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.     Definition

A.   You can find many different definitions, some more narrow and some more broad, but the traditional one was "an economic and social system system based on 'social' ownership of the means of production – factories, farms, and capital equipment." Today, perhaps the "means of production" should be expanded to include some intellectual capital - should an individual be allowed to own a patent on basic science, such as the human genome?

B.   Varieties of social ownership -

1.    State Socialism - the government owns most of the means of production. Is this really "social" ownership, though, if the government is not democratically accountable to society? Some socialists have claimed that "state socialism" is really "state capitalism" - ownership by  small ruling class. For example, Rosa Luxembourg (1871-1919), a Polish-German who was executed for her revolutionary action, argued that a system that does not remain under democratic control is not true socialism. In The Russian Revolution (1918), she declared:
The public life of countries with limited freedom is so poverty-stricken, so miserable, so rigid, so unfruitful, precisely because, through the exclusion of democracy, it cuts off the living sources of all spiritual riches and progress…. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders ... direct and rule. Among them, in reality only a dozen outstanding heads do the leading and an elite of the working class is invited from time to time to meetings where they are to applaud the speeches of the leaders, and to approve proposed resolutions unanimously–at bottom, then, a clique affair–a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the proletariat but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians.

2.    Cooperative Socialism - Shared ownership and governance by workers at the enterprise level. This can be a mandated national policy, as it was in Yugoslavia under its systems of worker self-management (about 1951-1980) or it can be a voluntary arrangement that can arise within a predominantly capitalist society.  J.S. Mill (below) predicted that this arrangement would eventually predominate through natural evolution, and thousands of cooperatives still operate in the U.S. today, mainly in agriculture.

3.    Syndicalism - similar to cooperative socialism, but ownership is exercised by labor unions that may or may not operate at the enterprise level. This arose in the French labor movement, inspired by the anarchist views of Bakunin (see below), and spread to other countries in Europe and beyond.

C.   "Democratic Socialism" versus "Social Democracy" - is there a difference? Historically, I would say "no," but this has become a confusing rhetorical game. Historically, both of these referred to the desire to achieve ownership-based socialism through democratic means, and some people still use both of the terms that way. However, see, for example, Michael McCarthy's article, "Democratic Socialism Isn’t Social Democracy," where he argues that the Nordic countries and Bernie Sanders are social democrats - favoring a welfare state - but are not democratic socialists - calling for social ownership.  Still, Sanders and others choose to call themselves socialists, and that seems to be giving new meaning to the word. 

        Here's a statement of "what we believe" from members of the Democratic Socialists of America in Pinellas County, Florida


        What does “socialism” mean? In simplest terms, it means reversing our unbalanced power relations in both our economy and our political system: political and economic power would be transferred from the few (the 1 percent) to the many (the working class)...

        And here's a statement from Julia Salazar, a "socialist" member of the New York Senate:


        Broadly speaking, what it means to be a democratic socialist is to have a vision of a world where everyone is taken care of... In my campaign this translates to specific shorter-term policy positions including universal single-payer healthcare, expanding the rent stabilization system statewide and enacting universal rent control, ending cash bail and policies aimed at eliminating mass incarceration, and so on.

A democratic socialist recognizes the capitalist system as being inherently oppressive, and is actively working to dismantle it and to empower the working class and the marginalized in our society. Socialists recognize that under capitalism, rich people are able — through private control of industry and of what should be public goods — to accumulate wealth by exploiting the working class and the underclass. Functionally, this perpetuates and exacerbates inequality. A progressive will stop short at proposing reforms that help people but don’t necessarily transform the system.

            A democratic socialist recognizes the capitalist system as being inherently oppressive, and is actively working to dismantle it and to empower the working class and the marginalized in our society. Socialists recognize that under capitalism, rich people are able — through private control of industry and of what should be public goods — to accumulate wealth by exploiting the working class and the underclass. Functionally, this perpetuates and exacerbates inequality. A progressive will stop short at proposing reforms that help people but don’t necessarily transform the system.

II.     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, "and there were no poor among them."  These passages in the Biblical  book of Acts served as inspiration for life in monasteries and for later Christian socialists, such as the Hutterites today.


III.   Early Critics of Capitalism

A.   Thomas More (1478-1535) Lord High Chancellor of England who was executed for opposing the plan of Henry VIII to separate from the Catholic Church and declare himself the head of the Church of England, allowing him to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. More was also known as a social critic who wrote a remarkable book of fiction, Utopia, about an island nation with no private ownership, no unemployment, rotation of work tasks and housing, free hospitals, meals taken in community dining halls, and simple laws – removing the need for lawyers. Slavery of criminals and prisoners of war was allowed, but slaves were periodically released for good behavior. More's book served as inspiration for real-world proposals from later authors, below, whom Marx called "Utopians."

B.   Jakob Hutter (c1500-1536) Tyrolean (now part of northern Italy) Anabaptist leader who led his congregations to practice communal ownership of goods, following the example of the early church in Acts, in addition to their Anabaptist beliefs of nonviolence, and adult baptism. Today, Hutterites, like the Amish, still live in rural minimalist communities. Some similarities to Homestead Heritage, near Waco.

C.   Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)  Philosopher who inspired the French Revolution and declared “The earth belongs to no one, and that the fruits are for all!”

D.   Étienne-Gabriel Morelly (1717-1778)  French author of The Code of Nature 1755, designed a utopia where no one would own significant capital or private possessions.  Production and distribution of goods regulated by government.


IV. 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) - ) In "New Christianity," he argued that “the whole of society ought to strive towards the amelioration of the moral and physical existence of the poorest class.” To that end, he wanted to transfer power from the hereditary aristocracy and elevate the status of all productive and creative people, including entrepreneurs, artists, scientists, and bankers, along with manual labourers. He proposed a 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.  Forty phalansteries opened in the U.S. One of them, La Reunion, operated by European immigrants from 1855-1856, played an important role in the early history of Dallas, which had been established as a settlement by John Neely Bryan 1841. One of the La Reunion colonists, Benjamin Long, served two terms as mayor of Dallas. Reunion Tower is named for the colony, and some of the colonists are buried in a historic cemetery near it.

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. According to Proudhon, "In place of laws, we will put contracts; no more laws voted by the majority, or even unanimously. Each citizen, each town, each industrial union will make its own laws. In place of political powers we will put economic forces . . . in place of standing armies, we will put industrial associations. In place of police we will put identity of interests..." 


IV. Revolutionary Socialism

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

B.   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.

  C.  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 reduce unemployment.

B.   Ferdinand LaSalle (1825-1864) and August Bebel (1840- 1914)  - Socialist reform based on democracy, universal suffrage, and worker control of factories. LaSalle organized first German socialist party in 1863, but died a year later. Bebel formedthe Social Democratic Workers' Party in 1869 that merged at Gotha in 1875 into the Socialist Workers' Party. Bebel served as chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Germany from 1892 until his death in 1914. He opposed rising racial supremacism, militarization, and colonial policies in Africa. 

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).


VI.   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.


VII.     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. It initially supported nationalization of some industries, but that ceased to be true in 1997 when Tony Blair became prime minister and reformed the party.

2.    In 1951, the Socialist International (SI) was established as a global association of political parties that seek to establish democratic socialism. It was initially democratic and anti-Communist, but eventually expanded to include more authoritarian parties. Because of that trend, the German socialist party (the SPD) split away in 2013 and created the Progressive Alliance. In recent years, the more authoritarian parties (China, Cuba, North Korea, etc.) have been sticking with the SI and the more democratic countries have been moving to the PA which now claims 140 participating parties and partners. See more.

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

4.    As of 2018, political parties associated with the Socialist International or the Progressive Alliance were represented in the governments of at least 43 countries.

5.    Strong performances by Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others, who, as we noted above, call themselves democratic socialists, have apparently caused a shift in the perception and understanding of the word, "socialism" - particularly among younger Americans. Gallup surveys suggest that the meaning of "socialism" is shifting away from government ownership in the U.S. and is more popular than "capitalism" among Democrats and young people. Membership in the Democratic Socialists of America reportedly grew from about 6,000 in 2015 to a reported 80,000 today.