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Study notes

Communism (Socialism)

  • Levels: A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel

Communism is an economic system based upon public ownership and a planned economy.

The term communism originates from the French word ‘commune’ and predates the prescription offered by Marx and Engels during the time of the Industrial Revolution.

The most obvious contrast to be made is with capitalism, an economic system based upon private ownership and the market forces of supply and demand. Famously, Karl Marx predicted the collapse of the capitalist system due to internal contradictions between the interests of the bourgeoisie (the social class that owns capital) and the proletariat (the working class or the wage-earners). This would result in a revolution led by the oppressed followed by the dictatorship of the proletariat. Eventually, class conflict would come to an end and the result would be the inevitable victory of socialism. Common ownership would replace private property, and the state would distribute resources in an equitable manner.

The German theorist Karl Marx remains by far the most influential figure within the ideology of socialism. Writing during the time of the Industrial Revolution (1848), Marx offered a devastating critique of the capitalist economic system in which he claimed that the owners of capital exploited the working-class. The Marxist argument has been subject to modification since his work was first published, but the core argument remains both relevant and insightful. One would only have to consider how multi-national companies such as Apple use third world sweatshops (Klein, 2000) or the treatment of illegal immigrants in the shadow economy by unscrupulous employers.

Marxist analysis is heavily influenced by a Hegelian understanding of historical progress. The German philosopher Friedrich Hegel claimed that history progressed upon a series of logical events based upon the dialectic. Hegel believed that every idea or state of affairs contains within it an internal conflict. In other words, a thesis contained an antithesis that drives forward social change. The result is a new state of affairs or set of ideas he called a synthesis. For example, tyranny (thesis) generates the need for freedom (antithesis). Once freedom has been achieved there will be a state of anarchy until an element of tyranny is combined with freedom; thereby creating a system of laws (synthesis). In other words, when a proposition is confronted by an opposite a new stage of history will emerge. Grounded on this philosophical structure, Marx claimed that socialism would confront capitalism and lead to a new historical epoch.

Furthermore, Hegel argued that alienation was the result of our perception of the world being different to the reality of that world. Progress would therefore occur only when a collective consciousness emerges, thereby generating a new consciousness. Marx adopted this view towards the notion of class consciousness, which he believed would occur amongst the exploited proletariat. Finally, Hegel argued that society was destined to reach the end of the dialectic in which our consciousness would be the same as the collective consciousness. We would therefore reach the end of history. For Marx, this would be a communist society.

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