The notion that socialism is only attainable by revolution and not by reform is one that has been explored extensively and still remains a subject of great political debate. In examining this question, one has to revert to the original tenets of socialism as delineated by Karl Mark and Frederick Engels in the Communist Manifesto (1848).
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In their description of the Marxist principles embodied in socialism, they carefully detail a system whereby the working-class members of a given society would violently overthrow the existing bourgeois state and establish a system of government that is ruled by the working class. Since the writing of the Communist Manifesto, there have been many attempts at establishing socialist states. These attempts ranged from bringing about socialism through violent revolutions to impacting socialism through gradual governmental reform initiatives. The two decades between 1900 and 1920 were marked by very active governmental participation which involved the socialist parties in many European states, especially within Germany wherein there were different socialist ideologies were adopted.
In some instances, the radical socialists who once opposed the bourgeois system were willing to compromise in order to achieve a form of socialism that was less radical and proved less detrimental to the health and well-being of the citizens within the nation.
The notion of moderate socialism is one that incorporates the basic tenets of socialism wherein there are economic and political arrangements within the government which focus on the public or community ownership of the materials which produce the economic wealth of the nation. These materials include land, factories, and other property which are used to produce goods and services for society. Moderate socialism was able to achieve this aim to some degree without the revolutionary underpinnings. One example of this can be seen in the Fabian Society which was founded in 1884 in London and existed within the United Kingdom.
Within this adaptation, the members of society we’re taught that socialist ideology could be achieved in a gradual manner with the utility of a clearly defined set of reforms. These methods were predominantly described as methods of social defiance which included strikes, boycotts, acts of noncooperation, protests, and setting up alternative institutions (Crick 1976).
Another more stringent adaptation of the construct of socialism is the Erfurt Programme which was adopted by the German Social Democratic Party in 1891. Under this program, it was declared that “the struggle of the working class against capitalist exploitation is necessarily a political struggle. The working class cannot develop its economic organization and wage its economic battles without political rights. It cannot accomplish the transfer of the means of production to the community as a whole without first having come into possession of political power.” (Modern History).
Despite the fact that this statement implicitly points out the need for a revolution in that there is a need for the transfer of the means of production, this was not the case. This party was able to abolish a system of class rule in a very democratic manner and was able to maintain control of Germany between June of 1920 and March of 1933.
Their rule came to an end with the declaration of Hitler as a dictator and facilitated by an Enabling Bill initiated by Hitler and voted approved by three-quarters of the members of the Reichstag.
While in power, the German Social Democratic Party did not fight for class privileges and class rights but for equal rights for all irrespective of class, political party affiliation, gender, or race. They did so utilizing ten basic tenets. These tenets are as follows:
- There was a need for universal rights that can only be attained through suffrage, the free election with individuals over the age of 20 being allowed to participate, and the abolition of any barriers to equal voting rights.
- Self-determination among the people with majority rule
- Education to the militia wherein they would be equipped with the knowledge to partake in arbitration and other peaceful means of dispute resolution.
- The abolition of all laws hinder the meeting of various individuals and the formation of coalitions.
- The abolition of all laws which inherently discriminate against women.
- A separation of the Church and State.
- Completely free secular education which includes all the materials and supplies necessary in the pursuit of education.
- Free legal assistance and access to equal justice as well as the ability to compensate individuals who are wrongfully accused of crimes.
- Free medical assistance which includes medicine and burial expenses.
- Graduated income and property tax.
In addition to the basic tenets of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, there were several demands expressed on the behalf of the working class. These demands included the need for a workday which included no more than eight hours of employment, the prohibition of child labor for children under the age of 14, a strict monition on night work, and many other protections such as the aforementioned.
In theory, moderate socialism is an excellent ideology but when one tries to extend this theory practically, there are many problems and obstacles which arise. The first obstacle is one that deals with human nature and is addressed extensively in the Communist Manifesto. It is one that explores the proclivity of individuals in power and relates to the notion that once in power an individual will take the necessary steps to remain in power. Essentially, individuals in power want to remain in power.
Essentially, the bourgeois will not willingly relinquish the power and acquiesce to the demands of the working class. Karl Marx was adamant about the fact that the only thing that would make them relinquish that power is a revolution wherein the working class of the world would unite with one aim—to acquire all of the productivity resources within a nation and effectively cripple the economy. In crippling the economy, the bourgeoisie would be left with no other alternative but to relinquish power to the working class in order to survive. This involves the coordination of efforts which is almost unachievable.
One answer to the question of the inherent selfishness of individuals by virtue of being human was offered by traditional socialists who felt that society would impact a transformation in human nature and would naturally purge selfishness. In so doing, it would create a New Socialist Man.
This new man would be devoid of selfishness, self-determination and instead would embody the single desire to work arduously for the new socialist state. Throughout the course of history, many have worked with this aim in mind.
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Individuals such as Lenin and Bukharin attempted to achieve this end under the tenets of “War Communism.” The same was attempted later by Mao Tse-tung and Che Guevara who worked tirelessly to replace the inclination to seek material possessions with what they referred to as “moral incentives.” This notion was one that was ridiculed by many and when examined closely, one can see the difficulty inherent in attempting to bring about such a drastic change on a voluntary basis.
The very idea of the New Socialist Man is one that proves to be theoretically sound but in all practicality, the only way of imparting such a change is through force and even after force has been utilized there is nothing preventing the individuals who come into power from utilizing selfish motives in their rule (Chen 1969).
Despite the fact that there is a difference in the theoretical construct of socialism and its practical applications, many of the concepts can be practically applied. This is clear in the case of the Fabian Society and the Erfurt Programme. In those cases, socialism was practiced and it was made possible through non-violent and non-revolutionary means. These two cases are not unique but they do illustrate that some concepts of socialism are possible through a reform in the political structure.
These reforms paved the way for increased power on the part of the workers. In fact, a tempered version of socialism has been applied in capitalistic societies as illustrated by the concept of labor unions. In answering the question posed, I would have to emphatically disagree with the statement that “socialism is only attainable by revolution and not by reform” for the reasons stated throughout this paper.
Chen, Theodore Hsi-en. “The New Socialist Man.” Comparative Education Review. 13.1 (1969): 88-95.
Crick, Bernard. “The Character of a Moderate (Socialist).” The Political Quarterly 47.1 (1976): 5-28.
Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick. The Communist Manifesto: Complete with Seven Rarely Published Prefaces. St. Paul, MN: Filiquarian Publishing, LLC, 2005.
Modern History Sourcebook. German Social Democracy: The Erfurt Program, 1891. Web.
Spartacus Educational. Enabling Bill. 2007. Web.