Short essay on Socialist Movement in France

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The socialist ideas did not receive much attention during the initial years. However, after the French Revolution of 1789 and the acceptance of the principle of equality, socialism received a new impetus. In France Babeuf organized a secret society called ‘Society of Equals’ which planned an uprising in 1796.

However, the attempt met with a failure and Babeuf was arrested and subsequently executed. Though Babeuf failed to over­throw the government his ideas left a deep impact on the course of devel­opment of socialist movement.

During the first half of the nineteenth century a number of French Socialist thinkers-Saint Simon, Fourier, Proudhon and Louis Blanc made out a plea for a new system of society which should be free from the evils of private property and put forth ideas which subsequently became the basis of the socialist movement.

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Saint Simon (1760-1825) who is generally regarded as the first socialist, really speaking never challenged the institu­tion of private property. It was only, in the hands of his followers and disciples that the ideas were further developed and they made a plea for a collectivist system. His followers like Comte, Lesseps, etc., condemned the institution of private property on two grounds.

First, it was unjust in so far as it allowed the non-producers to take toll of the wealth created by the la­bouring class and hence constituted exploitation. Secondly, private prop­erty stood in the way of efficient production and led to concentration of capital in the hands of people who were least qualified to use it. They pleaded that all capital should be transferred to the government which should in turn hand it over to the producers who were capable of making best use of it.

Thus the followers of Saint Simon never insisted on an equalitarian society. Instead they stood for principle ‘To each according to his capacity, to each according to his work’. Thus they wanted the talented producers to obtain larger share of national income.

Fourier (1772-1837) was another notable socialist thinker. He did not favour reorganization of society from the centre and insisted on the crea­tion of small socialist communities which should act as leaven and produce social transformation. He preferred voluntary co-operation over compul­sory nationalization and was more of an equalitarian. He did not oppose private property.

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Instead he wanted to give a share of property to the wage-earners and raise them to the ranks of a property owner.

Proudhon (1809-65) was another French socialist. In his book What is Property?, he described ‘property as theft’. Proudhon was however not opposed to the institution of property but to its abuse which enable the idle classes to levy toll on the producers in the shape of rent and interest.

Thus he regarded only that property as theft which was used for the exploitation of the producers. He was not against property built by the workers through their toil. His views exercised profound influence on the French labour movement during the seventeenth century.

Louis Blanc (1811-82) was the most popular on the French socialist thinkers. Though he was not an original thinker and merely expressed the
ideas floating around him in an intelligible manner, he was more popular than other socialists thinkers of his period. His ideas became very popular on account of their simplicity and practicability.

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He attributed all the evils of modern society to competition and showed preference for co-operative efforts through social workshops managed by the workmen. He argued that with the passage of time these social workshops would multiply and all private enterprise would be eliminated and a new social order would emerge which would ensure harmonious working of various parts of the system.

All the above socialist thinkers emphasized the evils of capitalism and favoured establishment of a new and better society which shall be free from all types of exploitation. However, the methods advocated by them to establish the visualized society were quite impracticable. On this ac­count these socialists thinkers have been described as Utopian Socialists.

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