The Political Impact of Nineteenth-Century Socialism

Based on Albert Lindemann, A History of European Socialism (Yale University Press, 1983).

Albert Lindemann defines socialism as a position on the spectrum of political thought. The dominant ethic of the nineteenth century emphasized individual freedom, individual action, and individual accomplishments. Socialism rested on a rejection of this ethic.

Socialists have tended to stress that human beings are properly gregarious rather than self-sufficient, that they should concern themselves with the welfare of their fellow human beings, especially those weaker or less fortunate.1

Believing in the feasibility of using new industrial techniques and political institutions for a richer, more harmonious life, they rejected the notion of a return to a traditional, nonindustrial past — although most of them hoped to retain the noncompetitive qualities of the past.2

The individualist ethic was embraced by conservatives (also known as tories), who sought to slow down change and preserve the traditional social and economic structures, and by liberals, whose values were strongly influenced by the Enlightenment. For conservatives, change meant loss. For liberals, change meant opportunity, and they promoted the institutions that would give them the greatest freedom to exploit the opportunities that came their way.

They looked to a free market (as compared to one rigidly controlled or directed by the state); freedom of assembly, speech, and press; freely elected representative institutions — all in the context of a popularly established rule of law…When they praised “equality” what they meant was equality of opportunity and equality before the law — lack of special legal privilege — not social equality, particularly not if such equality had collectivist implications, or somehow limited individual freedom.3

The right to own property was fundamental to liberals, and following Locke, they believed that its protection was one of the government’s essential duties.

The whigs were the more moderate liberal faction. They favoured limited suffrage, believing that a government chosen by the excitable masses would be capricious and unstable. Further to the left were the democratic radicals (jacobins in France, radicals in England), who believed that a popularly elected government would purge society of entrenched privileges. The democratic radicals preferred a relatively equal society, both in terms of income and status. Although the welfare of the poorest workers concerned them, their solutions were individualist rather than collectivist, and were to be introduced through reform rather than revolution. Since the democratic radicals occupied the middle ground between the socialists and the whigs, the full political spectrum was: socialist, democratic radical, whig, tory.

Socialism and Class Consciousness before 1848

The impact of the Industrial Revolution was slow and uneven in Britain, even more so on the Continent. The petty bourgeoisie still strongly outnumbered the workers.

A majority of workers for most of the nineteenth century in Europe owned, or aspired to own, small amounts of property — their shops, machinery, and tools. They were not yet proletarianized, were not yet completely without ownership of the means of production, and still believed it possible to prevent the domination of wage-labor and factory production.4

Democratic radicalism, not socialism, was their preferred ideology. Over and over again, the early socialists would have to choose between co-operating with democratic radicals and attempting to supplant them.

What distinguished the petty bourgeoisie from the workers was property. A worker was a manual labourer, in either industry or agriculture, who owned little or no property and earned either wages or piece rates. A shopkeeper was a manual labourer, but his shop gave him independence, so he was bourgeois. A peasant farmer with enough land to support himself and his family was likewise bourgeois. A skilled craftsman might be either a worker or a member of the bourgeoisie, but owning his own tools was sufficient to make him bourgeois.

Unskilled workers were often illiterate and apathetic: they had little interest in politics of any sort. Skilled workers were more likely to be intrigued by socialism, but were also more likely to be self-reliant.

The artisans and skilled workers, while threatened by the new machines and other modernized techniques of production, were not in most cases overwhelmed. Most of them could look back to a history of organized efforts to protect their interests…Workers with such organizational experiences were willing and able to work out new institutions and to conceive of long-range modes of resistance, sometimes peaceful, sometimes violent.5

The English corresponding societies are an example of this kind of institution. Their goal was universal male suffrage and parliamentary representation. They were democratic radicals, and so pleased neither the whigs nor the tories. The government suppressed them, along with trade unions and all similar organizations, through the Combinations Acts of 1799 and 1800. The machine breakers of the early nineteenth century are another example. They essentially engaged in covert collective bargaining by destroying the capital and raw materials of recalcitrant employers.

In the first few decades of the nineteenth century, the British identified socialism largely with the ventures of Robert Owen: the model factory at New Lanark, co-operative stores, childhood education, the New Harmony commune, labour exchange stores. However, the repeal of the Combinations Act in 1824 led to the development of trade unionism, and British workers seemed to have had more confidence in their unions than in socialism or any other political movement.

The Reform Bill in 1832 gave the right to vote only to men who held significant property, so it was far more favourable to the middle class than to the working class. Workers had once thought of the middle class as allies, with both embracing the aims of democratic radicalism, but with the passage of this bill, they began to believe that they could rely only on themselves. The New Poor Law of 1834 further divided the working class from their former allies.

France at the time of the French Revolution was both autocratic and hierarchical. Louis XVI ruled as an absolute monarch. The catholic church exerted strict social control over the people while sapping their economic strength: it owned a tenth of the land, and imposed a tithe that gave it a tenth of everyone’s income. The nobility owned a quarter of the land and still imposed feudal duties on the peasants. There were 70,000 “venal offices“ (public offices sold for cash), many of them heritable and offering a foothold in the nobility.6 As well, numerous privileges and legal exemptions had either been sold for cash or granted outright to the nobility. Taken together, the sale of judicial positions and the network of privileges and exemptions meant that there was no equality before the law.

The French Revolution made allies of the bourgeoisie and the working class. Its politics were democratic radical, as evidenced by these clauses from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens (1789):

I. Men are born, and always continue, free, and equal in respect of their rights. Civil distinctions, therefore, can be founded only on public utility.

II. The end of all political associations is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man; and these rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance of oppression.

V. The law ought to prohibit only actions hurtful to society. What is not prohibited by the law, should not be hindered; nor should any one be compelled to that which the law does not require.

VI. The law is an expression of the will of the community. All citizens have a right to concur, either personally, or by their representatives, in its formation. It should be the same to all, whether it protects or punishes; and all being equal in its sight, are equally eligible to all honours, places, and employments, according to their different abilities, without any other distinction than that created by their virtues and talents.

X. No man ought to be molested on account of his opinions, not even on account of his religious opinions, provided his avowal of them does not disturb the public order established by the law.

XV. Every community has a right to demand of all its agents, an account of their conduct.

XVII. The right to property being inviolable and sacred, no one ought to be deprived of it, except in cases of evident public necessity, legally ascertained, and on condition of a previous just indemnity.

In 1796, when the Directory was attempting to moderate the revolution, socialist ideas came briefly to the forefront. “Graccus” Babeuf believed that the social equality proclaimed by the Declaration could only be realized if people had equal access to productive assets. He was prepared to violently overthrow the government in order to achieve this equality.

The man who wills an end also wills the means to gain that end.7

Babeuf led the Conspiracy of Equals in an insurrection in 1796. The authorities learned of the insurrection just before it was launched, thwarted it, and tried and executed Babeuf.

Babeuf presented a lengthy defence of his own actions at his trial, and this defense clearly shows his socialist vision. He anticipated many of the themes of the socialists that would follow him. He believed that private property was the source of society’s problems, and that class warfare was inevitable.

If the earth belongs to none and its fruits to all; if private ownership of public wealth is only the result of certain institutions that violate fundamental human rights; then it follows that this private ownership is a usurpation; and it further follows that all that a man takes of the land and its fruits beyond what is necessary for sustenance is theft from society.8

The masses can no longer find a way to go on living; they see that they possess nothing and that they suffer under the harsh and flinty oppression of a greedy ruling class. The hour strikes for great and memorable revolutionary events,…when a general overthrow of the system of private property is inevitable, when the revolt of the poor against the rich becomes a necessity that can no longer be postponed.9

He imagined the replacement of private property with a communal system that would remove not just economic deprivation, but every social ill.

We must try to guarantee to each man and his posterity, however numerous, a sufficiency of the means of existence, and nothing more. We must try and close all possible avenues by which a man may acquire more than his fair share of the fruits of toil and the gifts of nature.

The only way to do this is to organize a communal regime which will suppress private property, set each to work at the skill or job he understands, require each to deposit the fruits of his labour in kind at the common store, and establish an agency for the distribution of basic necessities…

Such a regime will sweep away iron bars, dungeon walls, and bolted doors, trials and disputations, murders, thefts and crimes of very kind; it will sweep away the judges and the judged, the jails and gibbets — all the torments of body and agony of soul that the injustice of life engenders; it will sweep away enviousness and gnawing greed, pride and deceit, the very catalogue of sins that Man is heir to; it will remove — and how important is this! — the brooding, omnipresent fear that gnaws always and in each of us concerning our fate tomorrow, next month, next year, and in our old age; concerning the fate of our children and of our children’s children.10

Babeuf had little impact on the course of the French Revolution, but later socialists would claim him as one of their movement’s founders. The idea that theory must be linked to action — that he who wills an end also wills the means — became a central tenet of communism.

The French showed little interest in socialism before the publication of Doctrine of Saint-Simon in 1829. Class conflict remained subdued as late as 1830, when the bourgeoisie and the workers collaborated in removing Charles X and replacing him with Louis-Philippe.11 As with Britain’s Reform Bill, their collaboration benefited the bourgeoisie more than the workers, the latter being effectively excluded from political representation. The French parliament consisted of an appointed Chamber of Peers and an elected Chamber of Deputies. Most of the deputies were major landowners, even after 1830, and they were not sympathetic to the workers’ concerns. Trade unions continued to be strongly suppressed, as they had been since 1791.

French socialism grew through the 1830s and 1840s, with Étienne Cabet and Louis Blanc being its leading advocates. They sought peaceful reform through legal means. By contrast, the communists12 Auguste Blanqui and Wilhelm Weitling believed (like Babeuf) that the working class was too apathetic to advance its own interests, so change would occur only if a conspiratorial elite initiated the violent overthrow of the government. Although each of these men worked out his own ideology,

…few workers were capable of distinguishing the many nuances of these theories…The common people who became interested in socialism tended to bunch together, eclectically, slogans and particular convictions. They especially identified themselves with attacks on social inequality, large concentrations of property, a state that protected the interest of the rich and ignored those of the poor, the laissez-faire economy, and a society of egoistic individuals.13

The German states had never been unified, and had played a variety of roles during the Napoleonic Wars. At the end of these wars the Congress of Vienna created the German Confederation, a collection of 38 sovereign states and four free cities. It was a military alliance, not an incipient nation state, and had little internal cohesion. Its most powerful states, Prussia and Austria, were largely agricultural, and intensely conservative and militaristic. By contrast, Rhineland, which was under Prussian control, was both more industrial and more liberal. Rhineland had been occupied by the French during the wars. It had prospered under the Napoleonic Code, streamlined legal and administrative systems, laissez-faire economics, and freedom of speech, and its people continued to value these things after the wars had ended.

The German Confederation was dominated by the Austrian statesman Metternich. His goal was to ensure that Central Europe continued to be ruled by hereditary kings and autocrats. Liberal ideas threatened this end and he repressed them. In 1819 he imposed the Carlsbad Decrees, which mandated press censorship, the monitoring of university lectures and student activism, and the removal of reformers from university and government positions. Karl Marx was one of their victims: he had aspired to be a university professor, but his association with liberal scholars precluded any such appointment. He went to France in part because he was drawn to its liberalism, and in part because he had no compelling options in Germany.


The year 1848 was marked by revolutions in France and a number of other European countries, including Germany, Austria, and Poland. The revolutions were short-lived, and in most cases, peace was restored by making concessions to the bourgeoisie.

In France the revolution was (again) mostly a democratic radical movement, with strong support from the workers of Paris and very little support from the peasants in the countryside. Louis Philippe was pushed from the throne and the Second Republic was declared. A new national assembly was elected under universal male suffrage, but the new assembly was as conservative as the old one. The unrest and violence continued after the election, and the majority of the population, even in Paris, soon wanted a return to order. Napoleon III was elected president at the end of 1848, with the broad support of every social class. After a few years of successful leadership, he terminated the national assembly and established the Second Empire (1851). His domestic policies were moderate. He strongly supported industrial development and invested heavily in infrastructure; but he also gave the workers the right to strike (1864) and the right to organize (1866).

Socialism continued to develop during this time. The most prominent French socialist was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, best known for his bold dictum, “Property is theft.”14 Karl Marx had moved to Paris in 1843 and then to Brussels in 1845. He had made contact with radical German workers in Paris, London, and Brussels. These workers formed the Communist League, for which Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto (1848).

The German revolution of 1848 emphasized nationalism over socialism. Activists had hoped for the unification of Germany, a national parliament, and universal male suffrage, but they achieved none of these things. German unification did not occur until the 1860s, under the auspices of Bismarck.

Nevertheless, it was in Germany that socialism first became a strong political force. The ADAV, a workers party with democratic radical leanings, was established in 1863. The Social Democratic Labour Party was established in 1869 as an explicitly Marxist organization. The two parties united after German unification, becoming the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Germany’s leadership immediately attempted to suppress it.

Although Bismarck had seen fit to give the vote in Reichstag elections to all adult males, he detested democrats and socialists, above all Marxists. As soon as the social democrats had united and had begun to show promise of rapid growth, Bismarck began a series of attacks on them, culminating in the Anti-Socialist Laws of 1878. The legislation crippled social-democratic activity in a wide variety of areas, including trade unions, consumers’ cooperatives, educational societies, even glee clubs…For the next twelve years the SPD became a kind of outlawed party, its followers put under police surveillance, its leaders arrested, intimidated, or driven into exile.15

These policies, and the refusal of liberals to oppose them, showed the SPD to be the only hope of muting Bismarck’s power. The SPD won seats in the Reichstag at every election. When the Anti-Socialism Laws lapsed in 1890, the party recommitted itself to Marxism. It expected revolution and the overthrow of the economic system, but recognized that the revolution could be decades away. In the meantime it would pursue reforms that improved the workers’ welfare.

Marxist parties were less popular in France, where they competed with the many forms of socialism that had been developed by the French themselves. As well, the French government was much less authoritarian than the German government. The French expected parliamentary government to yield significant social reforms, so they generally preferred democratic radicalism to socialism. In the late nineteenth century there were about one-tenth as many French socialists as German socialists.

Socialism was still less popular in Britain. It was discussed by the intellectual elite, and even had the support of John Stuart Mill. However, the common people were proud of their long history of parliamentary government, and believed that Britain’s social problems would eventually be solved through legislation. To the extent that workers needed independent representation, they relied on their trade unions. No political party developed to the left of the Liberal Party.


Marxism became more widely known in the 1870s and 1880s. Engels’ Socialism: Utopian and Scientific presented it in a simple form and was widely read. The Communist Manifesto, which had been overshadowed by the revolutions of 1848, also gained attention. By the 1890s Marxism was a well-established (if not broadly accepted) ideology.

Karl Kautsky, an SPD ideologue, sought to maintain a uniform and coherent Marxist line within the SPD. He opposed a plan to broaden the party’s electoral base by attracting peasant farmers. The farmers were bourgeois, he argued, and had no place in the party of the proletariat. The party supported him. A more serious ideological danger came when Edouard Bernstein, a long-time member of the SPD, published Evolutionary Socialism (1899) with the intent of explaining why Marx’s predictions were not being realized.

Bernstein based his critique on a position that questioned Marxian dialectics; he denied, in other words, that tensions or contradictions which would lead to violent revolution were inherent in capitalism. He considered socialism desirable but not inevitable. It would come only if people desired it and worked for it. And socialism would not be the product of a cataclysmic confrontation of bourgeoisie and proletariat; it would come gradually, reform by reform.

With statistics and other carefully assembled factual material Bernstein demonstrated that most workers were enjoying markedly improved living standards. He showed that property was not becoming concentrated in all areas of the economy; indeed, middle-sized incomes and moderate holdings of property were increasing absolutely and relatively. The members of the petty bourgeoisie were not disappearing in large numbers to join the ranks of the proletariat; many shopkeepers and peasants were proving themselves capable of resisting destruction at the hands of large-scale capitalist production, and white-collar workers, who had an essentially non-proletarian, petty-bourgeois outlook, were appearing in growing numbers. Thus in neither social nor economic terms was capitalism developing in the direction of polarization and violent confrontation.16

Kautsky recognized that if Bernstein’s thinking were accepted, the SPD would cease to be a revolutionary party and become a reform party — its raison d’être would disappear. Kautsky attacked:

He described Bernstein’s talk of reform through class cooperation as utter nonsense in Germany, since the German bourgeoisie was both unsympathetic to the plight of workers and disdainful of the concept of popular rule.17

Kautsky again succeeded in holding the Marxist line within the party. The next ideological threat came from outside the party, and outside Germany.

Marxism held that revolution would occur only when capitalism had fully developed and the workforce reduced to a downtrodden proletariat. Russia, a country with little industry and a small proletariat, should not have been on the brink of a workers’ revolution, and yet it was. The impoverishment of the people led to massive unrest, in both the cities and the countryside, in the early 1900s. The unrest culminated in “Bloody Sunday”:

A major strike in Saint Petersburg developed into a plan to present a petition directly to the tsar, asking for political as well as economic reform. On January 22, a huge crowd of some 200,000, including women and children (whose presence was normally viewed as a sign of peaceful intent), marched to the Winter Palace, singing patriotic songs and headed by an Orthodox priest, Father Gapon. But the tsar did not meet with the crowd. The security forces around the palace panicked, and fired wildly into the demonstrators, killing or wounding hundreds.18

This massacre swept away the people’s loyalty to the tsar, and the riots and strikes multiplied. The country’s young socialist organizations attempted to harness the people’s fervour by forming soviets (revolutionary councils) throughout the country — they had power of a sort, but it was highly fragmented. The tsar was beleaguered at home, and fighting a losing war (against Japan) abroad, but he held firm. The violence escalated; the crew of the battleship Potemkin mutinied. Then, in October, a ten-day general strike orchestrated by the Saint Petersburg soviet broke his resolve. In the October Manifesto, the tsar promised the people a constitution that guaranteed civil rights, broader suffrage, and a parliament that would have significant power.

The tsar was not broken: he spent the next decade slowly clawing back these concessions. Nevertheless, the power of a general strike had been made clear, and a faction of the SPD, led by Rosa Luxemburg, thought that it should be attempted in Germany. Kautsky disagreed. Marxism claimed that true revolution could only occur when capitalism was fully developed, and Germany was not yet there. Declaring a general strike was tantamount to launching the revolution prematurely. The revolution would fail, and the gains that had already been made would be lost in the ensuing crackdown. Luxemburg was willing to accept this possibility: a revolution, even if it failed, would radicalize the masses. Kautsky once again prevailed. Luxemburg could not be conciliated, and a decade later, she formed the German Communist Party along Leninist lines.

In the early years of the twentieth century, the SPD remained a committed Marxist party. In the elections of 1912, it won 110 of the 397 seats in the Reichstag, making it the largest single party. It nevertheless remained on the margins of power. The German constitution did not require the chancellor to have the support of the majority of the Reichstag, and the SPD’s inability to make meaningful coalitions with bourgeois parties limited its legislative influence.

Marxism and socialism in France remained splintered, and with the exception of Jules Guesde (who was ideologically aligned with the SPD), it tended to be reformist rather than revolutionary. In Britain the Labour Party was created in the 1900s, largely as a result of the efforts of the trade unions, with the Fabian Society providing ideological support. It won 42 seats in the elections of 1910, and 142 seats in the elections of 1922.

By the beginning of World War I, socialist parties were well-established across Europe. They had won 35% of the popular vote in Germany, 36% in Sweden, 30% in Belgium and Denmark, 25% in Austria, 21% in Italy, 17% in France.19

The Advent of War

Lenin, like Bernstein, recognized that the economy was not evolving as Marx had predicted. For him, the missing piece of the puzzle was imperialism.

The extraordinary profits that imperialistic capitalism was able to reap permitted it to “buy off” a section of the proletariat, which he termed the “workers’ aristocracy.” Higher profits permitted higher salaries for this group, and it gradually came to lose its proletarian identity and to live a life of relative affluence. Composed of skilled workers and bureaucrats in the unions and socialist parties, it lost all desire for revolution. Even more, it did its best to dampen and pervert the rebellious spirits of the more exploited strata below it, and to cooperate with bourgeois authorities by whipping up nationalist passions in the working class.

Lenin perceived even wider implications in imperialism. The high profits made possible by exploiting colonial labor allowed capitalists of the West to feel so secure in their rulership that they could fashion more sophisticated tools of manipulation; they could afford to extend the blessings of formal political democracy and liberal constitutionalism. Universal manhood suffrage, freedom of the press (including the socialist press), freedom of assembly, the right to strike, social welfare, legislation — all were found useful by the more prescient elements of the ruling class as ways of pacifying the masses.20

Lenin believed that the appropriate response to the outbreak of war in 1914 was revolution everywhere:

He rejected out of hand all arguments about the right of socialists to defend their countries against attack. He insisted that there could be no “aggressors” and “defenders,” no capitalist country that was in the right while others were in the wrong. There was only one fundamental cause for the war — the imperialistic strivings of all European governments — and thus no one socialist party had any more a right to national defense than any other. The only proper Marxist response to an imperialist war was a call for revolution.21

But when nationalism collided with the socialism, nationalism won out: the Germans feared that their sophisticated industrial country would be overrun by Russian peasants; the French feared that their democracy would be abolished by German despots. The Second International, which had acted as a bridge between national socialist organizations, fell apart. The worldwide revolution of the proletariat would have to wait.

  1. Lindemann, A History of European Socialism, pp. xi-xii.
  2. Lindemann, A History of European Socialism, p. xiii.
  3. Lindemann, A History of European Socialism, p. xiii.
  4. Lindemann, A History of European Socialism, p. xv.
  5. Lindemann, A History of European Socialism, p. 57.
  6. William Doyle, The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2001), p. 23.
  7. Babeuf, The defense of Gracchus Babeuf before the High Court of Vendôme (Gehenna Press, 1964), p. 45.
  8. Babeuf, The defense of Gracchus Babeuf before the High Court of Vendôme, p. 29.
  9. Babeuf, The defense of Gracchus Babeuf before the High Court of Vendôme, p. 22.
  10. Babeuf, The defense of Gracchus Babeuf before the High Court of Vendôme, pp. 32-3.
  11. The Bourbons had been restored in 1814, following Napoleon’s abdication.
  12. Communism had not initially been clearly differentiated from socialism, but was now acquiring a distinct meaning: “It was used, first and foremost, to describe a thoroughgoing egalitarianism and collectivism (and thus was ostensibly embraced by the most desperately poor and exploited workers). Secondly — with less consistency and consensus — it implied a taste for violence. Marx chose to call himself a communist in the late 1840s in order to differentiate his hard-headed, ‘scientific’ theories from the pipe dreams of what he termed ‘utopian socialism.’ The term fell into relative disuse in the late nineteenth century, when it was used mostly by certain anarchists, but during the First World War Lenin revived it in order to distinguish his brand of revolutionary elitist Marxism from what he considered the sell-out Marxism of the leaders of the main socialist parties of the time. Both Marx and Lenin also used the term communist on a more speculative level to describe the ultimate society, which would come after an initial, imperfect ‘socialist’ society.” (Lindemann, A History of European Socialism, pp. xvii-xviii.
  13. Lindemann, A History of European Socialism, p. 78.
  14. It is perhaps not as radical as it first appears: “property” meant the ownership of productive assets, and not personal or household objects.
  15. Lindemann, A History of European Socialism, pp. 135-6.
  16. Lindemann, A History of European Socialism, p. 150.
  17. Lindemann, A History of European Socialism, p. 152.
  18. Lindemann, A History of European Socialism, p. 173.
  19. Joshua Muravchik, Heaven On Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism (Encounter Books, 2002), pp. 128-9.
  20. Lindemann, A History of European Socialism, pp. 192-3.
  21. Lindemann, A History of European Socialism, p. 192.