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Socialism Essay, Research Paper


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

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