The Welshman, Robert Owen, is recognised as one of the first socialists. In 1800, he established a co-operative community in New Lanark, near Glasgow, and during the ensuing years, published several writings now considered key documents on laying the foundations of socialism. During the same period, important French contributions were made, by those such as Charles Fourier and Saint-Simon, and by and large, the perspectives of this early cohort are considered Utopian Socialism.

  • This was not however a name then coined by the thinkers themselves, but rather one that became popular based on later criticism by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels of the work of figures such as Owen, Fourier and Simon. Both judged their socialist predecessors as innocent ‘utopians’ – a cohort longing for social change, without the ability to offer any credible outline of how that change could be achieved. This was in contrast to the detailed ‘scientific’ analysis they developed during the second half of the nineteenth century of the inevitable pathway towards revolution and fall of capitalism. For example, the famous work ‘The Communist Manifesto’ was published calling upon the workers of the world to unite, but it was Marx’s mature works – particularly Das Kapital – that introduced the most thorough criticism of the capitalist system. Although Marx’s ideas did not successfully attract a vast socialist following during his lifetime, following his death in 1883 Marxism became a philosophy of the greatest importance. In Russia, the ideas were professed and developed by Lenin, leader of the first communist revolution in 1917, and then first leader of the Soviet Union. All the same, during the same period, other less radical socialist streams were developed, such as Social Democracy based on the work of individuals such as Eduard Bernstein, essentially rejecting the revolutionary nature of Marxism.

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    Robert Owen
  • Socialism is therefore an ideology that has encompassed a range of different streams. Some key elements can however be identified with a tendency to typify socialist ideas as a family of comparable ideas. Of great significance in the tradition’s history are concepts such as Community, Co-operation, Social Justice, Class Politics and Common Control. Nevertheless, some important issues have given rise to disagreement between the members of different socialist streams. First of all, the subject of the types of methods socialists should use to pursue the better community. On the one hand, those socialists professing Marx’s interpretations have emphasised the need for revolution and accepted the inevitable use of violence involved. On the other hand, more moderate socialists professing forms of social democracy have pleaded the case of gradualism and merits of the parliamentary pathway. This perspective proposes that socialism is fundamentally a progression of the essence of liberalism, for the multitude, able to extend rights, equality and desirable standards of living for the majority through a wholly democratic system.

    Another subject of disagreement is the kind of objectives that should be pursued by socialists – in other words, which kind of society the socalist society should be, and particularly the kind of economic arrangements that should characterise that society. In this respect, Marxists have demanded that capitalism must be demolished, establishing an alternative communist society with common control of methods of production – namely the resources, tools and plant used for the creation of goods. Social democrats tend to argue however that capitalism can be suppressed and social equality ensured by professing a mixed economy and maintaining a welfare state which redistributes wealth.

    Of course, socialism has vastly influenced politics in Wales, and particularly so during the last century. This influence is seen not only with regards to the Labour Party’s electoral dominance, but also the course of other parties and movements. From a global politics perspective, Marxism is seen to have been the most influential: by offering a foundation for the development of great political powers, mainly the Soviet Union and China, and also offering a foundation to develop a critical analytical perspective which interprets the international system as an expression of capitalism.