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Socialism: Definition & Leaders

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  • 0:06 Definition of Socialism
  • 1:16 Liberalism vs. Socilaism
  • 2:05 Robert Owen
  • 3:04 Charles Fourier
  • 4:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson defines and explains the 19th century political ideology socialism. In doing this, it will highlight the roles of the Industrial Revolution and the socialist experiments of Robert Owen and Charles Fourier.

Definition of Socialism

The term 'socialism' has gotten some real press over the past few years as politicians argue over the state's role in people's lives and pocketbooks. In today's lesson, we're definitely not going to tackle this problem; we'll just discuss the roots of socialism.

The term socialism initially described the 19th century political ideology that had at its cornerstone the desire to improve the impoverished lives of the working class. The catalyst for this was the poor living conditions brought on by the Industrial Revolution. Although the wealthy seemed to be getting wealthier, the working class found themselves working in danger and residing in slums.

Desiring to improve the lives of the working class, socialism came on the scene. Like the ideologies of liberalism and radicalism, which called for greater political equality, socialism desired to level the playing field of social class. However, socialism would take this idea far beyond the boundaries of earlier ideologies. This was especially true in the area of economics.

Liberalism vs. Socialism

To explain, liberalism believed in the concept of laissez-faire economics, or the belief that government should keep their hands out of the economy and allow the free market to determine its own course. Socialists were diametrically opposed to this idea. They believed competition and private property had caused the ills of society. Their solution to these ills was an economic system based on cooperation and common property.

To a socialist, the economic and social health of the community were more important than that of the individual. Some even went as far as to call for a ban on private-property ownership. In order to put their ideologies into practice, socialist reformers began putting their money where their mouth was.

Robert Owen

One such man was Robert Owen, a rich industrialist who had caught the socialist fever. In the beginning of the 19th century, he purchased a mill in Scotland and chose to supply his workers with not only a safe work environment, but social needs, such as clean housing, schooling, and even childcare. Perhaps shocking socialism critics, the mill prospered despite the extra money spent on caring for its workers.

Taking his socialist ideas across the Atlantic, Owen set up a similar working environment in Indiana. Unfortunately, this commune, complete with a shared eating hall, leisure facilities, and even its own currency, failed due to in-fighting among the workers. Ironically the commune was named New Harmony. On a side note, some historians feel it also failed due to its workers unwillingness to actually work.

Charles Fourier

Another such 19th century socialist reformer was Charles Fourier. Like Owen, Fourier believed people would be most happy and productive in an environment of cooperation. Also like Owen, he worked to create self-sustaining communities. Because he felt these communities could offer protection, they were named, phalansteries, after an ancient Greek military formation known as the phalanx.

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