socialism

Marxists and Gradualists

In the 1840s the term communism came into use to denote loosely a militant leftist form of socialism; it was associated with the writings of Étienne Cabet and his theories of common ownership. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels later used it to describe the movement that advocated class struggle and revolution to establish a society of cooperation.

In 1848, Marx and Engels wrote the famous Communist Manifesto, in which they set forth the principles of what Marx called "scientific socialism," arguing the historical inevitability of revolutionary conflict between capital and labor. In all of his works Marx attacked the socialists as theoretical utopian dreamers who disregarded the necessity of revolutionary struggle to implement their doctrines. In the atmosphere of disillusionment and bitterness that increasingly pervaded European socialism, Marxism later became the theoretical basis for most socialist thought. But the failure of the revolutions of 1848 caused a decline in socialist action in the following two decades, and it was not until the late 1860s that socialism once more emerged as a powerful social force.

Other varieties of socialism continued to exist alongside Marxism, such as Christian socialism, led in England by Frederick Denison Maurice and Charles Kingsley; they advocated the establishment of cooperative workshops based on Christian principles. Ferdinand Lassalle, founder of the first workers' party in Germany (1863), promoted the idea of achieving socialism through state action in individual nations, as opposed to the Marxian emphasis on international revolution. Through the efforts of Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel, Lassalle's group was brought into the mainstream of Marxian socialism. By the 1870s Socialist parties sprang up in many European countries, and they eventually formed the Second International. With the increasing improvement of labor conditions, however, and the apparent failure of the capitalist state to weaken, a major schism began to develop over the issue of revolution.

While nearly all socialists condemned the bourgeois capitalist state, a large number apparently felt it more expedient or more efficient to adapt to and reform the state structure, rather than overthrow it. Opposed to these gradualists were the orthodox Marxists and the advocates of anarchism and syndicalism, all of whom believed in the absolute necessity of violent struggle. In 1898, Eduard Bernstein denied the inevitability of class conflict; he called for a revision of Marxism that would allow an evolutionary socialism.

The struggle between evolutionists and revolutionists affected the socialist movement throughout the world. In Germany, Bernstein's chief opponent, Karl Kautsky, insisted that the Social Democratic party adhere strictly to orthodox Marxist principles. In other countries, however, revisionism made more progress. In Great Britain, where orthodox Marxism had never been a powerful force, the Fabian Society, founded in 1884, set forth basic principles of evolutionary socialism that later became the theoretical basis of the British Labour party. The principles of William Morris, dictated by aesthetic and ethical aims, and the small but able group that forwarded guild socialism also had influence on British thought, but the Labour party, with its policy of gradualism, represented the mainstream of British socialism. In the United States, the ideological issue led to a split in the Socialist Labor party, founded in 1876 under strong German influence, and the formation (1901) of the revisionist Socialist party, which soon became the largest socialist group.

The most momentous split, however, took place in the Russian Social Democratic Labor party, which divided into the rival camps of Bolshevism and Menshevism. Again, gradualism was the chief issue. It was the revolutionary opponents of gradualism, the Bolsheviks, who seized power in the Russian Revolution of 1917 and became the Communist party of the USSR. World War I had already split the socialist movement over whether to support their national governments in the war effort (most did); the Russian Revolution divided it irrevocably. The Russian Communists founded the Comintern in order to seize leadership of the international socialist movement and to foment world revolution, but most European Socialist parties, including the mainstream of the powerful German party, repudiated the Bolsheviks. Despite the Germans' espousal of Marxist orthodoxy, they had been notably nonrevolutionary in practical politics. Thereafter, revolutionary socialism, or communism, and evolutionary, or democratic, socialism were two separate and frequently mutually antagonistic movements.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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