This is Chapter 1 of the web-publication, European Proponents of Sociology Prior To World War I. 
Copyright © 1993 Hans L Zetterberg. 
Swedish version available in  Sociologins följeslagare, (Ratio, Stockholm 1993).

Hans L Zetterberg

The liberal, conservative, and socialist roots of sociology, including

Saint-Simon and Marx

Liberalism: Locke and Smith

Imagine an era of violence and cataclysmic change. Within the course of a human lifetime, two revolutions break out; two civil wars are fought; one king is executed and another exiled; a republic under parliamentary control is introduced; a military protectorate is tried for a while; finally, the monarchy is restored.

The scene is England in the seventeenth century.

In this violent period, the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland ousts Oxford and Cambridge as the foremost seat of learning. When the dust has settled, there is a soft, enduring gleam shining from an almost century-old tradition of learned Scots, from John Locke to Adam Smith. They gave us the dominant ideas underlying the two branches of liberalism: liberal politics and liberal economics.

John Locke (1632-1704) drew one simple conclusion from his violent times: "Where there is no law, there is no freedom. For freedom is being free from coercion and violence from others, which is not the case where law does not exist."

It is the laws that must govern, not people. The legislature (parliament) and executive (king, government and authorities) must, according to Locke, be kept separate, and heralding Montesquieu's doctrine of the division of powers he hinted that the judiciary, too, should be distinct. Nevertheless, to Locke the essence was not formal separation but that official and legal regulations be maintained even in cases that favor opponents of the Crown. Religious views and peaceful political opinions should in no respect be treated as criminal. Laws must exist to prevent us from harming one another and destroying the natural rights we have, i.e. "life, liberty and estate". Laws must be passed not by the dictates of kings or other rulers, but by the consent of the governed. However, "anyone who wrongly uses force is placing himself at war against those he uses it against, and in this situation all previous ties, all other rights, cease and every single person is entitled to defend himself against the aggressor." This right to revolt in clearly specified circumstances came to be cited by the colonies in the American War of Independence.

Like his rival Thomas Hobbes, Locke sought to link these ideas by a theory of rights conferred by nature and of a social contract. It is a mistake to think he championed popular rule with majority decisions, or any form of equality other than that before the law. On the other hand, he was unequivocally in favor of the right of private ownership.

In due course, English constitutional liberalism gained its counterpart in the form of economic liberalism. Locke had written of the right of property as the right to "estate", which in fact means country property the agrarian society's income-generating form of property. But England was pregnant also with another type of property.

Adam Smith (1723-90) described the new England as "a nation of shopkeepers". "Shop", of course, means "factory" as well as "retail outlet". The phrase became widely known in Europe when it was contemptuously quoted by Napoleon, who wrongly thought such a nation would be a military walkover.

"The desire to improve our conditions, a desire that comes to us in the womb and never leaves us until we go to the grave" was what Smith saw as the source of economic progress. It gets a chance where "natural freedom" prevails, i.e. where every individual has the capacity, without fear of punishment, to do what seems best to him or her in the current situation. With the division of labor and in competition, individual interests are realized. 

When everyone thus pursues self-interest, overall wealth and welfare are also promoted. Thus, society need not be held together by threats from the government, as had been thought from Plato to Hobbes. In Smith's view, it can cohere through mutual self-interest. "It is not from the benevolence from the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest", was his much quoted insight in his classic text,  The Wealth of Nations (1776).

In the pursuit of natural freedom, the functions of the state shrink :

"All systems either of preference or of restraint [of entrepreneurship] being... completely taken away, the obvious and simple system of natural liberty establishes itself of its own accord. Every man, as long as he does not violate the laws of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest his own way, and to bring both his industry and capital into competition with those of any other man, or order of men. The sovereign is completely discharged from a duty, in the attempting to perform which he must always be exposed to innumerable delusions, and for the proper performance of which no human wisdom or knowledge could ever be sufficient; the duty of superintending the industry of private people, and of directing it towards the employments most suitable to the interest of the society. According to the system of natural liberty, the sovereign has only three duties to attend to; three duties of great importance, indeed, but plain and intelligible to common understandings: first, the duty of protecting the society from violence and invasion of other independent societies; secondly, the duty of protecting, as far as possible, every member of the society from the injustice or oppression of every other member of it, or the duty of establishing an exact administration of justice; and, thirdly, the duty of erecting and maintaining certain public works and certain public institutions which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain; because the profit could never repay the expense to any individual or small number of individuals, though it may frequently do much more than repay it to a great society."1

What Adam Smith is describing here is the model of society that was later dubbed "laisser-faire" and is now called "laissez-faire". As we have seen, he himself termed it "natural freedom". This idea has been much used in later thinking about economy and society. It has also corrupted by partisans so that it takes some effort  understand its original meaning.

bulletSmith conception has no affinity to  the Darwinian ideas of the law of the jungle and the survival of the fittest, that sipped into Herbert Hoover's American laissez-faire and Margaret Thatcher's British laissez-faire. 
bulletNor has it any affinity to  Marxian ideas of exploitation of the workers. Such notions were later additions to the image of laissez-faire. Smith had a professorship in "moral philosophy" at the University of Glasgow. Moral precepts and human compassion were self-evident ingredients in his view of society. He argued, for example, that "when wages are high we shall always find the workmen more active, diligent, and expeditious then when they are low".
bulletMoreover,  "the sovereign" in Smith' writing refers to the state as known to his times, not to a modern state involved in health and education of all its members, and with direct involvement in the welfare of its youngest and oldest and unemployed members who cannot support themselves.. You cannot cite Smith as an apostle to dismantle the welfare state. You can cite him as an apostle to get the state out of the running of  businesses. 

The Wealth of Nations  sold out within half a year and went through four new editions in Smith' lifetime. He found himself cheered by the greatest brains in England: Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon, David Hume, William Pitt, and others.  And rightly so, for the book contained  the greatest discovery of social science of all times: the poor were not to be always among us as the Apostle Paul had presumed. Wealth could be created in this world sufficient for all mankind! 

Freedom, division of labor and competition create great wealth. But Smith did not think that this wealth would be distributed in unacceptable inequality. When we first encounter his famous phrase "the invisible hand" in his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) it has little to do with the perfect workings of the market. His argument about equality has two starts with the assumption of  a natural satiation point in human needs: and by the mechanism of an  invisible hand:.

"It is to no purpose that the proud and unfeeling landlord views his extensive fields, and without a thought for the wants of his brethren, in imagination consumes himself the whole harvest that grows upon them. The homely and vulgar proverb, that the eye is larger than the belly, never was more fully verified than with regard to him. The capacity of his stomach bears no proportion to the immensity of his desires, and will receive no more than that of the meanest peasant. The rest he is obliged to distribute among those who prepare, in the nicest manner, that little which he himself makes use of, among those who fit up the palace in which this little is to be consumed, among those who provide and keep in order all the different baubles and trinkets which are employed in the economy of greatness; all of whom thus derive from his luxury and caprice that share of the necessaries of life which they would in vain have expected from his humanity or his justice." 

The arguments thus continues with the assumption of an invisible hand for the distribution of wealth that is independent of the generosity of the producer of wealth:

"The produce of the soil maintains at all times nearly that number of inhabitants which it is capable of maintaining. The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor; and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, thought they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labors of all the thousands whom they employ be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life which would have been made had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants; and thus, without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. When providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition. These last, too, enjoy their share of all that it produces. In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, they are in no respect inferior to those who would seem to be much above them. In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for!"

As we shall see when turning to Émile Durkheim's theory of anomie, the assumption of a natural satiation point  holds only for biological needs, not for social needs such as respect, prestige, nor, indeed, for the desire for riches, power, knowledge, beauty, holiness, and virtue.  On this score Smith stands corrected. 

Do the comforts of life come more easily and earlier to the masses in a society based on "natural freedom" than to a society that exerts centralized control? John Locke's ideas about the body politic and Adam Smith's ideas about the economy were at times spurned as naive eighteenth-century optimism. But in fact, they were rooted on the victorious side of the Napoleonic wars. In the twentieth century they were also found on the victorious side of the Hitler war. And in the Cold War, the nations built on the constitutional liberalism of Locke and the economic liberalism of Smith were again victorious.

Conservatism: Edmund Burke

The message of the French Revolution liberty, equality and fraternity stimulated liberalism in Europe and America and struck the Establishment of the time with terror. But in the homeland of liberalism, England, the opinion that the Revolution had got out of hand become common outside the Establishment as well.

Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France4 was published in 1790. It is both a penetrating analysis of what happened during the French Revolution and an epoch-making formulation of what was, in time, to become known as the conservative view of society. (However, "conservatism" as a concept in the political debate did not come into general use until around 40 years later.)

It is commonly assumed that the French and American Revolutions occurred in the same spirit, and that the notions of liberty and equality in the French Revolution expired in France's internal and external conflicts, but found a sanctuary and survived remote from European wars on the American continent. But this opinion is a simplification that obscures essential differences between the French and American Revolutions.

In Burke's view, a domestic historical tradition not only has a moral right vis-à-vis a foreign, imperialist rule of force; it also has good prospects of defeating it. He defended Ireland against England and the Hindus against the British East India Company.

He also defended the ancien régime in France against the radical intellectuals the Jacobins from whom the ruling junta of the Revolution was recruited. The fact that the Jacobins were Frenchmen and not an alien occupying power was irrelevant to Burke. The crux was that they attacked the actual structures and values that were France.

The American Revolution sought freedom for existing, living people who had developed and established habits and rules of life in the New World. The French Revolution did not seek freedom for France's existing bourgeoisie and peasantry; it was aimed at freedom for a new kind of person who did not exist, but who was to be created by the Revolution through upbringing, education, information and if necessary terror. This is not to say that the American revolution was not a real revolution like the French revolution in which a new group of people replaces a ruling group. In America, the revolution replaced a ruling authority, the King of England, and his legislative power, colonial bureaucracy, courts and armed forces with domestic counterparts.

The American revolutionaries represented a large interest group in North America who had a real investment in the American society. They loved their America as it was. The French revolutionaries represented a smaller interest group. They did not love France as it was; they loved their design of the France they wished to create.

To create the new France, the Jacobins released the Catholic priests, monks and nuns from their ties to the Church and, instead, tied them down with a new oath of allegiance to the Revolution. Common sense and virtue were to be worshipped, not God in the form of Jesus and Mary. New secularized rituals superseded the divine services, and a new calendar gave the people new public holidays. Family feeling was regarded as repugnant to common sense: divorces became simple and numerous. The aristocracy was wiped out by systematic, rational executions by guillotine.

In the ancien régime, rights and property had been assigned to families and civil associations. Accordingly, it was villages, homes, estates, guilds, congregations, religious orders or universities that had property and rights. The revolutionary society conferred property and rights either on the state or on private individuals, not on civil associations.

Edmund Burke directed mordant criticism against the legislation of the French Revolution, thereby developing conservative ideology with its defense of family, civil associations, religion and private enterprise.

The true constitution of the people is located in the history of its institutions, not in a text known as the Constitution. The true constitution of the United States, in Burke's opinion, was not a paper document but the entire range of customs and traditions that had emerged during the two centuries before the American War of Independence, admirably summarized in the text of the Constitution.

Burke's message that society does not as a matter of course allow itself to change according to intellectual designs is one foundation of his conservatism. The policy that is feasible in a given society is therefore compelled to be humble before what exists pragmatic, rather than dogmatic.

Assuredly, society changes but not necessarily according to plan. Every society has deep structures that are only partially known to its own members. It has complexities that can best be understood in historical terms. It has symbols that have acquired their meaning in previous generations and that cannot be simply redefined. "The living and the dead are partners," as Burke said. In German, this partnership came to be called Gemeinschaft.

Burke sought to correct the cheerful frivolity in the program of applied social knowledge adopted by the revolutionaries and in ethical socialism a frivolity that became typical, too, of the first generation of sociologists. If there are deep structures in society of which we, as members of society, are unaware, and if there are social processes that we cannot predict, it also holds that society and its problems partly consist of the unplanned consequences of our planned measures. This is a sociological insight that the authorities, politicians, wielders of power, social engineers and economists are seldom willing to take seriously.

Nevertheless, this vision of the enigmatic and overwhelming nature of society has remained an important source of inspiration for great sociology: Durkheim's lifework, in particular, confirms this. And the vision of the decisive role of society's historical inheritance has remained the primary key to the contemporary world; Weber's work, especially, confirms this.

Saint-Simon: sociologist and ethical socialist 

"In him is the seed of all the currents of nineteenth-century thought," said Émile Durkheim. "Almost all the ideas in latter-day socialism that are not purely economic are to be found, in the foetal stage, in him," said Friedrich Engels. They were referring to the French social thinker Claude Henri de Saint-Simon, who died in 1825, twenty-three years before Marx and Engels published their Communist Manifesto.

Saint-Simon is the outstanding figure of sociology. He should be called the father of sociology, but the historians of learning have fallen for the positivist system of his compatriot Auguste Comte. It was Comte who launched the word "sociology" in the last three parts of a wide-ranging six-volume work entitled Cours de philosophie positive (1830-42), and is commonly regarded as the father of the new science.

In terms of ideas, however, Saint-Simon was the first and greatest source of inspiration for sociology. Comte was his apprentice, friend and also, in a couple of publications, his co-author.

Saint-Simon had introduced the concept of "industrialization" and written of social development and differentiation, giving Comte and Spencer a flying start. He analyzed how elites must adapt to social development, and opened the path later trodden by Gaetano Mosca and Vilfredo Pareto. He wrote of the role of classes in history of the workers who create welfare and the lazy exploiters of the workers' toils and enhanced people's receptiveness to Karl Marx's far sharper and more detailed doctrine of class struggle. In theory and practice, he took up common values (mainly religious) and their consequences for society, thus presenting the subject of one of Durkheim's major contributions to sociology. He distinguished between stable structures and those that have not yet crystallized, thereby heralding the analytical notions of sociological functionalism concerning functions and emanating social structures, i.e. the quest for what is really taking place in apparent social developments. He foresaw that European nations would develop into parliamentary republics; he even believed in a European parliament.

Saint-Simon was an officer of the higher nobility, but lacked a fortune. He tried to survive the French Revolution by changing his name and calling himself M. Bonhomme. Some Jacobins who were more familiar with his origins than his ideas threw him into prison. Nevertheless, their control of the revolution was waning and Saint-Simon managed to escape the revolution's orgy of exterminating the aristocracy, whereupon he resumed his real name.

Saint-Simon is also as Engels points out a primary figure of socialism. The socialism he represents is usually termed ethical socialism, which is also known as "utopian" socialism when it sought to establish co-operative model societies. This movement emerged when Western Europe embarked on modernization. It belongs to the period when factories became the new predominant institution in certain expansive local communities. Household and workplace were then separated, and the towns and their slums became the everyday setting for a generation that had previously lived in the fellowship of the country village. An upper class based on birth or capital lived well, while the great majority in the industrial towns were able to maintain a reasonable living standard and ample vigor only during their best working years.

Ethical socialism claimed that human beings enjoy natural rights over and above the political ones identified by Locke, such as the right to work and to choose one's own job, and the right of workers to enjoy the fruits of their own labor. In other words, profit should belong to those who work manual and skilled workers but also to those we would nowadays call white-collar workers, engineers and directors. Ethical socialism postulated everyone's right to a decent living standard, and the right to human relations in the emerging urban and industrial society. It defined what came, later in the nineteenth century, to be called "the social question".

Saint-Simon also formulated the welfare state's solution to the social question: "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs". His experience of the Revolution had confirmed his opposition to violence as a political method. He became more and more skeptical towards liberalism owing to its insensitivity to social problems, and accorded the state the key role in popular welfare. In 1825 he wrote:3

"Now, the most direct way to bring about an improvement in the moral and physical well-being of the majority of the population is to give priority in State expenditure to the provision of work for all fit men, so as to assure their physical existence; to disseminate as quickly as possible among the proletarian class the positive knowledge which has been acquired; and finally to ensure that the individuals composing this class have forms of leisure and interests which will develop their intelligence."

Notions that human nature confers rights on humankind belonged to the general stock of contemporary ideas. In Locke, we found it in the right to life, liberty and property. But in him the rights were mainly negative: it was the state's claims on citizens that were limited by natural rights. In Saint-Simon and ethical socialism, positive natural rights applied: workers and citizens could claim that employers and/or the state should give them a rich and full life.

Notions of positive natural rights also existed in the thriving German circle that, following G.W.F. Hegel, philosophized about society a circle to which the young Karl Marx belonged. Among the young Hegelians, Moses Hess in particular propounded the human rights of ethical socialism. The Hegelians, like the proponents of ethical socialism, also had notions of intrinsic human potentials and of every human being's right to self-fulfillment a singularly modern idea.

Ideas of certain natural rights for the working man ranked first in the program of the "German Workers' Brotherhood" (Allgemeine deutsche Arbeiterverbrüderung), founded in 1848, in the months before the publication of the Communist Manifesto. This association demanded the workers' right to "choose their immediate superior", and other limitations on what they called "employers' despotism".

As we know, such ideas persist to this very day, and most people think mistakenly that they are derived from Marx. They were a feature of the student revolts of 1968, which articulated a reaction against the inequitable economic distribution and insensitive bureaucracy of industrial society. They recurred in the widespread discussion of the 1970s about the "democratization of working life". Present-day psychologists' and sociologists' interest in measuring and developing "quality in working life" (the QWL school) can, similarly, be traced back to the tradition of ethical socialism. 

Saint-Simon created his immense legacy of thought without a systematic approach, and without investigating its internal consequences. A biographer says of him, in some desperation but with great justification: Il apprend toujours et ne sait rien ("He is always learning, and knows nothing.") Naturally, he is not alone in formulating the ideology of ethical socialism. All the early socialists contributed: Pierre Joseph Proudhon, Charles Fourier and Louis Blanc in France, Robert Owen in England and Wilhelm Weitling in Germany.

Marx and "scientific" socialism

Karl Marx (1818-83) was a social thinker with far more stringent arguments and better-documented conclusions than Saint-Simon and Burke. He succeeded in what they never managed to do: creating a coherent, dynamic theory of society's historical development.

To understand Marx we may first turn to Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) who developed his philosophy around the dialectical method that came to bear his name. When his philosophizing was directed at pure thought, i.e. the pure relations of pure symbols, he found that concepts in any language were not static and concluded. Human reasoning develops through its own inner dynamics. It moves, Hegel asserted, through opposites that fuse into higher entities. No one concept is capable of exhausting all the conditions of existence. Each concept therefore points beyond itself to an opposite concept.

However, human thought does not stop at this opposition, says Hegel. Thinking always strives to nullify it by combining the two opposite concepts into a third, higher concept, which includes the two opposing ones. An either/or becomes a both/and. This new thought, in turn, is faced with its opposite; together with the opposite it forms a still higher entity – and so on. Thus a continuous process of development takes place in humans' use of symbols – always through the three steps: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Hegel believed that pure thought was a universal “spirit” that governed society and its history through this dialectical principle. Dialectics shaped mankind's symbolic environment. It operated through the family, the civil society, and the state; the state was its most complete expression. The spirit of the times (Zeitgeist) writes the cultural history. It had moved from the Mediterranean antiquity and was located in Western Europe at Hegel' time and was on its way to north America, which he called "the land of tomorrow."

Generally speaking, scholars of society and its history have not been convinced by Hegel. His own student, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) rejected his idealism and and took a more scientific view that "the spirit" was an illusion: only that which is experienced by the senses is real. Man is not created in the image of God, but God is created by man in the image of man. There is no spirit above man, it is mankind itself that pursues the dialectical sequence. Feuerbach dismissed religion but kept morality.

Max Stirner (1806-1856) took further steps away from Hegel. He scorned Feurerbach's notion of a "mankind" pursuing moral goals. He held that the reality could only be the individual. His philosophy is a consistent celebration of the individual self, totally independent of others, and without any obligation to others. If there is a dialectic, each person has his own.

Karl Marx (1818-1883) rejected the idealism of Hegel, the moralism of Feuerbach, and the individualism of Stirner. These strains of thought he sometimes called "the German Ideology."

The winter of 1844/45 marks a watershed in the intellectual development undergone by the two friends, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marx was in Paris at the time. It was a kind of exile after the final prohibition of his German newspaper, Rheinische Zeitung in Cologne, by the authorities. The journey was a delayed honeymoon; Marx had married Jenny von Westphalen. The choice of Paris as refuge was presumably also influenced by a brilliant book of reports on the radical social movements in France (inspired by Saint-Simon, among others) that a young Dane, Lorenz Stein, had written for German readers.

One influential present-day interpreter of Marx, Louis Althusser, also believes that there were actual manifestations of a proletarian class struggle in Paris at that time, and he thinks these made a deep impression on Marx. Only after contacts with, or observations of, the militant workers was Marx ready to formulate his theory of the working class's organized revolutionary struggle.

This thesis of Althusser's is reasonable but speculative. Thus, we do not know for certain what inspired Marx. But we know that, with effect from that point in time, the class struggle assumed a central position in his thinking. He had by now created what Engels called the "doctrine of the conditions of liberation of the proletariat". This was a doctrine that sought to culminate in scientific evidence that the laws of history and the economy require development towards the expansion of capitalism and the victorious revolution of the working class against capital. It involves total divergence from ethical socialism and from the Hegelian heritage of idealism.

When Marx and Engels had worked out the contours of this theory, they began vigorously wheeling and dealing to obtain the order for their program statement, The Communist Manifesto. The order was placed by the Rights Association (Bund der Gerechten), a society of German immigrant workers in London that had branches in several cities on the Continent. Marx was no longer a writer who contented himself with having a newspaper as his operational base. He was now an intellectual actively seeking a movement in whose future he could believe. He had found a striking and original stand: the future of mankind's intellectual progress and the future of the proletariat were identical! Intellectuals used to concern themselves with classical writers and with the great contemporary artists and scientists could now identify their cause with the cause of the working classes. They could change the world, not just study it and comment on it.

The break with Marx' past as a Hegelian was marked by his loss of interest in publishing his earlier manuscripts; only a century later were these printed. The students who revolted in the 1960s actually belonged to the first generation who in great numbers had read his early books.

When Karl Marx moved to London, he arrived in the promised land of liberalism. There was no checking of passports at the border; no permit was required to change foreign currency; there was full freedom to reside where one wished and engage in the same business as native Englishmen; there was no censorship of the press, or any obligation for foreigners to report to the police. Here, anyone who wished could, admittedly, help the state by serving on a jury or in the army, but neither was compulsory. There was of course taxation, mainly property and income tax the latter introduced in 1842. But Marx did not need to pay tax on his income himself, since it comprised gifts from his friend, the factory-owner Friedrich Engels, and from his wife's relatives. In short, anyone who wished could live a whole lifetime and hardly notice the existence of state, other than in the form of police in the streets. The ideas of John Locke and Adam Smith had been realized.

Engels and Marx utilized the liberal climate in England for their own purposes. They did so without gratitude: they saw liberal linguistic habits as curtains of mist that concealed the reality of capitalism. And Marx thought of England not merely as the land of liberalism, but as that of the steam engine. Half the population had urban and industrial livelihoods, compared with 10 to 20 per cent on the Continent. English reality confirmed to him that production technology created new social structures, new occupational classes, new power relationships and even new ideologies. The whole nature of society appeared to be determined by the prevailing technology. Observations of this kind confirmed Marx's materialistic theory of history and society.

The great gap in industrial society was between those who owned the machinery and tools (the capital) and those who worked with them. Around this gap, the new classes formed: the bourgeoisie or middle class and the proletariat or working class. In such circumstances, the family itself became a reflection of this class society in which the man is the property-owning ruler and the woman, the propertyless proletarian.

The English capitalists became ever richer and more independent, the working class ever poorer and more dependent. Thus, a new class struggle an omnipresent dynamic force in social life was created.5 We can obtain a grasp of Marx's ponderous style by quoting him at length on this central point:6

"The law by which a constantly increasing quantity of means of production, thanks to the advance in the productiveness of social labour, may be set in movement by a progressively diminishing expenditure of human power, this law, in a capitalist society where the labourer does not employ the means of production, but the means of production employ the laborer undergoes a complete inversion and is expressed thus: the higher the productiveness of labour, the greater is the pressure of the labourers on the means of employment, the more precarious, therefore, becomes their condition of existence, viz., the sale of their own labour-power for the increasing of another's wealth, or for the self-expansion of capital. The fact that the means of production, and the productiveness of labour, increase more rapidly than the productive population, expresses itself, therefore, capitalistically in the inverse form that the labouring population always increases more rapidly than the conditions under which capital can employ this increase for its own self-expansion."

"... within the capitalist system all methods for raising the social productiveness of labour are brought about at the cost of the individual labourer; all means for the development of production transform themselves into means of domination over, and exploitation of, the producers; they mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil; they estrange from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour-process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they distort the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour-process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital. But all methods for the production of surplus value are at the same time methods of accumulation; and every extension of accumulation becomes again a means for the development of those methods. It follows therefore that in proportion as capital accumulates, the lot of the labourer, be his payment high or low, must grow worse. The law, finally, that always equilibrates the relative surplus-population, or industrial reserve army, to the extent and energy of accumulation, this law rivets the labourer to capital more firmly than the wedges of Vulcan did Prometheus to the rock. It establishes an accumulation of misery, corresponding with accumulation of capital. Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole, i.e. on the side of the class that produces its own product in the form of capital."

The invisible hand that controls the market has elements that Marx clarifies. The market is based on the right of ownership a right that may be easy for the rich to respect but is not readily respected by the poor. Only state intervention police supervision and the threat of prison induces the working class to defer to the right of ownership and the inequalities in ownership created by the market. And the state is the instrument of the ruling bourgeoisie. The governmental authorities are not at all in control of the conditions of production, as liberal representatives of the bourgeoisie believe. Rather, the state adapts to each reform of production.

The capitalist class, which controls the state for its own purposes, cannot be vanquished by a plebiscite or parliamentary vote. It can be defeated solely by a proletarian revolution.

At an early stage, Marx had realized that a whole new social system becomes possible when machinery does the work and people can fish, hunt and engage in artistic pursuits. (Like many a diligent worker, Marx had romantic ideas about leisure.) But only when technology had created an economic surplus could socialism come into being.

Marx was critical of the attempts of ethical socialism to create Utopian societies in an agrarian setting, where poverty was to be shared equally between all. Surplus value must always be sucked out of the working class, to be invested in economic growth and policy. In fact, scarcity itself would create inequalities, since the leaders needed extra rewards and resources to organize society. Only where production technology had created an overwhelming surplus would equality become a realistic alternative. Socialism would therefore come first to the richest countries, and first of all to North America, in the view of Marx and the first few generations of his disciples.

He was also critical to Hegel. But he kept Hegel's dialectical method in his analysis of shifts in technology, production and class relations. The result was a theory of the development of capitalism and its class struggles between the bourgeoisie (thesis) and working class (antithesis), culminating in a proletarian revolution and communist society (synthesis). Morals, culture, religion, nay the entire world of ideas – Hegel's "spirit" – are in Marx's view reflections, not causes, of this materialistic dialectic. By putting Hegel on his his feet after having stood on his head, as the common metaphor goes, and using the dialectics on material conditions rather than on symbols and spiritual conditions, Marx achieves a testable theory that can be accepted or rejected by ordinary scholarship. The moving force of history was not any Hegelian spirit, but the technology of production. The latter, owned by the bourgeoisie, the capitalist class, would spread all over the world: "The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere," writes Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto.

This anticipation of the globalization of the market economy may have been correct in its outline but the crucial dialectical part of the theory can be rejected on the grounds that its predictions have not turned out to be true. Contrary to Marx' prediction, the proletarian revolution did not come first to the United States, the most advanced capitalist country; it never arrived there. The most highly developed industrial nations have never seen industrial workers carry out a revolution of the Marxist type. On the other hand, Marxism has triumphed in some industrially underdeveloped countries. Marxist revolutionaries in Tsarist Russia, Yugoslavia, China, Cuba, North Korea and North Vietnam have, essentially, been supported by an agricultural lower class. Marx would have taken their failure for granted.7

The advantages of Marx and Engels, who after all did not come from the working class, being the ones who wrote the workers' communist manifesto are explained by Göran Therborn: "Since Marx and Engels had learnt to discard their German ideology, they were able to contribute something to the proletarian movement that even the best theoreticians from the proletariat itself, such as the German tailor Wilhelm Weitling, were unable to contribute: a scientific theory of history and a revolutionary strategy based upon it."8 Therborn is right in the sense that Weitling was helplessly stuck in notions of the workers' natural rights and the intrinsic potential of the working man that should be fulfilled.

"Real" socialism, formulated after Marx's intellectual reorientation in Paris in 1845, undermined ethical socialism. The mature Marx had a new message for the working class. This contained no natural rights to obtain employment, a decent living standard and humane industrial working conditions. Instead, it was a scientific theory of production relations and class struggle. It predicts that the technology exploited by capitalism confers immense welfare on its owners, and that workers will turn against them when the time is ripe for them to rise in revolution. Only after that revolution will the good society emerge.

Marx was right in his criticism of natural rights: rights are neither congenital nor eternal. Nor are they given once and for all in a social contract. Rights are taken, exercised and given in conflicts and negotiations, and confirmed, developed and undermined in legislation and customs.

The intellectual breakthrough for Marx in 1845 resulted in his starting to ridicule and undermine the foundation of working-class politics laid by ethical socialism. He sought to replace it with a scientific forecast concerning class struggle and victorious proletarian revolution.

Marx and his disciples were not particularly successful in preaching this doctrine. They were sufficiently successful to sow doubts in workers' minds as to whether they had any natural rights. They were not successful enough to replace the ardor of the old concern for rights by a new revolutionary ardor. Consequently, the political mobilization and effectiveness of the workers were not what they might have been.

Max Weber, a giant of social science who rivals Marx in acuity and learning, has summarized what happened:9

"The rise of Socialism at first meant the growing dominance of substantive natural law doctrines in the minds of the masses and even more in the minds of their theorists from among the intelligentsia. These substantive natural law doctrines could not, however, achieve practical influence over the administration of justice, simply because, before they had achieved a position to do so, they were already being disintegrated by the rapidly growing positivistic and relativistic-evolutionistic skepticism of the very same intellectual strata. Under the influence of this anti-metaphysical radicalism, the eschatological expectations of the masses sought support in prophecies rather than in postulates. Hence in the domain of the revolutionary theories of law, natural law doctrine was destroyed by the evolutionary dogmatism of Marxism... (HLZ's italics).

Weber adds that academicians were also playing their part in undermining natural rights, with their doctrines of development and theories of the organic growth of society. But it was the orthodox Marxist agitators at workplaces who tried to deal a lethal blow to the ideas of ethical socialism about workers' rights.

This story undeniably invites speculation on what kind of capitalism we would have had today if ethical socialism had not, in the mid-nineteenth century, been curbed by emergent Marxism. It is usually easier to modify a development in its early stages than in later ones. How well the demands for reform of working life voiced by ethical socialism were accepted by 1847, the year before Marx and Engels published their doctrine of class struggle in The Communist Manifesto, is illustrated by a statement made by silk manufacturer Carl Mez in the Baden parliament: "It appears to me", he said, "as if the big industries must go through the same phases of development that the nations have experienced. Despotism now prevails in industry; soon a time will come when industry becomes a kind of constitutional monarchy, and in due course, no doubt industry will take on the nature of a republic." If ethical socialism had had a chance of converging with early capitalism, society would assuredly have acquired several capitalist features. Private individuals would own companies, though preferably also work in them. Solidarity would have been vertical, applying to one's own company: directors and engineers would have been counted as members of the workers' collective. But if ethical socialism had been given a chance of shaping the market economy, the more offensive aspects of capitalism (such as dismissals without notice and large-scale exclusion of many employees) and the least egalitarian aspects of capitalism (such as unearned incomes and positions of power that the capitalists can bequeath to children who do not perform productive work) would presumably never have evinced their present development.

The conflict between ethical socialism and Marxism was not a feature of the nineteenth century alone. Representatives of orthodox Marxism have, right up to our own day, served to inhibit workers' and students' protest movements inspired by the idea of natural rights. Quite correctly, the communist trade-union movement in France diagnosed the student revolt of 1968 as inspired by something other than the Marxist doctrine of the liberation of the working class, and refused to lend its support to the attempt to overthrow de Gaulle.

In the industrially advanced countries, revolts, protests, wildcat strikes and riots have put forward the demands of ethical socialism more often than those of Marxism. In general, the revolts have been short-lived and served mainly as indicators of the points in society where conditions are perceived as intolerable and must be changed. In the industrially advanced democracies, ethical socialism's catalogues of rights propounded by reform parties have constituted the most attractive elements. In broad terms, one could say that the more the election campaigns and political exercise of power in the advanced industrial countries have been concerned with promises on rights, rather than with the hope of revolution, the more successful they have been among the voters.

The social science of our own day concedes that people sharing the same life situations develop common needs and values that may find expression, for example, in political demands. These demands may very well be clad in a language that resembles ethical socialism's catalogues of rights. Here, modern political sociology has a more subtle view than Marx had. There is much more political dynamite in ethical socialism than Marx thought.

Contemporary Marxism

During the second half of the twentieth century, it has been customary to divide Marxism broadly into a "German" school, sometimes termed "Hegelian Marxism", and a "French" school that is sometimes called "structural Marxism". Representatives of the German version include Lukács, Horkheimer, Adorno, Habermas and Offe, while representatives of the French version include Althusser, Balibar and Therborn. There are also other Marxists who fall outside this simple classification, such as Perry Andersson.

One fundamental element in the German version is a distinction, in terms of the theory of knowledge, between essence of social phenomena and their manifestation. Fundamental to the French school, on the other hand, is a distinction between thought and reality. The German school has a genuine dialectics, and regards society as a dynamic whole in which concepts give structure and coherence to reality; from basic distinctions between the utility and exchange value of objects, one moves on to such concepts as money, capital, value added, and accumulation. Some German Marxists, Walter Benjamin, for one, choose to ignore the dialectics. The French school has no real dialectics. What Lukács termed "the category of the whole" is lacking, and by the same token dialectics is eliminated. In the French version, dialectical materialism simply means historical emergence. Workers' and non-workers' relations to the means of production result in a social organization that has an economic, a political, an ideological and a theoretical level, all of which enjoy varying degrees of autonomy.

There is no actual reason to believe that the social study of the future should be more solidly based on some version of contemporary Marxism than on some version of contemporary non-Marxist sociology. There are many shades of opinion in contemporary Marxism, and one must ask whether the crisis of Marxism is not at least as serious as that of sociology.

In the light of recent research one cannot say that all Marxist predictions have failed like the dialectic certainty that capitalism will be succeeded by communism. His thesis of the primacy of technology in social change has stood the test of time. Serious questions about the empirical support are raised about some other Marxist contentions. Its tenet of a universal subordination of ethnic, religious, and gender conflicts to the class conflict has weakening empirical support. This is also the case for the Marxist thesis of the inescapably stepped up misery of the proletariat and its working conditions.

Social democracy

Social democracy is reformist, that is, socialism without revolution is its program. Most social democracies have distanced itself from most of Marx's teachings. However, Social democrats see  advantages in having themselves, rather than the capitalists, administering a capitalist state, particularly its enterprises for welfare services. 

The Swedish Social democrats are counted among the most successful in the world. There is, however, a tendency among the party faithful to bring out the magnifying-glass whenever they find a line of thought that appears to echo Karl Marx. But their Marxism is more rhetoric than policy. The most Marxist policy attempted by Swedish social democracy in office is probably the "wage-earner funds" created in the 1980s. These failed.

In reality, Swedish social democracy has to a large extent based itself on, and realized, not Marxism but the ideals of ethical socialism. The radical program report on equality presented by the party and the Swedish Trade Union Confederation in 1969, for example, is a catalogue of rights in the tradition of ethical socialism. The mass of social democracy's sympathizers, in particular, have set more store by the ethical content than activists and intellectuals, who have more often represented strains of Marxism. 

In a major work on the ideas of the Swedish Social democrats by Herbert Tingsten10, opens with a review of Marx's teachings and proceeds to show how little the party has utilized and realized them. A review of the teachings of ethical socialism would perhaps have been a better starting-point. Then, Tingsten would then have given us an account of an ideology albeit a fairly vague one that has found expression in political reality.

Sociology and socialism

Sociology and socialism are often confused. This annoys those sociologists who do not identify with the socialists. It is also irritating for the sociologists who are socialists, but wish to keep politics at a distance from the pursuit of their profession.

This confusion has existed ever since sociology became a distinct subject, and is due not only to the similarity of the two words but also to the fact that. as a subject, sociology took over the study of many of the problem areas first identified by ethical socialism, i.e. the social problems of industrialization.

Karl Marx, as we have learned, claimed that the ideas of ethical socialism were mistaken. Only the materialistic view of history was scientific, in his view. Since sociology also has longed to be scientific, some sociologists are attracted to Marxism. Many abandoned Marxism when the communist regime in the Soviet Union collapsed. They began calling themselves "post-Marxists". Since the father of the ideology himself never thought socialism would succeed in an underdeveloped region like Russia, their period of intellectual resignation will probably be brief.

There are now other intellectual gods in sociology than those who preach ethical socialism and Marxism. There are, for example, the great sociologists we shall encounter in the following chapters.


1 Smith, 1937.

2 Smith, 1937.

3 Saint-Simon, 1975.

4 Burke, 1790.

5 Bourgeois sociologists also emphasize class struggle. But they are usually more aware than Marxists that other conflicts, such as those in the form of war, nationalism and clashes between bureaucracies, are potentially just as important as class conflicts. On empirical grounds, Marx's idea that there is something particularly scientific about studying class conflicts, rather than all other kinds of conflicts, has therefore been rejected. 

6 Marx, Capital.

7 Marxism has also been tried in relatively well-developed countries in Eastern Europe, after the second world war. As far as is known, Marx never made any pronouncement on communism introduced by alien military power rather than by working-class revolution. But there is no reason to believe that he would ascribe to it any great chance of surviving.

8 Therborn, 1974.

9 Weber, 1921.

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