Study Guide

Socialism

Socialism Essay - Critical Essays

Socialism

Introduction

Socialism

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.)