Rise of socialist ideas (up to Marx); Spread of Marxian Socialism (Part 1)

Rise of socialist ideas (up to Marx); spread of Marxian Socialism (Part 1)


  • Socialism is a social and economic doctrine that calls for public rather than private ownership or control of property and natural resources. Socialism is characterised by social ownership and/or social control of the means of production and co-operative management of the economy, as well as a political theory and movement that aims at the establishment of such a system. “Social ownership” may refer to cooperative enterprises, common ownership, state ownership, citizen ownership of equity, or any combination of these.
  • According to the socialist view, individuals do not live or work in isolation but live in cooperation with one another. Furthermore, everything that people produce is in some sense a social product, and everyone who contributes to the production of a good is entitled to a share in it. Society as a whole, therefore, should own or at least control property for the benefit of all its members. This conviction puts socialism in opposition to capitalism, which is based on private ownership of the means of production and allows individual choices in a free market to determine how goods and services are distributed.
  • A socialist economy is based on the principle of production for use, to directly satisfy economic demand and human needs, and objects are valued by their use-value, as opposed to the principle of production for profit and accumulation of capital.

Criticism of Capitalism

  • Socialists complain that capitalism necessarily leads to unfair and exploitative concentrations of wealth and power in the hands of the relative few who emerge victorious from free-market competition—people who then use their wealth and power to reinforce their dominance in society. Because such people are rich, they may choose where and how to live, and their choices in turn limit the options of the poor.  As a result, terms such as individual freedom and equality of opportunity may be meaningful for capitalists but can only ring hollow for working people, who must do the capitalists’ bidding if they are to survive. As socialists see it, true freedom and true equality require social control of the resources that provide the basis for prosperity in any society.
  • Socialists argue that capitalism consists of irrational activity, such as the purchasing of commodities only to sell at a later time when their price appreciates, rather than for consumption, even if the commodity cannot be sold at a profit to individuals in need; therefore, a crucial criticism often made by socialists is that making money, or accumulation of capital, does not correspond to the satisfaction of demand.
  • The fundamental criterion for economic activity in capitalism is the accumulation of capital for reinvestment in production; this spurs the development of new, non-productive industries that don’t produce use-value and only exist to keep the accumulation process afloat, such as the spread of the financial industry, contributing to the formation of economic bubbles
  • Socialists argue that the accumulation of capital generates waste through externalities that require costly corrective regulatory measures. For Example: Excessive disparities in income distribution lead to social instability and require costly corrective measures in the form of redistributive taxation, which incurs heavy administrative costs while weakening the incentive to work, inviting dishonesty and increasing the likelihood of tax evasion while the corrective measures reduce the overall efficiency of the market economy.

Criticism of Socialism

  • Economic liberals view private enterprise, private ownership of the means of production, and the market exchange as central to conceptions of freedom and liberty. Socialism impedes technological progress due to stifled competition.
  • The more even distribution of wealth through the nationalization of the means of production advocated by certain socialists cannot be achieved without a loss of political, economic, and human rights. To achieve control over means of production and distribution of wealth, it is necessary for such socialists to acquire significant powers of coercion. It is argued that the road to socialism leads society to totalitarianism. The absence of voluntary economic activity makes it too easy for repressive political leaders to grant themselves coercive powers.
  • Some critics of socialism argue that income sharing reduces individual incentives to work; incomes should be individualized as much as possible. Critics of socialism have argued that in any society where everyone holds equal wealth there can be no material incentive to work because one does not receive rewards for a work well done.
  • Socialist systems based on economic planning are unfeasible because they lack the information to perform economic calculations in the first place, due to a lack of price signals and a free-price system, which are required for rational economic calculation.

Origin of Socialism

  • The origins of socialism as a political movement has its origins in the French Revolution of 1789 and the changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution, although it has precedents in earlier movements and ideas.
  • Socialist or communist ideas certainly play an important part in the ideas of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, whose Republic depicts an austere society in which men and women of the “guardian” class share with each other not only their few material goods but also their spouses and children.
  • The French Revolution was preceded and influenced by the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose Social Contract famously began, “Man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” Rousseau is credited with influencing socialist thought, but it was Babeuf, and his Conspiracy of Equals, who is credited with providing a model for left-wing and communist movements of the 19th century.
  • In the period right after the French Revolution, activists and theorists like Francois Babeuf influenced the early French labour and socialist movements.  His newspaper “the tribune of the people” was best known for his advocacy for the poor and calling for a popular revolt against the Directory, the government of France. He was a leading advocate for democracy, the abolition of private property and the equality of results. Babeuf was executed for his role in the Conspiracy of the Equals. He is also called father of socialism.
  • In Britain, Thomas Paine proposed a detailed plan to tax property owners to pay for the needs of the poor in Agrarian Justice while Charles Hall wrote The Effects of Civilization on the People in European States, denouncing capitalism´s effects on the poor of his time.

Growth of Socialist Movement

Early or Utopian Socialism

  • Utopian socialism is a label used to define the first currents of modern socialist thought as exemplified by the work of Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and Robert Owen.
  • Utopian socialism is often described as the presentation of visions and outlines for imaginary or futuristic ideal societies, with positive ideals being the main reason for moving society in such a direction.
  • One key difference between “utopian socialists” and other socialists is that utopian socialists generally don’t believe any form of class struggle or political revolution is necessary for socialism to emerge. Utopians believe that people of all classes can voluntarily adopt their plan for society if it is presented convincingly. They feel their form of cooperative socialism can be established among like-minded people within the existing society.
  • Later socialists and critics of utopian socialism viewed “utopian socialism” as not being grounded in actual material conditions of existing society.
  • Utopian socialists never actually used this name to describe themselves; the term “Utopian socialism” was introduced by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto in 1848, referring to all socialist ideas that simply presented a vision and distant goal of an ethically just society as utopian.

Saint Simon

  • One of the first utopian socialists was the French aristocrat Saint-Simon (born 1760, Paris). Saint-Simon did not call for public ownership of productive property, but he did advocate public control of property through central planning, in which scientists, industrialists, and engineers would anticipate social needs and direct the energies of society to meet them. According to Saint-Simon, such a system would be more efficient than capitalism.
  • Saint-Simon believed that history moves through a series of stages, each of which is marked by a particular arrangement of social classes and a set of dominant beliefs. Thus, feudalism, with its landed nobility and monotheistic religion, was giving way to industrialism, a complex form of society characterized by its reliance on science, reason, and the division of labour. In such circumstances, Saint-Simon argued, it makes sense to put the economic arrangements of society in the hands of its most knowledgeable and productive members, so that they may direct economic production for the benefit of all.
  • In his last years and in the period after his death, Saint-Simon’s ideas, which gave prominence to art as a prized aspect of work, interested numerous artists and musicians

Robert Owen

  • Another early socialist, Robert Owen, was himself an industrialist. Owen first attracted attention by operating textile mills in New Lanark, Scot., that were both highly profitable and, by the standards of the day, remarkably humane. Child labor and corporal punishment were abolished, and villagers were provided with decent homes, schools and evening classes, free health care, and affordable food.
  • He wrote about his ideas in his book A New View of Society, which was published in 1813
  • Owen’s fundamental belief was that human nature is not fixed but formed. If people are selfish, depraved, or vicious, it is because social conditions have made them so. Change the conditions, he argued, and people will change; teach them to live and work together in harmony, and they will do so. Thus, Owen set out in 1825 to establish a model of social organization, New Harmony, on land he had purchased in the U.S. state of Indiana. This was to be a self-sufficient, cooperative community in which property was commonly owned.
  • New Harmony failed within a few years, taking most of Owen’s fortune with it, but he soon turned his attention to other efforts to promote social cooperation—trade unions and cooperative businesses, in particular.
  • Owen’s main contribution to socialist thought was the view that human social behavior is not fixed or absolute, and that human beings have the free will to organize themselves into any kind of society they wished.

Charles Fourier

  • François-Marie-Charles Fourier (1772 – 1837), a French clerk whose imagination, if not his fortune, was as extravagant as Owen’s. Modern society breeds selfishness, deception, and other evils, Fourier charged, because institutions such as marriage, the male-dominated family, and the competitive market confine people to repetitive labour or a limited role in life and thus frustrate the need for variety. By setting people at odds with each other in the competition for profits the market in particular frustrates the desire for harmony.
  • Accordingly, Fourier envisioned a form of society that would be more in keeping with human needs and desires. Such a “phalanstery,” as he called it, would be a largely self-sufficient community of about 1,600 people organized according to the principle of “attractive labour,” which holds that people will work voluntarily and happily if their work engages their talents and interests.
  • All tasks become tiresome at some point, however, so each member of the phalanstery would have several occupations, moving from one to another as his interest waned and waxed. Fourier left room for private investment in his utopian community, but every member was to share in ownership, and inequality of wealth, though permitted, was to be limited.
  • He had no money to embark upon such ventures as Owen did. He kept onn waiting for a person who would give him money for putting idea into practice but n one came.
  • Fourierism manifested itself in the middle of the 19th century where literally hundreds of communes (phalansteries) were founded on fourierist principles in France, N. America, Mexico, S. America, Algeria, Yugoslavia, etc.” Fourier inspired the founding of the communist community called La Reunion near present-day Dallas, Texas as well as several other communities within the United States of America.

Other Early Socialists

  • Other socialists in France began to agitate and organize in the 1830s and ’40s; they included Louis Blanc, Louis-Auguste Blanqui, and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.
  • Blanc, the author of The Organization of Labour, 1839, promoted a scheme of state-financed but worker-controlled “social workshops” that would guarantee work for everyone and lead gradually to a socialist society.
  • Blanqui, by contrast, was a revolutionary who spent more than 33 years in prison for his insurrectionary activities. Socialism cannot be achieved without the conquest of state power, he argued, and this conquest must be the work of a small group of conspirators. Once in power, the revolutionaries would form a temporary dictatorship that would confiscate the property of the wealthy and establish state control of major industries.
  • Proudhon in What Is Property?, 1840,  memorably declared, “Property is theft!” This assertion was not quite as bold as it appears, however, since Proudhon had in mind not property in general but property that is worked by anyone other than its owner. In contrast to a society dominated by capitalists and absentee landlords, Proudhon’s ideal was a society in which everyone had an equal claim, either alone or as part of a small cooperative, to possess and use land and other resources as needed to make a living. Such a society would operate on the principle of mutualism, according to which individuals and groups would exchange products with one another on the basis of mutually satisfactory contracts. All this would be accomplished, ideally, without the interference of the state, for Proudhon was an anarchist who regarded the state as an essentially coercive institution. Yet his anarchism did not prevent him from urging Napoleon III to make free bank credit available to workers for the establishment of mutualist cooperatives—a proposal the emperor declined to adopt.

Note: Anarchism is a political philosophy that advocates stateless societies, often defined as self-governed, voluntary institution. Anarchism holds the state to be undesirable, unnecessary, or harmful.

  • Mikhail Bakunin, the father of modern anarchism, was a libertarian socialist, a theory by which the workers would directly manage the means of production through their own productive associations. There would be “equal means of subsistence, support, education, and opportunity for every child, boy or girl, until maturity, and equal resources and facilities in adulthood to create his own well-being by his own labor.”
  • While many socialists emphasized the gradual transformation of society, most notably through the foundation of small, utopian communities, a growing number of socialists became disillusioned with the viability of this approach and instead emphasized direct political action. Early socialists were united, however, in their desire for a society based on cooperation rather than competition.

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