In the hands of scientific socialists, the idea of socialism represented more than just an attractive dream
What is socialism? According to a Hungarian joke made during the ‘gentle revolution’ of 1989, it is the longest and most painful road from capitalism to capitalism. Although this biting definition was fashionably cynical about Soviet-type societies in the wake of their fall, it provides no substantive insights into one of the major social organizational forms of modern history. The origins of socialism are obscure. Intellectual historians have traced its beginnings to the religious utopias of the Old Testament, the principles of Mosaic Law, the anti-individualism of the radical sects that emerged after the French Revolution, and the publication of the ‘Communist Manifesto’. As well as can be determined, the term made its first appearance in Italian print in 1803, although its meaning at that time differed somewhat from the current interpretations.
Despite its complicated origins, by 1840 the concept was used commonly throughout Europe and was making its way across the Atlantic to the United States. By the early 1920s, the Soviet Union had already claimed ‘socialism’ as its overall organizing principle; ironically, at that time, over 260 definitions of the term were available in the social scientific literature, rendering its meaning somewhat ambiguous. Since then, further transformations of the concept have appeared; for instance, scholars now differentiate among Chinese socialism, corporatist socialism, democratic socialism, radical socialism, and Russian socialism.
The common core of socialist ideas is hard to define. To be sure, all socialists were critical of the competitive and unequal nature of capitalist society, and without fail, they championed a more egalitarian and just future. At the same time, their visions of the organization of a socialist future were sufficiently diverse to render a single definition of the term practically impossible. It is frequently assumed, for example, that all socialists wanted to establish communal ownership, yet many were content with the centralization of resources in the hands of the state and others actually protested the abolition of private property. Battles also were waged over the role of the state: Some believed that centrally managed administrative organs would become superfluous under a socialist regime, while others regarded those organs as essential for the management of community affairs.
Many argued that the freedom of the individual must be guaranteed at all costs even under socialism while others were willing to impose limitations on such freedom in the name of equality and efficient production. Finally, some believed that socialism could be realized through gradual reforms, while others thought that it was possible only through a major revolution. Because of the nontrivial nature of these differences, a single definition of socialism is likely to conceal more than it illuminates. For this reason, it is more productive to highlight features of the concept by examining separately some of the best known schools of socialist thought.
In the view of utopian socialists, socialism was a romantic vision whose purpose was not necessarily to be realized but to serve as an ideal against which the evils of capitalism could be compared. The specific content of this vision varied from author to author, but two central themes can be identified. The ideal of community was the first of those themes. All utopian theorists championed a new social order organized around small communities. In most sketches of socialism, this vision was realized in an agrarian setting, although some required advanced industrial development. In either case, however, it was assumed that those communities would be based on fellowship, harmony, and altruism— virtues that utopian theorists favored on moral grounds over bourgeois individualism.
Nostalgia for the past is the second common theme in utopian socialist thought. It frequently appeared in utopian novels and usually assumed one of two forms. In some versions, the protagonists in those novels were returned to a romanticized pre industrialism, while in others, they returned to an even more distant past, such as the Middle Ages. Despite such variation in the settings of those novels, the message they sought to convey was more or less the same: In the transition to industrial capitalism, people abandoned the ‘golden age’ of social harmony and replaced it with a fragmented and competitive social order that is unable to provide for the full satisfaction of human needs.
In the hands of scientific socialists, the idea of socialism represented more than just an attractive dream. Karl Marx, for example, considered it a historically possible future for capitalism, as he assumed that the internal contradictions of capitalism would create some of the preconditions for socialism. According to his theory of historical materialism, the demands made by capitalist development will create increasingly grave crises for the ruling class. He maintained that with the mechanization of production and the concentration of capital in the hands of a few, there will be greater polarization in terms of class inequalities and an increase in the degree of exploitation of the working class. As capitalism enters its advanced stage, the condition of the working class will deteriorate and the struggle over the quality of its existence will intensify. At first, the war between the ‘two hostile camps’ of capitalist society (the bourgeoisie and the proletariat) will be waged within the boundaries of particular nation-states. However, as capitalism expands into new markets internationally, workers across the world will be forced to unite in their effort to overthrow capitalist society. Socialism, according to Marx, will emerge out of this final instance of class struggle.
It is ironic that the ‘father of socialism’ never provided a detailed blueprint for his model of the future. It is evident from a number of passages, however, that Marx envisioned two stages in the evolution of socialism. In the lower stage (which he referred to as socialism, or the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’), he foreshadowed major improvements in the human condition. He predicted, for example, that private property would be abolished, the forces of production would be nationalized and placed in the hands of the state, rights of inheritance would be eliminated, universal suffrage would be introduced, state representatives would be elected from among the working people, and education would become accessible to all. At the same time, because Marx expected this to be a transitional stage, he believed that some elements of capitalist society would continue to prevail. Specifically, he mentioned that income inequalities would continue to exist in the lower stage because workers would still be paid according to the amount of work they contributed to the social good.
At some point, according to Marx, this transitional phase in the development of human history would evolve into the higher stage of socialism, a stage that he often referred to as ‘communism’, or the ‘realm of freedom.’ Under communism, work would no longer be an obligation but a free and creative activity, alienation would be transcended, the production process would be under the direct control of the producers, and rewards would be distributed in accordance with the principle of ‘to each according to his need’ rather than ‘to each according to his ability.’
Scientific socialism gained considerable popularity among French, German, and British socialists during the nineteenth century. Many agreed with Marx’s assessment of bourgeois society and were attracted to his vision of the future. As the century progressed, however, and the Marxist scenario still appeared to be far away, some began to raise questions about the continued relevance of scientific socialism in the modern age.