Means and ends of socialism

Socialism is a very broad ideology, encompassing many different ideas and viewpoints. Different socialists have disagreed on both the ways in which they believe socialism should be achieved and implemented, and on what exactly it is that they want to achieve. The two main viewpoints I am going to look at in terms of the means of achieving socialism are revolutionary socialism and evolutionary socialism, and in terms of the aims of different socialists I am going to discuss Marxism, including orthodox communism, and also social democracy and the 'third way'.

Because socialism tends to have an oppositional character, and be seen as a force for change, the means in which socialism is achieved are quite significant, and tend to determine the form of socialism which results from this change. Early socialists believed that socialism could only be brought about through a revolutionary movement – the overthrow of the existing regime. Violence was accepted as an undesirable but necessary part of this process.

In the 19th Century there were two accepted versions of this idea – some socialists believed the revolution would be carried out by a small group of dedicated revolutionaries, while others such as Marx and Engels believed that a class-conscious working class would rise up in a proletariat revolution and overthrow capitalism. The first successful socialist revolution was the Russian Revolution of 1917, which was a coup d'i?? tat carried out by a small group of revolutionaries, and this provided a model for further socialist revolutions. In the 19th Century revolutionary socialism was popular for two reasons:

The early stages of industrialisation created a lot of poverty and injustice for the working class, who were exploited and oppressed. This was blamed on capitalism. Also, the working class had no political identity – they had generally not been granted political suffrage and were represented by the rich. Revolutionary socialists view the state as an agent of class oppression. Marxists think that political power mirrors class interests, and so the state is a 'bourgeois state' in favour of capital. Therefore political reform is pointless, and universal suffrage is a fai??

ade, covering up the reality of unequal class. A class-conscious working class must overthrow the 'bourgeois state' through revolution. After this there will be a state for a short time, under the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' until the danger of counter-revolution by the dispossessed bourgeoisie has passed, at which time the state will wither away. The use of revolution tends to lead to fundamentalist ends. With the complete overthrow of the old order an entirely new system can be put in place, and in the past this has often led to dictatorship and repression for several reasons.

Firstly, having been through a violent revolution, new rulers regarded violence as a legitimate instrument of policy – as Mao famously said, 'Power resides in the barrel of a gun'. Also, revolutionary parties, in order to achieve their ends, often adopted a military-style structure. They were very disciplined and relied on a strong leader. When power was gained this did not change, but was implemented on a nationwide scale. Finally, as opposition was completely removed with the overthrow of the old order, it was easy for this to lead to a totalitarian dictatorship.

Therefore revolution leads to fundamentalist socialism such as that of the Soviet Union. The collapse of communism in the Soviet Union undermined the idea of revolutionary socialism – although in several pockets around the world such as Peru and Nepal, communism still survives – and a new means of achieving socialism emerged. This became known as evolutionary socialism, or parliamentary socialism, as it hoped to achieve socialist ends through democracy. This was necessary as industrial capitalism developed, the conditions of the working class improved and they became less and less of a revolutionary force.

Even Marx, towards the end of his life, was prepared to speculate about a possible peaceful transition to socialism in more developed countries, and Engels supported the tactics of the German Social Democratic Party. The Fabian society, founded in the late 19th Century, took up the cause of bringing about parliamentary socialism – they believed socialism could develop peacefully and naturally out of liberal capitalism through political action and education. Rather than seeing the state as an agent of class oppression they accepted the liberal view of the state as a neutral arbiter.

The Fabians believed there should be a socialist political party which could gain power democratically, and as well as having a part in the formation of the UK Labour Party, they also influenced the German SPD, which became the largest socialist party in Europe, with a Marxist theory but a reformist approach. Based on the ideas of Ferdinand LaSalle, who believed in a benign state gradually introducing socialist reforms which would lead to a conversion to socialism, Eduard Bernstein came up with the theory of Evolutionary Socialism.

He believed that the widening franchise would allow the working class to bring about socialism democratically, and begin an 'evolutionary outgrowth of capitalism'. These ideas dominated socialist parties at the turn of the century, and in the 1970s were adopted by communist parties in some European countries such as Spain and France. Many socialists believed that the nature of the democratic process would inevitably lead to socialism. Firstly, the progressive extension of the franchise would eventually lead to universal adult suffrage and political equality.

This would put the power in the hands of the majority, in other words the working class. Capitalism was exploiting the working class, while socialism was their natural 'home', so naturally they would elect a socialist government. Once they had gained power, socialist parties could fundamentally transform society through social reform. Although these assumptions did not turn out to be entirely true, evolutionary socialism has been far more successful, and socialist political parties have been in power in every Western liberal democracy other than North America.