Socialism Essay

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The term socialism is commonly used to refer both to an ideology–a

comprehensive set of beliefs or ideas about the nature of human society and its

future desirable state–and to a state of society based on that ideology.

Socialists have always claimed to stand above all for the values of equality,

social justice, cooperation, progress, and individual freedom and happiness, and

they have generally sought to realize these values by the abolition of the

private-enterprise economy (see CAPITALISM) and its replacement by “public

ownership,” a system of social or state control over production and distribution.

Methods of transformation advocated by socialists range from constitutional

change to violent revolution.


Some scholars believe that the basic principles of socialism were derived from

the philosophy of Plato, the teachings of the Hebrew prophets, and some parts of

the New Testament (the Sermon on the Mount, for example). Modern socialist

ideology, however, is essentially a joint product of the 1789 French Revolution

and the Industrial Revolution in England–the word socialist first occurred in

an English journal in 1827. These two great historical events, establishing

democratic government in France and the conditions for vast future economic

expansion in England, also engendered a state of incipient conflict between the

property owners (the bourgeoisie) and the growing class of industrial workers;

socialists have since been striving to eliminate or at least mitigate this

conflict. The first socialist movement emerged in France after the Revolution

and was led by Francois BABEUF, Filippo Buonarrotti (1761-1837), and Louis

Auguste BLANQUI; Babeuf’s revolt of 1796 was a failure. Other early socialist

thinkers, such as the comte de SAINT-SIMON, Charles FOURIER, and Etienne CABET

in France and Robert OWEN and William Thompson (c.1785-1833) in England,

believed in the possibility of peaceful and gradual transformation to a

socialist society by the founding of small experimental communities; hence,

later socialist writers dubbed them with the label utopian.


In the mid-19th century, more-elaborate socialist theories were developed, and

eventually relatively small but potent socialist movements spread. The German

thinkers Karl MARX and Friedrich ENGELS produced at that time what has since

been generally regarded as the most sophisticated and influential doctrine of

socialism. Marx, who was influenced in his youth by German idealist philosophy

and the humanism of Ludwig Andreas FEUERBACH, believed that human beings, and

particularly workers, were “alienated” in modern capitalist society; he argued

in his early writings that the institution of private property would have to be

completely abolished before the individual could be reconciled with both society

and nature. His mature doctrine, however, worked out in collaboration with

Engels and based on the teachings of classical English political economy, struck

a harder note, and Marx claimed for it “scientific” status.

The first important document of mature MARXISM, the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO (1848),

written with Engels, asserted that all known human history is essentially the

history of social classes locked in conflict. There has in the past always been

a ruling and an oppressed class. The modern, or bourgeois, epoch, characterized

by the capitalist mode of production with manufacturing industry and a free

market, would lead according to Marx and Engels to the growing intensity of the

struggle between capitalists and workers (the proletariat), the latter being

progressively impoverished and as a result assuming an increasingly

revolutionary attitude.

Marx further asserted, in his most famous work, Das KAPITAL, that the capitalist

employer of labor had, in order to make a profit, to extract “surplus value”

from his employees, thereby exploiting them and reducing them to “wage-slavery.”

The modern state, with its government and law-enforcing agencies, was solely the

executive organ of the capitalist class. Religion, philosophy, and most other

forms of culture likewise simply fulfilled the “ideological” function of making

the working class contented with their subordinate position. Capitalism, however,

as Marx claimed, would soon and necessarily grind to a halt: economic factors,

such as the diminishing rate of profit, as well as the political factor of

increasing proletarian “class consciousness” would result in the forcible

overthrow of the existing system and its immediate replacement by the

“dictatorship of the proletariat.” This dictatorship would soon be superseded by

the system of socialism, in which private ownership is abolished and all people

are remunerated according to their work, and socialism would lead eventually to

COMMUNISM, a society of abundance characterized by the complete disappearance of

the state, social classes, law, politics, and all forms of compulsion. Under

this ideal condition goods would be distributed according to need, and the unity

of all humankind would be assured because of elimination of greed.


Marxist ideas made a great impact on European socialist movements. By the second

half of the 19th century socialists in Europe were organizing into viable

political parties with considerable and growing electoral support; they also

forged close links in most countries with trade unions and other working-class

associations. Their short-term programs were mainly concerned with increasing

the franchise, introducing state welfare benefits for the needy, gaining the

right to strike, and improving working conditions, especially shortening the

work day.

Moderate Socialism

Ideas other than those of Marx were at this time also becoming influential. Such

ideas included moderate socialist doctrines, for example, those of the FABIAN

SOCIETY in England, founded by Sidney WEBB and including among its adherents the

writers H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw; those of Ferdinand LASSALLE in

Germany; and of Louis BLANC in France. These moderates sought to achieve

socialism by parliamentary means and by appealing deliberately to the middle

class. Fabianism had as one of its intellectual forebears the utilitarian

individualism of Jeremy BENTHAM and John Stuart MILL, and it became a doctrine

that sought to reconcile the values of liberty, democracy, economic progress,

and social justice. The Fabians believed that the cause of socialism would also

be aided by the advancement of the social sciences, especially economics and

sociology. These doctrines, collectively known as social democracy, did not,

like Marxism, look toward the complete abolition of private property and the

disappearance of the state but instead envisaged socialism more as a form of

society in which full democratic control would be exercised over wealth, and

production would be controlled by a group of responsible experts working in the

interests of the whole community. The achievement of socialism was seen by

social democrats as a long-term goal, the result of an evolutionary process

involving the growth of economic efficiency (advanced technology, large-scale

organization, planning), education in moral responsibility, and the voluntary

acceptance of equal shares in benefits and burdens; socialism would be the

triumph of common sense, the inevitable outcome of LIBERALISM, the extension of

democracy from politics to industry.

CHRISTIAN SOCIALISM spread from its beginnings in England to France and Germany.

Charles KINGSLEY, John Malcolm Forbes Ludlow (1821-1911), and Frederick Denison

MAURICE were among its founders. They in the main supported moderate social

democracy, emphasizing what they understood as the central message of the church

in social ethics, notably the values of cooperation, brotherhood, simplicity of

tastes, and the spirit of self-sacrifice. Their ideas proved fertile in both the

short and the long runs, although in actual political terms Christian socialism

never succeeded in altering the predominantly secular orientation of most

socialist movements.

Radical Socialism

On the other hand, many doctrines and movements were decidedly more militant

than Marxism. Anarchists (see ANARCHISM), influenced mainly by the ideas of the

Frenchman Pierre Joseph PROUDHON and later of the Russian emigres Mikhail

Aleksandrovich BAKUNIN and Pyotr Alekseyevich KROPOTKIN, were intent on

immediately overthrowing the capitalist state and replacing it with small

independent communities. Unlike the Marxists, whom they bitterly criticized,

anarchists were against the formation of socialist parties, and they repudiated

parliamentary politics as well as the idea of revolutionary dictatorship. Their

followers, never very numerous, were and are found mainly in the Latin countries

of Europe and America. SYNDICALISM, an offshoot of anarchism, was a movement of

militant working-class trade unionists who endeavored to achieve socialism

through industrial action only, notably by using the weapon of the general

strike. Their doctrine was similar to Marxism in that they also believed that

socialism was to be achieved only by and for the working class, but unlike the

Marxists they rejected the notion of a future centralized socialist state. Their

most eminent theorist was Georges SOREL. Syndicalist ideas also had intermittent

success in the British and American trade union movements, for example, the

INDUSTRIAL WORKERS OF THE WORLD, an American-based syndicalist union active

around the turn of the century. Guild socialism in England, dominated by George

Douglas Howard Cole (1889-1959), the academic economist and historian,

represented a modified and milder form of syndicalism.

In Russia, where it was impossible to organize openly a popular socialist

movement under the tsarist regime, socialism became mainly the ideology of young

militant intellectuals whose favored means of furthering the cause were secret

conspiracies and acts of individual terrorism. Debate raged between those who

believed in the native socialist ethos of the Russian village community and

those who wanted to adopt Western ideas of modernization. The latter party,

which eventually emerged victorious, soon came under Marxist influence. Among

its adherents was V. I. LENIN, who emerged as the leader of a small but

dedicated group of “professional revolutionaries,” the Bolshevik (see BOLSHEVIKS

AND MENSHEVIKS) wing of the illegal Russian Social Democratic Workers’ party.

Lenin was also the theorist who irrevocably gave a markedly elitist and

authoritarian twist to Marxism: he worked out the theory of the proletarian

vanguard–that is, the Communist party–which was destined to lead the masses

toward socialism, irrespective of the masses’ inclinations.


Throughout the 19th century the socialist movement was beset by a number of

ever-deepening conflicts and doctrinal controversies.

The Internationals

The International Workingmen’s Association (First International; see

INTERNATIONAL, SOCIALIST), founded in 1864, was expected to achieve unity among

various socialist and militant trade union organizations, but its efforts were

greatly hindered by, among other things, the conflict between the followers of

Bakunin and those of Marx. It came to an end soon after the suppression of the


The Second International (1889-1914) assumed for a time at least an outward

appearance of unity, in that it represented the high watermark of classical

Marxist influence in West European socialism. It was dominated by the largest

socialist parties then in existence, the French–led by Jean JAURES, Jules

Guesde (1845-1922), and Paul Lafargue (1842-1911)–and the German–led by August

BEBEL, Karl Johann KAUTSKY, and Wilhelm Liebknecht (see LIEBKNECHT family)–who

agreed at least in their broad understanding of the aims and methods of

socialism. Their spokesmen emphasized the need to foster international

solidarity among the mass of the working class and thus to avert the threat of a

major war in Europe. This effort proved singularly unsuccessful: NATIONALISM in

1914 and later proved a much stronger mass emotion than socialism. Apart from a

few exceptions, such as Lenin and his Bolshevik group, socialist movements

supported the war effort of their respective governments. As a result of the

general conflagration in 1914 the Second International disintegrated and

therewith also the hopes of socialist unity.


Another important controversy broke out in the 1890s within Marxism, involving

the German Social Democratic party. This party was divided then between a

militant revolutionary left wing, an orthodox center that held to the classical

Marxist doctrine of economic determinism, and a right wing moving rapidly toward

a position of open reformism. The right wing had as its most renowned spokesman

Eduard BERNSTEIN, a personal friend of Marx and Engels, who was, however, also

influenced by English Fabian ideas.

Bernstein repudiated the notion of violent revolution and argued that conditions

in civilized countries such as Germany made possible a peaceful, gradual

transformation to socialism. He sought to reinterpret Marxist doctrine in the

light of fresh advances made in economic science, such as those also embraced in

Fabian doctrine, and argued that socialism was compatible with individual

economic responsibility. He rejected, furthermore, the idea of “class morality,”

which judged all actions according to their revolutionary import. Instead he

advocated a code of individual morality, derived from Kant’s moral philosophy.

Consequently, Bernstein asserted the need for socialists to concentrate on

immediate tasks instead of ultimate and remote objectives; the movement, he

wrote, was everything; the goal, nothing.

This doctrine, henceforward called revisionism, immediately became the subject

of bitter attacks by the revolutionary left wing, represented above all by Rosa

LUXEMBURG, which on this issue was supported by the orthodox center and its

principal theorist, Karl Kautsky. The terms of the debate on revisionism

centered on the facts, noted by Bernstein, of considerable improvement in the

living standards of the working class, its resultant political integration in

the constitutional (republican or monarchical) state, the purely reformist

stance of trade unions, and the virtual absence of any desire for a radical

change on the part of the great majority of workers.

The opponents of revisionism, while acknowledging these tendencies, argued that

material improvements were insufficient and ephemeral. They felt that if the

working class and its organizations accepted the constitutional state they were

merely postponing indefinitely the change to socialism. According to them, the

principal tasks of the socialist leader are to arouse dissatisfaction with

existing conditions and to reemphasize constantly the worth of the ultimate goal.

The arguments on both sides continue with only slight changes in the debate

between reformist and revolutionary socialists everywhere. In Marxist jargon the

term revisionism became synonymous with treason. Ironically–but in a way that

pointed toward the subsequent fate of Marxist doctrine–the orthodox center in

the German party was soon to be denounced by left-wingers as revisionist. Lenin,

too, came to condemn sharply the German social democrats and the “renegade”

Kautsky. The latter, in turn, vehemently denounced Lenin and the Bolsheviks for

their adoption of terrorist methods in the consolidation of their revolutionary

gains in Russia. Marxist unity, like the Second International, thus also fell

victim to World War I and its aftermath: from then on Marxists have tended to be

either Marxist-Leninists–that is, communists embracing the elitist doctrine of

the vanguard party–or moderate revisionists moving ever closer to reformist

social democracy.


Modern socialism owes its shape and fortune at least as much to secular events

as to the continuing attraction of its various doctrines. The major upheavals

caused by two world wars greatly contributed to the success of the Russian

(1917) and Chinese (1949) revolutions, and the governments of these two powerful

countries thereafter endeavored by diverse means to spread the Marxist

revolutionary doctrine further afield, resorting to military methods (as in

Eastern Europe), economic pressures, and military and economic aid, as well as

subversion and propaganda. Indigenous Marxist movements also succeeded in

gaining and maintaining power in Cuba (1959) and Nicaragua (1979). During most

of the 20th century, Marxist socialism meant the dictatorial rule of the

Communist party, intensive industrialization, central state direction of the

economy, and the collectivization of agriculture. These were accompanied,

particularly during the dictatorship of Joseph STALIN in the USSR, by a reign of

terror and the general absence of individual freedom. The Stalinist system,

though shorn of some of its worst brutalities, essentially remained in place

until the rise to power of Mikhail GORBACHEV in 1985. In a few short years,

Gorbachev’s policies of GLASNOST (openness) and PERESTROIKA (restructuring)

created irresistible demands for liberalization in both the USSR and Eastern

Europe. As the Soviet regime loosened its grip, the countries of Eastern Europe

threw off the Communist governments that had been imposed on them after World

War II. In the USSR itself long-cherished doctrines of Leninism were jettisoned

with bewildering speed, and, following an abortive coup by party hard-liners in

1991, the Soviet regime collapsed.


In Western Europe, despite the presence of large Marxist parties (as in Italy

and France) and the Marxist influence among intellectuals, socialism was, and

still is, principally represented by widely based social democratic and labor

movements, which generally enjoy the active support of trade unions. This

predominance of reformist trends over revolutionary aspirations undoubtedly was

occasioned by economic stability and the deterrent example of Marxist rule in

the East. The social democratic parties of Sweden, Britain, France, and the

Federal Republic of Germany (the former West Germany and present reunified

state), in particular, governed their respective countries for lengthy periods

during the postwar era through constitutional means, fully accepting the

principles of parliamentary liberal democracy. The spirit of these Western

European parties has tended to be pragmatic and tolerant, seeking accommodation

rather than confrontation. Their programs repudiate the doctrines of the class

war, revolution, and communism. Instead, they have relied on the expedients of

progressive taxation, deficit financing, selective nationalization, the mixed

economy, and vast welfare programs in order to bring about socialism; their

political success has depended on considerable middle-class support. Although

most of these parties have recently accommodated themselves to free-market

reforms, they remain committed to the social democratic vision of a “middle way”

between the extremes of communism and unfettered capitalism.

Social democratic foreign policy has generally been pacific and until recently

was mainly concerned with defusing the cold war and accelerating the processes

of decolonization and the banning of nuclear weapons. In domestic politics,

European social democrats generally refused to cooperate with communist parties

and other extremist socialist groups. The Social Democratic party (SPD) in

Germany, although at one time the citadel of orthodox Marxism, has since 1959

been a purely reformist party, abandoning its original goals. The British LABOUR

PARTY, socialist in its aims (its constitution since 1919 has had reference to

“public ownership”), has never had any serious doctrinal or organizational links

with Marxism, although its powerful left wing consistently advocates radical

policies. A dispute with the leftists prompted a group of Labour moderates to

secede (1981) and found the Social Democratic party, which later merged (1988)

with the Liberal party to form the Social and Liberal Democrats (later, Liberal

Democrats). The French Socialist party, which had long since abandoned its

orthodox Marxism, allied itself with the Communists during the 1960s, but under

the leadership of Francois MITTERRAND, it won the presidency on its own and

gained a majority in the National Assembly in 1981. In the same year, the Greek

Socialists came to power under Andreas PAPANDREOU, and in 1982, Felipe GONZALEZ

MARQUEZ formed Spain’s first Socialist government since the Spanish Civil War.

Bettino CRAXI became Italy’s first Socialist premier, heading a coalition

government from 1983 to 1987. Although Scandinavia’s social democrats suffered

electoral defeats in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the political parties of

Europe’s moderate left retained broad popular support.

The French Communist party was long known for its subservience to the USSR and

its rigid Stalinism. The Italian Communist party, on the other hand, relied on

an indigenous Marxist tradition associated mainly with the teaching of Antonio

GRAMSCI, one of the party’s founders, who is widely regarded as one of the most

significant of European Marxist thinkers. The Italian party, at one time the

largest in Western Europe, frequently obtained the highest percentage of the

popular vote in Italy’s parliamentary elections and continuously governed a

number of Italian municipalities (Bologna is a prime example).

During the 1970s the Italian Communists under Enrico BERLINGUER, the French

Communists under Georges Marchais, and the Spanish Communists under Santiago

Carillo embraced a doctrine known as Eurocommunism. The Eurocommunists, breaking

not only with Stalinism but with some aspects of the Leninist tradition, began

moving toward full acceptance of parliamentary democracy and the multiparty

system, in many ways prefiguring the glasnost-perestroika reforms that

dramatically changed the Communist world in the Gorbachev era. To the left of

the Communists were a number of new groups of militant revolutionaries, such as

West Germany’s Red Army (Baader-Meinhof) Faction and Italy’s Red Brigades, which

carried out campaigns of abduction, subversion, and terrorism in the 1970s and



In North America, Marxist influence never spread very far. In the United States

no socialist movement ever held a very large following, and although the country

has produced renowned socialist authors and popular leaders, they have not been

distinguished for their originality or for their impact on the worldwide

development of socialism. Socialism has not taken a firmer root in the United

States for several reasons, of which the country’s cultural traditions and its

wealth in natural resources are the most important. Whereas in Europe the

distribution of wealth was a pressing problem, facilitating the rise of

socialist movements, in the United States the moving “frontier” meant the

constant creation of new land and wealth and its accessibility for those endowed

with initiative and a spirit of individual enterprise. Thus in the United States

even radical thinkers tended to be “individualists” and “anarchists,” rather

than socialists. In this development the country’s tradition of republican self-

government and its ethos of egalitarianism and democracy also played a decisive

role: unlike Europe, the United States had no entrenched aristocratic privileges

or monarchical absolutism and consequently no need for democratic aspirations to

be combined with the socialist demand for economic equality and security. LABOR

UNIONS also, for the most part, concentrated on the achievement of higher

earnings and were not greatly interested in economic and social organization.

Numerous, although small, utopian socialist communities did flourish, however,

in the United States, mostly during the early 19th century. Also, a celebrated

economist, Henry GEORGE, and writers of repute, such as Edward BELLAMY,

advocated socialism, and socialist political leaders, such as Victor L. BERGER,

Eugene V. DEBS, Daniel DE LEON, and Norman THOMAS, had at one time considerable

popular appeal. The U.S. SOCIALIST PARTY, founded in 1901, reached its greatest

strength in the 1912 and 1920 presidential elections, when its candidate, Debs,

received more than 900,000 votes. In 1932, Norman Thomas, running on the

Socialist ticket, polled more than 800,000 votes. Thereafter the party’s

strength ebbed. The New Deal in the 1930s, although not socialist in inspiration,

also tended to draw votes away from the party. The New Deal’s policies of

economic redistribution seemed to meet demands of those who previously supported

the Socialists.

In the economic boom following World War II and especially in the cold-war era

of the 1950s and 1960s, U.S. socialism was at a low ebb. Later, however,

socialist ideas made considerable, although indirect, impacts on various radical

(see RADICALISM) and liberal movements. In the United States many people no

longer discuss socialism in its conventional political and economic sense, but

rather as a remote ethical and social ideal.


Socialism has assumed a number of distinct forms in the Third World. But only in

Israel has moderate social democracy proved successful for long periods, mainly

as a result of the European socialist tradition brought in by immigrants. There

the Labor party in various forms has had a large following and has governed the

country longer than any other party. Israel has other socialist parties as well,

including a militant Marxist party. At least of equal significance, however, are

the cooperative agricultural communes (kibbutzim), which have flourished since

1948. Commentators have argued that kibbutzim more than anything else show the

viability of socialist principles in practice; however, the peculiarities of

Israeli conditions (for example, religious tradition and constant war readiness

necessitated by the hostility of Israel’s Arab neighbors) could not easily be


Elsewhere in the Third World, Marxism and various indigenous traditions have

been predominant in socialist movements. In developing countries socialism as an

ideology generally has been fused with various doctrines of nationalism, also a

European cultural import but enriched by diverse motifs drawn from local

traditions and cast in the idiom of indigenous cultures. In India, for example,

the largest socialist movement has partially adapted the pacifist teaching of

Mahatma Gandhi, and distinct native brands of socialism exist in Japan, Burma

(Myanmar), and Indonesia. Similarly, in black Africa native traditions were used

in the adaptation of socialist, mainly Marxist, doctrines and political systems

based on them. Noteworthy instances were the socialist system of Tanzania

(decentralized under an internationally supported economic reform program of the

early 1990s) and the socialist theories of intellectual leaders such as Kwame

NKRUMAH of Ghana, Julius K. NYERERE of Tanzania, Leopold Sedar SENGHOR of

Senegal, and Sekou TOURE of Guinea. Socialism in these theories is usually

understood as a combination of Marxism, anticolonialism, and the updated

tradition of communal landownership and tribal customs of decision making. Most

of sub-Saharan Africa’s socialist countries adopted free-market reforms in the

late 1980s and early 1990s.

Arab socialism likewise represents an effort to combine modern European

socialist ideology with some Islamic principles. The BAATH PARTY in Iraq and

Syria and the Destour party in Tunisia have held power for considerable periods;

Algeria also has had a socialist system since its independence. In the Third

World, however, socialism has often been simply an ideology of anticolonialism

and modernization. Overtly Marxist movements, aided by the USSR, China, or Cuba,

nevertheless seized power in such African countries as Angola, Ethiopia, and

Mozambique. South Africa’s AFRICAN NATIONAL CONGRESS (ANC) was also strongly

influenced by Marxist ideas.


In the West in the 1960s a radical socialist movement, known as the New Left,

arose principally out of the disaffection of young people with the way of life

of advanced industrial society, and not least with its prosperity and conformism.

The movement, which was apolitical in nature, sought to expose the growing

“alienation” of the individual in advanced industrial conditions, castigating

the values of the “consumer society” and attacking many prevailing social

institutions. The beliefs of this movement, particularly strong in France, West

Germany, and the United States, sprang from many diverse sources. Most important

among these were the ideas found in Marx’s early writings; the idea of

“alienation,” as interpreted by such contemporary socialist philosophers as

Gyorgy LUKACS and Herbert MARCUSE; EXISTENTIALISM; romantic and utopian ideas

adapted from earlier socialist writers (for example, Fourier); sexual radicalism

derived from the teaching of Sigmund Freud; and some aspects of Eastern

religious traditions, such as ZEN BUDDHISM. Despite its initial appeal and

successes, however, the New Left did not prove to be a significant or lasting

influence on socialism in its worldwide context or even within advanced

industrial societies where conventional varieties still dominated.

It could well be argued that socialism as an alternative system of society and

government failed to live up to its promises; by and large it is today no more

than a dream or at best a set of ideal criteria whereby to judge the

shortcomings of existing institutions. Socialist ideology, however, remains a

popular and

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