Western European History of Socialism and Communism, Part 1

Western European History of Socialism and Communism

Western European History of Socialism and Communism

There has always and everywhere been uprisings by lower classes. For example, the European middle ages experienced the peasant’s wars or some radical strains of the reformation. Modern socialism, however, originated from the french revolution, like so many contemporary political movements. The figureheads of this world-changing event were mainly products of the middle classes. But beneath even the most radical forms of Jacobinism, a new form of lower-class ambition was boiling. The mass of revolutionaries came from way down anyway. The peasant’s motivation was the abolition of serfdom, which they achieved by storming their lords’ estates but loosing further revolutionary ambitions in the process. The urban poor, on the other hand, found no such relief. Organising themselves as “sans-culottes “(literally: “without breeches “), at first, they were allied with the Jacobins, as long as those established universal (male) suffrage without restrictions by property and relieved their immediate hunger by price controls. But the new ambitions of the urban poor went much further. Equality could only mean shared ownership of the economy. Liberty for all could only be ensured by equality. Because of the liberation of all, including the revolting slaves in the colonies, the urban poor became their most ardent allies. Also, whereas Jacobins like Robespierre favoured the replacement of old Christianity by a new cult of reason or an indistinct “supreme being “, many lower-class revolutionaries favoured outright atheism. So, because Robespierre feared these revolutionary social tendencies as much as his more moderate adversaries did, more workers then aristocrats ended up guillotined. The Jacobins lost their base and subsequently power.

Early Socialism

The proto-socialists within the french revolution may have been defeated, but a new political movement was born. The rough outlines of it were clear. The enlightenments promises of freedom and equality were to be pursued with a heavy emphasis on material equality. The realisation of these aims would have to come from the lower classes themselves and all of the lower classes, no matter their origin or background. This universalism was to become internationalism and tended to include colonised people more strongly than in any other political movement. Also, since the liberation of the lower classes could only come from the lower classes themselves, not from “God, nor Caesar, nor tribune “, as the Internationale would state later, socialism tended to be the most worldly irreligious modern political movement.

Besides these fundamental outlines, however, the young movement had still a lot to figure out. The many early forms of socialism can be best categorised into two broad terms: insurrection and utopian socialism. The insurrectionists already emerged from the later stages of the french revolution, when the ‚conspiracy of equals ‘sought to overthrow the post-Jacobin government by a popular uprising. In all the early 19th century’s many revolutions, the insurrectionists were fighting in the front row, pursuing widescale political revolution. On the other hand, the utopians tried to establish small-scale socialist communities to lead societies evolution by example.

Artisan Communism

Furthermore, since the core of early socialism was formed not by industrial wage-workers, which still barely existed, but by artisans, some issues were further complicated. Industrial wage workers are already bereft of any means to individually earn their livelihoods and thus are not emotionally linked to small property forms. On the other hand, artisans traditionally worked in small individual workshops, losing the battle against the modern industry. Thus, artisan communists tended to favour localism, which could not meaningfully tackle the evermore widescale societies and their governments. Also, impoverished artisans sometimes tended towards attacking the machines that replaced them (‚luddism ‘) instead of their owners. However, some historians have since argued that these were attempts at ‚bargaining by riot ‘and aimed at hitting the owner class where it hurts, thus not rejecting industrial development as a whole.

On the plus side, the artisan communists could easily form wide-ranging organisations since the middle-aged artisans (‚journeyman ‘) traditionally had to travel for some time between their apprenticeship and attempting to become a master craftsman themselves. Also, a lot of the most outspoken artisan communists were in exile anyway. It tells about early internationalism that many attempts at nation-wide labour organisations were formed outside of the respective countries. The most famous of these organisations would be the League of the Just, a predominantly german organisation founded in Paris.

Communism and Anarchism

In 1847 the League of the Just merged with the Communist Correspondence Committee lead by Marx and Engels and renamed itself as the Communist League. The emerging strain of communism was to shed all residues of pre-modern romanticism finally. The industrial revolution was now seen as an enormous step forward, brutal as its form may be. But as it could not be stopped anyway, it had to be overtaken to be made more humane.

Similarly, the globalising effects of capitalism were to be embraced but outmatched. (See: “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Capitalism “.)

Related changes lead to modern anarchism as another subset of contemporary socialism. However, the anarchists tended to remain more localist to avoid hierarchy, often found in widespread organisations. Together with other strains, the communists and anarchists came together within the International Workingmen’s Association, or First International, in 1866. While they split again some years later, they made a lasting impression. A common quote that is likely misattributed to the german chancellor Bismarck declares: “Crowned heads, wealth and privilege may well tremble should ever again the Black [anarchists] and Red [communists] unite! ”

Communism and Social Democracy

Despite the split, the Marxist tendencies would soon seem on the road to inevitable victory. From the 1860s onward, they increasingly organised themselves in what was known as social democratic parties, soon founding the second or socialist international. You can see that communism, social democracy and the broader term of socialism were partly used interchangeably at the time. Thus democracy was also heavily associated with socialism/communism. And indeed, while they did not abandon their revolutionary goals, they did leave the failed insurrectionism of the early 19th century. Instead, democracy was increasingly seen as the road to revolution. But it was not undisputed what (social) democracy meant. The only government that Marx (and contemporary anarchists) ever endorsed was the short-lived Paris Commune in 1871. The revolting parties instituted a radical form of direct democracy, called council democracy. The population held their elected officials in tight control by imperative mandates and the right to immediately revoke their posts, should they not act accordingly. This is what the often misunderstood expression “dictatorship of the proletariat “meant.

But other social democrats came to increasingly endorse parliamentarian forms of democracy that we know today and that were in part begrudgingly instituted as a token to their democratic struggle. These are the roots of what social democracy would come to mean later.

But in the meantime, the social democrats, which still were Marxists, celebrated a triumph over triumph. (If I use predominantly german examples in this paragraph, this is because the German social democratic party was at the time seen as the vanguard of international socialism. Marx had expected the British workers to fulfil this role in the motherland of the industrial revolution. But as the german empire rapidly industrialised, the working class in Germany boomed in equal measure, as did their organisations.) Even while every social-democratic organisation except direct election participation was strictly outlawed, many socialist leaders were rotting in the dungeons, and most electoral systems heavily disfavored them. Every single election pushed its results to new limits. Even the first nation-wide social systems were implemented so obviously to appease the socialist workers that the fact was outright admitted, and their triumphal march continued undeclared. Soon the banning of social democratic organisations fell.

You could even argue that the autonomous working-class organisations fulfilled many state functions better than the actual state. In the abysmal official schools, only rudimentary reading and counting skills were drilled into the lower-class children. In the worker’s education associations, they could find education. And even before Bismarck’s social insurances, some workers ran self-organised insurance agencies for retirement, invalidity and so on.

At the same time, the Marxist parties really pushed for universal liberation, being the first party ever to demand full women’s suffrage in 1875, decrying colonialism outright and even raising such outrageous demands as the decriminalisation or dépsychiatrisation of male and female homosexuality, respectively. Concerning internationalism, the german social democrats stated that if foreign labourers are good enough to be exploited in Germany, they are also good enough to be ‚ naturalised ‘, i.e. given citizenship. Though in theory, the french socialist party outperformed them in this regard, as they deemed themselves not a french socialist party and hence part of the socialist international, the french section of the socialist international and therefore the socialist party in France.

Parting Ways

So, why are we not living in a socialist world republic? Why did WWI rip apart the world instead, and why did fascism come to dominate the early 19th century? The triumph of socialism was not as inevitable as it seemed. The indivisible social-democratic unity was an illusion.

Beneath the surface, at least three factions emerged. The left-wing of social democracy, now dubbed the left radicals, insisted on revolutionary fervour. Reforms were excellent and necessary, but only essential to immediately assuage the worker’s plights and raise their consciousness through successful struggles. But in the end, the ruling classes would never give up power peacefully. The right-wing, dubbed reformists or revisionists, proposed the possibility of achieving socialism peacefully. Were they not continually coming closer? To fasten further gains, the general public should not be alienated by uncompromising opposition to issues like colonialism and insults to national pride. One could argue that they fell in love with the parliamentarian process and the party structure itself. One of the revisionists even declared that the end was nothing but the movement of everything. Between these wings, the old party leadership, known as the Marxist centre, tried to mitigate. Whatever strategy was to be pursued, party unity came first. After all, time was on their side, as the bourgeoisie was progressively producing their gravediggers, the workers, through industrialisation. And as a crisis could hit at any moment, or an imperialist war could break out, the party had to be always ready and united.

In short, no particular strategy was pursued. In the absence of concentrated offensives, many ranks and file social democrats did patchwork in their constituents’ immediate interest. This unofficial fourth faction, the pragmatists, became evermore dominant, and their practice may not have been outright reformist, but in fact, pretty close. Significant issues like anti-colonialism and the undermining of their respective states war machines fell by the wayside.

When the big imperialist war finally came in 1914, the international and its national sections were all but ready to support their federal governments mostly. Instead of stopping the war in its tracks by going on general strike everywhere as promised, they all hoped to curry public favour in their respective countries by enabling the slaughter.

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