In the late 19th cent. the gradual enfranchisement of the working classes gave impetus to socialism and the formation of Socialist political parties in many countries. Most were directly influenced by the teachings of Karl Marx. At the same time labor unions (see union, labor) were formed to improve the worker's economic status. In the 1870s and 80s, Socialist parties appeared in most European states; in 1889 they joined to form the Second International.
Despite similarities, the varying economic, social, and political conditions within countries gave distinctive national characters to the different socialist organizations. In France the political defeats experienced by socialists and other worker groups of the February Revolution (1848) and the Commune of Paris (1871) encouraged syndicalism and the revolutionary doctrine of Louis Auguste Blanqui. In Germany the state socialism of Ferdinand Lassalle gained wide acceptance. (For more detailed historical sketches of the Socialist parties in France and Germany, see below.) In Russia agrarian socialist ideas evolved indigenously (as did anarchism), finding expression in the Populist movement (see narodniki) and in the works of Aleksandr Herzen, Mikhail Bakunin, and others. Georgi Plekhanov introduced Marxism to Russia. (For the subsequent history of political socialism in Russia, see Socialist Revolutionary party; Bolshevism and Menshevism; communism.) Socialism in Great Britain developed in close association with the trade union movement and obtained its ideological direction from the evolutionary socialists of the Fabian Society rather than from Marxism (see Labour party). The Socialist parties in the Scandinavian countries were also generally moderate, and in the 20th cent. they soon gained a prominent political role.
All European Socialist parties were marked by schisms; the main issue dividing them was whether party members should cooperate with bourgeois-dominated governments to work for gradual reforms or should organize extralegally to hasten what Marxists viewed as inevitable, proletarian revolution. Eduard Bernstein, in Germany, was one of the first to deny (1898) some of Marx's doctrines and to argue for "revisionism."
World War I brought the collapse of Socialist internationalism, since many socialists supported their national governments in the war, some accepting ministerial positions. Of those opposing the war, the most notable were the Russian Bolsheviks, who in 1917 won control of their country in the Russian Revolution. After the war left-wing socialists, hoping for an extension of the Russian Revolution to other European countries, split off from the more moderate majority to form Communist parties. Thus a Third (Communist) International was formed to rival the Second International.
In the interwar years most of the Socialist parties discarded their revolutionary ideology. Many participated in coalition governments with bourgeois parties, and in Great Britain, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark they formed their own governments. However, since they formed either coalition or minority governments they were prevented from achieving structural socialist changes, although some social reforms were enacted. Socialists were not able to counter the rise of fascism, and in Italy, Germany, and Spain they were suppressed.
During World War II, socialists were prominent in the resistance movement in the countries occupied by Germany. In the postwar period the cold war widened the gulf between the Socialist and Communist parties, and most Socialist parties moved even further away from Marxism. Substantial periods of power have, however, enabled some to promote their goals of a planned economy and a welfare state in many European countries; their position has been especially strong in the Scandinavian countries. In the 1990s a number of Socialist parties moderated their commit to a planned economy and the welfare state, most especially the British Labour party, which went so far as to abandon formally its traditional Socialist positions.
See M. Beer, General History of Socialism and Social Struggles (1957); C. Landauer, European Socialism (1959); G. D. H. Cole, The Second International, 1889–1914 (1956), Communism and Social Democracy, 1914–1931 (1958), and Socialism and Fascism, 1931–1939 (1960); S. Kramer, Socialism in Western Europe (1984); A. S. Lindemann, A History of European Socialism (1984); J. Tomaszewski, The Socialist Regimes of Eastern Europe (1989).