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3.8: Socialism

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  • The third and last of the new political ideologies and movements of the early nineteenth century was socialism. Socialism was a specific historical phenomenon born out of two related factors: first, the ideological rupture with the society of orders that occurred with the French Revolution, and second, the growth of industrial capitalism. It sought to address both the economic repercussions of the industrial revolution, especially in terms of the living conditions of workers, and to provide a new moral order for modern society.

    The term itself is French. It was created in 1834 to contrast with individualism, a favorite term among liberals but one that early socialists saw as a symptom of moral decay. Right from its inception, socialism was contrasted with individualism and egoism, of the selfish and self-centered pursuit of wealth and power. Socialism proposed a new and better moral order, one in which the members of a society would care not only for themselves, but for one another. For the first decades of its existence socialism was less a movement with economic foundations than with ethical ones. It had economic arguments to make, of course, but those arguments were based on moral or ethical claims.

    By the middle of the nineteenth century, the word socialism came to be used more widely to describe several different movements than had hitherto been considered in isolation from one another. Their common factor was the idea that material goods should be held in common and that producers should keep the fruits of their labor, all in the name of a better, happier, more healthy community and, perhaps, nation. The abiding concern of early socialists was to address what they saw as the moral and social disintegration of European civilization in the modern era, as well as to repair the rifts and ameliorate the suffering of workers in the midst of early industrial capitalism.

    There was a major shift in socialism that occurred over the course of the century: until 1848, socialism consisted of a movements that shared a concern with the plight of working people and the regrowth of organic social bonds. This kind of socialism was fundamentally optimistic – early socialists thought that almost everyone in European society would eventually become a socialist once they realized its potential. Following the later work of Friedrich Engels, one of the major socialist thinkers of the second half of the nineteenth century, this kind of socialism is often referred to as "utopian socialism."

    In turn, after 1848, socialism was increasingly militant because socialists realized that a major restructuring of society could not happen peacefully, given the strength of both conservative and liberal opposition. The most important militant socialism was Marxism, named after its creator Karl Marx.

    Three early socialist movements stand out as exemplary of so-called "utopian" socialism: the Saint-Simonians, the Owenites, and the Fourierists. Each was named after its respective founder and visionary. The binding theme of these three early socialist thinkers was not only radical proposals for the reorganization of work, but the idea that economic competition was a moral problem, that competition itself is in no way natural and instead implies social disorder. The Saint-Simonians called egoism, the selfish pursuit of individual wealth, “the deepest wound of modern society.”

    In that, they found a surprisingly sympathetic audience among some aristocratic conservatives who were also afraid of social disorder and were nostalgic for the idea of a reciprocal set of obligations that had existed in pre-revolutionary Europe between the common people and the nobility. In turn, the early socialists believed that there was nothing inherent in their ideas threatening to the rich – many socialists expected that the privileged classes would recognize the validity of their ideas and that socialism would be a way to bridge the class divide, not widen it.

    The Saint-Simonians, named after their founder Henri de Saint-Simon, were mostly highly educated young elites in France, many from privileged backgrounds, and many also graduates of the École Polytechnique, the most elite technical school in France founded by Napoleon. Their ideology, based on Saint-Simon's writings, envisaged a society in which industrialism was harnessed to make a kind of heaven on earth, with the fruits of technology going to feed, clothe, and house, potentially, everyone. They were, in a word, the first "technocrats," people who believe that technology can solve any problem. The Saint-Simonians did not inspire a popular movement, but individual members of the movement went on to achieve influential roles in the French industry, and helped lay the intellectual foundations of such ventures as the creation of the Suez Canal between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.

    The Owenites were initially the employees of Robert Owen, a British factory owner. He built a community for his workers in New Lanark, Scotland that provided health care, education, pensions, communal stores, and housing. He believed that productivity was tied to happiness, and his initial experiments met with success, with the New Lanark textile mill realizing consistent profits. He and his followers created a number of cooperative, communalist “utopian” communities (many in the United States), but those tended to fail in fairly short order. Instead, the lasting influence of Owenism was in workers organization, with the Owenites helping to organize a number of influential early trade unions, culminating in the London Working Men's’ Association in 1836.

    The Fourierists were part of a very peculiar movement, because their founder Charles Fourier was a very peculiar man. Fourier, who may have been at least partially insane, believed that he had unlocked a "science of the passions." According to Fourier, the reason that most people detested what they did to survive was that they were not doing the right kind of work. There were 810 specific kinds of personalities in the world, each of which was naturally inclined toward a certain kind of work. Thus, if 1,620 people (one man and one woman of each type) were to come together in a community, and each did the kind of work they "should" do, perfect happiness became possible. For example, according to Fourier, murderers were just people who should have been butchers, and children should be trash collectors, because they loved to play in the dirt. These planned communities would be called "Phalanxes," after the fighting formations of ancient Greece.

    Illustration of a large building - the phalanx itself - described as a palace of humanity.
    Figure 3.8.1: Illustration of a Fouriest phalanx. The heading simply reads “The Future.”

    Fourier was far more radical than most other self-understood socialists. For one, he advocated complete gender equality and even sexual liberation - he was very hostile to monogamy, which he regarded as unnatural. Regarding marriage as an outdated custom, he imagined that in his phalanxes children would be raised in common rather than lorded over by their parents. Above and beyond forward-thinking ideas about gender, some of his concepts were a bit more puzzling. Among other things, he claimed that planets mated and gave birth to baby planets, and that once all of humanity lived in phalanxes the oceans would turn into lemonade.

    Practically speaking the importance of the fourierists is that many phalanxes were actually founded, including several in the United States. While the more oddball ideas were conveniently set aside, they were still among the first real experiments in planned, communal living. Likewise, many important early feminists began their intellectual careers as Fourierists. For instance, Flora Tristan was a French socialist and feminist who emerged from Fourierism to do important early work on tying the idea of social progress to female equality.

    In general, the broad “Utopian” socialism of the 1840s was quite widespread leading up to 1848, it was peaceful in orientation, it was democratic, it believed in the “right” to work, and its followers hoped that the higher orders might join it.

    Considered in detail in the next chapter, there was an enormous revolutionary explosion all over Europe in 1848. From Paris to Vienna to Prague, Europeans rose up and, temporarily as it turned out, overthrew their monarchs. In the end, however, the revolutions collapsed. The awkward coalitions of socialists and other rebels that had spearheaded them soon fell to infighting, and kings (and in France, a new emperor) eventually reasserted control. Socialists made important realizations following 1848. Democracy did not lead inevitably to social and political progress, as majorities typically voted for established community leaders (often priests or nobles). Class collaboration was not a possibility, as the wealthier bourgeoisie and the nobility recognized in socialism their shared enemy. Peaceful change might not be possible, given the forces of order's willingness to employ violence to achieve their ends. Russia, for instance, invaded Hungary to ensure the continued rule of (Russia’s ally at the time) Habsburg Austria. After 1848 socialism was increasingly militant, focused on the necessity of confrontational tactics, even outright violence, to achieve a better society. Two post-Utopian and rival forms of socialist theory matured in this period: state socialism and anarchist socialism.

    The first, state socialism, is represented by the French thinker and agitator Louis Blanc. Blanc believed that social reform had to come from above. It was, he argued, unrealistic to imagine that groups could somehow spontaneously organize themselves into self-sustaining, harmonious units. He believed that universal manhood suffrage should and would lead to a government capable of implementing necessary economic changes, primarily by guaranteeing work for all citizens. He actually saw this happen in the French revolution of 1848, when he briefly served in the revolutionary government. There, he pushed through the creation of National Workshops for workers, which provided paid work for the urban poor.

    In stark contrast was anarchist socialism. A semantic point: anarchism means the rejection of the state, not the rejection of all forms of social organization or even hierarchy (i.e. it is perfectly consistent for there to be an organized anarchist movement, even one with leaders). In the case of nineteenth-century anarchist socialism, there were two major thinkers: the French Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and the Russian Mikhail Bakunin.

    Proudhon was the author of a book entitled “What Is Property?” in which he answered unequivocally that “property is theft.” The very idea of ownership was vacuous and false to Proudhon, a conceit that ensured that the wealthy maintained their hold on political and legal power. Unlike his rival Louis Blanc, Proudhon was skeptical of the state's ability to effect meaningful reform, and after the failure of the French revolution of 1848 he came to believe that all state power was inherently oppressive. Instead of a state, Proudhon advocated local cooperatives of workers in a kind of “economic federalism” in which cooperatives would exchange goods and services between one another, and each cooperative would reward work with the fruits of that work. Simply put, workers themselves would keep all profit. He believed that the workers would have to emancipate themselves through some kind of revolution, but he was not an advocate of violence.

    The other prominent anarchist socialist was Mikhail Bakunin, a contemporary, sometimes friend, and sometimes rival of Proudhon. Briefly, Bakunin believed in the necessity of an apocalyptic, violent revolution to wipe the social slate clean for a new society of free collectives. He loathed the state and detested the traditional family structure, seeing it as a useless holdover from the past. Bakunin thought that if his contemporary society was destroyed, the social instincts inherent to humanity would flower and people would “naturally” build a better society. He was also the great champion of the outcasts, the bandits, and the urban poor. He was deeply skeptical about both the industrial working class, who he noted all wished could be middle class, and of western Europe, which was shot-through with individualism, egoism, and the obsession with wealth. He ended up organizing large anarchist movements in Europe's “periphery,” especially in Italy and Spain. By about 1870 both countries had large anarchist movements.

    In the end, the most influential socialist was a German: Karl Marx. Marx was born in 1818 in the Rhineland, the son of Jewish parents who had converted to Lutheranism (out of necessity - Marx’s father was a lawyer in conservative, staunchly Lutheran Prussia). He was a passionate and brilliant student of philosophy who came to believe that philosophy was only important if it led to practical change – he wrote “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”

    Photograph of Marx in maturity with his trademark bushy beard.
    Figure 3.8.2: The best-known portrait of Marx, dating from 1875.

    A journalist as a young man, Marx became an avowed socialist by the 1840s and penned (along with his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels) the nineteenth century’s most famous and influential socialist work, The Communist Manifesto. Exiled to Great Britain in the aftermath of the failure of the Revolutions of 1848, Marx devoted himself to a detailed analysis of the endogenous tendencies of capitalist economics, ultimately producing three enormous volumes entitled, simply, Capital. The first was published in 1867, with the other two edited from notes and published by Engels after Marx’s death. It is worthwhile to consider Marx’s theories in detail because of their profound influence: by the middle of the twentieth century, fully a third of the world was governed by communist states that were at least nominally “Marxist” in their political and economic policies.

    All of history, according to Marx, is the history of class struggle. From ancient pharaohs to feudal kings and their nobles, classes of the rich and powerful had always abused and exploited classes of the poor and weak. The world had moved on into a new phase following the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution, however, one that (to Marx) simplified that ongoing struggle from many competing classes to just two: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The bourgeoisie were the rising middle classes, the owners of factories and businesses, the bankers, and all of those with direct control over industrial production. The proletariat was the industrial working class.

    Before this, the classes of workers in the pre-modern era generally had direct access to their livelihood: a small parcel of land, access to the common lands, the tools of their trade in the case of artisans. They had, in Marx’s language, some kind of protected access to "the means of production," which could mean anything from some land, a plow, and an ox to a workshop stocked with a carpenter's tools. In the modern era, however, those rights and those tools were systematically taken away. The common lands were closed off and replaced with commercial farms. Artisans were rendered obsolete by the growth of industry. Peasants were pushed off the land or owned plots so small their children had to look for work in the cities. The net effect was, generally, that the class of workers who had "nothing to sell but their labor," the proletariat, grew.

    At the same time, the people who did own property, "the bourgeoisie," were under pressure themselves. In the climate of the new capitalism, of unregulated markets and cutthroat competition, it was terribly easy to fall behind and go out of business. Thus, former members of the bourgeoisie lost out and became proletarians themselves. The net effect was that the proletariat grew and every other conceivable class (including peasants, the owners of small shops, etc.) shrank.

    Meanwhile, industry produced more and more products. Every year saw improvements in efficiency and economy in production, arriving at a terrific glut of products available for purchase. Eventually, there was simply too much out there and not enough people who could afford to buy it, as one of the things about the proletariat, one of their forms of "alienation," was their inability to buy the very things they made. This resulted in a "crisis of overproduction" and a massive economic collapse. This would be unthinkable in a pre-modern economy, where the essential problem a society faced was the scarcity of goods. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, however, products need consumers more than consumers need products.

    In the midst of one of these collapses, Marx wrote, the members of the proletariat could realize their common interests in seizing the unprecedented wealth that industrialism had made possible and using it for the common good. Instead of a handful of super-rich expropriators, everyone could share in material comfort and freedom from scarcity, something that had never been possible before. That vision of revolution was very powerful to the young Marx, who wrote that, given the inherent tendencies of capitalism, revolution was inevitable.

    In turn, revolutions did happen, most spectacularly in 1848, which Marx initially greeted with elation only to watch in horror as the revolutionary momentum ebbed and conservatives regained the initiative. Subsequently, as he devoted himself to the analysis of capitalism’s inherent characteristics rather than revolutionary propaganda, Marx became more circumspect. With staggering erudition, he tried to make sense of an economic system that somehow repeatedly destroyed itself and yet regrew stronger, faster, and more violent with every business cycle.

    In historical hindsight, Marx was really writing about what would happen if capitalism was allowed to run completely rampant, as it did in the first century of the Industrial Revolution. The hellish mills, the starving workers, and the destitution and anguish of the factory towns were all part of nineteenth-century European capitalism. Everything that could contain those factors, primarily in the form of concessions to workers and state intervention in the economy, had not happened on a large scale when Marx was writing - trade unions themselves were outlawed in most states until the middle of the century. In turn, none of the factors that might mitigate capitalism’s destructive tendencies were financially beneficial to any individual capitalist, so Marx saw no reason that they would ever come about on a large scale in states controlled by moneyed interests.

    To Marx, revolution seemed not only possible but probable in the 1840s, when he was first writing about philosophy and economics. After the revolutions of 1848 failed, however, he shifted his attention away from revolution and towards the inner working of capitalism itself. In fact, he rarely wrote about revolution at all after 1850; his great work Capital is instead a vast and incredibly detailed study of how England’s capitalist economy worked and what it did to the people “within” it.

    To boil it down to a very simple level, Marx never described in adequate detail when the material conditions for a socialist revolution were possible. Across the vast breadth of his books and correspondence, Marx (and his collaborator Friedrich Engels) argued that each nation would have to reach a critical threshold in which industrialism was mature, the proletariat was large and self-aware, and the bourgeoisie was using increasingly harsh political tactics to try to keep the proletariat in check. There would have to be, and according to Marxism there always would be, a major economic crisis caused by overproduction.

    At that point, somehow, the proletariat could rise up and take over. In some of his writings, Marx indicated that the proletariat would revolt spontaneously, without guidance from anyone else. Sometimes, such as in the second section of his early work The Communist Manifesto, Marx alluded to the existence of a political party, the communists, who would work to help coordinate and aid the proletariat in the revolutionary process. The bottom line is, however, that Marx was very good at critiquing the internal laws of the free market in capitalism, and in pointing out many of its problems, but he had no tactical guide to revolutionary politics. And, finally, toward the end of his life, Marx himself was increasingly worried that socialists, including self-styled Marxists, would try to stage a revolution “too early” and it would fail or result in disaster.

    In sum, Marx did not leave a clear picture of what socialists were supposed to do, politically, nor did he describe how a socialist state would work if a revolution was successful. This only mattered historically because socialist revolutions were successful, and those nations had to try to figure out how to govern in a socialistic way.

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