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10-08-2015, 15:27

THE RISE OF THE SOCIALIST MOVEMENT

One of the less desirable consequences of the Industrial Revolution was the yawning disparity in the distribution of wealth. If industrialization brought increasing affluence to an emerging middle class, to millions of others it brought grinding hardship in the form of low-paying jobs in mines or factories characterized by long working hours under squalid conditions. The underlying cause was clear: under the circumstances prevailing in most industrializing societies in Europe, factory owners remained largely free to hire labor on their own terms, based on market forces. Beginning in the last decades of the eighteenth century, radical groups began to seek the means to rectify the problem. Some found the answer in intellectual schemes that envisaged a classless society based on the elimination of private property. Others prepared for an armed revolt to overthrow the ruling order and create a new society controlled by the working masses. Still others began to form trade unions to fight for improved working conditions and reasonable wages. Only one group sought to combine all of these factors into a comprehensive program to destroy the governing forces and create a new egalitarian society based on the concept of “scientific socialism.” The founder of that movement was Karl Marx, a German Jew who had abandoned an academic career in philosophy to take up radical political activities in Paris. Marxism made its first appearance in 1847 with the publication of a short treatise, The Communist Manifesto, written by Karl Marx (1818–1883) and his close collaborator, Friedrich Engels (1820 –1895). In the Manifesto, the two authors predicted the outbreak of a massive uprising that would overthrow the existing ruling class and bring to power a new revolutionary regime based on their ideas (see the box above). When revolutions broke out all over Europe in the eventful year of 1848, Marx and Engels eagerly but mistakenly predicted that the uprisings would spread throughout Europe and lead to a new revolutionary regime led by workers, dispossessed bourgeois, and communists. When that did not occur, Marx belatedly concluded that urban merchants and peasants were too conservative to support the workers and would oppose revolution once their own immediate economic demands were satisfied. As for the worker movement itself, it was clearly still too weak to seize power and could not expect to achieve its own objectives until the workers had become politically more sophisticated and better organized. In effect, revolution would not take place in western Europe until capitalism had “ripened,” leading to a concentration of capital in the hands of a wealthy minority and an “epidemic of overproduction” because of inadequate purchasing power by the impoverished lower classes. Then a large and increasingly alienated proletariat could drive the capitalists from power and bring about a classless utopia. For the remainder of his life, Marx acted out the logic of these conclusions. From his base in London, he undertook a massive study of the dynamics of the capitalist system, a project that resulted in the publication of the first volume of his most famous work, Das Kapital (“Capital”), in 1869. In the meantime, he attempted to prepare for the future revolution by organizing the scattered radical parties throughout Europe into a cohesive revolutionary movement, called the International Workingmen’s Association (usually known today as the First International), that would be ready to rouse the workers to action when the opportunity came. Unity was short-lived. Although all members of the First International shared a common distaste for the capitalist system, some preferred to reform it from within (many of the labor groups from Great Britain), whereas others were convinced that only violent insurrection would suffice to destroy the existing ruling class (Karl Marx and the anarchists around Russian revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin). Even the radicals could not agree. Marx believed that revolution could not succeed without a core of committed communists to organize and lead the masses; Bakunin contended that the general insurrection should be a spontaneous uprising from below. In 1871, the First International disintegrated. While Marx was grappling with the problems of preparing for the coming revolution, European society was undergoing significant changes. The advanced capitalist states such as Great Britain, France, and the Low Countries (Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands) were gradually evolving into mature, politically stable societies in which Marx’s dire predictions were not being borne out. His forecast of periodic economic crises was correct enough, but his warnings of concentration of capital and the impoverishment of labor were somewhat wide of the mark, as capitalist societies began to eliminate or at least reduce some of the more flagrant inequities apparent in the early stages of capitalist development. These reforms occurred because workers and their representatives had begun to use the democratic political process to their own advantage, organizing labor unions and political parties to improve working conditions and enhance the role of workers in the political system. Many of these political parties were led by Marxists, who were learning that in the absence of a social revolution to bring the masses to power, the capitalist democratic system could be reformed from within to improve the working and living conditions of its constituents. In 1889, after Marx’s death, several such parties (often labeled “social democratic” parties) formed the Second International, dominated by reformist elements committed to achieving socialism within the bounds of the Western parliamentary system. Marx had also underestimated the degree to which workers in most European countries would be attracted to the appeal of nationalism. Marx had viewed nation and culture as false idols diverting the interests of the oppressed from their true concern, the struggle against the ruling class. In his view, the proletariat would throw off its chains and unite in the sacred cause of “internationalist” world revolution. In reality, workers joined peasants and urban merchants in defending the cause of the nation against its foreign enemies. A generation later, French workers would die in the trenches defending France from workers across the German border. A historian of the late nineteenth century might have been forgiven for predicting that Marxism, as a revolutionary ideology, was dead. To the east, however, in the vast plains and steppes of central Russia, it was about to be reborn.

 

 

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