Government and Politics



Moyra Grant

Moyra Grant explores the revolutionary and evolutionary aspects of socialism and asks if, in any of its forms, it has a viable role in the twenty-first century


Given that the ideology of socialism can be associated with people as diverse as Karl Marx, Joseph Stalin and Tony Blair, it is clearly one of the most wide-ranging of all political philosophies. Socialism is defined by its opposition to capitalism - an economic system of private ownership for private profit. The core beliefs of socialism - that humans are naturally altruistic, that collectivism enhances social harmony and that equality is the prerequisite of social justice - are probably as old as mankind itself. However, socialism flourished most vigorously in the nineteenth century, as industrial capitalism in Western Europe reached its height, with all its attendant inequalities and deprivations. Socialism in various forms has emerged and evolved throughout the twentieth century, with varying degrees of success. Whether it has a viable role in the twenty-first century is a matter of debate.


Broadly, socialism can be revolutionary or evolutionary in its means and methods. These, in turn, have to some extent shaped and modified its ends and goals.



Revolutionary socialism

Nineteenth century socialism sought the complete overthrow of the prevailing capitalist economic and political system by a mass uprising of the industrial working class who, daily, suffered the exploitation, degradation and poverty generated by the free market.


Revolutionary socialism can be subdivided into two types:

  • ethical or utopian socialism

  • scientific socialism or Marxism

Utopian socialism


Utopian socialism of the early nineteenth century advanced an ethical critique of capitalism as competitive, divisive, oppressive and cruel. It perceived socialism to be morally superior because humans are essentially social and cooperative creatures with the capacity for compassion and even perfectibility.


Many utopian socialists, such as Robert Owen (1771- 1858) and Charles Fourier (1772-1837), established experimental communities, with varying degrees of success. Left-wing anarchists such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-65) were also labelled by their critics - notably Marxists - as utopian socialists.




Whereas utopian socialists advanced an idealistic (emotional and moralising) critique of capitalism, Marxism advanced a materialistic (economic and objective) critique of capitalism. Marxist theory provided a 'scientific' analysis of historical and social development based on empirical observation, rational logic, objectivity and determinism. Marxism did not engage in wishful thinking or moral value judgement but, instead, predicted that the overthrow of capitalism would be the inevitable outcome of its own inbuilt contradictions.

Dialectical materialism


Dialectical materialism was the label which Engels (Marx's friend and colleague) applied to Marx's theory of progress through economic conflict. Marxism is materialist (i.e. it sees economic factors as primary). It examines the course of human history and argues that progress throughout human history is created by economic - especially class - conflict. 'The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle', wrote Marx in the Communist Manifesto. Marxism perceives history as a series of economic stages of society - from primitive communism, through ancient society and feudalism to capitalism. Each stage (except the first) involves two main classes:

  • the bourgeoisie - the owners of the means of production

  • the proletariat - the workers

Box 1 outlines Marx's theory of progress through economic conflict.


Revolutionary socialist theory flourished in the nineteenth century when the working class did not have the vote and the parliamentary, ballot box route was not an option. However, in the twentieth century, so-called Communist regimes took the form of statist, command economies and dictatorial political regimes - such as Stalinism in the Soviet Union - not least because they happened in the wrong places at the wrong times (namely, in underdeveloped, pre-capitalist economies).


Evolutionary socialism

In the late nineteenth century, the franchise - the right to vote - was extended to the working class. Some socialists, therefore, adopted a new political strategy. Prominent among them was Sidney Webb (1859-1947), a British social reformer who asserted the 'inevitability of gradualism'. This suggested that evolutionary - that is, parliamentary - tactics would eventually lead to the democratic triumph of socialism over capitalism (Box 2).


Sidney Webb wrote the original Clause 4 of the UK Labour Party constitution (1918) which asserted the goal of common ownership:


"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."


Democratic socialism


Early evolutionary socialists such as Webb remained fundamentalist in their goals. They still sought the complete overthrow of capitalism, but via the ballot box rather than by revolution. However, because their means and methods had changed to operate through the institutions and structures of the state, their vision of socialism also changed and became more statist. Equality of ownership meant extensive state nationalisation rather than direct takeover of the factories by the workers. Equality of outcome meant high taxation by the state of the most wealthy and extensive state welfare for the less well off.


Crucially, therefore, evolutionary socialists revised their analysis of the state. Rather than seeing it as an irredeemable tool of the ruling class, they came to see it as a potential vehicle for progressive socialist advancement and reform. The Marxist notion - that the state would ultimately 'wither away' in a Communist society of direct workers' ownership, control and egalitarian democracy - was replaced by a vision of state ownership, control, intervention and regulation on behalf of the poor and dispossessed. In sum, the adoption of the evolutionary road to socialism resulted in the redefinition of socialism itself.


However, the parliamentary, statist vision of socialism was not always popular even with working-class voters. It was often seen as inefficient, bureaucratic, impersonal and restrictive of freedom, choice and personal autonomy. Meanwhile, postwar Western capitalist economies flourished and appeared to be delivering the goods in terms of increasing standards of living, consumer choice, educational and work opportunities, political and social rights and freedoms and sheer fun. These economies were also changing shape: traditional blue collar industries were declining and the white collar service sector was growing. The traditional working class was diminishing in number, and the middle classes were increasing in number.


This meant that socialist parties had to redefine themselves in order to win elections. In effect, they had to abandon socialism.


Social democracy


Post-Second World War socialist parties, therefore, abandoned fundamentalism for revisionism. They no longer sought to abolish capitalism but merely to reform it, seeking a balance between the economic efficiency of market capitalism and the ethical appeal of state socialism. This produced 'social democracy': a mixed economy which combined private and state ownership with moderate welfare and a more liberal emphasis on equality of opportunity, rather than the far-reaching socialist goal of equality of outcome. However, even this ceased to win elections in the 1980s.


The third way


The 'third way' was a slogan which sought to locate a yet more right-wing position between free market capitalism and state socialism. The slogan and concept was originally devised by the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini in the 1930s. It was implicitly developed in postwar social democracy and explicitly adopted in the 1990s by neo-revisionist movements such as US Clinton's Democrats and UK Blair's New Labour. It was, to most observers, a quite incoherent and opportunistic mix of market capitalism combined with communitarian liberal rights and responsibilities, with a dose of social authoritarianism thrown in.


Thus parliamentary socialism slid inexorably to the right during the twentieth century, abandoning most of its core values and principles along the way. Box 3 lists some of the reasons why evolutionary socialism failed.

The future?


The journey of socialism outlined above highlights how far it has travelled from its revolutionary and egalitarian roots to an accommodation with capitalism and its attendant moral values. This begs the question of whether - as journalist Peter Kellner has put it - socialism is not an '-ism' but a '-wasm'. Former Conservative UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher professed her determination to 'kill socialism' - and perhaps she succeeded. Is socialism - whether revolutionary or evolutionary - a dead duck?


Perhaps not. Condemnations of market capitalism have not disappeared; indeed, they have intensified with the recent banking failures and resulting economic recessions and political agendas of spending and welfare cuts, which are hurting the less well off while the bankers and politicians continue to prosper. There have been growing and active protests against globalised free market capitalism, with its implications for poverty and debt in less developed countries, and pollution, militarism and neo-imperialism in the developed world. Broader concepts of inequality (e.g. of race and gender) and broader arenas of exploitation (e.g. of the environment) are being addressed by these growing anti-capitalist movements in recent years. Meanwhile, socialism's moral values of altruism, cooperation, egalitarianism and sheer decency endure.


That said, the transformation of revolutionary communism from Marxist democracy to Stalinist dictatorship, and the bureaucratic and bossy nature of evolutionary socialism, both imply that socialism is irredeemably statist and, therefore, top-down, oppressive and restrictive of freedom, choice and personal autonomy. Hence the widespread disillusionment with centralised state socialism, whether revolutionary or evolutionary.


However, it may be that new forms of socialism - less statist and more genuinely egalitarian, liberating, democratic and internationalist - could yet emerge from disillusionment with capitalism in the twenty-first century. Perhaps the essential division is not between socialist methods - revolutionary or evolutionary - but between socialist models - statist or libertarian.