One core element to every kind of socialist is the assumption that human beings are social creatures. They believe therefore that we have the ability to effectively collaborate with others, in the pursuance of common objectives. We are not creatures who will prioritise our personal interests by all means, according to socialists. This is based on the fact that none of us live in a void and completely self-sufficiently. We are rather all rooted within larger units – that is, as members of communities – and very often totally dependent on the connections and support that derive from this.
Furthermore, the significance of community context is seen in the fact that socialists, unlike a number of liberals or conservatives, renounce the suggestion that people have an innate nature that cannot be changed – that is, we are all, in nature, either good or bad. Socialists rather believe that human nature is flexible, and shaped by circumstances and experiences faced during people’s lifetimes. As a result, our characters and abilities are not predetermind pre-birth, yet fostered and learnt within a specific social context.
As they interpret human beings as social creatures, socialists have also tended to emphasise the merits of co-operation. To them, the facilitation of collaboration between individuals is much more beneficial than competition. The creation of competition will encourage individuals to challenge each other and thereby induce selfish and aggressive behaviour and undermine social qualities. However, by encouraging the members of society to work together, they can be motivated to develop the ability to sympathise, trust and care for each other. Furthermore, collaboration will allow the abilities and energy of the entire community to be channelled in the same direction, rather than different individuals all crossing each other.
The strong commitment to equality is one of the main features of socialism – to socialists, this is undoubtedly the most important political principle. Furthermore, the tendency among socialists is to profess the concept of social equality or outcome equality, rather than the more limited concept of equal opportunities professed by liberals. Socialists believe that this more far-reaching form of equality is essential to ensure equality. Unlike liberals, socialists are not willing to accept that inequality can be justified with regards to wealth within society on the basis that all individuals are different, and have different abilities and also interests. Socialists do not deny that important differences exist between members of society and they do not insist that it should be organised that everyone has exactly the same talents and skills. For instance, the socialist society would not need to ensure that each student earned the same grades in their A Level examinations. However, socialists do believe that the most extreme and obvious cases of inequality (e.g. significant differences in income, health and standard of living) derive from unfavourable social treatment, and they cannot be disregarded by referring to some of the differences in skills present between individuals.
Socialists also put great emphasis upon the importance of equality, as it is necessary, in their opinion, to maintain stable communities, where effective collaboration occurs between members. If people live together in an equal society, they will be more likely to relate to each other and work together in the promotion of common welfare. As a result, socialists believe that equality fosters a sense of social solidarity.
Socialists have tended to treat social class as the most significant political division within society. Class is a theme that comes to light in socialist work in two different ways. First of all, class is treated as an analytical concept. Socialists have tended to interpret society as a collection of different classes, with each class bringing together those of the same economic status. Members of each class will then tend to relate to each other and share the same kind of world view.
As a result, in the socialist opinion, classes, rather than individuals, are the key players within society, and understanding the path of these classes is the key to understanding any social or political change. This belief is seen at its most prominent in the historical theories of Karl Marx, where it is claimed that the evolution of history is a result of a series of conflicts between different social classes. Secondly, socialism is often treated as an ideology offering protection from the interests of one social class in particular, the working class. This is a class that suffers constant exploitation and oppression due to the nature of the modern capitalist regime, but, at the same time, this is a class with the potential to lead the way towards an improved socialist society.
Despite the constant emphasis on class politics, it is important to note that socialists do not assume that class is a permanent and unchangeable social feature. After all, for a number of socialists, especially those that have professed forms of Marxism, the hope, eventually, is to reach a period where economic inequality has disappeared and class boundaries have ceased to exist.
For many socialists, the root of inequality and damaging competition within society is the ownership of private property. In this respect, socialists refer to property that can be treated as ‘capital’ or ‘assets’ and used to produce further wealth. It should be noted that the socialist criticism of private property does not extend to renouncing the idea that individuals can own personal items, such as a homes, clothing, leisure items or toys.
The social damage resulting from the existence of private property encompasses several aspects. First of all, it is insisted that private property ownership creates inequality: as wealth production always depends on a collaborative effort by a wide range of people, that wealth should be owned by the whole community as opposed to some select individuals. Second of all, private property is claimed to damage our sense of morality by motivating people to think in materialistic terms and to suppose that happiness depends on harvesting as much wealth as possible. Thirdly, it is argued that private property leads to social division and encourages conflict, for instance between workers and employers or rich and poor.
As a result, socialists have argued for the abolishment of the private property concept by establishing common control of any capital that can be used for wealth production. For some, for instance revolutionary Marxists, an attempt should be made to completely abolish private capital as part of establishing communism. Social democrats have also argued for the establishment of common control. However, there has been a tendency to favour doing so in only a limited range of areas, for instance in the case of some key industries such as coal, steel, electricity and gas – those described as economic ‘highlights’.
Despite the important differences between different streams of Socialism, some common elements or themes can be noted that tend to characterise the Socialist world view; elements that allow us to differentiate somewhat between Socialism and other political ideologies, particularly Liberalism or Conservatism.