Rise of socialist ideas (up to Marx); Spread of Marxian Socialism (Part 5)

Rise of socialist ideas (up to Marx); Spread of Marxian Socialism (Part 5)

Spread of  Marxian Socialism


  • The Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany became the largest and most powerful socialist party in Europe, despite working illegally until the anti-socialist laws were dropped in 1890. Its votes reached 4.5 million, it had 90 daily newspapers, together with trade unions and co-ops, sports clubs, a youth organization, a women’s organization and hundreds of full-time officials.
  • Under the pressure of this growing party, Bismarck introduced limited welfare provision and working hours were reduced. Germany experienced sustained economic growth for more than forty years. Commentators suggest that this expansion, together with the concessions won, gave rise to illusions amongst the leadership of the SPD that capitalism would evolve into socialism gradually.
  • Beginning in 1896, in a series of articles published under the title “Problems of socialism”, Eduard Bernstein argued that an evolutionary transition to socialism was both possible and more desirable than revolutionary change. Bernstein and his supporters came to be identified as “revisionists” because they sought to revise the classic tenets of Marxism.
  • Although the orthodox Marxists in the party, led by Karl Kautsky, retained the Marxist theory of revolution as the official doctrine of the party, and it was repeatedly endorsed by SPD conferences, in practice the SPD leadership became increasingly reformist.


  • The path of reform appeared blocked to the Russian Marxists while Russia remained the bulwark of reaction. In the preface to the 1882 Russian edition to the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels had saluted the Russian Marxists who, they said, “formed the vanguard of revolutionary action in Europe”. But the working class, although many were organised in vast modern western-owned enterprises, comprised no more than a small percentage of the population and “more than half the land is owned in common by the peasants”.
  • Marx and Engels posed the question: How was Russia to progress to socialism? Could Russia “pass directly” to socialism or “must it first pass through the same process” of capitalist development as the West? They replied: “If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development.”
  • In 1903, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party began to split on ideological and organizational questions into Bolshevik (‘Majority’) and Menshevik (‘Minority’) factions, with Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin leading the more radical Bolsheviks. Both wings accepted that Russia was an economically backward country unripe for socialism. The Mensheviks awaited the capitalist revolution in Russia. But Lenin argued that a revolution of the workers and peasants would achieve this task.
  • After the Russian revolution of 1905, Leon Trotsky argued that unlike the French revolution of 1789 and the European Revolutions of 1848 against absolutism, the capitalist class would never organise a revolution in Russia to overthrow absolutism, and that this task fell to the working class who, liberating the peasantry from their feudal yoke, would then immediately pass on to the socialist tasks and seek a “permanent revolution” to achieve international socialism.

United States

  • In 1877, the Socialist Labor Party of America was founded. This party, which advocated Marxism, was a confederation of small Marxist parties and came under the leadership of Daniel De Leon.
  • In 1901, a merger between opponents of De Leon and the younger Social Democratic Party joined with Eugene V. Debs to form the Socialist Party of America.
  • In 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World formed from several independent labor unions. The IWW opposed the political means of Debs and De Leon, as well as the craft unionism of Samuel Gompers.
  • In 1910, the Sewer Socialists, the main group of American socialists, elected Victor Berger as a socialist Congressman and Emil Seidel as a socialist mayor of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, most of the other elected city officials being socialist as well. This Socialist Party of America grew to 150,000 in 1912 and polled 897,000 votes in the presidential campaign of that year, 6 percent of the total vote. The Socialist Party declined after the First World War.
  • By the 1880s anarcho-communism was already present in the United States as can be seen in the publication of the journal Freedom: A Revolutionary Anarchist-Communist Monthly.


  • French socialism was beheaded by the suppression of the Paris commune (1871), its leaders killed or exiled. But in 1879, at the Marseilles Congress, workers’ associations created the Federation of the Socialist Workers of France.
  • Three years later, Jules Guesde and Paul Lafargue, the son-in-law of Karl Marx, left the federation and founded the French Workers’ Party.
  • The Federation of the Socialist Workers of France was termed “possibilist” because it advocated gradual reforms, whereas the French Workers’ Party promoted Marxism. In 1905 these two trends merged to form the French Section of the Workers’ International (SFIO), led by Jean Jaures. In 1906 it won 56 seats in Parliament. The SFIO adhered to Marxist ideas but became, in practice, a reformist party. By 1914 it had more than 100 members in the Chamber of Deputies.


  • In Europe most Social Democratic parties participated in parliamentary politics and the day-to-day struggles of the trade unions.
  • The Social Democratic Federation (SDF) was established as Britain’s first organised socialist political party by H. M. Hyndman, and had its first meeting on 7 June 1881. Many trade unionists who were members of the Social Democratic Federation, which included at various times future trade union leaders such as Will Thorne, John Burns and Tom Mann, felt that the Federation neglected the industrial struggle. Along with Engels, who refused to support the SDF, many felt that dogmatic approach of the SDF, particularly of its leader, Henry Hyndman, meant that it remained an isolated sect.
  • In Britain and the British dominions, labour parties were formed. These were parties largely formed by and controlled by the trade unions, rather than formed by groups of socialist activists who then appealed to the workers for support. In Britain, in 1900, the Labour Party, (at first the Labour Representation Committee) was established by representatives of trade unions together with affiliated socialist parties, principally the Independent Labour Party but also for a time the avowedly Marxist Social Democratic Federation and other groups, such as the Fabians.
  • The British Labour Party first won seats in the House of Commons in 1902. It won the majority of the working class away from the Liberal Party after World War I.


  • On 1 December 1899 Anderson Dawson of the Australian Labor Party became the Premier of Queensland, Australia, forming the world’s first parliamentary socialist government . Australian Labor Party achieved rapid success, forming its first national government in 1904.

World War I

  • When World War I began in 1914, many European socialist leaders supported their respective governments’ war aims. The social democratic parties in the UK, France, Belgium and Germany supported their respective state’s wartime military and economic planning, discarding their commitment to internationalism and solidarity.
  • Lenin, in his April Theses, denounced the war as an imperialist conflict, and urged workers worldwide to use it as an occasion for proletarian revolution. The Second International dissolved during the war, while Lenin, Trotsky, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, together with a small number of other Marxists opposed to the war, came together in the Zimmerwald Conference in September 1915. ( Zimmerwald Conference was held in Zimmerwald, Switzerland, from 5 to 8 September 1915. It was the first of three international socialist conferences convened by anti-militarist socialist parties from countries that were originally neutral during World War I.)

Q. What are the positive and negative contributions of Socialism?

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