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What do you consider to be the defining elements of a socialist outlook?

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What Do You Consider to be the Defining Elements of a Socialist Outlook?

As an ideology, socialism has many elements to it.  However, not many of these can be considered defining elements to a socialist outlook.  Socialism contains multiple different schools of thought: state socialism, social democracy and the third way; many elements of socialism will not apply to certain strands of the ideology.  One could argue that to be seen as ‘defining’ an element has to be relevant to all major strands of socialism, as it has to represent the ideology as a whole.   

Socialism is a broad ideology that encompasses many varied independent political strands; however, despite this there are several elements that can be identified as being central, or even defining, to a socialist outlook.  A defining element can be seen as being a shared belief or value, common to all strands of socialism, which represents the ideology and can also be used to separate it from others.  Elements of socialism can be seen to include: a belief in equality, community, opposition to capitalism, common ownership and democracy.  As socialism is comprised of multiple strands, these elements will have different weighting in each strand; helping to determine if they are the defining elements of a socialist outlook.  However they are also interlinked, a belief in one element can determine belief in another.  In the end, it can be seen that a socialist outlook has many key characteristics, but only one defining element, equality.  A belief in equality is shared by all socialists; equality is also important because the desire for greater social equality by many socialists is debatably what best distinguishes the ideology, or parts of it, from other schools of political thought such as liberalism.  This belief in equality also influences many other key beliefs of socialism; for example one could argue that socialists only oppose capitalism because of the detrimental effect it has on levels of equality.

Firstly, the opposition to capitalism can be seen to be an important element of a socialist outlook.  Capitalism is an economic system used across almost the entire world, it emphasises limited or moderate state intervention in the economy and the selling of goods and services for individual profit.  Socialists, to varying degrees, dislike capitalism because in the words of Vincent Geoghegan, they see it as ‘fundamentally unequal… concentrating wealth and power in the hands of a minority and condemning the minority to absolute, or relative poverty’.[1]  Different strands of socialism oppose capitalism to differing degrees.  Marxists believe that capitalism, along with the entire bourgeois political system, is pre-determined to be overthrown by the proletariat; it will for a short time be replaced by a dictatorship of the proletariat, and after that a stateless post-capitalist socialist society will emerge.  Social democrats on the other hand, just wish to substantially reform or ‘humanise’ capitalism, often using instruments such as Keynesian economic policy, regulation and progressive taxation.  They believe that capitalism is efficient at generating wealth, it is just unable to effective distribute that wealth.  Finally third way socialists support the free market and have generally not undone neo-liberal reforms, such as direct tax cuts and deregulation in the 1980s; despite this third way governments typically still use more public spending than economically liberal ones.  Most other ideologies do not oppose capitalism.  For example, classical liberals strongly endorse free market capitalism; Adam Smith’s concept of the ‘invisible hand’ portrays a lack of state economic intervention as preferable, market forces are self regulating and allocate resources in an optimum distribution, this strongly differs with a social democratic outlook.  However, deep ecologists also reject the capitalist economic system on principle, believing is anthropocentric and have resulted in environmental degradation.  Taking all factors into account, opposition to capitalism can be seen as an important element of socialism; however, it can be seen as not an ideal element to represent the ideology as the belief is not really shared by the third way, but is by deep ecologists.

The belief in equality can also been seen as a defining element of a socialist outlook.  Firstly, all strands of socialism believe in equality of opportunity.  This is where individuals are treated in an equal manner, despite differences in areas such as race, class, gender or religion; all people start on a level playing field.  Secondly, communist state socialism advocates absolute social equality; where there are very little or no economic differences between individuals, therefore leading to a very equal standard of living.  Social democrats on the other hand, reject absolute social equality.  One of the reasons behind this is because they feel that total equality would not provide incentives; any material or monetary incentives would create a small degree of inequality.  Social democrats instead subscribe to achieving relative social equality, which is a substantial degree of equality, where economic differences between individuals are considerably shrunk.  Finally, third way socialists largely reject social equality, just believing in equality of opportunity.  Equality can also be seen as determining other socialist beliefs, for example views regarding capitalism; Marxists fully oppose capitalism as it is fully incompatible with their desired form of equality, social democrats allow reformed capitalism as it doesn’t violate their belief in relative social equality.  Equally, the third way is relatively pro-free market, possibly because it is compatible with equality of opportunity.  One could argue that equality is the most important aspect of socialist ideology as it is what best distinguishes it from other ideologies; the belief of social equality, by many socialists, is a clear separation from the likes of liberalism.  Classical liberals like third way socialists advocate equality of opportunity, but not any form of social equality.  This is primarily because it would infringe on many individual’s negative freedom; the redistribution of income needed for greater social equality requires the forced collection of the income or wealth of those who are affluent.  Traditional conservatives on the other hand, reject the notion of equality.  Goodwin states that this is because of the conservative belief in the natural hierarchy of human nature, meaning that ‘some people are innately ‘superior’ to others, it is both reasonable and natural that they should govern.  Furthermore, an elite group can embody a collective wisdom beyond that of mere individuals’.[2]  Equality can be seen as a defining element of a socialist outlook as it is viewed as essential by all strands; social equality, which arguably distinguishes socialism from other ideologies, is practised by all except the third way.  Equality also helps determine other aspects of the socialist ideology, one of the reasons why many socialists oppose capitalism is because of its effects of levels of equality.  Equality is a key part of socialism and arguably what defines it.

Common ownership is often associated with socialist beliefs and governments, but one could argue that it is not a defining element of the ideology, due to the third way’s emphasis on predominately private ownership.  State socialists desire the common ownership of all the means of production.  Social democrats however advocate a mixed economy, this is where a significant public sector coexists with private ownership; in the immediate post-war decades Western European nations had mixed economies, constructed through nationalisation of industries such as transport and utilities.  The third way on the other hand, prefers a largely privately owned economy, accepting and sometimes extending privatisation.  Common ownership differs from the emphasis placed by some other ideologies on the importance of private property.  For example, Heywood states liberals ‘believe that property reflects merit: those who work hard and possess talent will, and should, acquire wealth.  Property, therefore, is ‘earned’’.[3]  Liberals could therefore see common ownership as unjustified and depriving individuals of the reward for their labour.  Conservatives also see property as important, they believe that individual property ownership breeds social values, such as respect for property of others and for law and order, plus gaining a ‘stake’ in society; traditional conservatives would view socialist common ownership as heartless and depersonalised.[4]  However, the conservative belief in pragmatism can overrule this, for example many Conservative governments in the 1950s and 1960s tolerated a mixed economy.  For these reasons, common ownership could be seen as a key part of socialism, but because of the third way largely rejecting it, not a defining element.

Fourthly, community can be argued is a key part of a socialist outlook.  Most socialists believe in varying degrees of collectivism.  Collectivism is as stated by Robert Leach, an emphasis on ‘the importance of pursuing the interests of the whole of society rather than individual self interest.[5]  It stresses the individuals are interdependent on each other and the benefits of increased cooperation, not competition.  One of the effects of this is the preference to common ownership and a distrust of the free market.  The only socialist strand which can be seen not to support collectivism is the third way; the fact that they support the free market and are reluctant to increase common ownership suggests a more individualist philosophy.  Socialism’s collectivism is a fundamental contrast with classical and neo-liberal belief in egoistical individualism, which in the words of Heywood ‘places emphasis on self-interestedness and self-reliance’.[6]  However, many other ideologies subscribe to a form of collectivism, including fascism and nationalism; for this reason, it can be argued that a belief in community and collectivism is an important belief, but not the definitive element of socialism.

Democracy can be seen as another key aspect of a socialist outlook.  It can be argued that it is a result of socialism’s focus on community and equality.[7]  Marxists, despite being fundamentally opposed to liberal democracy, believe that the final stage of history, socialism is directly democratic; direct democracy is in the words of Baradat where ‘the people act as their own legislature.  There are no representatives’.[8]  However, both social democrats and third way socialists reject direct democracy and instead support representative democracy; this is where the people elect representatives to act on their behalf.  They would view direct democracy as impractical given the extensive needs of a modern political system.  However, the desire for representative democracy is also shared by all forms of liberalism; direct democracy is also advocated by anarchists.  Democracy is however dismissed as unneeded by fascists, they would argue that it give power to a collection of people who in the words of Heywood are seen to be ‘weak, inert and ignorant, and whose destiny is unquestioning obedience’.[9]  Because of the fact that democracy is standard in most political doctrines, it can be argued that a belief in democracy is not as definitive for socialism as many of its other key beliefs.

To conclude, despite being a very broad ideology, several key aspects of a socialist outlook can be identified; these include: opposition to capitalism, equality, common ownership, community and democracy.  These are interlinked, a belief in one can sometimes mean in effect a belief in another; for example a belief in social equality might result in opposition to capitalism.  Due to the varied nature of the ideology, different strands of socialism put differing emphasis on those elements.  However, it can be argued that the socialist belief in equality is the definitive element of a socialist outlook.  Firstly, because all socialists advocate equality of opportunity.  Secondly, because the belief in social equality is arguably the factor separating it from other ideologies.  Also, desiring equality helps determine many other socialist beliefs, such as the opposition to capitalism; capitalism is only permitted if it allows to the degree of equality wished for.  Other aspects of a socialist outlook are also important, but none define socialism to the same degree as equality.

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