Most discussions of socialism don’t begin at the beginning. Instead, they begin from the works of Marx and Engels. Or worse, they begin from the assumption that socialism is some sort of system and/or some series of government policies. This omission of early socialist thought and practice causes these discussions to become lost in endless debates about terminology and confusion of ideological emphases.
“The term socialism was coined in the 1830s and it was first used to refer to philosophical or moral beliefs rather than any specific political views. Alexandre Vinet, who claimed to have been the first person to use the term, defined socialism simply as “the opposite of individualism”. Robert Owen also viewed socialism as a matter of ethics, although he used it with a slightly more specific meaning to refer to the view that human society can and should be improved for the benefit of all. In a similar vein, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon claimed that socialism is “every aspiration towards the amelioration of society”.
In the first half of the 19th century, many writers who described themselves as socialists—and who would be later called utopian socialists—wrote down descriptions of what they believed to be the ideal human society. Some of them also created small communities that put their ideals into practice. A constant feature of these ideal societies was social and economic equality. Because the people who proposed the creation of such societies called themselves socialists, the term socialism came to refer not only to a certain moral doctrine, but also to a type of egalitarian society based on such a doctrine.
Other early advocates of socialism took a more scientific approach by favouring social leveling to create a meritocratic society based upon freedom for individual talent to prosper. One of those was Count Henri de Saint-Simon, who was fascinated by the enormous potential of science and technology and believed a socialist society would eliminate the disorderly aspects of capitalism. He advocated the creation of a society in which each person was ranked according to his or her capacities and rewarded according to his or her work. The key focus of this early socialism was on administrative efficiency and industrialism and a belief that science was the key to progress. Simon’s ideas provided a foundation for scientific economic planning and technocratic administration of society.
Other early socialist thinkers such as Charles Hall and Thomas Hodgskin based their ideas on David Ricardo’s economic theories. They reasoned that the equilibrium value of commodities approximated to prices charged by the producer when those commodities were in elastic supply and that these producer prices corresponded to the embodied labor, i.e. the cost of the labor (essentially the wages paid) that was required to produce the commodities. The Ricardian socialists viewed profit, interest and rent as deductions from this exchange-value. These ideas embodied early conceptions of market socialism.
After the advent of Karl Marx’s theory of capitalism and scientific socialism, socialism came to refer to ownership and administration of the means of production by the working class, either through the state apparatus or through independent cooperatives. In Marxist theory, socialism refers to a specific stage of social and economic development that will displace capitalism, characterized by coordinated production, public or cooperative ownership of capital, diminishing class conflict and inequalities that spawn from such and the end of wage-labor with a method of compensation based on the principle of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his contribution”.”
At the very least, beginning a discussion of socialism from the above points of reference puts the emphasis where it should be: on the ethical priority that socialists gave to the welfare of society. However, to understand what these thinkers were concerned with when it came to the welfare of society, their thought must be put into the context in which it was developed. So what was it that was going on during the times of socialism’s developments that inspired socialist thinkers to develop their ideas, and how were their ideas different from other social theorists of the time? The answers to these questions require a dive into a few different histories that simultaneously resulted in the established political systems we know of as the nation state.
The history of Republicanism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Republic
The history of Nationalism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nationalism
The history of Liberalism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberalism
The history of (centralized) Banking: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central_bank
The history of Corporations: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joint-stock_company
The history of Laissez-faire: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laissez-faire
The history of Bourgois Socialism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bourgeois_socialism
The history of Capital Accumulation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primitive_accumulation_of_capital
The Industrial Revolution: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Industrial_Revolution
The history of the Labor Problem: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_labor_problem
The history of Trade Unions: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trade_union
The history of Social Democracy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_social_democracy
Basically, what is required to understand the origins and continuing values of socialism is a comprehension of the factors that lead to the emergence of the industrial working class. The reason why this is required is because socialism was a response to the situations that the industrial working class endured and what their obstacles were to realizing the values and achieving the goals outlined by the classic liberal theorists. And more than any solution that any socialist thinker came up with for solving these social problems, socialism was defined by a shared recognition that the situations of the industrial working class were an especially important problem for the welfare of society.
One of the key insights gleaned from studying socialism from this perspective is the understanding that socialism wasn’t (and isn’t) by necessity anti-capitalist. This is important, because in the common discourse of today, socialism tends to be understood by its opposition to capitalism. Such an opposition tends to dismiss or otherwise muffle the history of Social Democracy, which is rather important. Really, a more correct understanding of socialism is that it is pro-worker, whether or not capitalist property relations remain the predominant form of property relations in any given society.
While this understanding of socialism clarifies one misunderstanding, it encourages others. For instance, the distinction between socialism and what most people understand today as liberalism becomes fuzzy. The way to deal with that fuzziness is to accept that over the past century or two, liberal thinkers have accepted many of the values and criticisms from socialist thinkers. And as a result of this, contemporary liberalism looks a lot more like some classic socialist thought than classic liberal thought did. At the end of the day, if one is to think about the welfare of society as at least significantly dependent on the welfare of the working class, there are merely minor differences between liberals and socialists of some stripe. The history of what ideologically inspired the political parties who have reformed any given country’s economic policies away from laissez-faire capitalism and towards some sort of welfare state has some value, but only for understanding why it can be difficult to distinguish some liberals (such as the Progressive section of the Democratic Party) from some socialists (such as many DSA members).
For the rest of the socialist movement today – those sections of it that are not easily confused with liberals – the distinguishing feature of their ideologies is their anti-capitalism. But again, socialism and anti-capitalism are not the same thing. As history has taught us, anti-capitalism has also been a position taken up by authoritarians of various type: Fascist, National Socialist, Theocratic, etc. Socialists who are also anti-capitalists still derive their values from an emphasis on the welfare of society; but, they do not think that it is possible to further that welfare without ultimately eliminating capitalistic commercial practices and the laws that permit them. Some socialists of the anti-capitalist variety believe that economic policies can be reformed to eliminate said commercial practices through electoral strategies, others believe that parliament itself must be captured and controlled by a specifically socialist party, and still others believe that the nation-state must be dismantled entirely. Despite their differences, all of these anti-capitalists are still socialists.
Socialists today have a lot of differences from one another, but they all share an emphasis on the well-being of the working class. This emphasis may result in more or less tolerance of capitalist property relations and commercial practices, which may make a given socialist seem more or less like a liberal, but this is because liberal thought has adopted historically socialist values and critiques. Even though many liberals now share these values, liberals are never anti-capitalists. At their most similar to socialists, liberals maintain their classic emphasis on the individual’s freedoms and property rights, while attempting to solve social problems through taxation and government spending, monetary policy, market regulations, and labor laws. However, even among these liberals, their ideological motivations are often aimed at creating an economic environment that is more (not less) favorable to commercial ventures. Therefore, improving the quality of life for the working class is secondary to their classical liberal values. For those socialists that advocate for similar reforms, the quality of life for the working class are primary and trump values of individual freedom and property rights.