(Part of Four Conceptions of Freedom.)
The socialist movement like other people’s movements has a heavily-contested history. In his book Main Currents of Marxism, Leszek Kolakowski claims that the ideas of socialism were born in the 1830s in communitarian and co-operative movements in France and Britain led by Henri Saint-Simon and Robert Owen. Afro-American scholar and activist Cedric J. Robinson contests this and argues that socialism has a longer history.
In his book An Anthropology of Marxism, Robinson traces socialism to the anti-clerical as well as secular radical anti-poverty movements of the 12 and 13th century with the theologian Joachim of Fiore as the principal ideologist. According to Robinson, Joachim who distinguished between the “reign of justice” or “of law” in an imperfect society and the “reign of freedom” in a perfect society, influenced many within the Catholic church such as the Franciscan Order that renounced property and where committed to social equality, batter economy and other principles of socialism.
The movement around social and economic freedom went through different phases of development; united sometimes and divided at other points. These are the phases through which the socialist movement went through are:
Early “communitarian/utopian socialism”: These are pre-Marxian movements that emerged in the first half of the 19th century as a response to the dehumanising nature of capitalism. The leading lights of this movement were people such as Robert Owen, Charles Fourier and Wilhelm Weitlig. Against the break-up of guilds and anti-combination laws, the demands of these movements was the right to associate and form organisations, living together based on communal ownership of property and for cooperation as a mode of social organisation, instead of competition.
The International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) period: Popularly known as the First International (1864–1876), the IWA was an international organisation that brought together globally different left-wing socialist groups, communist organisations, anarchist groups and trade unions. It was founded in 1864 and claimed to represent 8-million members. The primary objective of the IWA was to forge solidarity and prevent the import of foreign workers to break strikes. The main campaign of the IWA was for political rights for workingmen and 8-hour working day. In 1872, the IWA split over conflicts between the Marxists and the anarchists led by Mikhail Bakunin. At the centre of the conflict was the nature of socialism that the movement was fighting for and whether it was correct to capture the capitalist state as a way of getting to socialism. The IWA was dissolved in 1876.
Socialist International (1889-1914): The second half of the 19th century saw an emergence of working class parties throughout Europe such as the General German Workers Association (ADAV) founded by Ferdinand Lassalle, a French political party known as Partie Democrat-Socialist or Partei der Sozialdemokratie and the Social-Democratic Workers Party of Germany (SPD) that was formed in 1869 after a ADAV split led by Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel. These parties called themselves ‘social-democratic’ to distinguish themselves from “liberal democrats” or “bourgeois democrats”. In 1889, these parties came together as the Socialist International, also known as the Second International.
Formation of communist parties: After the strides of ‘socialist’, ‘social democratic’ or ‘labour’ parties of the last decades of the 19th century, the socialist movement suffered a major split in August 1914. The real cause of the split was the division over the issue of what attitude socialists had to adopt to the impending World War I. In that month, the majority of SPD’s parliamentarians voted in support of their government going into war that led to the First World War carnage. A minority within the Socialist International led by people such as Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg felt that this was this was a betrayal and called for the establishment of new communist parties. With the inspiration of the Russian revolution 1917, new parties were formed in different countries and they called themselves ‘communist’ to distinguish themselves from ‘social-democratic’ parties. The communist parties came together in the Communist International (Comintern), also known as the Third International.
However, one deals with the history of the socialist movement and its development, there are clearly two factors that shaped the movement:
- the changes that were taking place in the 18th and 19th centuries and the emergence of the factory system as the system of production.
- the disillusionment with ‘bourgeois revolutions’ and ‘liberalism’.
Societal changes that led to socialist imagination:
One of the greatest changes that took place in the 18th and 19th century place was rapid urbanisation and the emergence of an economic and production system based on the factory. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, most people worked in agriculture, either as farmers and landowners or tenants or as landless agricultural labourers. The new production system, in which work was organised to utilise new technologies and power-driven machines, had important social consequences. Whereas before, workers had been independent craftsmen who owned their own tools and determined their working time, in the new system the employer owned the tools and raw materials. Employers set the hours and other conditions under which the workers toiled. Instead of living in rural areas under the domestic production system, the factory system concentrated workers in cities and towns.
Urbanisation often led to crowded, substandard housing and poor sanitary conditions for the workers. Factories tended to be unsafe workplaces where employees worked long hours for low pay. The new system also drew women and children to the factory floor, as employers sought to drive down wages to subsistence levels.
These changes led to huge social dislocation and alienation in society. The response to these disruptions was a clamouring for social harmony and a search for collective forms of organisations. Against the break-up of guilds and anti-combination laws, the demand was the right to associate and form organisations, living together based on communal ownership of property, and opting for cooperation instead of competition, as a mode of social organisation.
Disillusionment with ‘bourgeois revolutions’ and liberalism
The birth of the socialist movement is also a by-product of deep disillusionment within the working class with classical ‘bourgeois revolutions’: the English Revolution (1640-1688), the American Revolution (1776-1786) and the French Revolution of 1789. This disillusionment was further entrenched with the worldwide revolutions of 1848.
In the English Revolution, although it was the lower classes that drove the resistance forward in the initial phases of the revolt and who formed the base of Cromwell’s New Model Army during the 1642-1645 civil war, the outcome of the revolt favoured other strata in society. The English Revolution ended the rule of the monarchy, lords and bishops, and replaced it with a compromise; a constitutional monarchy controlled by a parliament dominated by the landed gentry and merchants.
In the American Revolution of 1776, we see the same process taking place. At the initial stages of the revolution a coalition of merchants, professionals and slave-owners together with artisans, labourers, farmers, servants and sailors emerges to oppose Britain. Initially cautious, their demands grew bolder. Things moved from resistance to the Stamp Act to revolution and from protest to a war for independence swiftly. As the movement deepened and radicalised, the militant Committees of Correspondence staffed by people from lower classes became the bedrock of the revolt. Like in England, the triumphant Federalists such as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, moved to create a strong state and gave power back to the social centre of the ruling class. In America, the victory went to slaveholding landowners and the predominately Northern bourgeoisie.
Although the French Revolution was the most complete of all the ‘bourgeois revolutions’, involving the mass of the population on a scale far greater than either the American or the English Revolution, even the Jacobins who were the most radical wing in that revolution did not have an economic programme that limited the bourgeoisie or a redefinition of ‘the people’ which rested on sans culottes alone and thereby excluded the section of the bourgeoisie. Despite having constructed itself in such a way that it was capable of dealing with its aristocratic enemy, the Jacobin revolutionary government, at the moment of victory the alliance between the Jacobins and sans culottes, fell apart.
Unfortunately, the experience where the working classes and lower strata are the shock-troops of revolts only to find themselves nudged off the table when victory comes was repeated in 1848 ‘bourgeois revolutions’.
After New Year’s Day in 1848, 50 European countries experienced revolts. From Paris to Frankfurt to Budapest to Naples to Prague, protesters called for an end to monarchies, for national independence, the extension of the vote to middle class and ordinary people. The revolts spread to Latin America. They took place in New Granada, where Colombian students, liberals, and intellectuals demanded the election of an abolitionist General José Hilario López. In Brazil, the “Praieira Revolt” lasted from November 1848 to 1852. The demands were for free and universal voting rights, freedom of the press, federalism. In Chile, the 1848 revolutions inspired the 1851 Chilean Revolution.
Like in earlier revolutions, the workers were left with no political rights and the vote was qualified and restricted to those with property. These experiences led to conclusions that the workers needed their own independent movement and provided the basis for the emergence of the socialist movement.
Worker experiences in ‘bourgeois revolutions’ and their material conditions under the new capitalist system, shaped the socialist movement’s conception of freedom. The socialist movement bitterly discovered that however gallantly workers fought, they always get a raw deal and remain ‘unfree’. The movement found out that there was something systematic about domination under capitalism. The socialist movement began to argue the response to this form of domination demanded an equally systematic response. In order to be totally free, workers needed to find out what were the sources of this domination and ways of eliminating the oppressive conditions. Eliminating these sources to domination was the road to ‘social freedom’.
Through analysis, the socialist movement came to the conclusion that as long as workers remained subjected to social forces outside their control, they will continue to be ‘unfree’. But the arbitrary power that keeps workers in bondage was not personal. It is not a result of greediness on the part of employers or bad policies of government. The socialist movement argues that it was the arbitrary power of private property keeps workers ‘unfree’. At a basic level, this form of ownership gives employers enormous power within the workplace to determine what is produced, how it is produced and work organisation. At a broader level, private ownership creates law-like social forces that could be described as arbitrary such as competition that even enslave the property owner.
The main thrust of a socialist conception of freedom is to remove the element of arbitrary power derived from private property ownership. It is a result of this understanding that that the socialist movement believes that ‘social freedom’ can only be won with the total abolishment of private ownership of property and the establishment of a system of interdependent cooperation, cooperative production, and communal ownership and deliberation.