A question being discussed in classrooms and living rooms across the nation is this: Is America on a path to socialism?
The word "socialism" seems to have been coined about the same time by Henri de Saint Simon (1769-1825) in France, and Robert Owen (1771-1858) in Great Britain.
The idea of pooling resources and working in common might have originated in the earliest Christian church. Acts 2:44-45 states: "And all that believed were together, and had all things in common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need."
But that early commune was shocked when two members, Ananais and Saphira, cheated and held back some of the money from the sale of their possessions, Acts 5: 1-11. Both died in disgrace. Greed may be an almost universal human flaw, more in some, less in others.
How did socialism come to Great Britain? Could our current economic crises prompt the U.S. to follow some of the British example?
Great Britain was one of the first nations in Europe to plunge into the industrial revolution that led to modern life all over the world. It seems to have started in a simple way. For countless years dating back to the Norman conquest, England was a country of simple villages and large estates of the nobility. Most villages had land open to all as village commons. Peasants could keep livestock and grow food on the commons.
The rich nobles put pressure on Parliament to pass enclosure legislation that gave them the right to fence in all their lands, including the former village commons. Many rural people when deprived of their common land, moved to the cities and formed a mass of labor on the eve of the industrial revolution.
Inventions such as the steam engine and spinning jenny and factories with production lines took advantage of the cheap labor in the cities. Also, Great Britain had wealthy men who had the cash to begin the industrialization of the country. The country had iron ore and coal in good supply. So steel production supported industrialization.
The British Navy helped establish overseas colonies so that the sun never set on the Empire. Overseas colonies were good customers for British products, and also served as a source for much needed raw materials.
But the industrial revolution in Great Britain came at a terrible human cost. Workers lived in crowded tenements, streets had open sewers, and workers were not protected from injury as they worked machines with few protective devices. Men, women and children worked long hours for extremely low wages. As long as industry was making profits, capitalism was seen as a good thing, and human rights violations were ignored.
Robert Owen was an English textile entrepreneur considered by many to be the father to socialism in the U.K. His first major work was "A New View of Society" (1813). He thought profits should be more evenly distributed. His ideas were incorporated in the utopian community that he founded at New Harmony, Ind., but that lasted only three years.
The Fabian Society was founded in Great Britain in 1888. Writers like George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and others believed that education (via pamphlets) would help bring socialist reforms to redistribute better the rewards of industry throughout the country.
Ideas from the Fabian Society were realized when the Labor Party came to power in Parliament in 1945 and introduced socialism. Since then Labor has been in and out of power several times, and has nationalized major basic industries, some of which were later denationalized by the Conservative Party when it came to power.
However, the Conservatives did not dare destroy the National Health Service and other popular nationalizations. Today, the U.K. is partly socialist, partly private enterprise.
Socialism in Great Britain took more than a century and a half to become national policy through ballots, not bullets.
In Germany and Russia a form of socialism emerged via violence. Totalitarian socialism on the right was established by Hitler's National Socialist (Nazi) party. Totalitarian socialism on the left was created in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in Russia. Both failed.
Today socialism might be defined as a program to replace private decision makers with public governmental regulators in certain vital areas of the economy.
If we adopt some type of socialism, I suspect we will have to give the concept a new name, because socialism is too much a bitter pill for some Americans to swallow.
Tom Nichols is a retired college professor who lives in Gainesville. His column appears regularly and on gainesvilletimes.com.