Short History of Socialism

Posted on November 22, 2011 by


Socialism, general term for the political and economic theory that advocates a system of collective or government ownership and management of the means of production and distribution of goods. Because of the collective nature of socialism, it is to be contrasted to the doctrine of the sanctity of private property that characterizes capitalism. Where capitalism stresses competition and profit, socialism calls for cooperation and social service.

In a broader sense, the term socialism is often used loosely to describe economic theories ranging from those that hold that only certain public utilities and natural resources should be owned by the state to those holding that the state should assume responsibility for all economic planning and direction. In the past 150 years there have been innumerable differing socialist programs. For this reason socialism as a doctrine is ill defined, although its main purpose, the establishment of cooperation in place of competition remains fixed.


The Early Theorists

Socialism arose in the late 18th and early 19th cent. as a reaction to the economic and social changes associated with the Industrial Revolution. While rapid wealth came to the factory owners, the workers became increasingly impoverished. As this capitalist industrial system spread, reactions in the form of socialist thought increased proportionately. Although many thinkers in the past expressed ideas that were similar to later socialism, the first theorist who may properly be called socialist was François Noël Babeuf, who came to prominence during the French Revolution. Babeuf propounded the doctrine of class war between capital and labor later to be seen in Marxism.

Socialist writers who followed Babeuf, however, were more moderate. Known as “utopian socialists,” they included the comte de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and Robert Owen. Saint-Simon proposed that production and distribution be carried out by the state. The leaders of society would be industrialists who would found a national community based upon cooperation and who would eliminate the poverty of the lowest classes. Fourier and Owen, though differing in many respects, both believed that social organization should be based on small local collective communities rather than the large centralist state of Saint-Simon. All these men agreed, however, that there should be cooperation rather than competition, and they implicitly rejected class struggle. In the early 19th cent. numerous utopian communistic settlements founded on the principles of Fourier and Owen sprang up in Europe and the United States; New Harmony and Brook Farm were notable examples.

Following the utopians came thinkers such as Louis Blanc who were more political in their socialist formulations. Blanc put forward a system of social workshops (1840) that would be controlled by the workers themselves with the support of the state. Capitalists would be welcome in this venture, and each person would receive goods in proportion to his or her needs. Blanc became a member of the French provisional government of 1848 and attempted to put some of his proposals into effect, but his efforts were sabotaged by his opponents. The anarchist Pierre Joseph Proudhon and the insurrectionist Auguste Blanqui were also influential socialist leaders of the early and mid-19th cent.


Democratic Socialism

Democratic socialism took firm root in European politics after World War I. Socialist democratic parties actively participated in government in Great Britain, Germany, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands, and other nations. Socialism also became a powerful force in parts of Latin America, Asia, and Africa. To the Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru and other leaders of independence movements, it was attractive as an alternative to the systems of private enterprise and exploitation established by their foreign rulers.

After World War II, socialist parties came to power in many nations throughout the world, and much private industry was nationalized. In Africa and Asia where the workers are peasants, not industrial laborers, socialist programs stressed land reform and other agrarian measures. These nations, until recently, have also emphasized government planning for rapid economic development. African socialism has also included the revival of precolonial values and institutions, while modernizing through the centralized apparatus of the one-party state. Recently, the collapse of Eastern European and Soviet Communist states has led socialists throughout the world to discard much of their doctrines regarding centralized planning and nationalization of enterprises.


This article came from Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th Edition

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