A Short History of Socialism (part one)

The word socialism has become synonymous with the philosopher Karl Marx however it wasn’t he who coined the phrase and he certainly didn’t ‘invent’ it. The following blog entry will attempt to put Marx into his historical context, where one might view the ideas that formulated the great revolutionary thinking of the most influential and controversial Iconoclasts in the last 200 years. We can trace the principles of socialism all the way back to the bible, whereby Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, chased the ‘merchants and money changers’ from the temple accusing them of turning his “Father’s house into a den of thieves” eluding to the capitalist nature of the business they were conducting. Jesus even went as far as flogging them.  This would indicate that people (in the bible at least) looked upon bankers with distrust because of the exploitive nature of the work that they conduct.

It should come as no shock then, that the first socialist philosophers were also devout Christians.  Martin Luther and the protestant reformation left a void in which one might challenge the status quo and the nature of society as a whole. Enter the world’s first socialist; Gerrard Winstanley , (19 October 1609 – 10 September 1676) An English protestant, political philosopher, and activist, Winstanley was one of the founders of a group known as The Levellers , or Diggers, due to their beliefs and actions. The self titled ‘True Levellers ‘occupied private property and broke down the dividing bocage ,  growing  crops where borders once stood.

François Marie Charles Fourier (7 April 1772 – 10 October 1837), a forefather of Marxist thinking, was considered an extremely radical thinker in his day. He wrote extensively on social issues even coining the phrase feminism.  He posited that concern and cooperation were key foundations of a successful society. Fourier was convinced that only through cooperation could one expect to see a great increase of productivity levels. Workers would be rewarded for their labours according to their contribution. Fourier saw such cooperation occurring in communities he called “phalanxes” based around “grand hotels.” These buildings were four-level apartment complexes where the richest had the uppermost apartments and the poorest enjoyed a ground-floor residence. Wealth was determined by one’s job; jobs were assigned based on the interests and desires of the individual. There were incentives: jobs people might not enjoy doing would receive higher pay. Fourier considered trade, which he associated with Jews, to be the “source of all evil” and advocated that Jews be forced to perform farm work around these communes.

Fourier characterised poverty but did not make the Marxist connection to inequality as the principal cause of disorder in society. He proposed to eradicate it by sufficiently high wages and by a “decent minimum” for those who were not able to work.  Fourier used the word civilisation in a negative sense and as such “Fourier’s contempt for the respectable thinkers and ideologies of his age was so intense that he always used the terms philosopher and civilisation in a pejorative sense. In his lexicon civilisation was a depraved order, a synonym for perfidy and constraint. Fourier’s attack on civilisation had qualities not to be found in the writing of any other social critic of his time.” Beecher(1986)