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Socialism refers to a broad array of doctrines or political movements that envisage a socio-economic system in which property and the distribution of wealth are subject to social control. This control may be either direct—exercised through popular collectives such as workers' councils—or it may be indirect—exercised on behalf of the people by the state. As an economic system, socialism is often associated with state, community or worker ownership of the means of production.

The modern socialist movement had its origin largely in the working class movement of the late-19th century. In this period, the term "socialism" was first used in connection with European social critics who condemned capitalism and private property. For Karl Marx, who helped establish and define the modern socialist movement, socialism implied the abolition of money, markets, capital, and labor as a commodity.

It is difficult to make generalizations about the diverse array of doctrines and movements that have been referred to as "socialist," for the various adherents of contemporary socialist movements do not agree on a common doctrine or program. As a result, the movement has split into different and sometimes opposing branches, particularly between moderate socialists and communists. Since the 19th century, socialists have differed in their vision of socialism as a system of economic organization. Some socialists have championed the complete nationalization of the means of production, while some socialists influenced by anarchist thought favour decentralized collective ownership in the form of cooperatives or workers' councils. Social democrats have proposed selective nationalization of key industries within the framework of mixed economies. Stalinists insisted on the creation of Soviet-style command economies under strong central state direction. Others advocate " market socialism," in which social control exists within the framework of market economics and limited private property.

History of socialism

Early socialism

The term "socialism" was first used in the context of early-19th century Western European social critics. In this period, socialism emerged from a diverse array of doctrines and social experiments associated primarily with British and French thinkers—particularly Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Louis Blanc, and Saint-Simon. These social critics saw themselves as reacting to the excesses of poverty and inequality in the period, and advocated reforms such as the egalitarian distribution of wealth and the transformation of society into small communities in which private property was to be abolished. Outlining principles for the reorganization of society along collectivist lines, Saint-Simon or Owen sought to build socialism on the foundations of planned, utopian communities.

The words socialism and communism were used almost interchangeably in the beginnings of the socialist movement, prior to the formation of communism as a distinct movement. People chose to use one or the other on the basis of perceived attitude to religion. In Europe communism was considered to be the more atheistic of the two. In England, however, that sounded too close to communion with Catholic overtones; hence atheists preferred to call themselves socialists.

Early socialists differed widely about how socialism was to be achieved; they differed sharply on key issues such as centralized versus decentralized control, the role of private property, the degree of egalitarianism, and the organization of family and community life. Moreover, while many emphasized the gradual transformation of society, most notably through the foundation of small, utopian communities, a growing number of socialists became disillusioned with the viability of this approach and instead emphasized direct political action.

The rise of Marxism

Karl Marx
Karl Marx

In the mid-19th century, the transformation of socialism into a political doctrine occurred as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels developed their own account of socialism as the outcome of a revolutionary class struggle between the proletariat and bourgeoisie.

Marx and Engels regarded themselves as " scientific socialists" and distinguished themselves from the " utopian socialists" of earlier generations. For Marxists, socialism is viewed as a transitional stage characterized by state ownership of the means of production. They see this stage in history as a transition between capitalism and communism, the final stage of history. For Marx, a communist society entails the absence of differing social classes and thus the end of class warfare. According to Marx, once private property had been abolished, the state would then "wither away" and humanity would move on to a higher stage of society, communism. This distinction continues to be used by Marxists, and is the cause of much confusion. The Soviet Union, for example, never claimed that it was a communist society, even though it was ruled by a Communist party for more than seven decades. For communists, the name of the party is not meant to reflect the name of the social system but rather the party's ultimate goal.

Moderate socialism and communism

In 1864, Marx founded the International Workingmen's Association, or First International, which held its first congress at Geneva in 1866. The First International was the first major international forum for the promulgation of socialist doctrine. However, socialists often disagreed on the proper strategy for achievement of their goals. Diversity and conflict between socialist thinkers was proliferating.

Despite the rhetoric about socialism as an international force, socialists increasingly focused on the politics of the nation-state in the late 19th century. As universal male suffrage was introduced throughout the Western world in the first decades of the twentieth century, socialism became increasingly associated with newly formed trade unions and political parties aimed at mobilizing working class voters.

The most notable of these groups was the Social Democratic Workers' Party of Germany (today known as the German Social Democratic Party), which was founded in 1869. These groups supported diverse views of socialism, from the gradualism of many trade unionists to the radical, revolutionary agendas of Marx and Engels. Nevertheless, although the orthodox Marxists of the party, which were led by Karl Kautsky, managed to retain the Marxist theory of revolution as the party's official doctrine, in practice the SPD became more and more reformist.

As socialists gained more power and began to experience governmental authority first-hand, the focus of socialism shifted from theory to practice. Within the government, socialists became more pragmatic, as the success of their program increasingly depended on the consent of the middle and wealthy classes, who largely retained control of the bureaucratic machinery of the state. Moreover, with the beginnings of the modern welfare state, the condition of the working class began to gradually improve in the Western world, thus delaying further the socialist revolution predicted by Marx for Western Europe.

As social democrats came to power and moved into government, divisions between the moderate and radical wings of socialism grew increasingly pronounced. On one hand, many socialist thinkers began to doubt the indispensability of revolution. Moderates like Eduard Bernstein argued that socialism could best be achieved through the democratic political process (a model increasingly known as social democracy). On the other hand, strong opposition to moderate socialism came from communists in countries such as the Russian Empire where a parliamentary democracy did not exist, and did not seem possible. Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin argued that revolution was the only path to socialism. In 1903, there was a formal split within the Russian social democratic party into revolutionary Bolshevik and reformist Menshevik factions.

Meanwhile, anarchists and proponents of other alternative visions of socialism, who emphasized the potential of small-scale communities and agrarianism, coexisted with the more influential currents of Marxism and social democracy. The anarchists, led by the Russian Mikhail Bakunin, believed that capitalism and the state were inseparable, and that one could not be abolished without the other. Consequently, they were in opposition to most other socialist groups, who viewed anarchism as far too radical, and a split between the anarchists and the Socialist International soon occurred.

The moderate, or revisionist, wing of socialism, led by Eduard Bernstein, dominated the meeting of the Second International in Paris in 1889. Lenin and the German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg emerged as leaders of the more radical minority, with followers of German theorist Karl Kautsky constituting a smaller faction. The anarchists were left out entirely. This disparity in views led to further division amongst socialist branches.

Jean Jaurès haranguing workers under a red flag.
Jean Jaurès haranguing workers under a red flag.

After the Second International, in the first decades of the twentieth century, moderate socialism became increasingly influential among many European intellectuals. In 1884 British middle class intellectuals organized the Fabian Society. The Fabians in turn helped lay the groundwork for the organization of the Labour Party in 1906. The French Section Française de l'Internationale Ouvrière (SFIO), founded in 1905 under Jean Jaurès, and later Léon Blum, adhered to Marxist ideas but became, in practice, a reformist party.

In the U.S. the Socialist Labor Party of America was founded in 1877. This party, small as it was, became fragmented in the 1890s due to the infighting of various factions. In 1901 a merge between a moderate faction of the Socialist Labor Party of America and the younger Social Democratic Party joined with Eugene V. Debs to form the Socialist Party of America. The influence of the party would, after some fanfare, gradually decline, and socialism would never become a major political force in the United States. Communism would also fail to gain a large following in the U.S., in part due to the later efforts of former Senator Joseph McCarthy and the blacklisting of prominent Americans by the government in the 1950s.

The distinction between socialists and communists became more pronounced during, and after, World War I. When the First World War began in 1914, despite the assassination of influential French socialist Jean Jaurès, many European socialist leaders supported their respective governments. During the war, socialist parties in France and Germany supported their respective state's wartime military and economic planning, despite their ideological commitments to internationalism and solidarity. Lenin, however, denounced the war as an imperialist conflict, and urged workers worldwide to use it as an occasion for proletarian revolution. This ideological disagreement resulted in the collapse of the Second International.

The rise of the Soviet Union

The Russian Revolution of 1917 marked the definitive split between Communists and social democrats. Communist parties in the Soviet Union and Europe dismissed the more moderate socialist parties and, for the most part, broke off contact.

The Communist Party of the Soviet Union sought to "build socialism" in the Soviet Union. For the first time, socialism was not just a vision of a future society, but a description of an existing one. Lenin's regime brought all the means of production (except agricultural production) under state control, and implemented a system of government through workers' councils (in Russian, soviets). Gradually, however, the Soviet Union developed a bureaucratic and authoritarian model of social development, which was condemned by moderate socialists abroad for undermining the initial democratic and socialist ideals of the Russian Revolution. In 1929 Stalin came to power and pursued his policy of " socialism in one country."

The Russian Revolution provoked a powerful reaction throughout Western society, one example being the so-called " Red Scare" in the U.S., which effectively destroyed Eugene V. Debs's Socialist Party of America. In Europe, fascism emerged as a movement opposed to both socialism and liberal democracy.

The interwar era and World War II

Despite division of the world socialist movement, Western European socialist parties won major electoral gains in the immediate postwar years. Most notably, in Britain, the Labour Party under Ramsay MacDonald was in power for ten months in 1924 and again from 1929 to 1931.

Throughout much of the interwar period, socialist and Communist parties were in continuous conflict. Socialists condemned communists as agents of the Soviet Union, while communists condemned socialists as betrayers of the working class.

However, with the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, socialists and Communists made attempts in some countries to form a united front of all working-class organizations in opposition to fascism. The " popular front" movement had limited success in countries such as France and Spain, where it did well in the 1936 elections. The Nazis came to power in 1933 despite the efforts of German socialists to form a "popular front" in Germany. The "popular front" period ended in 1939 with the conclusion of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. Socialists condemned this act as an act of betrayal by the Stalinist Soviet Union.

Cold War years

In Western Europe, socialism gained perhaps its widest appeal in the period immediately following the end of World War II. Even where conservative governments remained in power, they were forced to adopt a series of social welfare reform measures, so that in most industrialized countries the postwar period saw the creation of a welfare state.

The period following the Second World War marked another period of intensifying struggle between socialists and communists. In the postwar period, the nominally socialist parties became increasingly identified with the expansion of the capitalist welfare state. Western European socialists largely backed U.S.-led Cold War policies. They largely supported the Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and denounced the Soviet Union as " totalitarian." Communists denounced these measures as imperialist provocations aimed at triggering a war against the Soviet Union. Inspired by the Second International, the Socialist International was organized in 1951 in Frankfurt, West Germany, without Communist participation.

In the postwar years, socialism became increasingly influential throughout the Third World. In 1949 the Chinese Revolution established a Communist state. Emerging nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America frequently adopted socialist economic programs. In many instances, these nations nationalized industries held by foreign owners. The Soviet achievement in the 1930s seemed hugely impressive from the outside, and convinced many nationalists in the emerging former colonies of the Third World, not necessarily Communists or even socialists, of the virtues of state planning and state-guided models of social development. This was later to have important consequences in countries like China, India and Egypt, which tried to import some aspects of the Soviet model.

In the 1970s, despite the radicalism of some socialist currents in the Third World, Western European Communist parties effectively abandoned their revolutionary goals and fully embraced electoral politics. Dubbed " Eurocommunism," this new orientation resembled earlier social-democratic configurations, although distinction between the two political tendencies persists.

In the late last quarter of the twentieth century, socialism in the Western world entered a new phase of crisis and uncertainty. Socialism came under heavy attack following the 1973 oil crisis. In this period, monetarists and neoliberals attacked social welfare systems as an impediment to individual entrepreneurship. With the rise of Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Margaret Thatcher in Britain, the Western welfare state found itself under increasing political pressure. Increasingly, Western countries and international institutions rejected social democratic methods of Keynesian demand management, which were scrapped in favour of neoliberal policy prescriptions.

Western European socialists were under intense pressure to refashion their parties in the late 1980s and early 1990s and to reconcile their traditional economic programs with the integration of a European economic community based on liberalizing markets. The Labour Party in the United Kingdom put together a highly successful set of policies based on encouraging the market economy, while promoting the involvement of private industry in delivering public services.

The last quarter of the twentieth century marked a period of major crisis for Communists in the Eastern bloc, where the growing shortages of housing and consumer goods, combined with the lack of individual rights to assembly and speech, began to disillusion more and more Communist party members. With the rapid collapse of Communist party rule in Eastern Europe between 1989 and 1991, Communist socialism, as it once existed in the former Soviet bloc, has effectively disappeared as a worldwide political force.

Contemporary socialism

In the 1960s and 1970s new social forces began to change the political landscape in the Western world. The long postwar boom, rising living standards for the industrial working class, and the rise of a mass university-educated white collar workforce began to break down the mass electoral base of European socialist parties. This new " post-industrial" white-collar workforce was less interested in traditional socialist policies such as state ownership and more interested in expanded personal freedom and liberal social policies.

Over the past twenty-five years, efforts to adapt socialism to new historical circumstances have led to a range of New Left ideas and theories, some of them contained within existing socialist movements and parties, others achieving mobilization and support in the arenas of " new social movements." Some socialist parties reacted more flexibly and successfully to these changes than others, but eventually all were forced to do so. With the rise of environmentalism, Green and Red ideas have become linked in many movements and parties that campaign for environmental and social justice. Eco-socialism, a fusion of socialism, ecology and environmentalism has developed. Anarchist Murray Bookchin's writings on social ecology were a major influence on the emergence of the Green movement in the United States, and many Green Parties have ex-socialist and eco-socialist members. The revival of anarchist thought, evident in the work of writers such as Noam Chomsky, who identifies himself as a " libertarian socialist," was another effect of the emergence of the new left and new social movements. Today, some socialists influenced by anarchism support decentralized economic planning and, in some cases, mutualism or gift economics.

In the global South, some elected non-Communist socialist parties and Communist parties remain prominent, particularly in India. In China, the Chinese Communist Party has led a transition from the command economy of the Mao period under the banner of "market socialism." Under Deng Xiaoping, the leadership of China embarked upon a program of market-based reform that was more sweeping than had been Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika program of the late 1980s. In Latin America, socialism has re-emerged in recent years with a pan-nationalist and populist tinge, with Brazil's Lula da Silva and, more recently, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Bolivian President Evo Morales leading the trend.

Socialism as an economic system

The term "socialism" is often used to refer to an economic system characterized by state ownership of the means of production and distribution. In the Soviet Union, state ownership of productive property was combined with central planning. Down to the workplace level, Soviet economic planners decided what goods and services were to be produced, how they were to be produced, in what quantities, and at what prices they were to be sold (see economy of the Soviet Union). Soviet economic planning was touted as an alternative to allowing prices and production to be determined by the market through supply and demand. Especially during the Great Depression, many socialists considered Soviet-style planning a remedy to what they saw as the inherent flaws of capitalism, such as monopolies, business cycles, unemployment, vast inequalities in the distribution of wealth, and the exploitation of workers.

In the West, some economists, including Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, argued that central planners could never match the overall information inherent in the decision-making throughout a market economy. Nor could enterprise managers in Soviet-style socialist economies match the motivation of private profit-driven entrepreneurs in a market economy (see the economic calculation problem). For these reasons, they argued that socialist planned economies would eventually fail.

Following the stagnation of the Soviet economy in the 1970s and 1980s, a number of socialists began to accept some of the critiques of state planning from Western market economists. Polish economist Oskar Lange, for example, was an early proponent of "market socialism."

Socialism and social and political theory

Marxist and non-Marxist social theorists have both generally agreed that socialism, as a doctrine, developed as a reaction to the rise of modern industrial capitalism, but differ sharply on the exact nature of the relationship. Émile Durkheim saw socialism as rooted in the desire simply to bring the state closer to the realm of individual activity as a response to the growing anomie of capitalist society. Max Weber saw in socialism an acceleration of the process of rationalization commenced under capitalism. Weber was a critic of socialism who warned that putting the economy under the total bureaucratic control of the state would not result in liberation but an 'iron cage of future bondage.'

Socialist intellectuals continued to retain considerable influence on European philosophy in the mid-20th century. Herbert Marcuse's 1955 Eros and Civilization was an explicit attempt to merge Marxism with Freudianism. Structuralism, widely influential in mid-20th century French academic circles, emerged as a model of the social sciences that influenced the 1960s and 1970s socialist New Left.

Criticisms of socialism

Criticisms of socialism range from disagreements over the efficiency of socialist economic and political models, to condemnation of states described by themselves or others as "socialist." Many economic liberals dispute that the more even distribution of wealth advocated by socialists can be achieved without what they perceive as a loss of political or economic freedoms. There is much focus on the human rights records of Communist states, which some critics identify as examples of socialism.

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