George Walford: The Origin of Socialism

Robert Michels:

The socialist theory has arisen out of the reflections of philosophers, economists, sociologists, and historians. In the socialist programmes of the different countries, every word represents a synthesis of the work of numerous learned men. The fathers of modern socialism were with few exceptions men of science primarily, and in the second place only were they politicians in the strict sense of the term. It is true that before the days of such men there were spontaneous proletarian movements initiated by an instinctive aspiration towards a higher intellectual and economic standard of life. But these movements manifest themselves rather as the mechanical outcome of an unreflecting though legitimate discontent, than as the consequence of a genuine sentiment of revolt inspired by a clear consciousness of oppression. It was only when science placed itself at the service of the working class that the proletarian movement became transformed into a socialist movement, and that instinctive, unconscious, and aimless rebellion was replaced by conscious aspiration, comparatively clear, and strictly directed towards a well-defined end. [1]

That lifts socialism out of the “response to material conditions” category, showing it to be an intellectual / ideological construct, but it leaves two problems outstanding: First, how did it come about that a small minority of philosophers, economists etc. devoted themselves to developing socialist theory while the majority of their colleagues ignored or opposed it? Second, how does it come about that even today, with socialist theory freely available in the bookshops and public libraries, sometimes even in strip-cartoon versions, only a minority of proletarians support socialist movements? Until these questions can be answered Michel’s account leaves a big gap, and in order to answer them we need an analysis carrying differential explanatory power, systematic ideology for example.

[1] Michels R. 1915 Political Parties, a sociological study of the oligarchical tendencies of modern democracy. NY: Hearst’s International Library Co. 238, emphases in the original)

– – –

JUST how much harm is done by the groups of combative young men the instant-cliche merchants have christened lager louts? A full-page newspaper article [2] on their doings in Corfu can find nothing worse to say than that they are messy, noisy drinkers – though only of lager – that they wear T-shirts with obscene slogans, fight the police, frighten disco- and cafe-owners and smash their fittings. The article speaks vaguely of one death, apparently of one of them, which may have been due to a heart attack. At home they have fought each other, smashed trains and front gardens. At Heyssel their rowdy disorder led to multiple deaths, but only when combined with the collapse of a wall.

Certainly they cannot be allowed a free hand to put peaceful people at risk, and until a better way of dealing with the situation appears, the present efforts at containment may be the nearest thing to an acceptable response, but let us not speak as if they were destroying civilization. When a major newspaper can afford to devote a whole page to such misbehaviour civilization is not in bad shape at all.

[2] Sunday Times 19 Aug 1990.

from Ideological Commentary 51, May 1991.