At a time when American politics is so deeply divided, it seems so few understand where the dialogues taking place right now began. What our grandparents were so afraid of, the invasion of Socialist and Communist thought into the American landscape, has come about. We are no longer a nation of Republicans and Democrats, but instead a nation of nationalist and socialist ideologues.
Where Ted Cruz espouses a theocracy with himself as God’s prophetic proxy-king, Donald Trump articulates a dismissive form of nationalism that simplifies key issues, seeking to “make America great again.”Evasive on explanation, Trump continues to rely on the anger and disenchantment of voters who want to evict “foreigners” for a pure “American” America without recognizing the history which would challenge such a category.
To understand where we now find American voters, we must understand both nationalism and socialism. We must understand not just American history, but the history of ideas and how our political landscape has been shaped by movements and the pursuit of greatness.
Please also see the article on Nationalism here.
As a modern political movement, socialism arose in the early and middle decades of the nineteenth century. As an idea, it can be discerned much earlier in mythic, philosophic, and theological thought. In the simplest sense, socialism amounts to a belief that all producers ought to share equally in the fruits of combined labor.
On a deeper level, socialism is more than an economic formula, and even more than a prescription for justice. It is an expression of faith in the capacity of the mass of mankind to overcome what is thought of as an alienation or estrangement from its own essential nature, which socialists contend is far more creative, pacific, and altruistic than actual experience might indicate. Until comparatively recently, this faith was usually circumscribed by an oppressive awareness of the constraints, both natural and artificial, preventing or distorting the expression of true humanity. Material scarcity and moral weakness were held to require and even to justify social systems in which inequality and hierarchy were assumed to be synonyms of order. All egalitarian alternatives were likely to be dismissed as impractical. Equality was thought of as a standard that may once have had bearing in the remote past, or that might apply in the distant future, but that could have no great relevance to present conditions, except as an invitation to chaos. Because it was treated as an impractical ideal, the idea of equality remained vague and undifferentiated, a catch-all for panaceas of every description, and an easy target for skeptics. Socialism was for a long time one facet of this relatively amorphous ideal, evident in romantic evocations of primitive innocence, in millenarian prophecies of future perfection, in the more radical theologies of the Protestant Reformation, in secular utopias, and in some of the social criticism of the French Enlightenment.
In the nineteenth century these intimations were transformed into elaborate arguments for social change taking essentially two forms. One view held that cooperative communities are within the realm of possibility, provided they are constructed with careful attention to individual and social needs. The other, put forward by Karl Marx, conceived of socialism as a stage of historical development, destined to be achieved after a worldwide revolution by the working class against private property and those who benefit from it. In this view, the ideal community cannot be planned in advance and put into operation regardless of historical conditions; it must arise out of revolutionary activity and will be successful only when historically appropriate. This distinction between socialism as a theory of the planned community and socialism as the outcome of an historically determined revolution, starkly clear in the nineteenth century, was adumbrated even earlier, but overshadowed by the tendency to think of socialism in all its forms as an impossible phantasy.
The first traces of socialism appear in the lament for a lost “Golden Age,” a common theme in antiquity. Greek myths, recorded as early as the eighth century B.C. and derived from an even older oral tradition, recall an original state—the Age of Cronus—when all shared equally in the common lot, private property was unknown, and peace and harmony reigned undisturbed. These myths, as Lovejoy and Boas point out, describe either a “soft” or a “hard” primitivism: some depict a time of abundance and luxury in which human labor is unnecessary because the earth produces its bounty spontaneously; others depict a time of simple needs and satisfactions. Poetic renderings contrast the innocence of the original conditions with the degeneracy of actual society. The Golden Age, so the accepted interpretation ran, “was enjoyed by a different breed of mortals, in a different condition of the world and (in one version) under different gods, and no practical moral could therefore consistently be drawn from it for the guidance of the present race. It was by implication irrecoverable, at least by men’s own efforts” (Lovejoy and Boas, Primitivism, p. 16).
The same melancholy reflection takes philosophic form in the Platonic dialogues. In the Laws the “Athenian Stranger,” who seems to express Plato’s own view, pays tribute to the ancient ideal: “The first and highest form of the state [polis] and of the government and of the law is that in which there prevails most widely the ancient saying, that ‘Friends have all things in common” (Laws 739, trans. B. Jowett). Although such perfection is beyond revival, he adds, no better system could be conceived. In the Republic, however, Socrates is represented as believing that even in an ideal society communism could be a way of life only for a moral and intellectual elite. The superior philosophic capacity of the guardians or rulers would enable them to ignore the demands of appetite; their role would require that they be disinterested in all but the dispensing of justice. Otherwise, equality for unequals is criticized as a self-contradictory proposition which can only result in danger for society, as the chaotic experience of democracy proves all too well. In his Politics, Aristotle is skeptical of all proposals for communism, including the limited version advanced in Plato’s Republic. Collective ownership flouts the most fundamental axioms of human nature; property held in common is likely to remain untended and uncultivated. Far better, in Aristotle’s view, is the practice followed in Sparta, where goods were privately owned but made available by their owners for public use. The rightly ordered polis will apply the principle of distributive justice, or proportional equality. Absolute or numerical equality reflects only one of the claims that may legitimately be made by citizens—the claim that as members of society they deserve identical treatment. If equity and stability are to be served, however, other claims must also be recognized, such as those based upon superiority of intellect, contribution to the welfare of society, and birth or status.
The notion that differences in intellect justify social inequality was challenged by the Stoic school which arose in the third century B.C. in the waning years of the Greek polis and achieved a considerable influence during the expansion of Rome. This influence was more ethical than political, however. Although the Stoics taught that the universality of reason rendered men equals by nature, they did not go on to argue that natural standards could be applied in conventional societies. Like the Cynics, they lamented the departure from the equality decreed by nature and criticized especially inhumane attitudes and practices, but could see no way to return corrupt society to its natural innocence. The best that might be hoped for, according to such spokesmen for a mature Stoic view as Cicero and Seneca, was that less fortunate classes, including slaves, would be treated charitably, in recognition of the essential unity of all mankind. In Rome the attitude shared by citizens and philosophers alike found expression in the festival of the Saturnalia. Once each year the Age of Saturn (the Roman form of Cronus) was memorialized: slaves dined with masters and distinctions were temporarily forgotten. In at least one non-Roman version of this ceremony, the moral behind the festival is said to have been made explicit beyond any doubt: a criminal was elevated to the ruler’s throne during the celebration and executed as soon as it was over, as a warning to subject classes of what they might expect from attempts at revolution.
To these classes, Christian teachings may have seemed more radical than Stoicism, especially since the spiritual egalitarianism of the Gospels appeared to make the argument over degrees of rationality irrelevant. Of what consequence were differences of intellect if, in the eyes of God, every man had a soul and all souls were alike worthy? The “poor in spirit” (Luke 6:20, King James ver.) could well have read social significance into Saint Paul’s announcement that with the advent of the Redeemer “there is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and freeman, male and female; for you are all one person in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, The New English Bible, London, 1961). According to Saint Luke, the apostles could be said to have practiced communism: “Not a man of them claimed any of his possessions as his own, but everything was held in common…. They had never a needy person among them, because all who had property in land or houses sold it, brought the proceeds of the sale, and laid the money at the feet of the apostles; it was then distributed to any who stood in need” (Acts 4:32-35, The New English Bible). As the expectation of an imminent apocalypse receded, millenarian enthusiasm became an embarrassment and a threat to the order of society and the unity of the Church. Authoritative interpreters of the Gospels insisted that they must not be read as a call to social revolution. An apostle had also declared that “the authorities are in God’s service” (Romans 13:6, The New English Bible). Although God had intended men to live together as brothers in an earthly paradise, Saint Cyprian, Saint Zeno of Verona, and Saint Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, all observed that human wickedness had frustrated this intention. Until the Parousia or Second Coming of Christ, the Christian was obliged to endure worldly corruption with patience and obedience.
The most influential of the Church Fathers, Saint Augustine, asserted in The City of God (A.D. 413) that the injustices of the earthly city were God’s judgment upon human sinfulness. While the pious Christian lived “like a captive and a stranger” (Book 19, Ch. xvii) in the unredeemed world, he was to cling to his faith but accept his station in life, whatever it might be. The medieval canonists, who were the principal apologists for papal supremacy, added more positive justifications of inequality. Unity required subordination and discipline. Hierarchy in the Church and society reflected the superiority of the soul to the body, as well as the order of the cosmos, the very architecture of God. Communism was appropriate only for those exceptional ascetic virtuosos in holy orders seeking to escape attachments to the flesh and the world. Movements outside the Church, however, such as those of the Cathars, Waldenses, and Free Spirits, even though they aimed at a similar perfection, if not always through asceticism, were condemned as dangerous heresies. Both the example and the teachings of monastic and sectarian movements nevertheless stood in pointed contrast to official dogma. As feudal society disintegrated under a complex network of strains, including princely ambition, conflicts over clerical appointments, splits within the Church, the expansion of commerce, and the rise of independent cities, the hold of the orthodox view weakened and the appeal of alternatives rose.
One distinctly unorthodox alternative was posed by a twelfth-century Calabrian monk, Joachim of Floris, who preached an historicized doctrine of the Trinity resembling that earlier condemned in Montanism. According to Joachim, the incarnation was to be understood as an evolutionary succession of three ages or dispensations: of the Father or law, of the Son or Gospel, and of the Holy Spirit. The process was to be completed between 1200 and 1260 under the aegis of a new order of monks which would direct the overthrow of Antichrist. Through their triumph, the Holy Spirit would permeate all mankind and servitude and obedience would be replaced by universal love. The Joachimite prophecy inspired a wing of the Franciscan order, the Franciscan Spirituals, to imagine themselves successors of the Church appointed to lead Christendom toward the millennium. Variations of the same prophecy assigned a messianic role to the Emperor Frederick II. Even after the death of Frederick, it was widely hoped that he would somehow reappear and usher in the last days by striking down the corrupt clergy. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, peasant rebellions erupted in many parts of Europe, in response to changing economic conditions as well as visionary preaching. Religious protests, such as those led by John Ball and John Wycliffe in England and by the Hussites and Taborites in Bohemia, weakened adherence to the Church and eventually brought on the full-scale reformations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the Protestant Reformation, the eschatological underground came to the surface in the general upheaval and made a noteworthy impact. Thomas Müntzer and Gerrard Winstanley, the leaders of two distinct movements on the “left-wing of the Reformation” (Bainton) can fairly be regarded as among the most direct theoretical precursors of modern socialism. Müntzer was a fiery zealot who broke with Martin Luther and raised a more radical and mystical standard than Luther and the other moderate reformers were willing to accept. In 1525, he led an army of peasants in an abortive revolt which ended with his capture and execution. Although there is little in Müntzer’s sermons and letters explicitly advocating communism, he was regarded by his contemporaries as a revolutionary in every respect—an “uproarious spirit” (Aufrührischen Geist) in Luther’s words.
Müntzer earned this reputation by demanding total reform, temporal as well as ecclesiastical. Warmly acknowledging his debt to the “weighty testimony” of Joachim, Müntzer saw himself and his Allstedt Bund performing the role the Franciscan Spirituals had earlier sought to assume. Unlike the monks, Müntzer saw no reason to refrain from violence against “godless” opponents. The “fifth monarchy” foretold by the prophet Daniel, he believed, could only follow the physical destruction of the first four, the last of which remained to be toppled. Müntzer’s “Revolutionary, or charismatic, Spiritualism” (Williams and Mergall, p. 32) rejects the view of more moderate reformers that the Bible and sacraments, but not a clerical hierarchy, should mediate between God and man. In order to become one with Christ (Christformig), he claimed, the believer had to experience an identification with God directly and without mediation. This theological radicalism enabled Müntzer to regard himself and his followers as “an élite of amoral supermen” (Cohn, Ch. vii) released from ordinary ethical injunctions in their role as a vanguard of the millennium. Sectarian quietism and withdrawal were also rejected in favor of the revolutionary activism of a mass movement.
In contrast to Müntzer, the militant Anabaptists who took control of Münster and whose communism and polygamy seemed scandalous to all of Europe, were far more conventional in their views, since they continued to believe in the need to isolate themselves from worldly corruption in order to live a perfect life above the law. Winstanley experienced a revelation in which he and his followers were instructed to seize certain lands and cultivate them in common so as to restore the “holy community,” an ideal they shared with other Puritans. No one, he declared, ought to be “Lord or landlord over another, but whole mankind was made equal, and knit into one body by one spirit of love, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Works , p. 323). The creation and redemption express a dialectic of separation and reunion: spirit and man are separate at first but in the end “man is drawne up into himselfe again, or new Jerusalem… comes down to Earth, to fetch Earth up to live in that life, that is a life above objects” (Works , p. 453). It is only a “strange conceit” to imagine a new Jerusalem “above the skies” (Works , p. 226).
Winstanley and Müntzer share a mystical and socially activistic theological perspective. In Winstanley’s case, this perspective issues in a pacifistic orientation toward labor in common; in Müntzer’s, it serves to promote violent revolution. Had the left wing succeeded in impressing itself more fully upon the main carriers of reform, the distinction that was to arise in the nineteenth century between voluntaristic and revolutionary socialists might have been felt earlier. In fact, however, the impact of the left wing was ephemeral. The most significant social residue of the Reformation was the attitude Max Weber described as the “Protestant ethic,” or the exhortation to economic individualism as proof of piety and predestination. Protestantism lent legitimacy to a limited egalitarianism by sanctioning economic competition and moral autonomy, but it offered no warrant for socialism, which continued to be regarded as “utopian.”
The term “utopia” came into use after 1516, when Thomas More published his work of that name boldly denouncing the vicious effects of private property and commerce, especially as they were evident in the enclosure movement in England. The sheep, he wrote, had begun to devour men and to consume whole fields, houses, and cities; a true commonwealth, as distinct from those which go by the name but are merely conspiracies of rich men, would be possible only if property were held in common. More’s hostility toward private property and his advocacy of communism joined a traditional Christian disapproval of worldly avarice and corruption with an attack upon contemporary economic inequities. Many later and more secular writers, including Francis Bacon and Thomas Campanella in the seventeenth century, followed More’s example by inventing other utopias, both in order to give freer reign to the imagination and to publish more radical social criticism than might have been safe to broach in an essay or treatise. As a device and a literary genre, the utopia came to replace the prophecy of religious apocalypse as a vehicle for the expression of radically egalitarian sentiments.
The dominant tendency of social theorizing, in the period following the Reformation and culminating in the French Revolution, is more accurately reflected in the work of the natural rights-social contract school. These theorists secularized and transformed traditional natural law doctrines into justifications for limited government and civil liberty. In the process, the right of private property was established as one of the most fundamental of all natural rights. John Locke argued that while God had originally given the earth to men in common, He meant it for “the use of the Industrious and the Rational” (Second Treatise of Government , Ch. V, para. 34). The right to appropriate was subject to the limits of the law of nature, but the introduction of money by tacit consent made evasion of these limits legitimate. The main objective of the social contract was therefore the protection of the right of property, broadly understood as life, liberty, and estate and more narrowly as material possessions. James Harrington argued in Oceana (1656) that agrarian republics could survive only if effective limits were put upon acquisition, especially of land, but neither Harrington nor any other English theorist of this century was in any sense an advocate of socialism. The French Physiocrats, who coined the term laissez faire, agreed with Locke in regarding the right to private property as the foundation of law and economic progress. Otherwise, the leading writers of the French Enlightenment were rather less enthusiastic in their support for economic individualism.
Generally, the attitude of the philosophers resembled that of the Stoics. Equality, Voltaire wrote, “is at once the most natural and at the same time the most chimerical of things.” Although nature makes men equal, “on our miserable globe it is impossible for men living in society not to be divided into two classes, one the rich who command, the other the poor who serve” (Philosophic Dictionary , trans. P. Gay, New York , I, 245). Similarly, although Rousseau issued a stinging indictment of the evils of property, he did not propose that the right of property be abolished. The most that could be hoped for, according to Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Louis de Jaucourt in the Encyclopédie, was that enlightened rulers would eliminate extreme inequalities and alleviate the plight of the poor. In the latter half of the eighteenth century, some theorists contended that the natural condition of society must have been one of collective rather than private ownership. Among them were Thomas Raynal, Jean Meslier, Gabriel de Bonnot de Mably, Simon Linguet, and the all but anonymous Morelly. But except for Morelly’s Code de la nature (1755), which advocates a return to communism, the others agreed with Mably that although the communism of Sparta and the religious orders was closer to nature than the modern worship of wealth and luxury, “where property has once been established it is necessary to regard it as the foundation of order, peace, and public safety” (Oeuvres, IX, 13).
The detached skepticism and critical resignation which characterized the Enlightenment were swept aside by the enthusiasm for total renovation accompanying the French Revolution. Even so, all but a handful of the leading figures in the Revolution, including the Jacobins, were committed to the retention of private property. The demand for a more radical reform emerged among a minority of disaffected revolutionaries. Their major spokesman was François-Noël (Caius Gracchus) Babeuf, the leader of a small “Conspiracy of the Equals” to which a larger number of Jacobins had attached themselves. Along with other conspirators, including Sylvain Maréchal, the author of the provocative Manifesto of the Equals (1796), Babeuf was arrested and tried for plotting to overthrow the Directory. In his defense, Babeuf insisted that he was acting in the service of the Revolution, which would remain incomplete while there was still inequality. Borrowing a distinction drawn by the moderate Girondin, the Marquis de Condorcet, Babeuf argued that the Revolution had so far established only legal equality, but not “real” equality. Since even superior intelligence and exertion do not “extend the capacity of the stomach,” it was “absurd and unjust” to distribute rewards on any basis other than need (Advielle, Babeuf, II, 38). The revolution of 1789 was therefore merely the forerunner of “another revolution, greater and even more solemn, which will be the last” (ibid., I, 197). It would be accomplished, however, not by legislative assemblies, but by the broad masses of the people. Although Babeuf’s conspiracy was finally crushed, babouvisme, with its emphasis on the revolutionary role of the working class, had a lingering influence upon socialist theory.
It was only after the Napoleonic Wars, however, that modern socialism took definitive form. In the usage it now has, the word “socialist” appeared in print for the first time in 1827 in the Co-operative Magazine published by the followers of the industrial reformer, Robert Owen. In 1832, as le socialisme, it made its debut across the Channel in Le Globe, the journal of a band of practical and visionary reformers inspired by the theories of Henri de Saint-Simon. In this germinal period, socialism had its greatest vogue in France, where the hold of more conventional ideas had been rudely shaken by waves of revolution. The aims and outcome of this series of upheavals were subjects of intense controversy and socialism appeared to its adherents and even to some of its detractors as the logical fulfillment of the process of change which had begun in 1789. By about 1840 the term was commonly applied to a fairly wide array of doctrines, all sharing an intensely critical attitude toward existing social systems and a firm conviction that radical transformation was both possible and imperative.
Socialism probably seemed an apt name for this potpourri of dissenting views because in ways both critical and constructive all these doctrines were focused on “social” rather than individual well-being. The “social question” was a subject of wide interest, but the prevailing view was that the wretched conditions endured by the poor were as inevitable as they were unfortunate. Those who challenged this complacency by subjecting social conditions to harsh criticism and by demanding that they be changed fundamentally were likely to be called socialists. All the doctrines, despite variations, stressed the need for greater collective responsibility and a “strengthening of ‘socialising’ influences,” as Cole observed (Socialist Thought, I, 4).
The term “communism” was sometimes used as a synonym for socialism and sometimes to denote doctrines stressing the need for revolution and community of goods. The socialist view was advanced in direct opposition to the more widely accepted belief that the rights of the individual against society and the state were inviolable. The most popular writers on political economy in the first half of the nineteenth century generally claimed that since individual liberty was the source of all progress, its enhancement must be the paramount aim of public policy. To interfere with the freedom of exchange was to infringe upon the rights of man and to place dangerous obstacles in the way of industry and prosperity. Against this belief, the socialists argued that the legal protection of unlimited acquisition sanctioned the exploitation of wage-laborers by the owners of capital. Any prosperity that resulted from industry could therefore benefit only the privileged few—the new aristocracy of wealth—at the expense of the many, who would remain at least as impoverished as ever. On the most universal level—and perhaps the most fundamental—this objection to the gross inequalities flowing from the protection of private property expressed a profound and bitter moral indignation. Labor was said to have become a commodity, the laborer himself to have been robbed of his humanity and degraded into a brute instrument of production. “For the enormous majority,” Karl Marx protested, the vaunted culture of European civilization amounted to no more than “a mere training to act as a machine” (Communist Manifesto , trans. S. Moore, pp. 146f.).
Charles Fourier, in effect elaborating Rousseau’s earlier indictment, drew up a meticulous catalogue of the vices due to selfish absorption with the accumulation of wealth. These vices included not only the misery of the poor but also the unhappiness and boredom of the rich. A phrase coined a generation earlier by the Girondin Jean-Pierre Brissot de Warville and popularized by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon summed up the socialist critique of conventional morality in an incendiary catechism: “What is property? It is theft.” The critics differed among themselves in the explanations offered of the sources of corruption and in proposals for reform. Some believed that moral regeneration could come only in new, planned communities. To Owen, the bedrock of social reconstruction was the principle that character is shaped by environment. Moral vices, he thought, could be reformed only by changing the conditions that produced them. Étienne Cabet imagined such a new community in his Voyage in Icaria (1840) in terms derived from earlier utopian speculation. Fourier sought to show that it was possible to diminish frustration and increase satisfaction without changing human nature, simply by establishing planned, but voluntary communities in which the diversity of human dispositions would be matched with the requirements of the division of labor. These ideas inspired the creation of model communities in Britain and America and generated great interest among social reformers in many countries. Others who could see little or no hope in small-scale projects argued instead for grander efforts to reorganize society.
The economist Jean-Charles Simonde de Sismondi pointed out, as early as 1819, that unless gains from increased productivity were more widely distributed, national economies would suffer not only from inequity but from periodic crises of overproduction. Saint-Simon declared that the enormous potentialities of the industrial system and of scientific research should be organized to serve the needs of society. The domination of society and government by aristocratic idlers (les oisifs) must be replaced by a combination of the producers (les industriels). Louis Blanc was convinced that the evils of the property system could be eradicated without revolution or expropriation if the state would extend public credit to “social workshops” (ateliers) in which artisans in the various branches of industry could form cooperative associations for production and distribution. By eliminating the need for private sources of capital, the state would make exploitation impossible. Proudhon, by vocation a tradesman, by temperament an anarchist, was suspicious of all central authority and all collectivist schemes. He preferred what he called “mutualism”—a series of decentralized exchanges in which producers would enter into contracts with each other to trade goods and services. The object would be to prevent exploitation but to retain the autonomy of the producers and avoid imposing an oppressive central authority in place of the market system. Still others thought that changes of policy or institutions could be expected only after a change of heart. Constantin Pecqueur in France, Karl Grün, Moses Hess, and Wilhelm Weitling in Germany, believed that an ethical religion of humanity was needed either to fill the void left by the decline of Christian faith or to express common humanistic values to which all could subscribe, regardless of their attitude toward religion.
The disciples of Saint-Simon, led by Barthélemy-Prosper Enfantin, Olinde Rodrigues, Saint-Armand Bazard, and Pierre Leroux, organized and directed a sect to propagate the master’s call for a “New Christianity.” The cult was outfitted with all the appropriate trappings, including clergy, ritual, and devotional services, and took as its cardinal dogma the “principle of association,” the Saint-Simonian equivalent of Fourier’s “law of attraction.” It served the same purpose for the Saint-Simonians that Fourier’s principle did for his followers, which was to provide a social and moral analogue of Newton’s law of gravitation. Philippe Buchez and Proudhon, as well as Cabet—who preached a “true Christianity”—felt that Christianity itself, properly understood, was simply socialism by another, older name. In Britain John M. F. Ludlow, with the help of Frederick D. Maurice and Charles Kingsley, both clergymen, founded a Christian Socialist Movement.
None of these spokesmen for socialism had an impact comparable to that exerted by Karl Marx, whose writings became the touchstone of socialist thinking and action. Marx differed most strikingly from earlier socialists as well as from contemporaries in believing that socialism could not be established by an act of will, either through voluntary adoption or forced imposition, but would inevitably arise at an appropriate stage of history. He couched his views in a doctrine that was at once a philosophy of history, a science of society, and a handbook of revolution. As a thinker, his greatest talents were not so much those of an originator as of a trenchant critic, a skillful borrower, and a brilliant synthesizer. In the early stages of his thought, when he developed his philosophy of history, he was indebted most to Hegel. In the later period, he owed many of his sociological and economic ideas and more than a few of his revolutionary slogans to a host of other writers.
The influence of Hegelianism upon Marx is well recognized. It is not too much to say that all of Marx’s work bears the impress of his early encounter with Hegel and the Left Hegelians. What is less well appreciated is the degree to which the apocalyptic, quasi-religious character of Marxian socialism was shaped by Hegel’s philosophical restatement of radical Christian theology. Hegel’s first writings grew out of his study of theology at Tübingen. In them he struggled to come to terms with traditional Christianity and the new Kantian ethics. The resolution he came to is best expounded in his essay on “The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate” (1799) where he offers an interpretation strikingly similar to the historical trinitarianism of Joachim. Kantian ethics is explained as a reversion to Judaism, or the religion of abstract law, a “juridical order” in which man is a dependent of a remote law-giving deity. Christianity, as the incarnation of God in a single man, opens a second chapter in the unfolding of morality: Jesus, as “the beautiful soul,” renounces property and all other ties to the juridical order and thereby transcends it. But Christianity, as a religion of faith in God rather than of universal participation in the divine, must be superseded by a final stage of development. In this age of fulfillment, contradictions of finite and infinite, subject and object, spirit and matter, are transcended by a total identification of the divine and the human.
These early speculations were the groundwork for The Phenomenology of the Spirit (1807), in which the whole of intellectual history is explained as the externalization, in the “phenomena” of human thought, of the mind of God. In two sections of the Phenomenology, Hegel hinted at the social implications of his philosophic history by describing self-consciousness in terms of the relations between lord and servant and by suggesting that the absolute freedom advocated in the Enlightenment generated, as its dialectical opposite, the reign of terror in the Revolution. In two other works, The Philosophy of History (1822) and The Philosophy of Right (1821), the externalization of the mind of God previously depicted in the development of theology and philosophy is described in terms of social history. Philosophically understood, history is the process in which the “Idea” expresses itself concretely and comprehensively through the medium of “world historical” nations and individuals. It assumes a final form in the constitutional state, which unites universal and particular will. The state was to be distinguished, however, from “civil society” in that the state expressed the union of public and private, while civil society was the sphere of the private alone.
Hegel’s teachings had their most immediate result in the formation of two camps of disciples, the right and left Hegelians. While the right Hegelians saw in these teachings a powerful justification of existing institutions, the left Hegelians saw as Hegel’s major achievement the undermining of traditional Christianity, in particular of its dualistic separation of God and man, spirit and matter. Bruno Bauer and Marx, who joined the group while a student, circulated what purported to be an attack upon Hegel’s atheism, intending to demonstrate Hegel’s true views, David Friedrich Strauss argued in his Life of Jesus (1835) that the biblical account of Christ was not to be taken as literal fact but as a mythological reflection of an incomplete stage in human consciousness, as Hegel had suggested. Ludwig Feuerbach put the left Hegelian case more radically by contending that religion was simply a product of the mind of man. In The Essence of Christianity (1841) he described the idea of God as a projection of what was essential in human nature “purified, freed from the limits of the individual man, made objective” (trans. G. Eliot, New York , Ch. i, Sec. 2, 14). The idea of heaven was simply the opposite of all that was disagreeable in actual existence: “The future life is nothing else than the present life freed from that which appears as a limitation or an evil” (ibid., Ch. xviii, 181).
Marx broke with the Young Hegelians because he found their preoccupation with consciousness and the individual both narrow and reactionary. In The Holy Family (1845) and The German Ideology (1845-46) he satirized “Saint Bruno” Bauer and “Saint Max” Stirner for continuing to think only in terms of ideal or spiritual freedom despite their rejection of traditional Christianity. Feuerbach had at least pointed in the right direction by making it clear that man was the source and not the product of consciousness, that “man makes religion; religion does not make man” (“Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” , trans. Bottomore, p. 44). Feuerbach showed how Hegelianism must be transformed, or redirected: “The criticism of heaven is transformed into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics” (ibid.). To make this transformation was to criticize the social conditions which Hegel and the Hegelians had, in Marx’s view, only rationalized. Whereas Hegel had defined alienation as God’s estrangement from Himself, Marx redefined it as the estrangement of man from his true or essential self and located the source of this estrangement in the relation of the laborer to the process of production.
“The alienation of the worker in his product,” Marx wrote in an early fragment, “means not only that his labor becomes an object, assumes an external existence, but that it exists independently, outside himself, and alien to him, and that it stands opposed to him as an autonomous power. The life which he has given to the object sets itself against him as an alien and hostile force” (“Alienated Labor” , trans. Bottomore, p. 122). Because he is compelled to work at the command of others and in occupations that exhaust and debase him, the laborer can scarcely scale the Promethean heights of creativity and self-determination Marx saw as within his capacity. It followed that Hegel’s attempt to distinguish between the state and civil society and to argue that universal and particular wills could be reconciled in the state while civil society was left inviolate was only an attempt to evade the inescapable logic of the dialectic. The political economy of civil society—precisely the subject Hegel had sought to exempt from philosophic scrutiny—must be studied critically and the contradiction between the general good and the particular interest of the propertied exposed for what it was.
Marx saw clearly where this criticism would lead. Moses Hess had no trouble persuading him of the ethical validity of communism. In 1842, Lorenz von Stein explained French socialism as an ideological outgrowth of the struggle for power within the “third estate” between the middle class and the proletariat. At stake, von Stein pointed out, was the control of the democratic system that had arisen out of the revolt against absolutism. Marx himself observed, in a commentary on Hegel, that because the proletariat was effectively excluded from civil society, it was the class with the most compelling interest in the overthrow of that society. He took as his personal objective the task of providing the proletariat not simply with an ideology but with a doctrine that would have the rigor and status of science. Only if it had such a doctrine, he believed, could the proletariat develop confidence in the success of revolution and an adequate resistance both to the seductions of bourgeois propaganda and the temptation to engage in premature revolts. Consciousness, alone, however, would not assure the triumph of the proletariat or the achievement of socialism as a result of its triumph. Proletarian consciousness must be enhanced by revolutionary activity, or praxis. In such activity the proletariat would train itself to perform its historical role until eventually it would accomplish the real “negation of the negation.” Alienated labor, itself a negation of human potentiality, would be negated by the proletarian revolution. In the fellowship of the revolutionary cause, the proletariat would experience the beginning of a return of its lost humanity. The establishment of communism would make possible “the return of man to himself as a social, i.e., really human being, a complete and conscious return which assimilates all the wealth of previous development” (“Private Property and Communism” , trans. Bottomore, p. 155). Communism could not represent the final form of emancipation because it would still reflect a preoccupation, however negative, with production and possession. Genuine freedom or humanism as Marx also described it, would become possible only when life activity was no longer constrained by the requirements of production or the limitations of material scarcity.
Marx came to a clear understanding of his own alternative to Hegelianism only gradually. At first he collaborated with the Young Hegelians in editing liberal political journals in Germany. In 1843, compelled to leave the country for his own safety, he went first to Paris, where he met Friedrich Engels, his lifelong collaborator, and profited from an exposure to French socialist thinking. Expelled from France in 1845, he went to Brussels, and from there to London, where, after 1849, he made his permanent home. In 1847, at the request of the Communist League, which he and Engels were instrumental in forming, he outlined his views in the single most inflammatory document of nineteenth-century socialism, the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848).
In the Manifesto, Marx summarized in bold and eloquent strokes the principal tenets of “scientific” socialism. The ponderous Hegelian and Germanic tone of the earlier writings is pushed into the background and replaced by a deceptively simple economic determinism. Material or economic conditions are said to be the main determinants of behavior and thought. Changes in economic conditions lead to changes in the relations among the producers, who invariably form antagonistic social classes. The ruling class’s refusal to yield power compels its challengers to resort to violent revolution. Continuous change is inexorable because history is governed by laws of movement arising out of economic necessity. Under capitalist organization, the productive process reaches levels of size and integration at which capitalism itself, as a system of private ownership, becomes obsolete and a “fetter” upon further growth. Small-scale enterprise yields to large monopolies; society becomes increasingly divided into only two classes—the bourgeoisie, in whose hands all capital comes to be concentrated, and the proletariat, the wage earners who have only their labor power to sell. The contradictions between capitalism and the forces of production—the ensemble of technique and capacity—generate ever-deepening crises. The class consciousness of the proletariat is strengthened as workers are concentrated in large factories and as their conditions of life grow worse with every advance of capitalist production. Finally, under the leadership of the Communists, as the most advanced element of the proletariat, the working class must rise up in response to the ringing call with which the Manifesto closes: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!” (p. 168).
In much of his later work, notably in Capital (1867), which remained incomplete at his death, Marx labored to explain in detail how capitalism had arisen and why it must fail, paradoxically—and dialectically—as a result of its very success. He drew upon the work of orthodox economists, including François Quesnay, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Jean-Baptiste Say, as well as upon such critics of capitalism as Sismondi and the British economists John Francis Bray, John Gray, Thomas Hodgskin, and William Thompson. The labor theory of value, which many other writers, from Aristotle to Locke and Smith, had also used in one form or another, became a cornerstone of Marxian theory. Labor, according to Marx, was the sole source of value. Capital, however, did not represent an accumulation of individual labor. The “primary accumulation” of capital was a result of forceful usurpation. Although capital produced no value, to possess it in the form of means of production was to be able to draw profit from the labor of others. Profit represented the “surplus value” extracted from wage earners by capitalist exploiters, who paid the workers only enough to provide them with subsistence and appropriated for themselves that portion of the workers’ product above what was required to maintain their subsistence. The wage rate was kept at this low level because the continuous introduction of machinery resulted in an “industrial reserve army” of the unemployed.
In order to survive competition, however, each capitalist would be compelled to invest a part of his profits in machinery, or constant capital. Since machines could only repay their cost but could add no value independent of what was produced by labor, the increasing proportion of constant capital relative to variable capital, or wages, would inevitably lower the average rate of profit. Furthermore, as mechanization resulted in increased technological unemployment, the workers would be unable to purchase what was produced. The result would be crises of overproduction (or under-consumption), continually increasing in intensity, in which smaller capitalists would be wiped out and the proletariat would suffer “immiseration.” Final disaster might be postponed by imperialistic investments in underdeveloped areas, where subsistence costs, and therefore wage rates, would still be low enough to provide a sufficient rate of profit.
In time, nothing would avail: “The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated” (Capital, trans. E. and C. Paul, Vol. II, Part 7, Ch. xxiv, No. 7). The suppression of the revolutions of 1848 and 1849 was a disappointment to Marx and Engels but not a disillusionment. Much of their prodigious intellectual energy in the years that followed was devoted to explaining the failure of these revolutions and to considering the tactics and strategy of insurrection. They generally believed that revolutionary acts would not succeed until the conditions were ripe and the class consciousness of the workers fully developed. They opposed sporadic and untimely acts of terrorism or coups d’état, such as had been organized by Auguste Blanqui in 1848. They conceded, however, that both tactics and strategy must be a function of national conditions. In England, it was reasonable to work for the advance of socialism through parliamentary politics. In backward Russia, on the other hand, it might be possible to leap directly from agrarian populism to industrial socialism, without waiting for the development of a mature capitalism.
Marx and Engels also participated in the formation of the International Working Men’s Association in 1863, hoping to establish their doctrine as the theoretical basis of the socialist movement, and vied for control of the International with Ferdinand Lasalle, the German trade-union leader, and Michael Bakunin, a Russian anarchist. Marx defended the revolt of the Paris Commune in 1871 in the name of the International, even though he thought it premature, and used the occasion to expound the need for a replacement of bourgeois parliamentarianism by a “dictatorship of the proletariat” to direct the transition to socialism. This argument, in particular, was to have great force with Lenin and other practical revolutionaries who declared themselves pupils of Marx and resorted to his works for guidance and vindication.
At Marx’s death in 1883, socialism was still a marginal, heterogeneous, and highly fractious political movement. As a theoretical cause, it was firmly established throughout Europe and beginning to win adherents elsewhere. The broad appeal of the doctrine was no doubt due in part to the restatement of traditional socialist objectives in modern terms, not only by Marx but also by Owen, Fourier, Saint-Simon, and Proudhon. These restatements were made possible and given special resonance by historical circumstances. Great advances in productivity due to increasing industrialization made it obvious that for the first time in history there was no need to accept material scarcity as an inevitable condition of social life. If scarcity was unnecessary, so were grinding poverty and long hours of labor for subsistence wages. For just this reason, the harsh conditions endured by factory workers, even though in some respects they may have been an improvement over rural poverty, were felt to be intolerable. Similarly, the democratic revolutions had challenged the traditional belief that inequality and hierarchy were also necessary, whether because they were divinely ordained or essential to order. Socialism could be advocated as “the industrial doctrine,” as Saint-Simon described his system, and as the ultimate form of democracy, the most perfectly egalitarian, the most truly libertarian. If conservatives saw in the new creed only the ultimate form of mediocrity and mob rule and liberals only a revived and more bureaucratic state-worship, the socialists could respond that the society of the future would resemble nothing in actual experience and therefore could not be judged by existing standards or by the failure of previous experiments.
To votaries of science, socialism made a special appeal. Saint-Simon saw in “positive” science nothing less than the salvation of the modern world. Fourier compared his own discoveries in psychology with those of Copernicus, Linnaeus, Harvey, and Newton in the physical sciences. Marx was encouraged by the similarity between his view of history as a progressive outcome of dialectical conflict and the Darwinian hypothesis of biological evolution by natural selection. In an age when science was becoming an object of worship for the emancipated, socialism could claim to be the application of science to the problems of society, with its own theories of motion, its own laws of inevitability, its own calculus of motives, its own explanations of deviations and anomalies.
To the young, to the workers, to the socially rejected of all ages, all classes, all countries, socialism was also the revolutionary doctrine par excellence, far more enticing than natural-rights liberalism which, despite efforts to extend its viability as a doctrine of social reform, was badly tarnished because of its association with such causes as laissez-faire, the inviolability of property rights, and the limitation of the suffrage to those meeting a property qualification. The internationalism of the doctrine appealed to some more than to others, but it was not impossible to be both an ardent nationalist and a socialist.
The red banner borne by the socialists had first been raised in the French Revolution and it continued to exert a powerful attraction upon the romantic imagination, rekindling the age-old longing for primal innocence and paradise lost with a symbolism evoking images of fire and blood. The revolutionary socialists were convinced, like the prophets of millennium before them, that the apocalyptic finale of history required a last cataclysmic conflict between the forces of light and darkness. But all socialists could believe that regardless of how it was to come about, the new society would make it possible for alienated man to recover his lost humanity. Neither the failure of premature and small-scale communitarian experiments nor initial departures from the ideal by revolutionary regimes are considered grounds for despair. “Socialist man,” it is argued, can only be expected to make his appearance and keep himself from becoming corrupted when socialist institutions are firmly and widely established. Like earlier millenarians, modern socialists cling to the faith that once the soil is prepared, a genuine and lasting egalitarianism will become a practical possibility. Actual experience, like pre-redemptive history in religious doctrines, is thought of as a time of trial and testing when the work of preparation is to be accomplished.
In this faith lies the essence of the socialist idea. The forms of thought in which it has found expression, whether mythological, prophetic, utopian, or scientific, the disagreements over strategy between advocates of evolution and revolution, the policies that have in more recent times been taken to separate orthodoxy from heresy, such as nationalization and collectivization, are all adventitious to the idea itself. The most essential element of socialism—an element shared with democracy, liberalism, and other humanistic creeds—is the moral conviction that universal autonomy is the highest object of civilization. This conviction acquires a specifically socialist connotation when it is associated with the view that genuine autonomy depends upon an equal distribution of the proceeds of industry. The ultimate aim of socialism—and the standard by which systems claiming the name may properly be tested—is, in the words of Marx in the Manifesto, to create “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (p. 153).