Origins of Socialism

As early as the seventeenth century, there were those who were unsure about whether the principles of the Enlightenment could be reconciled to private ownership. During the English Civil War (1649–60), for example, one radical group of anti-monarchists, the Levellers, argued that God had given the land to all mankind, yet some had exercised greed so as to acquire that land for themselves. Such ideas were developed by a small number of radical theorists during the eighteenth century. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755), suggested that ‘many crimes, wars and murders…many horrors and misfortunes’ arose from the concept of private ownership, while during the 1789 French Revolution François-Noel Babeuf (1760–97) led a ‘conspiracy of the equals’, demanding the abolition of private property.

It was during the early nineteenth century that the term ‘socialism’ was first applied. The so-called utopian socialists, such as Charles Fourier (1772–1837) and Robert Owen (1771– 1858), offered a radical response to the emerging problems of capitalism and industry. Fourier duly advocated independent communities based on communal ownership and production, involving the equal distribution of resources and a culture marked by tolerance and permissiveness. Owen, meanwhile, set up model ‘cooperative’ communities in Scotland and America, designed to promote shared ownership, shared responsibility and altruism.

Yet it was only during the mid-nineteenth century, when the pace of industrialisation began to quicken dramatically, that socialist ideas began to be taken seriously. For many of those otherwise sympathetic to liberal principles, liberalism now offered an inadequate response to the profound changes wrought by the industrial revolution. It was felt that liberalism was in denial about the effects of urban life and blinkered to the fact that in the new industrial areas there was little scope for individual autonomy and individual freedom. As a later socialist thinker, Eric Hobsbawm, wrote (in respect of conditions in mid- nineteenth-century England): ‘For an individual living in a slum…paying rent to a rapacious landlord, while working in a factory for whatever wages his employer deigned to pay him, any notion of freedom or independence seemed utterly distant.’ (The Age of Capital, 1848–1875, 1975)

As a result, the early socialists argued for a new approach, one that would make Enlightenment principles (such as self-determination) more achievable in an industrialised society — one where employment was much less individualistic and where individuals seemed to have much less autonomy in their everyday lives.