Posts Tagged ‘Babeuf’

The Horrors of 19th Century Industrial Society and the Rejection of Liberalism for Socialism

March 14, 2014

Hearder Europe pic

I found this description of the origins of socialism in the 19th century in Harry Hearder’s Europe in the Nineteenth Century 1830-1880, 2nd edition (London: Longman 1988). He explains that it arose through the rejection of Liberalism by some 19th century intellectuals, who believed that its concentration on individual rights had been inadequate to protect people from the harsh poverty and exploitation of modern industrial society.

A more important reaction against laissez-faire liberalism and middle-class democracy was represented by a new creed, the creed of socialism. In January 1848 de Tocqueville, addressing the Assembly of the July Monarchy in the last days of its life, had pointed out a significant fact that in recent times in Paris a large number of writings had appeared attacking the right of property. Less than six months later Europe witnessed the first major socialist rising in the June Days in Paris. The idea of social equality which had gathered appreciable support under the July Monarchy was not an entirely new one in 1830. Babeuf, the follower of Robespierre in the 1790s, had worked for his idea of a dictatorship of the poor. But the creation of an industrial proletariat provided a more clearly distinguishable class, not synonymous with ‘the poor’, but large enough to justify a new political faith, and to provide the fighting columns to support such a faith. The terrible conditions of industrial workers in England and France, to be discussed in a later chapter, attracted in the first place the attention of philanthropists or agitators, who had no complete politico-economic philosophy with which to conduct the onslaught on the capitalist exploiters. But slowly it began to be realized by small groups of thinkers that the rights of the individual as thy had been defined by the English, American and French Revolutions did not protect the great majority of men in the new industrialized society from an unreasonable amount of suffering and what was in practice only a modified form of slavery. A real continuity of social justice could not be obtained merely by legislating in favour of a free economy. The free play of the laws of supply and demand did not protect the weak from the strong… French followers of Saint-Simon [early Utopian Socialist] could concentrate upon the central theme of his message, and one of them, Pierre Leroux, named the theme ‘socialism’. (pp. 57-8).

We’ve seen in our own day the massive inadequacy of the free market to provide prosperity for the working and lower middle classes. Since the 19th century the vast majority of Socialists in Western Europe have been keen defenders of democracy and individual rights, if not the right to property. The situation in this regard is now the reverse. It is the Right that is now consistently trying to undermine the rights of the very poorest members of society. Mike over at Vox Political , Jayne Linney and very many other left-wing bloggers have covered the way they have ignored parliament, and treated with contempt the calls by its committees for a cumulative impact assessment into the way the government’s welfare reforms have affected the poor and disabled it claims to be helping.

They have also attempted to pass further legislation outlawing public protests, under the guise that this may be a nuisance to the communities where the protests are held. The Angry Yorkshireman over at another Angry Voice has also covered the massive expansion of covert surveillance by this government. He has a story today about how GCHQ’s massive monitoring of the net included taking screen snaps of people having cybersex. This rather lurid fact is part of the wider point, that GCHQ was snooping on ordinary citizens, who had committed no offence and for whose surveillance they had no legal warrant. See his piece this morning: GCHQ: Spying on people’s cybersex sessions in Order to “Protect” Them, at The parapolitical magazine, Lobster, since it first appeared in the 1980s, criticised the massive expansion of the powers, corruption, and political interference of the British secret state. The magazine was unimpressed by Blair’s signal refusal to curb its growth or organise any proper investigation into its failures – such as those that allowed the 7/7 bombing to occur. Its growth seems to have expanded even further under the Tories and Tory Democrats. Its spying on the ordinary suggests that the government now regards everyone of its citizens as a potential threat, an attitude that can only lead to more paranoia and more attempts to limit liberty and freedom of speech.

The need for socialist legislation to combat the poverty created by the free market is as necessary as ever. And there needs to be proper, liberal, democratic legislation to curb the expansion and development of the surveillance state. But I cannot see any of the latter coming from the Tories or Lib Dems, despite their claims to represent and promote individual liberty.