The revolutions of the late eighteenth century saw the asking of the ‘political question’, namely “where does the sovereignty to rule reside?” The answer given by American and French revolutionaries was “sovereignty resides in the people.” And thus, with the advent of the American and French Revolutions, the old feudal order of the Ancien Regime was delivered a crippling blow and the structures of feudalism began to fade away, albeit in a slow process culminating in the Great War. However, the ‘political question’ soon gave way to the ‘social question’ which sought to find equality not only in a civil sense, but in a financial sense. The sacristy of private property was put into doubt. Of all the different branches of socialism, there is a shared fundamental concern for cooperation and social justice, and the emphasis on people’s social nature over that of the individual. The nineteenth century saw the advent of socialism as a force that would shake the foundations of society, and to understand its origins brings a new conception of communism and our own modern liberal age. The origins of nineteenth century socialism is two-fold; first it draws on philosophy and intellectualism from the Enlightenment to ancient times, and second, it draws on the historical precedents of the French Revolution.

Many tenets of Socialist ideology have roots dating back to ancient times. In Plato’s Republic, he advocates for a total reshuffle of society including the abolition of private property, ending the make-up of the family, and a government ran based on the principles of philosopher kings. Plato’s Republic stands as the first utopian work, in where he envisions an elite of selfless and virtuous citizens that would place social concerns over that of the individual.[1] The waning years of the Roman Republic saw conflict over the issue of land reform and redistribution in the time of the Gracchi brothers and the Lex Agraria. Here is a situation where large numbers of Roman citizen farmers were losing land and becoming impoverished due to the demands by the state for military service and from the inability to compete with slave labor. Later, early Christianity in the Roman Empire valued the life of the poor and weak over that of the rich. Christ’s teaching over the value of private property does not equate its ownership with that of virtue. Instead, the asceticism of Christ lead to many later religious figures from ancient times through the middle-ages to denounce all property. When Christianity’s power and prestige began to contradict its egalitarian origins, small communes of monks and nuns existed outside of normal society in monasteries where they claimed nothing for themselves.

Enlightenment Philosophes, Rousseau, and Utopian Socialists

The period of the Enlightenment saw foreshadows of socialism in the works of some philosophes such as Gabriel Bonnot de Mably, who argued for the abolition of private property. Mably’s devotion to the works of Plato and admiration of Sparta embedded in him the desire for a society of virtue. Mably believed that humans had social and coexisting instincts, but that these instincts were overshadowed by egotism and greed. By removing private property, citizens would have no incentive to be antisocial, and the altruistic nature of man would shine.[2]  Another Philosophe known as Morelly, whose real name remains a mystery, argued that ownership of property corrupted love into greed. He argued, “I dare to conclude…that all division of goods, whether equal or unequal, and that all private property…is, in all societies, [the] material for the highest evil.”[3] Morelly and Mably have an indirect influence over nineteenth century socialism as they had a direct impact on proto-socialist Gracchus Babeuf.

Yet, the most influential of the enlightenment philosophes was Jean-Jacque Rousseau who, while never going so far as to call for the abolition of private property, did bring the origin of property up to question in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Men (1755) saying, “The first man, who, after enclosing a piece of ground, took it into his head to say, ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society.”[4] Rousseau goes on to assert that, “the fruits of the earth belong equally to us all, and the earth itself to nobody!”[5] In Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762) his concept of the ‘General Will’ set for a base of ideas that was a precursor to modern totalitarian governments. The ‘General Will’ is the sovereign will of the people that reflects the true interests of the people and is not necessarily a majority held consensus. Rousseau says that, “whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free”[6] The idea that an individual or a group could act in the best interests for the people, regardless of whether the people condone their actions or not, is a concept that has been used to justify both revolution and terror.

In the early nineteenth century, several intellectuals attempted to answer the social questions of poverty and the role of industry in society in what is called Utopian Socialism. Charles Fourier (1772-1837) believed that all oppression of thought and emotion should be lifted, and that all work could be made into play. All human drives should be satisfied and cultivated.[7] Fourier was an isolated thinker with no formal education and not directly influence by ancient philosophers or the enlightened philosophes. To call his writings odd would be an understatement, as one historian says, “At times the contents of his pages resemble the fantasies of someone on an LSD trip; He [Fourier] writes of androgynous planets which copulate, oceans of lemonade, anti-bugs and anti-lions.”[8] Robert Owen (1771-1858) was a successful industrial entrepreneur that was admired in the upper rungs of British society and who was sympathetic to plight of the poor and working class. Owen gave workers in his textile factories shorter hours, better working conditions, insurance plans, and free education all while making a profit.[9] His success inspired him to create self-contained agricultural communities in England and in the United States, however ‘Owenism’ had its own problems and failed to attract many followers. Other utopian socialists, such as Claude Henri de Saint-Simon, and Etienne Cabet, also wrote and lived during roughly at the same time, 1770-1825, which filled that intellectual gap between the enlightenment and the introduction of Marxist theory. Yet, the above-mentioned philosophers and writers only constituted the intellectual origins of nineteenth century socialism, and do not account for its revolutionary character. In other words, while intellectuals thoroughly answered how society “ought to be,” they did not provide the answer to how to make socialist dreams a reality. The revolutionary origins of socialism has its roots in the French Revolution of 1789.

The French Revolution and the Conspiracy of Equals sets a precedent for revolution

The French Revolution unleashed a myriad of different ideologies upon the world and directly influenced socialism through ideology and historical precedent. With the destruction of the Ancien Regime came bold utopian attempts to build a perfect society. The world that the revolutionaries believed possible to build was both something new, and a return to what they considered the ‘natural’ state of man. The belief that power resides not in monarchs or in religion was a building block in the evolution of socialist thought. The revolution saw a sudden recognition of identity among the majority of people who comprised the Third Estate, those who worked. In his pamphlet, What is the Third Estate? (1789), Abbe Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes argues that the bulk of the private activities and public services that nations required for survival were performed by the Third Estate. Sieyes argues that, “The Third Estate then contains everything that pertains to the nation while nobody outside the Third Estate can be considered as part of the nation. What is the Third Estate? Everything.”[10] That same year the National Assembly in France passed The Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen that claimed, “Men are born, and always continue, free and equal in respect of their rights.”[11] However, the egalitarianism in this document was political and not social. Private property was not seen as a hindrance to freedom but a marker of it, in a usual liberal sense. “The right to property being inviolable and sacred, no one ought to be deprived of it”[12]  However, the political egalitarianism of the French Revolution of 1789 would prove to be a stepping point for the social egalitarianism of the French Revolution of 1848.

The insurrections, riots, protests, and mobilization during the French Revolution set important precedents in the development of socialist ideology. Apart from intellectuals and philosophers arguing for how the world ought to be, revolutionaries served as examples for how to bring ideological agendas into reality. The storming of the Bastille saw Parisians tear down a symbol of stately oppression in 1789. Later that year, thousands of Parisian women marched to the palace in Versailles and successfully forced King Louie XVI to relocate to Paris effectively taking him and his family hostage. In 1792, the planned insurrection of August 10 brought an end to the monarchy and led to the declaration of the First French Republic. The pattern of taking political action through the might of the mob was romanticized and utilized by future French Revolutionaries and others in Europe as well. If a minority could effectively take power in the name of the people, they could justify their actions by claiming to act in accordance with the ‘General Will’ as Rousseau had described. One failed attempt by proto-socialist Gracchus Babeuf and his disciples to seize power through a coup d’état led to his martyrization by future socialists. The ‘Conspiracy of Equals’ consisted of a small central committee acting in secret with a few thousand followers mostly made up of discontent artisans and shopkeepers.[13] In 1796, Babeuf and his secret organization were prepared to take action. However, the police had managed to infiltrate the ranks of its members and ended the movement by arresting its leaders.

As for the doctrines of Babeuf and his disciples, we can look to a series of placards that his followers posted around Paris in April 1796, which contained a list of beliefs of the Conspiracy of Equals. The placards espoused universal truths that nature had “imposed on everyone the obligation to work” but also gave “everyman an equal right to the enjoyment of all its goods.”[14] Those that are strong and wicked pervert nature’s gifts and it is the goal of society to defend natural equality and “to add to common happiness by the working together of all.”[15] Thus, in society there should be no rich nor poor, and so those wealthy few that swam in abundance while doing nothing were “enemies of the people.”[16] Babeuf and his followers believed that the goal of the Revolution was to destroy inequality and restore common welfare. The spirit of the French Revolution resided in the Constitution of 1793; it was the true constitution of the French Republic because, “the people solemnly accepted it and the Convention did not have the right to change it.”[17] Another key member of the Conspiracy of Equals, Sylvain Marechal, wrote of a new revolution that would build upon the success of the French Revolution and achieve true equality. Speaking for the members of the conspiracy, Marechal said, “We want real equality or death; this is what we need. And we’ll have this real equality, at whatever the cost. Woe on those who stand between it and us! Woe on those who resist a wish so firmly expressed. The French Revolution is nothing but the precursor of another revolution, one that will greater, more solemn, and which will be the last.”[18]

Gracchus Babeauf

The legacy of Gracchus Babeuf lies in the methods that he used to start a wider chain of events that would lead to widespread revolution, even though Babeuf and the Conspiracy of Equals failed to do so. Such methods stressed secrecy, centralized decision making, discipline within the organization, and the preparation of revolutionary activists through propaganda and training.[19] Philippe Buonarroti was a member of the Conspiracy of Equals, had managed to survive after 1796, and went to work with another secretive organization, the carbonari. Towards the end of his life, he wrote a history of Babeuf’s conspiracy that “provided an important symbolic link between the martyrdom of Babeuf and the new conspiratorial activities of the 1830s and 1840s.”[20]

Auguste Blanqui was a revolutionary socialist of the generation after Buonarroti, who followed in the footsteps of Babeuf. Like Babeuf, Blanqui hated the rich and felt sympathy for the poor, and believed in seizure of power by conspiratorial revolutionaries to achieve a communistic society. From 1834-36 he created the Society of Families, a secret organization with about a thousand members that horded weaponry and ammunition.[21] After France’s authorities found some of these weapon stashes, the organization disbanded, only to be recreated again in 1837 as the Society of Seasons. On May 12, 1839 about 500 members of the Society of Seasons staged an uprising, catching Paris and the July Monarchy completely by surprise. Gun shops were raided, barricades erected, and key strategic points in the city were taken, including the Hotel de Ville, Paris’s city hall, which held a symbolic importance in revolutionary memory.[22] However, the Uprising failed to spark a greater revolution and the authorities were able to quickly retake control.

The uprising of 1839 is just one of many revolutionary movements Auguste Blanqui took part of in his life. He was a participant or leader in the insurrections of 1830, 1848, and 1871. As a result, he spent much of his adult life, about thirty-three years, in prison.[23] Yet Blanqui was but one leader in a wave of revolutions and insurrections that permeated throughout the nineteenth century, and socialism was but one branch of the tree of ideologies that had sprouted from 1789. In 1848, after King Louie Phillipe abdicated the throne and the French Declared the 2nd Republic, an alliance between moderate liberals and radical socialists was on shaky ground. Still, the republic implicated reforms to answer the ‘social question’ so to improve on the conditions of the working class. However, it speaks to the infant state of the development of the socialist movement that elections by universal manhood suffrage saw power shift back to the Right. The social programs established earlier were thrown asunder and the alliance between Liberals and Socialists with it.

In the crisis of 1871, when Napoleon III was captured by the Prussians and Liberals declared the 3rd Republic, Paris was isolated and established its own government, the Commune. While the Paris Commune was not fully Marxist, Michael Rapport says, “more republican than socialist, more Proudhonist than Marx,”[24] the social reforms it hoped to bring were certainly far left of the Liberal government in Bordeaux. In the ‘bloody week’ that followed the new ‘forces of order’ were ruthless in their suppression of the Commune. Rapport says, “While the Communards killed hostages, including 24 priests, government troops summarily executed some twenty to twenty-five thousand people.”[25] The short-lived Paris Commune foreshadowed the future re-alignment of the Left and the Right; by the twentieth century liberalism would be the conservative force for order, while communist the radical force for change.

Advent of Marxism and the Influence of Industrialization on Socialist Thought

The tumultuous times of the mid-nineteenth century also saw the advent of Marxism, which drew on both the intellectual heritage of socialism and its revolutionary history. Karl Marx (1818-83) and Frederick Engels (1820-95) provided the base of ideas that revolutionary communists would utilize in the twentieth century; especially China and the Soviet Union. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx redefines all of human history saying, “the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.”[26] Marx believed that the French Revolution saw the fall of the feudal order, and the rise of a new upper-class, the bourgeoisie, capitalists who controlled the means of production. The influence of industrialization radically transformed society, eliminating old bonds and social roles and joining people together into a working-class of proletariats. The spread of industrialization is due to the Bourgeoisie class as “it creates a world after its own image.”[27]

However, Marx did not reject industrialization, but instead, saw it as a path to freedom for the working-class. Marx argued for a universal movement among the proletarians that ran across the borders of nations. Through communism, Marx left a blueprint for future revolutions saying that, “The immediate aim of the Communist is the same as that of all the other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.”[28] The abolition of all bourgeois property and the overthrow of all existing social conditions would lead to the final stage in human development, or the end of the process of history. Marx believed that widespread revolution was inevitable and ends his manifesto with the proclamation, “Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!”[29]

It would have surprised Marx that the two countries where his ideas inspired radical social change where far from industrialized. Indeed, much of Marxist thought is more applicable to the state of the world today than it was in the mid-nineteenth century. Indeed, revolutionaries like Vladimir Lenin took as much from Marx as they did from Gracchus Babeuf. However, Marx provided an answer to the ‘social question’ which to this day has gone unsolved. Many aspects of nineteenth century socialism developed in different ways. Communism is the most obvious descendent from Marx, even if it was implemented in nations yet to industrialize. Other inheritors of socialism do not see the liberal world order as exclusive to their aspirations. Social democrats such as Eduard Bernstein believed that social change should occur in a series of small incremental reforms; i.e. an evolutionary process instead of a revolutionary one. Modern liberals argue that capitalism has indeed lifted many people out of poverty, and the welfare states created after World War II indicate a synthesis of capitalism and socialism. However, in age of increasing technological advancements such as automation and mass communication via the internet, and the struggle over the viability of the welfare state, the ideological struggles of the nineteenth century continue to provide close parallels with the twenty-first.


Sylvain Marecha, Manifesto of the Equals, found in Ph. Buonarroti. La conspiration pour l’égalité, Editions Sociales, Paris. 1957. Obtained from

Sources Cited

  • [1] Albert S. Lindemann, A History of European Socialism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), 2.
  • [2] Lindemann, History of European Socialism, 20.
  • [3] Quoted in Lindemann, History of European Socialism, 21.
  • [4] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, A Discourse on Inequality (Kindle Edition), 949-953.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (Neeland Media LLC, Kindle Edition), 1.
  • [7] Lindemann, History of European Socialism, 39.
  • [8] Lindemann, History of European Socialism, 38.
  • [9] Ibid, 43.
  • [10] Abbe Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes, What is the Third Estate? (1789)
  • [11] The Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789)
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] William Smaldone, European Socialism: A Concise History with Documents (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2014), 12.
  • [14] “Analysis of the Doctrine of Babeuf”, in Smaldone, European Socialism, 32.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] Ibid.
  • [17] Ibid.
  • [18] Sylvain Marecha, Manifesto of the Equals, found in Ph. Buonarroti. La conspiration pour l’égalité, Editions Sociales, Paris. 1957. Obtained from
  • [19] Smaldone, European Socialism,13.
  • [20] Lindemann, History of European Socialism, 72.
  • [21] Ibid, 75.
  • [22] Lindemann, History of European Socialism, 75.
  • [23] Smaldone, European Socialism, 51.
  • [24] Michael Rapport, Nineteenth Century Europe, (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005), 219.
  • [25] Ibid, 219.
  • [26] Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto (Neeland Media LLC. Kindle Edition), 4.
  • [27] Ibid, 12.
  • [28] Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto, 32.
  • [29] Ibid, 78.