What is socialism?
Should the United States become socialist?
Socialism, social and economic doctrine that calls for public rather than private ownership or control of property and natural resources. According to the socialist view, individuals do not live or work in isolation but live in cooperation with one another. Furthermore, everything that people produce is in some sense a social product, and everyone who contributes to the production of a good is entitled to a share in it. Society as a whole, therefore, should own or at least control property for the benefit of all its members.
This conviction puts socialism in opposition to capitalism, which is based on private ownership of the means of production and allows individual choices in a free market to determine how goods and services are distributed. Socialists complain that capitalism necessarily leads to unfair and exploitative concentrations of wealth and power in the hands of the relative few who emerge victorious from free-market competition—people who then use their wealth and power to reinforce their dominance in society. Because such people are rich, they may choose where and how to live, and their choices in turn limit the options of the poor. As a result, terms such as individual freedom and equality of opportunity may be meaningful for capitalists but can only ring hollow for working people, who must do the capitalists’ bidding if they are to survive. As socialists see it, true freedom and true equality require social control of the resources that provide the basis for prosperity in any society. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels made this point in Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) when they proclaimed that in a socialist society “the condition for the free development of each is the free development of all.”
This fundamental conviction nevertheless leaves room for socialists to disagree among themselves with regard to two key points. The first concerns the extent and the kind of property that society should own or control. Some socialists have thought that almost everything except personal items such as clothing should be public property; this is true, for example, of the society envisioned by the English humanist Sir Thomas More in his Utopia (1516). Other socialists, however, have been willing to accept or even welcome private ownership of farms, shops, and other small or medium-sized businesses.
The second disagreement concerns the way in which society is to exercise its control of property and other resources. In this case the main camps consist of loosely defined groups of centralists and decentralists. On the centralist side are socialists who want to invest public control of property in some central authority, such as the state—or the state under the guidance of a political party, as was the case in the Soviet Union. Those in the decentralist camp believe that decisions about the use of public property and resources should be made at the local, or lowest-possible, level by the people who will be most directly affected by those decisions. This conflict has persisted throughout the history of socialism as a political movement.
The origins of socialism as a political movement lie in the Industrial Revolution. Its intellectual roots, however, reach back almost as far as recorded thought—even as far as Moses, according to one history of the subject. Socialist or communist ideas certainly play an important part in the ideas of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, whose Republic depicts an austere society in which men and women of the “guardian” class share with each other not only their few material goods but also their spouses and children. Early Christian communities also practiced the sharing of goods and labour, a simple form of socialism subsequently followed in certain forms of monasticism. Several monastic orders continue these practices today.
Christianity and Platonism were combined in More’s Utopia, which apparently recommends communal ownership as a way of controlling the sins of pride, envy, and greed. Land and houses are common property on More’s imaginary island of Utopia, where everyone works for at least two years on the communal farms and people change houses every 10 years so that no one develops pride of possession. Money has been abolished, and people are free to take what they need from common storehouses. All the Utopians live simply, moreover, so that they are able to meet their needs with only a few hours of work a day, leaving the rest for leisure.
More’s Utopia is not so much a blueprint for a socialist society as it is a commentary on the failings he perceived in the supposedly Christian societies of his day. Religious and political turmoil, however, soon inspired others to try to put utopian ideas into practice. Common ownership was one of the aims of the brief Anabaptist regime in the Westphalian city of Münster during the Protestant Reformation, and several communist or socialist sects sprang up in England in the wake of the Civil Wars (1642–51). Chief among them was the Diggers, whose members claimed that God had created the world for people to share, not to divide and exploit for private profit. When they acted on this belief by digging and planting on land that was not legally theirs, they ran afoul of Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate, which forcibly disbanded them.
Whether utopian or practical, these early visions of socialism were largely agrarian. This remained true as late as the French Revolution, when the journalist François-Noël Babeuf and other radicals complained that the Revolution had failed to fulfill the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Adherence to “the precious principle of equality,” Babeuf argued, requires the abolition of private property and common enjoyment of the land and its fruits. Such beliefs led to his execution for conspiring to overthrow the government. The publicity that followed his trial and death, however, made him a hero to many in the 19th century who reacted against the emergence of industrial capitalism.
Conservatives who saw the settled life of agricultural society disrupted by the insistent demands of industrialism were as likely as their radical counterparts to be outraged by the self-interested competition of capitalists and the squalor of industrial cities. The radicals distinguished themselves, however, by their commitment to equality and their willingness to envision a future in which industrial power and capitalism were divorced. To their moral outrage at the conditions that were reducing many workers to pauperism, the radical critics of industrial capitalism added a faith in the power of people to put science and an understanding of history to work in the creation of a new and glorious society. The term socialist came into use about 1830 to describe these radicals, some of the most important of whom subsequently acquired the title of “utopian” socialists.
One of the first utopian socialists was the French aristocrat Claude-Henri de Saint-Simon. Saint-Simon did not call for public ownership of productive property, but he did advocate public control of property through central planning, in which scientists, industrialists, and engineers would anticipate social needs and direct the energies of society to meet them. Such a system would be more efficient than capitalism, according to Saint-Simon, and it even has the endorsement of history itself. Saint-Simon believed that history moves through a series of stages, each of which is marked by a particular arrangement of social classes and a set of dominant beliefs. Thus, feudalism, with its landed nobility and monotheistic religion, was giving way to industrialism, a complex form of society characterized by its reliance on science, reason, and the division of labour. In such circumstances, Saint-Simon argued, it makes sense to put the economic arrangements of society in the hands of its most knowledgeable and productive members, so that they may direct economic production for the benefit of all.
Another early socialist, Robert Owen, was himself an industrialist. Owen first attracted attention by operating textile mills in New Lanark, Scot., that were both highly profitable and, by the standards of the day, remarkably humane: no children under age 10 were employed. Owen’s fundamental belief was that human nature is not fixed but formed. If people are selfish, depraved, or vicious, it is because social conditions have made them so. Change the conditions, he argued, and people will change; teach them to live and work together in harmony, and they will do so. Thus, Owen set out in 1825 to establish a model of social organization, New Harmony, on land he had purchased in the U.S. state of Indiana. This was to be a self-sufficient, cooperative community in which property was commonly owned. New Harmony failed within a few years, taking most of Owen’s fortune with it, but he soon turned his attention to other efforts to promote social cooperation—trade unions and cooperative businesses, in particular.
Similar themes mark the writings of François-Marie-Charles Fourier, a French clerk whose imagination, if not his fortune, was as extravagant as Owen’s. Modern society breeds selfishness, deception, and other evils, Fourier charged, because institutions such as marriage, the male-dominated family, and the competitive market confine people to repetitive labour or a limited role in life and thus frustrate the need for variety. By setting people at odds with each other in the competition for profits, moreover, the market in particular frustrates the desire for harmony. Accordingly, Fourier envisioned a form of society that would be more in keeping with human needs and desires. Such a “phalanstery,” as he called it, would be a largely self-sufficient community of about 1,600 people organized according to the principle of “attractive labour,” which holds that people will work voluntarily and happily if their work engages their talents and interests. All tasks become tiresome at some point, however, so each member of the phalanstery would have several occupations, moving from one to another as his interest waned and waxed. Fourier left room for private investment in his utopian community, but every member was to share in ownership, and inequality of wealth, though permitted, was to be limited.
The ideas of common ownership, equality, and a simple life were taken up in the visionary novel Voyage en Icarie (1840; Travels in Icaria), by the French socialist Étienne Cabet. Icaria was to be a self-sufficient community, combining industry with farming, of about one million people. In practice, however, the Icaria that Cabet founded in Illinois in the 1850s was about the size of a Fourierist phalanstery, and dissension among the Icarians prompted Cabet to depart in 1856.
Other early socialists
Other socialists in France began to agitate and organize in the 1830s and ’40s; they included Louis Blanc, Louis-Auguste Blanqui, and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Blanc, the author of L’Organisation du travail (1839; The Organization of Labour), promoted a scheme of state-financed but worker-controlled “social workshops” that would guarantee work for everyone and lead gradually to a socialist society. Blanqui, by contrast, was a revolutionary who spent more than 33 years in prison for his insurrectionary activities. Socialism cannot be achieved without the conquest of state power, he argued, and this conquest must be the work of a small group of conspirators. Once in power, the revolutionaries would form a temporary dictatorship that would confiscate the property of the wealthy and establish state control of major industries.
In Qu’est-ce que la propriété? (1840; What Is Property?), Proudhon memorably declared, “Property is theft!” This assertion was not quite as bold as it appears, however, since Proudhon had in mind not property in general but property that is worked by anyone other than its owner. In contrast to a society dominated by capitalists and absentee landlords, Proudhon’s ideal was a society in which everyone had an equal claim, either alone or as part of a small cooperative, to possess and use land and other resources as needed to make a living. Such a society would operate on the principle of mutualism, according to which individuals and groups would exchange products with one another on the basis of mutually satisfactory contracts. All this would be accomplished, ideally, without the interference of the state, for Proudhon was an anarchist who regarded the state as an essentially coercive institution. Yet his anarchism did not prevent him from urging Napoleon III to make free bank credit available to workers for the establishment of mutualist cooperatives—a proposal the emperor declined to adopt.
Despite their imagination and dedication to the cause of the workers, none of the early socialists met with the full approval of Karl Marx, who is unquestionably the most important theorist of socialism. In fact, Marx and his longtime friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels were largely responsible for attaching the label “utopian,” which they intended to be derogatory, to Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Owen, whose “fantastic pictures of future society” they contrasted to their own “scientific” approach to socialism. The path to socialism proceeds not through the establishment of model communities that set examples of harmonious cooperation to the world, according to Marx and Engels, but through the clash of social classes. “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” they proclaimed in the Manifesto of the Communist Party. A scientific understanding of history shows that these struggles will culminate in the triumph of the working class and the establishment of socialism.
According to Engels, the basic elements of Marx’s theory are to be found in German philosophy, French socialism, and British economics. Of these, German philosophy was surely the formative influence on Marx’s thinking. Born in Trier in the German Rhineland, Marx was a philosophy student at the University of Berlin when the idealism of G.W.F. Hegel dominated German philosophy. Hegel maintained that history is the story of the unfolding or realization of “spirit”—a process that requires struggle, agony, and the overcoming of obstacles to the attainment of self-knowledge. Just as individual persons cannot realize their potential—especially the potential for freedom—if they remain forever in a childish or adolescent condition, so spirit must develop throughout history in a dialectical fashion. That is, individuals and even nations are characters in a drama that proceeds through the clash of opposing ideas and interests to a greater self-awareness and appreciation of freedom. Slavery, for example, was long taken for granted as a natural and acceptable practice, but the slave’s struggle to be recognized as a person was bringing an end to slavery as master and slave came to recognize their common humanity—and thus to liberate themselves, and spirit, from a false sense of the master’s superiority.
Like Hegel, Marx understood history as the story of human labour and struggle. However, whereas for Hegel history was the story of spirit’s self-realization through human conflict, for Marx it was the story of struggles between classes over material or economic interests and resources. In place of Hegel’s philosophical idealism, in other words, Marx developed a materialist or economic theory of history. Before people can do anything else, he held, they must first produce what they need to survive, which is to say that they are subject to necessity. Freedom for Marx is largely a matter of overcoming necessity. Necessity compels people to labour so that they may survive, and only those who are free from this compulsion will be free to develop their talents and potential. This is why, throughout history, freedom has usually been restricted to members of the ruling class, who use their control of the land and other means of production to exploit the labour of the poor and subservient. The masters in slaveholding societies, the landowning aristocracy in feudal times, and the bourgeoisie who control the wealth in capitalist societies have all enjoyed various degrees of freedom, but they have done so at the expense of the slaves, serfs, and industrial workers, or proletarians, who have provided the necessary labour.
For Marx, capitalism is both a progressive force in history and an exploitative system that alienates capitalists and workers alike from their true humanity. It is progressive because it has made possible the industrial transformation of the world, thereby unleashing the productive power to free everyone from necessity. Yet it is exploitative in that capitalism condemns the proletarians, who own nothing but their labour power, to lives of grinding labour while enabling the capitalists to reap the profits. This is a volatile situation, according to Marx, and its inevitable result will be a war that will end all class divisions. Under the pressure of depressions, recessions, and competition for jobs, the workers will become conscious that they form a class, the proletariat, that is oppressed and exploited by their class enemy, the bourgeoisie. Armed with this awareness, they will overthrow the bourgeoisie in a series of spontaneous uprisings, seizing control of factories, mines, railroads, and other means of production, until they have gained control of the government and converted it into a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat. Under socialism or communism—Marx and Engels drew no clear or consistent distinction between the two—government itself will eventually wither away as people gradually lose the selfish attitudes inculcated by private ownership of the means of production. Freed from necessity and exploitation, people will finally live in a true community that gives “each individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions.”
Marx maintained that the revolution by which socialism would be achieved was ordained by the logic of capitalism itself, as the capitalists’ competition for profits led them to create their own “grave diggers” in the proletariat. Even the role of the revolutionary, such as Marx, was confined to that of “midwife,” for revolutionaries could do no more than speed along the inevitable revolution and ease its birth pangs.
This, at least, was Marx’s more or less “official” doctrine. In his writings and political activities, however, he added several qualifications. He acknowledged, for example, that socialism might supplant capitalism peacefully in England, the United States, and other countries where the proletariat was gaining the franchise; he also said that it might be possible for a semifeudal country such as Russia to become socialist without first passing through capitalist industrialism. Moreover, Marx played an important part in the International Working Men’s Association, or First International, formed in 1864 by a group of labour leaders who were neither exclusively revolutionary nor even entirely committed to socialism. In short, Marx was not the inflexible economic determinist he is sometimes taken to be. But he was convinced that history was on the side of socialism and that the equal development of all people to be achieved under socialism would be the fulfillment of history.
Socialism after Marx
By the time of Marx’s death in 1883, many socialists had begun to call themselves “Marxists.” His influence was particularly strong within the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), which was formed in 1875 by the merger of a Marxist party and a party created by Marx’s German rival, Ferdinand Lassalle. According to Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme (1891), Lassalle had “conceived the workers’ movement from the narrowest national standpoint”; that is, Lassalle had concentrated on converting Germany to socialism, whereas Marx thought that socialism had to be an international movement. Even worse, Lassalle and his followers had sought to gain control of the state through elections in hopes of using “state aid” to establish producers’ cooperatives. Marx’s belief in the revolutionary transformation of society soon prevailed in the SPD, but his controversy with Lassalle and the Lassalleans testifies to the existence of other important currents in socialist thought in the late 19th century.
Caught up in these currents were men and women who seemed to agree on little but their condemnation of capitalism. Many prominent socialists were militant atheists, for example, but others expressly connected socialism to religion. Even the rationalist Saint-Simon had called for a “new Christianity” that would join Christian social teachings with modern science and industry to create a society that would satisfy basic human needs. His followers attempted to put this idea into practice, giving rise to a Saint-Simonian sect sometimes called “the religion of the engineers.” This combination of an appeal to universal brotherhood and a faith in enlightened management also animated the best-selling utopian novel Looking Backward (1888), by the American journalist Edward Bellamy. In England the Anglican clergymen Frederick Denison Maurice and Charles Kingsley initiated a Christian socialist movement at the end of the 1840s on the grounds that the competitive individualism of laissez-faire capitalism was incompatible with the spirit of Christianity. Similar concerns inspired socialists in other countries, including the Russian novelist, anarchist, and pacifist Leo Tolstoy.
Although neither Christianity nor any other religion was a dominant force within socialist theory or politics, the connection between Christianity and socialism persisted through the 20th century. One manifestation of this connection was liberation theology—sometimes characterized as an attempt to marry Marx and Jesus—which emerged among Roman Catholic theologians in Latin America in the 1960s. Another, perhaps more modest, manifestation is the Christian Socialist Movement in Britain, which affiliates itself with the British Labour Party. Several members of Parliament have belonged to the Christian Socialist Movement, including Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the son of a Methodist minister, and his predecessor, Tony Blair, an Anglican who converted to Catholicism not long after he left office.
Neither Tolstoy’s religion nor his pacifism was shared by the earlier flamboyant Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, who held that religion, capitalism, and the state are forms of oppression that must be smashed if people are ever to be free. As he stated in an early essay, “The Reaction in Germany” (1842), “The passion for destruction is also a creative passion.” This belief led Bakunin into one uprising or conspiracy after another throughout his life. It also led him into a controversy with Marx that contributed to disintegration of the International Working Men’s Association in the 1870s. Bakunin shared Marx’s vision of a classless, stateless community in which the means of production would be under community control; however, he vehemently rejected Marx’s claim that the dictatorship of the proletariat was a necessary step on the way to communism. To the contrary, Bakunin argued, the dictatorship of the proletariat threatened to become even more oppressive than the bourgeois state, which at least had a militant and organized working class to check its growth.
Anarcho-communism took less-extreme forms in the hands of two later Russian émigrés, Peter Kropotkin and Emma Goldman. Kropotkin used science and history to try to demonstrate that anarchism is not foolishly optimistic. In Mutual Aid (1897) he drew on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to argue that, contrary to popular notions of social Darwinism, the groups that prospered in evolutionary terms were those that practiced cooperation. Goldman, who came to prominence as “Red Emma” in the United States, campaigned against religion, capitalism, the state, and marriage, which she condemned in “Marriage and Love” (1910) as an institution that “makes a parasite of woman, an absolute dependent.” She also served a prison term for advocating birth control.
As the anarcho-communists argued for a form of socialism so decentralized that it required the abolition of the state, a milder and markedly centralist version of socialism, Fabianism, emerged in Britain. Fabian Socialism was so called because the members of the Fabian Society admired the tactics of the Roman general Fabius Cunctator (Fabius the Delayer), who avoided pitched battles and gradually wore down Hannibal’s forces. Instead of revolution, the Fabians favoured “gradualism” as the way to bring about socialism. Their notion of socialism, like Saint-Simon’s, entailed social control of property through an effectively and impartially administered state—a government of enlightened experts. The Fabians themselves were mostly middle-class intellectuals—including George Bernard Shaw, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Graham Wallas, and H.G. Wells—who thought that persuasion and education were more likely to lead to socialism, however gradually, than violent class warfare. Rather than form their own political party or work through trade unions, moreover, the Fabians aimed at gaining influence within existing parties. They eventually exercised considerable influence within Britain’s Labour Party, though they had little to do with its formation in the early 1900s.
Near the anarcho-communists on the decentralist side of socialism were the syndicalists. Inspired in part by Proudhon’s ideas, syndicalism developed at the end of the 19th century out of the French trade-union movement—syndicat being the French word for trade union. It was a significant force in Italy and Spain in the early 20th century until it was crushed by the fascist regimes in those countries. In the United States, syndicalism appeared in the guise of the Industrial Workers of the World, or “Wobblies,” founded in 1905.
The hallmarks of syndicalism were workers’ control and “direct action.” Syndicalists such as Fernand Pelloutier distrusted both the state, which they regarded as an agent of capitalism, and political parties, which they thought were incapable of achieving radical change. Their aim was to replace capitalism and the state with a loose federation of local workers’ groups, which they meant to bring about through direct action—especially a general strike of workers that would bring down the government as it brought the economy to a halt. Georges Sorel elaborated on this idea in his Réflexions sur la violence (1908; Reflections on Violence), in which he treated the general strike not as the inevitable result of social developments but as a “myth” that could lead to the overthrow of capitalism if only enough people could be inspired to act on it.
Related to syndicalism but nearer to Fabianism in its reformist tactics, Guild Socialism was an English movement that attracted a modest following in the first two decades of the 20th century. Inspired by the medieval guild, an association of craftsmen who determined their own working conditions and activities, theorists such as Samuel G. Hobson and G.D.H. Cole advocated the public ownership of industries and their organization into guilds, each of which would be under the democratic control of its trade union. The role of the state was less clear: some guild socialists envisioned it as a coordinator of the guilds’ activities, while others held that its functions should be limited to protection or policing. In general, however, the guild socialists were less inclined to invest power in the state than were their Fabian compatriots.
Revisionism and revolution
In 1889, on the centenary of the French Revolution, a Second International emerged from two rival socialist conventions in Paris. Intended as a revival of the International Working Men’s Association, this new organization was dominated by Marxists in general and the SPD in particular. By this time the SPD was both officially Marxist and a force to be reckoned with in German politics. Despite Otto von Bismarck’s attempts to suppress it, Wilhelm Liebknecht, August Bebel, and other leaders had transformed the SPD into a mass party. But its considerable success—the SPD won almost one-fifth of the votes cast in the parliamentary elections of 1890, for example—raised the question of whether socialism might be achieved through the ballot box rather than through revolution. The “orthodox” position, as developed by the SPD’s chief theorist, Karl Kautsky, tried to reconcile the SPD’s electoral practice with Marx’s revolutionary doctrine. But others had begun to think that it would be better to recognize that circumstances had changed and to revise Marx’s doctrine accordingly.More From BritannicaChina: The transition to socialism, 1953–57
Foremost among the “revisionists” was Eduard Bernstein, an SPD leader who became an associate of Engels while living in England to escape Bismarck’s harassment. Bernstein was also exposed to the Fabians while in England, and their example encouraged him to question aspects of Marx’s theory. Like others, Bernstein observed that the living and working conditions of the proletariat were not growing more desperate, as Marx had predicted, but were on the contrary improving, largely as a result of trade-union activity and the extension of the franchise. This led him to conclude that the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism was neither necessary nor desirable. A gradual, peaceful transformation to socialism, he argued in Evolutionary Socialism (1899), would be safer than the revolutionary route, with its dangerously vague and potentially tyrannical dictatorship of the proletariat.
Bernstein’s writings drew a swift and hostile reaction from his SPD comrades, Kautsky in particular, and from revolutionary Marxists elsewhere. After several years of polemical war between revisionists and orthodox Marxists, the revisionists eventually triumphed within the SPD, which gradually abandoned its revolutionary pretenses. Nevertheless, some stalwarts, such as Rosa Luxemburg, remained faithful to the spirit of revolutionary Marxism.
Among the remaining orthodox Marxists was the Russian revolutionary V.I. Ulyanov, better known by his pseudonym Lenin. As the leader of the Bolshevik, or “majority,” faction of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party, Lenin himself had been accused of straying from the Marxist path. The problem for Russian Marxists was that Russia in the late 19th century remained a semifeudal country with barely the beginnings of industrial capitalism. To be sure, Marx had allowed that it might be possible for a country such as Russia to move directly from feudalism to socialism, but the standard position among Marxists was that capitalism was a necessary stage of economic and historical development; otherwise, there would be neither the productive power to overcome necessity nor the revolutionary proletariat to win freedom for all as it emancipated itself from capitalist exploitation.
This had been the standard position among Russian Marxists too, but it was not Lenin’s. Lenin had little faith in the revolutionary potential of the proletariat, arguing in What Is to Be Done? (1902) that the workers, left to themselves, would fight only for better wages and working conditions; they therefore needed to be educated, enlightened, and led to revolution by a “vanguard” party of professional revolutionaries. Moreover, the authoritarian nature of the Russian government required that the vanguard party be conspiratorial, disciplined, and elitist. Lenin’s Russian-Marxist rivals disputed these points, but his manipulation of the vote at a party congress enabled him to label them the Menshevik, or “minority,” faction.
Lenin’s commitment to revolution thus put him at odds with those who advocated a revised, evolutionary Marxism. In Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), Lenin argued against the revisionists, stating that the improvement in conditions enjoyed by the proletariat of Europe and the United States was a kind of bribe made possible by the “superprofits” that their countries’ capitalists were extracting from the labour and resources of the poorer parts of the world. But imperialism would also be the last stage of capitalism, for it was bound to expose the contradictions of capitalism not only in the industrial countries but also in the countries exploited by the imperialistic powers—hence the possibility of revolution in a country that had not itself gone through capitalism.
Lenin wrote Imperialism during World War I, which proved to be a watershed in the history of socialism. In the years before war broke out in August 1914, most European socialists had held that the only war the proletariat should fight was the class war against the bourgeoisie. When the war began, however, socialists were forced to choose between international socialism and their countries, and they generally chose the latter—though there were notable exceptions, Luxemburg and Lenin among them. Once the SPD’s contingent in the Reichstag voted to issue war credits, socialists in other countries fell into line behind their own governments. The Second International lingered for a time, but to no effective purpose.
World War I also inflicted severe hardships on the Russian people, thereby contributing to the collapse of the tsarist regime and creating an opportunity for revolution, which the Bolsheviks seized in the Russian Revolution of 1917. Lenin’s standing among revolutionary Marxists soared, though Luxemburg and others deplored the way in which the dictatorship of the proletariat was becoming a dictatorship of the All-Russian Communist Party, as the Bolsheviks named themselves in 1918. Still, the communists’ victory gave Luxemburg and other revolutionaries hope that the Russian example would inspire socialist revolutions elsewhere.
For his part, Lenin feared that his regime could not survive without the aid of friendly—and therefore socialist—neighbours. Accordingly, he called a meeting in Moscow to establish a Third International, or Communist International (Comintern). The response from other countries was tepid, and, by the time the delegates convened in March 1919, the prospects for a new international had been further dimmed by the failure of the Spartacus Revolt of the new Communist Party of Germany—a failure that claimed the lives of Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht (the son of Wilhelm Liebknecht), who were summarily executed by counterrevolutionary forces in 1919 (see also Spartacus League). Lenin pressed on with the formation of the Comintern, but it was soon apparent that it was an agent of the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (formally created in 1922) and not of international socialism as such. Indeed, by this time a fissure had clearly developed between communists on the one hand and socialists, or social democrats, on the other.
Socialism in the era of world war
The division took institutional form as communist parties emerged in one country after another to challenge existing socialist parties and their common enemy, capitalism. In general, the communists were revolutionary Marxists who adhered to what came to be called Marxism-Leninism. Their socialist rivals—variously known as socialists, social democrats, and labourites—were a more diverse group, including both revisionists and non-Marxists, but they were united in their commitment to peaceful, democratic tactics. They were also less likely than the communists to claim that history was moving inexorably toward the demise of capitalism and more likely to appeal to ethical considerations. In England, for example, the reformer Richard Henry Tawney found a receptive audience within the Labour Party when he rested the case for socialism on its promotion of fellowship, the dignity of work, and the equal worth of all members of society.
On the communist side, the standard was set by the increasingly totalitarian regime of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union. Lenin’s death in 1924 led to a power struggle between Stalin and Leon Trotsky. Stalin not only won the struggle but eventually ordered the deaths of Trotsky and other rivals—and of millions more who opposed or resisted his policies. While professing to be a revolutionary in the Marxist-Leninist tradition, Stalin concentrated his efforts on building “socialism in one country,” largely through a program of forced collectivization and industrialization.
There were occasional deviations from the Marxist-Leninist line, as in the case of Antonio Gramsci, who helped to found the Italian Communist Party in 1921. Gramsci resisted the tendency to reduce Marx’s theory to economic terms, focusing instead on the way in which the “hegemony” of the ruling classes over schools, churches, the media, and other cultural institutions encouraged workers to acquiesce in their exploitation. But Gramsci’s attempt to convince other communists of the revolutionary potential of cultural transformation was restricted by his imprisonment, from 1926 until shortly before his death in 1937, by the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini.
Fascist oppression, in fact, was a major problem for communists and socialists alike, not only in Italy but subsequently in Spain under Francisco Franco and in Germany under Adolf Hitler. Socialist parties had drawn enough votes in Germany, Britain, and France to participate in or even to lead coalition governments in the 1920s and ’30s, and in Sweden the Swedish Social Democratic Workers’ Party won control of the government in 1932 with a promise to make their country into a “people’s home” based on “equality, concern, cooperation, and helpfulness.” Wherever fascists took power, however, communists and socialists were among the first to be suppressed.
Nor were there any signal victories for socialism outside Europe in the years between the world wars. Although Eugene V. Debs won nearly one million votes in the U.S. presidential election of 1920, his showing represented less than 4 percent of the votes cast and remains the electoral high point for American socialists. In India, Mahatma Gandhi attracted a mass following, but his popularity owed more to his campaign for independence from Britain than to the traces of socialism in his philosophy.
In China another mass movement for national liberation developed at this time, though it was explicitly communist. Its leader, Mao Zedong, helped to found the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1921. After a disastrous beginning—the Comintern had pushed the Chinese communists into an alliance with the nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, who attacked the communists as soon as he thought it expedient—Mao retreated to the fields and hills to rebuild the CCP. While remaining faithful to Lenin’s notion of the communist party as the revolutionary vanguard, Mao proceeded to lead a guerilla movement that established its power base among the peasantry, which he regarded as a rural proletariat. In Mao’s hands, moreover, the concept of nation largely replaced that of class, with China represented as a poor and oppressed proletarian nation that had to rise against the oppressing imperialist nations and their bourgeois underlings.
World War II forged an uneasy alliance between communists and socialists—and between liberals and conservatives—in their common struggle against fascism. The alliance soon disintegrated, however, as the Soviet Union established communist regimes in the eastern European countries it had occupied at the end of the war. The Cold War that ensued deepened the fissure between communists and other socialists, the latter seeing themselves as democrats opposed to the one-party rule of the Soviet Union and its satellites. The Labour Party, for example, won a parliamentary majority in the British elections of 1945 and subsequently established a national health care system and public control of major industries and utilities; when the party lost its majority in 1951, it peacefully relinquished the offices of government to the victorious Conservatives.
The communists also claimed to be democrats, but their notion of “people’s democracy” rested on the belief that the people were not yet capable of governing themselves. Thus, Mao declared, after Chiang Kai-shek’s forces were driven from mainland China in 1949, that the new People’s Republic of China was to be a “people’s democratic dictatorship”; that is, the CCP would rule in the interests of the people by suppressing their enemies and building socialism. Freedom of expression and political competition were bourgeois, counterrevolutionary ideas. This became the justification for one-party rule by other communist regimes in North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the socialist parties of Europe were modifying their positions and enjoying frequent electoral success. The Scandinavian socialists set the example of “mixed economies” that combined largely private ownership with government direction of the economy and substantial welfare programs, and other socialist parties followed suit. Even the SPD, in its Bad Godesberg program of 1959, dropped its Marxist pretenses and committed itself to a “social market economy” involving “as much competition as possible—as much planning as necessary.” Although some welcomed this blurring of boundaries between socialism and welfare-state liberalism as a sign of “the end of ideology,” the more radical student left of the 1960s complained that there was little choice between capitalism, the “obsolete communism” of the Marxist-Leninists, and the bureaucratic socialism of western Europe.
Elsewhere, the withdrawal of European colonial powers from Africa and the Middle East created opportunities for new forms of socialism. Terms such as African socialism and Arab socialism were frequently invoked in the 1950s and ’60s, partly because the old colonial powers were identified with capitalist imperialism. In practice, these new kinds of socialism typically combined appeals to indigenous traditions, such as communal land ownership, with the Marxist-Leninist model of one-party rule for the purpose of rapid modernization. In Tanzania, for example, Julius Nyerere developed an egalitarian program of ujamaa (Swahili: “familyhood”) that collectivized village farmlands and attempted, unsuccessfully, to achieve economic self-sufficiency—all under the guidance of a one-party state.More From BritannicaWere the Nazis Socialists?
In Asia, by contrast, no distinctive form of socialism emerged. Aside from the communist regimes, Japan was the only country in which a socialist party gained a sizable and enduring following, to the point of occasionally controlling the government or participating in a governing coalition.
Nor has there been a peculiarly Latin American contribution to socialist theory. The regime of Fidel Castro in Cuba tended to follow the Marxist-Leninist path in the 1950s and ’60s, though with increasing moderation in later years, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Liberation theology called on Christians to give priority to the needs of the poor, but it has not developed an explicitly socialist program. Perhaps the most distinctively Latin American expression of socialist impulses was Venezuelan Pres. Hugo Chávez’s call for a “Bolivarian Revolution.” Apart from the appeal to Simón Bolívar’s reputation as a liberator, however, Chávez did not establish a connection between socialism and Bolívar’s thoughts and deeds.
In many ways, however, the attempt by Salvador Allende to unite Marxists and other reformers in a socialist reconstruction of Chile is most representative of the direction that Latin American socialists have taken since the late 20th century. Elected by a plurality vote in a three-way election in 1970, Allende tried to nationalize foreign corporations and redistribute land and wealth to the poor. These efforts provoked domestic and foreign opposition, which led, in the midst of economic turmoil, to a military coup and Allende’s death—though whether by his or someone else’s hand is not clear.
Several socialist (or socialist-leaning) leaders have followed Allende’s example in winning election to office in Latin American countries. Chávez led the way in 1999 and was followed in the early 21st century by successful electoral campaigns by self-proclaimed socialist or distinctly left-of-centre leaders in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Bolivia. Although it would be too much to say that these leaders have shared a common program, they have tended to support increased welfare provision for the poor, nationalization of some foreign corporations, redistribution of land from large landholders to peasants, and resistance to the “neoliberal” policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Socialism after communism
The most important development in the recent history of socialism is undoubtedly the collapse of communism, first in eastern Europe in 1989 and then in the Soviet Union itself in 1991. Communist parties continued to exist, of course, and some of them remained in power—e.g., in North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, and China. But by the late 20th century little of Marxism remained in the policies of the CCP, as economic reforms increasingly favoured private ownership of productive property and encouraged market competition. What did remain was the Leninist insistence on one-party rule.
Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempts at glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”), initiated after he became general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985, signaled a move away from one-party rule and the inefficient command economy, in which wages, prices, production, and distribution were determined by bureaucrats. Gorbachev intended perestroika to increase productivity and raise living standards without going far in the direction of a market economy. But glasnost created political opportunities for those who were unhappy with communism, as the downfall of the eastern European regimes indicated; ultimately it prompted a reaction—an attempted coup by a group of hard-line communists in 1991—that failed so swiftly and spectacularly that the Soviet Union itself disintegrated. By the end of the 20th century, communism, though not quite dead, certainly seemed to be dying.
Beginning in the late 20th century, the advent of what many considered a “postindustrial” economy, in which knowledge and information count for more than labour and material production, raised doubts about the relevance of socialism, which was in theory and in practice primarily a response to industrial capitalism. This conviction led to much talk of a “third way”—that is, a centre-left position that would preserve the socialist commitment to equality and welfare while abandoning class-based politics and public ownership of the means of production. In 1995 the British Labour Party under Tony Blair embraced the third way by forsaking its long-standing commitment to the nationalization of basic industries; in general elections two years later, the Labour Party won a landslide victory, and Blair served as prime minister for the next 10 years. Other heads of government who professed the third way in the 1990s included Pres. Bill Clinton of the United States, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany, and Prime Minister Wim Kok of the Netherlands.
Critics on the left complained that the third way reduced equality to an equal chance to compete in economies in which the rich were growing ever richer and the poor were increasingly disadvantaged. Such a position, they insisted, is hardly socialist. But even these critics seldom called for a return to a centralist form of socialism; instead, they were more likely to advocate a decentralist form of market socialism. As the name implies, market socialism blends elements of a free-market economy with social ownership and control of property. Proposals have varied, but the basic idea is that businesses will compete for profits, as in capitalism, but they will be owned, or at least governed, by those who work in them. The workers in every business will choose their supervisors, control their working conditions, set the prices of their products, and decide how to share the profits—or to cope with the losses—of their enterprise. Market socialism is thus a form of “workplace democracy,” or “economic democracy,” that enables workers not only to vote in political contests but also to have a say in the economic decisions that affect them daily in their work.
If socialism has a future, it may well lie in some form of market socialism. Market socialism promises neither the utopia of the early socialists nor the brave new world that Marx and his followers envisioned as the fulfillment of history. But it does promise to promote cooperation and solidarity rather than competitive individualism, and it aims at reducing, if not eliminating, the class divisions that foster exploitation and alienation. In these respects, this modest, decentralized version of socialism continues to sound the themes that have long inspired people to take up the cause of socialism. Even in Latin America and other places where socialists continue to call for direct, public ownership of natural resources and major industries, they nevertheless leave room for private competition for profits in the marketplace. In one way or another, socialists now seem more interested in bringing the free market under control than in eliminating it completely.Terence BallRichard Dagger
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Gamonalismo, a term meaning “bossism,” used in Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia. It is derived from gamonal, a word meaning a “large landowner,” and it refers to the exploitation of the Indian population, mainly by landowners of European descent. In the 1920s the Peruvian Marxist writer José Carlos Mariateguí attacked gamonalismo as the worst abuse in the Peruvian political system; in so doing he influenced many of his contemporaries to espouse Socialism.