the faces of socialism


The term socialism is commonly used to refer both to an ideology--a comprehensive set of beliefs or ideas about the nature of human society and its future desirable state--and to a state of society based on that ideology. Socialists have always claimed to stand above all for the values of equality, social justice, cooperation, progress, individual freedom, and happiness. They have generally sought to realize these values by the abolition of the private-enterprise economy and its replacement by "public ownership," a system of social or state control over production and distribution. Unlike communists, the method of transformation advocated by modern socialists generally adheres to the idea of gradual constitutional change.

Modern socialist ideology is essentially a joint product of the 1789 French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution in England--the word socialist first occurred in an English journal in 1827. These two great historical events, establishing democratic government in France and the conditions for vast future economic expansion in England, also engendered a state of incipient conflict between the property owners and the growing class of industrial workers; socialists have since been striving to eliminate or at least mitigate this conflict. The first socialist movements believed in the possibility of peaceful and gradual transformation to a socialist society by the founding of small experimental communities; hence, later socialist writers dubbed them with the label utopian socialists.

With the publication of the Communist Manifesto in 1848, Marxist ideas made a great impact on European socialist movements. By the second half of the 19th century socialists in Europe were organizing into viable political parties with considerable and growing electoral support; they also forged close links in most countries with trade unions and other working-class associations. Their short-term programs were mainly concerned with increasing the franchise, introducing state welfare benefits for the needy, gaining the right to strike, and improving working conditions, especially shortening the work day.

However, ideas other than those of Marx were at this time also becoming influential. Such ideas included the moderate socialist doctrines of the Fabian Society in England, founded by Sidney Webb and including among its adherents the writers H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. These moderates sought to achieve socialism by parliamentary means and by appealing deliberately to the middle class. Fabianism had as one of its intellectual forebears the utilitarian individualism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, and it became a doctrine that sought to reconcile the values of liberty, democracy, economic progress, and social justice. The Fabians believed that the cause of socialism would also be aided by the advancement of the social sciences, especially economics and sociology. These doctrines, collectively known as social democracy, did not, like Marxism, look toward the complete abolition of private property and the disappearance of the state but instead envisaged socialism more as a form of society in which full democratic control would be exercised over wealth, and production would be controlled by a group of responsible experts working in the interests of the whole community. The achievement of socialism was seen by social democrats as a long-term goal, the result of an evolutionary process involving the growth of economic efficiency (advanced technology, large-scale organization, planning), education in moral responsibility, and the voluntary acceptance of equal shares in benefits and burdens; socialism would be the triumph of common sense, the inevitable outcome of liberalism, the extension of democracy from politics to industry.

In Western Europe, despite the presence of large Marxist parties (as in Italy and France) and the Marxist influence among intellectuals, socialism was, and still is, principally represented by widely based social democratic and labor movements, which generally enjoy the active support of trade unions. This predominance of reformist trends over revolutionary aspirations undoubtedly was occasioned by economic stability and the deterrent example of Marxist rule in the East. The social democratic parties of Sweden, Britain, France, and the Federal Republic of Germany (the former West Germany and present reunified state), in particular, governed their respective countries for lengthy periods during the postwar era through constitutional means, fully accepting the principles of parliamentary liberal democracy. The spirit of these Western European parties has tended to be pragmatic and tolerant, seeking accommodation rather than confrontation. Their programs repudiate the doctrines of the class war, revolution, and communism. Instead, they have relied on the expedients of progressive taxation, deficit financing, selective nationalization, the mixed economy, and vast welfare programs in order to bring about socialism; their political success has depended on considerable middle-class support. Although most of these parties have recently accommodated themselves to free-market reforms, they remain committed to the social democratic vision of a "middle way" between the extremes of communism and unfettered capitalism.

Bibliography: Berki, R. N., Socialism (1975); Brzezinski, Zbigniew, The Grand Failure (1990); Cole, G. D. H., A History of Socialist Thought, 5 vols. (1953-60); Crossman, R. H. S., The Politics of Socialism (1965); Harrington, Michael, Socialism: Past and Future (1989); Howe, Irving, ed., Essential Works of Socialism (1970); Lerner, Warren, History of Socialism and Communism in Modern Times, 2d ed. (1993); Lichtheim, George, A Short History of Socialism (1970); Lindeman, Albert S., A History of European Socialism (1983); Naarden, Bruno, Socialist Europe and Revolutionary Russia (1992); Sternberg, Fritz, Capitalism and Socialism on Trial, trans. by Edward Fitzgerald (1968); Uttig, Peter, Economic Reform and Third World Socialism (1992); Vetterli, Richard, and Fort, William E., The Socialist Base of Modern Totalitarianism (1968); Wilde, Lawrence, Modern European Socialism (1994).


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General Characteristics of Democratic Socialism:

I. idealist

  • altruism
    the belief that human beings are naturally benevolent and cooperative

II. majoritarian

  • decisions
    choices must be both meaningful and respected

  • democratic
    the will of the majority with respect to the rights of the minority

  • public decision-making
    well-informed, fully discussed, and without interference

III. utilitarian

  • public welfare
    the greatest good for the greatest number
    equity rather than efficiency; but rights must be respected

  • active government involvement
    as the representative of the people, government can and should remedy social ills

IV. pragmatic

  • gradual
    focus on specific details with a view toward future accomplishments

  • peaceful
    the social contract must be maintained

V. progressive

  • goal: utopia
    the elimination of class distinctions and creation of a new type of man

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photo circle (from left to right): the Founders of the British Fabian Society -- HG Wells, Beatrice Webb, Sidney Webb, George Bernard Shaw

photo top (clockwise from left): Emiliana Zapata, Clement Atlee, Francois Mitterand, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, Caesar Chavez, Willy Brandt, Desmond Tutu, Emma Goldman, Lech Walesa, Eugene Debs

Robert A. Crawford.
Copyright 1998
All rights reserved.
Revised: August 30, 2007.