Socialism is a political and economic philosophy that has emerged between the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In fact, it is a reaction to the First Industrial Revolution. Based mainly on the principle of equality, the socialist movement emerged as a way of rethinking the capitalist system that prevailed at the time. When we refer to socialism we often associate the term with Marxism, but that is not the only form of socialism that exists.
Since the twentieth century, there have been several attempts in the world to implement socialist political ideologies. Currently, some countries claim to present a system based on such principles, but are they really socialists? Discover what socialism is, who are its main thinkers and in what ways this doctrine presents itself in the contemporary world.
How Did Socialism Come About?
At the end of the 18th century, Europe was going through a process that generated changes in all spheres of society: the Industrial Revolution. This revolution not only changed the economy of European countries, but also caused major social changes. With the modification of the means of production and, consequently, the appearance of the manufacturing sector, the capitalist system entered a new phase. It ceased to be in the form of merchant capitalism maintained since the 15th century to take the form of a new industrial capitalism.
With the increasing expansion of industries, cities grew rapidly, without any planning. At the same time, many workers migrated from rural areas to cities, where factory production employed most of the labor.
Meanwhile, European society was divided into two large groups. The working class that had nothing but its own labor force to offer. On the other, a bourgeois class that held most of the wealth produced. This social disparity was reflected in the organization of the city. Poor workers were displaced to the margins of the urban area, where poverty prevailed.
This new factory proletariat worked under the toughest working conditions, without any legal means of protection. Wages were low and daily working hours reached 16 hours. Workers were not entitled to any day of rest and there was no age limit. Children worked from an early age and the elderly were not entitled to retirement. In addition, they had very poor safety conditions in the work environment.
In this context some intellectuals started to look for alternatives that could improve social conditions. It was in response to these problems that thinkers created socialist theory, as a way to organize a society where there were no inequalities.
The first socialist thinkers Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. Each in their own way, these authors were part of the first wave of socialist ideology, later called utopian socialism. Subsequently, scientific socialism emerged. The most notable theorists of this type being the Germans Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx.
Claude-Henri De Rouvroy
Utopian socialism was the first socialist theory, developed during the First Industrial Revolution. One of its great ideologists was the French philosopher and economist Claude-Henri de Rouvroy.
For him, it was important that the prosperous classes understood that improving the living conditions of the poorest would benefit all. Thus, the objective of social institutions would be to improve intellectually, morally and physically, the conditions of the most disadvantaged social classes. All of this through industrial and scientific progress.
Saint-Simon was a critic of the social dominance, formed by the clergy, the nobility and the military. Unlike other socialist thinkers, he did not defend the abolition of private property or a revolution as a way to reform society. In addition, Saint-Simon was in favor of strong state interference with the economy.
Another theorist of utopian socialism was Charles Fourier. He proposed the creation of community and independent societies, even within the capitalist society. These communities would live isolated from society, depend on private capital and would not seek absolute equality. There would be an incentive to industrial efficiency and, although there is a difference in incomes, individual incomes would not be so different.
The community idealized by Fourier would make everyone happier and result in increased production. Still, Fourier was never able to put his ideal community into practice.
Like Fourier, Robert Owen also envisioned the creation of independent communities within a larger society. However, these communities sought absolute equality, where the only hierarchy would be based on age. In them, the exchange unit would be an hour of work.
Unlike Fourier, Owen was able to put his community into practice. In it, employees were paid high wages and worked fewer hours than elsewhere. In addition, workers were supported by Owen during economic crises and the partners received a limited amount of profits. This surplus was used to improve the community.
However, Owen’s communities functioned only under his supervision. Over time, internal fights between their partners brought these communities to an end.
Utopian socialists saw industry as the path to economic development and, as a result, to improving the lives of the people. Unlike scientific socialists, they did not defend the end of the capitalist system as a necessary step towards achieving a just and egalitarian society.
The formulations of these socialists were ideal models of society, hence the name utopian socialism. Marx criticized utopian socialists for presenting ideals of an egalitarian society, while disregarding the instruments and methods necessary for these objectives to be achieved.
Scientific socialism was developed in the 19th century, based on a historical and scientific analysis of capitalism. This model of socialism is commonly known as Marxism. According to Marx and Engels, in all historical times society was marked by the class struggle. This struggle is being characterized by the antagonism between an oppressive and an oppressed class. These classes are represented, by the private owners of capital, the owners of the means of production, and by a mass of wage earners.
Marxism sees the proletariat as the only social class capable of destroying this form of exploitation of people. This would be achieved when the proletariat came to power, following a revolution. Upon reaching power, workers would eliminate inequalities, abolish social classes and make society equal. When that happened, the transition from socialism to communism would be inevitable.
In addition to proposing the elimination of social classes, scientific socialism also promotes the following:
- The collectivization of the means of production – All forms of production, such as industries, become part of society and are controlled by the State. As a result, wealth is no longer concentrated in the hands of a privileged minority.
- Abolition of private property – and state control over the equal division of income.
- Planned economy – All economic sectors should be controlled and directed by the State, which will determine prices, wages and market regulation as a whole.
Paris Commune: the First Practical Experience of Socialism
The Paris Commune was the first attempt of establishing a socialist government. In 1871, after France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, Adolphe Thiers assumed French power and signed a peace agreement with Prussian Chancellor Otto Bismarck. As the agreement was extremely favorable to Prussia, the working class did not agree with the contract signed and revolted against the French government. With support from the National Guard, the working class took over Paris, establishing the Commune.
The government in the commune was composed of ninety elected representatives, who followed different socialist lines, among them Marxism. Most of these representatives belonged to the International Workers’ Association (AIT), also known as the First International. It was the first workers’ organization to overcome national borders.
The commune’s main goal was to improve the workers’ living and working conditions. Among the main measures taken were:
- Setting a minimum wage for workers.
- Establishment of free education for all, as well as evening education.
- Reduction of working hours.
- Self-management in factories, making workers responsible for the organization.
- Declaration of equality between men and women.
- Establishment of the Secular State, through the separation of Church and State.
After the establishment of the Paris Commune, several other attempts to create communes took place throughout France. To prevent the movement from advancing, the French and Prussian governments came together to overthrow the Parisian commune. With the support of Prussian troops, the former Paris government invaded the city and regained power. After a short 72 days of existence, the first experience of a socialist government of workers’ came to an end.
Socialism in the Soviet Union
The Paris Commune was the first practical experience of socialism. In the 20th century socialist ideology was adopted by an entire country. The first nation to adopt this system was Russia, which shortly afterwards would unify with other countries to form the Soviet Union.
The socialist regime was established in Russia in 1917, when a revolution overthrew the tsarist monarchy that prevailed in the country. After the fall of the monarchy, the Bolshevik Party, led by Vladimir Lenin, established the socialist government. It promoted ideals based mainly on Marxist principles.
Lenin’s government faced strong opposition from sectors linked to the former tsarist regime, which sparked a long civil war in the country. After the end of the confrontation, Russia was devastated and, to rebuild it, the government decided to momentarily abandon some rigid socialist principles. With the New Economic Policy (NEP), the country returned to using capitalist forms of production. For example, the opening of small factories, wage disparities and foreign investment in the country.
In 1922, under the regime of Josef Stalin, Russia united with several other republics to officially constitute the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). During his regime, Stalin abolished the NEP and established the five-year plans, where the goals of the Soviet economy were set within five years. Stalin prioritized the expansion and development of the industry, in addition to centralizing several other sectors in the hands of the State.
The socialist regime implemented in the Soviet Union can be considered real socialism. It is considered the first practical experience of a country that adopted features of the socialist theory. Some of these measures were proposed during the 72 days of the Paris Commune. However, this was the first time that socialist principles were maintained as a nation’s political system for a long period of time. This was in sharp contrast to previous socialist theories that practically remained in the field of ideas.
Which Countries Currently Declare Themselves to Be Socialist?
Currently, there are a few countries that claim to be socialist states, although this subject is very controversial. Even though many of them still follow some socialist principles, the influence of capitalist ideas in their systems is notable. Check out which countries are currently adopting socialist principles.
Cuba is perhaps the best known example of modern socialism. Established in the country during the 1959 Revolution, the Cuban system still maintains much of its socialist ideals. For example, the centralization of services in the hands of the State to promote an egalitarian society. However, the country already shows many signs of a capitalist economy. For instance, its tourism industry and foreign trade, although limited by the economic embargo. Since the end of 2015, Cuba has been engaged in a rapprochement with the United States.
Socialism was implanted in China in 1949, shortly after the end of World War II. The country maintained a close relationship with the USSR until the 1960s. From the 1970s it began to incorporate capitalist aspects in its economy. Because it presents a political structure based on socialism, with a capitalist economic system, China defines itself as “market socialism”.
North Korea emerged in 1948, when the country was split into two different states. The North established a socialist system, supported by the USSR, while the South adopted capitalist ideas, promoted by the United States. With an economy based on heavy industry and mechanized agriculture, the Korean system exercises tight political control. However, the emergence of a private market is already noticeable.
Recent changes allow farmers to sell the surplus of their production, as well as being able to reinvest the profits or spend it. The adoption of this and other market practices has emerged as a survival mechanism in the face of famines. Some government officials say it is a momentary measure while the country is unable to produce the necessary consumer goods.
Vietnam established a socialist regime in 1976, after the well-known war against the United States. In the 1990s, the government reformed its economic policy, adopting a system similar to that of China. Thus, Vietnam, which until then had an agriculture-based economy, expanded its industrial sector, registering the greatest economic growth in Southeast Asia in recent years. After attracting foreign capital, the country became part of the Tiger Cub Economies group, even though it maintains a socialist political system.
What Are the Disadvantages of Socialism?
Liberal economists and libertarians see private ownership of the means of production and exchange market as natural and moral rights. In their view these rights are essential for independence and freedom. The biggest criticisms of the socialist system are based on the distortion of the price system, which would make efficient economic planning impossible. In addition, critics argue that, in a socialist system, there would be reduced incentives, reduced prosperity, low viability and negative social and political effects. Friedrich Hayek wrote in The Road to Serfdom that any attempt to control the economy implies a concentration of state power. In turn, the centralization of power eventually will lead to the elimination of political freedoms.
Socialism is an economic system in which an individual or group of individuals controls other members of society through coercion and organized compulsion. Examples of totalitarian governments of this type were the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), especially during the regime of Josef Stalin. Mao Tse-tung’s China and other experiments in Africa and Asia.
In their defense, socialists argue that these countries, despite considering themselves socialists, never adhered to socialism because, in practice, it never existed. There are also libertarian socialists, who favor the overthrow of private property, capital and the State. In their view this is necessary to ensure ample freedom and equality. Also according to Hayek, the economic planning proposed by the socialists is less efficient in providing social welfare than the free market.