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Socialism - Socialism During Its "mature" Phase

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The genesis and development of socialism paralleled the rise of liberalism in Europe. Over the course of the nineteenth century, liberalism had become the predominant ideology in Great Britain and on the Continent. However, from 1889 on, socialism increasingly challenged liberalism's supremacy in the political arena. In Europe generally there were various schools of socialist thought that came to maturity during the second half of the nineteenth century: reformist socialism, Marxism, anarchism, and syndicalism. Of these currents, Marxism tended to be the dominant socialist theory, partly because of its conceptual cogency and partly because it was embraced by the most powerful and influential social democratic parties affiliated with the Second (Socialist) International, (1889–1914), a confederation of socialist parties and labor organizations that was created in order to continue the work of the First International Workingmen's Association.

Why did socialism become so important at this time? One of the contributing factors was the growing influence of positivism on the general outlook of European thinkers. Following in the tradition of the French Enlightenment, intellectuals like Auguste Comte (1798–1857) and Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) promoted the idea that an understanding of both the natural and social worlds could be achieved through scientific knowledge. It was this belief that inspired socialists like Saint-Simon and Marx to develop political cosmologies that they thought could be grounded on a sound empirical basis. Marx in particular asserted in the Communist Manifesto and other major writings that his brand of socialism was distinguished from all others by its "scientific" approach to the study of economics and society. This is not to say that Marxists were the only socialists who were convinced of the scientific validity of their theories. Anarchist social views, particularly those espoused by the Russian revolutionary Pyotr Kropotkin (1842–1921), also owed a great deal to the positivist tradition. And, finally, the evolutionary brand of socialism known as Fabianism that developed in Great Britain at the end of the nineteenth century was shaped by the positivist beliefs of its leading theorists.

A general shift in the attitude toward the role of the state in society also contributed to the growth of socialism. The failure of laissez-faire political and economic policies, which had been long favored by liberal governments as a way to respond effectively to the problems created by the periodic crises of capitalism, the second wave of industrialization, and the emergence of a mass society caused many to see the state in a more favorable light. For example, the unexpected and occasionally jolting economic fluctuations of the 1870s and 1880s not only drove a wedge between the workers and their liberal middle-class representatives, but also alarmed industrialists and other members of the economic elite. As a result, an increasing number of all these groups started turning to the government for protection. The growing popularity of imperialism in the closing decades of the century also made the average person less opposed to the growing powers of the state.

Among the many other factors that favored the rise of socialism at this time, the most notable can be summarized as follows. (1) The increase in the number of workers in the industrializing nations was one important factor. The concentration of industries during the so-called second industrial revolution that occurred during the last two decades of the nineteenth century brought together workers in unprecedented numbers. Rapid industrialization also accelerated the tendency of the general population to move from the countryside into urban centers. Cities proved to be favorable environments for socialist organizations—which demanded a fairly sophisticated social/cultural infrastructure in order to thrive. (2) The rise of literacy also redounded to the benefit of the socialists: as more and more workers learned to read they were able to imbibe socialist ideas in the form of pamphlets, books, and the press. (3) The "democratization" of the ballot box also helped the socialists in that the extension of the franchise brought more workers into the political arena thus making it possible to get socialist deputies elected to parliament. All of these factors created the basis for a "proletarian" mentality or consciousness. By the late 1880s workers were joining clubs and trade unions, electing their own representatives, and subscribing to their own publications. And though this is not to say that all workers were necessarily socialist, it did mean that the principal vehicles for propagating and sustaining socialism were now anchored in the framework of modern industrial society.

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