World History 2 164 - 10.5.2 Revolutionary Ideologies

In Britain and the United States, the organization of unions developed independent of politics. In places such as Germany, France, and Russia, however, political ideology spurred the development of unions. The predominant political ideology that influenced their growth was socialism. Today, socialism is a political theory that advocates the ownership of the means of production by the government. Socialism in the nineteenth century was somewhat different and took many forms. The only unifying features were a dislike of laissez-faire capitalism, a desire to improve the lives of the poor, and a belief that the government should be responsible for solving problems caused by capitalism and industrialization.

In the early nineteenth century, utopian socialism, which focused on perfecting society, dominated. French visionaries like Henri de Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier wrote of ideal societies based on sharing and cooperation. They sought to completely alter society and often advocated innovations like communal housing, free love, and women’s rights—all considered radical at the time. Some reformers tried to establish utopian communities based on these ideals. For example, Robert Owen, a British textile manufacturer, tried to put some of these ideas into practice in the British village of New Lanark, where the employees of his father-in-law’s textile mill lived, and in the town of New Harmony, Indiana. Residents worked an eight-hour day, lived in decent housing, and raised their children communally.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, utopian socialism had been largely replaced by scientific socialism. The term “scientific socialism” was first used by French economist and philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon to refer to the ordering of society according to the dictates of reason and was popularized by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marx and Engels published their ideas in The Communist Manifesto in 1848, a year in which political revolutions swept Europe. As a result of these revolutions, voting rights for men were established or expanded in France and Prussia. By the end of the nineteenth century, men in France and Germany (which united with Prussia in 1871 to form the most powerful German-speaking state) had used the vote to change their countries. Many espoused the socialist ideology described by Marx and Engels.

Marx and Engels believed that historical change took place as a result of struggles between opposed social classes. In the age of industrialization, the struggle would take place between the bourgeoisie, who owned the means of industrial production such as the factories, mines, and railroads by which wealth was generated, and the proletariat, the underpaid workers whose labor they exploited. Marx and Engels believed capitalism would be destroyed when the have-nots rose up in revolution and overthrew their bourgeois oppressors. All people would then be equal, and all property would be held in common. Class divisions and class conflict would become a thing of the past. This philosophy became known as Marxism and formed the basic ideology of those who called themselves socialists in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Marx never attempted to put his philosophy into practice. However, during the period of the Second Industrial Revolution, many workers turned to his ideas as a basis on which to organize unions and establish political parties. In 1864, socialists founded the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) in London. Many different types of socialists belonged to the IWA, including Marx, and conflict soon arose over a variety of issues. Some socialists advocated the use of violence to effect change, while others advocated more peaceful, democratic means. Those who favored peaceful means are often called social democrats.

One of the largest and most influential of the political parties that espoused social democracy was the German Social Democratic Party. Formed in 1875, it advocated laws to improve the conditions of the working class, and many of its members were elected to the German parliament. One of their chief goals was to reduce the number of hours people worked, and they were active in establishing many trade unions and passing laws to protect workers. Similar parties formed in other countries. The Federation of the Socialist Workers of France (FSWF) was established in 1879. The Social Democratic Party of Austria was founded in 1889.

These parties competed for workers’ support with those that advocated more revolutionary action. The French Workers’ Party was established in 1880 to provide an alternative to the more gradual path to socialism favored by the FSWF. The Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, established in 1898, united many smaller socialist organizations. The Socialist Revolutionary Party, which engaged in the assassination of government officials, formed in Russia in 1902. It ignored Marx’s emphasis on industrial workers and sought to organize peasants as well. Most Russian socialist groups that took a more orthodox Marxist approach became members of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party when it formed in 1898. The Bolshevik faction of this party, which advocated revolution, gained control of the Russian government in 1917.

Another source of conflict among socialists was the role to be played by government in the construction of the ideal socialist state. Although Marx wrote of government eventually disappearing once class divisions had been erased and equality achieved, he also indicated that, until then, a government of the workers would be needed to manage society. Some socialists feared the existence of this new government would simply lead to the creation of a new group of authorities to oppress the people. They believed government should be abolished, an ideology known as anarchism. One of the foremost anarchists of the nineteenth century was Mikhail Bakunin, a Russian revolutionary. Bakunin joined the IWA in 1868. However, he clashed with Marx over the role government should play in bringing about socialism. In 1872, at the Fifth Congress of the IWA, his disagreement with Marx led to his expulsion from the group.

Business owners and members of the middle and upper classes in general disapproved of and feared socialist and anarchist movements. They believed business owners performed a valuable service by providing goods and services at reasonable prices, making the economy prosper, and keeping their countries strong and competitive. They were thus entitled to earn what they believed was a fair profit for assuming the financial risks of engaging in business. To do that while keeping prices low, they could not pay wages as high as their employees would have liked.

Opponents of socialism and anarchism argued further that workers were free to accept the terms of employment or leave if not satisfied. If business owners were not allowed to earn a profit, they would not take the financial risks on which the economy depended. If people were not allowed to accumulate private property, they would lack the incentive to work. Violence and the destruction of property benefited no one. Workers would be better served by striving to improve their position and that of their children through education and the habits of thrift and self-discipline than by listening to the promises of demagogues who preached disloyalty to employers and spun utopian fantasies of workers’ paradises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax