Main ideas of Socialism

The term 'socialist' originates from the Latin word sociare, meaning to combine or share. It was first utilized in 1827 in the UK in the Co-operative Magazine. By the early 1830s, followers of Robert Owen in the UK and Henri de Saint-Simon in France began identifying their beliefs as 'socialism'. By the 1840s, the concept had gained recognition in various industrialized countries such as France, Belgium, and the German states. Socialism is characterized by its opposition to capitalism and its objective to provide a more humane and socially beneficial alternative. Central to socialism is the belief in humans as social beings interconnected by their shared humanity. Socialists prioritize cooperation over competition and value equality, particularly social equality, as the fundamental principle of socialism. They assert that social equality plays a vital role in societal stability, cohesion, and freedom by addressing material needs and forming the basis for personal growth. However, socialism encompasses various divisions and conflicting traditions revolving around differing perspectives on the 'means' (how socialism should be achieved) and 'ends' (the vision of the future socialist society). For instance, communists or Marxists typically promote revolution to eliminate capitalism and establish a classless society with communal ownership of resources. Conversely, democratic socialists or social democrats advocate for a gradual approach, aiming to reform or humanize the capitalist system by reducing material disparities and eliminating poverty.

Human nature

Liberalism and socialism both have an optimistic view of human nature, making them 'progressive' ideologies. However, they differ in their reasons for this optimism. Liberals believe individuals are naturally self-reliant, while socialists see people as naturally cooperative and altruistic. Socialists argue that humans seek solidarity and comradeship, in contrast to liberals who emphasize autonomy and independence. Socialism acknowledges that external factors have diluted mankind's true nature, believing that human nature is malleable and can be improved. The key question is: what influences human nature and how can it be enhanced to unlock humanity's full potential?


Collectivism is the belief that emphasizes the importance of cooperative human efforts over individual pursuits, suggesting that human nature is fundamentally social. It highlights the significance of social groups, such as classes or nations, as political entities. However, the term is used inconsistently. For example, Mikhail Bakunin and other anarchists defined 'collectivism' as self-governing associations of individuals. On the other hand, some see collectivism as the opposite of individualism, giving priority to collective interests over individual ones. Moreover, collectivism is at times linked to the state as the mechanism for safeguarding collective interests, suggesting that an increase in state responsibilities signals the promotion of collectivist principles.

Socialists endorse collectivism for two fundamental reasons.

From a moral perspective, the interests of the group - such as a society or a community - should take priority over individual self-interest. Collective effort encourages social unity and a sense of social responsibility towards others.

In practical economic terms, collectivism utilises the capabilities of the whole of society efficiently, avoiding the wastefulness and limited impact of competitive individual effort inherent in the capitalist economy.

Labour Broadcast: For the many not the few

Collectivism, therefore, reflects the socialist view that it is more important to pursue the interests of a society or a community rather than individual self-interest.

The focus on collectivism is based on the socialist belief about human nature, which states that humans are social beings who prefer living in groups rather than alone. This perspective suggests that humans have the ability to work together towards common goals through collective action, forming bonds of fraternity. Socialists also contend that human nature is shaped by social circumstances and experiences. According to socialism, individuals can only be understood in relation to the social groups they are part of. This argument leads socialists to assert that true freedom and fulfillment come from being part of a community or society. Many socialists advocate for state intervention and planning to advance collectivist objectives and ensure that the distribution of goods and services is not solely determined by market forces. The promotion of collectivism often involves an increase in state size, expansion of state services, and higher state expenditure. In addition to its primary goal of redistributing wealth and resources, socialism argues that economic collectivism offers two other advantages. Firstly, measures such as progressive taxation, elevated public spending, extensive public services, and public ownership are viewed as manifestations of a society that is more fraternal, cooperative, and socially just. Secondly, such collectivist strategies are believed to enhance economic efficiency. Advocates, like Marx and Engels, argue that capitalism and market dynamics are inherently volatile and unpredictable, leading to periods of significant unemployment. A more collectivist economy, they contend, would be more stable and manageable, thus better equipped to meet society's material needs.

However, in practice, different strands of socialism vary in their commitment to collectivism.

Socialism seeks to rectify the problems caused by capitalism by championing an economy that provides for greater workers’ control in employment, and a significant redistribution of wealth and resources within the economy generally. Indeed, socialism is routinely described by its proponents as a ‘redistributionist’ doctrine, practising what Tony Benn (1925–2014) wryly described as ‘the politics of Robin Hood — taking from the rich and then giving to the poor’. For socialists, the ‘redistributionist’ economy will usually involve two broad principles.

First, there will be an emphatic rejection of the laissez-faire capitalism advocated by classical and neo-liberalism, whereby market forces are given free rein by a state that is disengaged and minimalist in relation to a society’s economy. According to socialism, an economy where there is low taxation and little state interference will be one where unfairness and social injustice become exacerbated.

Marxists and state socialists advocate collective action through a centralised state that organises all (or nearly all) production and distribution. For example, in the USSR after 1929, most industries were nationalised and all agricultural land was collectivised in order to transform a backward state into a modern industrial society, using complete state control of the economy to bring about change. After the Second World War, communist regimes in China and eastern Europe pursued similar policies of state-controlled collectivism.

Moderate socialists who accept some degree of free-market capitalism in the economy have pursued collectivism in a more limited way. For instance, the 1945-51 Labour government in the UK nationalised key industries - such as coal, electricity, and iron and steel - but left much of the economy in private hands.

All socialists believe that a robust state is necessary to achieve a more just and equal society. In the short to medium term, creating a fairer distribution of wealth and enhancing social justice would be quite challenging without an active and directive state. While some socialists, like Marxists and orthodox communists, anticipate the eventual fading of the state - what Marx termed 'the end of history' - they concur that a strong state is indispensable for the foreseeable future. This state must be of a specific nature, distinct from pre-Enlightenment models. Collectivism is a complex concept with various interpretations. It encompasses small self-governing communities inspired by 19th-century socialists like Robert Owen and Charles Fourier, opposition to individualism, and a centralized system of state control that guides both the economy and society.

There are two basic criticisms of collectivism.

Socialism and Human Nature

Socialists believe in the inherent social nature of humans, emphasizing cooperation over competition. They see individuals as naturally inclined to work together for the greater good, viewing cooperative efforts as the most effective way to benefit society. Cooperation not only aligns with socialist principles but also strengthens the bonds within a community, fostering understanding, respect, and mutual support. By prioritizing cooperation over competition, groups can harness the collective abilities of all members, rather than relying solely on the potential of an individual.

By contrast, according to the socialist view, competition (particularly within a capitalist economy) is wasteful, promotes social divisions and generates conflict, hostility, and resentment. Socialists maintain that capitalist economic competition sets one person against another, a process that encourages people to reject or disregard their common humanity (and social nature) rather than accept it. It encourages humans to be self-centered and belligerent. 

This emphasis on a common humanity has led socialists to conclude that human motivation can be driven not just by material considerations but also by a moral view of people's role in society. 

People should work hard in order to improve their society or community because they have a sense of responsibility for other humans, particularly the least fortunate. The moral incentive to improve society rests on the acceptance of a common humanity. 

For the economy to function properly, most contemporary socialists accept the need for at least some material rewards to motivate people, but they also stress that these should be linked to moral incentives. For example, co-operative effort to boost economic growth not only increases living standards for the working population but also provides the funds (through taxation) to finance welfare measures to help the vulnerable and the poor.

Finally the belief in a common humanity has led socialists to support an interventionist role for the state. Marxists and state socialists argue that the agency of the state can be used to control production and distribution for the benefit of everyone. Social democrats also advocate state intervention in a more limited form of welfare and redistribution programmes, to help those in the greatest need.

The socialist perspective on human nature emphasizes equality, not the belief that everyone is born with identical capabilities. Socialist egalitarianism is based on the idea that societal treatment, not natural abilities, is the main cause of human inequality. Social justice, therefore, requires equal or more equal treatment in terms of rewards and material circumstances. Socialists prioritize social equality over equality of opportunity, as the latter can perpetuate existing inequalities. There is disagreement among socialists on how to achieve social equality, with Marxists advocating for absolute equality through collective ownership, while social democrats prefer relative equality through wealth redistribution and progressive taxation. Social democrats aim to regulate capitalism rather than abolish it, focusing on eradicating poverty while still allowing for material incentives. This approach sometimes blurs the line between social equality and equality of opportunity.


Social equality ensures fairness

Economic inequality (differences in wealth), according to the socialist view, is due to the structura inequalities in a capitalist society, rather than innate differences of ability among people. For this reason, some socialists tend to reject equality of opportunity because, in their view, such a concel justifies the unequal treatment of people on the grounds of innate ability. This argument reflects view of human nature that emphasises people are born with the potential to be equal.

Other socialists maintain that, since it is part of human nature to have different abilities and attributes, inequality in the form of differential rewards is inevitable to some extent. These socialists tend to endorse an egalitarian approach to ensure that people are treated less unequally, in terms of material rewards and living conditions. Without this commitment to sociali5, egalitarianism, formal political and legal equality is compromised because, on its own, the latter does nothing to tackle the structural inequalities (such as social class) inherent in capitalism.

Social equality reinforces collectivism

A second argument is that social equality reinforces collectivism, co-operation and solidarity with' society and the economy. Put simply, human beings are more likely to co-exist harmoniously

in society and work together for the common economic good if they share the same social and economic conditions. For example, modern Sweden has high levels of social equality based on extensive wealth redistribution and social welfare. Socialists argue that such measures have mad€ a major contribution to the stability, cohesion and economic output of Swedish society.

Social inequality, on the other hand, encourages conflict and instability. Societies with great econom and social inequalities are unstable because they are sharply divided into the 'haves' and 'have-not Eventually, if the situation is not addressed, the disadvantaged sections of society will revolt in protest against their conditions, as happened in Russia in 1917 and Mexico in 1910-20. In a similar way socialists also condemn equality of opportunity for fostering a competitive 'dog-eat-dog' outlook.

Social equality is a means of satisfying basic human needs

A third view is that social equality is a means of satisfying basic human needs that are part of human nature and essential to a sense of human fulfilment. Given that all people's basic needs are the same (such as food, friendship and shelter), socialists call for the equal, or more equal, distribution of wealth and resources to promote human fulfilment and realise human potential. In terms of the economy, most socialists agree that the free market, driven by the profit motive, cannot allocate wealth and resources fairly to all members of society. In their view, only the redistributive mechanism of the state can provide for everyone, irrespective of social position, and combat the divisive effects of the free market.

Common ownership

Socialists endorse common ownership because, in their view, private property (productive wealth or capital, rather than personal belongings) has several important drawbacks.

Broadly speaking, socialists-have argued either that private property should be abolished entirely and replaced with common ownership or that the latter should be applied in a more limited way. In the USSR from the 1930s, the Stalinist regime implemented an all-encompassing form of common ownership by bringing the entire economy under state control. More moderate socialists, including the Attlee Labour government in the UK (1945-51), have opted for limited common ownership by nationalising only key strategic industries, including the coal mines, the railways and steel-making, leaving much of the economy in private hands. However, in recent decades, western socialist parties have placed less emphasis on common ownership in favour of other objectives.

The Members list the 5 steps to start a workers' co-operative, and explain how their co-operative was designed to fill several needs in their community. They discuss the benefits of starting a workers' co-operative and encourage aspiring entrepreneurs to consider a workers' co-operative instead of traditional options such as sole-proprietorship and business partnership. 

Socialists are concerned about the negative impact of private property on society and individuals, believing it leads to inequality and exploitation. Some propose abolishing capitalism and having workers manage their workplaces and share profits, in contrast to state central planning and nationalization seen in communist states like the USSR and China. Syndicalists advocate for workers' control through trade unions, aiming to overthrow governments with general strikes and radical union action. The cooperative movement, originating in the nineteenth century with the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, offers a non-Marxist approach to workers' control and a different economic model. Cooperatives are democratic organizations where members control and share profits, with examples like the Co-operative Group in the UK .

The term 'workers' control' refers to the complete or partial ownership of an economic enterprise (such as a business or factory) by those employed there. It can also be used in a wider and more political sense to mean workers` control of the state. The concept has influenced different strands of socialist thought, including Marxism and syndicalism. Workers' control covers a range of schemes that aim to provide workers with full democratic control over their places of employment.

These schemes go beyond the right to be consulted and participate by seeking to establish real decision-making powers for workers in their particular industries or occupations.

This system is often justified based on core socialist principles. Firstly, workers' control aligns with socialist beliefs about human nature, as it promotes collective effort and the pursuit of group interests over individual ones. Additionally, some socialists argue that workers' control, by fully involving employees in the production process, can maximize human potential by addressing alienation at work and challenging the capitalist perspective of labor as a commodity. 

Secondly, workers' control has significant economic implications. Some socialists argue that since workers are crucial in production, they should have the right to control the means of production. Workers' control aims to diminish or replace capitalist influence on the economy. For instance, French Syndicalists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries advocated for removing capitalism and implementing workers' control through trade unions and proletarian political institutions. 

Thirdly, supporters of workers' control have differing views on the state's role in the socialist transformation. Syndicalists view the state as a tool of capitalist oppression and an ineffective bureaucratic system incapable of meaningful reform. They propose replacing the state with a form of workers' control based on a federation of trade union bodies. British guild socialism, a pro-workers' control movement from the early 20th century, had internal disagreements regarding the state's role. While all guild socialists advocated for state ownership of industry for workers' control, some wanted the state to remain unchanged, while others suggested transforming it into a federal body comprising workers' guilds, consumers' organizations, and local government bodies. Lastly, workers' control is considered a crucial step towards a socialist society. On one end, 'moderate' workers' control in a capitalist setting, like increased trade union influence on managerial decisions, can introduce limited reforms to the social and economic structure. On the other end, industrial self-management by workers under state socialism, such as the workers' councils in Yugoslavia in the 1950s and 1960s, reinforces the idea that a socialist society should elevate the condition and status of the working class.


Critics reject such schemes on the grounds that they are utopian and fail to acknowledge that business needs risk-takers and investors as well as workers. According to this view, workers often lack the entrepreneurial attributes necessary for success. In taking over the management functions of appointments, promotions and dismissals, manual employees may adversely affect the economic viability of their workplace.