The term early socialists may be misleading. The socialist thought started more or less from Rousseau. Marx and Engels gave it a concrete shape and they proclaimed their socialism as scientific. In order to distinguish Marxian socialism from the socialism or socialist thought that prevailed before them the term early socialists is used.
The socialist predecessors of Marx did not elaborate the socialist policies, principles and philosophy, nor did they view it with a scientific outlook. But all of them had a heartfelt feeling for the downtrodden masses.
They deplored capitalist system as the root cause of sufferings. Hence, we can say that the concept of socialism or socialist thought gathered momentum after Industrial Revolution achieved maturity to some extent.
An important feature of early socialists is that they believed in setting up of a socialist society through peaceful ways such as appearing to the capitalists that they should refrain from exploiting and oppressing the workers. They further developed a nation that the dark sides of capitalism and the brighter aspects of socialism shall be intensively and extensively propagated among the workers and under-privileged section of the society. All these are peaceful ways and part of evolutionary socialism.
They viewed the state with great suspicion on the ground that it was a party to exploitation. The unholy alliance between capitalists and state never produced any salutary results. The suspicion made them uninterested about the state.
Plamenatz thinks that all the early socialists were hopeful men and they believed in progress. All of them had plans of future society based on socialist principles. But these principles were not well calculated, scientific and realistic. That was the great drawback of the early socialists.
The early socialists believed that it was poverty and ignorance which led men to commit crime and violence. An important precondition of the removal of crime and violence is to banish poverty and ignorance from society. Because of inequality men were deprived of adequate opportunities to develop their good qualities.
We can, therefore, say that the notion of early socialists was uniformly focused on the evil effects of inequality. They squarely blamed it. Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, Saint-Simon and Proudhon all these early socialists held the view that if all the persons get proper scope to improve their economic condition it will be possible to destroy poverty and ignorance.
It is thus quite manifest that the early socialists were eager to change the material condition of society and Marx accepted their view. Plamenatz maintains that the study of the writings of the early socialists reveals that they had some sense of history.
In their various writings they emphasized that in past the rate of progress was very slow. This was due to the fact that very few persons controlled the means of production and they were excessively preoccupied with their own betterment keeping aside the general progress of society. Their knowledge of history enabled them to know what the condition of society was in the past.
On the contrary, many political philosophers such as Hobbes and Locke had no interest in history. Saint-Simon, it is said, studied history exhaustively and developed his own conception about history.
He had shown how European society had changed from the eleventh century. But all the early socialists did not possess the same amount of interest in history. For example, Robert Owen displayed very little interest for history.
On the other hand, both Marx and Engels were serious readers and critical analysts of history. From the study of history of several centuries they gathered certain facts and on the basis of these they built up certain conclusions and ideas. They studied history from the standpoint of materialism and arrived at the conclusion that appeal to the capitalists would never bring about emancipation.
All the early socialists acknowledged that the society was divided into rich and poor and the former controlled the entire wealth of the society for its own benefit. To defend the private property the rich needed the help of the state and thus it became the ally as well as guarantor of property.
Without the help and protection provided by the state it would have been impossible for the capitalists to protect their property or wealth.
So the capitalist system was not the only cause of the untold miseries of the working class, the state is also equally responsible for this. The early socialists did not think about replacing the bourgeois state system through violent upheavals.
They preferred to appeal to the capitalists to show mercy to the workers. They also believed that if the capitalists voluntarily part with a portion of their wealth for the upliftment of the conditions of workers, their economic conditions would invariably improve and importance of state would diminish.
An interesting point may be allowed to interfere with our analysis. Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau did not raise their arms against the society and organized force created by people. They did not regard man as victim of society, but it was the society which was their saviour. Both Plato and Aristotle and several other philosophers thought of the state as the reformer of individuals, behaviour not congenial to the ideal symbolized by the state.
Rousseau viewed a state or society consisting of equal persons and in such a state there would neither be contradiction nor animosity. People will be the integral part of the mainstream of society. Furthermore, he envisaged the existence of coercive power in a society. The early socialists developed a state-phobia.
There is a difference between Rousseau and the early socialists. He deplored the multiplication of wants. Nor did he preach austerity. His naive view was that a society should not create wants which people could not satisfy. The unfulfilled desires contaminate the social atmosphere.
But the early socialists were not against desires. To them more desires meant more production and more progress. So they did not deplore the multiplication of wants. Moreover, the multiplication of wants would lead to greater collaboration among the people.