Socialism, in all its forms, arises in reaction to private property, to
exploitation of the poor, and to gross inequalities—the disparity
between rich and poor. In short, socialism arises in reaction to
As Kolakowski writes in his classic history of Marxism:
Socialism arises with "the conviction that
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 organisation 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."
Socialism also reacts to liberalism and its emphasis on the individual.
Socialists favor equality over liberty , as Kolakowski’s quotation
indicates, and community over individuality . But does this emphasis
on group or community place it on the side of conservatism? No, for
socialists oppose hierarchy and are on the side of society atlarge over
particular groups like a guild or parish. It is socialist citizenship that is
more important than membership in specific associations, the “little
platoons,” which of course conservatives support.
But the main focus for emerging socialism is on the social ills
produced by capitalism:
What were the working conditions like in the early days of factory
labor, in England, say, in the 1820's?
In 1828 a radical magazine, The Lion, published the story of Robert
Blincoe, one of eighty impoverished children sent off to work in a
factory at Lowdham. Everyday Robert and other boys and girlsall
about 10 years oldwere whipped night and day, not only when they
were bad, but also when they failed to work hard enough.
1 At the factory at Litton, to which Blincoe was transferred, the
conditions were even worse. The children scrambled with the pigs for
the slop in the trough; they were kicked and punched and raped; their
employer—one Ellice Needham—had the disgusting habit of pinching
the children's ears until his nails met through the flesh. The children
were practically naked and wore the same clothes summer and winter.
For sheer grotesque pleasure, the children's teeth were filed down.
Without question this kind of brutality was the exception. But still it
went on, and less intense variations went on all the time. These
sensationalist stories—well documented; read, for example, Jack
London’s People of the Abyss —illustrate that such callous inhumanity
was accepted as natural, as part of the price to be paid for consumer
What caused these conditions? According to socialists, it was
competition . Competition required stiff measures, so regardless of
treatment, good or bad, everyone worked a sixteen hour day: getting
to work by 6 AM and heading home at 10 PM.
Socialists were those who wanted to do something about these
deplorable conditions. All socialists, whatever their stripes, believed—
and believe—that greater equality will lead to more cooperation
than competition, that this greater cooperation will in turn enhance
greater fraternity/community and thus liberate men and women
from inhibitions, restrictions, and exploitation thus making them fully
productive and creative persons and fulfilled individuals.
We shall discuss two main varieties of socialism: "utopian socialism "
or what we might call "socialism before Marx" and "scientific
socialism " or "Marxism." In this unit we shall focus on utopian
But ALL socialists have the same essential impulses:
1. a passion for equality or egalitarianism. How that is defined
changes from socialist thinker to socialist thinker and from era to era,
but it is the central value for socialists, just as liberty is central for
But don't liberals have equality? Yes, but it is political equality
or equal rights. That translates into equality before the law. Liberals
want to treat people equally; socialists want to make people more
Therefore, socialists wish to extend justice beyond political and
legal areas into economic and social areas. In the famous Marxist
2 formulation, society should receive "from each according to his
ability," and should give "to each according to his need." Thus not
everyone would be treated completely equally, an idea learned from
This vision of equality, sometimes called equality of conditions ,
contrasted with the liberal notion of equality of opportunity , which
implies that everyone should have a chance to compete for scarce
resources, but that once the competition is underway, winners will
claim their rewards and losers must make it on their own.
If we imagine life to be like a horse race around a track, then
liberals are those who want to guarantee that everyone can make it
into the starting gate, but once the race is underway, it is everyone for
him/herself. This view of equality of opportunity is sometimes called
the “starting gate” theory .
Equality of conditions, on the other hand, is to assure that everyone
has a good chance of finishing the race more or less at the same time.
That is not to say that everyone must finish at exactly the same time,
but the times should be close. Every runner should have the
wherewithal to run well. So some people in society, those who make a
lot of money, will have to pay higher taxes to help those who might be
given food stamps or a government supplied job. This is why, to make
a horserace fair, some jockeys must carry weights in their saddles.
When a socialist argues that everyone should finish the race at the
same time, that all should be equal in this strong sense, then this
equality is called equality of result that is, all should end up with
the same. BUT THIS IS NOT THE NORM FOR SOCIALISTS; NOT MANY
ARGUED FOR EQUALITY OF RESULT.
Socialist equality is also contrasted with the conservative vision of a
natural hierarchy of status and ability. To attempt a move toward
equality, thought the conservatives, is to go against nature and to do
2. an aversion to private property , whether in the form of land,
commerce, or industry; "property is theft" said the French socialist
Proudhon. Equality, many socialists believe, cannot come about
without the abolition of private property.
Once private property has been eliminated, then the community
will own the means of production the factories, land, machinery,
everything necessary to produce.
3 Socialists, following Rousseau, did NOT think that all property had to
be appropriated; only productive assets things necessary as means
of production and not all personal possessions had to be communally
owned. So people can still own their own furniture, cars, houses,
clothes, etc. Here is an example of equality of conditions vs. equality
of result. Equality of conditions means that some can own more than
others, but not in vital, profitmaking, or productive assets, only in
personal possessions. One holding to equality of result would even
want to regulate or control personal possessions to assure that no one
had more than anyone else.
3. This passion for collective ownership , the common ownership of
wealth and the means of production, derives from the utopian
socialists' thinking that men were by nature mutually cooperative but
socially corrupted. If they owned what they worked on, they would
get along and work better. So here socialists emphasize cooperation,
4. A belief in the solidarity of social life . Men were by nature social
creatures; they were not individualistic or selfish or utilitarian. The
supreme value was community, not selfinterest or competition.
This emphasis on community values is at some distance from
the liberal emphasis on the individual. Socialists criticize the idea that
men are born into a state of nature with certain rights and liberties.
Men are creatures of their environments. They cannot be understood
and cannot understand themselves except through reference to the
kind of society they were raised in and the kinds of associations and
relationships they are involved in.
So the socialist conception of human nature that man is
naturally socialdiffers completely from the Hobbesian view of the
greedy and aggressive man or the liberal view of the independent,
isolated man. It also contrasts with the conservative view that
humans are irrational, selfish, fallen, and to some extent evil.
5. an aversion to poverty . Poverty is seen as the chief cause of
oppression. The paradox of capitalism that angered early socialists
was that workers could not afford to purchase the very products that
they as workers produced.
When the community owns and controls production, then no
member of the community will be poor. Every member of that
community is an owner, will have a job, and will have income. Poverty
will be abolished through collective ownership.
4 Our concern in this Unit, as said earlier, is not with the scientific or
Marxist version of socialism, which we shall take up in Unit 7, but with
the earlier, utopian versions of socialism. Utopian socialists are united
on these five impulses, but disagreed on how to realize their socialist
To see the beginning of socialism, we must return to the French
The French Revolution
The French Revolution is often considered to be at the center of the
movement for human rights. This claim rests on the focus during the
Revolution on reason and the individual.
But the history of the Revolution also shows a suspension, if not
the elimination, of human rights and the substitution of the
community, nation, and state over the individual.
Thomas Jefferson's influence is partly responsible for the liberal
aspects of the Revolution; JeanJacques Rousseau's, for the socialistic
aspects. Both influences can be found in the great document of the
Revolution: the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen .
Many today still look to this document as a source for arguments
justifying human rights. But the document has essential elements
that are anything but liberal.
The person who prepared the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of
the Citizen and presented it to the French Assembly was the Marquis
de Lafayette the hero of the American Revolution. One of his closest
advisers was Thomas Jefferson, who was serving as Ambassador to
Yet the purely French influence comes from Rousseau and relates to
the suspension of rights . The inspiration was found in Rousseau’s The
Social Contract , as interpreted by Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes, known as
the Abbe Sieyes.
Sieyes thought that the American Declaration of
Independence clung to an old image of power and its limitations.
Sieyes argued that there is onl power, one authority. That is the
nation . So he wrote into the final version of the Declaration of the
Rights of Man and of the Citizen two articles:
Article 3: "The source of all sovereignty resides essentially in the
nation: no group, no individual may exercise authority not emanating
5 Article 6: "Law is the expression of the General Will; all citizens have
the right to concur personally or through their representatives in its
formation. The law must be the same for all; whether it protects or
These articles may sound innocent, but they were not. The first
meant that authority was embedded in the nation. But how does a
nation express and exercise authority? WHO SPEAKS FOR THE
The second meant that anyone judged to be in opposition to the
general will was an outlaw. Outlaws had no rights of any kind. And
who was to make such judgments as to who was and was not an
Maximilien Robespierre , the head of the Jacobin Committee on Public
Safety, considered himself, and became, the voice of the nation. His
committee decided what was the public good, the general will. And
so, following Article 3, he could have beheaded an aristocrat like Louis
Capet (king Louis XVI) without even thinking it manslaughter or
murder. The king was an outlaw and thus without any rights.
To be consonant with Article 3, Robespierre argued that his
interpretations did indeed emanate from the nation. His voice
expressed the will of the people, of the nation.
Is it strange that such an interpretation could arise in France?
Remember the power of the French King: All rights flowed from him;
his agents controlled all the power. Robespierre was really nothing
but a new kind of king—same power, different face. Marx, later in this
course, will offer one explanation for how this could happen.
Further result: The centralized government grows at the
expense of local control of the people. As the central government
grows, those institutions that express the people's concerns
churches, guilds, even the familyare left out of power. This,
remember, is a concern of Burke.
French liberal theorists were not as concerned as Hobbes and Locke
with the foundations of legitimate government. They were concerned
with the more practical and immediate matter of how power could be
wrested, seized, from powerful monarchs.
Thus the whole tradition in France pointed to absolute power.
Remember that in France absolute power first resided in the king, so
passing absolute power to Robespierre was something of a tradition.
[Would Burke have applauded the perpetuation of that tradition?
Why? Why not?]
6 But absolute power after the Revolution resided not in the person of a
king but in the abstract collective of the people or the nation whose
embodiment was Robespierre. An abstract collective like "the people"
or the nation is too removed and vague to operate politically with any
efficacy. Thus Robespierre embodies the nation in himself and
thereby becomes a kind of leviathan.
YET THE IMPORTANT POINT IS THAT THE JUSTIFICATION FOR THIS
ABSOLUTE POWER WAS NOT THE ABILITIES OR RIGHTS OF ONE MAN,
BUT THAT THE COLLECTIVITY OF THE PEOPLE, SPEAKING IN ONE
VOICE, NEEDED ONE SPEAKER TO GIVE IT VOICE.
THAT WAS ROBESPIERRE.
The people are united. The people are one and are possessed, like an
individual, with a single will. That will needed to be interpreted, and
the interpreter was Robespierre. If some were out of step with his
interpretation, then they were opponents of that single will, were
enemies of the people. Then it was his duty to destroy them. Hence
THE TERRORthe execution of the aristocracy and enemies of the
state, even if they happened to be Jacobins.
Terrorism , so important a concept today, is the intentional targeting
of civilians as a way of undermining the people’s confidence in their
political leaders and the policies of those leaders . Thus terrorism is a
political tactic and not simply a form of criminal behavior. Keep in
mind that the term “terrorism” was not widely used until the
nineteenth century, in reference to the acts and practices of
anarchists who employed assassination, murder, and bombing to call
attention to and try to alter capitalist programs that they saw as
favoring the few at the expense of the many. (We shall consider
terrorism in more detail in the final Unit.)
In the context of the French Revolution terrorism was used against the
aristocracy, whom many believed were far from innocent but many of
whom were not agents of the state and so were civilians. But the
intent was also to impress on the people that anyone, at any time,
could be considered an enemy of the people and executed…including
Robespierre himself. The point was not just to execute enemies of the
state. It was also to impress on the people the folly of following the
policies, plans, and ideas of the aristocracy, who were corrupt. The
result was a reign of terror that cowed the population and solidified,
for a time, the power of the Committee on Public Safety and
Robespierre. Terror succeeded in creating an atmosphere of fear and,
unwanted by Robespierre, instability.
7 Many writers and intellectuals had thought that the French Revolution
would bring forth the new order of equality, liberty, and fraternity;
Liberte, egalite, fraternite was the principal motto of the Revolution.
But the ideas of this new order were equally applicable to the Terror
and to oppression by Robespierre as to democracy and equality.
The terror is nothing but justice...it is an emanation
of virtue; it is less a special principle than a
consequence of the general principle of democracy
applied to the most pressing needs of our country.
Those who did not agree with Robespierre and his Committee on
Public Safety were obviously enemies of the Revolution and of the new
order. They would have to be brought into line, either through
indoctrination or through the ultimate liberation execution. The
Single Will must prevail, and its interpreter was Robespierre.
The Jacobins looked at England and found it to be a country without a
guiding principle, without a Single Will. It was a country with severe
class distinctions, horrible poverty, inequality, and nothing to hold the
nation together but competing selfish interests and a hodge podge of
irrational habits and obsolete customs.
How, the revolutionaries asked, could France attain harmony and
social solidarity? Their answer: eliminate competing selfish interests.
Robespierre sought to bring harmony by bringing unanimity. Clearly if
all agree on a topic, all are in harmony on what to do. But the
ignorant people and the corrupt the aristocracy do not know what
they really want, what is really or truly good for them. So they must
defer to those who do know. Those would be the Jacobins, actually
the Committee on Public Safety, actually the leader of them all
Robespierre. He would interpret what was in the best interests of the
The revolution was the trigger for ideas and movements dedicated to
egalitarian and libertarian societies, but the revolution was not their
realization. In other words, the revolution failed to deliver the kinds of
equality and justice that many sought. They would have to devise
other means and other expressions to realize those ideals. Some of
those other means and expressions constitute the body of ideology
known as utopian socialism.
8 Utopian socialism
The French Revolution thus represented a great watershed: It was of
great significance both for those who feared its results and what it
could mean and for those who longed for a better example of what
such revolutionary changes could bring about.
Those who feared it were conservatives
like Burke; those who favored it but wanted something different or
something more were socialists, utopian socialists.
Utopian socialism arises in reaction to capitalism and opposes both
conservatism and the excesses of the liberalism of the French
The utopian argued against the liberal emphasis on
1) the individual and
2) on private property,
but not necessarily against reason.
And the utopian socialists argued against the conservative view of
human nature as one that is fixed. Socialists didn’t see human nature
as fixed, but they did accept something like Burke’s idea about the
importance of social influences on character. But where Burke
thought that a certain kind of social order prevented base human
nature from expressing itself, utopian socialists believed that the
proper social conditions could actually reform, reshape, and even
create a new kind of person. The societies socialists have in mind are
thus radically different from the societies of conservatives. Utopian
socialists see society helping to change peoples' basic traits
The utopian socialists had learned from Rousseau that it was not all
forms of private property that were evilnot all property was theft.
Only property based on interest, rent, and profits that was held only
to make money was theft. Personal property, used by families for
their own use, acquired by people's own labor, was acceptable private
9 Change is what utopian socialism was all about. All wanted an end to
competition and inequality, to exploitation of the working man, and to
excessive profiteering. But how to achieve this ? This is where they
But they agreed that a change in social circumstances would result in
creating new men and new women, citizens with energy, verve, and
All agreed on the power of education for effecting positive change;
and all were social engineers , trying to create the proper conditions
and proper social organization so that humans could attain perfection,
both morally and materially.
PERFECTION WAS THEIR GOAL, OF INDIVIDUALS AND SOCIETY. A
PROPERLY ORDERED SOCIETY WOULD PRODUCE PERFECTLY
FULFILLED AND DEVELOPED PERSONS.
To achieve this, the utopian socialists became social engineers.
What we shall see in most utopian socialism is a set of values built
around cooperation, decentralization, and workers' control. This
• the social rather than the selfish,
•the community rather than the individual,
• strict social controls on the accumulation and use of
private property rather than laissez faire, and
• either economic equality or at least rewards distributed
according to merit or according to need.
These early socialists did not believe that violent revolution was the
way to bring lasting change. They believed that one of the central
lessons of the French Revolution had been that the path of violence
Utopian socialists, while opposing revolution as a way to social
change, differed on how precisely to achieve their socialist results;
they divided especially over whether the political power should be
centralized or decentralized .
10 But early socialism was also marked by a host of bizarre characters
who proposed sometimes crazy social schemes for overcoming the
evils of capitalism. These characters and their ideas give us the
adjective "utopian." But not all of them were cranks. Some, such as
the three we shall study, offered insights into the place and
importance of equality in politics and society.
11 ROBERT OWEN
Robert Owen, "the benevolent Mr. Owen of New Lanark," as he was
called, was a man who from scratch became a great and wealthy
capitalist and who as a capitalist became a violent opponent of private
property. He not only advocated benevolence towards workers
because it would pay off, but also urged the abolition of money.
Robert Owen was born into poverty in Wales in 1771. He left school at
the age of nine and became an apprentice to a linen draper. But by
18 he had decided to go to Manchester, and there, on the strength of
£100 he had borrowed from his brother, he set up a small company
manufacturing textile machines.
At age 20 he became the wonder of the textile world. One Mr.
Drinkwater, the owner of a large spinning company, hired Owen as his
factory manager. Within six months Drinkwater's company was so
prosperous that he offered Owen a quarter interest in the entire
business. This was only the beginning of a lucrative career.
A few years later Owen heard that a set of rundown mills was for sell
in New Lanark , a Scottish village about a day's journey from
Glasgow. Owen, who had lots of ideas for running mills, borrowed the
capital and bought the mills.
Within 10 years New Lanark was worldfamous, having received
over 25,000 visitors from across the globe, including Czar Nicholas I of
Russia. And by then New Lanark had made Owen a fortune of at least
Owen saw New Lanark as an opportunity to test out his theories for
advancing humanity as a whole. He was convinced that the
environment shaped human character, and that if the environment
was changed, a true paradise on earth could be attained.
He established a) good working conditions, b) increased workers'
wages, and c) shared profits with them. The streets of New Lanark
were tidy, as were the houses. Every working family lived in two
room houses—then unheard of; there were no children in the
factories; they were instead in the schoolhouse studying, singing, and
dancing. NO child's questions were ever unanswered, and corporal
punishment was never inflicted.
In the factory workers worked a short 10 and 3/4 hour day;
there was no punishment, and the manager's door was always open to
anyone who had a complaint.
12 Indeed, New Lanark was the basis of much of the early thinking, liberal
and socialist, about a welfare state. He showed that squalor and
abuse were not the only outcome of capitalist enterprise.
It is important to note that Owen was not philosophically
opposed to capitalism, but was opposed to the results of unbridled
competition and greed.
What made all of this work, argued Owen, was not simply better living
and working conditions, but also the system of character formation.
This system was based on "the voice of Reason," as Owen called it.
Reason was Owen's reason—he required that all submit to his wise
commands. Thus he established New Lanark as a model of
enlightened paternalism . What he said was the rule, but it was all
done for the good of the workers.
Owen's business was such a success that a committee formed by the
Dukes of York and Kent looking into social distress asked him to
present his views on how to overcome poverty.
Owen argued that the solution to poverty lay in making the poor
productive. To this end he advocated forming "Villages of
Cooperation " in which 800 to 1200 persons would work together on
farm and in factory to form a selfsustaining unit. The families would
live in houses with each family in a private apartment but sharing
common sitting rooms, reading rooms, and kitchens.
Children from the age of three would be in local boarding schools,
away from their parent, to be assured of an education that would mold
their characters properly. Parents, who were mostly workers from
inner city factories, could not be trusted with impressing upon their
young those ideas essential to strong moral character. Parents
operated with too many false ideas, and they were not sufficiently
trained to be reasonable.
Around the school would be gardens that the children would tend, and
around those schools would be fields where older children would grow
crops. Finally, when young adults, they would move into the village's
cooperative farms and factories.
The villages would be far removed from the corrupting influences of
the working class environment. They would have rural factories. It
was the social environment, more specifically urban industry, that had
corrupted people. Owen knew firsthand the horrors of factory life and
the way it degraded the men, women, and children who were trapped
13 Persons, thought Owen, were by nature loving and good. They were
also rational if they could just be instructed in the correct association
of ideas. The ideas to be presented, of course, were his. Remember,
his is a system of enlightened paternalism in which workers who have
never been asked to think for themselves cannot be expected to know
how to live productive, virtuous lives when left to their own devices.
Thus Owen would train them properly. Because parents who had
worked all their lives in the factories and on the farms owned and
operated by exploitative capitalists could not be expected or trusted
to instill in their children the proper ideas, Owen HAD to separate the
children from the parents.
Most of the Dukes’ committee members were not surprised by Owen's
suggestions—he did have a reputation by then—but th