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The Socialist Movement

By 1850, the Industrial Revolution had reached nearly every corner of Europe, and workers in other countries faced the same problems experienced by English workers during its early days. This led socialists to conclude that capitalism did indeed exploit workers wherever it manifested itself. No wonder, then, that workers throughout Europe fell in love with socialism. Though it grew and developed into a wide variety of forms, socialism maintained that society should be for the benefit of all, yet capitalist society existed solely for the benefit of the small, elite group of people who controlled the means of production. From the perspective of the workers who often felt exploited, socialism had a great deal of appeal.

Early Socialists

Would You Believe?

May 1, often called International Workers' Day or May Day, is an international workers' holiday that celebrates the international solidarity of workers. Even today, socialist and communist groups often stage protests and marches for May Day, which began in the nineteenth century.

Try as they might, the utopian socialists never really made things happen. Those who followed had greater success seeing their socialist ideas amount to something tangible. However, many found themselves in direct competition with Marx and his followers. For example, Marx strongly opposed a Russian socialist named Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876). Unlike Marx, Bakunin believed that the egalitarian, classless society sought by socialists could only be achieved through anarchy. In other words, the revolutionary government between capitalism and communism, as described by Marx, was neither practical nor possible. In 1869, Bakunin organized groups of workers into the Social Democratic Alliance with the intent to join Marx’s First International. Marx, however, refused his Alliance entry. The Alliance dissolved and the members joined the International on their own.

Would You Believe?

Bakunin was fiercely anti-semitic and attacked Marx for his Jewish heritage.

Ferdinand Lasalle (1825-1864) had quite an impact on the manifestation of socialist ideas. A German Jew who studied both philology and philosophy and advocated Hegel’s ideas, Lasalle joined the Communist League. In the 1860s, Lasalle traveled Germany and worked to call the working classes to action; he believed government action would not be sufficient to ease the frustrations of the workers. Despite being a member of the Communist League, Lasalle, like Bakunin, received nothing but criticism from Marx and Engels. In 1863, Lasalle founded the Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein, or the General German Workers’ Association. This party, later called the Social Democratic Party of Germany, became the first labor party in Germany, even before Germany unified (see Chapter 18). Marx’s followers did not join the party. Lasalle died in a duel the following year with the suitor of his love interest.

Socialism and Labor

Socialists more often than not were idealists who dreamed of creating ideal societies where the working class enjoyed freedom from economic oppression, and they worked diligently to spread their message to the working class of Europe. Ironically, their progress was impeded somewhat by the workers themselves.

Would You Believe?

At the turn of the twentieth century, economist Eduard Bernstein asserted that Marx was flat wrong when he predicted that the working class would slip further and further into poverty. 

Many times labor’s sole interest was the formation of trade unions to fight for better conditions, wages, and benefits. Many workers lacked the foresight to imagine a new society; they just wanted food on the table. Another explanation for the reluctance of workers to join radical groups was the improving economic and political conditions for workers after 1850. If conditions were getting better, workers would be less inclined to join radical groups bent on revolution. 

Germany serves as a good example because only a small percentage of the workforce even belonged to a union.

However, socialism and labor movements became synonymous throughout the late nineteenth century. Despite the best efforts of many European nations to squash socialist movements, as Bismarck did in Germany (see Chapter 18) because of the revolutionary potential inherent in socialism, it never died out. Socialists won the right to have legal labor unions in many nations between 1850 and 1900. Furthermore, by the end of the century, socialists had begun to win elected positions in governments across Europe.

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