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Socialism And Social Democracy

  Socialism and social democracy (both derived from Latin socius, ‘one to whom I am bound’) are the names of political doctrines and movements. The expression social democracy is now preferred by those socialists who wish to distinguish their political beliefs from classical socialist doctrines, especially those associated with Marxism and Marxism-Leninism. The four core values of democracy, liberty, equality and community are the easiest way to understand the numerous forms of socialism and social democracy, as they lie at the centre of their historical evolution. And the tensions between democracy, liberty, equality and fraternity help explain much of the internal debate and fragmentation within socialist and social democratic movements.

Liberty and Democracy Socialists and social democrats alike believe in ‘positive’ as well as ‘negative’ liberty, that is, in the importance of people being free to achieve their objectives and realize their talents. Mere ‘negative’ liberty, or freedom from government, is insufficient to build a good society. Historically, all socialists and social democrats, organized in socialist, social democratic or labour parties, have been distinguished by their fundamental commitment to democracy, understood as government based on popular consent and popular participation in the formation and exercise of political authority. Since human freedom requires democratic freedom to choose the government and to dissent from it, and civil rights of assembly, expression and participation, democracy is considered necessary to ensure liberty.

Socialists have always been divided, however, over the scope and means to greater democratization, and as a way of advancing political liberty. Social democrats now unambiguously embrace the institutions of representative government (the periodic election of parliaments and/or of presidents under universal suffrage) and the rule of law (the regulation of all social activity by constitutional and other legislation). They have more rarely sought to extend democratization to non-governmental organizations. In contrast, classical socialists (and communists) have emphasized the merits of ‘workers\' control’, ‘industrial democracy’, ‘economic democracy’ or more generally ‘participatory democracy’. They have also believed in the merits of politicizing such formally neutral institutions as state bureaucracies, the police and the judiciary. And Libertarian socialists, who resemble anarchists in their political beliefs, would entrust ultimate authority to ‘mass meetings’ of active people rather than to laws or constitutions which give power to élites. In part these differences reflect conflict among socialists over the relative importance of liberty and equality. Socialists generally believe that greater equality requires radical democratization of all institutions, whereas social democrats think that too much democratization may threaten other left-wing values, like liberty, and may not necessarily produce stable democratic institutions.

Socialists and social democrats have also been divided over how to achieve their commitment to liberty. Social democrats or democratic socialists have been reformists: they believe that they should work within the institutions of liberal democracy to extend support for their values (see Fabianism). They usually organize themselves in mass socialist, social democratic or labour parties for these purposes. By contrast the classical socialists and Marxists were often revolutionaries, believing that liberal democracy or representative government was a sham: a façade for ‘bourgeois’ or ‘capitalist’ democracy. They believed that ‘true democracy’, that is, proletarian or working-class democracy, can only be achieved through insurrectionary means. They have usually organized themselves in élite, or cadre parties to achieve these purposes, using the example of the Russian Bolsheviks as their model. However, the Marxist-Leninist or Communist (with a capital ‘c’) commitment to democracy has been fundamentally compromised since the 1917 Russian Revolution, associated with the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, which in practice meant the dictatorship of the Communist Party. Such parties have monopolized state power in the USSR and eastern Europe (until 1989), in China, Southeast Asia and Cuba.

Equality Socialists and social democrats alike believe that liberty can only flourish in a society of equals. Indeed they are best known for their commitments to ‘equality’. Egalitarianism requires opposition to hereditary privilege, especially aristocratic but also kin-based patronage, on the grounds that such privilege has nothing to do with merit. This principle is indispensable to the socialist vision of a ‘classless society’. Social democrats believe that equality of opportunity requires governmental regulation of private property and family rights to ensure that equality of opportunity is meaningful. Thus a redistributive welfare state, based upon progressive taxation of income and wealth, and which ensures equality in access to basic social goods, such as education, health care and insurance, is vital to enable people to have a fair chance of benefiting from equality of opportunity.

Social democrats and socialists also believe that inequalities between people in income, wealth or resources have to be justified by the benefits such inequalities generate for the rest of society. This requirement sets limits to the differentials in income and wealth which can be accepted within the principles of social justice. Here socialists and social democrats part company with economic liberals, who believe that equality of opportunity means equality of opportunity to achieve unequal rewards.

Socialists and social democrats have progressively extended the principles that all adults should be treated as meriting equal respect and possessing equal rights before the law, because of their equal humanity. Thus they have been hostile to imperialism, the conquest and coercive domination of some ethnic groups by others; to racism, the belief that some races are generally superior to others; and to sexism, the belief that men are generally superior to women (and vice versa). Moreover, they generally seek to rectify discrimination against ill-treated groups, whether defined by their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual preference or physical traits, by advocating affirmative action to ensure that members of such groups are properly integrated into modern society as equal citizens.

Most controversially, socialists and social democrats have historically been associated with an egalitarian philosophy which opposed the free market and private property rights in production, distribution and exchange. Thus many early socialists and Marxist-Leninists favoured the complete replacement of the free market by a planned economy, and state or ‘social’ as opposed to private ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. They argued that such policies were necessary to control the anarchy and inequalities of capitalist markets, to abolish class privileges, and to create the genuine solidarity which they believed should characterize a socialist society. This ‘state socialist’ tradition has been the dominant one on the left, especially the Marxist Left, and was applied in the USSR from the late 1920s, and after 1945 in places as diverse as eastern Europe, China, Southeast Asia and Cuba since 1945.

However, the ‘state socialist’ tradition has never been universal among socialists and social democrats. Western social democrats like British Fabians, French Proudhonists, Christian socialists and numerous other socialist groups have argued that capitalist markets can be regulated to achieve socialist ends (i.e. egalitarian and fraternal outcomes) without supplanting them completely by state planing. They have agreed with some liberals that monopolistic state ownership and planning endanger liberty and reduce efficiency, without necessarily producing either greater equality or solidarity. In the 1980s the ‘state socialist’ tradition became totally discredited as Gorbachov\'s programme of perestroika revealed the fundamental failures of the planned economies of the Communist bloc. This discrediting has permitted the democratic socialist Left in western Europe, such as the Swedish and German social democrats, the British Labour party, and the French socialists, to clarify their commitment to economic pluralism, that is, to a mixed economy in which capitalist markets should be regulated (rather than terminated) by governments to maximize liberty, equality and community. There has also been ‘a third way’ in socialist economic thought, ‘market socialism’, which advocates combining social ownership of the means of production with a very considerable role for the market in making allocative decisions through basing production in workers\' co-operatives. This third tradition, which has never been extensively experimented with outside Yugoslavia tries to merge the efficiency of the market mechanism with democratic principles in the organization of work and property rights.

Community Community—or ‘fraternity’ to use what is now a sexist expression—is the least precise of socialist values and has been interpreted in various ways. It has been understood first as a commitment to ‘internationalism’, that is, to the rejection of the idea that political activity should be bound within the confines of one nation, and support for global political co-operation between nations. It has also, and to the contrary, been understood as a commitment to nationalism, the emotional solidarity of all citizens of the self-governing nation. Finally, it has been understood as a generalized commitment to ‘collectivism’ or ‘communitarianism’ which is opposed to the egoistic individualism espoused by some liberals. This understanding of community as ‘collectivism’ is very prevalent on the Left, and is obviously linked to its egalitarian commitments. Historically the socialist commitment to fraternal solidarity was associated with an exclusive commitment to the interests and aspirations of the (manual) working class, but today social democrats extend their conception of ‘community’ to the people as a whole. More recently a green socialist tendency has emerged, which argues that the commitment to solidarity and equality with other humans must also be extended to ‘Nature’ itself if human existence is to be preserved in a tolerable form.

Rationalism The socialist and social democratic values of democracy, equality, liberty and community are usually expressed in rationalist political argument. Those who hold them believe that the world can be understood through, and only through, the powers of human reason—although this belief is challenged by some socialist feminists. They also believe that all political institutions must be justified by reason, rather than by appeals to traditions, emotions, religions, intimations or instincts. Unlike conservatives, socialists and social democrats do not regard human beings as unimprovable or inherently evil. They believe that most, if not all, political problems and conflicts are soluble through the application of human reason. Such rationalism, which entails optimistic conceptions of human nature and the human condition, distinguishes socialists and social democrats, whatever their many internal differences over the relative importance of democracy, liberty, equality and fraternity, and the ways in which these values can be practically implemented. BO\'L

See also conservatism; guild socialism; liberalism.Further reading R.N. Berki, Socialism; , G.D.H. Cole, A History of Socialist Thought: Volumes 1-7; , C.A.R. Crosland, The Future of Socialism; , G. Lichtheim, A Short History of Socialism; , A. Nove, The Economics of Feasible Socialism.



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