This entry is concerned with “socialism” from the time at which, so far as anyone knows, the word was first used in print to describe a view of what human society should be like.
This was in 1827, in the English Co-operative Magazine, a periodical aimed at expounding and furthering the views of Robert Owen of New Lanark, generally regarded as the father and founder of the cooperative movement. (Owenite cooperation, incidentally, was an institution different from, and far more idealistic than, the distributive stores which in the Victorian age took over the name.)
Some historians have traced the ancestry of socialism much further back: For example, to primitive communist societies, to the Jesuits of Paraguay, to the ideal communities described by Thomas More and others, to the Diggers of Cromwell’s army, and even to Plato’s Republic.
Although there are elements of socialism to be found in all these, particularly in More’s Utopia, the scope of this article is limited to socialism in modern times and to the sense in which the word is normally used, omitting both distant possible origins and, of course, bastard movements such as the National Socialism (Nazism) of twentieth-century Germany and Austria which, save for the bare fact that they enforced central control of social policy, had nothing of socialism in them.
Origin of Socialism
The seedbed of socialism, as of so much else in modern thought, was the French Revolution and the revolutionary French thinkers who preceded it—Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and the Encyclopedists. Rousseau was no socialist, but from his cornucopia of seminal though sometimes unclear and inconsistent thought socialists drew the ideas of people born free but everywhere in chains, of a “general will” making for perfection in society, of the importance of education, and a host of others.
From the Encyclopedists they learned to question all institutions in the light of reason and justice, and even from “Gracchus” Babeuf to demand equality for the downtrodden and to seek it by means of dedicated conspirators.
Owen himself was no revolutionary; insofar as his ideas can be traced to anyone but himself, they probably came from early reading of the William Godwin who wrote Political Justice; Owen envisaged a society consisting of small, self-governing, cooperating communities, established by the free and rational consent of all, of whatever class or station.
Originally, the word socialism appears to have laid particular emphasis on communal cooperation in contrast to the more-or-less liberalism that was coming to be the creed of the industrial revolution—hence Owen’s rather contemptuous dismissal of Jeremy Bentham and the utilitarians. The idea of socialism came rapidly to fit the aspirations of the working classes and their radical champions not only in its country of origin but far beyond it.
Since its beginnings in the early 1800s, a period that has seen vast changes not merely in the industrial and political organization of society but also in people’s minds, their modes of thought, and their interpretation both of themselves and of what they have seen around them, “socialism” has naturally borne many meanings, and dozens of views have been held and expressed about the form of society that socialists hope to see and about the means by which it should be attained and secured.
Long before Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels introduced the great schism between what they called utopian and scientific socialism, there were wide differences of opinion; and the differences are no less wide today.
|Jean Jacques Rousseau|
George Bernard Shaw, for example, in The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism, laid down absolute equality of money incomes as a sine qua non—a dictum accepted by few of his fellow socialists, and not by Shaw himself in any practical sense. There are many other definitions that could be quoted. Nevertheless, the word is certainly not meaningless.
It describes a living thing that grows and changes as it lives; and it is possible to discern certain beliefs that are fundamental to all who can be called socialists, as well as to note the divergences in what may be called secondary beliefs and to relate these, in part at least, to the conditions of the time.
CRITIQUE OF EXISTING SOCIETY. The first of the fundamental beliefs of socialists is that the existing system of society and its institutions should be condemned as unjust, as morally unsound.
The institutions that are thus condemned vary from time to time and from place to place according to circumstances, the greatest stress being laid sometimes on landlordism, sometimes on factory industry, on the churches, the law, or the political government, or a combination of these (as William Cobbett, in an earlier century, denounced “The Thing”), depending on what seems to be the most potent engine or engines of oppression.
This condemnation may be associated with the values of revealed religion, as in the case of the various forms of Christian socialism, or may positively repudiate those values, as Marx did; in either case the emphasis is on injustice. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s dictum, “Property is theft,” expresses this condemnation most concisely.
Many socialist movements, such as the Saint-Simonians in the 1830s and the Fabians half a century later, attacked the existing system for its economic and social inefficiency as well; but this criticism was less fundamental. Socialists such as François Marie Charles Fourier in France and William Morris in England laid much more stress on freedom, happiness, and beauty than on material wealth.
|François Marie Charles Fourier|
Even the economists among them, however, long asserted that granted decent (that is, socialist) distribution of the product of industry and agriculture, there would easily be “enough to go round” and to provide everyone with a standard of living recognized to be reasonable.
By the mid-twentieth century the enormous multiplication of potential demand, coupled with realization of the existence of hundreds of millions living far below European standards of life, had referred that type of prophecy to the far-distant future.
A NEW AND BETTER SOCIETY. The second fundamental of socialism is the belief that there can be created a different form of society with different institutions, based on moral values, which will tend to improve humankind instead of, as now, to corrupt it.
Since it is living men who are to create the new institutions—men who must, therefore, recognize and follow the appeal of moral value— this belief is in effect an assertion of the perfectibility, or at least near-perfectibility, of man. It was most dogmatically stated by Owen, in books such as A New View of Society; and the history of socialism shows that it can survive innumerable disappointments.
It is not the same as a belief in “progress,” which has been held by many who were not socialists; it is more like Magna est veritas et praevalebit (“The truth is great and will prevail”)—truth being here equated with justice.
Does justice, in social institutions, imply equality? Does it also imply democracy? For socialists, the answer to both these questions has generally been positive but the answer has not been absolute. Equality of rights—yes; equality before the law—yes, again.
We have already observed, however, that complete equality of income was not a universal socialist tenet; and from the very earliest days there were sharp differences among socialists on the relationship between work and income. On the dictum “From each according to his ability” they more or less agreed. But some added “to each according to his needs”; others countered with “to each according to his effort— or his product.”
This debate, in which sides were taken, on the whole, in accordance with the temperament and/or environment of the individual and in which many intermediate positions were adopted, remained unresolved throughout the history of socialism—not surprisingly, since the problem of controlling the level of incomes has defeated all except completely static societies. On the question of democracy, again, the great majority of socialists have been democrats in the ordinarily accepted sense of the word.
But some rejected any formal democratic process in favor of a communal consensus resembling the Quaker “sense of the meeting” (or Rousseau’s general will). Owen, in practice, was an autocratic egalitarian; and post-Marxist socialism has evolved a procedure known as democratic centralism, which bears little relation to what any pre-Marxist would recognize as democracy.
Deep differences arose early on the kind of institution which would be best suited for a world devoted to justice. There was one main difference at first: Some put their faith in small communities of neighbors, as far as possible self-sufficient, cooperating freely with other similar communities in such functions as exchange of goods, and relying to the minimum on any regional or central authority for such necessities as defense and the supply of credit; others looked rather to a development of science, technology, and large-scale industrial production and banking to increase rapidly the supply of material goods and thereby the prosperity of a socialist economy through centralized planning techniques.
Of these two schools— whose views have necessarily been greatly simplified for the compass of this article—the first, or “utopian,” is best known from the writings of Owen, Fourier, and Proudhon, and the second, or “scientific,” from those of the Comte de Saint-Simon and his followers.
The first clearly derived from rural society: Owen’s villages of cooperation and Fourier’s phalansteries were based upon small-scale agriculture, with such industrial and craft production as could conveniently be carried on in villages or small communities.
|Comte de Saint-Simon|
This was the kind of society envisaged, much later, in William Morris’s News from Nowhere; and much later still, there were curious echoes of it in V. I. Lenin’s dreams of cheap electricity transforming the life of the Russian peasantry and even in the Chinese “great leap forward,” with a piece of factory in every backyard.
The weakness of this school is that its fear of size, of external authority, and of the apparatus of the state and of central government, whatever concessions it may in theory make to “natural necessities,” such as the conduct of a national railway system, are liable to lead in practice as well as in theory to anarchism and the repudiation of any government at all—which in the modern world means chaos.
The second school, that of large-scale production and planning, was, from the beginning, in harmony with the way the world was tending. Its dangers are today only too obvious, and the recurrent malaise of large-scale industry in times of prosperity, the demands for “shares in control,” and the like, show the vacuum created by the nonfulfillment of the utopian ideals of a just society.
|George Bernard Shaw|
REVOLUTION. Whatever form of institution the several schools of socialism envisaged for the future, all agreed that what was required was a fundamental transformation of society amounting to revolution, a program of action to effect such a transformation, and a revolutionary will so to transform it existing in the members of present-day society.
This is the third fundamental socialist assumption; how it is to be put into effect has been the subject of much division of opinion. As socialism was generally believed to have a strong rational basis, it was natural that all schools of socialists should set great store by education, persuasion, and propaganda;
Owen, indeed, carried the trust in rationality so far that he could not believe that anyone, whatever his condition or his preconceived opinions, could fail to be converted by “Mr. Owen’s powers of persuasion,” if only Mr. Owen could employ them sufficiently often and at sufficient length.
Others, less confident, sought to achieve their end by preaching to and working upon groups already conditioned by the circumstances of their working lives to accept the whole or a part of the socialist gospel—the most obvious of these being, of course, the trade unions and other organizations of the working class. In this spirit Marx looked upon the British trade unions that supported the International Working Men’s Association (the “First International”) as “a lever for the proletarian revolution.”
Strikes, threats of strikes, and other forms of what much later came to be known as “direct action,” supplemented persuasion by inducing the ruling classes to make concessions which could not otherwise have been wrung from them.
The practicability, either of persuasion or of group action, depended very largely on the political conditions of time and place. And although there was a running argument between gradualists, who believed that revolutionary change could be brought about peacefully and piecemeal, and revolutionaries, who thought head-on collision between the holders of power and their victims was inevitable in the long run if not immediately, the difference was not as absolute as was often supposed.
In Britain, after the defeat of Chartism had registered the end of insurrectionism in any form, after the press had been freed and the franchise widened, the organizations of the working class leaned to peaceful evolution far more than to violence—the “inevitability of gradualism” was an accepted belief long before Sidney Webb put it into words in the 1920s. In tsarist Russia, at the other extreme, a generally authoritarian government, operating a police state, appeared to bar the door to anything but physical revolution.
There were many possible in-between positions; and the role of the convinced individual socialist varied similarly, from that of open persuader, adviser, and organizer, like Keir Hardie at the end of the nineteenth century, to that of secret conspirator, like Auguste Blanqui in France after 1848 and organizers of communist cells in the twentieth century.
INTERNATIONALISM. One other characteristic should briefly be mentioned. Socialism was initially a world philosophy, not concerning itself with race or nation, not advocating the brotherhood of man so much as assuming it.
The opening of the Communist Manifesto, “Workers of the world, unite,” crystallized this into words; the nationalism of Poles, Irish, Italians, Hungarians, was only an aspect of the struggle against corrupt institutions.
Later, of course, nationalism grew so strong that it clashed, sometimes violently, with other fundamentals of socialism; nevertheless, the idea remained potent for generations, and it may still be suggested that socialist movements that have become exclusively nationalist have ceased to be socialist at all.
The Communist Manifesto marks a great divide between pre-Marxian and post-Marxian socialism. Marx and Engels dismissed all their predecessors as utopians and formulated a system of socialism that they claimed was “scientific.” There is no room here to expound Marxist philosophy or Marxist economics; but it must be pointed out that neither “utopian” nor “scientific” is an accurate description.
Marxist socialism accepted the fundamentals as set out above; it differed from most of its forerunners in that it did not, save in a few very vague allusions, seek to describe the new, uncorrupt institutions that would appear after the revolution; it assumed—and what could be more utopian?—that after the proletariat had conquered, it would make all a new and “the government of man be replaced by the administration of things.”
“Scientific,” in Marxist language, meant not so much acceptance of technology and large-scale production— although this was included—as the proving, by logical argument and study of history, of two quite simple propositions:
First, that under the existing capitalist system, the proletariat, the laboring class, is systematically and continuously robbed of its just share of the fruits of production; second, that “changes in the modes of production and exchange,” and not any other factor, such as “man’s insight into eternal truth and justice,” are leading inevitably to a reversal of the system that will remove the bourgeois capitalist class from the seats of power and replace it by the organs of the proletariat.
This is the base on which the whole enormous superstructure of Marxism is founded; it is not science, but messianic prophecy. It is easy to understand, however, the compelling effect that this fundamentally simple appeal had to the downtrodden at various times and in various places.
At the same time, Marx’s powerful and penetrating analysis, which discredited a great deal of current economic and historical theory, profoundly attracted many of the best brains among those who were dissatisfied with the human results of the existing system, and the teaching of the Marxists that morality in action was relative to the needs of the time, even if slightly inconsistent with their denunciation, on grounds of injustice, of slavery and wage slavery, gave their followers both the inspiration of those who were fighting a continuing battle and the sanction to use any and every method that could advance their cause.Marx did not invent the conception of classes, but Marxists fought the class war.
The work of Marx and Engels has had as great and lasting an effect on the thinking of non-Marxists, particularly after the Russian Revolution, as has that of Sigmund Freud on non-Freudians. This entry cannot deal with the developments in socialist thought, Marxist or non-Marxist, in the post-Marxian era.
These are of enormous importance for the study of history and presentday politics; but they are concerned principally with method and strategy. The fundamental tenets of socialism as a view of society have remained substantially unaltered, although the process of translating them has been far more lengthy and complicated than the nineteenth century ever foresaw.