Main ideas of Socialism

The term ‘socialist’ derives from the Latin sociare, meaning to combine or to share. Its earliest known use was in 1827 in the UK, in an issue of the Co-operative Magazine. By the early 1830s, the followers of Robert Owen in the UK and Henri de Saint-Simon in France had started to refer to their beliefs as ‘socialism’ and, by the 1840s, the term was familiar in a range of industrialised countries, notably France, Belgium and the German states. Socialism, as an ideology, has traditionally been defined by its opposition to capitalism and by the attempt to provide a more humane and socially worthwhile alternative. At the core of socialism is a vision of human beings as social creatures united by their common humanity. This highlights the degree to which individual identity is fashioned by social interaction and the membership of social groups and collective bodies. Socialists therefore prefer cooperation to competition. The central, and some would say defining, value of socialism is equality, especially social equality. Socialists believe that social equality is the essential guarantee of social stability and cohesion, and that it promotes freedom, in the sense that it satisfies material needs and provides the basis for personal development. Socialism, however, contains a bewildering variety of divisions and rival traditions. These divisions have been about both ‘means’ (how socialism should be achieved) and ‘ends’ (the nature of the future socialist society). For example, communists or Marxists have usually supported revolution and sought to abolish capitalism through the creation of a classless society based on the common ownership of wealth. In contrast, democratic socialists or social democrats have embraced gradualism and aimed to reform or ‘humanise’ the capitalist system through a narrowing of material inequalities and the abolition of poverty.

Human nature

Like liberalism, socialists have an upbeat, optimistic view of human nature, which helps explain why both liberalism and socialism are seen as ‘progressive’ ideologies. Yet liberals and socialists differ as to why they are optimistic. Whereas most liberals think individuals are naturally self- reliant and self-sufficient, socialists believe that individuals are naturally cooperative, generous and altruistic. So instead of forever seeking autonomy, independence and supremacy, as liberals claim, human beings (according to socialists) naturally seek solidarity, fraternity and comradeship, reflecting the claim of poet John Donne (1571–1631) that ‘no man is an island’. Socialism concedes, however, that mankind’s true nature has been diluted by time and circumstance. So whereas liberalism takes an optimistic view of human nature as it is, socialists are more optimistic about how it could be. This is because socialism, unlike liberalism, sees human nature as malleable, or ‘plastic’, rather than permanently fixed at birth. Consequently, socialists believe that human nature can be adjusted, thus ensuring that men and women fulfil their true, fraternal potential while contributing to a more cooperative community. The key issue, of course, is what determines human nature? And by what means can human nature be improved and mankind’s potential realised?


Collectivism is, broadly, the belief that collective human endeavour is of greater practical and moral value than individual self-striving. It thus reflects the idea that human nature has a social core, and implies that social groups, whether ‘classes’, ‘nations’, ‘races’ or whatever, are meaningful political entities. However, the term is used with little consistency. Mikhail Bakunin and other anarchists used ‘collectivism’ to refer to self-governing associations of free individuals. Others have treated collectivism as strictly the opposite of individualism, holding that it implies that collective interests should prevail over individual ones. It is also sometimes linked to the state as the mechanism through which collective interests are upheld, suggesting that the growth of state responsibilities marks the advance of collectivism.

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.

This emphasis on collectivism is rooted in the socialist view of human nature, which argues that humans are social animals; as such, they prefer to live in social groups rather than alone. It follows that humans have the capacity for collective action and can work together in order to achieve their goals. In this sense, they are tied together by the bonds of fraternity.

Socialists also argue that human nature is moulded by social conditions - the experiences and circumstances of a person's life. According to the socialist view, people can only be defined or understood in terms of the social groups they belong to. This line of argument leads socialists to conclude that membership of a community or society offers humans true freedom and fulfilment.

Most socialists call for some form of state intervention and state planning to promote collectivist goals and ensure that the distribution of goods and services is not left to free-market forces. The pursuit of collectivism is commonly seen to involve the growth of the state, the expansion of state services and responsibilities, and an increase in state spending.

As well as its primary aim, of redistributing a society’s wealth and resources, socialism believes that economic collectivism has two other benefits. First, progressive taxation, increased public spending, extensive public services and sometimes public ownership are seen as expressions of a more fraternal, more cooperative society with greater social justice. Second, such collectivist policies are thought to make the economy more efficient. As Marx and Engels were the first to point out, capitalism and market forces are inherently volatile and unpredictable — causing, for instance, periodic mass unemployment. A more collectivist economy, it is argued, will be more stable and manageable, and therefore more likely to provide the material resources society 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 without a strong state, it will be impossible to bring about a fairer and more equal society. In the short to medium term at least, it would certainly be difficult to bring about a redistribution of wealth and greater social justice without a state that was expansive and dirigiste (actively seeking to direct a society’s economy). Some socialists (such as Marxists and orthodox communists argue that, eventually, the state will ‘wither away’ —a blissful moment in human evolution, which Marx described as ‘the end of history’. However, all socialists agree that for the foreseeable future, a strong state is essential. They also agree it must be a certain type of state, and certainly not the sort that preceded the Enlightenment.

In many ways, collectivism is a difficult concept to pin down precisely. This is partly because it is often used to describe very different things. The term has been applied to small self-governing communities (such as those based on the ideas of the 19th-century socialists Robert Owen and Charles Fourier), general opposition to individualism, and a system of centralised state control that directs the economy and society.

There are two basic criticisms of collectivism.

  • · Because collectivism emphasises group action and common interests, it suppresses human individuality and diversity.

  • · As collectivist objectives can only really be advanced through the agency of the state, it leads to the growth of arbitrary state power and the erosion of individual freedoms

  • Since the 1970s, socialists generally have attached less importance to collectivism. This is due to a growing perception that collectivism in developed countries such as the UK (mainly in the form of state welfare, trade union power and government intervention in the economy) was producing a dependency culture and a sluggish, uncompetitive economic sector. The end of the Cold War in 1989 and the collapse of the USSR in 1991 reinforced this view as collectivism suffered a significant ideological defeat.

Socialist belief in a common humanity is also based on assumptions about human nature. Socialists see humans as social creatures with a tendency towards co-operation, sociability and humans naturally prefer to co-operate with, rather than compete against, each other. In fact the individual cannot be understood without reference to society, because human behaviour is socially determined.

Socialists advocate co-operation based on their positive view of human nature. They argue that humans are naturally inclined to work together for the common good and that co-operative effort produces the best results for society. Co-operation also reinforces and reflects the socialist idea of a common humanity, in both moral and economic terms. People who co-operate rather than compete with each other form connections based on understanding, respect and mutual support. They also channel the capabilities of the whole group or community, rather than just the potential of a single 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-centred 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 approach to human nature is a stress on equality. This does not mean that socialists believe that all people are born identical, possessing precisely the same capabilities and skills. An egalitarian society would not, for instance, be one in which all students gained the same mark in their mathematics examinations. Rather, socialist egalitarianism is underpinned by the belief that the most significant forms of human inequality are a result of unequal treatment by society, instead of 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. This implies a commitment to social equality, or equality of outcome, the liberal idea of equality of opportunity usually being dismissed by socialists on the grounds that it legitimises inequality by perpet-uating the myth of innate inequality. Nevertheless, although socialists agree about the virtue of social equality, they disagree about the extent to which it can and should be brought about. Marxists and communists believe in absolute social equality, brought about by the abolition of private property and col-lectivisation 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, with egalitarianism being refocused on the task of eradicating poverty. This, in turn, has sometimes blurred the distinction 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.

  • . As wealth is created by the communal endeavour of humans, it should be owned collectively, not by individuals.

  • Private ty encourages materialism and fosters the false belief that the achievement of personal wealth will bring fulfilment.

  • · Private property generates social conflict between 'have' and 'have-not' groups, such as owners and workers.

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.

All socialists are concerned about the negative impact on society and individuals of private property, which they see as leading to inequality and exploitation. Some socialists believe that capitalism should be abolished and the workers should participate in the economic management of their place of work and share in the profits. This theory is an alternative to top-down state central planning and nationalisation, as used by twentieth-century communist states such as the USSR and China, and is therefore much more democratic. Syndicalists argue for workers’ control via trade unions. A major movement in early twentieth-century France and Italy, syndicalism aimed to overthrow governments through the use of general strikes and radical trade union action. As mentioned briefly earlier, the cooperative movement is a good example of a nonMarxist approach to workers’ control and an alternative form of economics. Developed in the nineteenth century by the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, it originally consisted of groups of small retailers coming together to combine their buying power. Cooperatives are democratic organisations controlled by their members, and profits are shared. The Co-operative Group is the largest mutual business in the UK, owned by its 7 million customers and members. There are also workers’ cooperatives, for example Suma, a very successful wholesale business.

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.

Such a system is often justified in terms of core socialist ideas and principles. First, workers' control is clearly based on socialist views about human nature, as it promotes collective effort and the pursuit of group (rather than individual) interests. Furthermore, some socialists have argued that workers' control, with its emphasis on fully involving employees in all aspects of the production process, can maximise human potential by combating alienation at the workplace and undermining the capitalist view of labour as a mere commodity.

Second, workers' control has significant implications for the economy. Some socialists maintain that, as the workers are the key factor in the production process, they should have the right to control the means of production. Workers' control aims either to dilute or replace capitalist control of the economy. For example, French Syndicalists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries called for the overthrow of capitalism and the introduction of workers' control of the economy based on the trade unions and proletarian political institutions.

Third, those endorsing workers' control hold contrasting views regarding the role played by the state in the socialist transformation. Syndicalists are hostile towards the state, regarding it as an instrument of capitalist oppression and an inefficient bureaucratic structure incapable of initiating meaningful reform. Consequently, they call for the state to be forcibly replaced with a form of workers' control based on a federation of trade union bodies. British guild socialism a pro-workers' control movement that emerged in the early 20th century, was internally divided over the role of the state. Although all guild socialists argued for state ownership of industry in the pursuit of workers' control, some called for the state to remain essentially in its existing form, whereas others called for the state to be turned into a federal body composed of workers' guilds, consumers' organisations and local government bodies.

Finally, workers' control can be seen as an important step towards a socialist society. At one end of the spectrum, 'moderate' workers' control in a capitalist society (such as increased trade union and shopfloor influence over manager's decisions) provides a method of introducing limited reforms to the social and economic structure. At the other end, industrial self-management by workers living under state socialism (such as the workers' councils operating in Yugoslavia in the 1950s and 1960s) reinforces the idea that a socialist society should raise 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.