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Last updated 2 Jun 2020
Each strand of socialist thought seeks a transformation in the economic structure of society. However, there is considerable disagreement amongst socialists over the means towards building a better alternative to capitalism.
According to revolutionary socialists, the transformation of society lies in the hands of the proletariat. As a result of class consciousness, the gravediggers of capitalism will finally realise their shared common interest in the overhaul of an economic system built upon exploitation. After the short-lived creation of a dictatorship of the proletariat and the collapse of capitalism, class conflict will come to an end. As the state is an instrument of class control, it too will also collapse as predicted by Friedrich Engels (“when freedom exists there will be no state”).
Democratic socialists however endorse the parliamentary route towards a socialist system. By gaining an electoral mandate from the people, a socialist government could utilise a system based upon parliamentary sovereignty to implement a programme of nationalisation, centralisation, protectionism and co-operatives run by the workers. Such measures can be achieved on an evolutionary basis. In doing so, there is no need for the bloody revolution prescribed by Marxists. The democratic process therefore offers the most preferable route towards a socialist economic system.
In contrast to their more left-wing brethren, social democrats endorse a far less radical approach. Those on the centre-left of the political spectrum advocate gradual and piecemeal tactics towards lasting social change. On a related point, it is perhaps worth noting that the division between reformists and radicals/revolutionaries is a feature of all those ideologies committed to substantial change. Such measures help to humanise the existing economic system rather than scrapping it altogether in hope of some ‘New Jerusalem.’
Social democracy is at heart a moderate form of socialism that seeks to persuade people as to the merits of incremental steps. For instance, social democrats argue that paying workers a decent wage helps to raise productivity and reduce the number of hours lost due to staff absences. Indeed, there are many organisations who actively promote opportunities for their workforce. Even with the recent trend towards globalisation, the concept of corporate social responsibility and conscious capitalism has become an increasingly important business strategy.
The Labour Party has long been associated with a gradual approach to change, particularly when in government. Successive Labour governments have attempted to advance their cause on an incremental basis. The gradualist position is also reflected in organisations such as the Fabian Society, which gains its name from the Roman General Quintus Fabius Maximus whose motto was “for the right moment you must wait.” Fabians such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb believe there is an “inevitability of gradualness.” Fabianism therefore places prominence upon strategies such as comprehensive education and municipal socialism within local government.
The gradualist stance has been subject to considerable criticism from those further to the left of the political spectrum. Incremental change inevitably entails compromise with capitalists and a watered-down version of the socialist vision. During the Labour governments of the 60s and 70s, left-wingers within the Labour Party and the trade unions often put forward this argument. They claimed that the Labour leadership had betrayed their principles in the pursuit of power. However, such criticism reached their zenith during the era of New Labour. Many within the labour movement felt that the leadership abandoned socialism altogether in the pursuit of a Thatcherite agenda of foundation hospitals, academy schools, de-regulation and the marketisation of the welfare state.
From the opposing angle, the Blair/Brown era actually achieved a number of left-wing objectives such as the introduction of a minimum wage, a significant reduction in the level of child poverty, an increase in the level of universal benefits, an expansion in the rights of workers and an extensive welfare-to-work system. New Labour also doubled the level of expenditure on state education and trebled the level of resources allocated to the NHS. Those who defend the New Labour project claim that none of this could have ever been achieved without a realistic commitment to the necessity of gradual rather than radical change.