Socialism Essay

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Socialism refers to those practices and doctrines based on, and emphasizing the benefits of, collective property, social equality, human cooperation and communal forms of economic and political association. Yet, beyond these shared features, socialism as both practice and doctrine is characterized by tremendous diversity. This is evident in the historical development of socialism.

First used in English in the 1820s and French and German in the 1830s, the term socialism” had been preceded by movements whose aims and practices resonated with what we now recognize as socialist values. These included early Christian-inspired movement such as the Levelers and the Diggers in seventeenth-century England, and the Anabaptists in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Central Europe. It was not until after the French and Industrial Revolutions, however, that socialist doctrines began to be more systematically elaborated. Comte de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), Francios-Charles Fourier (1772-1837), and Robert Owen (1771-1858), for example, all penned treatises that expressed an antipathy towards individualism and, conversely, a celebratory attitude towards community, cooperation and social solidarity.

Such ideas gained a broader hearing in Europe in the 1830s and 1840s, largely in response to accelerated industrialization and urbanization, and the problems that they brought in their wake. It was out of this milieu of social and political ferment that the ideas of Karl Marx and his collaborator Frederick Engels began to develop. While not beginning their intellectual careers as socialists, their early radical democratic sensibilities had given way to a more explicitly socialist position by the mid-1840s. This so-called scientific socialism” was underpinned by a distinctive view of history and of capitalism, and would be elaborated and refined over the coming three decades. In this view, history involves the progressive unfolding of distinctive stages, driven by class struggle, with each stage being defined by a dominant set of production relations. With the advent of capitalism, and its immanent drive to improve labor productivity through technological innovation and intensified exploitation of the modern proletariat, the material and political preconditions for socialism were laid.

Although Marx never outlined any blueprints for a socialist society, there are three key sources that illuminate his views on the socialist future and the transition from capitalism to socialism. First, The Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850, argue that the transition to socialism would require a new transitionary political form that he labeled as the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Second, the possible content of this new state form was discussed in Marx’s responses to the Paris Commune of 1871. In particular, Marx was impressed by the way in which the Commune sought to overcome the capitalist division between economic and political life. This was principally manifested in the election of workers to local and national delegations of workers’ deputies, which combined executive, legislative, and judicial functions, with worker representatives recallable at short notice. Finally, in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx makes a distinction between a first and second stage of communism, which would later be recognized as one between socialism (first stage -where a state is still necessary) and communism (second state – where the state has withered away).

After Marx’s death in 1883, a key debate within the European socialist movement revolved around the question of reform or revolution. In the revisionist controversy within German Social Democracy, Eduard Berstein claimed that much Marxist orthodoxy had been invalidated by contemporary developments within capitalism. These included the increased dispersal of ownership, improved conditions for workers, and the growing parliamentary influence of organized labor. Defenders of revolutionary orthodoxy responded that the instrument of workers’ oppression, the capitalist state, could not be the instrument of their liberation, and that the basic structure of capitalist exploitation remained even if workers’ conditions were ameliorated by social reform. Moreover, if capitalist private property and profit were truly threatened, the coercive nature of the capitalist state would reveal itself. Therefore, a revolutionary path to socialism was indispensable.

In the twentieth century, this same divide reappeared in several guises. The Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917 became a new revolutionary orthodoxy, and in the eyes of many, supporters and antagonists alike, became synonymous with socialism. This would severely discredit the very idea of socialism, especially once Stalinism had been consolidated in the Soviet Union. Democratic socialists in the west rejected this model, and instead advocated a reformist, market socialism, which was at least partly embodied in the development of the modern welfare state. The socialist credentials of such states were challenged, however. Socialist feminists, for example, pointed to the gendered assumptions on which many welfare policies were based, and to the very different implications of welfare state policies for working class and middle class women.

Since the collapse of already existing socialism,” socialists have been on the defensive. But it would be wrong to write off socialism as doctrine or practice. Many of the same problems that inspired socialist ideas in the first place remain with us, and these ideas continue to contribute to our understanding of the world as it is and as it could be.


  1. Castro, F. (1972) Revolutionary Struggle, 1947-1958. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
  2. Lenin, V. I. (1932) State and Revolution. International Press, New York.
  3. Lipset, S. M. & Marks, G. (1999) It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States. Norton, New York.
  4. Marx, K. (1998) The Communist Manifesto. Verso, London and New York.

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