DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S058-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 26, 2021, from

Article Summary

While socialist ideas may retrospectively be identified in many earlier forms of protest and rebellion against economic injustice and political oppression, socialism both as a relatively coherent theoretical doctrine and as an organized political movement had its origins in early nineteenth-century Europe, especially in Britain, France and Germany. It was, above all, a critical response to early industrial capitalism, to an unregulated market economy in which the means of production were privately owned and propertyless workers were forced to sell their labour power to capitalists for often meagre wages. The evils of this system seemed manifest to its socialist critics. Not only was the relationship between workers and capitalists inherently exploitative, and the commodification of labour an affront to human dignity, but it generated widespread poverty and recurrent unemployment, massive and unjust inequalities of wealth and economic power, degrading and soul-destroying work, and an increasingly atomized and individualistic society.

Socialists were not alone in criticizing some of these features of industrial capitalism and its accompanying ideology of economic liberalism. In particular, antipathy towards individualism was also a characteristic of conservative thought. But whereas conservatives found their inspiration in the hierarchically structured organic communities of the past, and were deeply hostile to the political radicalism of the French Revolution, socialists looked forward to new forms of community consistent with the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. For them, the evils of capitalism could be overcome only by replacing private with public or common ownership of the means of production, abolishing wage labour and creating a classless society where production geared to capitalist profits gave way to socially organized production for the satisfaction of human needs. In such a society, the human potential for a genuinely ‘social’ mode of existence would be realized, with mutual concern for others’ wellbeing rather than unbridled pursuit of self-interest, with cooperation for common ends rather than competition for individual ones, and with generosity and sharing rather than greed and acquisitiveness – a truly human community.

For most nineteenth-century socialist theorists, the historic task of creating such a society was assigned to the organized industrial working class; most notably by Marx, the pre-eminent figure in the history of socialism. It was Marx who (along with Engels) provided the socialist movement not only with a theoretically sophisticated economic analysis of capitalism and a biting critique of its social consequences, but also, through his scientific, materialist theory of historical development, with the confident belief that the inherent contradictions and class antagonisms of capitalism would eventually give birth to a socialist society.

In marked contrast to such earlier optimism, contemporary socialists are faced with the continued resilience of capitalist societies and the collapse of at least nominally socialist regimes in the USSR and elsewhere, regimes in which state ownership and centralized planning have been accompanied by political repression and economic failure. For those who reject the idea that a suitably regulated form of welfare capitalism is the most that can be hoped for, the task is to construct some alternative model of a socialist economy which is preferable to this yet avoids the evils of centralized state socialism.

    Citing this article:
    Oneill, John. Socialism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S058-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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