What is Socialism and how was its early strands ?

What is the shape that this revolt takes; in other words what is socialism? In the early decades of the nineteenth century, the common elements of what was emerging as the socialist outlook were falling in place. There grew the

“…Conviction that the uncontrolled concentration of wealth and unbridled competition was bound to lead to increasing misery and crises, and that the system must be replaced by one in which the organization of production and exchange could do away with poverty and oppression and bring about a redistribution of the world’s gifts on a basis of equality.(Leszek Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism)”

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Early socialism did not grow into any clear-cut doctrine, but a set of values and beliefs held together by the view that private ownership of production should be replaced. But there was no unanimity about “replaced by what”. There were common currents of thinking that some or other form of common ownership of productive property should be the basis of social organization of society.

Socialism is not against property per se. For example, owning a flat or a refrigerator or driving in one’s own car does not militate against the sprit of socialism. All these are consumable items. When socialism talks against the private ownership of property, it means such property, which is productive and yields profit, or rental income; that is, the private ownership of means of production.


Early socialists thought that property is left. This comes to mean that the owners of means of production cheat the workers-the direct producers-of whatever production which takes place over and above the wages paid to them. This denial of what they produce is theft. The accumulation of this theft is property in the form we see it in our societies. Being a theft it is morally unacceptable. So it must be abolished and as a form, private ownership must be converted into one or another form of common ownership.

The later socialist did not consider property as a theft, but viewed it as the appropriation and accumulation of the surplus value that the worker produces. This process is built into the labor process, which produces goods for exchange in the market. It is, therefore, internal and structural to the capitalist process and this is also instituted in law and is therefore, legal. So it cannot be theft, but is exploitation and nevertheless remains, from a normative point of view, illegitimate and unacceptable.

Therefore, they agreed with the early socialist that it must abolished and common social ownership instituted. This common notion about the unwelcome nature of private ownership of the means of production and following on that, the idea of one or another form of common ownership is what unites the socialists, anyone who agrees with these views is a socialist, whatever else their differences. This common outlook is well summed up in the following words. Socialism is:

“That organization of society in which the means of production are controlled, and the decisions on how and what to produce and on who is to get what, are made by public authority instead of by privately-owned and privately managed firms”.(Joseph A. Schumpeter ,Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy.)

Within these broad agreements, it is the differences about (a) how does one replace capitalism and (b) what exactly is the version of social ownership, which, create so many different schools of socialism. There is finally the all important question of how does one arrive at socialism; in other words, who will bring it about. In looking at these questions, we will know the different versions or schools of socialism.


In the aftermath of the French Revolution of 1789, two important features changed in the way people related to the world. The French revolution put into the shape of political agenda, the theories of Enlightenment and it furthermore, enthroned the value of equality (and fraternity) as of the same importance as liberty and thus, egalitarianism became a creed with the masses. The second momentous development was the fast emerging working class all over Western Europe in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, a class large and growing in number but living in deep misery.

Early socialism grew as a popular movement with a festive play of ideas. The earliest of the voices were those of Robert Owen (1771-1858), Saint-Simon (1760-1825), Charles Fourier (1772-1837) and Proudhon (1809-65) and many lesser figures. But it was only with Karl Marx (1818-1883) that a general theory of socialism emerged which could rival those of Adam Smith or Ricardo about capitalism. The ideas and prescriptions of these men were very different, but there was a general accent, which was common.

An emphasis on social as against individual, cooperation as against selfishness or egoism, cooperative activity as against competition; they all agreed private ownership and market competition is bad for common good and that in spite of large increases in production, there has been no social progress. Social progress as society-wide happiness can come about only with the removal of the criteria of profit and its replacement by a system of rewards based on moral adequacy of claims.

Robert Owen was the first to use the world Socialist in 1827 in his Cooperative Magazine. He was a self-made Scottish Cotton Manufacturer who believed Industry-Factory could work as the liberator of mankind from poverty and ignorance. This could happen only if, as he showed, production is organized on cooperative principles and not on competition. He carried on many experiments in cooperative organization of production. On a nationwide scale, only the state could do it. He also believed that human nature could be transformed, if environment could be reconstructed.


In this reconstructed environment, education would be a powerful conditioning influence. He also advocated the formation by public authorities of “villages of cooperation” to put the unemployed to work. He looked at cooperation not merely as a better alternative to competition in production, but also a strong advocate of the right to work. He addressed memorials to the heads of states of Europe in 1817 urging them to implement his new proposals so that an ‘age of plenty’ could be ushered in for the human race. His ideas caught the imagination of the working classes in Britain who moved on to build popular movements around his ideas leading eventually to the formation of trade unions which in his times, were considered illegal.

A different socialist vision emerged from Charles Fourier who came from a merchant family made impoverished during the French Revolution. Waste, inefficiency, boredom, and inequality of modern work appalled Fourier. His main interest was in making work pleasant and adjusted to the character of the individual .Therefore, he found division of labor unacceptable because it broke up work into minute repetitive operations. Unlike Robert Owen, he did not believe in the efficacy of big industry. Work should be concentrated in the countryside and small shops in towns where family life can be lived in communities and where all can know each other.

Work can be varied and enjoyable only if competition is eliminated and organized in cooperatives of small producers. Goods should be well crafted and good to look at and made to last. He, therefore, opposed large industry, which he left threatened individuality and the pleasure of work. He was a spokesman of the fast dwindling craft manufactures who conceived and executed work all by themselves, unlike in modern industry where conception and execution of work is separated from each other.

Saint-Simon was, in contrast to Fourier, a man of science, industry and large administration. He was Rousseauian in sprit in that he believed the common man of work to be good, honest and virtuous. He disliked both aristocrats (corrupt) and scholars (arrogant) may be because he came from an impoverished junior branch of an aristocratic family. He was all for people’s causes. He fought in the American War of Independence and strongly supported the French Revolution. Like Owen, he was a great believer in science, technology and industry. The nineteenth century, he foresaw as the era of science and industry from which will follow the unity of mankind and the prosperity of (wo) man.

But in contradiction to his distrust of scholars as arrogant, he believed that social reconstruction should follow the advice of what he called ‘luminaries’- a learned elite. They must work towards the redesigning of social institution with the aim of moral, intellectual and physical improvement of the poorest who also happen to be the most numerous classes in society. In all of this, the state has to play a central role. The state must find work for all because all are capable of and want to work. What made him a socialist was his conviction that there is room only for one class in society, the workers. Wages should be according to one’s capacity to work for the good of society. The non-workers are layouts and should be weeded out. Through state control of education and propaganda, the state should seek to bring about harmony.

Another very important figure among the early socialists was Proudhon. He was the one who explicitly referred to property as theft and also had a very polemical argument with Marx on the nature of property and poverty. He wrote a book called Philosophy of Poverty to which Marx replied with Poverty of Philosophy, pointing to the inadequacies of his philosophical convictions. One central concern of Proudhon was the importance liberty of the ordinary people. He thought that the greatest obstacle in the way of realization of liberty is inequality.

So we can say that equality was sought by Proudhon as a precondition of liberty and in that sense, he is in tune with modern radical ideas. An equalitarian ethos, Proudhon believed, can only be achieved in a classless society, but he shunned the idea of class war for social change. Voluntary agreement of the working people should lead the way towards a classless society. He advocated a nationwide system of decentralized workers cooperatives, which can bargain with one another for mutual exchange of goods and services. At the apex, constituent assemblies of these cooperatives should define the nature of the state, which in effect meant that the bourgeois oppressive state will cease to be.

It is clear from the exposition of the views of the four leading exponents ,there were many lesser ones too, that ‘early socialism’, was not any kind of theory, but a festive play of ideas against capitalism and all that it represented. Many of these ideas are still around us, in different garbs and exercise considerable influence. Marx was both critical and appreciative of these writings on socialism. He critically referred to them as purely “Utopian” in character. What is utopian about these, for Marx? There is, first of all, no conception of “revolutionary action”.

What are the forces within the capitalist society who will fight to replace it and how they will fight? Instead what we have, secondly, is an assortment of vague and diffuse ideas. All the early socialists were special of class struggle waged by the working class. They all talked of, as we have seen above, voluntary agreements, change of heart, propaganda and practical carrying out of social plans, personal inventive actions, small experiments expanding into society-wide activity, even while all agreed that the working class is the most suffering class, but that the entire society be convinced through peaceful means of the need to replace capitalism without distinction of class.

Marx thought that it would be impossible to bring about socialism by such means. But he appreciated the contribution of these writers. He thought that by these “instinctive yearning for the reconstruction” of society, these early thinkers had succeeded in creating an atmosphere in favor of socialism. Moreover, as Marx remarked in the Communist Manifesto, these ideas became ‘valuable materials for enlightenment of the working class’. So Marx’s attitude was one of criticism without being dismissive as happened with many later Marxists.

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