The general opinion among a number of early socialists, including Karl Marx of course, was that revolution that completely demolished the capitalist regime was the only hope of introducing socialism. It was also generally accepted that violence would be a likely outcome of such revolution. As seen, Marx believed that the arrival of this revolution was inevitable, and that the exploitation so central to the capitalist operation would lead the working class to rise to demand change. However, the first successful socialist revolution in Russia in 1917 was quite a different process. At the time, power was seized by a disciplined cohort of revolutionists under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin, in an act resembling more of a coup d’etat than mass social rebellion.
There were two reasons why nineteenth century socialists were so willing to profess the concept of revolution. First of all, early industrialisation had led to extremely difficult living conditions for the working class and truly unbearable poverty. Bearing in mind such circumstances, it is understandable that so many concluded that capitalism was no more than a regime based on crude oppression, and it being only a matter of time until the working class members were ready to challenge the regime. Secondly, at the time, the other options available to the working class were few if they were to ensure political influence. Whilst steps had been taken across several parts of Europe during the nineteenth century to establish representative and constitutional governance arrangements, in the majority of cases the right to vote was limited to those already owning property.
However, the belief of some socialists in the need for revolution to ensure political change was more than a matter of tactics. The belief also originated from their interpretation of the power of state. Whilst liberals have tended to interpret the state as an impartial entity with the aim of giving fair consideration to the interests of all, revolutionary socialists have interpreted it as an oppressive entity with the task of protecting the interests and property of the bourgeoisie at the expense of the proletariat. With this in mind, it was assumed that the pursuance of socialism through a process of slow and gradual reform would be completely pointless. Instead, only the complete eradication of the bourgeoise state by revolution could ensure equality for the working class.
Gradualism and the parliamentary pathway
In contrast, from the end of the nineteenth century onwards, the socialist tradition developed mor gradually and moderately, doubting the need for violent revolution to ensure meaningful social changes. As seen above in the ideas of Eduard Bernstein (section 3), the original trigger for this development was the growth of trade unions, socialist political parties, and also, the gradual expansion of the right to vote. With this, it became possible to imagine a more peaceful parliamentary pathway towards the socialist society. Indeed, some socialists gradually came to believe that the development of democracy would inevitably lead to implementing socialist ideas. This faith was based on a series of assumptions.
- • First of all, it was assumed that extending the right to vote to every adult in society would transfer great political power to the working class, the most numerous class in any industrial society.
- • Secondly, it was assumed that the working class would be sure to support the cause of socialism. As capitalism was a regime oppressing members of the working class, there was no doubt that those people would therefore vote for socialist parties.
- • Thirdly, it was assumed that social parties, when elected, would be able to introduce a programme of far-reaching social change.
In brief, it was assumed that democracy not only offered a way in which to realise socialism through peaceful means, but that the process was inevitable.
However, it has now become clear that none of the above assumptions had solid foundations. Indeed, although parties of a socialist nature had ensured significant support, and seized political power in every democratic state except those of North America, their parliamentary supremacy has not been permanent. This raises important questions regarding to which degree socialists can take for granted that working class members will always support the cause of socialism. Also, during recent years, due to deindustrialization and labour market changes due to the rise of professional occupations, it cannot be assumed that most members of society now belong to the working class.
While a range of key elements can be listed that characterise all kinds of socialist work, a range of important differences can also be noted. Two matters in particular have given rise to great differences of opinion between members of different socialist streams. Initially, there is the matter of the methods that socialists should utilise to access the better society. Secondly, the matter of the objectives that socialists should pursue – in other words, what kind of society the socialist society should be. The former is discussed in this section, and the latter is addressed in the next section.