Socialism, one of the leading ideologies of the 20th century, is a theory of social organization in which the means of production are collectively owned and managed, with goods collectively distributed. It also refers to a practice, whether a political movement or a type of governance, aspiring to implement such a theory.
Socialism in its modern form originated in the 19th century and is usually linked to Marxism. Although Karl Marx is one of the best-known theorists of socialism, he is not the originator. The term usually is considered to originate in the London Co-operative Magazine of 1826, where it referred to followers of Robert Owen, Marx’s predecessor. Owen’s followers adopted this name in 1841. By the 1840s though, socialism also referred to the schools of Henri de Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier in France.
Socialist ideals precede the 19th century. They can be found in Plato’s Republic and in such Renaissance works as Sir Thomas More’s Utopia of 1516 and Tommaso Campanella’s The City of the Sun of 1623. They also relate to French Revolution notions of liberty, equality, and solidarity. Socialism also shares ideals of communalism, brotherhood, and altruism with Christianity.
Socialism was a reaction to the economic and social changes associated with the industrial revolution, beginning as a humanistic and economic critique of capitalism. Socialists sought to overcome poverty, inequality, and social conflict and to reach happiness, harmony, and justice. The major tenets of socialism generally include cooperation, public ownership, and equality as opposed to competition, individual profit seeking, private property, and social stratification, which are common to capitalism. Historically, socialist agendas differed, with some socialists disapproving the abolition of private property (Saint-Simon) and others offering various visions of public ownership and ways to reach equality and progress.
Predecessors of socialism like Owen and Fourier saw it emerging in small socialist communities in agrarian settings or in advanced industrial ones, with a social order based on fellowship, harmony, and altruism. Marx called them “utopian socialists” and emphasized the need to understand the historical laws of society and economics. According to Marx’s “scientific socialism,” economic forces determine historical evolution, including social and political relations, ideology as well as culture. Marx argued that socialism will emerge out of the class struggle, the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the working class (the proletariat), when inequality and exploitation will deepen in advanced capitalism. The class struggle would create a revolutionary class consciousness and would lead to proletarian revolution and the founding of a classless society. The final stage of history will be communism, characterized by absence of alienation, producers’ control of the means of production, free and creative work, and goods for everyone’s needs. The Communist Manifesto of 1848, written by Marx and Friedrich Engels, marked the beginning of Marxism. Marx’s thoughts on capital, alienation, class, value, and commodification continue to be important contributions to social theory.
Many varieties of post-Marxian socialism evolved in the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as gradualism or social democracy (Eduard Bernstein, the Fabian Society), Christian socialism (Frederick Denison Maurice and Charles Kingsley), and guild socialism in England (George Douglas Howard Cole) or syndicalism in France (Georges Sorel), the latter two associated with workers’ control through trade unions. Eduard Bernstein, the gradualist and social democrat, was the principal revisionist of Marxism. Bernstein noted that Marx’s predictions about the deterioration of capitalism did not take place. According to Bernstein, reforms, and popular support of the middle classes and the proletariat rather than revolution were to lead to socialism in Germany. In England, revisionist socialism was led by the Fabian Society, which like Bernstein, promoted socialism through gradual and democratic reforms.
In the 19th century a number of socialist communities were founded, including William Lane’s New Australia in Paraguay, Etienne Cabe’s Icaria in Illinois, Charles Fourier’s Brook Farm in Massachusetts, and Robert Owen’s New Harmony in Indiana. In the end all the communities failed because of, among other reasons, lack of financial support, agricultural skills, and commitment. After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the Soviet Union became the first socialist country. Unlike Marx, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov or Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks, did not believe that the proletariat would develop class consciousness to stage the revolution. In his What Is to Be Done? (1902), Lenin suggested forming a vanguard party of intellectuals to lead the socialist revolution. Unlike Marxists, who thought that advanced industrial capitalism was a precondition for socialism, Lenin envisioned a proletarian revolution in Russia, a precapitalist country. Bolsheviks and later communists made Marxism an ideology of Soviet state power.
Until World War II, socialism was predominantly a European phenomenon. After the war it spread to Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Near East, in countries that modeled themselves after the Soviet example. These socialist countries could be identified by their public ownership of the means of production, one-party rule, centralized state economy, and unified ideology. Since the birth of socialism, the United States has been the only advanced industrial nation that lacked a durable, mass-based socialist or labor party.
Exploitation, inequality, and conflict did not disappear with socialism. In the Soviet Union, forced industrialization and collectivization transformed traditional ways of life and traditional values. In the major haven of socialism in the 20th century, the Soviet Union, territorial expansion, political oppression, economic exploitation, and mass killings were often carried out in the name of socialism.
Although many often assume socialism to be the ideology of the working class, it is not synonymous with workers, some of whom never supported the socialist cause. Socialist leaders, in fact, attracted various strata of people, sometimes forcing bourgeois values like temperance and birth control on workers. Although promoting humanistic values, socialism has been expressed in various forms of governance, such as totalitarianism, fascism, and parliamentary democracy, which enforced or undermined these values in different ways.
The collapse of the Eastern European and Soviet Union communist states in 1989 led many socialists throughout the world to revise their conceptualization of socialism, a process still unfolding.
- Campanella, Tommaso.  1981. La Citta del Sole: Dialogo Poetico [The City of the Sun: A Poetical Dialogue]. Translated by D. J. Donno. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Howe, Irving, ed. 1986. Essential Works of Socialism. 3rd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Lenin, Vladimir I.  1932. What Is to Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement. New York: International Publishers.
- Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels.  1999. The Communist Manifesto: With Related Documents, edited by John E. Toews. Boston: Bedford, St. Martin’s.
- More, Sir Thomas.  1966. Utopia. Leeds, England: Scolar.
- Verdery, Katherine. 1996. What Was Socialism, and What Comes Next? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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