Socialism and its Defining Elements

Essay, 2012

7 Pages, Grade: 74



This essay will examine socialism in the context of key concepts and its practical adaptability. First, the notion of equality will be defined as a starting point for socialism. As a consequence of the concern for equality and a conception of human nature, the idea of community will be attributed to socialist thought. Lastly, it will be explored how socialism has evolved into social democracy, thus penetrating a capitalist society. In conclusion, socialism will be identified as a continuously relevant ideology, drawing on the concepts of equality and community as well as its influence in the form of social democracy.


“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service." ’ (Goodwin, 2007: 105)

Up until 1995, Clause 4, part 4 of the British Labour Party's constitution contained statements such as the one quoted above, which clearly mirrored the party’s affiliation with socialist principles. Hence, until quite recently, socialist ideas were institutionalized within one of the main political parties in Britain. Given capitalism's hegemonic position in today's society, this seems, on the face of it, quite astonishing. In view of socialism's continued relevance in today’s political landscape, this paper will examine its defining elements. On the one hand, the ideal of equality and the notion of community will be identified as essential building blocks within the conceptual framework, drawing on the ideology's opposition to capitalism and its concept of human nature. On the other hand, it will be argued that social democracy may be seen as an empirical realization of socialist ideas within capitalism. As a conclusion, socialism will be characterized as a crucial alternative to liberal capitalism, which it has helped to qualify while shaping contemporary mainstream policies such as the welfare state.

Égalité: The Root of Socialism

Several authors regard the notion of inequality as the starting point for socialist thought; it may be unhelpful to examine socialism within a vacuum, thus any serious analysis cannot ignore the concrete circumstantial environment in which socialist concepts began to take root. Both Goodwin (2007: 110) and Newman (2005: 2) argue that the percipience of structures of inequality was and continues to be a primary driver for socialist thought. Likewise, Marx' and Engels' writings were produced in the context of abominable working conditions in 19th century capitalist Britain, and went on to have an enormous impact on later socialist thinkers (Howe, 1986: 19). Therefore, inequality as an empirical fact played a significant role in the development of socialism.

Nevertheless, there is a considerable normative component in socialist thought. Howe argues that ‘[t]ere is something morally repulsive in the maldistribution of wealth and income’ (1986: 592), while Nielsen asserts that inequality makes self-respect unattainable (1989: 549). Moreover, he claims that socialism is indeed in a better position than liberal thought to establish a true equality of opportunity, which will follow from equality of condition (Ibid.: 550). Cohen distinguishes between three degrees of equality of opportunity, of which liberal, or more precisely, bourgeois society, could only remove one; socially constructed inequality, which is essentially a reference to the feudal system (2009: 15). He goes on to claim that socialism in principle is better positioned to tackle the remaining degrees of inequality; the second a result of social disadvantage, that is class, and the third of native, inborn disadvantage (Ibid: 17).

While it could be argued that the second degree of inequality is, to some extent, the subject of much of the current welfare state’s purpose, the third degree is much more contentious. Not only does it beg the question of feasibility, but also that of desirability. Would a society that disregards individual talent and ability ultimately lead to a morally superior state? Being immersed in a capitalist system, an impartial attempt to answer this question may prove to be quite difficult. Nevertheless, socialism claims for itself both a genuine concern for inequality and a potential remedy. While many parts of the world have certainly escaped the appalling state observed by Marx and Engels, equality remains as a constant feature of discussion, both within societies as well as in comparisons between so-called developed and developing countries. In the next section, it will be argued that the concept of community is inherent in socialism's quest for equality.

The Idea of Community: Human Beings Are Sociable

Being an ideology, socialism relies on a set of assumptions from which it extrapolates its more elaborate concepts. One of the key assumptions is about human nature. Socialism portends that, in essence, humans are cooperative and sociable beings (Goodwin, 2007: 107). This is a stark contrast to liberalism's perceptions of individualism and natural competitiveness and points to some of the sources of the continuous animosities between these two ideologies. The sense of the importance of community, which logically arises from cooperation and sociability, reflects socialism's organizational principles.

A sine qua non which can be deduced from these assumptions is that the means of production should be, as Howe has noted, ‘collectively or socially owned - which means democratically controlled’ (1986: 576). In contrast to some claims, socialism can, in principle, be reconciled both with concepts of democracy (Ibid) and a rational economic model (Schumpeter, 2010: 154-5). Cohen proposes the retention of the vital economic element of market prices in a socialist economic model. He states that prices primarily serve two purposes in a capitalist system; the first one is the capacity to provide information, while the second is their motivational function (Cohen, 2009: 61). Cohen seeks to eliminate the second purpose of market prices, while keeping the first (Ibid: 62). It is, however, questionable whether one can work without the other. Prices may not retain much of their informational capacity if stripped of their secondary motivational function. In any case, motivation has to derive from somewhere. In this model, motivation is a result of the concern for the community, which is an indication of the central importance of this concept for socialist economic thought. Hence, community is not only paramount in a normative sense, but also in an instrumental way in the pursuit of a realization of socialist society.

Similarly to liberalism, socialist thought aims to enhance personal freedom. However, the divergence between concepts of negative and positive liberty has to be noted. Hence, socialism incorporates a notion of positive liberty, which is to say enabling the individual to maximize her freedom by being an integral element of a wider community, within which she shares rights and responsibilities. Far from the experience of regimes claiming to represent socialist models of community, Howe states that ‘[an] egalitarianism enforced by authoritarian decree [...] is utterly alien to the socialist idea’ (1986: 593). Thus, the notion of community derives not only from a socialist image of human nature, but is also consistent with socialism’s organizational structures and its conception of liberty. In the next step, it has to be examined how attempts have been made to pursue the goals of equality and community within a democratic capitalist structure.


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Socialism and its Defining Elements
Queen Mary University of London  (Department of Politics and International Relations)
Introduction to International Relations
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ISBN (eBook)
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677 KB
Socialism, Political Theory, Community, Equality, Social Democracy
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Tim Pfefferle (Author), 2012, Socialism and its Defining Elements, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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