Karl Kautsky, the leading theoretician of the Second International, began his book on Thomas More with the observation that the two great figures inaugurating the history of socialism are More and Münzer, and that both of them “follow the long line of Socialists, from Lycurgus and Pythagoras to Plato, the Gracchi, Cataline, Christ ...”
This is a very impressive list of early “socialists,” and considering his position Kautsky should certainly have been able to recognize a socialist when he saw one. What is most fascinating about this list is the way it falls apart under examination into two quite different groups.
Plutarch’s life of Lycurgus led the early socialists to adopt him as the founder of Spartan “communism” – this is why Kautsky lists him. But as described by Plutarch, the Spartan system was based on equal division of land under private ownership; it was in no way socialistic. The “collectivist” feeling one may get from a description of the Spartan regime comes from a different direction: the way of life of the Spartan ruling class itself, which was organized as a permanent disciplined garrison in a state of siege; and to this add the terroristic regime imposed over the helots (slaves). I do not see how a modern socialist can read of the Lycurgan regime without feeling that he is meeting not an ancestor of socialism but a forerunner of fascism. There is quite a difference! But how is it that it did not impress itself on the leading theoretician of social-democracy?
Pythagoras founded an elite order which acted as the political arm of the landed aristocracy against the plebeian-democratic movement; he and his party were finally overthrown and expelled by a popular revolutionary rising. Kautsky seems to be on the wrong side of the barricades! But besides, inside the Pythagorean order a regime of total authoritarianism and regimentation prevailed. In spite of this, Kautsky chose to regard Pythagoras as a socialist ancestor because of the belief that the organized Pythagoreans practised communal consumption. Even if this were true (and Kautsky found out later it was not) this would have made the Pythagorean order exactly as communistic as any monastery. Chalk up a second ancestor of totalitarianism on Kautsky’s list.
The case of Plato’s Republic is well-enough known. The sole element of “communism” in his ideal state is the prescription of monastic-communal consumption for the small elite of “Guardians” who constitute the bureaucracy and army; but the surrounding social system is assumed to be private-property-holding, not socialistic. And – here it is again – Plato’s state model is government by an aristocratic elite, and his argument stresses that democracy inevitably means the deterioration and ruin of society. Plato’s political aim, in fact, was the rehabilitation and purification of the ruling aristocracy in order to fight the tide of democracy. To call him a socialist ancestor is to imply a conception of socialism which makes any kind of democratic control irrelevent.
On the other hand, Catiline and the Gracchi had no collectivist side. Their names are associated with mass movements of popular-democratic revolt against the Establishment. They were not socialists, to be sure, but they were on the popular side of the class struggle in the ancient world, the side of the people’s movement from below. It seems it was all the same to the theoretician of social-democracy.
Here, in the pre-history of our subject, are two kinds of figures ready-made for adoption into the pantheon of the socialist movement. There were the figures with a tinge of (alleged) collectivism, who were yet thorough elitists, authoritarians and anti-democrats; and there were the figures without anything collectivist about them, who were associated with democratic class struggles. There is a collectivist tendency without democracy, and there is a democratic tendency without collectivism but nothing yet which merges these two currents.
Not until Thomas Münzer, the leader of the revolutionary left wing of the German Reformation, do we find a suggestion of such a merger; a social movement with communistic ideas (Münzer’s) which was also engaged in a deep-going popular-democratic struggle from below. In contrast is precisely Sir Thomas More: the gulf between these two contemporaries goes to the heart of our subject. More’s Utopia pictures a thoroughly regimented society, more reminiscent of 1984 than of socialist democracy, elitist through and through, even slaveholding, a typical Socialism-from-Above. It is not surprising that, of these two “socialist ancestors” who stand at the threshold of the modern world, one (More) execrated the other and supported the hangmen who did him and his movement to death.
What then is the meaning of socialism when it first came into the world? From the very beginning, it was divided between the two souls of socialism, and there was war between them.
Last updated on 25.9.2004