Is socialism the culmination or antithesis of liberalism?
Historically, liberalism and socialism have been portrayed as two separate ideologies; each with their own origins, traditions and influences. Both schools of thought have differing thesis’ regarding the economy, the individual and his/her role within society, the state and human nature. At times, liberalism and socialism have been viciously opposed to one another: creating new strands which have sought to wage ideological war against its rival. However, it could be argued that socialism is indeed the natural progression of liberalism, and, as a result, could be seen as its culmination; solving its ideological tensions and improving its ideas. This essay intends to analyse the extent to which socialism and liberalism could be considered separate ideologies, and discover whether socialism is the natural successor or antithesis of liberalism.
When Karl Marx wrote “The Communist Manifesto” in 1848, he attacked a system which was degrading the lives of millions of workers throughout industrial Europe; alienating manual labourers from their true natures; creating huge disparities of wealth and rifts within the social and economic models. This system was capitalism: a system based upon the pursuit of profit at all costs, and modelled upon the ‘laissez-faire’, classical liberal economic theories of economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo. It could therefore be argued that early Marxism was in fact a critique of classical liberal economics, and much of Marx’s early writings were concerned with pointing out, and offering solutions to, the sociological and economic issues which such a form of unrestrained capitalism was causing within the industrial society. Thus, the main differences between liberalism and socialism lie between these two strands of the ideologies.
Primarily, both schisms violently disagree about the nature of capitalism. Marxists see capitalism as fundamentally flawed: it is a system of oppression, exploitation and bourgeois hegemony, based upon a series of contradictions. Consequently, it must be overthrown by its synthesis, the urban proletariat, in a political revolution. Conversely, classical liberals see capitalism as a system which ensures industrial progress: indeed, Smith’s notion of the ‘economic man’ means that humans will use their inherently egotistical and material natures to their own benefit; thus increasing their own profit margin and creating a prosperous and economically stable society.
The second disagreement between Marxists and classical liberals is the role of the individual within society. Marxists see humans as social creatures, capable of altruism and therefore lean towards a more collectivist view of society: envisaging a social order whereby free individuals help one another to achieve greater ends. This is largely a reflection of the socialist view of human nature: humans are perfectible, inclined to benevolence, rather than malevolence. Classical liberals, on the other hand, use their rather pessimistic conception of the human condition to formulate a negative view of the individual and his/her role within society at large. Humans are imperfectable, needing authority to ensure society does not revert to a ‘state of nature’ (Hobbes), and society and progress is defined by a ‘survival of the fittest’ (Spencer). Such a view lends itself to the classical liberal stress upon individualism, and the invaluable role of the individual within the economic arena.
Such ideological differences would seem to point towards socialism as being the antithesis of liberalism. However, two of the major strands of both ideologies have not been considered: namely, social democracy and modern liberalism. Both of these schools of thought sought to solve the problems which classical liberal economics had caused, creating new ideas and providing hope for the impoverished working classes of industrial Britain. Indeed, the doctrine of positive freedom advocated by modern liberals such as T.H. Green (1836-82) has greatly influenced both ideologies. Green’s ideas were clearly influenced by socialist ideas which emphasized the cooperative nature of humankind, and consequently he felt that the individual should be allowed the opportunity to realise his/her potential, attain skills and knowledge and achieve moral fulfilment. Under capitalism, the working classes are not allowed the same opportunities as the industrial bourgeoisie, and instead are held back by the disadvantages of poverty, sickness, unemployment and ignorance. Due to the obvious overlap between socialism and liberalism within Green’s ideas, his theories have been described by many historians as ‘socialist liberalism’.
Further points of comparison can be found between modern liberalism and social democracy. The increased belief in state intervention and the reliance upon social welfare during the years after the second world war were attributes associated with both the social democratic and modern liberal political parties: indeed, the Beveridge Report of 1942, which was put in place by the Atlee Labour government, is an excellent example of the culmination of socialist and modern liberal political power. Furthermore, the emergence of social-democratic liberalism, largely articulated through the writings of John Rawls, demonstrates the overlap between the two ideologies: in ‘A Theory of Justice’, Rawls developed a defence of redistribution and welfare based upon the idea of ‘equality as fairness’. Furthermore, it could be argued that socialism can only arise from a liberal society: insofar as a society based upon Marxist ideals can only come around through the negation of capitalist principles. Perhaps it is for this reason that Soviet communism was fundamentally flawed.
It is important to note that both liberalism and socialism have two major strands; each with their own ideological viewpoints and differences. However, it appears that the two major points of conflict are between Marxism and classical liberalism. From this thesis, the very fact that Marxism is a critique of the classical liberal, ‘laissez faire’ system is a hallmark to its position as its antithesis. Nevertheless, it can be argued that by placing these two strands against each other in accordance with the Hegelian dialectic, we can achieve an ideological progression. Thus, the contradictions which lie between classical liberalism, the ‘thesis’, and Marxism, the ‘antithesis’, give way to a ‘synthesis’: social-democratic liberalism, which solves both of its parents ideological tensions and creates a stronger and more coherent school of thought. In this light, it appears that socialism is indeed the culmination of liberalism, and the ideological forces of both culminate to form a socially progressive, and philosophically astute, political ideology.