I. Introduction 

With Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, socialism acquired a theory of history and a theory of exploitation. Marxism held that capitalism was the result of a historical process characterized by a continual conflict between classes. History proceeded through stages. Each stage consisted of a specific economic system to which corresponded a particular system of power and hence a specific ruling class. The capitalist stage was not everlasting, they claimed, but a temporary historical phenomenon bound to die. By creating a large class of property-less workers, capitalism sowed the seeds of its own demise. It would eventually be succeeded by a communist society.

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Though superior to the socio-economic systems that preceded it, the present capitalist system, Marx and Engels argued, was unfair. The relations between entrepreneurs (capitalists) and the proletariat (the workers) appeared as a contract between equal parties, since there is no compulsion to sell one’s labour. The workers sold their labour and received wages in return. In reality this contract, they claimed, disguised a profound inequality since the capitalists “cheated” the workers by appropriating far more than they paid out in wages and other necessary production costs. This appropriation, which they called “surplus-value”, gave the owners of capital great wealth and control over the economic development of society. They thus appropriated not simply wealth but also power.

Marx and his followers regarded the working class as fundamentally homogeneous. All workers were united “in essence”. They had, as the concluding remarks of Marx’s and Engels’ 1848 Communist Manifesto put it, “nothing to lose but their chains”. Their common aim was to try to improve their conditions of life under capitalism, struggle against the existing social order, and overcome it by bringing about a new stage of history in which there could be real equality. Consequently, workers were urged to organize themselves into political parties and trade unions, and reject any attempt to divide them. Socialists disregarded other differences among workers, be they of religion, ethnicity, nationality, and gender. All these, they argued, played into the hands of the established powers, for a divided working class was the surest way to ensure the continuation of capitalist rule. In practice, of course, such differences could hardly be ignored and socialists were constantly having to make adjustments to their doctrine in order to remain in touch with the working class.

In 1864 Marx and Engels, in co-operation with British and exiled continental labour leaders, founded the International Workingmen’s Association, generally known as the First International. It was a largely ineffectual committee split between British reformists, the more radical continentals, and various anarchist groups. Marx moved its headquarters to New York to remove the anarchists. It was eventually wound up in 1876.

By the end of the 19th century Marxist socialism had become the leading ideology of all working-class parties in industrial countries, with the exception of the labour movements in the Anglo-Saxon countries, where it never established itself.

The transformation of socialism from a doctrine held by a relatively small number of intellectuals and activists into the ideology of the new mass working-class parties coincided with the industrialization of Europe and the growth of the proletariat between 1870 and 1890. Most European socialist or social democratic (the terms were interchangeable) parties were created in those years and, in 1889, their representatives met in Paris to celebrate the centenary of the French Revolution, and form a new association, the Second International, to replace the First. While each party was centralized and nationally- based, the International was a loosely organized confederation, upholding a form of Marxism popularized by Engels, August Bebel, the leader of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), and Karl Kautsky, its chief theorist. Following Marx, they held that capitalist relations would eliminate small producers until only two antagonistic classes, capitalists and workers, would face each other. A major economic crisis would eventually open the way to socialism and the common ownership of the means of production.


What gave the socialist movement its winning edge over other rival currents of thought within the working class movement (such as anarchism) was that it had a better organization and a more realistic approach to political strategy. Socialism appeared to be better adapted than its rivals to the mode of organization of the working class into ever larger units of production. Huge factories and plants gave those employed in them a feeling of solidarity and a common resentment against their bosses which was less likely to develop in small workshops. Socialism, unlike millenarian movements, looked optimistically towards the future, though little more definite was said about it other than vague generalities about the end of class society and the withering away of the State. Only after the Russian Revolution would it be possible to point to a model of “actually existing” socialism.

By the beginning of the 20th century, socialist parties, in alliance with the trade unions, fought for a minimum programme of reforms to be obtained in the short or medium term while maintaining that their final goal remained the elimination of capitalism and the birth of a socialist society. This two-stage conception was enshrined in the manifesto of the Second International and in the programme of the most important and successful socialist party of the time, the German SPD (founded in 1875). This programme, approved at Erfurt in 1890, and drafted by Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein, provided a summary of Marxist theories of historical change and exploitation, indicated the final goal, namely communism, and established a list of “minimum” demands that could be implemented within capitalism. These included major political reforms, such as universal suffrage, equal rights for women, a social protection system of national insurance, pensions, a universal medical service, the regulation of the labour market aimed at introducing the eight-hour working day, and the full legalization and recognition of trade unions.

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The prestige of social democracy in Germany meant that its internal theoretical disputes would be a matter for debate throughout European socialism just as, years later, the internal vicissitudes of the Bolsheviks would have a correspondingly wide impact on the rest of the international communist movement. The orthodox Marxist position represented by Karl Kautsky came to be challenged by Eduard Bernstein in a series of articles published in the late 1890s. Bernstein’s position was that capitalism had reached a new stage not foreseen by Marx and had developed a structure capable of avoiding crises. The advent of parliamentary democracy, he claimed, enabled the working class to struggle in conditions of legality; power could thus be achieved peacefully within the existing State. Though Bernstein and his supporters were in a minority virtually everywhere, his “revisionist” views came eventually to dominate the social democratic and socialist parties of Western Europe after 1945.