On the one hand, those socialists upholding the interpretations of Marx and Lenin have insisted that only through the complete demolition of capitalism and the establishment of an alternative communist society can there be hope of ensuring social justice and equality.
On the whole, the details given by Marx himself are quite broad regarding the exact nature of communist society. He does however make some definite points. First of all, he believes that the establishment of proletariat dictatorship is initially fundamental during early revolution, for the working class to take power into their own hands. According to Marx, such dictatorship is necessary in the early days to prevent bourgeoisie reorganisation which undermines the revolution, and also to ensure that communism is successfully established.
When later establishing communism, one of the all-important key actions would be to eradicate private ownership of methods of production – that is, those economic resources previously owned by the bourgeoisie and foundation of their power. As opposed to remaining as private assets of individual capitalists, these resources will be transferred as common property of the whole society. It can then be ensured that the production and distribution of goods can be transformed from a profit-making process into one based on satisfying real social needs. As this process progresses, according to Marx, class differences typical of the capitalist society will gradually disappear and eventually so the need for state.
However, practical communism, as developed in places such as the Soviet Union, eastern Europe, China and Cuba during the twentieth century, proved to be vastly different to the forecasts of Marx and Engels decades earlier. To a great degree, this derived from the fact that communist parties were not seen to seize power in the thoroughly capitalist developed states of western Europe, as assumed by Marx. It occurred instead in much less developed countries, with vast sections of the population still living in very rural areas – such as Russia (that nevertheless had a number of large industrial centres where socialism took hold) and especially China. There was not a strong mass working class present here that was politically aware and ready to challenge the regime in the way in which Marx had anticipated. Therefore, the revolutionary movements did not develop along the exact lines imagined.
In the case of Russia, the communist revolution witnessed was a campaign led by a relatively small cohort of dedicated radicalists. This then impacted the nature of governing regimes established. When the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia in 1917, led by Lenin, it was achieved claiming that they operated in the interests of the working class. It was therefore concluded that any political cohort in opposition represented the perspectives and interests of other classes – particularly the bourgeoisie – and so to protect the proceeds of the revolution, every party except the Communist Party had to be prohibited and prevented. By 1920, therefore, the Soviet Union had become a single-party, totalitarian regime with only one specific body – the central committee of the Communist Party – having the right to voice working class interests and how communism should then be progressed. The practical experience of communism during the twentieth century was thus characterised by much narrower and stricter circumstances than the free expectations expressed by Marx.
Reforming and suppressing capitalism
Whilst a number of Marx followers continued to insist that capitalism was a regime of fundamental weakness, and therefore beyond saving, those more gradual socialists who have inclined towards the social democrat tradition have adopted a more moderate perspective. This perspective is essentially based on an attempt to tame and suppress capitalism, rather than demolish it completely. Some of the actions that social democrats believe can be taken to accomplish this have already been highlighted (see section 3). To summarise once more, they include the following:
- • The Mixed Economy: This is an economic arrangement halfway between a completely free market capitalism and public ownership of every economic aspect. Social democrats have tended to recognise that the free market has its place. As a result, it was argued that measures establishing public ownership should be limited to specific areas – the highlights of the economy such as electricity, coal, steel and railways – whilst the rest of the economy remains in private ownership.
- • Economic Control: While social democrats accept that capitalism has its merits, they also see that it needs regulation in order to ensure steady economic growth and protection from periods of sudden inflation or unemployment. Social democrats like modern liberals have thus argued for Keynesian macro-economic policies utilising public spending and taxation to regulate capitalism.
- • Welfare State: This is the preferred method of social democrats to attempt to tame the inequality that can arise from capitalism. Through the welfare state – institutions such as the education system, the health service, the benefits system – the state can redistribute wealth and opportunity, attempting to ensure more equality across society and decrease poverty.
It is, by and large, a more moderate political and economic system that has characterised the social democrat tradition, as one more willing to acknowledge that capitalism is a regime with some merits, and that emphasis should therefore be placed on suppressing its mor damaging aspects rather than demolishing it completely. This means therefore striking a balance between measures that establish common control of some economic aspects, and provisions also warranting a secure role for private trade and ownership.
The second matter of importance that gives rise to significant disagreement between different socialist traditions is the very objective that should be pursued – that is, which kind of society the socialist society should be. The disagreement here arising is essentially based on the different ideas on how to deal with capitalism: should it be demolished or reformed?