Socialism was a term first used in the early 19th century in western Europe. Its exponents were primarily French and British.

The Industrial Revolution changed Europe by making the aristocracy largely irrelevant, raising the capitalist bourgeoisie into wealth and power and moving the old peasant class into industrial labor. Unlike the agrarian society it overturned, where wealth depended on a finite quantity—land, in the industrial capitalist system wealth was limitless, at least in theory, and untied to the old feudal order.

The Industrial Revolution also overturned the old sense of noblesse oblige. Capitalists were comfortably, guiltlessly, rich and powerful, full of pride, and without a sense of obligation to the poor or their own competition. These were the people who took power from the aristocrats and created the early capitalist democracies, political systems in the image of their economic and political interests.

Freed from the nobility, they had guarantees of property rights and the ability to pursue more property. These 19th century “liberals” agreed that only the economically independent and secure could be politically free. Thomas Jefferson exemplified this concept, using it as justification for his desired nation of small farmers.

He also agreed that liberty was not the product of Christian thought but of natural law; without theological justification, there was no basis for censure. Some 19th-century liberals even praised greed as the motivator for economic growth and prosperity.

Unlike feudalists, capitalists defined dependency as self-destructive; for their own well being, the poor had to work, and if they did not do it voluntarily, the system would force them. In Britain poor laws, which seem to be based on this philosophy, could be quite harsh.

Capitalist Problems

The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau contended that democracy could not survive with a wide disparity between the rich and poor. Other critics of the system worried about more basic problems with rule by “benign” capitalists.

They pointed out that the system—in England, Germany, and other early industrializing countries—had taken the old feudal protections that had ameliorated the lot of peasants limited in space and wealth. As near property without rights of mobility or much else, peasants did have reasonable protection against starvation and homelessness.

Capitalism’s exploited factory workers lacked even the basics, being “free.” They could be fired and hired at will from jobs whose pay was set by a going rate pegged to competition with hordes of other displaced peasants desperate for a wage.

The new workers faced factory employment that included 12-hour shifts seven days a week in inhumane conditions. This applied to women and children, often preferred because they worked for much less than men. Early capitalism produced lowered standards of living and declines in educational levels in many areas.

The new industries also lacked compunctions about polluting the environment or maiming or killing the workers. Factory town food was commonly inferior and often scarce. Even some of the well off began feeling twinges of guilt, spurred in part by the works of Charles Dickens.

Of more concern to the middle classes was the business cycle. Under the feudal system, aside from the occasional plague, war, drought, or famine, life was mostly predictable. Capitalism from the beginning featured booms and busts out of human control. Life would sail along for a period, with growth, prosperity, increases in jobs and wages.

Then, inexplicably, the system would collapse: Profits and wages would fall, millions would be either out of work or poor, and even some of the rich might fall a class or two toward poverty. Capitalists thought to stabilize the system by regulating maximum wages and prohibiting unions. They also regulated imports and combined into trusts to thwart competition. The crashes persisted.

The Basics of Socialist Thought

Although critical of liberalism, socialism shared the idea of progress and the end of aristocracy. Socialists repudiated liberalism as a facade for greed. Rather than looking back to a better yesterday, the proto-socialists analyzed industrialism and defined principles for making it tolerable (given that it was here to stay.)

They shared the outrage at capitalism’s abuses expressed by 19th-century liberals such as Honoré de Balzac, Thomas Carlyle, and Benjamin Disraeli. They were distinct from these conservatives and the anarchists seeking to revert to an agrarian idyll in that they were optimistic and positive about industrialization.

Some began to suggest that the system was inherently flawed. What was needed was a system that controlled greed and lifted the masses from poverty—socialism. Socialism, broadly defined, dated back at least to early Christianity, with Christians sharing among themselves from the beginning and with the rise of monasticism, which entailed community ownership of everything. Socialism as a political force dated to the Industrial Revolution.

Socialism is often a derogatory term for anything an opponent dislikes. Disregarding the animus, socialism includes a democratically controlled economy operated for the good of all members. Rather than unchecked competition that characterizes capitalism, it relies on cooperation, and it involves government planning to stabilize the economy and reduce or eliminate the business cycle.

Socialists may share property in common and prohibit private ownership of land and industry, but they may also simply advocate publicly financed social programs and heavy state regulation of industry and property.

Socialists generally agreed that wealth was the product of working men and women and that capitalists had wrongfully taken it. To alleviate poverty and misery, they sought to bring about a system characterized by cooperation, democracy, equality, and prosperity for all.

Other Philosophies

Other groups shared the socialist ideals—anarchists and communists. Anarchists rejected even the socialist democratic government. They viewed government as inherently tyrannical and wanted maximally decentralized government incapable of tyrannizing the people.

They were ineffective because peaceful anarchists lacked the power to change much and violent anarchists generally provoked more hostility against themselves than against the government they wanted to end. Communists could occupy the extreme wing of socialism—with community ownership of everything, perhaps in the manner of the early and monastic Christians.

They could also be Marxists. Marxists see socialism as an interim arrangement that reorganizes society into the form that withers away until a modified anarchism appears—a society without money or market forces, with worker ownership of property, with production for the producers only, and with no state. This communism has never developed.

Early Socialism

In the 19th century capitalism was new, and socialism seemed a reasonable system to replace it. The early socialists knew that economic systems were not inevitable or eternal; feudalism died within their memories. Capitalism could wither away as well.

The early socialists included Henri de Saint-Simon, François Marie-Charles Fourier, and Louis Blanc of France and Robert Owen of Wales. Not politically astute, they were Enlightenment idealists who thought that people of good will could voluntarily bring about a better society. Fourier and Saint-Simon’s ideas remained theoretical, but Owen, the wealthy industrialist, founded several communities, particularly in the United States, but failed to make a go of any of them.

These social critics thought to reform poverty and inequality by redistribution of wealth and the creation of a society of small, utopian communities without private property. The early critics made no distinction between socialism and communism. A perception developed in Europe that socialism was more amenable to religion while communism was atheistic. In Britain, communism sounded too much like communion, and thus was viewed as being too Catholic.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was actually an anarchist. His slogan “property is theft” reflected the common socialist hostility to capitalism. He was not extreme, however, allowing for individual ownership of one’s home and domestic goods. He opposed property that took its wealth from the labor of others. Property of this sort included factories, mines, railroads, and the like.

Karl Marx was generally in accord with Proudhon, whom he met in Paris in the 1840s. Marx’s opponent, the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, was also influenced by Proudhon. Proudhon was more influential in socialist circles than Marx and Engels, even when they published The Communist Manifesto.

The utopian socialists came later to be known by scientific socialists under terms such as proto-socialists, Fruhsozialismus, pre-Marxian socialists, and the like. After experimentation with the small utopian communities, some socialists shifted to direct political action. Marx and Engels regarded themselves as scientific socialists, setting themselves apart from the utopian socialists.

The United States was a hotbed of experimentation, home to dissenters and creators of new religious groups, as well as immigrants dissatisfied with what they had left behind. It was large, and there was room for just about anyone to adopt whatever ideology seemed reasonable.

Utopias flourished during the 19th century, but mostly the blooms proved short-lived when expectations were set too high. Many fell to internecine jealousies, preferential treatment of some over others, unnatural restrictions on competition and personal relationships, and other misreadings of what proved too often to be less than perfect human nature.

Examples include the Amana Society, the Shakers, Separatists of Zoar, the Oneida and Wallingford Perfectionists, the Aurora and Bethel Communes, and the Icarians. Descendant utopias, as the hippie communes and remnants of some 19th-century utopian communities, remain to the present day.

Marx, Engels, and Communism

Marx and Engels enunciated a theory of history as exploitation. History occurred in stages, each better than its predecessor, each with its appropriate economic system, with change triggered by class conflict that each economic system bred within itself. The 19th-century world was in a capitalist stage, but inevitably capitalism would give way to another economic system with another dominant class.

As feudalism had brought about the rise of capitalists who overthrew feudalism in favor of capitalism, so capitalism was creating a working class that would overthrow capitalism in favor of a worker-run economy, the extreme form of socialism known as communism.

Marx and Engels had trouble being taken seriously. The entire socialist intellectual movement, composed of middle- and capitalist class idealists and intellectuals, lacked the numbers to generate a serious socialist movement. That came from the working people, enamored of simplified versions of the socialist ideas.

Probably the majority of the 19th-century labor movements were socialist in aims, using unionism as a means to an end. Even 20th-century labor unions—even in the United States—had elements of socialism in their platforms, but they gained only small victories. They had little success in nationalizing mines, railroads, and other industries.

Capitalists reinforced the labor-socialist tie by attempting to suppress all labor movements, rather than drawing distinctions between the milder forms of labor organizing and the socialist movement. Socialists and communists welcomed the capitalist accusations that they were revolutionaries.

This oppression would encourage the poor, insecure, workers, downtrodden by the capitalist business cycle, to join forces and press for radical change. Numbers alone would make them a force the capitalist rulers would have to confront and suppress, probably by abandoning all pretense of democracy. The masses would rise and overthrow the capitalist system. At least that was the Marxist dream.

The revolutions never happened. Despite the odds, labor movements fought the uphill battle against capitalists, governments, militaries, and police—some died, but the others won the shorter working day, higher wages, and better working conditions.

The average worker had a stake in the system rather than a desire to overthrow it. It did not help that capitalism became more adept at producing cheap and abundant-if-inferior goods and brought about a higher standard of living.

Most workers in the second half of the 19th century were living better than their parents. Revolutions did break out in 1848, but they were not socialist. The International Working Men’s Association (the First International) came into being only in 1864. Strongly Marxist, it was dominant in European socialism.

Marx’s International Workingmen’s Association had its first meeting at Geneva in 1866. This was the first major international socialist meeting. It reflected the general socialist tendency to disagree on strategy. Marx and Engels and British and exiled continental labor leaders created the International Workingmen’s Association in 1864.

It was a committee, and about as effective as committees normally are—it included British reformists, continentals of more radical persuasion, and anarchists of several types. Marx relocated headquarters to New York to strip away the anarchists. The IWA dissolved in 1876. By century’s end, Marxist socialism was the leading ideology of working-class parties in all but the Britain and the United States.

Socialism rose from a small intellectual movement to a large mass working-class political movement coincident with the industrialization of Europe, particularly between 1870 and 1890, which created the great proletariat.

The centenary of the French Revolution in 1889 was the occasion for socialists and social democrats to meet in Paris and form the Second International. The Second International was a confederation of centralized national parties. The approach was popularized by Engels, August Bebel of the German Social Democratic Party, and Karl Kautsky.

Socialism had a shining moment from March 18 to May 28, 1871, when the Paris Commune arose in the aftermath of France’s loss to Prussia and the collapse of the Second Empire. The city’s citizens elected a radical government composed of old Jacobins from 1789 and Proudhonites.

Communes arose in Toulouse, Marseille, Saint-Etienne, and Lyon but were suppressed quickly. The Versailles government sent the army against Paris and repressed the Commune. The Commune accomplished little but became a symbol remarked on by Marx; it was evidence to many socialists that the working class was ready for the revolution.

American Socialism

The U.S. Socialist Labor Party of America came into being in 1877. Already small, it fragmented in the 1890s. In 1901 the Socialist Labor Party’s moderate faction and the Social Democratic Party and Eugene V. Debs put together the Socialist Party of America.

American socialism differed from European and British socialisms because Americans’ experiences were not those of the old countries. The American labor movement struggled in the 19th century, even later when industrialism was rampant and highly exploitive, because American workers were slow to acknowledge that they were no longer free agents, self-employed craftsmen and entrepeneurs in the making.

Socialism’s emphasis on cooperation rather than rugged individualism seemed un-American. Socialism’s American beginnings were imported, primarily from Germany. It remained strongly influenced by immigrants—Milwaukee’s gas and water socialist Victor Berger, the leadership of the anarchist Industrial Workers of the World, and many of the national party leaders.

Where socialism had native roots, it tended to arise from populist farmers whose socialism tracked more closely with their Christianity than with any imported European ideas. When Oklahoma voted for socialists before World War I, it did so because of agricultural conditions in Oklahoma, not out of commitment to the Second International.

European Socialism

Eduard Bernstein and the social democrats Vladimir dominated the Second International in 1889 in Paris. Vladimir Lenin and Germany’s Rosa Luxemburg led the radicals. Karl Kautsky led a smaller faction. The anarchists were left out and split from the socialist movement.

In 1884 British middle-class intellectuals formed the Fabian Society, which laid the basis for the Labour Party in 1906. Jean Jaurès founded the Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière in 1905. Under Juarès and later Léon Blum the SFIO kept Marxist theory while in practice becoming reformist.

In Germany, Ferdinand Lassalle advocated voluntary worker cooperatives rather than Marx’s revolution. Marx was scornful, but Lassalle’s cooperatives were the beginnings of today’s credit unions, mutual insurance companies, food cooperatives, and similar institutions. They have never altered capitalism but have found a niche within it.

The German Social Democratic Party, founded on the ideas of Marx and Lassalle, was for decades the world’s leading socialist organization. By 1891 it had a million and a half members and was beginning to enjoy reasonable electoral success.

Although Karl Kautsky kept the German Social Democratic Workers’ Party Marxist in doctrine, in practice the party became reformist rather than revolutionary. Success meant that, despite rhetoric of revolution, the party found itself absorbed into the conventional political process.

In Great Britain, the Marxist critique failed to take hold. Rather the approach was “Gas and Water Socialism,” under the Fabian Society. It began on January 4, 1884, when members of the Fellowship of the New Life took a political approach to the Fellowship’s goal of the transformation of society by setting an example of simple, clean living.

The Fellowship faded, and the Fabians drew members such as Sidney and Beatrice Potter Webb, H. G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw. These were elite reformers who felt that socialism could transform society by slow penetration of its principles into the fabric of capitalist society.

They had no interest—and perhaps no true awareness—of class politics, including labor unions and labor parties. The driving force was the Webbs, who wrote the bulk of the studies of Britain’s industrial system and alternative policies for capital and land.

The Fabian Society was named for Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus, “Cunctator” or “Delayer,” who fought through harassment and attrition rather than head on confrontations. Fabians were against free trade but supported nationalist foreign policy in South Africa.

They were significant in the establishment of the Labour Party in 1900. They advocated government ownership of utilities and land and other resources, but they insisted that all changes come through law rather than revolution.

Socialism and Nationalism

In the late 19th century the various socialist groups became increasingly nationalistic. Universal male suffrage became common in the western world during the first decades of the 20th century. Socialism became increasingly tied to labor unions and labor parties, which increasingly mobilized the working class vote.

As socialists got access to power, they became more pragmatic, recognizing that they still needed the middle and wealthy classes to achieve their aims. Those classes still owned the bureaucratic apparatus of the state. And the welfare state made the workers’ lives better, delaying the revolution.

The involvement of socialists with government split the parties into moderates and radicals in the 20th century. Eduard Bernstein represented the moderates who thought that the reforms could come through the democratic political process.

This was the basic social democracy. Communists in countries without a parliamentary democracy argued for revolution; Vladimir Lenin argued this path. In 1903 the Russian social democrats split into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.

By the early 20th century, Germany’s Social Democratic Party had abandoned the revolutionary goal completely and backed Kaiser Wilhelm, in the process destroying its credibility with foreign socialist movements.

The other socialist parties backed their governments one by one, destroying the international working-class movement in a wave of nationalism. The American Socialist Party was the exception in refusing to back the war, but it was a weak organization nationally and internationally, never able to win more than 6 percent of the vote.

Marx and other socialists ignored or discounted working-class differences of nationality, religion, ethnicity, and gender. These were factors that the capitalists exploited to divide and weaken the workers. For socialists, the real division was between a unified, homogeneous working class and a unified capitalist class.

As reality intruded during the 19th-century era of socialism, intrusion of nationalism and other differences forced the socialists to adjust their doctrine to keep it relevant to workers who were also male and female members of ethnic, national, and religious communities.

Socialism won out over anarchism and other ideas within the working-class movement because it was better organized and had a more realistic political strategy. It fit nicely with the alienated workers of the large factories and plants of 19th-century capitalism, workers more prone to alienation and more susceptible to pitches about solidarity than were the workers of the small crafts industries of early industrialism.

Socialism also deemphasized millenarianism, stressing instead a better tomorrow in the here and now with tangible bread and butter results. Until the Russian Revolution, no one had any way of measuring the validity or effectiveness of the socialist promises of economic equality and fairness for all.

Social democrats had better success than socialists did. They were more gradualist, advocating high taxes to promote relative equality, government regulation, nationalization as necessary, and social welfare. Scandinavia was most successful with this approach, but other European countries adapted some elements. Late in the 20th century and early in the 21st, governments began dismantling at least parts of these social democracies.