A brief history of socialism | BBC Ideas



The A to Z of isms… socialism. Socialism as an idea
has been around since antiquity – with some arguing that
the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Prophet Muhammad,
were themselves socialist. Socialism is, in essence, the idea
that when a business does well the workers, not the owners,
ought to receive the rewards. That holds whether the
business in question is a farm, a high street bank, an online
retailer or a social media company. But how to achieve that?
That’s where it gets complicated. For some socialists,
the best way to do that is for the workers
to become the owners. That might mean
through a co-operative, where a firm’s employees collectively
own it, and all share the profits. Or it could be the government
steps in and nationalises it, as Prime Minister Clement Attlee did when he nationalised the “commanding
heights” of the British economy, from the railways to the post offices
in the late 1940s and early 50s. For others, who owns a business
isn’t that important. Through taxing the rich
and using the proceeds to pay for schools,
hospitals and transport, and through setting minimum levels
for how much workers should be paid, the benefits of a business can be
redistributed from the owners to those who put in
the hard labour to make it happen. Or, as the French Socialist
Ségolène Royal put it: Socialism really only acquired a
concrete theory in the 19th Century, when the philosopher Karl Marx laid
out what he saw as the driving force behind the revolutions
that were sweeping Europe. That helped to inspire the formation
of a number of political parties throughout the continent,
including the British Labour Party. After that, socialists split
into two different groups – social democrats, who wanted to
moderate the global economic system, so it worked in a broadly similar way
but benefited workers not bosses, and communists, who wanted
to replace the global order with an entirely new way
of running the economy. Some say the problem
with socialist ideals in human development
is based on the profit motive – we do things to benefit ourselves
and our families, not other people. By taking the benefits of enterprise
away from the bosses, we disincentivise everyone from
working and we all get poorer, workers and bosses alike. Some socialists
thought this criticism had more than a grain of truth. They wanted a new form of socialism that benefited workers
and bosses alike. They called this The Third Way – between traditional,
supposedly unfashionable socialism and the unrestrained markets favoured
by right-wing parties in the 1980s. “Socialism”, at least as far as
Karl Marx understood it, was dead and gone… forever. At least until
the global financial crisis, when the costs fell on workers
and most bosses escaped unscathed. In the wake of the financial crisis,
voters got very angry, and supporters of the Third Way
took a lot of the electoral pain. Many voters, particularly the young, started to think that perhaps
a return to old-style socialism, not social democracy,
was the way forward. Socialism is back – and its political supporters
have gone back to its roots, advocating four-day weeks,
a basic income, and government control
over much of the economy. Ten years after Marx’s version
of socialism was declared dead, there are whispers of a resurrection. Thanks for watching.
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