After reading this article you will learn about the origin of the term “socialism.”
The origin of the term “socialism” is controversial though the contents of socialism were present even before the use of it. The earliest reference may be made about Plato who advocated communism in family life and property.
According to Lichtheim, The Cooperative Magazine in the November issue of 1827 first used the word socialist. Almost at the same time, Robert Owen used the term socialist or socialism.
In Kolakowski’s account we find that a follower of Saint-Simon claimed that he used the word socialism in the journal Le Globe in 1832. The uncontroversial matter that now stands is that the term appeared in the writings between the end of twenties and the beginning of thirties of the nineteenth century.
In many religious books, though in an oblique form there are hints about socialism. The Bible may be cited as an example. Plato thought of communism in his analysis of ideal state. Marx and Engels claimed that before them many thought and said about class struggle and setting up of an oppression free society.
The writings of Thomas More, Campanella and many other writers contained the ideas of socialism or communism or any of its varieties, sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely. But it would be a wrong notion to hold that all these early writers viewed the term socialism in the modern sense, In fact, it has passed through several phases and forms to reach the modern phase.
Kolakowsky rightly points out “From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century socialists ideas were generally inspired not merely by the reflections of the sufferings of the downtrodden classes, but by a philosophical or religious belief that antagonisms and conflicts of interest, inequality and oppression were contrary to God’s plan or Nature’s which intended men to live in a state of peace and harmony”.
The anarchist thought of Kropotkin was based on Christianity. God wishes that in every society there shall be perfect equality, justice and complete uniformity. Any violation of this principle will go against the pious wishes of God. We want to draw the curtain over this point by quoting a passage from Lichtheim: “Nevertheless, there is a sense in which socialism like democracy (from which it stems) is rooted in sentiments as ancient and permanent as human society itself”.
Rousseau is one of the controversial figures in the history of political thought. But still he is regarded as one of the early socialists. A French economist, Bastiat, once said that socialists are “grandchildren” of Rousseau.
While Bastiat was generalizing this he had in mind the thoughts and works of French socialists. But the mention he made here is that the French socialists did not acknowledge their debt to Rousseau.
Plamenatz is his Man and Society says “yet the early socialists, French and English, held two beliefs which we associate more with Rousseau than with any one else because he was by far the most eloquent exponent of them the belief that man in his wretchedness is the victim of society and the belief that freedom is impossible except in a community of equals.”
Political philosophers before Rousseau thought of equality. But none of them spoke so eloquently that inequality was the root cause of the major evils from which common people suffer.
In this connection few lines from Rousseau may be quoted here. “Society is evil, irrational and corrupting because it allows of great inequalities unconnected with differences with ability or merit.” This is one of the two recurrent themes of Rousseau’s philosophy – “The other is that freedom is grounded in equality.”
Rousseau in ‘A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality’ said “it is plainly contrary to the law of nature that children should command old men, fools wise men, and that the privileged few should gorge themselves with superfluities, while the starving multitude are in want of the bare necessities of life” Rousseau deplored inequality on the ground that it was contrary to law of nature. Whatever may be the cause the central theme is inequality must be sent to exile.
A major part of Rousseau’s political thought bears the imprint of socialist and revolutionary ideas. Plamenatz observes that he was the revolutionary of all critics of the established order. But he was not revolutionary in the Marxian sense and never intended to destroy the existing social system by force. He wanted to abolish a social system based on inequality through the creation of a new body politic guided and administered by general will.
Some people say that Rousseau was the “grandfather” of the modern socialists. We admit that Rousseau believed in socialism but he did not extend his socialist thought and made no concrete proposal about setting up a socialist society.
He was confined within an analysis. Plamenatz however, admits that Rousseau inaugurated a line of thought which in later years enabled the early socialists to differentiate themselves from the liberals.
He was not a socialist, because socialism was the by-product of industrial capitalism and in Rousseau’s time that had no trace at all. Whatever may be Lichtheim’s view there is no denying the fact that Rousseau’s political philosophy contained the seeds of socialism.
For example, his concept of equality and his emphasis upon it are regarded as basic ideas of socialism. Moreover, he developed a theory of democracy which was not liberal and individualist in the Lockean sense.