How Socialism Works

History of Socialism

Plato, shown here with Aristotle, wrote about a society similar to the utopia Thomas More described.
Plato, shown here with Aristotle, wrote about a society similar to the utopia Thomas More described.
Time Life Pictures/Mansell, Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Thomas More coined the term "utopia" in 1515 in his treatise titled "Utopia," but utopian imaginings began long before his. Plato described a similar environment when he wrote the philosophical work "Republic" in 360 B.C. In 1627, Francis Bacon's "New Atlantis" advocated a more scientific approach, rooted in the scientific method. Bacon envisioned a research-institute-like society where inhabitants studied science in an effort to create a harmonious environment through their accumulation of knowledge. In addition to these landmark works, more than 40 utopian-themed novels were published from 1700 to 1850, cementing its status as a very popular ideal [source: Foner]. Because many social injustices -- such as slavery and oppression -- were running rampant, the theme was quite popular among embittered and dispirited populations.

While a French revolutionary named François Noël Babeuf is credited with the idea of doing away with private property to create equality and is often considered the first socialist, the concept wasn't popularized until the late 1700s, when the Industrial Revolution caused some drastic changes around the world.

The revolution marked a shift from agricultural societies to modern industries, in which tools were eschewed in favor of cutting-edge machinery. Factories and railways sprung up, resulting in tremendous wealth for the owners of these industries. While they profited from these changes, workers were thrown into sudden poverty due to a lack of jobs as machines began to replace human labor. Many people feared that this discrepancy in income would continue to spread, making the rich richer and the poor poorer.

This fear created unrest among the working class. Poor housing, coupled with bad working conditions and slave labor (which was still rampant in the United States and other countries), contributed to the desire for a more equal society. As a result, socialist ideals quickly became popular among the impoverished workers. Communes such as Brook Farm and New Harmony began popping up in the United States and Europe. These small communities abided by socialist principles and worked to avoid the class struggles that controlled the rest of the world. New Harmony was considered a center of scientific thought and boasted the United States' first free library, public school and kindergarten.

Lenin speaks to troops gathered in Red Square. Lenin speaks to troops gathered in Red Square.
Lenin speaks to troops gathered in Red Square.
Mansell/Mansell/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

­Despite the presence of small communes and the spread of socialist thought, socialism remained largely an idea, rather than reality. Soviet dictator Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was the first leader to put socialism to the test. Though he was a communist (a branch of socialism that used militant action to overthrow the upper class and government to achieve a utopian society), Lenin implemented many socialist initiatives in the Soviet Union after his takeover in 1917. These included forced nationalization of industry and collectivization of agriculture. Lenin's programs were not profitable, and he eventually resorted to a mixed economy. Communism is sometimes referred to as revolutionary socialism for its aggressive tactics. Although there are fundamental differences between the two theories, communism and socialism both aim to eliminate class struggles by encouraging government or state control of production and distribution.

The post-World War I era saw a rise in democratic socialism in Europe. Socialist parties became active in the governments of Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium and Great Britain. Socialism also became popular in portions of Africa, Latin America and Asia.

Next, we'll learn about early socialism in the United States.