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History of Socialism: Part 1

Table of contents
1 Early socialists
2 Marxism and the socialist movement
3 Social Democracy to 1917
4 Socialism and Communism (1917-39)
5 Social Democracy (1945-70)

Early socialists

The word socialism came into English from French in the 1820s, but the idea that goods should be held in common and that all men should be equal is much older. Quasi-socialist elements can be identified in Plato's Republic, the Sermon on the Mount, the millenarian movements of the Middle Ages and Thomas More's Utopia. Socialist ideas were certainly current among the Levellers and other sects of the English revolution of the 1640s and the more radical sans-culottes of the French revolution of the 1790s, though they never achieved real influence. As a coherent body of ideas, socialism dates from the early 19th century.

The early socialists were utopians: they developed visions of ideal societies based on absolute equality, in which humans co-operated in production for the benefit of all without the need for material incentives, and in which the state was abolished in favour of a system of self-government, or (in a positive sense) anarchy. Early utopian socialist thinkers included:

The Comte de Saint-Simon

The emergence of socialist ideas in Britain and France, and later in Germany and Italy, was a consequence of the industrial revolution. In these countries, the development of manufacturing industry, and related industries such as coal-mining and the railways, produced an industrial working class, referred to by socialists as the proletariat: workers who had nothing to sell but their labour. The misery of the industrial workers in the unregulated economies of the early 19th century provoked anger among many observers, and the formulation of socialist doctrines was an attempt to devise a way of producing wealth without such crude exploitation.

Of course, many people who were not socialists were also outraged by the plight of the working class. Their response was liberalism: the belief that an enlightened middle class could reform the operations of capitalism so as to produce social justice without infringing on the rights of private property. English thinkers such as John Stuart Mill were at the forefront of this movement. In France in 1830 and in England in 1832, liberal political ideas triumphed, and this did much to take the wind out of the sails of the socialist movement.

Marxism and the socialist movement

In Germany liberalism suffered a terrible defeat in the failed revolution of 1848, and this gave rise to a new strain of socialist thought, articulated by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848). Marx and Engels developed a body of ideas which they called "scientific socialism," and which their followers called Marxism. Marxism contained both a theory of history (historical materialism) and a theory of society.

Unlike the utopian socialists, Marx confronted the question of power. He believed that capitalism could only be overthrown by means of a revolution, to be followed by the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat (although this phrase was not actually used by him). He believed that the proleriat was the only class with both the means and the determination to carry the revolution forward; unlike the utopian socialists, who often idealised agrarian life and deplored the growth of modern industry, Marx saw the growth of capitalism and an urban proletariat as a necessary stage towards socialism.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

In Marx's theory, "socialism" referred to the stage of history and class structure immediately following the revolution, in which power would pass to the proletariat. According to Marx, once private property had been abolished, the state would then "wither away," and humanity would move on to a higher stage of society, "communism." This distinction continues to be used by Marxists, and is the cause of much confusion. No Marxist, for example, ever claimed that the Soviet Union was a communist society, even though it was ruled by a Communist Party for 70 years.

Having developed a body of ideas, socialists naturally sought to put them into practice. Socialist political groups were formed as early as the 1830s, but the failed to make real headway among the workers, who were more interested in forming trade unions and making immediate economic gains within the capitalist system. The socialist groups also tended to be quarrelsome and suffer frequent splits.

In 1864, the First International, (or International Working Men's Association) was founded in London, at a conference addresed by Marx. Most of the groups represented at this meeting had little real existence, but from this time on they grew rapidly, especially in France and Germany. In the wake of the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, the working class of Paris (or at least their leaders) established the Paris Commune, which for a few weeks provided a glimpse of a socialist society, before ending in a dreadful massacre when the government regained control. The First International collapsed shortly after.

The Second International was established in Paris in 1893, by which time socialist parties were active in most European countries and were beginning to achieve some electoral succcesses in countries where elections were held and the working class was able to vote. This International, however, was divided between the followers of Marx and the anarchists, led by the Russian Mikhail Bakunin. The anarchists predicted that an attempt to implement Marxist ideas would only result in a renewed dictatorship, that of the "Party" (managers and bureaucrats), and that the real task of the proletariat was to "smash the state" along with capitalism.

Social Democracy to 1917

One of the first modifications of Marx's definition occurred in the late 19th century, when many political theorists broke with the Marxist notion that revolution was the only way to advance beyond capitalism and that socialism was incompatible with democracy. Even Marx himself conceded late in his life that it might be possible to achieve socialism without violence in some countries. After Marx's death, Engels went further, saying that the day of the classic "street revolution" may have passed.

In Germany, where the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the 1890s became the largest and most powerful socialist party in Europe, the next generation of leaders, such as August Bebel and Eduard Bernstein, went further arguing that once full democracy had been achieved, a transition to socialism by parliamentary means was both possible and more desirable than revolutionary change. Bernstein and his supporters came to be identified as "revisionists," because they sought to revise the classic tenets of Marxism. Although the Orthodox Marxists in the party, led by Karl Kautsky, managed to retain the Marxist theory of revolution as the official doctrine of the party, in practice the SPD became more and more reformist.

Jean Jaurès

Even in countries where revisionist ideas were not accepted, socialist parties soon found themselves in a dilemma, which they never satisfactority solved. If they pursued a pure revolutionary doctrine and avoided participation in parliamentary politics and the day-to-day struggles of the trade unions, they remained isolated sects. But if they participated fully in these arenas, they were drawn deeper and deeper into reformism and lost sight of their revolutionary objective. Thus the French Socialists under Jean Jaurès and later Léon Blum adhered to Marxist ideas, but became in practice a reformist party.

The strongest opposition to revisionism naturally came from socialists in countries such as the Russian Empire where parliamentary democracy did not exist and did not seem possible. They continued to argue that revolution was the only path to socialism. Chief among these was the Russian Vladimir Lenin, whose work The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky set out the views of those who rejected revisionist ideas. In 1903, there was a formal split in the Russian social democratic party into revolutionary Bolshevik and reformist Menshevik factions, but in most other socialist parties the issue was not pushed so far.

In 1914, the outbreak of World War I led to a crisis in European socialism. Contrary to the fondly held beliefs about the international solidarity of the proletariat, the working classes of the various belligerents rushed to go to war with each other, and the socialist parties of Germany, France and Britain were dragged along behind, although some leaders, like Ramsay MacDonald in Britain and Karl Liebknecht in Germany, opposed the war from the start. Lenin, in exile in Switzerland, called for revolutions in all the combatant states as the only way to end the war and achieve socialism. At first he was ignored, but by 1917 war-weariness led to splits in several socialist parties, notably the German Social Democrats.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 proved Lenin right, in the sense that a revolution turned out to be the only way to get Russia out of the war. It also seemed to prove that he was right on the question of revolution: Russia was certainly the only country in the world where socialists had taken power. This led minority factions in most of the world's socialist parties to break away and form new parties in support of the Leninist model: these came to be called Communist parties, and in 1919 Lenin organised them into a new international party, the Communist International or Comintern.

In some countries, particularly Britain and the British Dominions, labour parties were formed. These were parties formed by and controlled by the trade unions, rather than formed by groups of socialist activists who then appealed to the workers for support. The British Labour Party first elected members to the House of Commons in 1902, but was not able to detach the majority of the working class from its loyalty to the Liberal Party until after World War I. In Australia, however, the Labour party achieved rapid success, forming its first national government in 1904. Labour parties were also formed in South Africa and New Zealand but had less success.

Socialism and Communism (1917-39)

V I Lenin

The aftermath of the First World War produced an upsurge of radicalism in most of Europe and also as far afield as the United States and Australia. The initial success of the Russian Revolution inspired other revolutionary parties to attempt the same thing. In the chaotic circumstances of postwar Europe, with the socialist parties divided and discredited, Communist revolutions across Europe seemed a possibility. Communist regimes briefly held power under Bela Kun in Hungary and under Kurt Eisner in Bavaria. There were several attempts at Communist revolutions in Berlin and Vienna, and also in the industrial centres of northern Italy. In the course of one attempt, the German Communist leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were killed.

By the mid 1920s, however, the impetus had gone out of the revolutionary forces in Europe, and the orthodox socialist parties had regained their dominance over the working-class movement in most countries. The German Social Democrats held office for much of the 1920s, the British Labour Party formed its first government in 1924, and the French Socialists were also influential. But the division of the labour movement between socialists and Communists proved permanent. In the Soviet Union, Stalin came to power in 1929 and developed his theory of "socialism in one country."

The postwar revolutionary upsurge provoked a powerful reaction from the forces of conservatism. One example was the "Red scare" in the United States, which effectively destroyed the American Socialist Party of Eugene Debs. American socialism never recovered from this blow. In Europe, fascism emerged as a movement against both socialism and liberalism. Fascism came to power in Italy in 1922 under Benito Mussolini (a former socialist), and strong fascist movements also developed in Spain, Portugal, Germany and Hungary.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Communist Party was busily "building socialism" in the Soviet Union. For the first time, socialism was not just a vision of a future society, but a description of an existing one. Lenin's regime brought all the means of production (except agricultural production) under state control, and implemented a system of government through workers' councils (in Russian, soviets). Within a few years, however, the Bolshevik Party had established a dictatorship, and this was consolidated by Stalin after Lenin's death.

After 1929 Stalin led the Soviet Union into a "higher stage of socialism." Agriculture was collectivised, at the cost of a massive famine and millions of deaths among the resistant peasantry. The surplus squeezed from the peasants was spent on a program of crash industrialisation, guided by the Communist Party through the Five Year Plan. This program produced some impressive early results, though at enormous human costs. Later studies by economists, however, showed that the pace of industrialisation in the Soviet Union was no faster than it was, for example, in Japan or the United States under capitalism, and that the use of resources, material and human, in the Soviet Union was very wasteful.

J V Stalin

Nevertheless the Soviet achievement in the 1930s seemed hugely impressive from the outside, and convinced many people, not necessarily Communists or even socialists, of the virtues of state planning and authoritarian models of social development. This was later to have important consequences in countries like China, India and Egypt, which tried to copy some aspects of the Soviet model. It also won large sections of the western intelligentsia over to a pro-Soviet view, to the extent that many were willing to ignore or excuse such events as Stalin's Great Purge of 1936-39, in which millions of people died.

The Great Depression, which began in 1929, seemed to socialists and Communists everywhere to be the final proof of the bankruptcy, literally as well as politically, of capitalism. But socialists were unable to take advantage of the Depression to either win elections or stage revolutions. Labor governments in Britain and Australia were disastrous failures. In the United States, the liberalism of Franklin Roosevelt won mass support and deprived socialists of any chance of gaining ground. And in Germany it was the fascists of Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party who successfully exploited the Depression to win power, in January 1933.

Hitler's regime swiftly destroyed both the German Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party: the worst blow the world socialist movement had ever suffered. This forced Stalin to reassess his strategy, and from 1934 the Comintern began urging a "united front against fascism." The socialist parties were at first suspicious, given the bitter hostility of the 1920s, but eventually effective Popular Fronts were formed in both France and Spain. The election of a Popular Front government in Spain in 1936 triggered a fascist military revolt and the subsequent Spanish Civil War. The crisis in Spain also brought down the Popular Front government in France under Léon Blum. Untimately the Popular Fronts were not able to prevent the spread of fascism or the aggressive plans of the fascist powers.

When Stalin consolidates his power in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s, his principal rival, Leon Trotsky, was forced into exile in Mexico. In Trotsky's works such as The Revolution Betrayed and his History of the Russian Revolution he developed a theory of "permanent revolution" as an alternative to the bureaucratised socialism of the Soviet Union under Stalin, despite the fact the Trotsky had himself played a leading role in establishing the Bolshevik dictatorship before Lenin's death. In 1938 Trotsky founded a new international organisation of dissident Communists, the Fourth International, but its constituent parties remained sects and never seriously challenged the orthodox Communist parties. In 1940 Trotsky was murdered on Stalin's orders, and Trotskyism faded away until the 1960s.

Social Democracy (1945-70)

As a result of the failure of the Popular Fronts and the inability of Britain and France to conclude a defensive alliance against Hitler, Stalin again changed his policy in August 1939 and signed a non-aggression pact, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, with Nazi Germany. Shortly afterwards World War II broke out, and within two years Hitler had occupied most of Europe, and by 1942 both democracy and social democracy had reached their lowest ebb. The only socialist parties of any significance able to operate freely were those in Britain, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. But the entry of the Soviet Union into the war in 1941 marked the turning of the tide against fascism, and as the German armies retreated another great upsurge in left-wing sentiment swelled up in their wake. The resistance movements against German occupation were mostly led by socialists and communists, and by the end of the war the parties of the left were greatly strengthened.

The greatest postwar victory of the democratic socialist parties was the election victory of the British Labour Party led by Clement Attlee in June 1945. Socialist (and in some places Communist) parties also dominated postwar governments in France, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Norway and other European countries. The Social Democratic Party had been in power in Sweden since 1932, and Labour parties also held power in Australia and New Zealand. In Germany, on the other hand, the Social Democrats emerged from the war much weakened, and were defeated in Germany's first democratic elections in 1949. The united front between democrats and the Communist parties which had been established in the wartime resistance movements continued in the immediate postwar years. The democratic socialist parties of eastern Europe, however, were destroyed when Stalin imposed Communist regimes in these countries.

The Second International, which had been based in Amsterdam, ceased to operate during the war. It was refounded as the Socialist International at a congress in Frankfurt in 1951. Since Stalin had dissolved the Comintern in 1943, this was now the only effective international socialist organisation. The Frankfurt Declaration took a stand against both capitalism and Communism.

''Socialism aims to liberate the peoples from dependence on a minority which owns or controls the means of production. It aims to put economic power in the hands of the people as a whole, and to create a community in which free men work together as equals... Socialism has become a major force in world affairs. It has passed from propaganda into practice. In some counries the foundations of a Socialist society have already been laid. Here the evils of capitalism are disappearing...

Since the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, Communism has split the International Labour Movement and has set back the realisation of socialism in many countries for decades. Communism falsely claims a share in the Socialist tradition. In fact it has distorted that tradition beyond recognition. It has built up a regid theology which is incomptable with the critical spirit of Marxism... Wherever it has gained power it has destroyed freedom or the chance of gaining freedom...

Despite this optimistic language, the democratic socialist parties during the 20 years after World War II found themselves under siege from two directions. Many socialists expected the pattern of the 1920s to repeat itself: with financial instability leading to a renewed depression. Instead the capitalist world, now led by the United States, embarked on a prolonged boom which, although uneven, produced low unemployment and rising living standards across Europe and North America. The socialist parties found it increasingly difficult to maintain the view that capitalism inevitably led to unemployment, poverty and misery for the workers. Some parties reacted to these changes by engaging in a new round of revisionist re-assessment of socialist ideology.

At the same time, the wartime alliance between the Soviet Union and the west broke down from 1946 onwards, and relations between the Communist parties and the democratic socialist parties broke dowin parallel. The French, Italian and Belgian Communists withdrew or were expelled from postwar coalition governments, and civil war broke out in Greece. The imposition of Communist regimes in Poland, Hungary and Czechslovakia not only destroyed the socialist parties in those countries, it also produced a reaction against socialism in general. The Australian and New Zealand Labour governments were defeated un 1949, and the British Labour government in 1951. As the Cold War deepened, conservative rule in Britain, Germany and Italy became more strongly entrenched. Only in the Scandinavian countries and to some extent in France did the socialist parties retain their positions. But in 1958 Charles de Gaulle seized power in France and the French socialists found themselves cast into opposition.

In the 1960s and '70s new social forces began to change the political landscape in the western world. The long postwar boom and the rapid expansion of higher education produced, as well as rising living standards for the industrial working class, a mass university-educated white collar workforce, which began to break down the old socialist-versus-conservative polarity of European politics. This new white-collar workforce was less interested in traditional socialist policies such as state ownership and more interested expanded personal freedom and liberal social policies. Another factor in this change was the increasing movement of women into the paid workforce, which changed both the composition and the political outlook of the working class. Some socialist parties reacted more flexibly and successfully to these changes than others, but eventually all were forced to do so.

Another manifestation of this changing social landscape was the rise of mass radical student movement, both in the United States - where it was driven mainly by opposition to the Vietnam War, and in Europe. This was the first left-wing upsurge in the United States since the 1930s, but neither there not in Europe did the traditional parties of the left either lead the movement. Instead a collection of Trotskyist, Maoist and anarchist groups arose. They reached the peak of their influence in 1968, when riots amounting almost to an insuurection broke out in Paris, and there were also major disturbances in Chicago, Berlin and other cities. In the short-term these movements provoked a conservative backlash, seen in De Gaulle's 1968 election victory and the election of Richard Nixon in the United States. But in the 1970s, as the ultra-left groups faded away, the socialist and Communist parties gained ground again.

British Labour had already returned to office under Harold Wilson in 1964, and in 1969 the German Social Democrats came to power for the first time since the 1920s under Willy Brandt. In France François Mitterrand buried the corpse of the old socialist party, the SFIO, and founded a new Socialist Party in 1971, although it would take him a decade to lead it to power. Labour governments were elected in both Australia and New Zealand in 1972, and the Austrian Socialists under Bruno Kreisky formed their first postwar government in 1970. The British Labour government carried out some nationalisations, but in general these social democratic governments confined themselves to measures of liberal social reform and wealth-redistribution through state welfare and taxation policy. They could not win elections without a substantial measure of middle-class support, and middle-class voters were not interested in traditional socialism.

History of Socialism, Part 2