The history of socialism is characterised by many different movements, philosophers, politicians, etc. However, I shall just mention those that I personally think are most important; that give the most meaning to my conception of socialism.
The people that I trace my own conception of socialism back to, even before Marx, were known as ‘utopian socialists’. Those like Saint Simon, helped set up communities or communes based upon utopian lines. They, thus, tried to spread the idea of the superiority of socialism by example. Additionally, Thomas More’s book Utopia has had a profound impact upon early socialist thought.
It was the industrial revolution, though, that sparked off and evolved rapid socialist thought through Karl Marx. The appallingly long hours of the working class in factories, the exploitation of children and horrendous labour conditions all influenced socialism as a reaction towards it. Marx saw this, and increasingly saw the effects capitalism had on workers; the alienation of workers from themselves, each other and from the means of production.
Two modes of socialists branched out from this beginning: revolutionary socialists and evolutionary socialist. The revolutionary variety is represented by Che Guevara, who has been ‘icon-ised’ for the part he played in attempting to spread revolution to Latin America (especially in Cuba) and parts of Sub-Saharan Africa . His role was important as part of a resistance movement and as a lesson for today that the fight for socialism is a continual struggle; the October revolution in Russia culminated in a totalitarian regime under Stalin, as so did China and others.
In Western Europe evolutionary socialism or what was dubbed as ‘gradualism’ by the Fabian Society was the preferred method. They held the belief that socialism would grow as a movement through the education of politicians, academics and prominent intellectuals. Officials would come to realise socialism as a superior, efficient and ethical system. This culminated in the creation of the Labour party, primarily a trade unionist party, which had its biggest success with its 1945 election victory and subsequent creation of the welfare state. Since then the socialist policies of the Labour Party have been in decline, and with the replacement of ‘Old Labour’ with ‘New Labour’ in 1994 marked the transition from socialism to the ‘third way’ through revisionism and more recently ‘neo- revisionism’. Even with the Labour Party’s move rightwards through the political spectrum, Anthony Giddens still suggests that Labour is a ‘centre-left’ political Party.
So what went wrong with socialism? It seems that the history of socialism is personified by what many people perceive as its failure as a successful economic system. Trotsky is an important socialist thinker in this regard as both a critic of the Soviet Union under Stalin and the Labour Party (back in the 1920s) and so can help us understand what went wrong. He predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union, and diagnosed that the problem lay in the privileged bureaucracy which held concentrated power, both politically and monetarily, at the expense of the proletariat. Trotsky also criticised the corruption of the Labour Party, back in the 1920s, which he said didn’t go far enough in emancipating the working class, and it’s imperialistic foreign policy. Trotsky pinned his hopes on Internationalism and the world revolution as the best way to instigate proper socialism.
The conclusions drawn from each brand of socialism paint a gloomy picture of socialism today. But it is only through looking back at history and learning from the problematic attempts of socialism that we can avoid similar mistakes in the future. Today, many people pin their hopes on Venezuela and the ‘Bolivarian revolution’ in Latin America, although it is too soon to predict how it will turn out.
The radical left in Britain at the moment is represented mainly by the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party. The state of the radical left is somewhat fragmented and divided ideologically. For example the SWP saw Stalin’s Russia as ‘state capitalism’ and the Socialist Party see it as a ‘degenerated workers state’. The SWP see the future through the Respect party, the socialist party a campaign for a new workers party, which they hope will gain the support of trade unions and so take them away from Labour. The well- organised and enjoyable event, Marxism 2007, hosted by the SWP, clearly demonstrated the variety of opinions of socialists on various issues. It was certainly propitious in encouraging debate and discussion. In the end it matters little what party you are part, what matters is the ideas. Certainly, one hopes that the arguments that ring true will win out in the end and socialists can move forward in solidarity.