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Socialism Is Primarily Concerned With Equality Not

Socialism Is Primarily Concerned With Equality, Not Liberty. Discuss. Essay, Research Paper

“Socialism is primarily concerned with equality, not liberty.” Discuss.

Socialism is an ideology that covers many diverse and divergent ideas and theories. It is therefore very difficult to define it as one ideology in particular. This is an important point because the question is a definitive statement about what socialism is. In fact, it is well summed up by Anthony Wright who wrote “There is no shortage of available definitions of what socialism is, but there is a shortage of agreed definitions.” Because socialism covers such a wide range of ideas, the importance of equality and liberty varies between different theorists. Further to this, it is also worth noting that different theorists define the concepts of equality and liberty differently. However, most theories use either liberty or equality, or both, even if only in criticism of each other.

In an attempt to define socialism as an ideology, many socialists agree that a characteristic theme of socialism is a commitment to equality. However they all differ in their opinion over the extent of its importance. Some perceive it to be the goal of society whilst others see it simply as a means to an end. When socialism emerged as a recognizable ideology in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth it was strongly influenced by some egalitarian thinkers and ideas. These included Rousseau and his demands for popular sovereignty, Robespierre and the Jacobites and Babeuf and his society of equals. Babeuf even said, “For the true and living equality we will give up everything. Let the arts perish if need be! But let us have the equality!” This quote goes to show that for some socialists, equality is their primary goal.

The socialist tradition is one of opposition to the capitalist idea of competition amongst individuals in the name of personal gain. Babeuf also went on to say, “Society must be made to operate in such a way that it eradicates once and for all the desire of man to become richer, wiser and more powerful than others.”

This has led commentators to claim that equality is the key socialist view of society because it seeks to replace the inequality of the capitalist society with an equal social structure. According to Crosland, equality would remove social antagonism because the divide due to the envy and resentment causes the class war.

On the other hand, socialism also has many libertarian thinkers and ideas. Liberal socialists believe socialism to be the key to maximizing liberty through the self-direction of small communities. They want the removal of oppressive state and class structures in order to free the individual. Perhaps the most notable was Fourier who demanded complete freedom from crippling conventions and was quite prepared to have both the rich and the poor in his Utopia. He even went so far as to envisage the investment of capital for profit. However, libertarianism is often seen as too radical. “Libertarianism is the demand for freedom in the sense of the total absence of restraints, external and internal.”

There are some prominent socialists who have made equality their primary aim. Syndicalism is non-libertarian because it emphasizes group loyalty and working class solidarity and sees their future society organized along trade union lines. Lenin also disassociates himself from the idea of liberalism. He saw the future of society being based on the idea of equality and said that after the revolution there would be a move “form formal equality to actual equality.” However, Lenin does go on to modify his stance and his “New Economic Policy signaled a compromise with private enterprise and an acceptance of the importance of liberty.”

A closer look at the writings of Marx, Engels, Tawney and Crosland will go to further show how the ideas of equality and liberty are actually linked within socialist thought. Marx, especially in his later works, adopts a strong egalitarian tone. He talks of a vast association of people, the establishment of industrial armies and the need for a directing authority for production in the future. Of the Gotha program he writes “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” This quote outlines how goods would be allocated along egalitarian lines under communism. Also, it shows that he is putting equality over liberty.

According to Marx, there is no liberal right for the individual to pursue greater personal wealth, but that this is not infringing on his freedom because under communism, men will find true freedom as social individuals. Marx doesn’t believe there to be any conflict between his specific ideas of equality and liberty. However, Marx’s own specific type of equality is the equality of distribution according to needs and not the bourgeois concept of equality of treatment.

Engels goes on to argue that equality means different things to different people at different times. “Thus the idea of equality, whether in its bourgeois or in its proletarian form, is itself a historical product, the creation of which required definite historical conditions that in turn themselves presuppose a long previous history. It is consequently, anything but an eternal truth.”

He makes a further point that goes on to link equality and liberty by saying that an individual cannot be free if he is at the economic mercy of another. “Equality must not be merely apparent, must not apply merely to the sphere of the state, but must also be real, must also be extended to the social and economic spheres.”

Crosland and Tawney also believe that equality and liberty are interdependent. Tawney states that “liberty is rightly preferred to equality when the two of them are in conflict” but then goes on to qualify this by saying that if liberty is properly interpreted in an economic, social and political sense then it is ‘in fact, equality in action.”

“When liberty is construed, realistically, or implying, not merely a minimum of civil and political rights, but securities that the economically weak will not be at the mercy of the strong, [ .] a large measure of equality, so far from being inimical to liberty is essential to it.”

Crosland still argues that equality is still an important socialist ideal but a change in the capitalist system has forced socialists to change their focus. Economic equality and the redistribution of wealth will no longer result in greater overall equality. Instead, socialists must now focus on social equality, such as improving equality in education, in order to improve overall equality. However, he does go on to admit that this idea is still quite liberal but that most liberals would agree that everyone should have an “equal opportunity for wealth, advancement and renown.”

In conclusion, equality might be the classical principal of socialism but the claim that socialism is primarily concerned with equality and not liberty is not justified. Socialism is such a broad ideology that the claim made in the title can only be applied to specific thinkers and not socialism as a whole. “Liberalism been rejected as an ideological creature of capitalism but it has also been incorporated into and fulfilled by socialism” Further to this, the writings of Crosland and Tawney show us that equality and liberty are sometimes actually perceived to be the same socialist end.


A. Wright, Socialisms: Theories and Practices, (Oxford University Press, 1986)

R.N. Berki, Socialism, (J. M. Dent and Sons Ltd., London, 1975)

C. A. R. Crosland, The Future of Socialism, (Jonathan Cape, 1963)

F. Engels, Anti-Duhring; pt 1 ch X

K. Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program

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