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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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