Written by Rohina Mahadik, a grade 10 student.
The way we, as humans, collectively view the world continuously changes with time. Understanding how the world works can be a very complex issue and is a topic that has been discussed and debated over by philosophers, thinkers, and politicians since times immemorial. “What is considered an ideal society?” “How do we create a world where everyone has equal rights?”
These are a few questions that have plagued mankind for centuries. Though it may seem very idealistic, the fervour to create a perfect society has led to great debates and large conflicts throughout history. What sort of government would this require? What political ideologies would go hand in hand with this perfect society? As can be seen, these questions are extremely abstract and the answers would probably differ based on personal preference and opinion. However, once in a while, an ideology comes up which completely changes the social mechanism of its time and influences people to rethink the way they envision the world. Socialism is one such concept that played a large role in shaping modern world history and plays a pivotal part in influencing the society we live in today.
Simply put, socialism is a form of government that seeks to bring equality between each stratum (section) of society. Socialists believe that to ensure equality, the concept of private property should be abolished and all industries and other properties should be completely state-owned. This goes completely against the concept of capitalism, which believes in private ownership of industries and operations to gain profit and increase the economy. Socialism was a movement created to put an end to capitalist enterprises.
The 19th century was a period of revolutionary inventions and innovations. There emerged new groundbreaking inventions that transformed the fields of transport and communication and led to the birth of industries. Hence started the industrial revolution.
As industrialization rapidly grew in the western world, it led to more people moving to urban cities to work in factories. The people who controlled these factories grew richer with the industrial boom and the factories themselves provided more employment to a large number of people. However, this gave rise to another problem.
While the people who owned industries grew richer with more profits, it was the workers who had to suffer. Factory owners would benefit from the profit while the labourers were forced to work for minimum wages. They suffered due to the poor working conditions and often had to carry on for long hours without many breaks.
Tired of capitalist exploitation, early European philosophers set out to establish socialism as a model form of governance that would ensure equality between the masses by putting an end to capitalism and making the ownership of all industries public or state-owned. However, it was only thanks to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, two German philosophers, that socialism became a full-scale movement.
Marx and Engels firmly believed that in order to put an end to capitalism, more power should be given to the workers who must fight for their rights. Marx claimed that the vision of socialists at the time was too ‘utopian’ and that the only way forward would be to establish a system where workers owned the rights to production. This idea came to be known as marxism and was seen as the basis of communism, another concept that was largely based on socialism.
As can be seen from its history, socialism as an ideology in itself grew into a series of different interpretations based on different opinions. However, the one common underlying theme between each interpretation was the goal of creating a society with equality between all levels. The era of socialism was a result of massive turbulence and changes in societal structure over the previous centuries. The world was tired of monarchies and anarchic rulers that created divisions based on social status. Society was evolving, from the French revolution to the establishment of the world’s oldest democracy, the United States, people were questioning the monarchical structure that had existed for centuries. We had wars and revolutions and new movements emerging at a rapid rate. Hence, from the revolutions, emerged socialism.
Now,if socialism is so great, why aren’t all countries today socialist? As mentioned earlier, socialism began to have many different interpretations. Over time, socialism came to be seen as an umbrella term for different movements such as communism which in turn had evolved from marxism.
Hence, by the early 20th century, communism had overtaken the principles of socialism and was becoming increasingly popular especially in Europe. The main difference between socialism and communism was that communism did not believe in the presence of money or ownership to create social order.
Communism sounded great in theory, but , in reality, the results of communism were disastrous. What was meant to uplift the masses to gain equality turned into a rigid movement, which, instead of improving, ended up downgrading the quality of life in communist countries. Due to its classless nature, it ended up taking rights away from people and often led to the rise of dictators, which is why communism today is often viewed in correlation to dictatorships.
In the past century, the number of socialist/communist countries in the world has rapidly declined. This is because a completely government-controlled society has never worked. In almost every case, too much power in the hands of the government has turned into a dictatorship, human greed always comes in the way of trying to create a ‘perfect’ society.
Socialism itself is far from being perfect and we are still trying to figure out an ideal interpretation of it. In theory, there are a lot of countries that claim to be socialist. Look at India itself, for example – the stamp of socialism is marked on our constitution. There are also countries that are openly communist dictatorships such as China.
Hence, this brings us back to how we started. What sort of government is needed to create a perfect society? Is it even possible to create a perfect society? Socialism in all its forms was created as an answer to these questions that have plagued mankind for centuries. In the end, that is what socialism is. It is a representation of our collective evolving thoughts and ideas in an effort to find an answer to those burning questions. Then, could a form of socialism ever be the answer? If not, what is the right answer? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.