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Collectivism (Socialism)

Updated on March 23, 2017

The birth of socialist thought was in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Many socialist thinkers disagreed upon the type of socialism to advocate, so socialism began to diversify into many different categories. Utopian socialism, state socialism, Christian socialism, anarchism, Marxian socialism, communism, revisionism, syndicalism, and guild socialism were the main forms of socialism during this time period. Some socialist groups proclaimed that they represented the interests of everyone in society, although they gave more emphasis to the working class. Other more Marxist shaped forms of socialism sought out against the rich. None the less, socialism at its origin is a collective idea of society uniting and cooperating rather than competing, and increasing government regulation while decreasing private enterprise.

When we compare the individualist ideas of Adam Smith and the classical thinkers to the collectivist ideas of Karl Marx and the socialist thinkers, we see just how different the thinking between these two as well as their peers really was. To illustrate their different points of view in the individualism and collectivism debate, Adam Smith and his peers advocated a laissez-faire government while Marx and his peers opposed a laissez-faire government. Marx would take a different, more uniting approach than did Smith in that he thought capitalism eventually becomes concentrated and centralized, hindering progress, and would then be overthrown. Private enterprise should be run by the central government, local government, or cooperative enterprises according to Marx and other socialists. Under socialism, production and investment are planned. Societies collaborate, and competition as well as the free market are eliminated. In essence, the workers become those who control the workplace.

The utopian thinker Charles Fourier, like Marx, was a critic of capitalism. He was opposed to production, the implementation of machinery in place of workers, and centralization. He organized an idea of cooperative communities. These communities, or phalanxes, were organized for roughly three-hundred families whom lived in a single palace within about ten miles of land. Everyone living together provided guard against theft and gave way to more production in agriculture and emphasized the skilled trades. With his idea of phalanxes, wealth would increase significantly by joining everyone together to distribute capital evenly and to complete essential tasks within the community. Children did the unpleasant work and learned multiple trades to widen their scope of understanding. It is important to note that all of the phalanxes organized within the United States failed. With Fourier’s creation of phalanxes however, he and other socialists influenced labor unions and created a route to a better economic system.

Robert Owen was the most influential of the utopian socialists. He was the first to coin the term “socialism” in his Owenite Co-operative Magazine in 1827. Owen formed the word socialism from its base word social versus the classical economic term individual. Owen also created the National Equitable Labour Exchange, an organization that brought consumers and producers together. This organization failed after a few years, but it did lead to his disciples starting the Rochdale Pioneers’ Cooperative Society, a highly successful consumer-owned firm in Great Britain. Although this cooperative was successful and credited to Owen’s influence, it was not what he had intended. Owen intended to replace capitalism with worker-owned firms. Robert Owen’s dreams for socialism and a collective society became an inspiration for generations of socialist thinkers succeeding him.

Christian socialism added a foundation within government for the socialists and their arguments for collectivism. One of the leaders of Christian socialism, Charles Kingsley, advocated the chartist movement with the help of his peers. Through the chartist movement, Kingsley and the Christian socialists wanted six significant changes in government; equal electoral districts, suffrage for men and women, secret ballot voting, annually elected parliaments, to remove property qualifications for serving in the House of Commons, and payment to members of parliament. All of these changes would eventually be made, with exception of annually elected parliaments. The overall goal of Kingsley and the Christian socialists was to nonviolently promote their views to the aristocracy in ways coinciding with reasoning from the Bible. Supporting his argument against using violence Kingsley was once quoted saying, “The rich are ignorant, not hostile”.

Although many socialist doctrines had failed, such as Fourier’s phalanxes in America and the Marxist establishments of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, there are many that we use pretty typically today. Of these lasting contributions from socialist thinkers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are social programs like social security, workers’ compensation, unemployment compensation, minimum wage and overtime pay, and occupational health and safety laws. The Socialists also contributed the idea of state ownership of production with the coordination of the federal government. Perhaps one of the most useful collectivist ideas from the socialists was the realization of the ups and downs of business cycles. Socialism ultimately took root in economics by chartering powerful governments and advocating workers’ benefits.


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