit on the fence. To get those AO3 marks you cannot argue that there is both disagreement and agreement. For example:

Socialists do agree that capitalism is deeply flawed and damaging to human nature and society. Therefore the agreement is more significant than the disagreement, which focuses on the alternatives.

clearly comes down on the side of agreement. You will have already mentioned your viewpoint in the introduction and in each paragraph, so it should not come as any surprise to the examiner.