Modern socialism was born in the course of the half century or so that lies between the Great French Revolution and the revolutions of 1848. So was modern democracy. But they were not born linked like Siamese twins. They traveled at first along separate lines. When did the two lines first intersect?
Out of the wreckage of the French Revolution rose different kinds of socialism. We will consider three of the most important in the light of our question.
I. Babeuf. – The first modern socialist movement was that led in the last phase of the French Revolution by Babeuf (“the Conspiracy of the Equals”), conceived as a continuation of revolutionary Jacobinism plus a more consistent social goal: a society of communist equality. This represents the first time in the modern era that the idea of socialism is wedded to the idea of a popular movement – a momentous combination. 
This combination immdiately raises a critical question: What exactly in each case is the relationship that is seen between this socialist idea and that popular movement? this is the key question for socialism for the next 200 years.
As the Babouvists saw it: The mass movement of the people has failed; the people seem to have turned their backs on the Revolution. But still they suffer, still they need communism: we know that. The revolutionary will of the people has been defeated by a conspiracy of the right: what we need is a cabal of the left to re-create the people’s movement, to effectuate the revolutionary will. We must therefore seize power. But the people are no longer ready to seize power. Therefore it is necesary for us to seize power in their name, in order to raise the people up to that point. This means a temporary dictatorship, admittedly by a minority; but it will be an Educational Dictatorship, aiming at creating the conditions which will make possible democratic control in the future. (In that sense we are democrats.) This will not be a dictatorship of the people, as was the Commune, let alone of the proletariat; it is frankly a dictatorship over the people – with very good intentions.
For most of the next fifty years, the conception of the Educational Dictatorship over the people remains the program of the revolutionary left – through the three B’s (Babeuf to Buonarroti to Blanqui) and, with anarchist verbiage added, also Bakunin. The new order will be handed down to the suffering people by the revolutionary band. This typical Socialism-from-Above is the first and most primitive form of revolutionary socialism, but there are still today admirers of Castro and Mao who think it is the last word in revolutionism.
II. Saint-Simon. – Emerging from the revolutionary period, a brilliant mind took an entirely different tack. Saint-Simon was impelled by a revulsion against revolution, disorder and disturbances. What fascinated him was the potentialities of industry and science.
His vision had nothing to do with anything resembling equality, justice, freedom, the rights of man or allied passions: it looked only to modernization, industrialization, planning, divorced from such considerations. Planned industrialization was the key to the new world, and obviously the people to achieve this were the oligarchies of financiers and businessmen, scientists, technologists, managers. When not appealing to these, he called on Napoleon or his successor Louis XVIII to implement schemes for a royal dictatorship. His schemes varied, but they were all completely authoritarian to the last planned ordinance. A systematic racist and a militant imperialist, he was the furious enemy of the very idea of equality and liberty, which he hated as offspring of the French Revolution.
It was only in the last phase of his life (1825) that, disappointed in the response of the natural elite to do their duty and impose the new modernizing oligarchy, he made a turn toward appealing to the workers down below. The “New Christianity” would be a popular movement, but its role would be simply to convince the powers-that-be to heed the advice of the Saint-Simonian planners. The workers should organize – to petition their capitalists and managerial bosses to take over from the “idle classes.”
What then was his relationship between the idea of the Planned Society and the popular movement? The people, the movement, could be useful as a battering-ram – in someone’s hands. Saint-Simon’s last idea was a movement-from-below to effectuate a Socialism-from-Above. But power and control must remain where it has always been – above.
III. The Utopians. – A third type of socialism that arose in the post-revolutionary generation was that of the utopian socialists proper – Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, Etienne Cabet, etc. They blueprinted an ideal communal colony, imagined fullblown from the cranium of the Leader, to be financed by the grace of the philanthropic rich under the wing of Benevolent Power.
Owen (in many ways the most sympathetic of the lot) was as categorical as any of them: “This great change ... must and will be accomplished by the rich and powerful. There are no other parties to do it ... it is a waste of time, talent and pecuniary means for the poor to contend in opposition to the rich and powerful ...” Naturally he was against “class hate,” class struggle. Of the many who believe this, few have written so bluntly that the aim of this “socialism” is “to govern or treat all society as the most advanced physicians govern and treat their patients in the best arranged lunatic hospitals,” with “forbearance and kindness” for the unfortunates who have “become so through the irrationality and injustice of the present most irrational system of society.”
Cabet’s society provided for elections, but there could be no free discussion; and a controlled press, systematic indoctrination, and completely regimented uniformity was insisted on as part of the prescription.
For these utopian socialists, what was the relationship between the socialist idea and the popular movement? The latter was the flock to be tended by the good shepherd. It must not be supposed that Socialism-from-Above necessarily implies cruelly despotic intentions.
This side of these Socialisms-from-Above is far from outlived. On the contrary, it is so modern that a modern writer like Martin Buber, in Paths in Utopia, can perform the remarkable feat of treating the old utopians as if they were great democrats and “libertarians”! This myth is quite widespread, and it points once again to the extraordinary insensitivity of socialist writers and historians to the deep-rooted record of Socialism-from-Above as the dominant component in the two souls of socialism.
1. Strictly speaking, this combination had been anticipated by Gerrard Winstanley and the “True Levelers,” the left wing of the English Revolution; but it was forgotten and led to nothing, historically speaking.
Last updated on 26.9.2004