The main idea of Marxism is a philosophy of history, outlining why capitalism is doomed and socialism will replace it. He saw this work as a theory of society and a socialist political project. He took a scientific view of history and analysed it using scientific methods. He believed that history had developed through stages – from primitive communism, i. e. tribal societies, through to slavery, then feudalism into capitalism. He then thought capitalism would collapse and society would eventually develop into a system of classless communism.
He saw history as a long struggle between the oppressor and the oppressed, the exploited and the exploiter, and for him the aim of socialism was to create a classless society where everyone was equal. He believed that capitalism was unstable because of class conflict and the nature of capitalist development. There were economic crises which came from cyclical crises of overproduction, which in turn led to stagnation of the economy and unemployment. He thought these crises would deepen as the long-term profit decreased, and that tension would increase as profit was concentrated into fewer and fewer hands.
He claimed that capitalist society was becoming ‘two great classes facing one another: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat’. The exploited masses would then become the overwhelming majority and could overthrow the corrupt system. Much of Marx’s early writing were a critique of capitalism based on the idea of alienation. He claimed that capitalism separates people from their essential nature, and stops them from developing skills, talents and understanding through labour.
He also believed that exploitation was an integral part of the capitalist system, because according to his view, the value of a product relates to the quantity of labour needed to make it. Capitalism works by extracting ‘surplus value’ from workers – paying them less than the value of their labour – so for capitalism to work, workers have to be exploited. This shows that Marx, unlike later socialists, did not see capitalism as being in any way acceptable, and would never have been happy to simply reform or ‘humanise’ it.
Orthodox communism is often seen as ‘Marxism in practice’, as the Bolshevik Party who took power in Russia in 1917, in the first successful socialist revolution, were dedicated Marxists. They renamed themselves the Communist Party and were the leading authority within communism. Others followed their model and joined Communist International, or ‘Comintern’. Therefore Soviet communism was the dominant model of 20th Century communism. However, Soviet communism was not the same as Marxism.
Obviously the Soviet Union had to concentrate more on issues such as leadership, organisation and economic management than Marx had, and was affected by historical circumstances – communism came about in backward countries such as Russia, rather than more mature capitalist societies as Marx had envisioned. Therefore the proletariat was not the majority and was not ‘class-conscious’, and communism was upheld by a communist elite. However, there were significant discrepancies between Soviet Communism and the Marxist model of communism. Firstly, Marx envisioned the collective ownership of the means of production – socialisation.
However, this was corrupted into nationalisation – state ownership of the means of production. In practice, this meant Stalin collectivising agriculture and forcing Soviet peasants to give up their land at the cost of literally millions of lives. Secondly, Marx believed that there would be a temporary ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in order to protect against counter-revolution, before the state simply withered away, as it would be unnecessary once the class system was abolished. However, in Soviet Russia the state grew and grew, becoming increasingly powerful and bureaucratic.
Thirdly, Marx believed in the principle of ‘from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs’, and thought resources should be shared fairly between the people based on what they needed. In the Soviet Union material rewards were used mainly to bolster the communist elite, whilst millions of Russian people starved. Finally, in terms of decision-making Marx believed in grass-roots democracy whereas in the Soviet Union decisions were made by a monopolistic party-state and enforced using violence, terror and repression.
It is obvious that Marxism is linked in with revolutionary socialism, in that he believed socialism would come about when a class-conscious proletariat overthrew their oppressors, although later on in life he did accept the possibility of a peaceful transition in more developed countries. He had a strong belief that the state had to be overthrown, as he saw it as an instrument of oppression. It is also true that orthodox communism is linked with revolutionary socialism, as this is modelled on the Soviet version of socialism which began with the Russian Revolution of 1917.
It stands to reason that if there is so much difference in the types of socialism achieved through revolution, an entirely different type of socialism altogether would be achieved through parliamentary means. The less radical form of socialism achieved through democratic means is known as social democracy. Social democracy revises and dilutes many socialist principles, such as its opposition to capitalism – one of the main features of social democracy is an acceptance that capitalism is the only effective way to generate wealth, although they maintain that it causes poverty and inequality.
Social democrats see capitalism as a necessary evil, and believe the problems caused by the system can be rectified through government intervention. Social democracy is based more on moral or religious beliefs than scientific analysis. Whereas Marxism was based on materialism and claimed to discover the laws of historical and social development, social democracy is more utopian and is based on the belief that humans are bound together by ties of love, sympathy and compassion.
Because social democracy does not usually involve revolution, it is more focused on changing and reforming the current system than creating an entirely new one. Rather than completely abolishing capitalism it seeks to reform and ‘humanise’ it. Originally socialists believed in common ownership of wealth, they opposed private property and saw capitalism as an unredeemable instrument of oppression. However, these ideas changed and became outdated – when Marx’s predictions about the demise of capitalism did not come to pass, then his ideas had to be re-examined.
Capitalism proved to be more resilient and flexible than Marx had believed, and rather than the people being ‘divided into two great classes’ ownership of wealth widened and the system became more complex. The middle classes have grown a lot, and the working class is no longer the majority. Therefore social democrats tend to revise traditional socialist ideas – rather than common ownership they advocate nationalisation of major industries and the extension of rights and benefits for workers.
Most Western socialist parties are reformist in practice, although they might be more traditionally socialist in theory. The main ideas of reformist socialism are a mixed economy, involving both public and private ownerships where major utilities are nationalised but most of industry is in private hands; economic management or regulation, and the welfare state – they believe in the redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation and the welfare system.
So, rather than central planning they advocate economic management, and whereas communists would support state collectivisation, social democrats are in favour of a more moderate mixed economy. Similarly, rather than supporting absolute equality social democrats support relative equality, and prefer to ease problems with class conflict than to abolish the class system and have a completely classless society. It is obvious that social democrats have watered down their ideology quite significantly, however these ideas have been further diluted by ‘third way’, or neorevisionist socialists.
The ‘third way’ is a blend of different ideas and traditions rather than an ideology in its own right – it offers an alternative to both capitalism and socialism, or more specifically, to neoliberalism and social democracy. ‘Third way’ thinkers tend to believe that classical socialism is dead, and that there is no viable alternative to capitalism. There is a general acceptance of globalisation and the fact capitalism has created a knowledge-driven society. They therefore try to build on rather than reverse the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s and 1990s.
‘Third way’ socialists also strongly believe in community and moral responsibilities. They criticise liberal individualism for encouraging selfish, egoistical behaviour and attitudes. So although the ‘third way’ supports some aspects of liberal economics, they reject liberal social and moral ideas. Instead they advocate rights and responsibilities, autonomy and interdependence. They believe in a consensus society, quite different from the original socialist conflict view of society.
They highlight the links between different groups and ignore the disparities such as class or economic inequality. In a more knowledge-driven society these inequalities are based more on work-based skills than structural inequalities. ‘Third way’ thinkers support enterprise and fairness, self-opportunity and security, self-reliance and interdependence. The ‘third way’ has concentrated more on social inclusion than equality – they support equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome.
This has led to proposals for welfare reform which move away from both the liberal idea of ‘standing on your own two feet’ and the socialist idea of ‘cradle to grave’ welfare. The general idea is ‘helping people to help themselves’, or as Bill Clinton put it, ‘a hand up, not a hand out’. While neoliberals think that the state should be used purely as a ‘night watchman’ and social democrats think it should be used to counterbalance the inequalities in society, ‘third way’ socialists support a ‘competition state’, whose main goal should be to ensure national prosperity.
It should improve the country’s infrastructure and concentrate on improving skills and knowledge – education rather than welfare should be the priority. In conclusion, I would agree that there has been a lot of disagreement within socialism, on whether it should be achieved through revolution or should gradually evolve through democracy, and also on how extreme or how moderate socialism should be. However, all of these different viewpoints are all based around the same principles, of community, cooperation, equality, social class and common ownership, however drastic or moderate these ideas might be.