Socialism Research Paper

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Socialism can be defined as a political ideology that endorses the equality of power. Socialists believe that the existence of unequal material relationships is evidence of unequal political and social power in any given society. The goals of all socialists are the same: collective living and working arrangements, equal distribution of wealth, and equality of power. The attainment of these goals would guarantee a moral human society with happiness, equality, brotherhood, and community as foundational values.

The methods used to attain these goals have differed according to unique historical circumstances. Some socialists have endorsed industrial efficiency, while others have argued for a return to a “primitive,” nonindustrial stage of human history. Additionally, certain socialists have valued organization, control, discipline, hierarchy, leadership by experts, compulsion, violent revolution, and messianic elitism over gradual change, democratism, and pacifism to develop a socialist society. Socialists have sometimes appealed to nationalism and patriotism to recruit supporters. Other times they have proposed a more cosmopolitan philosophy of human organization. The role of the state has often been at the heart of these contradictory approaches. Some socialist states have created dictatorial governments to destroy traditional society and replace it with a pseudosocialist one. Other socialist movements have called for the creation of a just welfare state to take the primary responsibility for providing adequate housing, health care, pensions, and unemployment benefits to all citizens. Alternately, Communists have worked to eradicate the state apparatus entirely, instead offering a purely democratic structure of power relationships.

Historical Explanation For The Rise Of Socialism

The formulation of socialism as a political ideology occurred between 1815 (the end of the Napoleonic era) and 1848 (the publication year of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto and a year of liberal, nationalist revolutions across Europe) as a particular response to the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. The French Revolution of 1789 began the slow destruction of the ancien regime in Western Europe and ushered in the modern period of liberal democracy and industrialization. During this process, the bourgeoisie replaced the aristocracy as the dominant social class, and as the abolition of serfdom swept across Europe during the Napoleonic Wars, European peasants left the villages and migrated to the cities to work in the new industries of the nineteenth century. The population of European cities exploded during this era of urbanization, and the new industrial working classes suffered tremendously from horrid living and working conditions.

The “dual revolution,” as the simultaneous liberal and industrial revolutions of the nineteenth century are called, created a social, political, and economic system that destroyed the traditional identities of Europeans, a system that had been founded on values of community, and instead legitimized an individualism that favored white, male property owners. The promotion of a minority of the European population at the expense of the workers, peasants, and women of all social classes angered socialist intellectuals, who criticized the failure of liberal democracy to extend fundamental human rights to all peoples. Though professing that liberalism would bring about progress in Europe through the destruction of legally defined social groups and the introduction of the right to vote, the right to free assembly, an end to censorship, equality before the law, social mobility, and economic freedom, socialists charged that liberal democracy merely created a new bourgeois-dominated social hierarchy that exploited the working classes for personal gain. They saw the liberal promise of economic freedom as a dangerous one because it guaranteed only workers’ rights to sell their labor to the highest bidder, and since wages in a capitalist system are tied to market forces, industrial society justified its exploitation of workers as being a kind of natural economic state. Socialists thus viewed liberal capitalism as an immoral system.

Liberal democracy and socialism in the nineteenth century were therefore antithetical: Whose rights should be protected—those of the bourgeoisie to possess private property or those of the working classes against the vagrancies of capitalism? At the heart of this dispute were differing ideas of the intrinsic goodness and value of private property. Liberal capitalists viewed private property as the most sacred of all human rights, while socialists viewed it as the root of all evil in the modern world. Another controversial debate was the natural state of humanity: Is communal organization the foundation of natural law? Can and should we use some definition of natural law to judge existing social institutions? Early nineteenth-century socialists agreed with Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712—1778), who argued that men are social by nature and naturally want to do and be good. Humanity therefore had the ability to return to this “natural” state through a process of purification. Rousseau also argued that the fall of humanity began with the introduction of private property.

Rousseau inspired the first French socialists, the egalitarians, who reacted violently to the fact that the French Revolution did not bring about social equality or abolish material wealth in the early nineteenth century. Egalitarians urged the people to seize power, do away with social hierarchy, and institute a commonwealth. They also advocated the use of terrorism to dispossess the wealthy and redistribute private property equally among all members of society. In this early stage of socialist development, the abolition of private property was not yet part of the political agenda and the goal was to end the misery of the poor. The egalitarians introduced the idea that the community was more valuable than individuals in isolation. Egalitarianism also endorses a pure democracy without party divisions. Service, devotion, and sacrifice for the sake of community were the hallmarks of egalitarianism.

Socialism took on a more organized form with the rise of utopianism in the 1830s. Charles Fourier (17721837), often referred to as the father of utopian socialism, argued that industrialization and liberal democracy did not constitute historical progress. He firmly placed the critique of bourgeois society in the greater context of the rise of the materialization of humankind. Bourgeois society, he argued, reflected a fundamental departure from the foundation of human social life. Fourier rejected the progressive function of industry and technology and instead advocated for the creation of communal organization based upon agricultural units he called phalansteres. Along with this rejection of industrial capitalism, Fourier demanded minimum public regulation of individuals and a maximum level of individual freedom. Total gender equality, guaranteed by the destruction of marriage as a social institution, was also a major component of his philosophy.

Fellow utopian socialist Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) rejected Fourier’s denunciation of industry and focused his critique of liberal capitalist society on increasing workers’ economic and political power, clearly defining socialism as an economic doctrine. Saint-Simon argued that order and efficiency were natural characteristics of humans. Since the interests of entrepreneurs and workers were identical—to increase political status through productivity—human beings would naturally agree to a collective social and economic construction once they realized how profitable such an arrangement could be. Private property, Saint-Simonians charged, was therefore incompatible with the efficiency of the industrial system. By transferring private property to the state, which would be controlled by an association of workers, privileges of birth would disappear. Additionally, the banking system, acting as a social institution, would coordinate the economy for the entire society. Saint-Simon also advocated for female emancipation and special care for paupers and criminals, all of whom he considered to be victims of the immoral bourgeois capitalist state. These radical changes would allow for the moral regeneration of society to occur. Fourier’s and Saint-Simon’s contradictory critiques of industrial society and visions of the future illuminated the controversial aspects of socialist thought in its early years.

The French utopian socialists greatly influenced German philosopher, historian, sociologist, and economist Karl Marx in the mid-nineteenth century. The Communist Manifesto, published by Marx and his partner Friedrich Engels in 1848, presented a theory of history in which an inevitable communist revolution led by industrial workers, the proletariat, would destroy bourgeois capitalist society. While utopian socialism in its various manifestations can loosely be defined as a worldview that promised individuals a full sense of belonging to a progressive communal society, Marx’s Communist theory at this early point in his career outlined a specific path toward the attainment of this goal. Marx viewed the history of mankind as being propelled forward by class warfare. He argued that human beings’ identities are defined by their economic relationships to one another, not by religion or other social constructs. The dominant social class, therefore, uses its political and economic position to exploit the subordinate social classes. The struggle between social groups, and the revolutionary attempts of the subordinate classes to destroy the ruling class, is what moves history forward. He called this process dialectical materialism.

In the context of nineteenth-century European industrial society, Marx forecast that the industrial proletariat would overthrow the capitalist bourgeoisie and the revolutionary cycle would end because, for the first time in history, the revolutionary class would represent the majority of the population. The revolution, Marx predicted, would occur on a worldwide scale as members of the proletariat in every industrialized country would spontaneously revolt. Industry would quickly spread to nonindustrialized portions of the world and all societies would become one large “workers’ paradise.” In the process, nations would cease to exist as primary determiners of an individual’s identity. The new communist system would guarantee total equality among all people through collective ownership of the means of production (such as land, machines, factories, tools, and animals), the abolition of private property, and collective living arrangements. The establishment of a complete democracy under such conditions would allow for the “withering away” of the state apparatus and the complete spiritual fulfillment of each individual.

The failure of the Paris Commune (1871) to install a socialist society in France prompted Marx to question this early assertion that a spontaneous and violent revolution was the only path toward socialism. In his later works, Marx tacitly acknowledged the possibility of a peaceful transition to socialism in those societies with mature democratic political systems. This move away from the notion that the excesses of liberal capitalism would naturally produce a proletariat revolution laid the foundation for democratic socialism to emerge as a Marxist political ideology in the late nineteenth century. This inconsistency in Marx’s philosophy of revolution allowed future communists and social democrats alike to claim him as the founding father of their radically different processes of revolutionary change. However divergent in their methods, atheistic socialist revolutionary movements around the world shared a common belief in Marx’s materialist interpretation of the human experience, one that charged religion with being the “opiate of the people” in the twentieth century.

Historical Examples Of Socialism

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin led the world’s first socialist revolution in Russia in 1917. Lenin compromised the democratic foundation of Marx’s vision by using dictatorial revolutionary tactics to destroy the Russian autocracy and establish socialism. Because Russia lacked the large industrial proletariat needed to complete the Communist revolution, Soviet leaders created a totalitarian version of socialism. Each individual was equally submissive to the dictator—stripped of basic human rights, controlled by secret police forces and spy networks, educated by socialist propaganda, and forced to conform to a new identity as a Soviet socialist citizen. With its focus on industrialization, Marxian socialism in the Soviet Union became an ideology of modernity instead of communism.

The Soviet revolutionary model was widely adopted around the world in the 1940s and 1950s. After World War II, Stalin’s takeover of Eastern Europe imposed Soviet communism there. In 1949, Mao Zedong led a nationalist and anti-imperialist Communist revolution in China where the peasantry, rather than the proletariat, was considered to be the revolutionary class. Mao’s socialist revolution was also a political and military struggle against imperialist powers (most notably Japan) instead of a Marxist class struggle. Guerrilla warfare, therefore, drove the revolution, rather than the organization of a labor movement or a political party. This pattern of socialist revolution was repeated in North Vietnam in 1954 by Ho Chi Minh. In both the Chinese and Vietnamese cases, the Soviet Union offered heavy support to the revolutionaries in order to extend its sphere of influence across Asia.

In 1959, Cuban leader Fidel Castro established the first socialist government in Latin America. Castro’s revolution, however, concerned itself more with the conquest of power than ideology. After a short period of euphoric hope that Latin America might be able to throw off imperialist control through the adoption of Castro’s socialism, many Latin American socialists in the 1960s and 1970s rejected his dictatorial model. They also repudiated Marx’s atheism and used the power of their Catholic faith to fight against unjust socioeconomic structures. Liberation theology, as the movement was called, argued that the Church’s preferential treatment of the poor be involved in political struggles.

Socialism in Africa emerged after the exit of colonial powers in the 1960s. African socialists generally condemned capitalism and worked to protect human dignity, though their goals and methods varied from region to region. Africans’ desire to create a postcolonial national identity free from imperialist economic exploitation accounts for this variety.

Alternatively, revisionist socialists in Eastern and Western Europe in the 1950s and 1960s attempted to resurrect the social democratic foundation of Marxism. They rejected the Soviet dictatorial model of communism as well as the Western liberal capitalist model of modernity.

Supporters of the New Left of the 1970s and 1980s dedicated themselves to establishing just social, economic, and political domestic and international structures. The fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s effectively destroyed the dictatorial socialist model in Europe, with most European countries working to develop liberal capitalist societies that guarantee freedoms and rights for all individuals.


  1. Blackburn, Robin, ed. 1991. After the Fall: The Failure of Communism and the Future of Socialism. New York: Verso.
  2. Harrington, Michael. 1989. Socialism: Past and Future. New York: Arcade.
  3. Howe, Irving, ed. 1986. Essential Works of Socialism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  4. Kilroy-Silk, Robert. 1973. Socialism Since Marx. New York: Taplinger.
  5. Lichtheim, George. 1970. A Short History of Socialism. New York: Praeger.
  6. Radice, Giles. 1966. Democratic Socialism: A Short Survey. New York: Praeger.
  7. Sassoon, Don. 1996. One Hundred Years of Socialism: The West European Left in the Twentieth Century. New York: New Press.
  8. Ulam, Adam B. 1979. The Unfinished Revolution: Marxism and Communism in the Modern World. Boulder, CO.: Westview Press.

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