The title of this post is deliberately plural. Socialism is very difficult to define in any detail, partly because the line between socialism and capitalist liberal democracy has been blurred. Today’s welfare state would have been considered as socialism by many 19th century observers. Socialism is best thought of as an umbrella term for a range of ideas. This post discusses those ideas, and why they can each be considered socialism. The misuse of Marxism which led to Soviet Totalitarianism is a topic for another time.

The Utopian Socialists

Socialism sprang out of the dislocation and unhappiness created by industrialisation in the early 19th century. One of the few things that unite all socialist theories is the emphasis of the idea of production for social purposes; however there has never been consensus on how to enact socialism. Marx believed that the only way would be through socialist revolution, but many others disagreed, being fearful of revolutionary violence. Marx referred to them as ‘utopian socialists’, and mocked their belief that a better society could be created simply by moral exhortation. In addition to Henri de Saint-Simon who has been discussed previously, Robert Owen and Charles Fourier also fit this category. Owen believed that people’s characters are infinitely malleable, and that society should create people of cooperative, dutiful and public-spirited character. As a cotton mill owner in put this view into effect among his workforce (which included creating a community with good housing and shared facilities), and the subsequent success of his mill made him famous. It also lead him to think bigger, including how to create small-scale utopian communities, which are somehow coordinated on a large scale in a way that doesn’t require an economy based on money, markets and exchange relations. Although he inspired the creation of many small scale autonomous agricultural societies in Europe and the U.S, he accepted that their productivity could not match that of a capitalist economy. He advocated direct exchange of labour for goods & services, but when applied to anything other than the simplest scenarios these systems ended in failure.

Fourier believed that traditional morality meant that pursuing our desires is often damaging to others, because we live in a self-centred and competitive society. Morality is a system of restraint which limits our ability to pursue our desires. Society should be reformed so that it can manage all of our desires in a way that brings us together rather than drives us apart. The key is for small autonomous societies to have the right number of people of appropriately matched temperaments, in order to encourage harmonious collective enterprise. It is not clear from Fourier’s work how this is supposed to happen. Nevertheless, one of Fourier’s beliefs that have inspired others is the importance of varied work and reduced hours, with opportunity for self-expression, in order to increase productivity.


All socialists admire cooperation and dislike coercion. Therefore their feelings towards the state are often ambivalent at best. While reformist socialists want to modify the state and revolutionary socialists want to dramatically change it, there are also anarcho-socialists who do not want a state. Some Socialists believe that the state exists only to protect the ‘haves’ from the ‘have-nots’ (Locke believed the state’s primary function is protect property). Therefore if there are no ‘have-nots’ then there is no need for a state. Many counter that the state is also there to protect us from the violent actions of others, so how is this achieved without a state? Anarchists like Russian aristocrat Michael Bakunin had a similar end goal to Marx – a society of freely associated self-managing workers, unexploited by capitalists and uncoerced by governments (although the anarchist view is less collectivist than Marxism). Unlike Marx he believed the state must be destroyed at once, and that this would liberate huge creative energies that would allow the new society to be created. In his words, “destruction is also a creative act”. Bakunin’s most famous successor Peter Kropotkin brought the intelligence of a trained scientist to anarchism. For example he claimed that Darwinism did not underpin the competitiveness of capitalism, but rather showed the naturalness of cooperation, and the unnaturalness of a coercive state.

Planned Economy

There is a strain within socialist theory which emphasises the importance of centralised economic control. One example is Edward Bellamy’s ‘Looking Backward’ (one of the least likeable utopia’s ever composed according to Ryan). Written in the late 19th century in response to the horrors of industrial life, it is an account of a strict egalitarian society set in the year 2000. It is not politically equal: the society has a leader with the omniscience of a Platonic guardian. The equality is in purchasing power, in that everyone has a card that is annually charged with the same number of credits, regardless of what job they do. This introduces a free market to labour, because workers now have the power to choose what work they do. Goods whose production requires people to do jobs that they don’t want to do are not produced. Nevertheless, everyone who can work must do so. The idle go to jail until they repent.

The Fabian Society

The Fabian Society, founded in the late 19th century, gave intellectual backing to a new labour movement and political party dedicated to the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. They were believers in national efficiency and a view of social justice entirely at odds with capitalism and the market. This desire for national efficiency implies a level of state control over the economy that was contrary to the contemporary liberal view of an economy as the collected interactions between individuals and the market. For Fabians, reward should be based on social usefulness, and both useless toil and needless unemployment should be avoided. The Marxist and Fourierist dream of self-expression through work is dismissed. Leading Fabian Beatrice Webb described herself as “bourgeois, bureaucratic and benevolent”. Fabian thinking would contribute to the creation of the welfare state. Before this point, orthodox view held that citizens should secure their own welfare, and that nursing and education should be provided by volunteers and funded through philanthropy (the “night watchman” state). In the 20th century it became common to believe that the state had a general obligation to ensure the welfare of citizens from cradle to grave. A welfare state is principally an insurance scheme against the hazards of life, including old age. However, it must be seen by society in broader terms than financial risk in order to be legitimate. Many people are subject to lower risk so could insure themselves more cheaply through private companies. State welfare relies partly on the altruism of society, but also on the view that welfare is a right. For example, workers run the risk of being unemployed in a market economy. If that risk did not exist then the market would run less efficiently, so that risk is a contribution from each worker to the economy, for which unemployment benefit is a payment. Conservative reactionaries like Bismarck also saw welfare as a carrot to balance the stick of authoritarianism. The welfare state marks a significant change from 19th liberalism, but it is only the first step towards socialism. Its egalitarian elements are minimal – it does not set out to make the poor richer and the rich poorer. Neither does it fundamentally change the capitalist model. Generally speaking in western society it has also been the only step towards socialism.

Victory of Capitalism

In the 20th century many mourned the fact that in the rare cases where ‘socialism’ existed at all, it had morphed into state totalitarianism of the kind found in Soviet Russia. The young Marx imagined the state being absorbed and dissolved by a sense of civil society such that economic and social relationships would be spontaneous and self-governing. Nothing would have been more disappointing to him than the bureaucratic, corrupt, coercive and conservative Soviet bloc. There is little doubt that Stalin would have murdered Marx. However, 20th century socialists struggled to find a plausible and popular political alternative to liberal capitalism. This was partly because the evolution of capitalism undermined Marx’s belief that capitalism inevitably meant terrible drudgery and toil for workers. While there is drudgery still, it is certainly not universal. Nevertheless, this does not mean that capitalism in its present day form is the end of history; we should hope that it is not.

If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, I strongly recommend getting a copy of Alan Ryan’s ‘On Politics’, which this blog is predominantly based on. Here are a few links you can use to find it:

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