An examination of the history of socialism

Ebenezer Idowu, Jr., Staff Writer

Socialism has been around for a couple of centuries, but in recent years, it has seen an uptick in popularity. A recent presidential nominee ran on a socialist platform. Several senators and representatives are self-identified democratic socialists. Many Americans even believe that certain European countries have tried socialism and succeeded, a key part of the construct of democratic socialism.
But where did socialism come from? Why is it so popular today? Does it present a superior alternative to free-market capitalism? In this two-part series, I will examine past and contemporary socialism, revealing its track record and comparing it to capitalism. Let’s start with the history.

History of Socialism: The Early Days
Socialism as a political and economic institution began in the 19th century, but socialist ideas have been around for thousands of years, as Encyclopedia Britannica points out. One notes socialist governance and principles in many ancient civilizations, such as ancient Egypt and ancient Greece.
To be clear, this does not mean those societies were socialist, but rather that they had elements of collective ownership. Wikipedia, in their article “History of Socialism,” describes the former as “a theocratic state which … employed peasants in massive labor projects and owned key parts of the economy,” contrasted to the free market equivalent, in which private companies use contracted workers to perform manual labor. Ancient India’s first emperor, Chandragupta, instituted a sort of socialism.
In Chandragupta’s empire, the king collectively owned all land and the working class paid taxes to him. In return, the emperor supplied the workers with farming tools, “agricultural products, animals, seeds, tools, public infrastructure and stored food in reserve for times of crisis.”
Socialist ideas made their way to ancient Greece, where the Greek philosopher Plato wrote a book called “Republic,” in which he described the ideal socialist society. In Plato’s vision of socialism, according to Encyclopedia Britannica’s article, “Socialism,” people share their goods as well as their “spouses and children.” Thomas More built on this idea and wrote a book called “Utopia,” which, as informs us, described people living on an invented island where money does not exist (they abolished it) and individuals live in a communal setting. The Enlightenment gave more vigor to socialism, allowing it to emerge as an alternative to the exploitative capitalist economic system of the industrial revolution.

Utopian Socialism
Socialism officially started in the 1800s with the industrial revolution and the advent of free-market capitalism. Many political and social activists were enraged by the exploitative nature of industrial capitalism, which allowed a select few to get richer at the expense of the rest of society. In order to solve this, they proposed the creation of a utopian society in which all things were held in common and members of society supplied the needed resources to the wanting.
One of the earliest utopian socialists was a Frenchman named Claude-Henri de Saint-Simon. While Saint-Simon did not call for the abolition of private property, he did advocate for central planning, a system where “scientists, industrialists and engineers would anticipate social needs and direct the energies of society to meet them.” Encyclopedia Britannica tells us that Saint-Simon believed society was transitioning, moving away from monarchs and monotheism toward a more complex society based on the principles of information, reason and allocation of labor. Such a society would run best if its economics and production were in the hands of the most successful, beneficial citizens, allowing all people to benefit.
While Saint-Simon touted collective ownership through a centralized government, other socialists called for smaller scale, socialist societies. Robert Owen, an industrial entrepreneur, was one of such people. He first attracted attention by managing textile mills that were extremely lucrative and quite humane. (For instance, Owen did not employ young children in his mills.) Owen believed that social and economic institutions influenced man toward evil. Thus, changing those institutions would produce changes in the people that owned, worked for or were served by them. tells us that Owen decided to put this idea in practice by creating New Harmony, an experimental utopian socialist state based on self-reliance, cooperation and collective ownership. Sadly, Owen’s experiment failed, devastating his wealth, but he persisted in his socialist activism and according to Encyclopedia Britannica, he continued advocating for reforms that stimulated social cooperation, the type of thing needed to resist the egotism and excessive competitiveness of capitalism (e.g.: guilds, cooperatives).
The other socialist that wanted smaller-scale collective ownership was Charles Fourier, another French clerk. (Back to France, huh?) While not nearly as affluent as Owen, Britannica notes that he was entranced by the same socialist idealism. Like Owen, he believed that societal institutions influenced man toward evil-not the other way around- and needed to be addressed first when speaking of change. He also sharply criticized capitalism for pitting entrepreneurs against one another in the battle for profits and proposed an alternative.
Fourier’s vision of socialism consisted of an [autonomous] community that operated by “attractive labor”– the idea that people will voluntarily work if their work “engages their talents and interests,” according to Britannica. People would rotate tasks to avoid boredom or getting tired of it. Many of Fourier’s ideas were implemented when, across the United States, idealists created dozens of “cooperative agricultural communities,” as puts it.

Socialism in the 20th Century
While these dreams of socialism were well-intended, they were just that: dreams, unrealistic fantasies in which everything worked out perfectly, completely unsuitable for the real world. It was Karl Marx, the foremost theorist of socialism, that concretized these ideas. Marx literally invented the concept of class struggle. tells us that Marx believed society was composed of classes, the primary categories being the bourgeoisie (the wealthy businessman) and the proletariat (the working class). While industrial capitalism (according to Britannica) had made way for the modernization and economic development of society, it also allowed the bourgeoisie to exploit the laborers by making them work for long hours under brutal working conditions for pittance change while the wealthy corporate capitalists acquired the profits.

In the Communist Manifesto, written in 1848, Marx argued that the only way to bring about “scientific socialism” was through violent insurrection: workers rising up and overthrowing the oppressive capitalist system. As explained by Britannica, class consciousness would make the laborers aware of their situation, leading them to revolt and ushering in the “dictatorship of the proletarian.” Eventually, there would be no government, and a community rules by voluntary work and collective ownership would emerge. Marx’s revolutionary ideas and philosophies became the foundation for socialist activism in the 20th century. The German Social Democratic Party, for instance, was founded primarily on socialist thought. In accordance with, two main branches of socialism emerged: communism and social democracy. The former, communism, began when Vladimir Lenin led Russian citizens in a revolution against the oppressive czars, overthrowing their monarchs and establishing a communist state under Lenin’s rule.
When Lenin died, his successor, Joseph Stalin, set a clear standard for what communism would be: absolute rule, industrialization and seizure of private property. Stalin had no patience for dissenters and crushed the opposition, executing them or sending them to concentration camps to basically be worked to death. Roughly 30 million Russians were executed under his dictatorship, which cast doubt on the efficacy of socialist states run by communism.
China also fell prey to the socialist temptation. In the early 20th century, communist revolutionaries led an insurrection, successfully overthrowing the monarchy and establishing a communist state. Things were going well at first, but it soon became apparent that the idealist and perfectionist method of central planning was wholly unsuited to the real world, the market, the economy.
A famine struck China, decimating her crops and, by extension, food supply. Under communism, the State has control of all resources and direct resources to meet the needs of society. But what happens when the government fails to accurately predict societal needs? Furthermore, what happens when an unforeseen event (i.e., the famine) throws things off?
That’s exactly what happened in China. The socialist government failed to direct resources to feed its needy people, and people starved. The end of the Great Chinese Famine ultimately claimed 60 million Chinese lives. This, when combined with Russia’s degradation into a tyranny, proved the inherent flawed nature of communism.
With the failure of communism in Russia and China and the fall of the Berlin wall, communism as an economic institution was greatly diminished. It slowly faded out, remaining only in countries like China, Laos, Russia and North Korea. In its place came the other, less extreme form of socialism: social democracy. More moderate than socialism, but just as insidious, social democracy (closely related to the contemporary democratic socialism) garnered support in Europe as proponents pushed more and more left-of-center political philosophy, per Politicians in these countries argued for “a gradual pursuit of social reforms (like public education and universal healthcare)” by way of democracy in a capitalist nation.
Many of these nations instituted socialist governments, then reverted back to capitalism when things went south. In America, while socialism never reached the level of support it saw in Europe (until recently), socialist elements were introduced into the economy, like a welfare state, etc.

While socialist ideas have been around for thousands of years, the backlash to exploitation in industrial capitalism allowed socialism to take shape in the form of idea. Karl Marx then took those ideas and concretized them, making socialism genuine economic system.
Sadly, many past socialist experiments failed: Russia, China, Scandinavia, the list goes on. However, many contemporary politicians (I’m thinking of one in particular, an elderly man who nearly won presidential nomination), insist that socialism can be successfully implemented if it’s done right. In part two, we will find out whether these claims are valid or not.