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Keith Woodall's Lesson Notes Index

Introduction to Ancient Athens
Introduction to Ancient Rome
The Industrial Revolution



In most respects socialism is the antithesis of the classical liberalism of the 18th. and 19th. centuries. Liberalism emphasises the individual and his rights whereas socialism emphasises the community and its collective welfare. Liberalism represents society as the product of "natural laws" and is sceptical of advancing human welfare artificially by legislation. Socialism, in contrast, claims that man, by rational thought and action, can create his own social systems and relationships. In addition it maintains that human nature is primarily the product of the social environment and that social evils can be eliminated by establishing a society specifically designed to promote collective well-being rather than individual advantage based on competition.

Plans for the reorganization of society are by no means limited to the modern age. Ever since the rise of civilisation political and economic power have been concentrated in the hands of a few. This has led prophets and reformers of all periods to propose plans for the promotion of social justice and equality. In the Classical Period, for example, Plato in his "Republic" proposed that society should be based on an aristocratic communism - a dictatorship of communist philosophers. In the Medieval Period John Ball, the leader of the "Peasants' Revolt" in England in 1381, declared, "My good people - things cannot go well in England, nor ever will, until all goods are held in common and there will be neither serfs nor gentlemen and we shall all be equal". The turmoil and the passions of the English and French revolutions in the 17th. and 18th. centuries stimulated more schemes for the promotion of common welfare, ( the "Diggers" in England led by Gerrard Winstanley and the "Conspiracy of Equals" in France led by Gracchus Babeuf), yet the final outcome in both instances was the triumph of social conservatism in the persons of Oliver Cromwell and Napoleon Bonaparte.



Karl Marx

Karl Marx



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A vigorous new school of social reformers appeared in early 19th. century Europe. It became known as the "Utopian Socialists". The most important were two Frenchmen, Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), Charles Fourier (1772-1837), and the English industrialist Robert Owen (1771-1858). These men are remembered for an assortment of theories and projects that they developed. Saint-Simon proposed that the state should lend capital to co-operative societies which should function on the principle "from each according to his capacities to each according to his services". Fourier claimed that society should be re-organised into a system of small co-operative communities or "phalanxes", each having 1600 people and 2000 hectares of land. Robert Owen was the most important in the sense that he did not limit himself to making plans but actually attempted to put his ideas into practice. He made his factory at New Lanark into a model community and founded the short-lived communistic community of New Harmony in Indiana (U.S.A.)

All the "Utopian Socialists" had one basic characteristic in common. They all concentrated their attention on planning the ways in which these "ideal societies" should work, but they never took into consideration how they would replace the societies which already existed. Saint-Simon, for example, tried to enlist the support of the Pope and the king of France, Louis XVIII, and was very disappointed when his appeals were ignored. Fourier sat in his room at midday every day for twelve years waiting for replies to his newspaper appeals for support - none arrived.

The "Utopian Socialists" believed that those who had political power would simply give it up in the name of justice and equality and it is for this reason that they are called "utopian".


Karl Marx (1818-1883)

"The father of modern socialism", as he has been called, differed fundamentally from the "utopians" in almost every respect. They were idealistic whereas he was materialistic. He spent most of his life studying the historical evolution and functioning of society whereas they prepared plans for "model" communities. From his study of history Marx was convinced that class struggle was the only means to achieve social change, not looking for help from the wealthy and the privileged.

The three basic Marxist doctrines are:

  1. the economic (materialist) interpretation of history.
  2. the doctrine of class struggle.
  3. the concept of surplus value.


  1. The economic interpretation of history was summarised in the preface to the "Communist Manifesto" which Marx wrote in 1848 with the help of his friend and benefactor Friedrich Engels. "In every historical epoch the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organization following from it, form the basis upon which is built upon the political and intellectual history of that epoch". The slave economy of the classical world, for example, explains its political conditions - democracy for the citizen of Athens and bondage for the slaves. It also explains the cultural attainments of the classical world. Slave labour allowed a minority of privileged people to live in leisure and devote themselves to cultural pursuits because the essential tasks of everyday life were carried out by an oppressed majority.

  2. The doctrine of class struggle is also best summarised in the "Communist Manifesto". "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman. In a word, oppressor and oppressed carried on an uninterrupted fight that each time ended, either in revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes". Marx's idea of classes with conflicting interests was certainly not new. What was new and immensely significant was the proposition that it is through class struggle that mankind has passed from one type of social organization to another.
    The economic (or materialistic) interpretation of history and the doctrine of class struggle form the basis of Marx's interpretation of past history. As far as the future is concerned he was certain that capitalism would give way to socialism and his conviction was based on his third major doctrine, the theory of surplus value.

  3. According to this theory the value of a commodity depends upon the amount of labour necessary to produce it. For example, the trees growing in a forest have no value, but if the trees in the forest are cut down, transported to sawmills and then made into furniture then the final products (tables or chairs) have much greater value than the trees in their natural state. For Marx this extra value was created because of the work of the men who created the tables or chairs. But the price at which the furniture is sold is higher than the value of the labour used to make it because it includes the profit of the capitalist. This means that the workman who provides the labour receives much less money, in the form of wages, than the price at which the article is sold. Marx argued that this was the fatal weakness of the capitalist system because the workers cannot afford to buy what they produce. In the long run this would lead to overproduction, due to inadequate purchasing power, because of inadequate wages. Inevitably this will lead to the closing of factories, unemployment, a continuing decline in purchasing power and eventually a full-scale economic depression. In addition Marx believed that these economic depressions would become increasingly frequent and increasingly severe until finally the unemployed proletariat (the term Marx employed to mean the industrial working class) would be driven, by desperation, to revolution. In this way capitalism would be replaced by socialism, just as feudalism had been replaced by capitalism, and this new society would never suffer from economic depressions because, with common ownership of all the means of production, there would be no private owners so no private employers, no profits and therefore no lack of purchasing power, because workers would be able to afford to buy what they made.

The course of events since the mid-19th. century when Marx wrote "The Communist Manifesto" and "Das Kapital" has not followed the pattern that he forecast. The poor have not become poorer in the advanced capitalist countries. On the contrary the workers have experienced rising living standards and, therefore, have become increasingly satisfied with the status quo. Nevertheless Marx's doctrines have exerted tremendous influence throughout the world, and today represent one of the most vital forces shaping world history. The reason is to be found in the nature and the appeal of his doctrines. In the first place they gave workers everywhere a feeling of self-confidence, a conviction that time was on their side. Did not the theory of surplus value prove the inevitable collapse of capitalism? Marxism also made the workers more active and militant because the theory of class struggle demonstrated that a truly egalitarian society would not be achieved by the paternalistic assistance of philanthropic benefactors (kings, emperors or millionaires) but by the efforts of the workers themselves. Finally, Marxism gave workers throughout the world a sense of brotherhood by stressing the solidarity of their class regardless of the country in which they lived. The last sentence of "The Communist Manifesto" reads "workers of the world unite!"

Marx played an important role in the establishment, in London in 1864, of the "International Workingmen's Association", more commonly known as The First International. This organization was committed to Marx's programme of the seizure of power by the workers for the purpose of reorganising society along socialist lines. It attracted considerable attention with its propaganda and its participation in various strikes. ( In Zola's "Germinal" the First International is directly involved in organising the miners' strike which is the theme of the novel ). It disintegrated in 1876 because its members comprised an undisciplined and constantly feuding assortment of romantics, nationalists and anarchists as well as socialists.

In 1889 the "Socialist International", or Second International was created in Paris. This was a loosely-knit organization to which the socialist parties of many countries were affiliated. The Second International grew rapidly in importance and by 1914 it included the socialist parties of twenty seven countries with a membership of over 12 million people. Its doctrines were much more moderate than those of the First International. The reason for this shift in emphasis was that the principal socialist parties, which dominated it, were turning away from "pure" Marxism to what was called "revisionism". A number of factors explain this shift in emphasis.


  • One was the gradual extension of the franchise (the right to vote) in western European countries which meant that workers could increasingly use the vote instead of violence, to attain their objectives.
  • Another reason was the steady rise in living standards after 1850, which tended to make workers believe that it was in their own interests to demand improvements, of course, but within the existing system.


The German "revisionist" leader Eduard Bernstein expressed this new attitude when he declared that socialists "should work less for a better future and more for a better present". This new strategy, in other words, was designed to attain immediate gains by gradualist reforms not by violent revolution. Not all socialists were willing to accept this "revisionist" attitude. Some remained true to what they considered to be true socialism (Marxism), so many socialist parties split into two factions, the "orthodox" and "revisionist".

N.B. In France this split occurred in 1920 at the Congress of Tours when the "orthodox" socialists formed the P.C.F. and the "revisionists" formed the S.F.I.O.

In the early 20th. century, however, the "revisionists" had far greater support and usually controlled their respective national parties. Indeed, they were able to organise powerful political movements and to win millions of votes in elections. By 1914 the German, the French and the Italian socialist parties had more representatives in their national assemblies than any other political party.

When World War I began in 1914 the Second International paid the price for its revisionism. The majority of its members forgot that they were socialists and responded to the nationalism of the period. The result was that millions of French, German, British and allied workers killed each other for the sake of the nation. The Second International was torn apart by this war and although it was revived after the war, it never attained its former strength and prestige.

Socialism, however, did not disappear with the disintegration of the Second International. It was during World War I that a group of Russian socialists, the Bolsheviks, succeeded in seizing power and established the first "communist" government in history. Furthermore, in 1919 the Bolsheviks created the Third (Communist) International to challenge the Second (Socialist) International.

In 1997 it would seem that communism and its economic and social consequences are a thing of the past since the collapse of the Soviet Union in1991. In reality what the so-called communist countries experienced since 1945 was not Marxism but Stalinism

(At the moment "ex-communists" are making a strong come-back in Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia and in Russia).

Socialism in its "revisionist" forms -(socialist or social-democratic), remains a major force in world affairs and at present twelve of the fifteen member states of the European Union have governments controlled by, or which include socialists or social democrats.


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