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;

Socialists are egalitarians, believing that equality is a core political principle and an aspect of our human nature. A belief in equality of outcome is possibly the most important belief in socialism. If you don’t believe in it, you are not a socialist. Equality of outcome goes beyond liberal arguments for equality as it looks at the end point and is focused on resources. Socialists argue that liberal beliefs in equal rights and equality of opportunity are illusory due to the unfair structure of society. They are referring to inherited privilege, both financial and personal or status related. Socialists argue that capitalism has caused great inequality as it is based on competition and as such there have to be winners and losers, and some have to be exploited to create profits for others. A good example is the education system. There might be equal opportunity in theory, e.g. any student can apply to Oxbridge, but if you attend a private school with fantastic resources, small class sizes and highly skilled and motivated staff, plus having family support and an expectation that you will gain a place, you are clearly more likely to succeed. Socialists do not believe, naively, that we all have the same skills and talents. However, they argue that this is not the main cause of inequality, which is in fact something over which we have no personal control: the unequal structures of society. Social equality will lead to true positive freedom as it allows us to flourish and fulfil our potential without the restrictions of debt, poor health and housing, etc. It will also create more harmonious and stable communities as there is a sense of justice and fairness. We will receive what we need rather than what we can afford. There is a debate in socialism about what exactly equality of outcome means — narrowing the gap or removing it altogether? This is based on their preference in terms of economic systems. Fundamentalist socialists argue that capitalism should be abolished, leading to a redistribution of wealth and the abolition of private ownership in favour of common ownership. In contrast, social democrats such as Anthony Crosland argued that the welfare state should be used to narrow the gap between rich and poor, without the need to abolish capitalism, using progressive taxation. Third way supporters such as Peter Mandelson moved away from equality of outcome altogether, arguing instead that it was fine to be ‘filthy rich’ and instead focusing on reducing social exclusion and introducing various measures to reduce poverty, such as tax credits and the minimum wage. 

Socialist egalitarianism is characterized by a belief in social equality, or equality of outcome. Socialists have advanced at least three arguments in favour of this form of equality. 

First, social equality upholds justice or fairness. Socialists are reluctant to explain the inequality of wealth simply in terms of innate differences of ability among individuals. Socialists believe that just as capitalism has fostered competitive and selfish behaviour, human inequality very largely reflects the unequal structure of society. They do not hold the naïve belief that all people are born identical, possessing precisely the same capacities and skills.

An egalitarian society would not, for instance, be one in which all students gained the same mark in their mathematics examinations. Nevertheless, socialists believe that the most significant forms of human inequality are a result of unequal treatment by society, rather than unequal endowment by nature.

Justice, from a socialist perspective, therefore demands that people are treated equally (or at least more equally) by society in terms of their rewards and material circumstances. Formal equality, in its legal and political senses, is clearly inadequate in itself because it disregards the structural inequalities of the capitalist system. Equality of opportunity, for its part, legitimizes inequality by perpetuating the myth of innate inequality.

Second, social equality underpins community and cooperation. If people live in equal social circumstances, they will be more likely to identify with one another and work together for common benefit. Equal outcomes therefore strengthen social solidarity. Social inequality, by the same token, leads to conflict and instability. This also explains why socialists have criticized equality of opportunity for breeding a ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality. R. H. Tawney  for example, dismissed the idea of equal opportunities as a ‘tadpole

philosophy’, emphasizing the tiny proportion of tadpoles that develop into frogs. 

Third, socialists support social equality because they hold that need-satisfaction is the basis for human fulfilment and self-realization. A ‘need’ is a necessity: it demands satisfaction; it is not simply a frivolous wish or a passing fancy. Basic needs, such as the need for food, water, shelter, companionship and so on, are fundamental to the human condition, which means that, for socialists, their satisfaction is the very stuff of freedom. Marx expressed this in his communist theory of distribution: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.’ Since all people have broadly similar needs, distributing wealth on the basis of need-satisfaction clearly has egalitarian implications. Nevertheless, need-satisfaction can also have inegalitarian implications, as in the case of so-called ‘special’ needs, arising, for instance, from physical or mental disability.

While socialists agree about the virtue of social and economic equality, they disagree about the extent to which this can and should be brought about. Marxists and communists believe in absolute social equality, brought about by the abolition of private property and collectivization of productive wealth.

Perhaps the most famous experiment in such radical egalitarianism took place in China under the ‘Cultural Revolution’  Social democrats, however, believe in relative social equality, achieved by the redistribution of wealth through the welfare state and a system of progressive taxation. The social- democratic desire to tame capitalism rather than abolish it, reflects an acceptance of a continuing role for material incentives, and the fact that the significance of need-satisfaction is largely confined to the eradication of poverty. This, in turn, blurs the distinction between social equality and equality of opportunity