Socialism Essay - Critical Essays




First used in the early 1830s, the word socialism denotes a political, social, and economic doctrine in which property is controlled and distributed by the community or state. With its origins in utopian and Marxist thought, socialism is generally considered a political ideal and a largely unrealizable system, despite the fact that numerous governments and other political organizations have employed the term in various designations. Although socialism exists principally as an abstract idea, it has been treated frequently in both late nineteenth-century literature and in applied political philosophy of the era. Among the seminal theorists of socialism were French thinkers François Marie Charles Fourier and Henri de Saint-Simon, and the British utopian Robert Owen. These three outlined many of the principal tenets of the doctrine as well as their possible practical applications. Fourier proposed a system of small economic units called phalanstère, or phalanxes, in which individuals of various social classes would work in harmony for the benefit of the community at large. Saint-Simon's socialist plans included an emphasis on industrialization and technological discovery—as well as on Christian solidarity—for the greater good of all members of society. A more thoroughly practical thinker than his French counterparts, Owen was instrumental in organizing British labor to form the first trade unions in 1833, and sought to expand the international cooperative movement which he believed could counter the prevailing system of capitalist competition.

Arising from the theories of Fourier, Saint-Simon, Owen, and numerous other advocates of socialism—including the Frenchman Louis Blanc and the German-American Laurence Gronlund—the social fiction of the nineteenth century in France and Britain, and later in America and other parts of Europe, frequently emphasized the importance of these new and radical perceptions of society. Under the influence of Owen's ideas, the French writer Étienne Cabet in his 1839 novel Voyage en Icarie offered a utopian look at a harmonious community formed under socialism. In the United States, Edward Bellamy in his Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888) presented a utopian-socialist vision of a future America in which the pressing problems of labor and the unequal distribution of wealth had been addressed. Like Cabet's work, Looking Backward did much to spread socialist concepts to a large audience, and spawned a popular appreciation of the movement.

The mantle of progressive socialism was also adopted by a number of feminist writers who saw in the movement a potential to remove substantial barriers of gender inequality in addition to those class distinctions that male socialists generally sought to overthrow. British novelist Emma Brooke's Transition (1895) reveals both the strategies and weaknesses of a socialist reorganization of a society, while Clementina Black's An Agitator (1894) presents the problems associated with organizing the working-class in late nineteenth-century England. Florence Dixie's Gloriana; or, the Revolution of 1900 (1890) imagines a combined triumph of socialism and feminism that ends the exploitation of women and the working-class. Additionally, critics have perceived a less radical but substantial element of socialist-feminism in male writing, including William Morris's well-known utopian work News from Nowhere (1891).

Representative Works

Edward Bellamy
Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (novel) 1888

Clementina Black
An Agitator (novel) 1894

Louis Blanc
Histoire de dix ans. 5 vols. (political philosophy) 1841-44

Emma Brooke
Transition (novel) 1895

Étienne Cabet
Voyage en Icarie (novel) 1839

Jane Clapperton
Margaret Dunmore: Or, A Socialist Home (novel) 1888

Gertrude Dix
The Image Breakers (novel) 1900

Florence Dixie
Gloriana; or, The Revolution of 1900 (novel) 1890

François Marie Charles Fourier
Théorie des quatre mouvements et des destinées générales (political philosophy) 1808

Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Herland (novel) 1915

George Gissing
Demos: A Story of English Socialism. (novel) 1886

Laurence Gronlund
The Co-operative Commonwealth in its Outlines. An Exposition of Modern Socialism (political philosophy) 1884

Constance Howell
A More Excellent Way (novel) 1888

Mary E. Bradley Lane
Mizora: A Prophecy (novel) 1890

William Morris
Tale of the House of the Wolfings and All the Kindreds of the Mark, Written in Prose and Verse (novel) 1889
The Roots of the Mountains Wherein is Told Somewhat of the Lives of the Men of Burgdale, Their Friends, Their Neighbors, Their Foemen, and Their Fellows in Arms (novel) 1890
News from Nowhere (novel) 1890

Robert Owen
Book of the New Moral World. 7 vols. (political philosophy) 1826-1844

Henri de Saint-Simon
Le nouveau Christianisme [The New Christianity] (philosophy) 1825

Criticism: Origins

André Reszler (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: “Bakunin, Marx and the Aesthetic Heritage of Socialism,” in Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature, No. 22, 1973, pp. 42-50.

[In the following essay, Reszler probes the origins of socialist aesthetic theory.]

The study of the socialist vision of art as revealed in the thoughts of Michael Bakunin and Karl Marx—philosophers whose lives and works have long since become the symbols of the schism in the revolutionary socialist movement—is founded on the existence of two distinct socialist aesthetics: the first is based on the anarchist cult of the limitless creativity of man; the second on the dialectic interpretation of artistic creations, or,...

(The entire section is 5910 words.)

Carl Boggs (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “The Marxist Origins: From Theory to Politics,” in The Socialist Tradition: From Crisis to Decline, Routledge, 1995, pp. 23-56.

[In the following excerpt, Boggs traces the sources of socialism in Marxist thought.]

The modern concepts of democracy and socialism have their origins in the late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century discourses of classical liberalism, utopianism, and early Marxism. As an outgrowth of the French and American Revolutions, along with the industrial and technological transformations sweeping Europe and North America, democracy and socialism symbolized a break with the past: the ancien régime, feudalism, Church hegemony, rigid...

(The entire section is 5893 words.)

Criticism: French Socialism

Leo A. Loubère (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: “The Philosopher of Socialism,” in Louis Blanc: His Life and His Contribution to the Rise of French Jacobin-Socialism, Northwestern University Press, 1961, pp. 31-48.

[In the following essay, Loubère details the socialist thought of Louis Blanc.]


Louis Blanc convinced himself that it was possible to achieve broad reform without resorting to a Reign of Terror. One had merely to describe social evils to move men's hearts and then to explain the means of erasing such evils to inspire their reason. With this self-granted mandate in mind he put forth a socialist program intended to complement his political ideas. It appeared first in...

(The entire section is 8581 words.)

James W. Brown (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “Alimentary Discourse in Nineteenth-Century Social Theory: Pierre Leroux, Etienne Cabet and Charles Fourier,” in Dalhousie French Studies, Vol. 11, Fall, 1986, pp. 72-95.

[In the following essay, Brown explores the significance of food and gastronomy in the thought of three French socialist theorists—Pierre Leroux, Etienne Cabet, and Charles Fourier.]

The years 1825-1848 witnessed the rise of Socialist thought in France and, concomitantly, many writers and novelists explored social themes in their works. Several influences contributed to the climate of these years, particularly the ideologies of social commentators such as Fourier, Saint-Simon and...

(The entire section is 9202 words.)

Peter Augustine Lawler (essay date 1993-1994)

SOURCE: “Tocqueville on Socialism and History,” in Interpretation, Vol. 21, No. 2, Winter, 1993-1994, pp. 181-99.

[In the following essay, Lawler elucidates Alexis de Tocqueville's view of—and opposition to—socialism.]

My purpose here is to consider Tocqueville's understanding of socialism. It may well be the case that the authority of Tocqueville has never been stronger than it is today, while the authority of socialism is weaker now than it has been since the time of Tocqueville. As a political actor, Tocqueville opposed socialism. He also did so as a political theorist, but with an appreciation of its greatness and the theoretical strength of its challenge....

(The entire section is 8879 words.)

Criticism: Anglo-American Socialism

Alexander Gray (essay date 1946)

SOURCE: “Robert Owen,” in The Socialist Tradition: Moses to Lenin, Longmans, Green and Co., 1946, pp. 197-217.

[In the following essay, Gray considers the life and thought of British socialist Robert Owen.]

Among that queer bunch of visionary and Utopian socialists, to whom in some undefined proportion is usually ascribed the paternity of socialism, Robert Owen (1771-1858) presents some strange contrasts to his nearest bed-fellows. Saint-Simon had been an aristocrat, always conscious of the fact. Fourier, if we look at his drab life in the cold light of dawn, had been at best an unsuccessful commercial traveller. Godwin, to go further back, was obviously, in the...

(The entire section is 10278 words.)

P. E. Maher (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: “Laurence Gronlund: Contributions to American Socialism,” in The Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 15, 1962, pp. 618-24.

[In the following essay, Maher describes the influence of the largely neglected thinker, Laurence Gronlund, on nineteenth-century American socialism.]

Laurence Gronlund is responsible for three significant contributions to American socialism: first, a theoretical adaptation of German socialism to the American milieu; second, a substantial influence on Edward Bellamy; and, third, an effective criticism of the theories of Henry George. Although assessed as one of the most influential advocates of socialism in the late nineteenth...

(The entire section is 3222 words.)

Milton Cantor (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “The Backward Look of Bellamy's Socialism,” in Looking Backward, 1988-1888: Essays on Edward Bellamy, edited by Daphne Patai, The University of Massachusetts Press, 1988, pp. 21-36.

[In the following essay, Cantor observes Edward Bellamy's “insular, parochial, Christian, uniquely nineteenth-century American” socialism.]

Edward Bellamy, born in 1850 of a long line of Connecticut and Vermont ancestors, was the frail and precocious son of a New England country parson in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts. The father, a Baptist minister, was amiable, indolent, good-natured, of a more liberal religious bent than his strong-willed wife. Maria Bellamy was a...

(The entire section is 6267 words.)

Criticism: Socialist-Feminism

Barbara Taylor (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “Feminist Socialists: Some Portraits,” in Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the Nineteenth Century, Harvard University Press, 1993, pp. 57-82.

[In the following essay, first published in 1983, Taylor surveys the principal nineteenth-century feminist proponents of Robert Owen's socialist thought.]

Until the late 1820s, adherence to Owenite views was almost entirely confined to a small number of radical intellectuals. But in the 1830s and 1840s support for the New Science of Society mushroomed. ‘Little knots of Socialists appeared in almost every part of the country,’ one journalist on The Whitehaven Herald observed in 1842,...

(The entire section is 12982 words.)

Florence S. Boos (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “An (Almost) Egalitarian Sage: William Morris and Nineteenth-Century Socialist-Feminism,” in Victorian Sages and Cultural Discourse: Renegotiating Gender and Power, edited by Thaïs E. Morgan, Rutgers University Press, 1990, pp. 187-206.

[In the following essay, Boos investigates the socialist-feminist element in William Morris's writing.]

In the last decade of his life, William Morris developed a sage voice of “fellowship” in works whose most memorable protagonists are outsiders: a working-class revolutionary; a soon-to-be-martyred visionary priest; two “guests” who are displaced from their physical and temporal origins; and two young women who...

(The entire section is 9931 words.)

Ann Ardis (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “‘The Journey from Fantasy to Politics’: The Representation of Socialism and Feminism in Gloriana and The Image-Breakers,” in Rediscovering Forgotten Radicals: British Women Writers, 1889-1939, edited by Angela Ingram and Daphne Patai, The University of North Carolina Press, 1993, pp. 43-56.

[In the following essay, Ardis evaluates the relationship between turn-of-the-century British feminism and socialism by examining the novels of Lady Florence Dixie and Gertrude Dix.]

In British Socialists: The Journey from Fantasy to Politics, Stanley Pierson describes the transformation of British socialism between 1880 and 1910 as a journey...

(The entire section is 5820 words.)

Further Reading


Boos, Florence. “Morris's German Romances as Socialist History.” Victorian Studies 27, No. 3 (Spring 1984): 321-42.

Studies William Morris's “imaginative reconstructions of a proto-socialist past,” including The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains—works that anticipate the ideal vision of Morris's News from Nowhere.

——— and William Boos. “News From Nowhere and Victorian Socialist-Feminism.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 14, No. 1 (1990): 3-32.

Interprets News from Nowhereas “a high-point of Morris's projections of sexual equality.”...

(The entire section is 416 words.)