A Far Too Brief History of Socialist Theory

This is a history of socialism focusing primarily on some of the important moments in socialist theory. It is very brief, and admittedly inadequate. As democratic socialism breaks through into the mainstream, there is a lack of understanding by opponents, or even by those in the media open to this new clearly different kind of socialism, of how we democratic socialists view the history of socialism. For example, where do we stand in relation to Marx? I have attempted a “concise” summary of the history of socialism. I do not speak for all democratic socialists, but I do speak as a democratic socialist.

The best way to understand socialism is to understand the history of socialism. It is not a single governmental structure or collection of policies. It is an idea that has evolved over time. The easiest way to dismiss socialism is to define it as an idealistic utopia that “looks good on paper, but doesn’t work in reality.” Those who say this often are the ones who promote a form of capitalism that looks good on paper, but has not only never existed in reality, but would be far more destructive than the versions that have existed (which, by the way, have been very destructive).

Socialism is a historically situated idea that was unaccessible to humanity until capitalism created the conditions under which it became possible. Since then there has been a long history of vigorous debate over how to define socialism.

Before I proceed, let me make one thing clear. Capitalism was never inevitable. This is an important idea that I will not defend here, but deserves its own essay. If one wanted, there are real “what if” scenarios, starting in the Middle Ages, one could explore, that lead to a far more egalitarian society than the one we have, but it probably could not be called socialist for a number of reasons.

Setting “what ifs” aside, any discussion of socialism must begin, in my opinion, with the Middle Ages (if not earlier).

In the Middle Ages the aristocracy was the dominant class, and the church played a critical role in the sustaining of this economic system.

After the collapse of Rome, due to the raids of the “barbarians,” commerce came to a standstill. It was too dangerous for merchants to travel and trade. Over hundreds of years the bourgeois (a.k.a. “the capitalist class”) created the infrastructure, military, laws, and political power necessary to transform Europe into an economy dominated primarily by reinvestment in capital (a.k.a. “Capitalism”). The tangible turning point was the French Revolution, when the bourgeois accidentally took power, and subsequently killed the king as a symbol of their power. The changes that occurred during the French Revolution were building for the prior hundreds of years, but when these changes came to the surface, in just a few short years “the people” started to demand universal equality. This demand also came with a lot of built up anger and resentment, so it also came with indiscriminate killing of the enemies of equality.

Interestedly, the terms “left” and “right” in the political context come from the French Revolution. The “conservatives” sat on the right side of the room of the National Assembly, and “liberals” on the left. Note that liberals were generally a part of the capitalist class.

Robespierre, an important figure in the history of socialism, was a liberal, though not the farthest left at the time. He argued that the interests of the starving poor in France superseded the right of the wealthy to private property. Robespierre was motivated by the democratic and egalitarian ideals of the Enlightenment philosopher Rousseau. Tragically his ideals drove him to oversee the death of 16,000 French citizens, attempting to root out “the enemy within.” Some of this was due to the realities of being a leader during a civil war, and I believe he was suffering from a mental breakdown, but, either way, this was a rough start for which socialists must account.

Note, the word “socialism” did not yet exist, but it is fair to tie Robespierre to socialism, if only because Marxists looked to Robespierre for inspiration. An argument can be made in defense of Robespierre, though I am not going to be the one to do it.


There were several different kinds of socialism before Marx. There were the well intentioned capitalists that believed everyone deserved dignity, and they believed dignity would create them into virtuous citizens. These were the utopian socialists. According to their experiments, they were proved right, though a socialist movement led by the benevolent capitalists was not sustainable. There were not enough benevolent capitalists around to change the nature of capitalism into socialism.

Marx respected the utopian socialists, though, in the end, he was deeply critical of them.

There were also the anarchist socialists. They were a diverse group, but, most importantly, they were a workers’ movement. Marx was intimately integrated with them, though he was equally as critical of them, if not more so. (Side note: my guess is that Marx was a pretty challenging personality to be around.) Marx was critical of everyone for their lack of historical context, theory of power, and academic economic theory.


Marx was a socialist. Communism was just another sub genre of socialism. The idea was that communism was essentially the utopia the anarchists had been talking about, society without government, but that it could only come after socialism created a utopian pre-utopia, in which government would no longer be necessary. I have no problem dismissing this aspect of Marx as utopian and irrelevant. As I mentioned earlier, many people dismiss socialism, especially Marx, because of the utopianism. This is a stupid critique. It is easy to find socialists, even Marxists, that reject utopianism, myself included.

This may be the wrong time to mention that my humorous elevator pitch for socialism is, “Socialism can do everything capitalism can, only better.” Once one recognizes the many casualties of capitalism, this elevator pitch can be fulfilled without being utopian. In fact, the idea is that capitalism has brought us many great ideals that it has failed to deliver, such as universal emancipation. Marx argued that the workers should take control of the bourgeois state in order to bring about actual freedom for the people.

The ideals of capitalism, that everyone should be free and equal, and no one shall be above the law, not even the king, are good. The problem is that capitalism fails to treat people of color and the poor as equals, as humans. The ruling class use these ideals as cover for their oppression of the masses, just as the Thomas Jefferson said all men were created equal, while he directly perpetuated slavery. Capitalism only delivers on these ideals when the people get organized and gain enough power to stand up to the power of the bourgeois.

Marx emphasized the role of the working class because they were the first class of people in human history with the consciousness, the access to communication, and the strategic placement in the economic system to threaten the ruling class on a universal scale.

Marx lived in a time in which workers, especially in France, literally fought with guns against the bourgeois state. Today we typically reject his violence, as we should, but we have to recognize he was living in an era in which many in the workers movement were attacked by corrupt police, and they saw no other option available to them but violent revolution. In my opinion, John Stuart Mill, a British “liberal” socialist living at the same time as Marx, was right that socialism cannot result from violence. It can only come through gradual change. That being said, I want to be clear that I think Marx was a much more rigorous thinker than Mill, at least when it came to class warfare, theory of power, and economics, to name just a few areas.

Later in life Marx accomplished his most important work. He dove deep into the economic thinkers of his day, including Adam Smith. Much to my surprise, from as far as I can tell, Marx respected Adam Smith. He was critical of Smith, but he respected him as a thinker. Marx used Smith as the foundation of his argument that capitalism in inherently exploitative of the workers. Wage labor extracts life force from the workers merely for profit.

One last thing about Marx, he almost never speculated about what socialism (or communism) would look like. He left it up for the workers to decide what it would need to look like in their unique material conditions. Marx’s contribution was exclusively the theory behind the struggle.


After Marx died anarchist socialism remained a significant element on the left, though Marxism slowly built into an important force, especially in Italy and Germany. During World War I, surprisingly Russia became the site of the first socialist revolution. Without Lenin the revolution would not have happened. He was a rigorous Marxist philosopher, while simultaneously being a man of action.

Lenin had a few important original ideas, ideas that distinguished his Marxism from Marx’s. First of all, as a man of action, Lenin believed the workers were not inherently revolutionary. He did not believe they would bring about socialism on their own. They needed to be encouraged into revolution by a disciplined, revolutionary “vanguard party.” When the revolution happened, the workers supported Lenin, but they would not have started the revolution without him.

One consequence of this, which Lenin himself eventually came to realize, was that the workers were not actually equipped to run the state and the economy. It takes time for the workers to develop these new skills. This forced Lenin to rely on the capitalists, at least during a transition period. Lenin died before the end of this transition, leaving the door open for Stalin, which I will discuss below.

Another aspect of Lenin not found explicitly in Marx — the dictatorship of the proletariat. Marx did joke about the dictatorship of the proletariat, but Lenin took it a little too seriously. Lenin’s dictatorial behavior was, in part, like Robespierre, tied to pure survival instincts during civil war.

Lenin made serious mistakes, and should be criticized for doing so, but he should not be forgotten. Lenin lived in a very different context than most of his critics. One should remember that before 1917 Russia was a very oppressed country. Lenin made some important improvements.


Stalin is the tragedy of twentieth century socialism. He was a monster, one of the worst monsters of a century of monsters. As a monster, he was so successful that arguably he became the most influential socialist of the century. Stalin made it easy for capitalists to do what they were already doing before Stalin: demonizing socialism. Stalin made true the propaganda that socialism is unfree.

As much as I want to exclude Stalin entirely from the conversation about the history of socialism, he did deliver some “socialism,” if you will. He is frequently attributed with quickly bringing the USSR into the modern world, something that Lenin failed to do. By certain metrics, Stalin really improved the quality of life of many people.

From the perspective of the history of socialist theory, Stalin is rarely respected as a philosopher. He is known for emphasizing the sense of predetermination in Marx, that history has promised us socialism, and we just have to channel it into existence. Stalin used this idea of inevitability of history to justify his behavior.

He also modified Marxist concepts when it was convenient. Marx thought the inherently global nature of capitalism required the workers of the world to join together in international solidarity. When Stalin found that inevitable socialist revolution around the world would not happen over night, he came up with the concept of “Socialism in one nation,” which supported Stalin’s nationalism.


The fascist turn in Italy, Germany and Spain came as a surprise to many socialists. Most of the time, when you read Marx, socialism, and eventually communism, sounds like it is inevitable. The existence of fascism proved this belief false. Fascism was a workers movement that left the capitalists in power, targeting marginal communities instead of the capitalists.

Gramsci, an Italian Marxist, was arrested under Mussolini, and would have died in prison if they had not released him a few days prior to his death.

Before Mussolini he had led the largest union strike in Italian history. To this day he is loved as an Italian hero, with statues in his likeness and streets named after him.

Gramsci was also a philosopher. He encouraged socialists to recognize that nothing is inevitable. They must organize the workers in humility.

Gramsci went further by developing a theory of power that democratic socialists are returning to today. In fact, Gramsci is even read by conservatives seeking to understand how culture and power work. Gramsci is one of my favorite thinkers.

In Germany a whole “school” of Marxists analyzed the rise of fascism. The Frankfurt School were diverse, original thinkers. Walter Benjamin, for example, was a bit of an iconoclast that argued nothing is inevitable, and history is always being rewritten. Socialists must learn history in order to make sure it is not used to justify horrific wars and oppression. Benjamin also argued that socialists should do the same with art, film, and culture. Hitler was a master of propaganda. Benjamin said socialists should fight back, using film to “distract” and entertain the masses in a healthy, constructive direction, towards solidarity and awareness of class warfare.


In America socialists focused on the “rank and file” strategy, especially in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). By joining the workers on the factory floor, as members of the unions, they helped radicalize the unions. This was the pinnacle of the power of the unions. The Great Depression, caused by the capitalists, moved the workers to demand a different system, one not rigged by the ruling class. Roosevelt was afraid of revolution, like what had happened in Russia, because the workers’ unions were gaining too much power. Roosevelt negotiated the New Deal with the capitalists, warning them the alternative was socialism.

Further measures were taken to undermine the threat of socialism. After World War II America negotiated an international agreement that laid the foundation for unprecedented economic growth among (white) American working class families, which was a positive thing, but it was coupled with measures to neutralize the workers movement. Unions remained powerful, but the merging of the CIO with the more conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL), and the Red Scare removed the militant socialist core from the unions.


The Second World, rarely mentioned today, refers to the industrialized socialist states. The Soviet Union imperialistically invaded parts of Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa. China had its own socialist revolution, led by Mao.

Mao was another monster, but he contributed important ideas to Marxism. While Marx strategically focused on the proletariat as the revolutionary class, Mao argued that capitalism was continuing to change, and consequently the socialists must also change. The Chinese peasants could not wait until China became industrialized before starting a revolution. Mao empowered the peasants to become a revolutionary class. The revolution was successful, though the socialism was less so. Eventually Mao argued for “cultural revolution” in order to keep the struggle for real socialism alive. Initially a lot of French socialist intellectuals supported Mao. The Cultural Revolution, as it was called, was very bloody and disruptive, and failed to bring socialism. Eventually China opened itself to capitalism instead.

At this time the third world also reshaped socialism. Catholic socialists in South America developed a Marxist materialist theology called Liberation Theology.

1968 and the rest of the decade

One could argue that May of ‘68 is the moment when democratic socialism (or what we might recognize as such, explicitly critical of Soviet socialism) broke through to the mainstream. A spontaneous student movement, joined in solidarity by union strikes, brought Paris to a halt for a month. Although there was probably little chance that the protests could have actually brought about a sustained revolution, it scared the capitalists, and it inspired leftists throughout the world. This coincided with a democratic socialist protests against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia.

In America the Black Panthers demanded “All Power to All the People.” They identified as Marxists, but fought for a separate Black nation in which they could be free to be themselves.

American unions, although less militant than before, still had a lot of power. They had enough to pressure Nixon, a Republican, to pass the EPA, the Clean Water Act, OSHA, SSI, and to push for a universal basic income.

This was an era when the left was moving towards postmodernism. Postmodernism rejected “grand narratives,” all encompassing narratives that provide a lens from which to see the world. Postmodernism resigned itself merely to critique. Just as Christianity, fascism, and nationalism had failed humanity, Marx’s positive solution, Communism, resulted in authoritarian dictatorships and evil in the name of a greater good. Postmodernism avoided the messy business of proposing solutions, solutions that would probably oppress someone. Postmodernism gained moral superiority by critiquing everyone. Foucault, at one point a part of the French communist party, replaced the Marxist ethic of “solidarity” with the X-Files motto “Trust No One.” Every gesture and word contained within it the potential of oppression. Foucault was right, but this framework tricked the left into giving away political power in exchange for moral superiority. At the same time, capitalism was transforming into something new: neoliberalism. Neoliberalism told people their only political power could be found in their role as a consumer. Any alternative to capitalism was removed from the realm of reasoned discourse.


At the turn of the 21st century anarchists, typically resigned to critique, were the loudest, albeit lonely, voice on the left. They rejected socialism as totalitarian. These anarchists, unlike the anarchists from a hundred years earlier, did not define themselves as workers. In 2011, Occupy Wall Street was driven by the “horizontal,” leaderless anarchists. It was an important moment because it brought the conversations of poverty and wage stagnation into the public discourse, but it did not actually have the power to win these things.

Socialists learned a couple lessons from Occupy’s leaderlessness. Not having a leader resulted in de facto leaders, which is anti-democratic. Democracy requires democratic institutions. They also learned that movements without strategy and political organization cannot make structural change.

Žižek, the most celebrated philosopher of our generation, spoke at Occupy, challenging the activists to worry less about the revolutionary moment, and worry more about the “morning after.”

When Žižek was young, he was blacklisted by the Communist Yugoslavian authorities for his democratic ideals. He grew in popularity starting in 1989, when his Marxist, anti-Stalinist book The Sublime Object of Ideology revived the Frankfurt school discourse. A few years later, once Žižek saw capitalism result in growing pockets of fascism in his former Yugoslavia, he started making the case for socialism, in spite of the left’s fears of totalitarianism, a pervasive fear to this day.

The postmodern worry was that people who believed in their actions were able to justify hurting a lot of people. Just think of the stereotype of the nazi that killed thousands of Jews. Žižek argued postmodern irony had become the new sincerity, and that sincere socialism is the only thing that will save the world from capitalism’s destruction, such as its destruction of the climate, or even worse, the less democratic, but possibly more effective capitalism coming out of China. Žižek’s socialism is anything but utopian. He argued socialism may suck, but it won’t suck as bad as capitalism. Contra-Stalin, he reminded us that we are responsible for our dreams, we are responsible for our socialism.

After Bernie Sander’s 2016 presidential campaign we may forget that not too long ago one could not mention socialism without being called a totalitarian. Bernie introduced the term “democratic socialism” into the mainstream lexicon, although the Democratic Socialists of America had existed for decades. We believe socialism can be more than a lesser evil.

Žižek has recently gone out of fashion for making racist and sexist jokes, and saying other anti-PC things. I will not bother defending Žižek here, but we should recognize how important his voice has been.

The democratic socialist renaissance since Bernie’s campaign has resulted in an explosion of socialist theory centered primarily around Jacobin magazine and a handful of great podcasts. The important philosophers from a few years ago have not been able to keep up with how quickly things are changing. Most importantly, democratic socialism is intersectional. The socialist revolutionary class is no longer the white working class men.

Intersectional socialism says we must connect the dots between all leftist struggles. We will only win if we fight together. Feminism is class warfare, and class warfare is feminist. Anti-colonialism is class warfare, and class warfare is anti-colonialist. Racism is exacerbated by capitalism. Violence against transgender people of color is worse when we are talking about transgender people of color living in poverty. People of color, living in poverty, have far greater chances of having health issues due to environmental pollution or the effects of climate change. Capitalism is exacerbating all of these problems.

In order to replace the existing system, we must build a movement that learns from history.




Elton L.K. is a writer and a worker. He says “Billionaires? No, thank you.”

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The Working Class Intelligentsia

The Working Class Intelligentsia

Elton L.K. is a writer and a worker. He says “Billionaires? No, thank you.”

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