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Defining the Left Socialism, Democracy, and the People


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Class and the Politics of Labor
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Defining the Left Socialism, Democracy, and the People


Calls  for  democracy  were linked  during  the era  of the French Revolution to more elaborate visions of the just society, organized around an ideal of independent small property and local self-government. In traditions of pop- ular  democracy,  this  linkage  went  back  to  the  English  Revolution  in  the seventeenth century and the ideals of the Levellers; in the eighteenth century it  reemerged  in  the  plebian  radicalism  of  the  American  Revolution  and related  movements  in  the  Low  Countries  and  Britain.  During  the  1790s, such movements acquired the general name of Jacobinism. Their pursuit of local democracy was greatly inspired by the insurgency of Parisian trades- men,  shopkeepers,  and  impecunious  professionals,  reaching  its  apogee  in the militancy of the sans-culottes during 1792–94.2

This  radical  democracy  of  small  property  holders  dominated  the pop- ular  insurgencies  flaring  across  Europe  at  various  times  in  the  1820s,  in

1830–31,  and  during  the  tumults  of  1848.  It  flourished  best  amid  large concentrations  of  handicrafts,  where  commercial  growth  both  stimulated the  skilled  trades  and  assailed  them  with  a  new  business  uncertainty  or where industrialism degraded them into systems of outwork and “protoin- dustry.” It fed on the teeming environment of Europe’s capital cities, which brought  artisans  together  with  shopkeepers,  small  traders,  lawyers  and other  professionals,  book  dealers,  journalists,  and  grubstreet  intellectuals to  compose  the  familiar  Jacobin  coalition.  Democratic  movements  might extend upward to elements of the recognized political nation or downward into the peasantry. Closer to 1848, they were augmented by students and some proletarianized workers. This pattern first registered in the last quar- ter of the eighteenth century—in the American colonies; in London, Nor- wich, and other centers of English Jacobinism; in Belfast and lowland Scot- land;  in  Warsaw;  in  the  Low  Countries,  Switzerland,  northern  Italy,  and other  areas  of  native  radicalism  paralleling  the  French;  and  of  course  in Paris.3

These  were  societies  experiencing  an  early  capitalist  transition,  where market  forces  were  already  transforming  existing  relations  of  production but where older popular ideologies of the just society endured. Inequalities among merchants, masters, and men widened, and large parts of the coun- tryside became proletarianized through the expansion of cottage industry. But this transitional world still supported the idealized political projections of  the  protesting  rural  outworker,  displaced  journeyman, and respectable

master artisan, with their belief in a moral economy and the commonwealth of all producers. Desires to protect and restore traditional forms of small- scale production could still be sustained, if not by a paternalist government then via radical visions of federated exchange and cooperation among self- governing  units  of  independent  producers.  The  permanence,  future direc- tion, and irreversibility of capitalist industrialization had yet to be clearly perceived.

Yet even as this radical democracy reached its climax in 1848, its bases were being undermined. The same capitalism penetrating the world of the small producer was also forging a very different environment of industry— of factories and mills, capitalists and wage-earners, and new urban popu- lations.  Certainly  the speed of  these developments can be exaggerated. In Britain, the pioneer industrializing economy, capitalist production remained remarkably dependent on both manual skills and small-scale organization, and in many industries this blunted the threat to the artisan’s status. Arti- sans remained proudly distinct from the mass of the unskilled and laboring poor, defending their property in skill, respectability and independence and armored by the sovereignty of the workshop. Between the late 1830s and early 1850s in Britain, Chartism became the first mass political movement of the industrial working class, transcending divisions between “artisanal” and “proletarian” workers to a remarkable extent. But artisanal attitudes provided the defining force, both as a distinctive approach to economy and society and in a larger tradition of thinking about the British state. Where industrialization came later, in the rest of Europe, such attitudes also had a long life.

Conditions  varied  industry  by  industry.  Some  divisions  of  labor  and technologies of production were kinder to craftsmen than others. Artisans disappeared rapidly in the more obviously modern industries, like iron and steel from the late nineteenth century and the highly mechanized new sec- tors of chemicals and electrical engineering from the start of the twentieth, followed  by  the  pathbreaking  mass  production  industries in  automobiles, aircraft, appliances, and other forms of assembly between the wars. In less capital-intensive branches like textiles and large areas of light manufacture, artisans  fared  much  better,  as  these  combined  outwork  and  unskilled

“sweated”  labor  with  craft  production  using  workshop-based  hand  tech- nologies.  Other  industries—like construction, carpentry, printing, leather- working, glass-making, shipbuilding, metalworking, and in a different way mining—continued to need handicraft workers of a very traditional sort. Yet,  whether  we  focus  on  newly  created  categories  of  industrial  labor or reconstituted forms of older skills, the capitalist reorganizing of the econ- omy  through  industrialization  necessarily  changed  the  worker’s  place  in society. Artisans increasingly lost control of their trades to the impersonal forces  of  the  capitalist  market.  They  surrendered  the  autonomy  of  the workshop to practical forms of dependence on larger-scale business orga- nization, before eventually becoming integrated directly into superordinate

structures  of  capitalist  production,  employment,  and  control.  Once  that happened,  social ideals of small-scale organization, local community, and personal  independence  became  far  harder  to  sustain.  That  is,  under  con- ditions of capitalist industrialization the implications of demanding popular sovereignty became profoundly transformed.

Gradually  and  unevenly,  democracy  became  linked  to  two  new  de- mands: an economic analysis of capitalism and a political program for the general reorganizing of society. The new ideas didn’t follow inevitably from socioeconomic change. But in  the  most  general  way, changes in the dem- ocratic idea clearly had this material source. They resulted from the serious efforts  of  political  thinkers,  and  countless  ordinary  women  and  men,  to understand the disruptions of their accustomed world. It was in that mo- ment of transformation that people began exploring the possibilities of col- lective ownership and cooperative production. And in that juncture of so- cioeconomic  change  and  political  rethinking  the  ideas  of  socialism  were born.

Thus democracy was always embedded in social history. Both the rad- ical democracy deriving from the French Revolution and the early socialism emerging from the 1830s entailed packages of practical socioeconomic de- mands. Such demands were deemed an essential accompaniment of genuine democracy, and this now became measured not by the centrality of small propertied  independence  but  by  the  advent  of  a  new  collectivism.  More- over, socialist ideas had a power and resonance of their own. They became diffused, embodied in institutions, and fixed into social relations; they en- tered people’s consciousness and behavior, becoming powerful motivations in their own right. The replacement of one kind of democracy by another entailed more than merely adjustment to a changing society, through which popular  awareness  eventually  caught  up  with  the  new  conditions.  It  was also a contest of ideas, with long and undecided results.4

The  later  nineteenth  century  became  the  scene  of  much  confusion,  as societies, regions, and economic structures shifted in different ways and at different  speeds  and  as  the  distinctive  socialist  ideal  of  democracy—“the social democracy,” as the pioneers called it—struggled to take form. Earlier democratic  ideas  showed  remarkable  tenacity  in  the  subsequent  socialist movements. Given European unevenness, that “earlier period” in any case meant  not  just  the  era  between  the  late  eighteenth  century  and  1848  but extended  well  into  the  1860s  in  Germany,  Italy,  and  central  Europe  and later still in the peripheries of the south and east. That older radical heritage was only finally left behind after 1917–18 via processes of dramatic clari- fication going back to the 1890s. The history of the socialist tradition be- fore 1914 was still in many ways a working-through of older legacies, as socialist  politicians  tried  to  decide  what  they  owed  to  earlier  democratic traditions and what these traditions could no longer provide.5


If capitalist industrialization transformed the conditions under which dem- ocratic  ideals  had  to  be  pursued,  the  social  meanings  of  those  ideals also changed. As the term “socialism” entered into general currency after 1850, this  was  the  transition  it  was  used  to  express.  “Social”  came  to  signify something more than the common system of institutions and relationships in which people lived and started to imply a desirable contrast to the emer- gent  capitalist  form  of  society.  It  came  to  mean  “an  idea  of  society  as mutual  cooperation,”  as  opposed  to  one  based  on  “individual  competi- tion.” Indeed, the “individualist form of society” associated with the new system of wage labor and private property became rejected as “the enemy of  truly  social  forms”  in  this  sense.  Thus  “[r]eal  freedom  could  not  be achieved,  basic  inequalities  could  not  be  ended,  [and]  social  justice . . . could  not  be  established,  unless  a  society  based  on  private  property  was replaced by one based on social ownershipand control.”6

In this way, democracy’s advocates gradually faced the consequences of progress. In 1848, “social-democracy” had still meant just the far left wing of  the radical coalitions.7   But as capitalist relations penetrated ever-larger regions  of  socioeconomic  life,  it  became  harder  and  harder  to  generalize the immediate circumstances of independent small producers into programs for  organizing  the  economy  as a  whole. This  opened  the space where so- cialist thinking could begin to emerge as a new and plausible option.

This space expanded once liberalism crystallized into an ideology cele- brating  an  entirely  individualist  type  of  society.  As  liberal  ideas  invaded public  policy  during  the  mid–nineteenth  century,  socialism  became  ever more serviceable for analyzing their harmful effects. The causal connections between private property, individualist philosophies, and an economically founded  system  of  class  domination  became  ever  easier  to  make.  On  the one  hand,  that  society  increasingly  conceded  certain  formal  equalities  of citizens under the law, including after the 1860s even limited forms of the right  to  vote.  On  the  other  hand,  extreme  material  inequalities  were  still defended by liberals as essential preconditions for the system.

The economics of democracy became the Left’s insistent preoccupation in  the  second  half  of  the  nineteenth  century. For radical  democrats of an earlier time, private property held within modest limits was a social ideal to  be  defended  against  the  rapacity  of  parasites  and  speculators.  But  for socialists, private property itself was the source of social ill. While liberals consciously  worked  for  the  separation  of  the  economic  from the political sphere, socialists came to see that very separation as a debilitating discrep- ancy.  Or,  as  Jean  Jaure`s,  the  French  Socialist  leader  before  1914,  put  it:

“Just  as  all  citizens  exercise  political  power  in  a  democratic  manner,  in common,  so  they  must  exercise  economic  power  in  common  as  well.”8

Accordingly,  social  democracy  came  to  signify  not  only  the  most  radical

form of parliamentary government but also the desire to extend democratic precepts  to  society  at  large,  including  the  organization  of  the  economy. This—the making social of democracy—was the crucial post-1848 depar- ture.

By  the  last  third  of  the  nineteenth  century,  socialists  were challenging political  definitions  of  democracy  with  a  new  question:  how  can  genuine democracy be achieved in a society fundamentally structured by class ine- qualities  of  ownership,  distribution,  and  control? On  this basis, the main features  of  socialist  economic  policy  became hotly debated—cooperation, public ownership and the socializing of production, industrial democracy, and  planned  direction  of  the  economy.  But  of  course,  as  most  socialist governments have found, any attempt to democratize the economy in the name of such policies encounters all manner of vested interests with priv- ileged access to political, bureaucratic, and ideological power. In practice, democratic goals can only ever be pursued against the resistance of domi- nant social groups.

The decisive political and philosophical question then becomes: how far can attacks on the legitimacy of private interests stay compatible with the democratic principle, without requiring the use of force and the damaging of  basic  rights,  while  the  new  collectivist  system  is  being  installed?  This question  has  caused  the  Left  endless  difficulties  over  the  years,  as  I  will show. How it tended to be resolved became one of the main dividing lines between reformist and revolutionary movements.


Socialism’s belief in  democracy’s social determinants and constraints—the salience of the social in social democracy—was a fundamental broadening of  the  democratic  idea.  But  in  other  ways,  the  latter  remained  seriously foreshortened. For most of the early democratic movements, except for the utopian socialists in the earlier nineteenth century, popular sovereignty re- mained a male preserve. Chartism in Britain, as the most impressive of these early movements, made this especially clear, because its famous Six Points for democratizing the constitution drawn upin 1837–38 expressly excluded votes for women.9  By the end of the nineteenth century, European socialist parties  had  certainly  become  the foremost advocates of women’s political rights, but female enfranchisement had still made virtually no progress by

1914.  Women  had  the  vote  only  in  certain  parts  of  the  North  American West and four of the world’s parliamentary states: New Zealand in 1893, Australia in 1903, Finland in 1906, and Norway in 1913.10

In  labor  movements,  women’s  second-class  citizenshipwas  linked  to explicitly discriminatory thinking consigning them to the family, household management, and ancilliary economic roles, whether paid or not. In agrar- ian  and  preindustrial  societies,  these  patriarchal  forms  of  the  household

economy were secured via systems of property holding and inheritance. In handicrafts,  they  found  their  urban  counterpart  in  systems of  apprentice- ship,  legal  regulation,  and  guild  exclusion,  defining  skill  and  the  practice of  a  trade as a  form of  property privileged to men. Industrialization then added  its  own  aggressively  gendered images of the imagined family econ- omy,  in  which  the  wages  of  skilled  working  men  would  support  orderly and  respectable  households  where  wives  had  no  need  of  a  job.  Few working-class households actually matched this ideal. Working-class wives mustered unbounded resourcefulness for economic survival, supplementing their husbands’ wages by foraging, marginal cultivation, casual services like laundry,  cleaning,  and  childminding,  petty  trading,  cottage  industry  and home  work,  and  waged  work  of  many  kinds.  But  through  the  norms  of the male “breadwinner” and the “family wage,” the ideal exercised pow- erful effect. Whatever their actual economic behavior, working-class wives were placed ideologically inside the home and beyond the waged economy. Thus, socialism’s official supportiveness for women’s rights usually con- cealed  a  practical  indifference  to  giving  them  priority  in  the  movement’s work. Where neither working men nor working women possessed the vote, left-wing movements refused to back women’s suffrage until the men’s fran- chise  was  won.  But  where  manhood  suffrage  already  prevailed,  women’s rights  became  subordinated  to  economic  issues.  Either  way,  women were expected  to  wait.  Here,  socialism’s  grasp  of  democracy’s  social  context worked to women’s specific disadvantage, because the primacy of econom- ics reduced everything else to a secondary concern. The more consistent the socialism, one might even say, the more easily feminist demands were post- poned  to  the  socialist  future,  because  a  sternly  materialist  standpoint  in- sisted  that  none  of  these  questions could be tackled  while capitalism per-


Such  an  attitude  precluded  a  more  radical  approach  to  the  “woman question,”  as  it  came  to  be  known.  But  this  wasn’t  simply  a  failure  of political perception or a consequence of the socialist tradition’s more ma- terialist  theory.  It  was  also  the  result of  deeper ideological structures, de- riving  from  older  systems  of  masculine  superiority.  These  were  located partly in the family, partly in the strength of society’s dominant values, and partly in gendered divisions of labor in the economy. But precisely because such patterns were so deeply embedded in the conditions of working-class life,  they  proved  extraordinarily  resistant  to  anything  but the most forth- right  of  political  critiques.  And  this  the  socialist  tradition  was  manifestly unwilling to provide. Behind the labor movements’ neglect of women’s is- sues were historically transmitted patterns of gendered culture, which left- wing politicians consistently failed to challenge and invariably endorsed. This was one of democracy’s most egregious limitations. While it led to broader  codification  of  women’s  demands in  socialist party programs, in- dustrialization not so much subverted older patterns of female subordina- tion as reproduced them in new ways. Just as the earlier democratic politics

bequeathed  lasting  legacies  to  the  socialist  parties,  which  were  only  con- sciously  sorted  through  in  the  decades  surrounding  the  First  World  War, so the earlier assumptions about women’s place constrained the Left’s abil- ity  to  imagine  a  gender  politics  that  was  genuinely  egalitarian.  Until  the specific  concerns  of  women  were  consciously  addressed—until  socialism also became feminist—the pursuit of democracy would stay severely incom- plete.

Socialist downgrading of women’s issues was all the worse for the prom- inence  before  1914  of  impressive  women’s  mobilizations—in  the  various national suffrage movements, in educational politics and social reform, in relation to women’s industrial work, and in largely intellectual or bohemian movements  for  sexual  emancipation.  It  was  precisely  in  many  such  areas that  masculine  privilege  was  directly  called  into  question.  Strong  notions of women’s reproductive rights and liberated sexuality were already emerg- ing,  reaching  fuller  expression  in  the  1920s.  As  those  movements  made clear, deficiencies of left-wing thinking in gender terms could only be rem- edied by bringing politics directly into the personal sphere.

But  a  full  exposure  of  such  questions  has  only  really  dated  from  the

1960s  with  the  emergence  of  present-day  feminism, which challenged the older  Left  across  a  broad  front  of  previously  neglected  issues.  The  late- nineteenth-century  transition  from  radical  to  socialist  democracy  estab- lished a pattern lasting for the next hundred years: namely, principled sup- port  for  women’s  rights  on  the  basis  of  a  broadened  social  program  but within an overall economism that in practice consistently downgraded the priority of the women’s struggle. Post-1968 feminism proved vital in bring- ing  these  questions  onto  the  Left’s  agenda.  Both  for  the  character  of  the contemporary Left in the last third of the twentieth century and for revis- iting the earlier periods, recent feminist critiques became indispensable. In- deed,  by  battling  its  demands  to  the  center  of  public  debate,  via  painful conflicts  that  were  certainly  not  complete,  contemporary  feminism  com- pelled  a  rethinking  of  the  viable  terms  of  the  socialist  project  and  in  the process profoundly redefined the Left.


The  modern  mass  party,  which  became  the  prevailing  model  of  political mobilization in general between the 1890s and the 1960s, was invented by socialists  in  the  last  third  of  the  nineteenth  century.  By  our  own  time,  it had  fallen  into  disrepute  and  was  described  increasingly  as  the  enemy  of democracy  rather  than  its  bulwark.  Late-twentieth-century  radical demo- crats condemned bureaucratic centralism and secretive decision-making as distortions  of  democratic  process,  whether  in  their  Communist  or  social democratic guise. Parties were no longer seen as the vectors of the people’s will  but  as  instruments  of  manipulation,  anonymous  machines  removed

from the grass roots, protected against popular accountability. In light of such disillusionment, therefore, it’s important to grasp the democratic pur- poses  the  socialist  model  of  the  party  was  originally  meant  to  serve, and this is best accomplished by examining the earlier organizational forms that preceded the turn to socialist parliamentarianism after the 1860s.

One of these was the local workers’ association. From their beginnings between  the  1840s  and  1860s,  working-class  clubs  subsequently  became adapted  into  the  cellular  basis  for  the  new  national  labor  movements, whether  in  the  form  of  the  socialist  party  local  in  northern  and  central Europe or as the syndical “chamber of labor” in the south. During the first half of the nineteenth century, though, the Left was also identified with the spectacle of revolution—with the imagery of barricades, popular uprisings, and the toppling of monarchies from power. Before the importance of the party  for socialism could be established, therefore, an older model of po- litical transformation had to be laid to rest, namely, the conspiratorial tra- dition most associated with the indefatigible revolutionism of Auguste Blan- qui.11

Inspired by the drama of the French Revolution’s most radical phase in

1792–93, Blanquism conceived the revolution as an exemplary act trigger- ing  a  general  uprising  of  the  people,  directed  by  a  secret  revolutionary brotherhood  whose  dictatorshipwould  secure  the  results.  This  thinking originated  with  Gracchus  Babeuf  and  his  quixotic  “Conspiracy  of  the Equals,” which sought to salvage the French Revolution’s radical momen- tum  in  1796.  Babeuf’s  legacy  was  then  transmitted  through the  career of his surviving comrade, Filipo Buonarroti, and thence to Blanqui.12  The “art of insurrection” flourished during the most overbearing phase of the post-

1815  Restoration  in  Europe,  whose  climate  of  censorship  and  repression forced democrats into conspiratorial methods. Personifying in one dimen- sion  an  ideal  of  selfless  revolutionary  heroism  and  passionate egalitarian- ism,  Blanqui  was  also  an  ascetic  and  egocentric  optimist,  treating  the masses as always available for revolution, if the right moment could only be seized. This seemed vindicated by the great revolutionary explosions of

1830  and  1848,  which  owed  so  little  to  organized  preparation.  But  the fiasco  of  Blanqui’s  failed Parisian  uprising  of 1839  was a  far more fitting verdict on his conspiratorial ideal.

The point about Blanquism was its profoundly undemocratic character. The conspiratorial ideal postulated a small secretive e´lite acting on behalf of  a  popular  mass,  whose  consent  was  to  be  organized  retroactively  by systematic reeducation but who in the meantime couldn’t be trusted. Log- ically  enough,  Blanquists  opposed  universal  suffrage  until  after  the  revo- lution. They were bored if not repelled by the popular democratic politics actually developing between the 1830s and 1870s, as the repression origi- nally justifying conspiratorial methods slowly and partially eased. In con- trast,  Karl  Marx  and  the  social  democratic  tradition  inaugurated  in  the

1860s decisively repudiated conspiratorial vanguards and their fantasies of

insurrection. The possible need for the revolution’s armed defense against counterrevolutionary  violence  by  the  ruling  class  was  left  open.  But  be- tween  1871  and  1917  the  dominant  model  of  revolutionary  politics  for socialist  parties  now  hinged  on  the  democratic  promise  of  an  irresistible parliamentary  majority.  The  Paris  Commune  of  1871,  which  displayed both  the  heroism  and  the  tragic  limitations  of  the  earlier  insurrectionary tradition, became the key watershed. Its failure showed the need for dem- ocratic methods beyond the conspiratorial horizon.

Henceforth, the pure insurrectionary mode became the property of an- archists,  for  whom  in  this  respect  Michael  Bakunin  became  the  leading voice.13   After  the  decisive  debates  of  the  First  International  in  1868–72, which  secured  the  victory  of  parliamentarist  perspectives  within  the Left, Blanquism lost coherence. Conspiratorial methods lacked purpose in an age of  popular suffrage, elections, and parliamentary debates. Insurrectionism survived among the Spanish anarchists, with a wider European revival dur- ing  the  syndicalist  pursuit  of  the  revolutionary  general  strike  after  1900. But  for  anarcho-syndicalists,  the  insurrectionary  fantasy  became divorced from  the  ealier  conspiratorial  precepts.  A  genuine  uprising  of  the  people had no need of any directive leadershipin that sense. “Strong men need no leaders,” Spanish anarchists like to say.

Conspiratorial  methods  resurfaced  from  time  to  time.  Spanish  anar- chism  remained  the  main  source.  The  libertarian  anarcho-syndicalist fed- eration  formed  in  1919,  the  Confederacio´ n  Nacional  del Trabajo (CNT), was the opposite of a centrally managed trade-union bureaucracy or party machine. But it was matched by the clandestine Federacio´ n Anarquista Ib- e´rica  (FAI)  formed  in  1927,  the  quintessence  of  elitist  and  conspiratorial revolutioneering. This contradiction between high-flown libertarian rheto- ric,  which  inspired  ordinary  supporters  to  acts  of  life-endangering  mili- tancy, and the authoritarianism of the underground plotting that sent them to  their  deaths,  was  Michael  Bakunin’s  main  legacy.  Such  activity  spilled easily into terrorism. Its temptations remained strongest at times of repres- sion  or  defeat,  when  chances  for  public  agitation  were  most  reduced:  in tsarist  Russia  in  the  later  1870s  and  early  1880s  and  again  in  the  early

1900s and in Spain, France, and Italy in the 1890s.14

The more troubling of these earlier legacies remained vanguardism—the idea that minorities of disciplined revolutionaries, equipped with sophisti- cated theories and superior virtue, could anticipate the direction of popular hopes, act decisively in their name, and in the process radicalize the masses. Given  democracy’s  imperfections  and  the  complex  reciprocities of leaders and led, this remained a recurring problem of political organization in gen- eral, because even in the most perfect of procedural democracies a certain latitude necessarily fell to the leadership’s discretion, beyond the sovereign people’s  practical  reach.  As  a  rule,  however,  except  when  driven  under- ground,  the  socialist  and  Communist  parties  of  the  twentieth  century or-

ganized their supporters on the largest scale via systems of procedural de- mocracy,  competed  in  elections,  worked  through  parliaments  and  local government, and participated in the public sphere.

In that vital sense, socialist constitutionalism was founded on the ruins of  the  older  Blanquist  understanding  of  how  revolutions were made. The socialist model of the  mass party,  campaigning  openly for public support and  parliamentary  representation  on  a  national  scale,  and  organizing  its own affairs by the internal democracy of meetings, resolutions, agreed pro- cedures, and elected committees, was the vital departure. It was the crucial democratic breakthrough of the nineteenth century’s last four decades.


The other major precursors of the labor movements establishing themselves after  the  1860s  were  the  utopian  socialists,  traditionally  patronized  and dismissed by the later tradition, from moderate parliamentarians and trade unionists to social democrats and Communists alike. Marxists in particular, taking  their  cue  from  Friedrich  Engels’s  tract  Socialism: Utopian and Sci- entific,  repeatedly  translated  and  reprinted  after  its  initial  appearance  in

1878–80, saw these early exponents of socialism as nai¨ve philosophers in- adequately  capturing  the  social  logic  of  the  new  capitalist  age,  at  best anticipating bits and pieces of the “scientific socialism” developed after the

1840s by Karl Marx.15  Lacking the moorings of a “mature” working-class presence  in  society,  it  was  implied,  thinkers  like  Claude  Henri  de  Saint- Simon,  Franc¸ois-Charles  Fourier,  and  Robert  Owen could only ever have produced visionary blueprints of an ideal society, which the realities of the class  struggle  and  the  collective  agency  of  the  future  labor  movements would inevitably supersede.

Their  writings—Saint-Simon’s  Letters  from  an  Inhabitant  of  Geneva

(1802), Fourier’s Theory of the Four Movements (1808), and Owen’s New View of Society (1812–16)—gave much license for this verdict. In deliberate contradistinction  to  organized  Christianity,  they  centered  a  new  “science of man” on human nature, advancing social cooperation against the ego- tism,  individualism,  and  competition  that  currently  reigned.  Saint-Simon gave rational and progressive centrality in the new society to all those per- forming productive functions, from industrialists to scientists and engineers, professional  men,  and  laborers.  In  the  absence  of  aristocrats,  kings,  and priests, these “industrialists” would replace privilege, competition, and la- ziness with functional hierarchy, mutualism, and productivity. Relying on a  more  elaborate  and  fanciful  psychology,  as  well  as  a  frequently bizarre cosmology,  Fourier  projected  minutely  specified  self-contained  communi- ties, whose intricate complementarities of tasks and functions would guar- antee the happiness of all. Owen designed his New Lanark cotton mills to

show the origins of cooperation in healthy social arrangements, including generous working hours and conditions, social insurance, educational pro- vision, rational recreation, and good housing.16

The utopians’ chosen medium of small-scale experimental communities, Fourier’s  “phalansteries”  and  Owen’s  “Villages  of  Cooperation,”  had  no connection  to  labor  movements,  because  their  ideas  were  conceived  well before  working-class  political  activity  developed,  and  indeed  before  the term “socialist” itself was coined in the late 1820s and early 1830s. Uto- pian socialism contained no critique of capitalist economics, focusing rather around religious and philosophical issues—“equality versus hierarchy, hu- man uniformity versus differentiation of human types, the speed of social transformation,  self-interest  or  ‘devotion’  (altruism)  as  the  mainspring  of human and socialist progress, the relationship between socialism and reli- gion.”17  It prioritized popular education, seeking to reveal “the mystery of social  harmony  and  human  happiness”  through  the  ideal  social  arrange- ments of its communities. Religiosity was “inherent in the structure of early socialist thought.”  Its main  enemy was less the undemocratic state or the structure of the capitalist economy than the moral authority of established Christianity. “Its yardstick of judgment was its knowledge of the true na- ture of man, which excluded original sin and the laws and coercion based upon it.”18

Having  failed  to  interest  the  governing  e´lite  in  his  theories  of  human perfectibility,  Owen  spent  1824–28  in  the  United  States,  where  he  spon- sored the model community of New Harmony in Indiana amid a broader rash of North American communitarian experiments.19  In the wake of these Owenite  and  similar  initiatives  by  followers  of  Fourier  and  Saint-Simon, utopian  ideas  circulated  remarkably  widely,  forming  a  vital  reservoir  for the  labor  movements  already  emerging  in  western  Europe  in  the  early

1830s.20   The  explosive  history  of  the  Owenite  Grand  National  Consoli- dated  Trade  Union,  which  flared  briefly  across  Britain’s  agitated  political landscape in 1834, was especially notable. By the spread of E´ tienne Cabet’s

“Icarian”  movement  in  the  1840s,  named  after  his  utopian  novel Voyage of  Icarus  (1839),  this  culture  of  socialism,  or  “communism”  as  Cabet’s followers preferred, had become widely diffused in France too, particularly among those artisanal trades that were being industrialized via the use of cheap   and   unapprenticed   labor,   such   as   tailoring   and   shoemaking.21

Through the ferment linking the British reform agitation of 1829–32 with Chartism,  and  the  1831  and  1834  uprisings  of  the  Lyons  canuts  (silk- weavers) with the 1848 Revolution, “socialist” language now came to de- fine a specifically working-class interest.22

In contrast to either radical democracy or the future social democratic tradition,  utopian  socialism  implied  retreat  from  state-oriented  thinking about democracy. Yet by the 1830s Owenites had become integral to Brit- ish  radical  agitations,  as  had  Saint-Simonians  like  Philippe  Buchez  and Pierre Leroux in France. After his early indebtedness to Babeuf, moreover,

Cabet learned much from Owenite trade unionism during his British exile in  1834–39,  and  after  he  returned  to  Paris  his  newspaper  Le  Populaire helped  broaden  French  republicanism  in  socialist  directions.  Both  Cabet and  Pierre-Joseph  Proudhon  influenced  early  French  socialism  far  more than historians have allowed, enunciating demands for government action and  national  political organization that belied the more nai¨ve utopianism often ascribed to them. Rather than embracing the full-scale communitarian ideal  of  secession  from  the  existing  competitive  and  selfishly individualist society, in fact, working-class politicians owed Owen, Fourier, and Saint- Simon  a  much  looser  general  debt:  ideals  of  “association,” “mutualism,” and “cooperation”; the rationalist and humanist critique of bourgeois so- ciety; and  the practical conviction that human affairs could be differently and better ordered.23

For  democracy’s  longer term,  utopian  socialists left countervailing leg- acies.  On  the  one  hand,  they  clearly  did  retreat  into  apolitical  and  often outlandish forms of experimental community building, which left little us- able experience for labor movements trying to organize on a national scale. This  flight  from  politics,  and  indeed  from  society  itself,  into  small  com- munal enclaves, symbolized by the transatlantic journey to the New World, left a silence on the subject of how the transition to a new type of society was  politically  to  be  carried  out.24   Utopian  socialists were similarly indif- ferent  to  political  economy  and  the  structural  origins  of  class-structured inequality. Post-1860s social democrats explicitly repudiated both these as- pects of the earlier heritage.

On  the  other  hand,  the  creative  commitment  to  forms  of  small-scale community-based  cooperation,  extending  more  ambiguously  toward  par- ticipatory democracy, left a far more positive legacy. In the politics of Louis Blanc and other socialist radicals during the 1848 Revolution, the ideals of

association  supported  concrete demands for producer cooperatives and

“social workshops” to be financed by the French state, while for workers in  central  and  eastern Europe during  the 1860s cooperative ideals of col- lective self-helpprovided the commonest early encounter with socialism.25

Ideas of the “emancipation of labor” bespoke simple but passionate desires for a juster world, often framed by mythologies of a lost golden age, which in  a  crisis  like  1848  could  easily  sustain  belief  in  revolutionary  transfor- mation. Likewise, the impulse for self-government, localized earlier in the physical  spaces  of  New  Harmony  and  the  other  utopian  settlements,  re- surged in the Paris Commune of 1871 as a more programmatic revolution- ary demand.

Most  interestingly  of  all,  the  utopians  practised  an  extremely  radical politics of gender. Thus Fourier espoused the full equality of women with men, sexual freedoms, and the dismantlement of marriage, while Owenites attributed capitalism’s moral degradation (“the contagion of selfishness and the  love  of  domination”)  to  “the  uniform  injustice . . . practised  by  man towards woman”  in the family, which thereby functioned as “a center of

absolute  domination.”26    Indeed,  for  Owenites  the  “competitive  system” grew not just from the values inculcated by factories, churches, and schools but  also  from  the  familial  organization  of  personal  life:  “Homo  oecon- omicus,  the  atomized,  competitive  individual  at  the  center  of  bourgeois culture,  was  the  product  of  a  patriarchal  system  of  psycho-sexual  rela- tions.”27   Any new way of life thus required a complete rethinking of inti- mate  relations,  so  that  the  privatized  family  and  its  oppressive  marriage laws  could  be  replaced  by  communal  arrangements  and  true  equality.  If mutuality became established both communally and between the sexes, one Owenite  feminist  argued,  “then  would  woman  be  placed  in  a  position in which she would not sell her liberties and her finest feelings.”28

This early feminism was enunciated at a time of generalized resistance to  capitalist  industry,  when  socialists  could  imagine  saving  society  by  re- making human character in the mold of cooperation. But if it was feasible during  the  1830s  to  project  a  space  of  reformation  beyond  the  capitalist framework, by the second half of the nineteenth century, as Barbara Taylor says,  “there  was  far  less  ‘outside’  to  go  to,”  and  working-class organiza- tions now accepted the given basis of the wage relation.29  In the meantime, commitment  to  gender  equality  was  lost.  Visions  of  sexual  freedom  and alternatives to the patriarchal family were pushed to the dissident edges of the  labor  movements.  Women  were  no  longer  addressed  by  means  of  an independent feminist platform but were treated as either mothers or poten- tial workers. The earlier belief in sexual equality (“women’s petty interests of the moment,” as the German Social Democrat Clara Zetkin put it) be- came swallowed  into the class struggle. Or, as Eleanor Marx exhorted in

1892: “we will organize not as ‘women’ but as proletarians . . . for us there is nothing but the working-class movement.”30

Thus utopian socialism proved a moment of exceptional radicalism on the  gender  front,  which  remained  unrecuperated  until  the  late  twentieth century.  While  Owen’s  and  Fourier’s foregrounding of moral reformation was easily dismissed by later nineteenth-century socialists, along with their indifference  to  a  nationally  organized  politics  of  the  class  struggle,  their critiques of the family and women’s subordination also fell casualty to these same dismissals. Henceforth, questions of sexuality, marriage, childraising, and personal life were largely consigned to a private sphere away from the central territory of politics. They ceased to be primary questions of socialist strategy.

TOWARD  THE  1860s

During  the  nineteenth century, the Left  forged its independence above all through  its  conflicts  with  liberalism.  Liberals  bitterly  resisted  democratic citizenship.  In  liberal  theory, access to political rights required possession of  property,  education,  and  a  less  definable  quality  of  moral  standing—

what William Ewart Gladstone called “self-command, self-control, respect for  order,  patience  under  suffering,  confidence  in  the law,  and  regard for superiors.”31   From  Edmund  Burke  and  Alexis de Tocqueville to the ideo- logues  and  practitioners  of  liberalism  during  its  ascendancy  of  the  1860s and  1870s,  including the most generous of radicals like John Stuart Mill, liberals consistently disparaged the civic capacities of the masses, reaching a crescendo of fear during the 1848 revolutions and the first pan-European surge  of  popular  enfranchisement  in  1867–71.  In  liberal  discourse,  “the democracy” was synonymous with rule of the mob.

Varying by country, labor movements accordingly separated themselves from  liberals  during  the  middle  third  of  the  nineteenth  century.  Just  as socialists  turned  their  backs  on  the  locally  organized  cooperative  utopia, they also substituted popular sovereignty for the free and sovereign liberal individual.  From  the  1860s,  a  socialist  constitutionalism  took  shape  that had   little   in   common   with   the   local   projects   of   communal   self- administration  that  first  inspired  socialist  thinking  earlier  in  the  century. Socialists  had  previously  functioned  as  junior  elements  in  broadly  liberal coalitions, occasionally gaining greater prominence through the radicalizing opportunities of a revolutionary crisis, as in 1848–49. They had also lob- bied for intermediate forms of producer cooperation backed by a reforming government, including national workshops or a people’s credit bank, bor- dering on the more ambitious schemes of Proudhon, Cabet, and other uto- pians.  And  finally,  the  Blanquist  temptation  of  revolutionary  conspiracy had also remained.

In  all  respects  the  1860s  proved  a  decisive  break.  Thereafter socialists in  most  of  Europe  put  their  hopes  in  a  centrally  directed  party  of parlia- mentary democracy coupled with a nationally organized trade union move- ment. The case for this kind of movement was successfully made in a series of bitterly conducted debates dominating the European Left from the early

1860s to the mid-1870s, for which the main forum was the International Working Men’s Association, or the First International, a new coordinating body created in 1864 and eventually closed down in 1876.32  Moreover, the rise of this social democratic model was decisively furthered by the growing prevalence in Europe of parliamentary constitutions linked to the principle of  the  national  state,  which  received  a  spectacular  push  forward  in  the

1860s from  German  and  Italian  unification and the broader constitution- making  upheavals  of  that  decade.  The  enabling  opportunities  of  the  re- sulting liberal constitutionalism crucially affected the progress of the social democratic model.

The centralized politics of socialist constitutionalism now coalesced over a 50-year period within the framework of parties that began to be founded, country  by  country,  in  the  1870s.  But  local  cultures  of  socialism and de- mocracy needed much remolding before social democracy could fully pre- vail.  At  the  grassroots  the  interest  in  socialism  kept a  much stronger em- phasis  on  the  local  sovereignty  of  popular  democratic  action,  bespeaking

that earlier radical heritage, which social democracy only partially managed to express. Mid-nineteenth-century popular movements had registered ex- ceptionally impressive levels of politicization, carrying the Left’s momentum far beyond its usual boundaries. In villages and small towns, as well as the larger urban agglomerations, militants fought the authorities over school- ing,  recreation,  religion,  and  other  aspects  of  local  everyday  life.  British Chartism was the most impressive of these movements, followed closely by the  popular  radicalisms  of  1848–51  in  France,  where  political  clubs  and workers’  corporations  attained  high  peaks  of  activism  in  Paris  and  other towns  and  the  Democratic-Socialists  (“democ-socs”)  permeated  the  vil- lages. More localized counterparts could be found in many other countries too between the 1840s and 1860s.33

How successfully such energies could be captured and remolded for the purposes of democratic empowerment in Europe’s new capitalist societies, both as memories of popular struggle and as active potentials for a still to be imagined future, was the challenge facing the emergent socialist move- ments of the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

when   karl   marx  died in 1883, socialist organization   barely   existed   in   Europe—a united  Socialist  Workers’  Party  in  Germany, Danish  and  Dutch  Social  Democratic  associ- ations,  fledgeling  parties  in  the  Czech  and Hungarian  parts  of  the  Habsburg  Empire,  a French Socialist Federation, tenuous networks in Portugal and Spain. Even these were fragile growths,  subject  to persecution. Yet within a decade, socialist parties existed in all but the remoter reaches of the east. By the time Fried- rich Engels, Marx’s lifelong collaborator, died in 1895, all Europe’s main regions—German- speaking  central  Europe,  the  Low  Countries, Scandinavia,  the  Catholic  south,  tsarist  Po- land  and  Habsburg  Croatia,  even  the  new states of the Balkans—had acquired, country by  country,  an  organized  socialist  presence. The remainder rapidly followed—all the Slav peoples    of    the    Habsburg    Empire;   Jews, Ukrainians,  Finns,  and  Latvians  under  tsar- ism; and finally a Social Democratic Workers’ Party for Russia itself. By the early 1900s, the map  of  Europe  was  entirely  occupied  by  so- cialist parties, providing the main voice of de- mocracy,  anchored  in  popular  loyalties  and backed  by  increasingly  impressive  electoral support.

This sense of forward movement was a far cry from the crushing isolation of the 1850s, when  Marx  began  his  critique  of  capitalism. After three years of plotting, barricades, fiery journalism, and unremitting revolutionary ex- citement  during  1848–50,  Marx  found  him- self   stranded   in   decidedly   unrevolutionary London,  surrounded  by  the  disappointments of exile and defeat, suffering the hardships of penury, ill health, and family loss. Connected

to the earlier hopes of a general European revolution mainly via the wan- derings and fantasies of refugees, Marx then sank his energies into books, laboring in the British Museum, intensively thinking and writing, giving his faith  to  the  subterranean  workings  of  history,  where  the  “old  mole”  of revolution was still surely “grubbing away.”1   It was a decade before pop- ular  politics  began  moving  discernedly  again.  Only  in  the  1860s  did  the apparently solid stabilities of the post-1849 reaction come unstuck.

Bridging this huge gap—between the revolutionary defeats of 1848–49 and the permanent rise of socialist parties by the 1890s—is the task of this and the following chapters. Democracy in Europe exploded violently across the  continent  in  the  1790s,  flaring  from  its  French  revolutionary  source, only to be extinguished with the restorations of 1815. It flashed brilliantly again  in  1848,  before  order  was  inexorably  restored.  Of  course,  the  Eu- ropean narratives of democratic advance recorded many local achievements between the 1800s and 1860s, with dramatic exceptions to the main story of stability in transnational crises like 1830–31 or in national movements like Chartism and its predecessors in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s. The reemergence  of  democratic  politics  in  the  1860s  also  presupposed  longer and less visible accumulations of local experience, patiently built by unsung pioneers and invariably borne by small-scale community-based action.2

But it was only with the pan-European constitution-making of the 1860s that  durable  legal  and  political  frameworks were created—national states with parliamentary institutions and the rule of law—through which dem- ocratic  aspirations  could  achieve  organized  and  continuous  form.  When democratic  parties  emerged  from  the  1870s,  they  were  usually  socialist. And the most important source for their guiding political perspectives was the thought and legacy of Karl Marx.


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