The Old, Old Left

The Origins of Socialism

by George Lichtheim
Praeger, 302 pp., $6.95

Socialist history, as Mr Lichtheim remarks in this splendid new book, “is often written as the story of egalitarian strivings, as ancient perhaps as society itself, or as the record of intellectual systems spun by men reflecting upon the injustices of the social order and determined to set them right.” At the other extreme, it is sometimes written—in the (vulgar) materialist mode—as though it were simply the story of the class movement of the industrial proletariat.

Each of the foregoing approaches can illuminate an aspect of socialism, though they are aspects that Mr. Lichtheim, in this volume, is simply not interested in. Lichtheim sees socialism as a great and specific movement in the history of ideas; he is concerned with what he would unashamedly call its historical essence, with that which brings out its uniqueness and explains why and how it arose at a particular time and in a particular place. Consciously or unconsciously, Lichtheim seeks to show how and why it is that Karl Marx lies at the very center of socialism and of its history. For Marx is not only by far the greatest of the socialists—a Colossus (as Mr. Lichtheim emphasizes) in the midst of ordinary mortals, a Shakespeare among minor Elizabethans. Marx is also the man who went back to the source of the whole disturbance, who brought socialism to a consciousness of its character and of its place in history. Mr. Lichtheim’s appreciation of this point and his ability to drive it home to his reader make The Origins of Socialism as exciting and important as G. D. H. Cole’s well-known volume on the socialist forerunners was careful, scholarly, unexciting, and fundamentally pedestrian. The difference between the two volumes, alike as they are in the subject matter and arrangement, lies in the difference between a European who has understood what Marx is about and an Englishman who has not. Lichtheim has now given us a book that many wished Cole could have written.

The term socialisme first made its appearance in the 1830s among the radical French sects that had sprung from the French Revolution, in particular in the Left Saint-Simonian periodical Le Globe, though its adjectival form had been used earlier in the Owenite Co-operative Magazine to designate followers of the doctrines (or, rather, of the personality?) of Robert Owen. This, for Lichtheim, provides the clue to the whole point of socialism, to its historical uniqueness. Socialists were men who took seriously the ideals proclaimed by the French Revolution, but they brought them into relation with the new industrial society that was emerging in Britain in the latter half of the eighteenth century. The theoretical content of this early socialism was not a timeless protest against inequality or injustice that accidentally took on flesh at a particular moment. Socialists may have visualized the good society in different ways, but they agreed in excluding from it uncontrolled ownership of the new industrial means of production by a class of wealthy …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.