Cockshott and Cottrell (C&C) define social democracy as a liberal democratic system that mitigates inequalities produced by capitalism through progressive taxation and social benefits. Although social democracy can improve the condition of workers, they subject it to the following criticisms:
1. It has little impact on inequalities of wealth, income or life chances.
2. In such mixed economies, the socialist elements are subordinate to the capitalist elements, since tax revenue extracted from the capitalist sector depends on its continual growth and good health. As a result, any redistributive policy tends to adversely effect its own source of wealth.
3. There are few clearly defined principles by which the socialist sector operates.
They define idealist Marxists as those who accept Marxian theories, but erroneously reject the Soviet system as a model of socialism.
They separate their ideology from both the social democrats and the idealist Marxists, both of which they view as the dominant ideologies of the western left. As Marxists, they argue that the Soviet system was a genuine attempt at realizing Marxian theories. They admit that Soviet society was rife with many undesirable and problematic features, which can be attributed to a combination of historical, political and theoretical problems. Despite this, they claim that different types of Marxian socialism are possible.
The way that one differentiates between forms of social organization, such as capitalism or feudalism, is by virtue of its specific mode of production. The extraction of surplus product is what defines a mode of production. Necessary product is used to sustain and reproduce the workforce (consumer goods and services, investment in plant and equipment). Surplus product is used both to maintain the non-producing members of society and to grow the stock of the means of production. Nearly any society requires some mechanism by which producers are compelled to create surplus product.
In feudal society, surplus extraction was plainly "visible", meaning that the producers had to be directly subordinated, often with the help of a religion. For example, a peasant might simply be ordered to give up part of their produce, or to work on the lord's fields for some time (with their obedience being rewarded by a heavenly afterlife).
By contrast, capitalist society introduces legal equality through the wage contract, by which surplus extraction is made "invisible". Rarely is there an immediately obvious distinction between the time a employee spends producing for themselves or their employer. The degree of exploitation is determined by how much struggle there is between the workers and capitalists.
Contrary to the perspective of the idealist Marxists, C&C argue that the Soviet system was quite different from capitalism because it implemented a distinct form of surplus extraction - though in a flawed manner, in part due to the use of money.
In Soviet socialism, the division between necessary and surplus product was determined by political decisions. Planning authorities ensured that enterprises had sufficient money balances to pay for the goods and labour that were physically allocated to them. Resources going into consumer goods production were centrally allocated and thus not responsive to consumer spending, meaning that higher overall wages only either increased prices or caused shortages.
Since a social system is defined by its mode of production, they are not necessarily guaranteed to coincide with a specific form of government. Although Soviet socialism was substantially Marxian, Marx envisioned a radically democratic component to give intrinsic legitimacy to the production of surplus. Because Soviet society was not democratic ("for reasons both external and internal"), Stalin's cult of personality - with both its terrorizing and pioneering aspects - became an integral part of ensuring plan implementation, and in turn the mechanism of surplus extraction that defined Soviet socialism.
The crisis and eventual collapse of the Soviet system was mainly the result of popular opposition to undemocratic and authoritarian politics, stagnant living standards and endemic shortages of goods. Following the end of the Stalin era, the ways in which the mechanism of surplus extraction was ensured were being undermined. More liberal and egalitarian policies were combined with a lack of work incentives and a degenerated political culture that eroded the the ideals of socialism.
C&C argue against the proposition that democracy invariably leads to capitalism by claiming that an even more democratic form of government than what exists today will be a key element of modern socialism. They also argue against the perception that centralized planning is inherently worse than the free market by claiming that they can overcome inefficient planning with an updated methodology and the use of computer systems. They advocate for a socialism that encourages free and open competition of ideas. They criticize the flaws in classical Marxism, the Bolsheviks' attachment to the Soviet model of institutions, the improvisational nature of Soviet planning, and the ideological canonization of Marx and Engels' thought.
They conclude by defining themselves as post-Soviet socialists who propose a social, economic and political system that is cooperative, planned and democratic.