Yellow Socialism vs. Communism

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Socialism and communism are closely related, but what happens when that socialism turns yellow? And what does that even mean? In this lesson, we'll explore these terms and see how they are similar and different.

Marxism, Socialism, and...Another Socialism?

In 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels introduced the world to a new idea: that the changes of the Industrial Revolution had divided society in a laboring class called the proletariat, which did the work, and an ownership class called the bourgeoisie, which controlled the means of production.

According to Marx, the struggle between these groups was manifested in class conflict and would eventually result in an international workers' revolution that seized control of the means of production and created a new, classless world. Marx even outlined the steps to get there. First, the workers would overthrow the capitalist state and establish a socialist one. What Marx didn't predict, however, was the different ways this socialism would materialize.

Karl Marx
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Socialism and Communism

Let's start with socialism as Marx envisioned it. In Marxist beliefs, the workers would overthrow the capitalist state and create a socialist one. This was the first step in what Marx saw as the path to a classless society. So, what would socialism look like?

In a socialist state, a centralized government would oversee the production and distribution of resources. However, it would do so in a way that still recognized private ownership of goods and could even allow for some semblance of capitalism and democracy to exist. It's important to remember that this is a transitional phase in Marxism, so socialism can be fluid and flexible to the needs of the state undergoing the transition. Overall, the focuses of socialism are economic and social equality, as well as prepping the state to take a much more active role in regulating the means of production and distribution of wealth.

From there, in Marxist theories, socialism would progress into its final form: communism. This would happen as the workers took full control of government and eventually developed a classless society. In a communist country, a centralized and authoritarian government (which theoretically represented the people) would have complete control over the means of production and distribution of resources. There would be no concept of private ownership of goods, and no sense of class.

Yellow Socialism

After Marx's theories were presented to the world, many marginalized groups attempted to start workers' riots and rebellions that were supposed to inaugurate the international socialist revolution. However, as the 19th century drew to a close and no such international movement occurred, some people started losing faith in it.

Pierre Bietry
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One such figure was Pierre Biétry, a French politician and activist who had been a member of a socialist party in France. Disillusioned with Marxism, he began unifying a number of radical ideas floating around Europe at the time into a single doctrine. Biétry called this new ideology Yellow socialism (to distinguish it from the so-called Red socialism that was Marxism's vision).

So, what was the difference between Yellow socialism and Red socialism? While Yellow socialism agreed that the proletariat needed to be saved from capitalism, it did not see class conflict or an international workers' revolution as the way to do that. To Yellow socialists, the salvation of the proletariat lay in nationalism.

According to Biétry and his supporters, it was only by achieving the greatest national stability that the proletariat could thrive. This meant that the proletariat and bourgeoisie could coexist through the use of unions, since class conflict would weaken society. It also meant that an international revolution was absurd; the proletariat should be proud of their nationalism and fight only for their country.

This deviation set Red socialism and Yellow socialism on very different paths. While traditional (Red) socialism found its most radical realization in communism, Yellow socialism found it in fascism. It was a fork in the road, with one direction going hard left, and the other hard right.

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