Although the need for social transformation, based on principles such as equality and co-operation, was a common belief in the arguments of almost all socialists, it is important to remember that there is no single official form of socialism. Over the years, rather, a range of different socialist streams developed. Some of the most influential streams are introduced below: Utopian Socialism, Marxism and Social Democracy.

  • Utopian Socialism

    The first attempt at proposing an outline of the essence of the socialist world view can be found in the work of the cohort now recognised as the Utopian Socialists. This cohort was a predecessor to Karl Marx and active during the early 1800s. It was driven to discuss and write by an increasing awareness of the unfortunate circumstances typical of the new working class life due to the nature of the modern capitalist society. It is indeed particularly important that we in Wales spend time considering the contribution of this cohort of early socialists, as a Welshman – Robert Owen from Newtown (1771-1858) – was one of the most prominent figures. Owen did not consider himself a pure scholar, nor a systematic political thinker. He was the owner of large woollen mills in New Lanark in south Scotland. But, it was through his experience in this field, supervising the work of thousands of common workers, that his interest in political and social matters developed.

    Owen came to the conclusion that people’s character and abilities are generally shaped by social circumstances. This was a new concept at the time. It meant that Owen challenged the conventional belief that a number of unfortunate conditions typical of working life at the time – ignorance, poverty, illness, offending etc – were an inevitable result of the way in which these people chose to live their lives. At the time, it was generally taken for granted that workers themselves were to blame for their unfortunate circumstances. However, rather than accept this usual conclusion, Owen argued that the unfortunate conditions characterising the lives of so many derived from unfortunate social circumstances – i.e. the circumstances typical of modern capitalist society. Like several of his socialist contemporaries – e.g. the Frenchmen Charles Fourier (1772-1837) and Saint-Simon (1760-1825) – Owen argued that the poverty and suffering typical of the era could be erased, by an alternative means of social organisation. This led to publications such as A New View of Society (1816), describing the nature of utopian society – a socialist society that would be based on love and collaboration. Indeed, one of the remarkable things about Owen’s work was his detailed descriptions of the ideal society. He went as far as discussing people’s attire, as well as patterns of conception!

    The work of Owen and early socialists was also characterised by their belief – faith, even – in rationalism. They believed that their strength of argument would certainly win the day, persuading powerful capitalists and governments to voluntarily introduce socialism. Of course, this view now appears hopelessly naive. Indeed, this naivety would soon be harshly criticised by Karl Marx and his friend Friedrich Engels. They continued to disregard predecessors such as Owen as ‘utopians’ – a cohort imploring social change, but failing to propose any credible outline of how that change could be ensured. The utopian view of their predecessors was in contrast to their ‘scientific’ interpretation of the inevitable pathway to revolution and the fall of capitalism (see below). Despite this criticism, it is important to note the great similarity between some of Robert Owen’s arguments regarding the nature of the ideal society, and the arguments later introduced by Karl Marx, for instance on community ownership of production methods and the need for needs-based goods distribution. Indeed, Owen’s ideal society can almost be described as an early form of Communism.


    One name sure to appear in the discussion of socialism is Karl Marx. Marx is without doubt a critical figure within the socialist tradition. The ideology cannot be studied without addressing his ideas in some way. Neither can Marx’s ideas be discussed without noting the influence and significance of his intelligence friendship with another German, Friedrich Engels, who met Marx in 1844 and influenced him in the first place with his work The Condition of the Working Class in England. This was a book written in German and translated to English in 1885 and recognised as a classic – one conveying the suffering of people and the deterioration of their lives in the capitalist society. The relationship between the two was a lifelong one.

    A criticism of capitalism

    The work of Karl Marx is largely a criticism of modern capitalist society. To gain understanding of this criticism, his discussion on the theory of disengagement must first be considered. This discussion was developed by Marx in the Paris Manuscripts, a collection drawn up in 1844 (yet unpublished until 1932). According to Marx, one of the main changes caused by the growth in capitalism was that witnessed in labour customs (i.e. work). Labour was an all-important element to Marx. It is this, in his opinion, that liberates people and differentiates between us and animals. In labour, we develop skills and talents, as well as an understanding of the world. Labour also allows a person to showcase his ability to plan and then act upon those plans. These are not qualities present in animals – who behave instinctively, without any purposeful planning. Marx however noticed that the arrival of capitalism led to a fundamental change in working class labour. It was no longer an activity allowing the worker an expression of humanity. In contrast, capitalism led to the disengagement of the working class.

    Workers are initially disengaged from the produce of their labour. They are no longer working to satisfy specific life needs as needed, but to produce impersonal goods to be sold for a profit. Workers are also disengaged from the process of labour. Under capitalism, as opposed to working according to their own arrangements, they must work according to the direction and schedule of managers and supervisors. Furthermore, these work arrangements are not very sociable and therefore disengage workers from their colleagues. And last of all, capitalist work patterns led to the disengagement of workers from themselves. As opposed to an activity allowing an expression of humanity and freedom, labour had become no more than a commodity – something sold to earn a wage.

    Although the concept of disengagement appears significantly in Marx’s early works, it does not feature as heavily in some of his later works – for instance, Das Kapital. Marx is rather seen to focus increasingly upon the capitalist tendency to promote class conflict and exploitation. According to Marx, capitalism is a regime dividing society into two main classes –the bourgeoisie (owners) and proletariat (workers) – insisting that the exploitation of the latter by the former is inevitable. This stems from the fact that the bourgeoisie class owns ‘methods of production’ – simply, the works and also all tools used by the proletariat to accomplish their work. The bourgeoisie will also own all goods deriving from proletariat labour and claim all profit from the sale of those goods. Marx believed that this spawned a relationship between the bourgeoisie and proletariat based on inevitable exploitation. For the bourgeoisie to be able to profit from goods produced with their works and resources, members of the proletariat will need to spend some time every week working for free. After all, the bourgeoisie can only ensure profit for themselves by paying their workers below the true value of labour. If it paid out the full value of labour, there would be no money left over to be banked as profit. Marx insisted that exploitation of this kind was an essential component of the capitalist economy and it would continue no matter how progressive or enlightened the employer.

    Some of Marx’s main criticisms of the capitalist regime are therefore witnessed. This is a regime that, on the one hand, is bound to cause the workers’ disengagement from their true nature, whilst on the other hand, encouraging owners in their systematic exploitation of employees.

    The materialist conception of history

    Marx nevertheless did more than criticise capitalism. He also tried to explain why, in his opinion, it was a regime sure to eventually crash, and how that would happen. Marx based these arguments on his distinct interpretation and explanation of historical and social change. This method is called the material conception of history.

    This materialistic interpretation divided society in two. First of all, there was the economic base. As the name suggests, this term referred to social economic arrangements, and particularly, the methods of production (tools and resources used to produce goods) and production relations (how labour was organised to utilise methods of production). Atop the economic foundation sat the superstructure. This term was used to refer to other aspects of life, including areas such as politics, law, religion, culture and art. Of these two parts, Marx believed the first – the economical base – to be most influential. He argued that the economic arrangements of any society are sure to influence every other aspect of life there – politics, law and culture. The economy is therefore the foundation of society.

    Thus, if the economy is so fundamental to all, doesn’t it naturally follow that any sicnificant change in economic arrangements leads to far-reaching change in society in general? That was certainly the conclusion reached by Marx. He argued that his careful historical studies – for instance in volumes such as DeutscheIdeologie (1846) – had shown that change to the underlying economic structure has, over time, been responsible for moving society onwards from one historical period to the next – for example, the shift from the feudal period to the modern capitalist period characterised by new methods of production and also new working arrangements.

    But, over the course of history, what has caused these economic changes giving rise to wider social change? According to Marx, the concept key to this explanation is the dilechdid (dialectic), a permanent process of interaction between opposite forces that, over time, creates conflict and therefore triggers far-reaching social change. In this respect, Marx followed Hegel. Nevertheless, Hegel focussed upon the role of conflict in the world of ideas, for example the conflict between reason and Christian superstition. He believed that conceptual conflict of this kind was the driver of historic and social change. However, as Marx emphasised the influence of the economic base, he tended to underline the materialistic conflict coming to light on this level. Indeed, he argued that every historic period was based upon economic arrangements typified by fundamental conflict or tension. The feudal period, for instance, was characterised by fundamental conflict between the economic interests of master and peasant. The process of dilechdid change eventually results in the climax of this conflict, giving rise to new economic arrangements, and therefore, a new social superstructure.

    The capitalist period is no different, according to Marx, to earlier historic periods. As already seen, capitalist economic arrangements are characterised by fundamental conflict between the interests of two main classes – the bourgeoisie and proletariat. The former’s possession of methods of production, and also its need to use these methods to create profit, leads to exploitation of the latter – members of the proletariat. As such tensions existed under capitalism, Marx assumed that the fall of society in this form was as inevitable as the fall of earlier social forms.

    The nature of the materialistic conception of history is therefore witnessed as the historical interpretation used by Marx in an attempt to explain the inevitability of the fall of capitalism. A feature of this interpretation was the focus on the economy’s influence on the rest of society. As a result, Marx insisted that any historical and social change should mainly be interpreted as a process of economic change driven by conflict between the interests of different social classes or cohorts.

    Revolution and Communism

    Beyond explaining why the fall of capitalism was inevitable in his opinion, Marx also tried to elaborate on how this would occur. Some of these ideas are found in the Communist Manifesto published in 1848.

    Marx was willing to acknowledge that capitalism, especially related developments in technology and production methods, had given rise to significant progress in the ability of man. It meant that we now possessed the material ability to eradicate the poverty and need suffered by so many. However, the nature of the capitalist regime was to soldier against this. It must be remembered that production under capitalism was essentially the utilisation of resources and labour for the creation of profit rather than the satisfaction of social needs – profit that flowed into the pockets of one specific cohort, the bourgeoisie. As a result, over time, the significant conflict existing between working class and bourgeoisie interests would only further intensify. Marx supposed that the working class – gathering on factory floors – would eventually become increasingly aware of their downtrodden position under capitalism – class awareness – and, at the hiatus of this awareness, rebel against the regime.

    Marx also underlined the other capitalist features that would further promote the awakening of the working class. He initially highlighted the completely unstable nature of capitalism. Under capitalism, the economy tended to grow and grow before a sudden crash causing great recessions that would eventually slow down production and increase unemployment. During such times, of course, the working class would suffer most. He also emphasised that capitalism is a regime tending to accumulate power and wealth in the hands of less and less people. For instance, we still hear constantly of the tendency of some large companies to buy several small ones, bringing vast portions of the economy under the control of a handful of people. Marx believed that this would result in an increase in the number of working class, further emphasising the unfairness of the capitalist lack of accountability. All factors above would eventually come together, leading to a working class revolution to bring about the demolition of capitalism. This would be more than an ordinary political revolution leading only to the displacement of government and those in power. This would rather be a full revolution, leading to the establishment of a whole new political, social and economic regime: communism.

    On the whole, the details given by Marx are quite broad regarding the exact nature of this revolution and also the nature of the ensuing communist society. He does however make some definite points. He states that the establishment of proletariat dictatorship is initially fundamental during early revolution, for the working class to take power into their own hands. According to Marx, such dictatorship is necessary in the early days to prevent bourgeoisie reorganisation which undermines the revolution, and also to ensure that communism is successfully established.

    In establishing communism, one of the all-important initial steps will be to eradicate private ownership of methods of production – that is, economic resources previously owned by the bourgeoisie and foundation of their power. As opposed to continuing as private assets of individual capitalists, these resources will be transferred to the people in general. It can then be ensured that the production and distribution of goods can be transformed from a profit-making process into one based on satisfying real social needs. As this process progresses, class differences typical of the capitalist society will gradually disappear and eventually also the need for state.

    Post-Marx Marxism

    Marx died in 1883. However, the development of Marxist ideas did not die with Marx himself. They continued to be discussed, adapted and augmented by his successors. Here are some important contributions.

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    Vladimir Ilich Lenin
  • Vladimir Ilich Lenin (1870-1924): Lenin argued that Marxists should not take for granted that the fall of capitalism was wholly inevitable and that members of the working class would rise to lead the revolution. He argued that the working class alone did not possess the necessary political awareness to drive and lead such a revolution. As a result, a progressive cohort of revolutionists was needed to act as a vanguard for the working class. The role of this cohort was to establish themselves as a political party – not a party with a vast mass membership but rather a select cohort of professional and committed revolutionists with the ability to offer political and ideological leadership to others. As a result, when Lenin’s Bolshevik party came to power in Russia in 1917, it was claimed that it did so in the interests of the working class across the country.

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    Mao Zedong
  • Mao Zedong (1893-1976) and Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969): Mao and Ho Chi Minh were both inspired by Marxism and the Lenin-Marxism ideology that developed through Lenin’s interpretation of the tradition. As with Lenin, both implemented the ideology in their own countries in a revolutionary, aggressive form. In the case of Mao – who came to power in China with the Communist Party in 1949 after twenty years of battle – he developed aspects of the Marxist ideation deriving from the country’s experience and circumstances. Although inspired by Lenin, especially in the anti-Imperialist battle, there are interesting differences in his perspective, especially in his focus on countryside and the peasant community. He saw significant tension between urban and rural, on a national and international level, with the capitalist western world oppressing underdeveloped countries. To him, therefore, commonfolk played an essential role in the communist battle due to their lack of investment in the capitalist system, and practically through guerrilla warfare. In that respect, he denied Lenin’s idea of the Vanguard and rather emphasised the need for unity and a ‘collective line’ among the multitude. Similarities featured in the ideas of Ho Chi Minh, leader of the independent movement of Viet Minh and Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam when established in 1945. The peasant community was the cornerstone of the communist revolution, as part of the national movement battling for freedom against Imperialist forces.

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    Antonio Gramsci
  • Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937): An elected member of parliament and then General Secretary for the new Communist Party of Italy, Gramsci was imprisoned in 1926 by Mussolini, and remained incarcerated until his death. In a collection of famous manuscripts written in prison, Gramsci argued for reconsidering the traditional emphasis amongst Marxists upon the influence of economic and materialistic factors. In introducing the concept of hegemony, he outlined how the power and status of the bourgeois class was dependent upon conceptual and ideological dominance, as much as economic dominance. It was this ideological dominance that allowed capitalism to be introduced as the only possible way for society – the only ‘common sense’. As a result, Gramsci argued that Marxists needed to undertake a conceptual battle in order to create an alternative hegemony not based on bourgeois materialistic and avaricious assumptions.

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    Herbert Marcuse
  • Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979): By the second half of the twentieth century, Marxists in the west considered it necessary to reconsider the ideas of their predecessors, in an attempt to explain why capitalism, despite Marx’s predictions, remained relatively stable and the working class lacked any revolutionary edge. One active in this consideration was Herbert Marcuse. Marcuse’s solution was the conclusion that it should not be taken for granted that the working class were the revolutionary cohort. The years following the Second World War were of relative prosperity and as a result Marcuse supposed that working class members had been compromised as they adopted the middle class mindset and values. As a result, he argued that Marxists should consider the situation of other ‘peripheral’ and ‘oppressed’ groups, for instance girls, ethnic groups, students or third world residents.

  • Social Democracy

    The term Social Democracy has altered significantly in meaning over the years. Originally, during the second half of the nineteenth century, it was considered synonymous with Marxism – that is, describing yourself as a social democrat suggested support for the arguments of Karl Marx. For instance, when political parties were established to spread Marxism – as achieved in Germany in 1875 and Russia in 1898 – they tended to be called Social Democrat parties.

    Nevertheless, by the end of the nineteenth century, and certainly the beginning of the twentieth century, the term’s significance was beginning to change. Those holding onto Marx’s interpretations began to profess the term communism. This change of key was emphasised in 1918, when the Bolsheviks in Russia decided that the Social Democrat Labour Party of Russia should be renamed the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Following this, a number of those parties and movements in support of the Bolsheviks, and holding on to Marxist interpretations, decided also to call themselves communists. The term social democracy herewith became linked to a much more moderate stream of socialism. In general terms, it now referred to a cohort sceptical of Marx’ arguments and seeing the need to revise them.

    A key figure in the development of Social Democracy as an alternative socialist stream was the German, Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932). His vast contribution to this movement is significant. He was an ex-pupil of Marx, and was indeed appointed to look after Marx’s papers following his death in 1883. Despite this, Bernstein became increasingly sceptical of the credibility of Marx’s arguments and, in volumes such as Evolutionary Socialism (1898), set about outlining his alternative world view.

    Bernstein initially expressed doubt regarding the Marxist tendency to emphasise the need for revolution. These doubts originated from some of the social and political changes seen during the last decades of the nineteenth century. To begin with, it was during this period that the working class set about establishing a range of important institutions – workers clubs, trade unions and political parties – that would contribute to the protection and elevation of their interests. Such institutions also contributed to a stronger sense of belonging and unity amongst members of the working class. Additionally, and perhaps more significantly, it was during this time that the elective franchise was vastly extended, with an increasing number of working class gaining the right to vote.
    For instance, in Britain, the right was extended to a limited number of workers in 1867 and this was expanded in 1884. Then by 1918 the right was extended to men in general and also a limited number of women. All in all, these changes led to giving the working class a political voice quite a bit stronger than before, and therefore it was likely that their interests would be given more attention. In Bernstein’s opinion, such changes meant that the Marxist argument for violent revolution was no longer sustainable.

    The expansion of the elective franchise, in particular, offered a new pathway to the working class – socialism could now be a cause gradually promoted through the medium of democracy.

    Second of all, Bernstein argued that the experience of life during the last decades of the nineteenth century had also undermined the credibility of some of Marx’s arguments regarding the nature of the capitalist economy, as well as the inevitable fall of that regime. Bernstein insisted that capitalism had developed to be a much more stable and flexible regime than originally supposed. Marx claimed that capitalism was a regime that would lead to increasing and permanent poverty among the working class. However, from around 1870 onwards, a gradual increase was seen in wages and standards of living across a number of western countries. Significantly, and in complete contrast to Marx’s predictions, this increase extended to every social class and not only some wealthy members of the bourgeois class. Also, during these years, capitalism developed into a much more complex and multifaceted regime. Marx had insisted that the growth of capitalism would lead to the accumulation of wealth and capital in the hands of less and less. However, in complete contrast, during the last decades of the nineteenth century, great expansion was seen in the possession of wealth. One of the factors leading to this was the growth experienced in companies where ownership was divided between a number of shareholders, as opposed to one powerful industrialist. In addition, the kind of social polarisation between proletariat and bourgeois predicted by Marx was never witnessed. Due to changes within the labour market, more and more people were instead employed in professional areas (civil servants, teachers, solicitors and the like), giving rise to a new social cohort – the middle class – belonging neither to the proletariat nor bourgeoisie.

    As a result of these findings, Bernstein argued that the Marxist description of capitalism – a regime characterised by crude economic exploitation as well as relentless conflict between the classes – no longer held water. The regime that was had adapted and therefore questions could be raised regarding the need for its complete demolition. With this in mind, it is no surprise that the social democrats of the twentieth century, for instance members of the German Social Democrat Party, the United Kingdom’s Labour Party or Italy’s Socialist Party, have adopted somewhat tighter social and political objectives. Rather than the complete demolition of capitalism, the focus tended to be upon the need to suppress and reform it by adopting policies such as the following:

    • The Mixed Economy: This is an economic regime standing halfway between completely free market capitalism and public ownership of every economic aspect. Social democrats have tended to recognise that the free market has its place. As a result, it was argued that measures establishing public ownership should be limited to specific areas – economic highlights such as electricity, coal, steel and railways – with the rest of the economy remaining in private ownership.
    • Economic Control: While social democrats accept that capitalism has its merits, they also see a need for regulation to ensure steady economic growth and protection from periods of sudden inflation or unemployment. Social democrats such as modern liberals have thus argued for Keynesian macro-economic policies that utilise public spending and taxation to regulate capitalism.
    • Welfare State: This is the preferred method of social democrats to attempt to tame the inequality that can arise under capitalism. Through the welfare state – institutions such as the education system, the health service, the benefits system – the state may redistribute wealth and opportunity, in an attempt to ensure more equality across society and reduce poverty.

    In the period between around 1945 and the early 1970s, several assumed that the kind of ideas being professed by social democrats – ideas extensively overlapping elements of modern liberalism – had come to represent the political ‘common sense’ across the majority of western states. Nevertheless, this was a period of steady economic growth, low unemployment and low inflation and, as a result, states were able to fund increasingly generous welfare provisions. However, the great depression of the 1970s led to a crisis for those professing social democracy. On the one hand, it led to a great increase in the demand for state welfare provisions as unemployment increased, but, on the other hand, it put pressure on the ability of the state to fund such programmes (as less people were working and therefore unable to pay taxes). Facing such challenges, severe debate developed between different social democrats – with some insisting that priority be given to the task of ensuring economic efficiency reducing inflation and cutting taxes, and others claiming there should be a commitment to protecting the poor and needy by maintaining and expanding key welfare provisions – and this created a political void that enabled the very different debates of the New Right to begin to gain ground.