Is socialism defined by its opposition to capitalism?

Fundamentalist socialism believes that capitalism is fundamentally corrupt and fatally flawed. Revisionist socialists disagree with this view of capitalism, arguing that capitalism had shown itself to be both stable and flexible.

Fundamentalist socialism believes that capitalism is fundamentally corrupt and fatally flawed. Capitalism is seen as a system of class exploitation with capitalist society being split between two great classes, the ‘Bourgeoisie’ and the ‘Proletariat’. The relationship between these two classes is irreconcilable, as the ‘ruling class’ systematically exploits the ‘subordinate class’. Capitalism’s quest for profit can only be satisfied through the extraction of surplus value form its workers, by paying them less than the value that their labour generates. Economic exploitation is therefore an essential feature of the capitalist mode of production and operates regardless of the generosity of particular employers. Consequently, due to irreconcilable conflict, capitalism is unstable.

Fundamentalist socialists have looked to complete collectivisation as the way in which socialism should be constructed. Wealth is produced by the collective effort of human labour, so it should therefore be owned by the community. Fundamentalists believe that property breeds acquisitiveness and is therefore divisive. This is in stark contrast to the conservative belief in property, which argues that because people have a stake in society they are more likely to respect other people, thereby leading to greater social cohesion. For fundamentalist socialists, the answer is common ownership of productive wealth. Marx and Engels advocated the abolition of private property and the creation of a classless communist state. In this view, property should be owned collectively and used for the good of society. Under Orthodox Communism this was expressed in the idea of state collectivisation and central planning, which under Stalin took the form of the Five Year Plans and the collectivisation of agriculture. However, orthodox communism has been criticised by liberals and in particular by anarchists, who see it as a prime example of power corrupting, and therefore leading to an oppressive state.

Revisionist socialists disagree with this view of capitalism, arguing that capitalism had shown itself to be both stable and flexible. Eduard Bernstein rejected Marx’s ‘historical materialism’ arguing that Marx’s predictions had proven to be incorrect. Bernstein argued that capitalism was becoming increasingly complex and differentiated, leading to the ownership of wealth widening as joint stock companies became owned by a number of shareholders instead of one powerful industrialist. Anthony Crosland subscribed to a belief in managerialism, in that a new class of managers had supplanted the old capitalist class that had once dominated advanced industrial societies. Therefore the ownership of wealth had become divorced from its control. Whilst shareholders may be solely concerned with making profit, managers are more concerned with day-to-day issues such as upholding the firm’s public image and maintaining industrial relations. Therefore, modern capitalism bore little resemblance to the 19th century model that Marx had envisaged.

Revisionist socialists have therefore believed that capitalism does not have to be removed and instead can be ‘humanised’. For them socialism should be recast as the ‘politics of justice’ rather than the ‘politics of ownership’. Wealth doesn’t need to be owned in common because it can be redistributed through a welfare system that is funded by progressive taxation. Economic intervention can also be used through Keynesian economic policies that allow government to control aggregate demand and full employment in the economy. This helps to regulate capitalism. Therefore, the benefits that capitalism brings (general prosperity) can be harnessed to help everybody in society. Consequently, capitalism does not need to be abolished, only modified through welfare capitalism.

Third-way socialists believe that top-down state intervention socialism is dead. For them, there is no alternative to the ‘dynamic market economy’. Capitalism is seen to have mutated into an ‘information society’ or a ‘knowledge economy’. Thus, they have a general acceptance of the market over the state and adopt a pro-business and pro-enterprise stance. In this sense, third-way socialists can be seen to be building upon, rather than reversing the neoliberal revolution of the 1980s. However, third-way socialists firmly reject them moral and social implications of the market. The market generates a free-for-all that undermines the moral foundations of society. Thus some versions of the third-way, such as the ‘Blair Project’ sought to fuse communitarianism ideas with liberal ones. Communitarian liberalism stresses that rights and responsibilities are intrinsically bound together; all rights must be balanced against responsibilities.

Third-way proposals for welfare reform typically stand inbetween the neoliberal emphasis of ‘standing on your own feet’ and the revisionist belief in ‘cradle to grave’ welfare. Welfare should target the ‘socially excluded’ and ‘help people help themselves’. This is most famously summed up in Bill Clinton’s ‘a hand up not a hand out’. This effectively leads to a belief in a meritocracy, which means that due to different levels of ability and application quite large inequalities can exist, but in the eyes of the third-way this is legitimate. Nevertheless, both fundamental and revisionist socialists have criticised this view for abandoning the core themes of socialism, equality and common ownership.

In conclusion, socialism’s stance towards capitalism has changed dramatically over time. Revisionist socialists and third-way socialists no longer see capitalism as an oppressive system. Instead, for them, capitalism can be used to generate prosperity for all. However, this doesn’t mean that they subscribe to a form of market fundamentalism. Revisionists and even third-way socialists believe that capitalism has negative aspects, which is why they advocate at least some form of state involvement in the economy. Therefore, whilst the majority of socialists are no longer completely opposed to capitalism, they still have fundamental differences with the system. Thus, for these socialists, socialism can be defined by the ‘politics of justice’.

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