Socialism and European Workers in the 19th Century

Words: 1986
Topic: Politics & Government


Socialism was a new ideology introduced in Europe in the 19th century. It was considered a modern political ideology after conservatism and liberalism, which were dominant in various European societies.

Even though liberalism and conservatism were still the main ideologies in Europe, socialism was able to find its way to the society as a political doctrine mainly because of the support it received from workers and the poor.

The ideology was able to influence various political activities in the 19th and even in the 20th centuries. Several traditional/conservative analysts viewed it as a threat since it advocated for social justice and equitable distribution of resources (Fernández-Armesto 16).

The ideology was well known for its main feature, which was collectivism. The ideology states that resources ought to be owned collectively meaning that private ownership of property is illegal and unethical.

To many capitalists and conservatives, this ideology is in sharp contrast with individualism, which is the main characteristic of capitalism. Liberalism and conservatism are the two main political ideologies that view an individual as an important entity in society.

Socialism suggests a different view since it believes that the interests of society are more important as compared to the interests and objectives of a single individual. In this regard, the interests of the individual should not be allowed to interfere with the social order of society.

Some leaders, such as Pope Leo XIII in his Rerum Novarum writing of 1891, supported the ideology since it would help many people in society. The Pope accused capitalism and conservatism of destroying family values since they advocated for individualism.

The religious leader was of the view that socialism would restore family values and the interests of the community. Liberalism and its major of laissez-faire were attacked mainly because they never supported the interests of workers.

Even though socialism is commonly associated with Marxist Communism in modern society, it differs in several ways with the ideas that caused the communist revolution in the 20th century.

The 19th-century socialism was a response to every man for himself doctrine, which is the main feature of capitalism even in modern society.

Socialism insisted on collective action, which would allow the proletariat to own wealth. Through socialism, there would be redistribution of property and wealth in society.

This paper examines the origins of socialism, particularly regarding the working class in Europe in the 19th century. The paper suggests that the working class played a critical role in setting up the ideology.

Pre-Proletarian Bequests

Socialist ideals and goals were based on the pre-industrial movements’ demands, which encouraged workers to advocate for their rights. The 19th-century movements instilled a sense of common identity on all workers, given the fact that they shared similar problems and tribulations.

Civil rights organizations were all over Europe, including industrializing countries, such as France and Italy. In France, the journeymen had hoped to be the owners of the means of production since they controlled various businesses and trade.

However, the old regime could not allow them to own any property. The group was optimistic that it would one day be guild masters, but instead, it found itself in a precarious socio-economic situation, a condition that was later referred to as the compagnonnages.

The ruling class had earlier realized that the association of artisans was a threat to their existence; hence it had made it illegal in 1791, under the Le Chapelier law.

The law was still valid until 1815, but the working class reunited after the Restoration through the combination of democratic ideologies of the French Revolution and the principles of collective action (Fernández-Armesto 28).

In 1834, workers could no longer tolerate the behavior of conservatives and capitalists. This forced them to go on strike in various cities, including Lyon and Paris. The poor, employed various means to express their economic and social frustration, including violence.

In England, the case was not any different since workers were dissatisfied with the social relationship right from the pre-proletariat period.

The radicals of the 1790s led a revolution against owners of the means of production in England having been inspired by the activities of other activists of the 19th century, such as Thomas Paine, who published an article on The Rights of Man.

The English radical demanded equal representation, by advocating for minimal social rights.

This meant that the state had to change its relationship with the populace by respecting the electorate through abolishment of repressive laws and allowing comprehensive participation in the electoral process.

In 1832, some electoral reforms were limited, which served to encourage the social movements. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, a social movement referred to as the Chartism was developed.

The movement pushed the government to incorporate workers in the economic system by empowering them financially. The movement called on the government to allow every person to take part in elections, as well as to increase the salaries of legislators.

However, the government did not give in to the demands of Chartism. In 1839, the movement was widely supported by all workers, but the government was adamant about listening to its demands.

Philosophies and Utopia

In the 19th century, several ideologies and belief systems were in the rise in Europe. Apart from emerging beliefs of the masses and the political actions, these utopias contributed immensely to the growth of socialist ideals.

During the Directory Phase of the French Revolution, some radical workers demanded the abolition of private ownership of property, as well as the establishment of the legal process that would allow workers to exercise their social and economic rights.

These demands surpassed the ideas of Jacobin who had earlier insisted that the state had to provide individual democracy meaning that workers were to be allowed to take part in economic and political development as entities but not as groups.

This was aimed at killing the unity of workers. In 1796, the Directory ensured that radical workers did not mingle freely with other members of society since they would intoxicate the poor with their radical views.

The Conspiracy of the Equals was an ideology that aimed at overthrowing the Directory to set up a proto-communist society whereby land would be owned communally. Babeuf, who was later beheaded, headed the conspiracy organization (Fernández-Armesto 36).

In Italy, a different revolution headed by Buonarotti, which was against the post-Napoleonic regime, existed. Michael Bakunin was an influential Russian anarchist who attempted to destabilize society to resolve social problems, such as unemployment and social injustices in the labor market.

A different social visionary leader in France referred to as Count de Saint-Simon opposed the ideals of capitalism, such as private ownership of property.

Saint-Simon was of the view that the poor would achieve their objectives if professionals, such as scientists, captains of the industry, and engineers were allowed to implement their policies.

He noted that there are usually two categories of classes in society, one of them being industrial meaning the socially useful class and the visits meaning the social parasites depending on workers for production.

The ideas of Saint-Simon influenced many workers in society since they were against the traditional nobility, the court circles, and the clergy. This category of individuals never engaged in active production, but instead, it depended on workers for almost everything through illegal systems.

In other societies in Europe, several utopian planners were able to convince small-scale traders and farmers to execute collectivist ideals.

In Scotland, the cotton mill owner, Robert Owen, accepted to adopt a community model in managing the affairs of the company mainly because of the deteriorating working conditions in the country.

He accepted to compensate workers highly, reduce the working hours for his employees, and establish a company store that would cater to the interests of all workers.

In the United States, Owen formed a Utopian colony in Indiana at New Harmony, even though it collapsed after just five years due to internal conflicts.

Even though Owen was unsuccessful in his attempt to establish a just society, his utopian ideas played a critical role in the growth and development of socialism (Kautsky 29).

Another French scholar named Charles Fourier advocated for the establishment of small units of society, which he referred to as Phalanstères or phalansteries. Under this arrangement, societal members would be encouraged to perform functions that suit them.

Unfortunately, the ideas of the above philosopher were never adopted in his society, but his reasoning was applied successfully in Boston in the United States whereby societal members set up Brook Farm in Massachusetts.

In Germany, things were not any different because radical scholars, such as Karl Marx, supported socialism. The publication of the Communist Manifesto, in coloration with Fredrick Angels in 1848, was a milestone in the life of Marx, as well as socialism as an ideology.

Marx offered a clear history of socialism, something that convinced many people to adopt it. He went against the views of many socialist scholars who had argued that many people would adopt socialism owing to its rational superiority.

In his analysis, he noted that socialism would be inevitable in society due to the injustices of capitalism (Naarden 71). Marx posited that human societies had gone through a series of economic phases; socialism is one of the stages.

The forces of production determine the stages of economic development in human society whereby one production system paves the way for the other automatically. Slave societies gave room to feudalism, which further paved the way for bourgeois capitalism.

According to Marx, capitalism was planting the seeds that would destroy it because it perpetuated the domination and deprivation of the factory-waged people, who are the majority in any production system.

Capitalism does not exploit workers because of evil intentions, but instead, the logic of competition and profit accretion that affects the position of workers in society is to blame.

Due to overproduction, expansion of wealth, and the collapse of industries because of competition, workers would rise against the owners of the production. Marx referred to this as a social revolution. Workers would claim that they rightly own wealth through their labor.

This would amount to the tyranny of the working class. To Marx, the last stage of economic development would be socialism whereby there would be no private ownership of property

Socialist Organizations in Europe in the 19th Century

The ideas of Marx encouraged many workers to form trade unions and political parties, which advocated for socialist ideals. Some of the philosophers who opposed the ideas of Marx on socialism included Proudhon, Bakunin, and Lassalle.

Marx supported a centrally controlled working class while Proudhon insisted on the local self-help groups, what he referred to as mutualism.

In this regard, Proudhon never encouraged workers to take over the control of the state, but instead, he supported workers to form strong trade unions and political parties that would sustain their economic endeavors.

His view was that ownership of property was theft since it entailed depriving a section of society. Decentralization of state resources would result in anarcho-syndicalism.

The ideas of Proudhon gained momentum in the subsequent decades, particularly in Switzerland, France, and Latin America. In 1870, the ideology competed with the First International Congress, which was supported by Marxian scholars.

In Russia, Mikhail Bakunin opposed the views of Marx. The philosopher demanded the destruction of state power since it was unfavorable to the poor (Geary 21).

His ideology was radical since he called on workers to employ all means to ensure that state power is destroyed. For instance, he advised workers to employ violence, terrorism, and assassination.

Research shows that socialism is a political ideology that developed in the 19th century following the outcomes of conservatism and capitalism.

Workers felt that their interests were not being fulfilled because of the existing relationship between the owners of the means of production and the proletariat. Several workers challenged the position of the rich by advocating for socialism, which demanded that resources be owned collectively.

Works Cited

Fernández-Armesto, Felipe. The World: A Brief History. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008. Print.

Geary, Dick. Labour and Socialist Movements in Europe before 1914. Oxford: Macmillan, 1989. Print.

Kautsky, John. Social Democracy and the Aristocracy: Why Socialist Labor Movements Developed in Some Industrial Countries and Not in Others. New Brunswick: Transaction Publication, 2002. Print.

Naarden, Bruno. Socialist Europe and Revolutionary Russia: Perception and Prejudice 1848-1923. Cambridge: Cambridge university press, 2002. Print.