Political Philosophy Part 2




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1. Definitions:


Currently the word is mostly taken to mean ‘state involvement in (or control of) the economy’ in order to create a more equal and therefore just social order... The broadest definition is that it is a movement for social equality (of both wealth and power). A more recent definition, influenced by Marxism stresses the social ownership of the means of producing wealth (as against capitalism, where the means of producing wealth are privately owned).


William Morris (see pp16: Marxism), in How I Became a Socialist, 1894, said:


“Socialism – a condition where there is neither rich nor poor, neither master nor master’s man, neither idle nor overworked, neither brain-sick brainworkers nor heart-sick handworkers – in which all men would be living in equality of conditions, would manage their affairs unwastefully, and with the full consciousness that harm to one would mean harm to all.”


The word ‘socialism’ originates with the followers of Robert Owen, 1827, (see below). Followers of Saint-Simon (1760 – 1825) also called themselves socialist.

The movement has a rich and complex history, and there are many, many different kinds of socialist!


- it stresses either (Heywood) the idea of ‘caring’ (from Latin sociare) and/or opposition to the idea of `economic man' (people are only motivated by selfish economic needs) i.e. for socialists we are social beings;  Heywood adds that this often means that socialists believe that ‘nurture’ is more influence on us than ‘nature’. (Opponents: we are naturally competitive and self-interested. Nature is more influential than nurture).


- it follows that socialism is usually collectivist (though anarchism and libertarian socialism try to balance this with freedom for the individual), hence the idea of the social ownership of the means of creating wealth. For some this collectivism means state control for others, different forms of ownership such as co-operatives. The opposition to private wealth is based on: (a) wealth is created by collective labour; (b) private property breeds acquisitiveness, greed, and (c) is divisive (A. Heywood). (Opponents: for individual freedom, against the ‘nanny state’).


- it is often seen as originating as protest against consequences of early industrialism and capitalism, but it can be argued (below!) that ‘socialist’ ideas run deeper than this and similar ideas have been put forward in earlier times. (Opponents: to oppose industrialisation is utopian).


- Since it was the working class that felt the most direct and degrading impact of industrial capitalism, socialism (in the modern sense) stands for labour – the dignity and rights of labour. (Opponents: may support inequality).


- it advocates [substantive] equality - primarily of wealth, material well-being etc, but also often of power. In addition, British socialism often has an ethical and an aesthetic dimension to it that is missing in Marxism. (Opponents: support [formal] equality of opportunity, oppose equality of outcome).


Note: there are notes and points on inequality at: Chapter 8 of Corporate Social Responsibility and at: Updates on Inequality.


- throughout history societies have been hierarchical, and the ‘lower orders’ have usually been treated badly. Most socialists have a ‘utopian’ streak: they want to bring about a better (more equal, fairer, and less exploitative) world. However the study of socialist ideas creates problems of theory and of historical study, as history (which influences how we see the world) has been written by - and for - the educated leaders of society, and it has largely ignored the under-classes. The under-classes have not been able to express their point of view because the poor/oppressed lack education. (Christopher Hill: The World Turned Upside Down). (Opponents: elite know best?).


2. There are related ideas:


- communism (originally meaning communal ownership, but since the Russian Revolution: a state-run, centrally planned economy, ‘guided’ by the communist party)

- syndicalism (organisation and control of industry by workers’ syndicates/unions)

- anarchism (a society without government, in which all are equal, and – for most anarchists – there is no private property).


3. There are also previous similar ideas:



- the stoics (3rd century BC) believed in "world city" where all are brothers


Early Christianity:

- some would argue that Christianity was originally ‘socialist’ in its belief that the poor were (at least) as worthy of respect as the rich, and in its view that what matters is not wealth but a ‘good’ i.e. Christian life.


During feudal times (14th and 15th centuries):

- there were many instances of mainly peasant revolts, often based on simple Christian view that we are all created equal e.g. John Ball (14th century – active 1360s – 1380s, imprisoned in Maidstone gaol, but released by the peasants during the 1381 poll tax riots… He was a wandering preacher):


“When Adam delved and Eve span,

Who was then a Gentleman?”


“Ah ye good people, the matters goeth not well to pass in England, nor shall do till everything be common, and that there be no villains nor gentlemen, but that we are all united together, and that the lords be no greater masters than we. What have we deserved, or why should we be thus kept in servage? We be all come from one father and mother, Adam and Eve: whereby can they say or show that they be greater lords than we, saving by that they cause us to win and labour for that they dispend?”


16th century:


- during the Reformation, Anabaptists and others pushed non-conformist (in the religious sense) ideas in a radical direction, and advocated equality (especially ‘in the sight of God’). Note Luther’s hostility to the Anabaptists – they represented ‘disorder’.


17th century:


- during the English Civil War, (1640s), disputes arose over widening of franchise, and the Levellers in Cromwell's army wanted the vote extended beyond those with property. Overton in 1647:


“For by naturall birth, all men are equally and alike born to like propriety, liberty and freedom, and we are delivered of God by the hand of nature into this world, every one with a naturall, innate freedome and propriety (as it were writ in the table of every mans heart, never to be obliterated) even so are we to live, every one equally and alike to enjoy his Birth-right and privilege; even all whereof God by nature had made him free.”


If the vote was not given to everyone it would be “a mere vassalage of the nation, as if the nation could have nothing by right, but all by favour; this cannot hold with the rule of Mine and Thine, one to have all and another nothing: one’s a gentleman, th’other a beggar.”


- the "diggers" protested at the enclosure of common land, using direct action, and proposing (through Gerard Winstanley - 1652 The Law of Freedom in a Platform) something like Marx’s "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need" – and the abolition of money which follows from this. (There was also a more extreme religious group, the Ranters – Christian communists).


“Every tradesman shall fetch materials… from the public store-houses to work upon without buying and selling; and when particular works are made… the tradesmen shall bring these particular works to particular shops, as it is now the practice, without buying and selling. And every family as they want such things as they cannot make, they shall go to these shops and fetch without money.”


- at this time several ‘utopias’ were written, which often but not always contain socialistic ideas:


Sir Thomas More - wrote first utopia (= "no place") 1516, specifying ideal city layout, family size, routine (only a few hours work each day), and based on

the abolition of private property. Some say it was not a serious proposal.


Other utopian writings: James Harrington: Oceana, John Bellers: Proposal for raising a colledge of industry, 1695.


18th century:


- Tom Paine (1737 - 1809) pressed for the "rights of man" and contributed to both the French and American Revolutions. Argued: sovereign power lies with the people, constitution should be based on the rights of man, privilege should be abolished, wars are "hobbies of privilege and despotism", man has innate common sense which brings about peace, it is right to abolish bad government. ‘The Rights of Man’ 1791.


- William Godwin (1756 - 1836) - anarchist - also stressed the negative effects of government; ‘Political Justice’ 1793.

- William Blake (1757 – 1827) – artist and poet – advocated freedom to the human imagination, against the ‘repression’ of natural emotions; and attacked the poverty and exploitation that he saw around him especially in London.

- Gracchus Babeuf (1760 – 1797) - a Jacobin, arrested for ‘conspiracy of equals’- although the words ‘socialist’, and ‘anarchist’ didn’t exist at the time, his ideas have been linked to them, and to ‘communism’ a term which arose from a conversation, around 1840, between Goodwyn Barmby (1820 – 1881, a follower of Robert Owen…) and followers of Babeuf (Wikipedia). Barmby introduced Engels to French ‘communists’ and later turned his own communist movement into a church. 


19th century:


- it is in this period (with the growth of industry etc) that ‘socialist’ ideas gain currency, e.g. Fourier, Saint-Simon, Robert Owen - many of these writers described "ideal" societies and Engels wrote against these as "utopian"; i.e. they were not based on what Marx and Engels believed were the scientific theory they had developed viz: class struggle, dialectical progress beyond capitalism etc.


4. More on the variety of socialist ideas (important not to believe that all started (let alone ends!) with Marx):

I suggest three or four reasons for the differences:


(i) As Heywood argues, ‘socialism’ can indicate (i) an economic model, (ii) an instrument of the labour movement – the interests of the working class, (iii) an ideology or political creed based on ideas of: community (* see below), co-operation, equality, social class (see Marx), common ownership.


(ii) One classification (by R.N. Berki in ‘Socialism’, 1975) suggests there are different emotional/philosophical bases for those who call themselves socialist:


- moralism (ethical; including western social democracy, Christian socialism?)

- rationalism (atheistic, ‘scientific’; European Marxism)

- egalitarianism (mainly third world)

- libertarianism (life-enhancing/hedonistic from the 1960s - the "love-makers"; vs. puritanical/ascetic, authoritarian [Stalin, Lenin?] socialism…).

Also council communism, SPGB…


(iii) There are also bound to be differences over strategy and tactics – what are the best means to reach the socialist end:

- economistic (Lenin believed the trade unions were only capable of making economistic demands – yet capitalism is an economic system) versus political (the need to capture the state)

- a (socialist or communist) party, trades unions (= syndicalism), soviets (= council communism), alternative communities (i.e. growing the new society in the shell of the old)

- using the state (through voting, reformist; social democrats, Fabians, Labour Party, CPGB), changing the state through revolution (SWP et al – WRP, RCG, etc!), maybe abolishing the state (therefore similar to anarchism)


(iv) Finally, since socialist ideas have grown up - or been applied - in many different cultural and historical situations, explains e.g.:

- nationalistic (Stalin again) versus internationalist (Trotsky…).


A final quote:

(*) Heywood quotes John Donne (1571 - 1631): “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”.



5. An Example: Robert Owen (1771 – 1858):


(From Socialism in Britain by A.L. Morton):

- a mill-owner i.e. industrialist (at New Lanark), born and brought up in Wales, from a prosperous farming family, then moved to Glasgow and bought New Lanark, becoming manager of the mills there (1799, 1810). He sold the mills in 1813 to Jeremy Bentham and a Quaker William Allen (who were happy to be involved for only a modest return on their investment) – he was at first a follower of Bentham but became more of a socialist.


- believed we are products of our upbringing and environment (‘nurture’ not ‘nature’) and therefore cannot be held responsible for our actions – see Address to the Inhabitants of New Lanark – extract below – and A New View of Society, or Essays on the Principle of the Formation of the Human Character 1813, hence he emphasised the importance of education etc


- opposed all religions as they kept their followers weak or bigoted or hypocritical (Wikipedia: 


- evolved a ‘labour theory of value’ – arguing that ills such as war (Napoleonic wars) and poverty resulted from the competition of men and machines – machines must be subservient to the workers using them


- whilst most workers were kept in rotten conditions and worked for excessive hours, he gave the workers in his mill good conditions and a shorter working day – idyllic for the time… also provided a shop where goods of a good quality and reasonable price could be bought – as against the ‘truck’ system, where employers paid their workers in tokens which could only be used in their ‘truck shops’ (legislation ended this practice at the end of the 19th century). Co-operative shops today are descended from Owen’s initiative


- he provided a school for their children, and at New Lanark there was no drunkenness (this at the time when the ‘Peelers’ were set up to keep troublesome members of the working class in order)


- he realised it was not enough for him as an individual to improve workers’ conditions, whilst the rest of his class did not


- he could also see that private property, religion and marriage (and the nuclear family) all reinforced the current order so he argued for social change


- this included the idea of common ownership, and communities: communities of about 1200 persons should be established, living in one square building, with public kitchen and dining rooms, the children to be brought up by the community until age 3, work and produce to be held in common – they should be as far as possible self-sufficient, and federations should be formed so the whole country was organised this way


- two communities were set up: one near Glasgow (Orbiston, under his friend Abram Combe) in 1825, and one at New Harmony, Indiana (USA) – both failed after a few years… Owen did not try to guide or govern them, and they held a variety of different types of people (rough and educated…), or perhaps they failed because there was no private property… (Josiah Warren, one of the members of New Harmony – ‘we had a world in miniature’ but didn’t cater for the variety of individuals – he became an individualist anarchist…)


- note that even though he gave his workers better conditions, his profits were still very good… (“good business is good for business”).


An extract from Owen’s Address to the Inhabitants of New Lanark – illustrating his view on the importance of ‘nurture’ rather than ‘nature’ for explaining people’s character:


Every society which exists at present, as well as every society; which history records, has been formed and governed on a belief in the following notions, assumed as first principles:

First,—That it is in the power of every individual to form his own character. Hence the various systems called by the name of religion, codes of law, and punishments. Hence also the angry passions entertained by individuals and nations towards each other.

Second,—That the affections are at the command of the individual. Hence insincerity and degradation of character. Hence the miseries of domestic life, and more than one-half of all the crimes of mankind.

Third,—That it is necessary that a large portion of mankind should exist in ignorance and poverty, in order to secure to the remaining part such a degree of happiness as they now enjoy.

Hence a system of counteraction in the pursuits of men, a general opposition among individuals to the interests of each other, and the necessary effects of such a system,—ignorance, poverty, and vice.

Facts prove, however—

First,—That character is universally formed for, and not by, the individual.

Second,—That any habits and sentiments may be given to mankind.

Third,—That the affections are not under the control of the individual.

Fourth,—That every individual may be trained to produce far more than he can consume, while there is a sufficiency of soil left for him to cultivate.

Fifth,—That nature has provided means by which population may be at all times maintained in the proper state to give the greatest happiness to every individual, without one check of vice or misery.

Sixth,—That any community may be arranged, on a due combination of the foregoing principles, in such a manner, as not only to withdraw vice, poverty, and, in a great degree, misery, from the world, but also to place every individual under circumstances in which he shall enjoy more permanent happiness than can be given to any individual under the principles which have hitherto regulated society.

Seventh,—That all the assumed fundamental principles on which society has hitherto been founded are erroneous, and may be demonstrated to be contrary to fact. And—

Eighth,—That the change which would follow the abandonment of those erroneous maxims which bring misery into the world, and the adoption of principles of truth, unfolding a system which shall remove and for ever exclude that misery, may be effected without the slightest injury to any human being.

Extract from A New View of Society:



‘Happily for poor traduced and degraded human nature, the principle for which we now contend will speedily divest it of all the ridiculous and absurd mystery with which it has been hitherto enveloped by the ignorance of preceding times: and all the complicated and counteracting motives for good conduct, which have been multiplied almost to infinity, will be reduced to one single principle of action, which, by its evident operation and sufficiency, shall render this intricate system unnecessary and ultimately supercede it in all parts of the earth. That principle is the happiness of self, clearly understood and uniformly practised, which can only be attained by conduct that must promote the happiness of the community.’ [My emphasis]


Note the similarity between these extracts and the view expressed in these two book reviews:


On the excessive individualism of our own culture, and how people who (for example) fail to look after their bodies are demonized as lazy, feeble or weak-willed

 – and the excessive and authoritarian emphasis on ‘wellness’ and ‘mindfulness’ see Steven Poole’s review of The Wellness Syndrome by Carl Cederstrom and Andre Spicer:


A similar point is made (over the page!) by Jonathan Ree, in a review of The Brain’s Way of Healing by Norman Doidge:


‘The neuroplastic revolution is part of a contemporary stampede towards the moralization of medicine: patients are encouraged to blame themselves for their sufferings, and to think that their chances of recovery depend not on the luck or good judgement of their doctors, but on their own will power.’


- In conclusion, the word socialism was used for the first time in 1827, in a paper produced by Owen’s followers.


6. Extra points:


For other notes on these pages which deal with ‘worker co-operatives’ see Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Chapter 1,  CSR Chapter 6, and CSR Chapter 8.


Note that the most recent Nobel Prize for economics has gone to Elinor Ostrum, for her work on how communities can manage resources (‘commons’) efficiently – an approach to economics that is neither ‘state-oriented’ nor ‘market-oriented’, and that vindicates the ideas of Owen. These ideas have relevance for dealing with the current global climate crisis.


Another radical in the 19th century was the Anglo-Irish landowner William Thompson – he came under the influence of the ideas of J.S. Mill, and also advocated the theory that labour creates value. In ‘Labour Rewarded’ [reference needed], 1827, he argued that profit is the value added by workers, and that a network of Owenite communities should be set up. Under the influence of Anna Wheeler, he also spoke up for women’s rights. An Appeal by one half of the human race. [reference needed]