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Socialist dreams: to the 19th century

The words Communism and Socialism are from the start often interchangeable and they still remain easily confused in modern use. The earliest recorded use of 'socialist' makes the point. An author writing in the Co-operative Magazine in 1827 states that 'the chief question between the modern Political Economists and the Communionists or Socialists is whether it is more beneficial that capital should be individual or in common'.

The holding of possessions in common has been a characteristic of utopian communities in many periods of history. Indeed ever since the first monks, the rejection of personal property has been an ideal in many religions.

In 17th-century England the new politics of the Commonwealth encourage dreamers such as Gerrard Winstanley and his sect of Diggers to insist that the land belongs to the people (though when they begin digging up sections of it for their own use, in 1649-50, they receive short shrift from other interested parties). In the French Revolution the extreme radicals, such as Babeuf, envisage the end of private ownership.

But it is in the early 19th century that socialism begins to find practical forms - most notably in the achievement of Robert Owen at New Lanark.

Instead the exercise of dictatorship, pioneered enthusiastically by Lenin and carried to far more extreme lengths by Stalin, has come to seem almost the point of the exercise. The Russian people are better educated than in former days, within the doctrinaire mindset of the Communist party, and years of mass misery have made possible an industrial miracle. But drab and terrified conformity has been, as yet, the most evident result of the great experiment.

The challenge of World War II unites Russia in a way that Communism has failed to. It also leaves the nation much better placed than previously to foster world revolution. Or to achieve Russian dominance? The distinction will become increasingly blurred.

New Lanark and elsewhere: 1800-1847

In 1800 Robert Owen takes charge of a cotton mill at New Lanark on the Clyde. It has been previously owned by his father-in-law, who established it in 1785 in partnership with Arkwright. It is therefore a thoroughly modern enterprise, well run by the standards of the time. But the idealistic young Owen is distressed by the conditions in which the employees and their families (some 2000 people in all) live and work.

Seeing ignorance, crime and drunkenness in the community, he blames it not on the workers but on their environment. And he considers the environment at New Lanark, or in any other factory, to be the direct result of the mill owners' overriding concern to make money.

For the first time, in this perception, the ideals of socialism are directly opposed to the tenets of capitalism. The two great rivals of 20th-century politics discover each other.

Owen's reforms make New Lanark an essential port of call for anyone interested in social reform. Visitors admire the high standards in housing and the conditions in the factory. They note that goods are sold in the village shop at almost cost price. They see the care shown for the health of the families and the education of their children (Britain's first primary school is opened here in 1812). New Lanark becomes, and is recognized to be, a model industrial community.

Yet New Lanark is also a conventional business, making a good profit for its owners. Owen begins to dream of more utopian ways of solving society's ills. He promotes the idea of self-contained communities of agricultural workers and craftsmen, owning everything in common including their land. With no capitalist owner to cream off the profit, he imagines such communities being so successful that they soon become the standard form of human society.

He proves less effective as utopian theorist than as benevolent mill owner. Four Owenite communities are founded between 1825 and 1839 (the best known is at New Harmony in Indiana). Squabbles and bankruptcy finish off every one of them within a very few years.

Owen's community at New Harmony lasts just two years, from 1825 to 1827, but it is followed in the 1840s by many other similar experiments in north America. They are based posthumously on the ideas of the French social theorist, Charles Fourier, who has proposed an ideal community which he calls a 'phalanx'. Each phalanx is to include a balanced mix of workers, combining all the necessary skills. A community of 1620 people is suggested as the ideal size.

As many as twenty-eight Fourier phalanxes are founded in the USA. Most of them soon collapse. The one which makes the movement famous, Brook Farm near Boston, lasts from 1841 to 1847. But in this same decade two young men in Paris are evolving a more ruthless concept of socialism.

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