The specter of socialism is again haunting the minds of the corporate elite, from the Americas to Europe and beyond. This, after decades of pro-capitalist campaigning from the corporate media, which has always confused "capitalism" with "freedom." But of course freedom and democracy cannot exist alongside tremendous inequalities of wealth -- or next to corporations wielding absolute power over elections and governments.
What are the progressive aspects of last century's socialism? And from where did the original ideas come? These are extremely relevant questions in light of the international economic and political upheavals.
Modern socialism was born alongside capitalism and in opposition to it. When the basic features of industrial capitalism first came into existence -- in the early 1800's -- people instantly recognized that drastic changes needed to be made:the large industries that emerged created dehumanizing conditions for the majority of people -- forcing people to work twelve and fourteen hours a day for starvation wages -- while a tiny minority were becoming fabulously wealthy. This is not what most people had fought for in the English, American, and French revolutions.
The Utopian's failure was partially due to a lack of understanding. At the time, people were attempting to grasp what was happening to society; capitalist industrialization was happening at a lightning pace, with little preparedness or understanding from the majority of people. Blind economic forces seemed to be advancing uncontrollably.
Karl Marx was the first person to really study and dissect the capitalist system. His greatest work, Capital, is an extremely thorough analysis and critique of the capitalist economic system. He was the first to diagnose "what was happening," and through his assessment a "solution" logically emerged.
In fact, modern socialism can be theoretically reduced to correcting the economic contradictions that inherently exist in capitalism. Marx listed these contradictions in his Capital; the "socialist solution" is merely the correction of these fundamental problems of capitalism.
For example, in capitalism's embryonic stage, the capitalist ran a small shop, where perhaps he sold wagon wheels. But as capitalism evolved, a thousand times more goods were produced after the whole town was organized to make wagon wheels, each person performing a different, very small task, but all working cooperatively to produce the final product. The profit, however, went to one person -- the owner, or owners. The result was that wagon wheels were immensely cheaper, and those who could not afford the high cost of the factory-approach of production -- machines, labor costs, and raw materials -- were pushed out of the market.
Eventually, those capitalists unable to compete evolved into workers, while more and more money was needed to purchase the giant machinery and infrastructure needed to stay a competitive capitalist; through this dynamic wealth increased at one pole and decreased at the other.
But the capitalists may argue that, without these wealthy capitalists, there would be no wealth-producing enterprises, and everybody would be consequently poorer. This argument may have been true 250 years ago, but no longer.
To out-compete their rivals, capitalists -- organized in corporations -- invested hordes of money in labor-saving technology, which produced greater and greater amounts of goods, in turn creating more and more wealth. But despite the capacity to produce more and more goods, unintended consequences emerged.