Yellow Socialism vs. Democracy

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

There's a lot of talk about how socialism can be democratic, but that changes when the socialism turns yellow. In this lesson, we'll see what that means and explore these opposing ideologies.

Fascism and Democracy

You'd think that once people experienced democracy, the political structure that guarantees every person a voice in their government, it would be hard to convince them to give it up. Of course, that doesn't mean that someone wouldn't try.

By the early 20th century, a number of European intellectuals were toying with the idea that only a strong, authoritarian state could really ensure the survival of the nation. In fact, they theorized that democracy could actually be dangerous, weakening the state with pointless debates about equality and freedom. Eventually, this totalitarian nationalism would be known as fascism, but for now it was just theoretical. It would be nearly impossible to convince the people to give up the democratic structures they were used to it, right?

It might have seemed that way, until a new idea arrived on the scene that changed everything.

Yellow Socialism

By 1904, French politician Pierre Biétry had grown tired of socialism. Originally, he liked the concept of the workers' rebellions and elimination of class, but socialism wasn't going anywhere. The workers weren't rebelling, and Biétry started embracing an alternative ideology. What if the proletariat didn't need an international revolution, but could instead be elevated through nationalism and totalitarian state control?

Pierre Bietry
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To advance this idea, Biétry formed the Fédération Nationales des Jaunes, the National Federation of Yellows. Why yellow? It was to mark the fact that he had moved beyond traditional Marxism, what he called ''red socialism.'' Instead, he would champion yellow socialism.

Yellow socialism rejected the revolutionary attitude of Marxism, as well as its focus on class conflict. Instead, yellow socialism believed that the proletariat could be saved from oppression by working alongside the owners and companies and forming trade unions. After all, a workers' revolution would just weaken society. The Jaunes wanted to make their society stronger. National unity and security should be of greater importance to the workers than seizing the means of production.

As a result, yellow socialism was strongly nationalist and embraced the idea that only a powerful, centralized leader could ensure the stability of the nation. It was distrustful of immigrants and emphasized strong borders, convincing the workers that immigration invited inferior people to come steal jobs from citizens. It was also anti-Semitic. Historians see this as the first successful right-wing movement to begin appealing to the proletariat, and a critical step in the development of fascism. The people were starting to submit their freedoms willingly.

Yellow Socialism and Democracy

So, how do yellow socialism and democracy stack up? As the predecessor to fascism, yellow socialism supported many ideas that were pretty opposed to democracy. In a democratic state, political leaders are elected by the people, and the government serves at the pleasure of the people. The people's voice and political will is supposed to always guide the government's decisions, and there are a number of systems in place to remove leaders who try to assume too much power for themselves.

That's not the case in yellow socialism. In yellow socialism, there is a prevailing idea that freedom and democracy are dangerous, and that these institutions provide a pathway for outsiders and dissidents to infiltrate and fracture the nation. In short, democracy can't be trusted precisely because it gives everyone an equal political voice. Instead, the people have to give up many of their freedoms to a single, charismatic ruler who can ensure the security of the nation. With authoritarian control, this dictator would have the power to manage the economy and elevate the proletariat, all while stopping foreigners and radicals from exposing the country to dangerous ideas that would weaken it.

In Biétry's vision, the state would be controlled by the leader of the yellow socialist political party, which just so happened to be himself. While his name may not be familiar to everyone today, Biétry became the model to which later fascist dictators aspired. He was energetic, charismatic, and able to galvanize the support of the proletariat.

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