Scholars generally consider socialism as a political ideology developed during the nineteenth century. However, the roots of the ideation can be traced back much further. Some believe, for instance, that quintessentially socialist ideas are present in the New Testament description of early Christian life. Others highlight arguments of a socialist nature in the work of thinkers such as Thomas More (1478-1535) or even Platon (428-347BC). Despite the importance of acknowledging this background, no cohesive and self-aware body of socialist ideas can be claimed in these early works – this came to light during the nineteenth century. In the view of political philosopher Andrew Vincent (Vincent 1995:88), two significant events can be intimated for their contribution to the development of socialist ideas during this time: the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.

  • The French Revolution in 1789 led to the demolition of the old absolute monarchy regime, establishing in its place a new republic based on progressive principles, such as freedom, equality and brotherhood (liberté, égalité, fraternité). With Socialism, it is assumed that the significance of the French Revolution is based on the fact that it highlighted people’s ability to try to transform society for the better: that this attempt is possible through radical political and social activity to abolish old institutions and arrangements and in their place build a fairer and more equal society. It can also be argued that the Jacobin movement inspired by the work of philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Gabriel Bonnot de Mably began to give voice to arguments that would become key amongs socialists. For instance, the Jacobins were very critical of the implications of private property ownership and the amassing of wealth in the hands of a small minority and so they argued for measures that would facilitate land redistribution, shared ownership and co-production.

    Alongside the events in France during the 1790s, the Industrial Revolution, leading to the creation of the modern capitalist economy, can be considered a further (and perhaps more important) driver for the development of socialist ideas. From its beginnings in Britain during the second half of the eighteenth century, the Industrial Revolution led to fundamental social and economic change across Europe. For the first time, large industries were developed and a huge migration of population was seen from country to town. Such changes however gave rise to very difficult working and living conditions for the new working class. Nineteenth century laissez-faire economic policies gave employers the freedom to set wages and working conditions as they wished. As a result, wages tended to be low. Furthermore, the working day tended to be very long (up to 12 hours), the use of child labour was commonplace and the dangers of injury and unemployment cast permanent shadows. Over time, the hardship and pressing poverty that characterised the working class life led to an increasing doubt of the qualities of the modern capitalist society. As a result, by the 1820s and 1830s, a number of political thinkers – that is, early socialists – were beginning to think of alternative methods of social and economic organisation.