One of these social reformers was Robert Owen. Owen himself was an industrial success story. He started life as a poor Welsh boy and became a successful mill owner. Unlike most industrialists at the time, Owen refused to use child labor. He campaigned vigorously for laws that limited child labor and encouraged the organization of labor unions.
Like other Utopians, Owen believed there was a way he could change society for the better. To prove his point, he set up a model community around a mill in New Lanark, Scotland, to put his own ideas into practice. At his factory in New Lanark, he built homes for workers, opened a school for children, and generally treated employees well. He wanted to show that an employer could offer decent living and working conditions and still run a profitable business.
What were the characteristic beliefs of early socialists?
In the 1840s, Karl Marx, a German philosopher, condemned the ideas of the Utopians as unrealistic idealism. He formulated a new theory, “scientific socialism,” which he claimed was based on a scientific study of history. He teamed up with another German socialist, Friedrich Engels, whose father owned a textile factory in England.
Marx and Engels wrote a pamphlet, The Communist Manifesto, which they published in 1848. “A spectre [ghost] is haunting Europe,” it began, “the spectre of communism.” According to Marx, communism would bring a classless society in which the means of production would be owned in common for the good of all.
In fact, wherever communism came to be practiced in the 1900s, it brought a system of government in which the state led by a small elite controlled all economic and political life and exercised authoritarian control over the people.
In The Communist Manifesto, Marx theorized that economics was the driving force in history. He argued that there was “the history of class struggles” between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” The “haves” had always owned the means of production and thus controlled society and all its wealth. In industrialized Europe, Marx said, the “haves” were the bourgeoisie. The “have-nots” were the proletariat, or working class.
This well-known Marxist poster proclaims in German, “Workers of all countries, unite!”
Why should workers unite, according to Marx?
According to Marx, the modern class struggle pitted the bourgeoisie against the proletariat. In the end, he predicted, the proletariat would be triumphant. Workers would then take control of the means of production and set up a classless, communist society. In such a society, the struggles of the past would end because wealth and power would be shared equally.
Marx despised capitalism. He believed it created prosperity for only a few and poverty for many. He called for an international struggle to bring about its downfall. “Workers of all countries,” he urged, “unite!”
At first, Marxist ideas had little impact. In time, however, they would gain supporters around the world. In western Europe, communist political parties emerged and promoted the goals of violent revolution to achieve a classless society. Marx's ideas would never be practiced exactly as he imagined. Even so, Karl Marx remains a key historic figure, not only in his lifetime but in the century to come.
In the 1860s, German socialists adapted Marx's beliefs to form social democracy, a political ideology in which there is a gradual transition from capitalism to socialism instead of a sudden violent overthrow of the system.