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Last updated 22 Mar 2021
Socialism is a political ideology that features a number of core values - the view that equality of outcome is more important than individual liberty, the belief in the need for an extensive welfare state, the belief in state ownership of the means of production, the strong emphasis on collective working class organisations such as trade unions, and the desire to redistribute wealth and end the class system and those institutions where membership is linked to birth and privilege.
Socialism rose as a reaction against the social and economic conditions generated in Europe by the growth of industrial capitalism - an economic system in which wealth is owned by private individuals or businesses and goods are produced for exchange according to the dictates of the market. Socialist ideas were quickly linked to the development of a new but growing class of industrial workers, who suffered the poverty and degradation so often a feature of early industrialisation. Socialism and liberalism had faith in reason and progress, but socialism was a critique of liberal market society and is defined by an attempt to offer an alternative to industrial capitalism. Industrial workers lived in harsh, often inhuman conditions. Wages were typically low, child and female labour commonplace, working day up to 12 hours, and the threat of unemployment was ever-present. The New working class was disorientated, largely composed of first-generation urban dwellers, unfamiliar with the conditions of industrial life and work. They possessed few of the social institutions to give their lives stability or meaning.
Socialism has developed a variety of sub-traditions. A central division is between those who believe in “revolutionary” socialism, in which capitalism has to be overthrown in order to establish a new economic order, and “evolutionary” socialism, in which socialist ends can be achieved through the parliamentary system, based on the inevitability of gradually increasing electoral success as the working class majority voted for the party (Labour), that best represented their interests. Evolutionary socialism can be divided further into “democratic socialialists”, who tend to believe in more radical solutions such as nationalisation (state ownership and operation of the means of production) and more redistributive measures (higher taxes on the rich) than “social democrats”, who have accepted that capitalism is the most effective method of wealth creation, but that the state has an obligation to reduce the extent to which workers are exploited, and to provide equality of opportunity for all citizens.