Values, virtues and socialism: a reply to Jobelius and Vӧssing

Peter McLaverty

I think defining social democracy by values, as Sebastian Jobelius and Konstantin Vӧssing argue in a recent issue of Renewal has much to commend it.1 They are right that defining social democratic parties in terms of the values they support can help to give policy development a clear focus.  But there are certain problems in just using different values to define social democracy. First, Jobelius and Vӧssing refer to the three most important values for social democracy as freedom, justice and solidarity.  It is clear Jobelius and Vӧssing think there are other presumably less important ‘social democratic values’ but these are not set out. It is not explained how the most important values relate to the less important values or why some values are more important than others. The authors argue ‘Policies favouring a universal, high-quality and publicly financed health care system advance social-democratic values that are widely shared by voters across existing political divides.’2 That is almost certainly true. But there is no effort to show to which values this policy relates nor to suggest in which policy direction the three most important values point.

Second, the same value can have different meanings. Let us briefly consider the values of freedom, justice and solidarity which are set out as the most important values of social democracy. Freedom can mean negative freedom (individuals being free to do what they want to do with few restrictions on their action) and positive freedom (individuals having the means to do and experience things they previously could not). Justice can be defined in a number of ways that can be seen as independent of each other. It can relate exclusively to the legal system, to procedures for making decisions more generally, to the distribution of income and wealth, to access to the necessities of life, and the distribution of benefits and burdens. Solidarity can be expressed in the slogan ‘one for all and all for one’. It can be seen as requiring a sense of community or belonging. Communities tend to be exclusive, making some people outsiders of the community, for various reasons, and, in the process, increasing the sense of belonging of those who are included, often in opposition to those who are excluded.  Jobelius and Vӧssing’s view of the most important values of social democracy would be stronger if it was clear how solidarity relates, and is connected, to the values of justice and freedom. In addition, without some rough equality of outcome and condition, it is hard to see how an inclusive form of solidarity is likely to be formed.

Third, there is no consideration of what the relationship should be between social democratic parties and socialism. Are we to assume, from their historical analysis of social democratic parties, that they think there is now no relationship between social democracy and socialism? Unlike them, I suspect, I do still think there should be a relationship between social democratic parties and socialism. I still hope that social democratic parties can help move the societies in which they operate in a socialist direction. I also fear that without a commitment to socialism, social democratic parties will be rudderless, lacking any reason for supporting some values and not others. It is important to show how the values that we ascribe to social democratic parties are connected and, as argued above, to be clear about the meaning of each value that is being used, otherwise people could easily be confused at the messages social democratic parties are putting forward. Committing to socialism can provide the missing link in the values approach. That is why I think it is still important for members and supporters of social democratic parties to clarify what is meant by socialism.

 So, what might be the meaning of the socialism to which social democratic parties might, and in my view, should subscribe? Seeing socialism as a set of distinct values means that it is very difficult to show how socialism represents a different, or certain, kind of society. Any definition of socialism that does not see it as representing a society in which people relate to each other in better ways seems to me to be lacking. Socialism is ultimately, as Eric Hobsbawm has argued, ‘a sense of community, in co-operation and what old British socialists used to call “fellowship”; by men and women who respect themselves and are respected whatever they are; who live lives that make sense to them, and offer hope to their children and future generations’.3 Socialism is connected to the common good and how we want to and ought to live together. I would argue that what Michael Sandel writes about the common good gives a good idea of what a socialist society might be like. For him, the common good

is about reflecting critically on our preferences – ideally, elevating and improving them – so that we can live worthwhile and flourishing lives … It requires deliberating with our fellow citizens about how to bring about a just and good society, one that cultivates virtue and enables us to reason together about the purposes worthy of our political community.4

It is interesting that Ralph Miliband, in his last book, argued that the exercise of civic virtue would be at the heart of a socialist society.5 I would suggest that any definition of socialism that does not have democracy at its centre will be inadequate and flawed. Of course, as with the values of freedom, justice and solidarity considered earlier, equality too can be defined in a number of ways. Perhaps the biggest difference is between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome or condition. Whether large scale social inequality undermines and limits the workings of democracy in society is heavily debated. Empirical evidence in the UK strongly shows that more affluent people (or people in the capitalist class and middle class) participate more fully in democratic political processes than less affluent and poorer people (or working class people).6 There are strong arguments to suggest that equality of opportunity is unlikely to be achieved without rough equality of outcome.7 Riches tend to be passed down the generations within families and the rich are also good at giving advantages to their children, such as through inheritance of income and wealth and sending them to fee paying schools, where class sizes are much smaller and the facilities generally superior to those in state schools, or paying for private tutoring. It seems fair, therefore, to suggest that political equality is undermined by large scale inequalities of wealth and income.8

If social democratic parties should be committed to socialism, the values that are central to socialism should be adopted by the social democratic parties: community, democracy and equality. However socialism is defined, analysing how it can be achieved or how progress can be made in the direction of socialism is crucial. But considering this in detail is beyond the scope of this short comment.

Looking specifically at the British Labour Party, it has been argued that the party should reinstate something like the old Clause IV of its constitution. This committed the party to the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, supported equitable distribution and made some sort of commitment to industrial democracy and citizen control. The basic problem with the old Clause IV, whatever one thinks of the commitments contained in the clause, was its narrow focus. By only concentrating on the economy, the clause neglected other areas of society and social life about which the Labour Party must be concerned. The old clause never, of course, whether for good or ill, had a direct impact on what Labour governments did in office. A return to something like the old Clause 4 as the central statement of Labour’s aims would not be a good idea. The case that widespread common ownership, in a variety of forms, should be a central element of a socialist programme is very strong. But that does not mean that common ownership (even with workers’ control) should be the main aim of a social democratic party (or any party committed to socialism). Common ownership and industrial democracy are important and necessary because they contribute to the achievement of an egalitarian, democratic society and help to promote a sense of community.

Debate and discussion about how social democratic parties should be defined and what such parties should be trying to achieve goes back many decades and will continue. Jobelius and Vӧssing have made a significant intervention in the on-going debate. I have tried to show, however, that their argument that social democratic parties should become parties of values needs further refinement. To be convincing, it needs to be clearer by which values social democratic parties should be defined and why those values are of most importance for social democratic parties. I have suggested that clarifying both the relationship between social democratic parties and socialism, and the meaning of socialism, would greatly aid that task.

Peter McLavety is a former Reader in Public Policy at Robert Gordon University. He retired in 2016.


1. Sebastian Joebelius and Konstantin Vӧssing, ‘Social-democracy, party of values’, Renewal, Vol 28 No 3, 2020, pp52-60.

2. ibid p59.      

3. Eric Hobsbawm, Politics for a Rational Left: Political Writing 1977-1988, Verso in association with Marxism Today, London 1989, p219.

4. Michael J. Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s B Allen Become of the Common Good?, Allen Lane, London 2020, pp208-209.

5. Ralph Miliband, Socialism for a Sceptical Age, Polity Press, Cambridge 1994, p57.

6. Geoffrey Evans and James Tilley, The New Politics of Class: The Political Exclusion of the British Working Class, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2017.

7. Jo Littler, Against Meritocracy: Culture, Power and Mobility, Routledge, London, 2017; James Bloodworth, The Myth of Meritocracy: Why Working-Class Kids Still Get Working-Class Jobs, Biteback Publications, London 2016.

8. Anne Phillips, Which Equalities Matter?, Polity Press, Cambridge 1999.