To attempt to paint a full picture of the entire history of socialism in these article would be almost impossible. What I will try to do is summarise the main historical developments. Here, I will start with ‘classic’ socialism, and the advent of the first main socialist philosophers and economists, and how the socialist movement was started.
For most of the world, socialism was the reality for most of history. Those who farmed the land received the products of their toil, and traded their surplus for what they needed, rather than producing exclusively for trade, or for someone else. For most people at the time, their land was their ancestors’ land – this had been the case for as long as anyone could remember. And it was similar all over the world.
The advent of feudalism in Europe and other regions was the first step against this with the creation of serfdom, where villeins were compelled to pay rent to farm land owned by a lord who had been assigned it by the rulers of the realm, in the case of England, the new Norman aristocracy. But there remained popular revolts against the oppression of the peasant class, such as that in England in 1381, where the Revd. John Ball declared that ‘all things must be in common’ and that ‘all men were created equal’. However, serfdom diminished through the feudal era as more villeins became free peasants, who worked on the commons, farmland shared by all the surrounding population of an area. This also created the oppurtunity for a new merchant class to arise, pushing for the peasants to be separated from their land.
Feudalism first began to crash in England, where the war between the mercantile (and to a degree, lower aristocratic) interests of Parliament, and the monarchic and aristocratic interests of the King, took hold in 1642. While the King was defeated, the new regime proved to be just as oppressive, and just as committed to divorcing the peasants from the product of their land. During this time there were many revolts, including that of the Diggers in 1649. Many English left for the New World of North America, where there was a guarantee of land that would be theirs to farm. In England (and later Great Britain, formed by the Act of Union of 1707), the process of divorcing peasants from their land continued, as in the rest of Europe to a lesser degree.
This was the context into which Adam Smith was born in 1723; a government forcing the interests of the new capitalist class onto a resisting population. He campaigned for the end of this, so that there would be a ‘free market’ of goods where all could produce freely.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the American colonists revolted against what they perceived to be unjust taxation from Britain in 1776 to create a free association of various state governments. In the late 1780s, this liberty that they had fought for was violated by the creation of a constitution and national government by those who became known as the Federalists. Anti-federalists like Thomas Jefferson campaigned that this government, if it was needed at all, be banned from the same violent creation of property that had occurred in Europe, but to no avail. Alexander Hamilton’s budget plans were passed and the federal government began the capitalisation of America, which caused some Americans to flee west in search of free land.
For a fuller description of the violent history of the creation of capitalism, see Kevin Carson’s excellent work, The Iron Fist Behind the Invisible Hand: http://www.mutualist.org/id4.html
Back in Europe, France had developed its own answer to Smith and Jefferson. Jean-Jacques Rousseau demanded the abolition of the French monarchy, the democratisation of the French state, and an end to the ‘fencing in’ of land for landlords and capitalists by the aristocratic ruling regime. But Rousseau didn’t live to see the revolution that took hold of France in 1789 caused by the taxing of the peasants (but not the nobility) to fund the King’s foreign exploits and his court’s huge personal extravagances. But a powerful counter-revolution kept France unstable for the best part of the next century.
Into this unstable France came a man with a new idea. Up to now, classical liberals, while opposing property and the state’s creation of it, had continued to endorse the existence of a state – Rousseau rationalising it as a ‘social contract’. But this new idea declared that the state was not necessary at all – that as long as it existed, it would be a tool of a ruling class. The proponent of this idea was called Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. And he called this idea ‘anarchism’, meaning without rulers. But Proudhon’s plans for bringing about anarchy and a return to the commons was not too dissimilar to classical liberalism – he advocated ‘mutual banking’ which he hoped would enable a free market in which capitalism would collapse without state support.
This is the point at which classical liberalism and socialism part ways. The theories of Smith, Jefferson, Ricardo, Mill and others, were appropriated by the propertarian ideology of the new capitalist class – eventually emerging as the ‘neoliberalism’ of Milton Friedman and the ‘Austrian School’ of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek.
While he remained admired in the socialist movement, Proudhon’s theories of socialism through mutual banks became discredited by socialists, but his idea of abolishing the state remained. In 1871, Paris revolted in France’s fourth revolution since 1788. In the international socialist Hague Congress, the members polarised around two camps, each representing one of the two major socialist figures of the time – Mikhail Bakunin and Karl Marx. Both were influenced by Proudhon, but both had abandoned his road to socialism, and adopted the cause of socialism (and in Marx’s case, a new idea, communism) through revolution. While both agreed with Proudhon that the state should be abolished, Bakunin argued that this should be done in the revolution and as soon as possible. Marx wanted a more gradual approach – that the revolution would not lead to an instant stateless society, but to a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in which the state would gradually ‘wither away’. They also differed on conventional politics. Marx argued that it was fine to form parties and seek political power, whereas Bakunin saw it as either futile or potentially corrupting.
Five years earlier, in 1867, Marx had completed the first volume of his all-encompassing analysis of economics, markets, and capitalism. He named it Das Kapital, or ‘Capital’ in English. It remains probably the greatest analysis of economics in history, and was so monumental that volumes 2 and 3 were not published until Marx’s lifelong friend Friedrich Engels published them after Marx’s death. And to cap it all, Marx had prepared notes for writing volumes 4 and 5 as well!
Thank you for reading, and watch this space for Part 2: Struggle and Revolution.