Socialism Critical Essays

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).