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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 proprietors. Socialists sought to conserve the prime heritage of the Enlightenment, the commitment to freedom and rationality. They recognized, however, that the emergence of industry was the central fact of modern history, that it called for a fundamental reappraisal of political democracy and the slogans of the French Revolution.

Socialists were thus led beyond Jacobinism, beyond radical democracy, to a fundamental critique of economic liberalism and of the society based on private property. The French Revolution had shown that the proclamation of the rights of man could lead to a social order that was profoundly individualistic, weighted in favor of a minority of property owners. The doctrine of laissez-faire made sense for the bourgeoisie; it held danger, rather than promise, for the nascent working class. “Economic liberalism,” as Mr. Lichtheim puts it, “thus conflicted with social democracy, unless it could be shown that all members of society stood an equal chance of attaining to ownership of property. Such an assertion was more plausible in the America of Jefferson and Jackson than in the France of the July Monarchy, or the England of the 1832 Reform Bill, whence the decisive impact of socialist doctrines in Western Europe and their relative failure to attract attention in the United States”—despite the surprising number of early European socialists who ended their days in Iowa or New York.

In Europe, therefore, socialism could thus become the class movement of the proletariat, defining itself in relation to a specific history. It became a specifically European critique of economic liberalism and (more slowly) of the equally anti-commercial romantic conservatism of Carlyle and Disraeli. The subsequent attempts of Lenin, or Mao, or Nkrumah, or Che Guevara to use some of the slogans or even doctrines of classical socialism to provide an engine for industrialization in a backward society, to mobilize peasants, or to create national unity and provide a sense of national dignity are no doubt interesting. For Lichtheim, however, they are totally different movements, born of different circumstances and responding to different problems: they are not part of classical socialism and cannot be understood as integral links in its history or as mere applications of its doctrines.

There exists a theoretically simpleminded notion (Lenin’s) according to which Marx “combined” German philosophy with British economics and French socialism. The whole point of Mr. Lichtheim’s book is to show that there is no question of mechanical “combination” here: there is, rather, a gradual clarification of issues, in France, in Britain, in Germany, making possible the great Marxian synthesis of the 1840s.

Lichtheim begins with “the heirs of the French Revolution”—from Babeuf, through Cabet and Fourier and an excellent chapter on the Saint-Simonians, to Blanqui, Flora Tristan, Considerant, and Proudhon. Mr. Lichtheim, in my view, has always been at his best on French political thought and French political concerns; the intellectual ferment of France under the July Monarchy comes out extremely well. Louis Blanc, the first serious social democrat in European history, is at last given some of his due, and the accounts of Fourier’s oddities and of the typical Saint-Simonian confusions, familiar as they are, are presented with elegance and wit.

The second part of the book, devoted to the British critics of the industrial revolution, is hardly likely to be a labor of love for any intelligent man. Mr. Lichtheim is rather more polite about Robert Owen than I would have been but, like Marx, Owen was enough of a traditional socialist to seek his salvation in the “dismal science.” The socialist Ricardian economists, dull as they often were, gave socialism and Marx one of their most important tools—the socialist version of the labor theory of value. Mr. Lichtheim emphasizes their merits.

Part Three, on German socialism from Weitling, Rodbertus, Hess, and the Young Hegelians to the “Marxian synthesis,” with an excursus on Fichte and Kant and some brilliant remarks on the failure of German liberalism to become democratic, is—surprisingly—the least consistent part of the book. Mr. Lichtheim is first-rate in his grasp of the social situation in Germany and in his feeling for the issues between Marx and Weitling and for the impact that Hess had on Marx and Engels. In recent years, Mr. Lichtheim’s interests have increasingly turned to the philosophical, yet the philosophical is the weakest part of the book. Despite the number of magisterial references to “the natural law tradition,” to the Stoics, to the ideals of the Enlightenment and other divers matters, Mr. Lichtheim has no genuine feeling for the internal history of philosophy and he misses much that is most interesting in the impact of Kant, Fichte, and Hegel on German radicalism in the 1830s and 1840s.

Lichtheim has no difficulty, however, in driving home in Part Three the main theme of his book and in using it to bring out the precise nature of the greatness of Marx. Marx did not combine the thought of his socialist predecessors, he fused it into an exciting and coherent “practical philosophy” or deeply relevant theory by going behind the thought of his socialist predecessors to the central issue of his age: the genesis and functioning of modern society. When Marx “turned his philosophical equipment to practical use by fusing certain rather novel theoretical notions then current in the leading Western European countries, he was making use of intellectual tools already shaped by a particular historical experience: the ‘bourgeois revolution.’ ” Hence Marx and socialism can be understood only in relation to this revolution.

This point, indeed, leads Mr. Lichtheim to a penetrating and important account of the Marxian doctrine of ideologies and of the materialist conception of history which saves it from the inanities of the causal interpretation. (This surely and rightly must be one reason why Eric Hobsbawm, himself on the rampage against crude economic causal interpretations of Marx, has already praised Lichtheim’s book.) In analyzing the intellectual systematizations of German philosophers, British economists, and French historians who were themselves responding to the upheavals of the past half-century, Marx, according to Lichtheim, was struck by the fundamental similarity of the key concepts they employed.

It appeared to him that, consciously or not, they were reasoning in ways which had gradually been evolved since the seventeenth century by the representative thinkers of one particular social stratum whose pre-eminence was no longer questionable: the bourgeoisie. And from this awareness he was led to the notion that all this complex theorising constituted…the “ideological superstructure” of a particular social reality: “bourgeois society.”

It is as a brilliant anatomical-functional study of bourgeois society that Marx’s work must be understood, and not as a conspiratorial, or Jacobin, theory of history “in general,” or as a timeless protest against inequality, injustice, or even—“alienation.” The historic role of industry and of the industrial proletariat, as bearers both of rationality and of the ethic of co-operation, was central to the Marxian system: it held together Marx’s belief in revolution and his rejection of Jacobin elitism and anarchist terrorism, his social activism and his criticism of political voluntarism. If we can no longer believe in that historic role, then socialism, as an intellectual system, is no longer relevant to our society and our concerns. The part that the proletariat was to have played is not a piece of kindling to be thrust into any hands whatever.

Mr. Lichtheim ends his story of the origins of socialism in 1848, which he rightly regards as a crucial watershed in the history of socialism and of European society. (G. D. H. Cole ended his volume in 1850.) The defeat of the 1848 revolutions led to a fundamental reappraisal of socialist tactics and socialist thought. Lichtheim is more aware than most critics in Englishspeaking countries of the crucial differences between the Marx of the Communist Manifesto and the Marx who labored over Capital in the 1850s and 1860s. In subsequent volumes, Lichtheim plans to turn his attention to the history of socialism that followed; he already hints that social democracy has to be understood as part of a situation that is very significantly different from that which gave birth to the socialisms and communisms of the 1830s and 1840s.

Until those volumes are written the reader will not be sure whether Mr. Lichtheim is simply deferring, or to some extent shirking, many of the most crucial questions about the nature of socialism. The Origins of Socialism is organized to present reasonably rounded pictures of a number of socialist thinkers. It fulfills this task extremely well and is now the book one would recommend to anyone seeking a general introduction to the early thinkers of socialism. In choosing this method of organization, however, Mr. Lichtheim cannot pursue at all carefully the thematic issues in his story—themes that have proved remarkably long-lived. There is the issue between the étatisme of the Saint-Simonians and the Rousseauan tradition of spontaneous co-operation; there is the issue between political revolution and social revolution, and that between uprising from below and reform from above. The contradictions of socialism were only seemingly solved by Marx; for 100 years they have kept bursting out, again and again.

Above all, Lichtheim does not attempt to grapple in this volume with the issue that is crucial for determining the continued relevance or irrelevance of both Marxism and socialism. The great bourgeois revolution which Lichtheim puts at the center of his story has proved to be a combination of several revolutions; the birth of industrial society and the birth of political democracy took place at the same time only in Europe and their connection was not a historical necessity. For Lichtheim, we have now entered the post-bourgeois society and, like the early socialists, we are once more groping our way. Is the tendency of contemporary radicals to look backward (through Mao or Guevara) to pre-Marxian themes only an indication of the intractable, bewildering novelty of post-bourgeois society, from which they flee to a simpler and more comforting past?

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