Socialism Essay

Socialism was the most influential secular movement of the twentieth century, worldwide. It was a political ideology (or world view), a wide and divided political movement, and a socioeconomic model tried and developed on a large scale. Weakened in the current twenty-first century, it is still a significant political current, particularly in Europe and Latin America.

A Confluence Of Currents

Socialism became a public social movement in western Europe of the 1840s, but it grew out of the radical Enlightenment and the leftist cur rents of the French Revolution (1789–1799). Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a key precursor as an egalitarian and as an icon of the Jacobins and the left wing of the French Revolution. Several currents of thought converged in nineteenth-century socialism.

There were the radical traditions of the Enlightenment, egalitarianism, rationalism, and discrete materialistic atheism. There were the far left activists of the French Revolution, whose legacy was carried forward by post-revolutionary activists like Francois-Noel Babeuf, Filippo Buonarroti, and Auguste Blanqui into the embryonic French labor movement of the 1830s and 1840s. There was the sociological analysis of Henri de Saint-Simon and his followers, heralding the arrival of a post-revolutionary industrial society with a new constellation of classes and social forces. There was the enlightened employer Robert Owen, with ideas of producers’ cooperatives, inspiring one of the major French “utopian socialists,” Eugene Cabet, who was exiled to Britain in the 1830s. There were the new, postfeudal conceptions of labor, incorporated into French Revolution ideas of citizenship by one of its most influential thinkers, Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyes, and there were the Ricardian socialists of Britain, developing David Ricardo’s early-nineteenth-century political economy into a critique of capitalism.

Socialist ideas of equality, association, cooperation, and mutualism began coming together in radical labor movements, largely by skilled workers and artisans of France and England in the early 1840s. By 1842, it had become the topic of a major academic analysis by a German scholar, Lorenz von Stein, in his Socialism and Social Movement. They came to the forefront, if not to victory, in the European-wide national democratic revolution of 1848. The German League of the Just, a diasporic association of left-wing artisans, commissioned Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to write a program for them. It became the most famous political pamphlet ever— the Communist Manifesto.

As a modern political ideology, socialism was a rival of liberalism, as well as of traditional popular deference to royals or religion. Its most distinctive values were solidarity—which in its collective identification differs radically from charity or compassion—and equality. Both may be seen as manifestations of collectivism. This was a collectivism mainly deriving from workers’ experiences, with little means to defend their interests as individuals in the face of merchants, factory owners, master craftsmen, landowners, the propertied, and the generally well-heeled. In the socialist value system, individual freedom is located within parameters of collective responsibility.

Socialism stands for the rights of labor against those of property. Socialism also drew on the modern idea of democracy, which came to the fore, if more in rhetoric than in reality, during the radical phase of the French Revolution. The socialist labor movement became the major international force of universal suffrage and democracy in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in the period when there were severe restrictions and fraudulent manipulations of civic political rights everywhere.

Most socialist currents affirmed the modern world of industry, mobility, exchange, science, and rationalism. This modernism was particularly pronounced in Marxism and in Latin European socialism of republican and anticlerical roots, while at the same time condemning capitalism as an exploitation of modern possibilities as well as of human labor.

But there were also currents inspired by dissident Christianity, often in Britain and then usually coming out of left liberal politics and a romantic anti-industrialism. Socialist communitarianism has always had several entrances. It could even be hijacked by nationalist tendencies. This was a particular risk in Germany, with its strong statist and romantic traditions. What became Nazism started out as an extreme nationalist alternative to the internationalist socialist labor movement, the German National Socialist Workers’ Party.

An International Movement

Socialism developed into a large, well-organized political movement from the last quarter of the nineteenth century, beginning on the European continent. The Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), founded in 1875, soon became the largest socialist party and a leading international source of inspiration. In Britain, labor politics and trade unionism developed without separation from the liberal party until the end of World War I (1914–1918), while around the turn of the century, labor became governing parties in the White Dominions of Australia and New Zealand.

Socialism was an international ideology and an international movement. In 1864 the First International, the International Working-Men’s Association, was formed, with Karl Marx as the leading figure on its general council. Polarized between anarchist followers of Bakunin and Marxian socialists, it remained small and ineffective. In the conservative repression after the popular uprising in France, the Paris Commune of 1871, the headquarters of the First International were moved to New York, where it soon petered out. A new beginning was the forming of the Second International in Paris in 1889, as an unofficial part of the Centenary of the Revolution. Up to 1914, the regular congresses of the Second International were the major events of international socialism. It was overwhelmingly Eurocentric, though American, Australian, and Japanese delegates occasionally attended. Important extra-European socialist parties—the very European Labor transplants in Australia and New Zealand excepted—were first created by the communists of China, India (though a small minority), Indonesia, and Vietnam.

World War I split the International, with most parties siding with its own warring nation. An even more bitter split was caused by the Bolshevik Revolution (1917) in Russia. The Bolsheviks were the core of the antinationalist minority of the International, and now their reckless one-party revolution (the Mensheviks was another Russian socialist party of the International) led to a deep, lasting divide of international socialism, between revolutionary communism, which set up its own Third Communist International, and democratic socialism or social democracy.

The Comintern was dissolved in 1943, for reasons of Soviet geopolitics, although there remained de facto an international communist movement, aligned with the Soviet Union. The noncommunists were divided between the world wars, but in 1951 the Socialist International was reconstituted. It was reinvigorated during the presidency of Willy Brandt, in 1976 to 1992, who as a major statesman (former chancellor of West Germany), gave it a high profile and pushed it throughout the third world. The Socialist International is still active and organizes conferences and seminars all over the world but has become too heterogeneous to be a very important global player. It currently has 115 parties as full members, a few countries having two or three. Its membership is strong in Europe—east, including postcommunist parties outside Russia, and west—and in Africa, Latin America, and Oceania, but weak in Asia and Brazil.

Socialism has always had particular difficulty in setting roots in North America, in the United States in particular. The German social scientist Werner Sombart devoted a short book in 1906 to the question, Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? The term socialism then meant as a mass movement, like in continental Europe. Sombart’s analysis is fairly complex, referring both to the established two-party system and to socioeconomic factors, such as high average wages, less visible everyday class differences, and opportunities for social mobility—while unexpectedly concluding that the factors that until now have prevented socialist development in United States are about to disappear.

While many factors certainly contributed, latter-day historians have tended to put strong emphasis on the establishment of a mass two-party system well before the rise of the socialist movement. In Britain, which at the time when Sombart wrote did not have much of a socialist movement either, the party system was shaken by the horrendous casualties of the world wars, aided by the war-related split of the liberals. The late and much less costly American entry into the war could sustain an enthusiastic nationalism, while shattering the pacifist Socialist Party.

What the classical socialist movement was striving for was a new socioeconomic order, socialist as opposed to capitalist. There was no blueprint for it, since the utopian communities outlined in the first decades of the nineteenth century had been left behind. Marxism was explicitly dismissive of a concrete program for what was seen as something going to evolve, on an international scale, out of the contradictions and class struggles of capitalism. But there was wide agreement that a socialist society would include public ownership of the industrial means of production and of banks and major trading enterprises. About land there was a lively internal debate and no agreement on household ownership or collective organization. Ample room was usually given to cooperatives of various kinds, which the European labor developed extensively and in varied forms: consumer cooperatives, mutual insurance funds, and, less often, producers’ cooperatives.

Building Socialism

Before the end of World War II (1939–1945), democratic socialists never got a political chance to transform the socioeconomic order, albeit Scandinavian social democracy got into office on a platform of alleviating the Depression, providing employment and support for the most vulnerable, but with no majority of their own before the war.

What they could do in a number of places was to develop municipal socialism, not only in many European cities but also, occasionally, in the United States, such as in Milwaukee. The most ambitious and successful example was Vienna, under social democratic control from the end of World War I until a reactionary coup in Austria in 1934. An extensive housing program, with lots of collective services (kindergartens, schools, libraries, and other collective leisure space), was at the centre of Red Vienna and inspired socialists all over western and central Europe.

In the Soviet Union, the communists embarked upon a huge experimental undertaking, without precedent even in theory, to “build socialism in one country.” The enterprise was seen as a struggle for survival of a poor country ravaged by the world war and by subsequent civil wars and foreign military interventions. It entailed a brutal collectivization of agriculture to pay for a frantic industrialization under state ownership, and a centrally planned economy, driven more by political targeting and mobilization than by economic calculation. The human costs were enormous, largely because of tenacious peasant resistance, with which the Bolsheviks brooked no compromise. However, the contrast of the spectacular industrial growth of a planned economy in the midst of the global depression made a huge impact far outside communist circles. Most important was probably its impact of the generation of anticolonialist nationalists who were to lead their independent countries after World War II. Soviet socialism emerged as a major model of national development. It also seemed to have passed a crucial test in the war when, unlike Russia in World War I, the Soviet Union was not crushed by the formidable German war machine and in the end was victorious.

A planned economy with full control over finance and investment and state-led industrialization was a widely popular development model, guiding not only new communist-ruled countries in Asia and Europe, but also in Burma, India, Indonesia, and somewhat later revolutionized Arab countries such as Algeria, Egypt, and Syria. A “socialist pattern of society” was the official goal of independent India. It was adopted by African liberation movements, which tried to implement them after independence. The latter even set out to collectivize agriculture, something the Asian noncommunists avoided. In Latin America there had been some interest in the Soviet economic development, but before the Cuban Revolution (1959) it never went far in economic practice.

The first results could very well be taken as promising. Communist eastern Europe was catching up economically with long richer western Europe, and also in terms of education and life expectancy, while refraining from repeating the Soviet brutality of the 1930s. After a century of economic stagnation, both Communist China and democratic socialist India started to develop, economically as well as with respect to health and education.

Most postwar European social democracies still had no full political mandate. But the British and the Norwegian Labor Parties did began what they intended as a socialist transformation, the Norwegians by starting a system of sophisticated macroeconomic planning, the British by nationalizing a good part of what was called the “commanding heights” of the industrial economy: the coal and steel industry and transport. The 1970s to early 1980s saw bold social democratic attempts at socialist change. In Sweden the strong unions developed a plan for so-called wage-earners’ funds, financed out of corporate profits and controlled by trade union representatives, which would gradually become the main owners of the big business corporations. The plan was reluctantly accepted by the social democratic leadership, but when they returned to office, the political momentum, in the face of stiff right-wing opposition, had been lost. The French Union of the Left, led by the socialists but also including the Communist Party, came to power in 1981 on a program of rupture with capitalism. It took the form of a series of important industrial and bank nationalizations. But the attempt soon became bogged down in the international economic crisis of the early 1980s, and the government beat a retreat to liberal policies.

In December 1949, one of the world’s most renowned economists of the first half of the century, the heterodoxly conservative Austro-American Joseph Schumpeter delivered an address before the American Economic Association, titled The March into Socialism. His argument was that capitalism was destroying itself and was most likely to be superseded by centralist socialism. The very success of business and capitalism was about to make the “civilization of inequality and family fortune” sustaining them pass away.

Schumpeter’s prospect drew on a special argument about family enterprise, but was part of a very broad public opinion at the time. Forty years later, in 1989, not only maverick conservatives but also many socialists and communists, as well as others in between, would regard the centralist socialist order as bankrupt. What links the two different assessments was the unexpected, historically unprecedented economic growth in the decades after World War II.

It seems that what the socialist economy could achieve, provided there were enough skilled and dedicated organizers to run it (which was often lacking in Africa), was what has been called extensive development, mobilizing idle resources and providing basic social needs. But in a world of rapid economic advance, socialism faced problems in developing innovations— outside of strategic political goals, such as the Soviets beating the United States in the first rounds of the space race—and in providing large volumes of discretionary consumption to wide varieties of taste. From the late 1960s, communist eastern Europe began to fall behind western Europe again.

There is also the vulnerability of an alternative economy in a competing, hostile world, something the French Mitterand government soon had to take notice of, and which has guided European social democracy to caution and gradualism. The South African ANC in power has found it easier to promote a black capitalist class than to construct a socialist economy as a base of urgently needed social development.


Socialism is little likely to regain its extraordinary influence from the second third of the twentieth century, although it is not unimaginable, and it remains an important part of twentieth-first century politics. The Soviet chapter is closed, but the Chinese government retains at least a rhetorical commitment to socialism, which might conceivably be turned into something more tangible. There remains unsettled the question of how capitalism and socialism should be defined and their boundaries delimited, entailing new possibilities of identity and opposition. Issues of how much public or private owner ship, how much public regulation, how many social entitlements, and how many private markets are still central controversial issues. State ownership, public planning, and public regulation have played a very different role in the recent economic success of East Asia than they have done in the United Kingdom and the United States. Generous social entitlements are part of the open, competitive economies of northern Europe, while deemed to be incompatible with international competitiveness in other parts of the world. The financial crisis of that began in 2008 and the increasing urgency to get climate change under control have pushed those issues of socioeconomic order into the political spotlight.

Socialism as an ideology has lost its development model and its visible horizon of a rupture with capitalism, which has diminished its appeal. But its core values of solidarity, equality, and collective responsibility are still widely used as critiques of the current world.

As a political movement, democratic socialism is a significant force of the new century, in a wide if neither universal nor coherent Socialist International, and as the second (in size) political grouping of the European Parliament. Communist parties are still ruling China, Cuba, and Vietnam, claiming socialist aspirations, and new powerful socialist movements have recently emerged in parts of Latin America.


  1. Anderson, Perry, and Robin Blackburn. Towards Socialism. London: Fontana Library, 1965.
  2. Eley, Geoff. Forging Democracy:The History of the Left in Europe, 1850–2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  3. Grossmann, Henryk, and Carl Grunberg. Sozialismus und Kommunismus, in Kleine Bibliothek des Wissens und des Fortschritts Band 2, Frankfurt: Zweitausendeins, 2001.
  4. Hobsbawm, Eric J., ed. The History of Marxism, vol. 1. Brighton, U.K.: Harvester, 1982.
  5. Storia del marxismo, vols. 2–4. Turin, Italy: Giulio Einaudi, 1978–1982.
  6. Lanke, Christiane, and Gary Marks, eds. The Crisis of Socialism in Europe. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1992.
  7. Sassoon, Donald. One Hundred Years of Socialism: The West European Left in the Twentieth Century. London: I.B.Tauris, 1996.
  8. Schumpeter, Joseph A. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 4th ed. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1954.
  9. Sombart, Werner. Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? edited by C. T. Husbands. White Plains, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1976.
  10. Taylor, Barbara. Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the Nineteenth Century. London: Virago, 1983.

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