Introduction to 19th-Century Socialism


Note: this subject more than most does not lend itself to purely "objective, unbiased" discussion. Old Cold Warriors see in 19th-Century socialism the seeds of the Stalinist terror, and Marxists see in it the hope for a better world. My own biases are somewhat more mixed: sympathy with some of the aims of the socialists, admiration for their analyses of capitalism, and general hostility for the forms of socialism which dominated much of the world for the first half of the 20th Centuy. My goal in this essay is to convey to the reader something of the background which led many intelligent, sensitive people to convert to socialism and advocate its implementation--without disregarding the often deplorable consequences.

One of the features of the Enlightenment was the exaltation of property rights to the status of a bulwark of liberty by philosophers such as John Locke. In older Europe property had always been accompanied by power; but that power was justified by the belief in the inevitability of aristocratic rule--the concept that the wealth of the nobility was their God-given right. To some slight degree it was balanced by a traditional Christian suspicion of wealth which endorsed holy poverty for the clergy and preached to the wealthy that they owed charity to the poor. Further, its power was limited by its basis--agriculture--which could expand only so far.

The Industrial Revolution had many profound effects on European civilization. It rendered much of the old aristocracy irrelevant, boosted the bourgeoisie to economic and political power, and drafted much of the old peasant class into its factories. The result was naturally a shift in attitude toward wealth. Capitalist wealth seemed to have no natural limits. Partly because the new industrial modes of production had no preassigned place in feudal order of things, the industrialists viewed themselves as the creators of their wealth and considered it something to be proud of.

This class also created the various movements for democratic government which swept across Europe; and it was only natural that they should have viewed their economic and political ideals as functioning hand in hand. Democracy was necessary to wrest power from the old nobility, to pass laws enabling business to thrive, and to guarantee their property rights.

Rousseau had argued in his Social Contract that true democracy could not thrive in a society with great extremes of wealth and poverty because power always naturally flows toward the wealthy, whatever the electoral system; but the sort of democracy the bourgeoisie advocated was for a long time reserved for property owners: merchants, manufacturers, landlords and bankers. One of the great struggles of the 19th Century was for the gradual expansion of the vote, first to working men, and--much later--to women.

The notion of liberty promulgated by the "liberals" of the 19th century (who held opinions now called "conservative") was based on the concept that only on the basis of economic independence and security could freedom be secured; and that liberty was a product of natural law, not of a Christian theology which had sometimes censured excessive wealth. Indeed, greed itself was often celebrated as the engine that drove the economy and provided work and prosperity for all. Dependency was considered self-destructive, so the poor were punished for their poverty by harsh laws designed to drive them to work.

These ideas are very familiar to us today: just consider how the news eagerly reports increases in consumer spending as a sign of a healthy economy, how the current movements for "welfare reform" use much the same concepts that justified the draconian "poor laws" of 19th-Century England. Investment is viewed, now as then, as the engine that drives the economy. Any measure which can encourage investors to buy more stock is viewed as beneficial to society as a whole.

But such a profound revolution was bound to cause negative reactions as well as positive ones. Not everyone agreed that the shift of power into the hands of the new rich was entirely benign.

In the first half of the 19th Century the working classes in the newly industrializing countries of England and Germany suffered under many forms of exploitation. The old feudal restrictions which had fixed peasants in place on the land and limited their income had also guaranteed them a place in the world. They may not have prospered, but they were often able to fend off starvation and homelessness simply because they had been born onto estates from which they could not be removed against their wills.

The dissolution of this old order meant that workers could be hired and fired at will and had to sell their labor for whatever the going rate was--and that rate was determined by their competition with each other to work cheaply enough to gain them an advantage in the job market. Traditional rules and protections went by the board in the new factories, which often ran for twenty-four hours a day (two twelve-hour shifts), seven days a week under the most inhumane conditions. Women and children were absorbed into the work force as well, often preferred because they cost much less than men. Living standards and educational levels actually declined in many areas.

Many of the industries severely polluted their environments, their machinery maimed and killed many workers, and food in the new factory towns was often of poor quality and in short supply. Even many well-to-do people became concerned over the wretched conditions under which the new working class labored, as is reflected in the popular novels of Charles Dickens.

But other side-effects of the industrial revolution had more immediate effects on the middle classes. The older economy had been a regulated one, fairly predictable except for the traditional crises caused by plague, war, and drought. The new economy brought a new kind of crisis that seemed to have no natural or rational basis--the "bust." What is now called "the business cycle" seemed to be beyond anyone's control. There would be a more or less prolonged period of economic growth, with plenty of jobs and rising wages during which most people prospered; but then, for no apparent reason, profits and wages would begin to fall and millions would be plunged into unemployment and poverty, and even the wealthy could abruptly find themselves much less well off, if not absolutely impoverished.

Industrialists tried to stabilize these wild cycles of "boom and bust" in the runaway engine of the capitalist economy by passing regulations setting maximum wages and banning labor unions (to conserve profits), regulating imports (to preserve national commercial advantages), and combining into huge monopolistic "trusts" designed to reduce or eliminate competition.

Although competition is the engine of capitalism, it is not to the advantage of individual capitalists that it be entirely unfettered. The ultimate success in competition, indeed, is to absorb or destroy rivals and emerge at the top of the heap, able to dictate wages and prices. Although as the century passed these efforts to stabilize and concentrate wealth grew more successful, they were never able to prevent the recurrence of periodic "crashes."

Some began to argue that this unstable new system which glorified greed while impoverishing the common people needed radical reform. These were the early socialists.

The notion of socialism can be traced back centuries in various forms, notably among the earliest Christians (see the remarkable story in Acts 4:34-5:11); and the model of monastic communism, with individuals owning nothing except what they collectively shared was constantly before the eyes of Europeans throughout much of the Christian era. But the roots of modern socialism lie in our period, in France, Germany and England during the period of the industrial revolution.

"Socialism" is an exceedingly fuzzy term which has been used to label an extraordinarily wide array of political and economic beliefs. Its definition is further obscured by the tendency of its enemies to label any idea with which they disagree "socialist." But generally socialists advocate a democratically controlled economy run for the benefit of all. The unfettered competition of capitalists is replaced by cooperation and the business cycle by planned stability. Often they believe--like the early Christians--that property should be shared in common, and private ownership of industry and land abolished.

Many 19th-Century socialists rejected the argument that the wealthy deserve their wealth because they have created it, instead believing that wealth is created by the working classes and wrongfully appropriated by the rich who benefit disproportionately from their underpaid labor. Much ink has been spilled to "prove" the capitalist or labor theories of value; but they are in essence not theories that can be proven, but rather irreconcilable philosophical views. Clearly both capital and labor are vital to industry, and arguing which produces the other is a variation on the old argument over which came first, the chicken or the egg, except that it is far more fraught with political tensions.

Such arguments had little appeal for most ordinary socialists: they simply saw poverty and its attendant misery spreading around them and wanted to do something about it. Their ideals were equality, cooperation, democracy, and shared prosperity.

These ideals were also shared by two other groups: the anarchists and the Communists. We have touched on anarchism in the context of Zola's Germinal, and it is sufficient to point out that its advocates rejected socialists' trust in even the most democratic of governments, arguing that only the most decentralized grass-roots sort of organization could prevent tyranny. Their critique of the usual socialist program was an acute one, but they failed to achieve much because the more peaceful anarchists could change little and the violent ones aroused more reaction against themselves than against the state which they dreamed of destroying.

Communism's relationship to socialism is a more complex matter. Traditionally, "communism" with a small "c" has been taken to stand for a form of social organization in which people live in groups, sharing labor and property collectively, whether this takes the form of a small commune or a large state. Those forms of socialism which merely emphasize publically financed social programs based on the heavy taxation of private business cannot properly be called "communist."

However, Marxists also consider themselves socialists. For modern Communists (with a big "C"), socialism is the more comprehensive term: Communism is regarded as an advanced stage of socialism, and this definition is adopted in this essay. Theoretically, the socialist state is an interim measure necessary to carry out the reorganization of society, which will then "wither away" to produce very much the same results as are aimed at in anarchism: a moneyless society in which market forces play no role, in which production is for the use of the producers, in which lands and factories are commonly owned by those who work them, and in which the state--and with it, war--is abolished. Unfortunately for this theory, the modern Communist states have withered only by retreating into capitalism, not by moving forward into anarchism.

It was not so clear in the mid-19th Century that socialism would not succeed. We are so used to capitalism by now that we take it for granted, supposing that investment, marketing and market forces must have been the central driving forces of human society for all time. This is very far from being the case. Property and privilege have always existed in some form, but not necessarily in the forms which they take under capitalism. It is difficult to remember, for instance, that in most early societies, including early Medieval Europe, few people ever handled money: barter was the rule.

Sophisticated thinkers in the 18th and early 19th Centuries were very aware that industrial capitalism had not always existed and indeed was emerging among lingering remnants of feudalism all over Europe. If such a profound revolution in social relations could take place in their own time, surely it was not unthinkable that another could succeed it--a socialist revolution.

The earliest thinkers to be called "socialists" were the Frenchmen Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) and François-Marie-Charles Fourier (1772-1837) and the Welshman Robert Owen ( (1771-1858). All three of them were visionaries with little political sense, hoping to bring about a better society through the voluntary efforts of people of good will. In this they were very much products of the Enlightenment. Among them, Owen was the only one who was able to put any of his ideas into practice, since as an idealistic wealthy industrialist he had the means to do so. Various Owenite communities were founded, especially in America, but none of them lasted long.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865), though more properly considered an anarchist, articulated a hostility toward capitalists that was echoed in the writings of many socialists. His slogan "property is theft" was a handy, if inflammatory, summation of the labor theory of value, and much influenced popular socialism among the working classes. However, like the majority of socialists and Communists, he was not strictly opposed to all private property: one should be free to own one's own home and domestic goods, for instance. What he objected to was property used to extract wealth from the labor of others: factories, mines, railroads, etc.; and Marx, whom he met in Paris in the 1840s, generally followed this line of thought. He was also an important influence on Marx's opponent, Bakunin, the Russian anarchist Zola used as inspiration for the character of Souvarine in Germinal.

When Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848, they were far from dominating the socialist movement. Proudhon had wider influence than they, and they often had to struggle to get their ideas taken seriously in socialist circles.

If it had only been idealistic industrialists and middle-class intellectuals who had espoused socialism, it never would have gotten far; but in its simpler forms its ideas found a fairly widespread appeal among working people. It comes as a shock to many modern students to discover that perhaps the majority of labor movements in the 19th Century embraced socialism as their goal. Zola's miners were not alone in seeing union organizing as only a preliminary stage on the advance toward state power.

Well into the 20th Century, labor unions often had at least nominally socialist programs, even in the notoriously conservative U.S. In Europe they routinely organized labor parties which competed in elections on socialist platforms, and sometimes won, though rarely implementing more than a few of their more modest goals, such as nationalizing railroads, mines, and some other industries.

The link between labor organizing and socialism was reinforced by the efforts of capitalists to suppress all labor movements, viewing any form of unionization, no matter how mild, as posing the threat of revolution. Socialists like Marx welcomed these popular movements as providing the only viable vehicle for radical change.

Clearly, he thought, ever larger masses of workers drafted into the industrial armies of capital, tormented by poverty and the insecurity born of the wild fluctuations of the business cycle, would grow to be the dominant force in society, outnumber everyone else. Their pressure for radical change would inevitably lead to a confrontation in which the capitalist rulers of society would abandon all pretense of democracy and thereby become the targets of an irresistable armed uprising. Marx's notion of revolution was always one of the vast majority of society seizing power from a tiny minority of capitalists for the common good of all.

That no such revolution ever took place is due in part to the remarkable successes of the labor movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Against incredibly difficult odds, often beaten, imprisoned, and shot, union members successfully waged campaigns to shorten the working day, increase wages, and improve working conditions until most workers no longer felt they had "nothing to lose" by destroying the system which they were substantially reshaping.

Meanwhile it should be said that the competitive forces of capitalism made their own contribution to worker prosperity despite the best efforts of the monopolistic trust-builders by continually producing more cheap, abundant goods which effectively raised the common standard of living. The new goods might lack the quality of the old hand-made products of the feudal age, but they were geneally available to people of even modest means. The twin pressures of maket competition and labor organization meant, on average, that--despite the misery prevalent in many quarters and the chaos created by periodic "busts," the majority of workers during the second half of the the 19th Century were better off than their parents.

The wave of democratic revolutions in 1848 which established parliamentary government in a number of European nations did not embrace the socialist ideals of the Communist Manifesto published that same year. It was not until 1864 that the International Working Men's Association (the "First International") was formed, powerfully influenced by Marxism, and became a dominant force in continental European socialism.

Meanwhile Marx's fellow German, Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-1864), was arguing for the formation of voluntary worker cooperatives as the basis of socialism. This reformist approach was worlds removed from Marx's revolutionary ideas and brought down his scorn; but many, like Étienne Lantier in Germinal, were drawn to them. Lassalle's cooperatives can be seen as the forerunners of many organizations thriving today even in the midst of capitalism: credit unions, mutual insurance companies, food coops, and the like. Cooperatives never succeeded in transforming society, but they have often offered alternatives to profit-oriented private enterprise.

Marx and Lasalle were the leading--and feuding--influences in the formation of the German Social Democratic Party, which was for some decades the leading Socialist organization in the world. Marx would have been astounded to discover that his theories were to find their most effective implementation in Russia rather than in his native Germany. By 1891 the party had a million and a half members and was experiencing substantial electoral success. However, the very political success of the Social Democrats meant that despite their fiery rhetoric--often more fiery than Marx at this period--their activities were absorbed into conventional political activities rather than into creating revolution.

Paralleling the shift of the successful labor movement, in the early 20th Century, the party became more and more moderate in its views, ultimately abandoning the goal of revolution altogether and aligning itself at the outbreak of World War I with the aggressive militarism of Kaiser Wilhelm in a move which destroyed its credibility with socialists abroad. The first great period of international socialism was destroyed by the war as labor parties all across Europe fell into line in support of their own governments, disproving the Marxist doctrine that enlightened workers would feel more loyalty to each other across international boundaries than they would to the governments dominated by their capitalist ruling classes. Only in the U.S. did the socialists refuse to endorse the war, but the American Socialist Party never gained more than six percent of the vote, and was a marginal factor in both national and international politics.

Social democrats were more successful in Europe, particularly in Scandinavia, following a gradualist approach which involved high taxes to enforce relative economic equality, government regulation of industry, nationalization of large industries, and social welfare. Elements of these ideas are still in place throughout much of Europe, though increasingly under attack and now in the process of being largely dismantled, but not without vigorous resistance from workers who have benefitted by the systems built before the collapse of international Communism.

One brief moment in history, the Paris Commune of March 18 to May 28, 1871, is worth mention because it belies the anti-Communist stereotype that Communism was always a conspiratorial plot imposed from above by would-be tyrants rather than a popular political movement. In the wake of the defeat of France in the Franco-German War and the collapse of the Second Empire (1852-70), the citizens of Paris elected a radical government which included both old-style Republicans bent on recreating the politics of 1789 (the Jacobins) and followers of the socialist Prudhon. Other communes were created in Lyon, Saint-Étienne, Marseille, and Toulouse, but were quickly suppressed. The national government centered in Versailles used the army to suppress the Paris Commune in a wave of bloody retaliation. This story is told in the sequel to Germinal--The Débacle--in which Zola makes Étienne Lantier one of the leaders of the Commune.

The Commune was important not because of its concrete achievements, but because of its symbolism. Karl Marx duly noted and commented on the episode, and it encouraged many socialists as a sign that the working classes were ready for radical measures.

The story of the Russian Revolution of 1917 would take us beyond the scope of this course, but it is necessary to make a few observations about its consequences since without that revolution we would probably not feel the need to study Marx today.

Marx's tough-minded "scientific" approach to socialism which dismissed the early socialists as idle utopians was hardened in the work of V. I. Lenin, whose pragmatism justified many harsh measures during and after the Russian Revolution which would have appalled Marx. His doctrine of "democratic centralism" which forbade further debate once an issue had been settled within the Communist Party and the role of the Party as the dominating "vanguard of the proletariat" can be argued as having sown the seeds of the homicidal tyranny that emerged under Joseph Stalin. Marxists are prone to argue that Marx would never have accepted Stalin's excesses and that he should not be blamed for them, yet there is a harshness in his tone and an uncompromising dogmatism in his analyses which may have made figures like Stalin and Mao inevitable once power was gathered in their hands.

It is a tribute to the appeal of the logically dubious concept of "natural law" that both Communists and anti-Communists wound up appealing to it during the long nightmare of the Cold War. The Marxist notion of necessary, scientifically inevitable revolution was only a variation on the attempt of Voltaire to ground his ideas in reason and the laws of nature. Once socialism had been transformed from a mere philosophical ideal to the iron law of history, its inevitability was used to justify any number of repressive measures. And of course anti-Communist democratic forces appealed to the traditional notion of naturally based liberties to denounce Marxism.

Some argue that the reason socialism failed so catastrophically in the Soviet Union and China to attain its Marxist ideals was that these were preindustrial economies far from the stage of economic development which Marx viewed as the necessary platform for building Communism. He envisaged his revolution as redistributing a previously created wealth and seizing hold of a previously developed industrial system to run it more rationally and equitably. But the new socialist rulers of the U.S.S.R. and China had to create the very material base on which Marx assumed socialism would be built. They became the harsh taskmasters of the workers they claimed to represent, super-Capitalists, if you will, reproducing in an abbreviated period and on an unprecedented scale the accomplishments of the Industrial Revolution, reproducing its accompanying misery as well, but without the countervailing pressure of a vital labor movement to moderate their extreme measures.

There is doubtless much truth in this theory. No modern industrialized state ever underwent the sort of revolution Marx envisaged, and the successes of socialism in places like England, Sweden, and Denmark fell far short of his vision. Thus it is often said that Marxism did not fail: it was never tried. However, the failures of such socialism as was built in the former Communist world suggest that even under the best of conditions, Marx's ideals could not have been carried out on a large scale.

In the end the Communist economies failed to be more rational than capitalist ones partly because their leaders never had enough accurate data to plan and execute effective economic measures. The temptation of authorities from top to bottom of the system to lie about both supply and demand constantly disorted the process. It was not "totalitarianism" which destroyed the Soviet Union--it was the "private enterprise" of workers stealing from their factories, managers overestimating their output, and bureaucrats reporting whatever the current leadership would be most pleased to hear which in the end brought the system to its knees. Capitalism's cycles may be irrational and painful, but they proved in the long run less self-destructive than vain attempts to control every aspect of large modern economies.

Oddly enough, as Communism has collapsed in Eastern Europe, devolved into a sort of Capitalism with a Communist face in China, leaving only North Korea and Cuba as true believers, Marxist thought has achieved extraordinary prestige in Western academies. Professors in the humanities and social sciences speak of "late capitalism" as if it were in its twilight years and debate the merits of such 20th-Century Marxists as Antonio Gramcsci, applying his ideas to social policy, art history, and literary theory. The result is that the aspiring graduate student would do well to have some Marxist background in order to understand much of the academic debate encountered in American and European universities these days; yet these debates seem headed nowhere in a world increasingly infatuated with a reinvigorated capitalism.

The situation of workers in contemporary America well illustrates the problems inherent in Marxist analyses. The power of labor unions has been largely crushed and capitalists are free to engage in huge mergers aimed at reducing labor costs and workers have been weakened dramatically. Their working hours have been lengthened and their income decreased relative to inflation, but they are mostly afraid to organize to resist lest they be thrown out of work entirely where no socialist-inspired safety net remains to catch them.

Meanwhile, almost half of all Americans have substantial sums invested in the stock markets through retirement-plan mutual funds. Downward pressures on the current incomes of workers may well enhance their future prospects in retirement and the inheritances of their offspring. In such a situation the line between "proletarian" and "capitalist" is hopelessly obscured. It is true that an ever-tinier proportion of the population possesses and controls an ever more enormous majority of the national wealth; but workers often identify their welfare with the prosperity of the rich, expressing little or no resistance to repeated tax breaks and other favors granted big business.

In an atmosphere like this, the academic study of socialism can seem futile indeed; but at the very least we need to understand the forces that got us where we are. In addition, the socialist critique of capitalism still has much persuasive power, and socialist arguments are often effectively wielded by non-socialist reformers. The dwindling of the socialist ideal to its present residual state may not be a permanent condition, since capitalism has not ushered in the golden age either for the poor of this world. It remains to be seen whether socialism can revive in some new, modified way at some point in the future. In the meantime, it must be frankly recognized that an era has passed--the era when Marxist socialism appealed to a broad array of people internationally as an alternative to capitalism.

Created March 31, 1998.

This page has been accessed times since December 17, 1998.
Last revised March 28, 2005.

Back to Hum 303 index.

Other study guides

Paul Brians' Home Page