What SOCIALISM 101 is About
(originally written for an non socialist American readership)
Updated 11 July 2018
From conversations with Americans, I have learned that many Americans know little of socialism. Socialism 101 aims to explain socialism to Americans. With information intelligent people can make up their own minds. As a socialist I am confident that readers will come to the right (or Left) conclusion.
In primitive societies there is rarely significant individual wealth. A hunter gatherer society has problems storing food. If the group had significant goods there would be difficulty transporting them.
It is important for the tribe or group that they work cooperatively. In practice they have to share food – or some will die or become too weak to hunt or to gather.
Employment does not happen. If someone develops a skill or talent they gain prestige within the group by exercising their skill.
There are forms of trade between groups – meat for fish as an example, but trade is not a significant factor in tribal income. At this level of society there is no currency, but jewellery and ornament are often already important.
Society is normally highly democratic for men, but because women rarely hunt or fight they are frequently not regarded as full citizens in important discussions.
Nomadic peoples may follow their prey, like caribou or buffalo. Or they may catch and tame their prey, like camels cows goats and horses. It becomes possible to accumulate individual wealth, and to build up a group of family or followers dependent upon a leader.
Nomads can use their surplus for trading purposes, and so increase their wealth.
Their forms of wealth are limited by their capacity to carry the goods. If nomads are wealthy they become more of a target for robbers.
Eventually an agricultural society evolves. It is often possible to grow more than the household needs, generating a surplus. The surplus is not carried about but is stored. Now capital accumulation is really possible.
A successful farmer can hoard his wealth or put some of it to use in trade or manufacture.
His biggest problem is physical safety from robbers or invaders. His realistic choice is to take protection from the strongest brigand, who eventually becomes the local baron or king. Everyone who has land or wealth has to pay for the protection. In return there is security.
The brigand king could strip the farmer of his wealth. It makes more sense to allow the farmer to prosper, and to take an annual income. It is the difference between milking a cow and killing it.
Often the brigand or King requires military service tied to ownership of land.
This allows the King to raise a large force for a short campaign without having to feed this large body of men all year round.
There is often a campaigning “season”, from when the crops have been planted to when the harvest needs gathering in. The King knows the troops will desert to gather their harvests, so he plans his campaign to fit in with the timings.
Philip of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great) was regarded as an innovator when he developed a professional army that fought all year round. His armies could and did travel further, because they did not have to get back home to bring in the harvest. His troops were better trained and more experienced than their normal opponents.
To fund the professional army the army had to keep fighting and to keep winning. Without the professional army Philip established, Alexander could not have got to Persia let alone conquer it.
The pattern for most agricultural societies is a King or similar who preserves stability and peace in his realm. Everyone pays directly or indirectly towards this protection. And the King or baron also has considerable personal wealth acquired from inheritance or from conquered enemies.
Was Jesus a Socialist?
The Bible is of course about God, the early peoples, and Jesus. The theme is the need to recognise and to revere God. Social commentary is geared to these needs. Part of the need is to reduce conflict and to preserve social order.
The Bible was not written in 21st Century American.
Jesus did not speak English.
Everything we have is a translation, and often is a translation of a translation.
Those who paid the translators influenced the translations to suit their needs at that time. Any statement, no matter how clear it seems, may not mean what we think it means. And the Bible being a big book, one can find passages in it to support almost any position.
The Ten Commandments are partly about social order, and largely about Man’s relationship with God.
In 1 Timothy “The love of money is the root of all evil”. This is about the corrupting effect of greed, and the way greed distracts you from the worship of God. It does not say that one should not strive for wealth, but that greed should not be all consuming.
In Matthew, Jesus says “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God”. At first sight this seems a vindication of a socialist position. Arguably it is a statement of the tension between the love of wealth and the love of God.
Although there are many passages recognising differences between rich and poor, there is no message that these differences should be abolished on Earth. Jesus’ concern is to bring people back to God, not to bring them to socialism.
Jesus does not advocate the “trickle down” theory. His concern is to save souls and to bring Man back to God. Bringing Man to socialism is not relevant to Jesus.
There is a strong Christian Socialist tradition that disagrees with me. Their view is that the strictures against the rich justify socialism. That Jesus does not like the rich, and disapproves of them and of the desire to become rich is clear evidence He is for the poor.
For thousands of years there have been economic differences between individuals. Some were rich and many were poor.
It is entirely natural that the poor envied the rich. The rich feared that the poor would steal from them.
Slaves often revolted during the Roman Empire, despite the horrific penalties for failure.
Where the reason for the disparity in wealth was because of superior strength or cunning there was at least an obvious reason for the disparity. Once inherited wealth became a regular occurrence within society there were always “the undeserving rich”.
It did not take much for the poor to mutter among themselves that they should share in the wealth. And of course that the rich did not deserve to be rich and the poor did not deserve to be poor.
Religion was important to demonstrate that the wealthy deserved their wealth and that the poor were sinning if they suggested sharing the wealth. The ruler generally controlled religion and the whole power structure signed up to it because it was in their interests so to do.
Early socialists were therefore not only rebelling against society but also against God. They risked losing their homes and livelihoods and even lives if they spoke out. They put their souls in peril. So most did not speak out.
At times of dislocation and stress they might burst out.
If they survived to have a trial their explanations were not recorded, except sometimes an explanation might be regarded as so funny that it was preserved in a letter or a record. “All men are created equal” would be thought hilariously funny.
The Norman Conquest was an important historic event. The previous ruling class were killed or dispossessed, although a few did manage to keep their positions and property under the new management.
William dished out land to his supporters, and they were required to hold their lands together with the people on them. Castles were built as strongholds to ensure that risings could not succeed.
The new land owners were required to pay taxes and to provide military service to the King. They needed to support their personal military forces, and their households. They owed no duty to the people they ruled so they tried to squeeze as much income out of their lands as possible.
Their direct contacts, the local lords, had to provide payments and military service upwards, and so squeezed downwards. This could be repeated through several levels.
At each level the people were trying to gain income from those below, and pay as little upwards as they could get away with. The courts were run by those above, so the courts were of little protection to those below.
The very poor had no land, and lived as servants or slaves to those who owned or rented some land. The poorest were unimportant politically. They rarely rioted because they had nothing to riot about and they were very vulnerable to being thrown out of their livelihoods and their homes. That was the way it was.
The lowest levels of land holder were continuously squeezed for income by those above. They did protest and they did sometimes riot, particularly when rents or taxes were raised. Or when food prices rose.
There was a general understanding that those above held the power and the wealth, and there was nothing the little man could do about it.
Landholding rules were tied to the personal status of the land holder, so if he was born a serf he could not convert to a free man. A serf who had accumulated wealth was still technically a serf, and could be robbed of his wealth more or less legally. There was no feeling that those who held wealth deserved it.
It would be astonishing if in these circumstances there were not socialist mutterings. If in those days there was a thought out socialist philosophy, no written record of it survives. The nearest we have is the rhyme from John Ball the hedge priest,
“When Adam delft (wove)
And Eve span,
Who was then
This was preached at the outbreak of the Peasants Revolt of 1385 and was an adaptation of an earlier poem by Richard Rolls of Hampole. From this time on there are rumblings that might be perceived as socialism.
The Early Church
The Early Church believed that Judgement Day and the Resurrection were imminent. Their role was to spread the message of God to save as many people as possible. Even if socialism was desirable, it was simply not relevant.
In terms of persuading Kings to convert to Christianity, socialism would be a real deterrent. As the Church itself became wealthy, socialism became even less attractive.
A spin off from the Church were the itinerant friars, who ministered to and were fed by the peasants. They tailored their message to their audience.
When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries he released thousands of clerics who needed to eat. Most of them were unhappy about losing their comfortable living circumstances. They were now more likely to criticise modern society and the current power structure. Who was feeding them?
The Black Death
The Black Death was a plague that killed roughly a third of the English population.
Those who owned land did not have enough labour to farm it. They tried to hold their feudal tenants to their original pre-Plague legal position. The people took their opportunity to improve their situation, by fleeing to other areas where they would be free, or negotiating new deals.
The feudal aristocracy was not broken, but the low people had considerably better financial and social conditions. They wanted to protect what they had gained. Thus began – or continued – the struggle to assert their basic dignity as free human beings.
Wat Tyler’s rebellion built on an existing political and religious ferment. Did God really support the rich? The rich and their hirelings said so. Ordinary people wished to strive for a better life for themselves but were held down by law.
It is significant that in at least six locations the manorial rolls were burnt. The group who had most to gain from the arson was the land owners who were descended from slaves and serfs. Their social status was such that they were not allowed to give their children in marriage without the consent of their lord. or to buy land without the consent of their lord, who would take a significant fee for giving these consents. If the lord’s documents were destroyed, these landowners could assert a new status as free men.
In Henry VI Part 2 “The first thing we do -let’s kill all the lawyers” was a quite sensible approach given the role of lawyers in supporting the wealthy against the less wealthy and the poor. That line has always received applause!
The run up to the English Civil War was marked by a number of changes. Many towns were so large that the rulers did not know every individual and hence no longer controlled the town. There were many masterless men, who were not tied even indirectly to a lord or squire. The Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry the Eighth had cut loose many clergy, who now depended for their living on pleasing their congregations.
The religious turmoil of Henry’s marriages and divorces was furthered by the religious disputes under his son Edward VI – a Protestant extremist, Mary a Catholic, Elizabeth a Protestant, James I a nominal Protestant and Charles I who believed he was anointed by God to serve as King. All this created resonances across society.
The tension between the wealthier middle class who were being asked to pay for the expenses of Government, and the upper classes who denied them any right to decide policy led to a situation where many dared to say that the King and his Ministers were wrong. Once you open these questions to debate, the unwashed rabble begin to have and to voice opinions, too.
At this time religion and politics were fiercely intermixed. God spoke to so many people, but God gave rather mixed messages!
The Putney Debates
During the Civil War, after the King was captured, tensions arose between Parliament and the Army.
The Army wanted to be paid their arrears of pay. Now that the King had been captured the Civil War was basically over.
Parliament did not have the money to pay the Army and did not want to raise fresh taxes on a country damaged by years of war. Parliament wanted the Army to disband, and said the soldiers would be paid when Parliament got round to it. The soldiers did not trust Parliament, and refused to disband until they were paid.
There was a village called Putney near London where the soldiers’ representatives and the commanders met to discuss what was to be done.
These conversations were very wide ranging. Those who had property argued that only those with property had any stake in society. Those without money who had been fighting argued that they had put their lives at risk, and did so because they were part of society. Now they were being told their efforts had been of no value and they were of no value. Some of them had started off with property but now had none, because they had been away fighting for Parliament! The Putney Debates, recorded by a government clerk, have been published and set out the competing arguments.
On the civilian side there had been many pamphlets, some of which suggested that all men were equal – and some even that women were equal with men.
There were pamphlets suggesting that property should be held in common, effectively redistributing wealth to the poor. One group “The Diggers” even occupied empty land and began farming it.
Although there were socialists before this time, they were largely illiterate and had few historians. From the run up to the Civil War onward there is ample documentation of socialist ideas. Some of the most radical ideas came from American colonists who were in Britain for various reasons.
One aspect that readers today need to know is that the call for a property qualification also sometimes came from the Left. At this time all voting was in public, so witnesses could see fair voting. With universal male suffrage the tenants servants followers and suppliers of the local lord would have to vote as the lord wished. This was profoundly undemocratic. A lord with many servants would win every election. If the poor could not vote the lord was disadvantaged. And taxes of course were levied on property, so there was an argument that only property owners should vote.
So far as I am aware the phrase “No Taxation Without Representation” was not used at that time, but here is its beginnings. It probably started as “No Representation Without Taxation!”.
Once the Parliamentarians actually executed God’s anointed King, King Charles I, the political and religious floodgates opened.
No longer was it clear whom God supported, What form of government was to follow? A Republic? A Monarchy – possibly Oliver Cromwell as King Oliver?
The new King in exile, Charles II, played a canny game, and eventually became King by decision of Parliament. However, he could not really claim divine right when he had been put there by Parliament.
Charles was a closet Catholic King of a Protestant country. His brother and heir James II was an open Catholic.
James’s two daughters were married to staunch Protestants – William of Orange and George of Denmark. As a daughter would eventually inherit, Protestantism was safe in the long term.
When James II had a son, who obviously would be Catholic, Britain was in danger of a Catholic monarchy. The “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 overthrew James. His daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange, negotiated for the monarchy.
The socialist pamphlets of the Civil War period built on a long history of socialist thought from John Ball onwards, most of which is lost to us.
During the Civil War there were groups known as the Clubmen, armed groups who were not for King or for Parliament. They were protecting their localities from the Armies and taxation of both. About the only clear information we have about them is that they were usually not led by a local lord or squire but by ordinary local people. There seems to be very little information as to what their political beliefs were.
The religious upheaval of the Civil War mixes in here. All we can safely say is that there were many who did not accept the local lord and the local lord’s religion, but who had their own ideas.
Development of Industry
The wool and cloth trades had already created considerable accumulations of capital. Foreign trade could be enormously profitable. Sugar and tobacco were profitable. Capitalism took another step forward with the joint stock company, with limited liability.
Many trades began to grow, and the people in these trades realised that they had more in common with their competitors than with anyone else. Guilds and Companies of various trades were formed, and regulated admission to the trades, set prices, dictated standard terms, and were arbiters in case of dispute. The Guilds naturally paid the city council or local lord to set up and to operate. Once there was restriction on entry to a trade, apprenticeships were sought after.
As the apprentice was close to unpaid he frequently lived with the master and the master’s family. When one reads of the London apprentices rioting, one has to consider how likely it is that thousands of young men were risking the continuance of their apprenticeships by rioting against the wishes of their masters. The London apprentice riots were usually the political arm of their masters’ interests.
An apprentice might be kept on at the end of his apprenticeship. He was now a journeyman, being paid by the day (French for “day” is “jour”). He would build up experience and reputation, and began to save against the day when he would in turn become a master. If there was not enough work, he might be turned away.
Away from London the guilds set up recognised “tramping” routes. A journeyman would walk into town with a letter of introduction. If a local master had work for him he would work for as long as the work lasted, and then tramp to the next town. If there was no work there was at least a free meal and free overnight accommodation before the next tramp.
In some localities there might be many people employed in a coal mine, or at a dock, or in a factory. These would be masterless men, free men, employed by the enterprise. It was natural that these people would attempt to better their conditions, or at least to resist attempts by the employer or employers to lower their wages.
“Combinations” by workers were illegal, and there is a long history of political and economic struggle to establish trade unions. The savagery of the law created a responsive discipline and sometimes savagery by the workforce. These battles continue today.
The more thoughtful trade unionists quickly recognised that recurring disputes between master and men were only part of the problems that working people faced.
Unemployment, poverty, lack of education, and poor housing conditions were all political issues. The inability to vote required political action, not action against the employer, to enlarge the franchise.
Some of this happened through what would now be called “single issue campaigns” against slavery, for education, for voting rights. Elected leaders of trade unions met locally and nationally to try to devise a strategy for achieving their common objectives. In the UK this eventually led to the foundation of the Labour Party.
In the USA, because of the different experiences there, the Democrat party is not tied to the trade unions in the way that Labour still is. Many trade unions and trade unionists play an active part in the Democrat party, but the relationship is different.
We Write Our Own History
In both the USA and the UK the vast majority of the media is owned by a few rich people. It is not in their class interest to spread socialism. and it is in their interest to denigrate socialism and socialists. The process of denigration has been going on for over a century, and the cumulative effect is considerable.
It is quite common to find people who have a degree in Economics or even in Politics but who have never studied Socialism or Marxism. It was not on offer at their university.
It can be hard to obtain unbiased information about socialism. This article is not unbiased. I am a socialist and I do not pretend otherwise.
Socialists can and often do disagree with each other. I have rarely been happy with the leadership of the Labour Party since I joined it in 1972. I joined the Labour Party because it was the largest Left grouping in Britain, and it still is. I have never seen another Left group that I wanted to join.