History and Theories of Socialism

People speak of socialism. We should speak of socialisms. There is an amnesia about the socialist tradition that abandons entire definitions of that ideal made by serious mass movements. . . What is needed, if socialism is to find a new relevance for the twenty-first century, is some sense of its enormous diversity and complexity.

—Michael Harrington, Socialism: Past and Future, 1989


I.     Socialism in the Ancient World

A.   Primitive Communism - Assets owned by tribe, distributed by the chief. Not the product of philosophy.

B.   Greek philosophers -

1.    Phaleas of Chalcedon - equality of possessions would prevent social disputes and revolutionary movements.

2.    Plato advocated communal living for the ruling class to prevent conflicts of interest.

3.    Aristotle and Democritus defended property rights for all classes to strengthen incentives, charity, prevent “tragedy of commons”

C.   Early Christians - Church in Jerusalem practiced collectivism in response to poverty; voluntary system.


II.   Early Critics of Capitalism

A.   Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) - “The earth belongs to no one, and that the fruits are for all!”

B.   Morelly - In 1755, designed a utopia where no one would own significant capital or private possessions.  Production & distribution of goods regulated by government.


III. Utopian Socialism

A.   William Godwin (1756-1836) and Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794) - perfectibility - enlightenment will lead to greater virtue, equality, and withering of the state.

B.   Saint-Simon (1760-1825) - Transfer power from hereditary aristocracy to productive class (including entrepreneurs, bankers, etc.) Proposed national system of planning to organize public works and use technology efficiently. 

C.   Robert Owen (1771-1859) - Believed the poor are product of environment.  Instituted universal education, shorter work hours, decent housing, etc. at his factories.

D.   Charles Fourier (1772-1837) - Proposed system of producer cooperatives, or phalansteries, each with 1600 people living/working in one large building and farmland.  Profits split among shareholders and workers.  Workers rotate jobs.  40 phalansteries opened in the U.S.

E.   Pierre Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) and Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876) - anarchists - all government power is corrupt, so build society on system of voluntary cooperatives.


IV. Revolutionary Socialism

A.   Francois "Gracchus" Babeuf (1760-1797) - led Society of the Pantheon, denounced decline of the French Revolution and advanced egalitarianism “community of goods.”

B.   Auguste Blanqui (1805-1885) - Believed socialism would be adopted voluntarily, but coup must be led by a small organized minority.

C.   Marx and Engels - Blended revolutionary socialism in the short run with utopian socialism in the long run.

1.    Early socialism - Revolutionary tactics and establishment of a "dictatorship of the proletariat" (typified by the Paris Commune) are necessary to establish socialism.  Dismissed the ideas of Owen, Fourier, Proudhon, and others as naive and "utopian."  Distribution "to each according to his work."

2.    Full Communism - Withering of the state. Distribution "according to needs."  Little discussion of planning.

 D.  V.I. Lenin - Revolution led by an elite "vanguard."  Theory of imperialism justified Russian revolution. At first congress of Russian Social Democratic Party (1903), Lenin’s followers were organized into the Bolsheviks and opponents of the vanguard leadership style organized into the Mensheviks.


 V.  Democratic Socialism

A.   Louis Blanc (1811-1882) - Democratic socialist who held position in Prov. Govt. Proposed public works projects to alleviate unemployment.

B.   Ferdinand Lasalle (1825-1864) - Socialist reform based on democracy and universal suffrage. Workers control large-scale factories.  Organized first German socialist party in 1863, and  Socialists represented in Bismarck’s parliament

C.   Gotha Program - Marxists and Lasalleans met in 1875 to discuss merger into a single German Social Democratic Party. Prepared draft of party program had Lasallean tone. Marx objected, but was ignored. SDP became parliamentary party, forcing Bismarck to enact social security system. SDP became the model for European parties.

D.   John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) - Classical economist, but sympathetic with socialists, and influenced Fabians (below).

E.   The Fabian Society - Led by Sidney and Beatrice Webb and George Bernard Shaw, supported evolutionary program of social reforms. Idealist rather than materialist. Incorporated into the platforms of the Independent Labour Party (1893), and Labour Party (1918).


V.   The Efficiency of Socialism

A.   The von Mises Critique - Ludwig von Mises argued that efficient planning was impossible in a socialist state because socially owned producer goods have no objective prices which are required for rational decision making.

B.   Lange's Market Socialism - Proposed a system where the pattern of production would be set by consumer sovereignty and freedom of occupational choice would be maintained. 

1.    Factory and industrial managers - Minimize cost of production and expand output until the marginal cost of production equals price. The marginal revenue of the product. 

2.    Central Planning Board - Adjust prices according to shortages or surpluses at the end of an accounting period.


VI.     Socialism since World War II

A.   The Growth and Decline of Command Socialism

1.    Postwar Growth

2.    Latin America in 1960s (Cuba), Africa in the 1960s and 1970s, when European colonialism began to crumble.

3.    Conflicts - Yugoslavia in 1949, Stalin's death in 1953 and by Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin's terror at the 1956 Party Congress. China and Albania in 1960s. Prague Spring, 1968. 

4.    Importance of Pope, 1978, formation of Solidarity, strikes and political demands in 1980 and 1981

5.    Gorbachev, 1985. August 1991, activities of the Communist Party suspended, Gorbachev dissolved Soviet Union.


B.   Democratic Socialism in Transition

1.    In Great Britain, the Labour party victorious 1945, major changes in recent years.

2.    Programs of nationalization were also conducted in France and Italy after World War II, and in 1983.

3.    Policies to promote economic equality.

4.    "Economic democracy" and worker participation, European Social Charter.

5.    RAs of June 2017, 41 political parties associated with the Socialist International were represented in the governments of 48 countries.

6.    UPDATE: Bernie Sanders' strong performance dring the 2016 U.S. election seems to indicate a shift in reaction to the word, "socialism," among younger Americans. In a poll of 1,000 young (age, 18-26) Americans by Snapchat and Republican strategist Frank Luntz, 58% considered socialism to be the most "compassionate economic system," ahead of capitalism at 33% and communism at 9%. Socialism polled even higher (61%) among the younger part of the survey group (age, 18-21). Membership in the Democratic Socialists of America has reported grown from about 6,000 before Donald Trump was elected to perhaps 32,000 today.

7.    UPDATE: The "Left Turn" in Latin America

A.  Hugo Chavez, elected president in Venezuela in 1998 (reelected in 2000 and 2006) who claimed Fidel Castro as his role model, and Nicolás Maduro in 2013. The country is now near bancruptcy.

B.  Brazil, the largest nation in SA, elected pragmatic socialist president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in 2001. He was reelected in 2006 and succeeded by Dilma Rousseff in 2011. Formerly a revolutionary, she became a pragmatic socialist and the country's first female president, but was impeached and removed as president in 2016, and succeeded by Michel Timer, who has also been charged with corruption. In the October 2018 elections, if he is not sent to prison for corruption, Lula de Silva is favored to return to power.

C.  In 2006, Chile elected Michelle Bachelet, a socialist who supports free trade. She served until 2010,and then was reelected in 2014, but she suffered from low approval ratings. In November 2017, Sebastián Piñera, a conservative, won the presidency.