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History of European Ideas


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Early Socialism as Intellectual History


Gregory Claeys

Department of History, Royal Holloway, University of London, UK


Published online: 19 Feb 2014.

To cite this article: Gregory Claeys (2014) Early Socialism as Intellectual History, History of
European Ideas, 40:7, 893-904, DOI: 10.1080/01916599.2014.882052
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History of European Ideas, 2014


Vol. 40, No. 7, 893904, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01916599.2014.882052

Early Socialism as Intellectual History

G REGORY C LAEYS *

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Department of History, Royal Holloway, University of London, UK


Summary
This article examines approaches to early socialism from an intellectual history
viewpoint, focussing on British Owenite socialism. It assesses the author's own research
in the field over the past thirty-five years in an effort to measure the strengths and
weaknesses of the approaches he initially adopted to the field. It attempts to balance
insights associated with the so-called Cambridge School with those gained in particular
from the standpoints of the history of religion and the history of emotions, and a theory of
group identity which can in part be associated with the history of utopianism

Contents
1.
2.
3.
4.

Introduction: The Conventional Starting Points


Owenism and the Cambridge School . . . . . .
Moving Forward . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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1. Introduction: The Conventional Starting Points


This essay responds to Ann Thomsons kind invitation to reflect upon the changes in my
approach to one of my main areas of research interest, the history of early nineteenth-century
British socialism, over the past thirty-five years of working in this field. It would be lamentable
indeed if after such a lengthy period of time one did not discover certain inadequacies or
shortcomings in ones broader methodological conceptions which require remedy or
modification. At the very least one would expect evolution in method, if not something
more radical in the way of pronounced departures from routine expectation, and in exceptional
circumstances perhaps the admission of grievous errors or the lesser sin of labouring under
some profound misconception. And perhaps it is in the nature of the subject, perhaps in my
own temperament, that I do detect, perhaps immodestly, the possibility or need for a radical
shift in method, or at least focus. Let me explain, by way of indulging in some autobiographical
reflections for a moment, and begging forgiveness for some unashamed advertising of various
publications over the years in an effort to retrace my own intellectual trajectory.
On beginning to study pre-Marxian socialism when I embarked upon my Ph.D.
dissertation in 1978, I was obliged to confront two traditions of interpretation. The first,
most universally known, involves the irritatingly persistent category of utopian socialism
imposed by Marx and Engels upon their socialist predecessors, chiefly Saint-Simon, Fourier
and Owen, in order to proclaim the unique insights of scientific socialism. This label also
functioned to distance Marx and Engels from the embarrassing failures of the early

*E-mail: g.claeys@rhul.ac.uk
2014 Taylor & Francis

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socialists, some of whose small-scale communities, notably the Queenwood or Harmony


community in Britain, which collapsed in 1845, seemed in their failure, disastrous and
complete, as one observer put it, utterly to discourage one generation and likely to
intimidate another. The Marxian distinction between utopian and scientific socialism not
only played down, by seeming to deny entirely,1 the utopian element in Marxismit also
caricatured the early socialist writers, whom it disparaged chiefly for three reasons: for
seeing the proletariat merely as a passive suffering mass, rather than the active agent of
revolution; for believing that society could or should be transformed by propaganda and
experiments only, rather than revolution; and for refusing to believe that the seeds of social
development lay in the economic development of capitalism. I have written extensively
elsewhere against the continuing utility of these labels, which Gareth Stedman Jones has
also termed absurd, but we will need to return to this categorisation later.2
Secondly, notwithstanding a number of mostly Fabian studies of Owen and his
associates, the chief entry point to the history of Owenism in 1979 was the social historian
J. F. C. Harrisons Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America (1969). This was
the first major account of Owenism as a movement, and moved well beyond the horizons of
the major biographies, notably that of Frank Podmore. Harrisons penetrating study was
distinguished by a very extensive bibliography (occupying nearly a third of the book, and
itself a major achievement) and a strong sense of the indebtedness of Owenism to earlier
forms of Christian communalism, which commonly lent it a sectarian character.3 Harrisons
concern was less to provide a history of ideas or genealogy of intellectual influences than to
plot the course of Owenism over some fifty years, and to draw out the central themes which
wedded a transatlantic movement which at its peak had several hundred thousand followers
and assorted hangers-on. Harrison pinpointed the weaknesses of pre-existing institutional
and biographical approaches, and of interpretations rooted in the British working class
movement and the search for class consciousness, on the one hand, and the rootedness of
American communitarianism in the onward movement of the frontier westwards on the
other. He made a conscious attempt to draw upon intellectual history to some degree.4 But
in a relatively short work the penetration into this terrain inevitably left many very
interesting paths unexplored. More than any preceding author, Harrison brought Owenism
to life for the modern reader. But he left a number of questions tantalisingly open.
2. Owenism and the Cambridge School
Let me now turn to my own approach to early British socialism, which was outlined in two
books: Machinery, Money and the Millennium: From Moral Economy to Socialism (1987),
on political economy, and Citizens and Saints: Politics and Anti-Politics in Early British

George Jacob Holyoake. The History of Co-operation in England (2 vols, Trubner & Co, 1875), vol. 1, p. 294.
Gareth Stedman Jones, Religion and the Origins of Socialism, in Religion and the Political Imagination,
edited by Ira Katznelson and Gareth Stedman Jones (Cambridge, 2011), 17189 (171). This article concentrates
on early socialist efforts to replace existing religions, and argues that even Marxs attempts to supersede
Christianity rested upon essentially religious premises; see Stedman Jones, Religion and the Origins of
Socialism, in Religion and the Political Imagination, edited by Katznelson and Stedman Jones, 187. A notable
exception to the Marxist approach, which focused instead on divisions between communists and socialists, and
between localists and communitarians and centralists or statists, is G. D. H. Cole, Socialist Thought: The
Forerunners, 17891850 (London, 1962).
3
See his later study for the subsequent development of some of these themes: J. F. C. Harrison, The Second
Coming: Popular Millenarianism, 17801850 (London, 1979).
4
J. F. C. Harrison, Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America (London, 1969), 4.
2

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Socialism (1989).5 These books both sprang from my 1983 Cambridge dissertation, which
was influenced by the work in particular of the late Istvan Hont, of John Pocock and Gareth
Stedman Jones, then also of Quentin Skinner, John Dunn and others. There has been a
tendency in recent years to refer to this group as the Cambridge School, but this label
remains problematic, and I have never identified my own work with it, preferring a less
contentious conception of contextual intellectual history.6 It has however been used to
describe my approach in these books, and this merits some explanation here.7
Despite their diverse interests in paradigms and languages of politics, authorial
intention, social and political context, and a frequent common focus upon the longevity of
the republican tradition in Europe and North America, which has also remained central to
my own work,8 the authors subsumed under the Cambridge School label varied in their
interests in many respects. Most are or were historians concerned primarily with
explaining how ideas evolved rather than (what most vexes political theorists) what
they have to offer us today, and how the internal structure of arguments within texts
emerges and develops. As historians, all concede that a deeply contextual approach is
required to answer basic questions of any particular thinker or theme, and that context
involves the consideration of the widest variety of sources and evidence available. Most
have however still been chiefly concerned with the text as the article under scrutiny, and
with authorial intent in the first instance.9 This means that while a great books by great
thinkers approach might still ultimately prevail, giving continuing precedence to the
traditional pantheon of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and so on, the explication of any
one writers contribution has to involve real excursions into his or her minor works,
correspondence, circle of friends, and so on, as well as a methodologically sophisticated
approach to the materials under scrutiny.
In the case of early British socialism, as with other areas of the labour movement, this
was rendered more complicated by the fact that while there were a few key thinkers, such
as Robert Owen, William Thompson, and John Gray, none of them were remotely worthy
of elevation to canonical status. There were also hundreds of pamphleteers, dozens of
members of various community schemes, and so on. A fair number of these, moreover,
were actually members of the working class, and if literate nonetheless hardly high table
or clubbable material. The accomplished elegance which a biographical approach offers,
5

See also my editions of Owens works and a comprehensive selection of his correspondence, with a number of
Owenite pamphlets and other works; Robert Owen, The Selected Works of Robert Owen, edited by Gregory
Claeys, 4 vols (London, 1993); Robert Owen, The Owenite Socialist Movement: Pamphlets and Correspondence,
edited by Gregory Claeys, 10 vols (London, 2005).
6
In particular, John Dunn has noted Pococks greater emphasis on the history of political thought, or on
language embedded in time, compared to Skinners on the history of political theory, or concepts embedded in
philosophy; see John Dunn, The History of Political Theory and Other Essays (Cambridge, 1996), 21. But Dunn
goes on to claim that it was only in Cambridge that the emphasis on the historicity of the history of political
theory became overwhelmingly dominant; see Dunn, History of Political Theory, 25. Pocock prefers the
Cambridge method to describe the diverse work of the group chiefly based in Cambridge and their focus on a
multiplicity of language acts performed by language users in historical context; see J. G. A. Pocock, Political
Thought and History (Cambridge, 2009), vii. These varying emphases leave open the question as to whether any
particular intellectual investigation requires its own unique approach.
7
See Robert Owen and His Legacy, edited by Noel Thompson and Chris Williams (Cardiff, 2011), 24647.
8
See here Gregory Claeys and Christine Lattek, Radicalism, Republicanism, and Revolutionism: From the
Principles of 89 to Modern Terrorism, in The Cambridge History of Nineteenth-Century Political Thought,
edited by Gareth Stedman Jones and Gregory Claeys (Cambridge, 2011), 20054; Gregory Claeys, Mill and
Paternalism (Cambridge, 2013), in which republicanism remains a central theme.
9
But others focused on problems as such, for example, Istvan Hont, Jealousy of Trade: International
Competition and the Nation-State in Historical Perspective (Cambridge, MA, 2005).

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particularly where a single life and oeuvre serves as the focus, was obviously never going
to be achieved here. Instead, an approach which focused on the dominant intellectual
milieu of the period, in this case the Scottish Enlightenment, and a problematicthe
nature, advantages and problems of the emergence of commercial societyseemed to me
more promising as a basic entry point into the series of problems posed by trying to
explain the origins of socialism.
One of these issues more than any other was my starting point, and continues to
dominate my work.10 This was originally driven by the perception that the failure of Marxist
politics in the twentieth century stemmed in part from Marxs personal failure to articulate a
sense of politics as conflict at all adequately, the epistemological authoritarianism from
which this conclusion partially stemmed (the science in scientific socialism), and the
decidedly nave, malnourished and woefully optimistic concept of politics which
consequently resulted. This, I think I correctly assumed, had pre-Marxian antecedents,
and Citizens and Saints represented an attempt to assess the anti-political nature of the
aspirations of a single group of early socialists, and to rewrite the trajectory of an antipolitical strategy back into the history of political thought. Here my chief concern was to
dissect analytically and to trace historically the trajectory of the assumption both that most
social and political conflict was rooted in the division of modern society into economic
classes. This in turn was wedded to the assumption that the abolition of private property and
class would lead to a measurably enhanced sociability in the future socialist society. Both
implied that strategies for coping with other forms of division in opinion, and with the
possibility of legitimate differences surviving into socialist society, remained unconsidered
or unarticulated. This in turn helped to produce (it was hardly solely responsible) the rigid
intolerance associated with Bolshevism and its various offshoots. Ultimately, to my mind,
despite the evident political risks in the assumption,11 it also bore some responsibility for the
Red Holocausts of the twentieth century, in which millions were tortured, imprisoned and
killed for their apparent heresies or deviations from the party line of the moment. There were
of course clearly always going to be dangers associated with a teleologically-driven
narrative of this kind. But this seemed to me then, as it still emphatically does now, when we
have much more information to hand as to these disasters, a central problem of our times,
and a narrative which had somehow to be explained and accounted for.
My own approach was in the first instance thus an attempt to provide a series of
sources for early socialism, notably Christian communitarianism and millenarianism,
the utopian tradition, and certain types of republicanism which had privileged either
community of goods, or, more moderately, an agrarian law (such as Harringtonianism).
10
It remains central in Gregory Claeys, Dystopia: A Natural History (London, 2015), forthcoming, and is
tentatively unfolded in Gregory Claeys, Searching for Utopia: The History of an Idea (London, 2011).
11
There are of course many political dimensions to the ways in which these problems were explored which have
bedevilled the wider development of the subject on both sides of the Atlantic. Most of the contributors to both
the Cambridge debates and their Sussex counterparts were concerned with reconstructing the history of what
came to be called liberalism in light of the debacle of twentieth-century totalitarianism, and were reluctant to
focus further to the left on the political spectrum, preferring to pass over in silence the possibility of a probably
ignoble science of politics located there. To some degree their collective endeavour can be construed as a ColdWar-based teleological history, particularly in the focus upon republicanism and liberty. Some, like Pocock,
indeed found themselves under fire by a Red Guard of Marxist historians during the 1960s and 1970s, to their
marked distaste. Some of this antagonism was also represented in the hostility of many Marxisant social
historians to elitist (bourgeois?) intellectual history from the second half of the twentieth century to the
present, and the common accusation that intellectual history was about intellectuals and hence inherently suspect.
At the same time, left historians like E. P. Thompson long showed a clear reluctance in turn for dabbling in the
ephemera of ideas as such, at least (in his work on John Thelwall) until the end of his life.

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There has been a certain reluctance to assess and reconstruct these often heretical strands
of Western thought, born perhaps from a suspicion of their sometimes overt emotional
enthusiasm, their taint with the excesses of the French revolutionary Terror, and then the
assertion that their perfectibilist assumptions about uniformity had in any case been
superseded by a cultural relativism which made the very notion of the possibility of a
single perfect society [] logically incoherent.12 A Burkean suspicion lay over an
apparent attempt to interrogate this subject: one does not reason with madmen, one
restrains them.
It was thus ironic that it was in my case thanks in particular to the work of the most
important historian of political thought writing on the modern period, a Burke scholar and
a man to whose friendship and advice I owe much, John Pocock, however, that I realised
that socialism could be reconstructed as a (perhaps) heretical or deviant variant on the
Machiavellian Moment in European political thought after 1500.13 Thomas More in
particular may have situated his island Utopia at the periphery of this intellectual map. But
it was nonetheless on the map, and so was socialism. What brought Mores concerns to
the centre of European thought after 1815, and even more after 1848, was the massive
upsurge in radical egalitarianism which the broader aspiration for democracy had fuelled
since 1789, and which remains an essential ingredient in the global civic religion of
democracy which has grown steadily thereafter. So socialism, construed in terms of a
spectrum of republicanisms, in my view directly inherited what I have termed a tradition
of utopian republicanism, where communal property-holding, a tradition identified with
Sparta, Plato, the primitive Christianity of the fourth-century writer St Ambrose and
others, and Thomas More, is recommended as the solution to poverty and inequality.14
This in turn was loosely affiliated with a tradition of agrarian republicanism, where
restrictions on land-ownership restrain inequality of wealth; this tradition includes
Harrington, Paine and Thomas Spence.15 In terms of Pococks central aims, socialism
too could be seen as contributing to a debate about civic virtue, about the relationship
between natural society and commercial society, about the impact of commercial society
upon sociability and the distinction of ranks, and about property, identity, liberty and
equality. What was markedly novel about Owenite and some other forms of communitarian socialism was the idea that they offered a solution to the endemic poverty, inequality
and urban misery of the industrial stage of commercial society. What was most startling
about their proposals was firstly that the natural scale of human association which most
suited human happiness was a small town of not more than a few thousand people, and
secondly the idea that democracy as such was not an answer to working-class woes, and
might indeed fuel rather than assuage discontent. The former proposal had been widely
discounted by 1900, even by 1850. The latter, as suggested earlier, became subsumed in
12
Isaiah Berlin, The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West, in The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in
the History of Ideas (London, 1990), 2048 (40).
13
See J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican
Tradition (Princeton, NJ, 1975); J. G. A. Pocock, Virtue, Commerce and History: Essays on Political Thought
and History Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, 1985). Pocock regarded Karl Poppers lectures which
resulted in The Open Society and Its Enemies as a major intellectual influence on his own development, and his
later writings on Burke clearly position him in relation to parts of this debate. I do not of course hold him in
the least responsible for the conclusions I have drawn from his arguments respecting the subjects under
discussion here.
14
So many readers have interpreted it; Mores own intentions of course remain another issue.
15
See Claeys and Lattek, Radicalism, Republicanism, and Revolutionism, in Cambridge History of
Nineteenth-Century Political Thought, edited by Stedman Jones and Claeys, 20405.

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the Marxian problematic after 1848, with devastating consequences in the twentieth
century.

3. Moving Forward
So let me turn now to the last decade or so. The trajectory described so far indicates that
some interesting hypotheses and lines of investigation emerge from an attempt to link the
origins of socialism to various strands of republicanism and heretical Christian doctrine in
particular. But no field ever remains definitively mapped for long, for every archaeological layer uncovered hints at another beneath, and occasionally techniques emerge (the
physical mapping of real-life archaeological sites from the air, for instance) which
dramatically transform techniques of evaluation. And so, in this instance, I have become
increasingly troubled in recent years that this approach may not be plumbing the depths of
interpretation as far as it might be desirable to go. In particular, it is clear that socialism
represents a tremendous burst of (romantic?) emotional idealism, or psychological
enthusiasm, which an approach through the history of ideas, and certainly that which
stems from the history of philosophy, does not commonly address.16 Socialism is, in
particular, both a doctrine and an ideal of equality, and here indebted to Christian
discourses on this and related themes which have emerged over the course of two
thousand years. Moreover, it not only functions at many levels as a substitute for religion;
in many respects it is also itself a religion, and exemplifies many of both the positive and
negative phenomena associated with faith and with denominational, sectarian or cult-like
association.17 This assertion, if well represented in the literature on totalitarianism, is
worryingly undertheorised elsewhere, particularly on the left, where it was taboo for many
decades to engage in such discussions.18
In a brief excursus of this type however, an elaborate reconceptualisation of the key
themes is not possible. What then are the problems which we ought today to associate
with this intellectual project? Two of these appear to me to be most striking.
I think now that in some respects I underestimated the achievements of Harrisons
earlier work, particularly, as just noted, with respect to the religious character of early
socialism. I mean this in two senses. Firstly, there had been in the Shakers, Dunkers,
Harmonists, Moravians and other Christian sects, and further back in particular the
Anabaptists, a clear tradition of communitarianism upon which the early socialists drew. To
my mind the history of the utopian idea, which provides a coherent narrative for
understanding such experiments, gives us great insights into the early history of socialism.
Each can be understood as a variant upon discourses of belonging, sociability and
community. Both have aspired to a life lived much more transparently, in public, with a
corresponding reduction in the private sphere and antagonism towards deviant forms of
individualism (focusing on one partner in John Humphrey Noyes Oneida community, for
16
To Isaiah Berlin, however, the apotheosis of the romantic will precisely represented a revolt against not only
the myth of an ideal world but equally any preference for uniformity over variety of character; see Berlin,
Crooked Timber of Humanity, 20737. But Berlin, like Marx, presumes that all utopias are true for all men, at all
times and places, which ignores the industrial and technical basis of many nineteenth- and twentieth-century
utopias and their explicit declaration that only technology can alleviate many of humanitys basic burdens; see
Berlin, Crooked Timber of Humanity, 211.
17
See Robert Owen, The New Religion and Second Lecture on the New Religion, in Owen, Selected Works, II,
167201.
18
For example, Jacob Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (London, 1953), best supplemented
historically by Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (London, 1947).

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instance), an atmosphere of public confession, and of criticism and self-criticism. Although


the association of sin with class origin is largely absent in early socialism (but very
pronounced in Bolshevism and its imitators), the denial of individualism is not. In addition,
central to both the utopian idea and much communitarian practice was an essentially
heretical (but also Platonic) view of marriage, the family, and sexuality. Most of the early
nineteenth-century communitarian socialists were radicals and often feminists in these areas,
reacting against the essentially conservative view of sexuality and the family in Christian
communitarianism. Most viewed existing mors in these areas as repressive and outdated
(here notably Fourier, anticipating Freud), and as fostering that bourgeois individualism
which community sought to supersede. So, later, would the Bolsheviks, at least for a time.
The education of children in common, away from their parents, remains a central utopian
theme here, for Owen and many others. Any understanding of modern socialism has to take
this communitarian tradition as its point of departure.
Secondly, the very idea of socialism itself represented, with the culture of rights
emerging from the French Revolution, the resurgence of an ideal of equality which was
essentially Christian in origin, and which would come to dominate modern political
discourse. The latter ideal in particular strikes me today as a tribute to the insights of Stirner,
Nietzsche and others respecting the varied forms of modern egalitarianism. Stirner, possibly
following Feuerbach, had described the language of rights as a religious concept, i.e.,
something sacred, and the proclamation of the idea of an equality of rights as only another
name for Christian equality, the equality of the brethren, of Gods children, of
Christians.19 I now think we can fruitfully see both egalitarian democracy and socialism
as emanations of the same redemptive burst of passionate, even quasi-millenarian if pseudoChristian enthusiasm which burst forth in 1789 but resonates widely still throughout the
world. Certainly it would continue to characterise socialism later in the twentieth century;
George Orwell would remark that the thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and
makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the mystique of Socialism, is the idea of
equality; to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless society, or it means
nothing at all.20 In this interpretation, the presumptive equality of humanity which the
proclamation of an equality of rights hinges upon rests on the same unproven metaphysical
postulate which underpins the Christian assertion of Gods creation of humanity in his own
image. This argument was the basis of Thomas Paines proclamation of natural rights in
Rights of Man (1791/2), as well as of Thomas Jeffersons better-known account. It is
integral to most if not all forms of socialism. But it remains at the end of the day a myth, an
assertion or unproven hypothesis, and to Nietzsche, for instance, the most woeful of all
modern misconceptions, Judeo-Christianitys revenge against the master-morality of the
Romans, aiming ultimately at the eradication of all distinctions.21 I find this analysis
penetrating not out of any sympathy for Nietzsches rather less than transparent conclusions
but because it helps greatly to explain the egalitarian strands in both modern democracy and
modern socialism, and thus the dominant political discourses of the modern period.
The desire for greater equality, and for the less privileged to proclaim themselves the
equals of others, is not however the same as the desire for community. The question remains
as to why we continue to desire the enhanced sociability which communal experience of
19
Max Stirner, The Ego and His Own (London, 1913), 247. For an extension of this argument, see Gregory
Claeys, Paine and the Religiosity of Rights, in Revolutionary Moments, edited by Rachel Hammersley
(London, 2014).
20
George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (London, 1962), 102.
21
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, aphorism 209.

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various kinds provides us, and how this relates to individuality and a process of growing
individuation. Here the crucial question is, what impetus pushes agrarian republicans
towards utopian republicanism, or a limitation upon inequality of property to community of
goods, and the wedding of Morean, Spartan and Christian ideals? Why move from Paine or
Spence to Owen, Fourier or Saint-Simon? Why is the virtue entailed by civic humanism
based upon private property holding (even with an agrarian law) insufficient compared to a
more selfless and less corrupt socialism based upon community of goods?22 Clearly part of
the answer to this question is narrowly historical: the age of industry, and the revolutionary
spirit of the times, produced an extreme and in many respects pathological social
development and demanded extreme answers. Some of these were nostalgic, and echoed
a sense of loss of an ordered and generally more congenial rural society. Others were
practical, and saw gain in combined labour and the large-scale acquisition of food, fuel, and
so on. But the desire for community was also I think at least partly religious, and partly
psychological (if separating the two here is not utterly artificial).23 It is not merely the
economic advantages of communal cooking, eating and labour (shared by advocates of cohousing schemes today) which attracted Owenites to the communitarian idea. It was also an
intense sense of justice and fairness, and a sentiment or feeling of the need for a much
greater equality as the basis for a much stronger sense of group identity or belonging than
the outside society could offer. Here community promised what I have elsewhere termed a
sense of enhanced sociability, or a greater merging of the self in the communal, with a
consequent reduction of selfishness, than the conventions of the outside society demanded
or even permitted.24 Communitarians recognised that this superseding of egoism could only
occur on a small scale, where individuals knew one another fairly intimately and where few
opportunities presented themselves for crime and misdemeanour (but even Auguste Comte,
whose resolute determination to reduce modern nation-states to more manageable size is
notable in this regard, recognised the principle).25 The positing of a qualitatively different
form of group life involved the assumption that life lived in the transparency, even the glare,
of the public would prove superior, and would produce an improvement in human
behaviour. The fervent desire for equality, the disdain for luxury and conspicuous
consumption, and the proposed subsuming of the individual to the community are all
attributes of various forms of Christian sectarianism throughout the ages.
These facts imply that the idea of socialism is at least as much a sentiment or feeling
as an idea whose genealogy can be traced through the history of words or language. This
has potentially profound implications for the ways in which we approach our subject.
Utopian communalism had existed throughout the ages: why did its marked resurgence in
this period occur? The history of ideas does not as such answer this question. What we
require further is an account of why ideas emerge or flourish, not how, which has long
acknowledged to be part of the domain of the history of ideas.26 Here, as Pocock has
indicated, we need to consider Rezeptionsgeschichte and reader response theory, but
without going so far as to proclaim the death of the author, even if the treatment of
22

This is the central question animating Citizens and Saints.


But there are possible exceptions; see Gregory Claeys, The Only Man of Nature That Ever Appeared in the
World: Walking John Stewart and the Trajectories of Social Radicalism, 17901822, Journal of British
Studies, 53 (2014), forthcoming.
24
See Gregory Claeys, News from Somewhere: Enhanced Sociability and the Composite Definition of Utopia
and Dystopia, History, 98 (2013), 145173.
25
See Gregory Claeys, Imperial Sceptics: British Critics of Empire, 18501920 (Cambridge, 2010), chapter 1.
26
See George Boas, The History of Ideas (New York, NY, 1969), 73.
23

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groups of texts as aspects of a social movement requires a different method from single-text
analysis.27 And we also need to be able to account, then, for the sentimental basis of the
emergence of ideas. Humanity has an emotional history, with troughs of despondency and
peaks of exhilaration, but we have only yet begun to plumb its depths and scale its
heights.28 Much of this landscape, like maps of old, is terra incognita, and awaits a new
generation of cartographers.
It follows from this that the history of ideas is accordingly not only a history of ideas,
but also of feelings. The subject involves the recognition that behaviour is psychologically
shaped, and often sub-rational if not irrational. Spoken words are markers not only of our
repetition of other words, but of our inner sensibilities and psychic structure, though it is
never reducible to these (or, for that matter, to social context).29 Sentiments give ideas an
emotive force and resonance and shared contextual meaning which fill an otherwise
potentially hollow shell. Their variance can fundamentally alter the meanings of words.30
From this viewpoint all history is psychological, and the great (indeed central) question of
politics is how the scope of public association affects our behaviour. But then, it might be
claimed, this is no longer a history of (rational) ideas at all, but a history of something else
entirely.31 And yet of course the history of a feeling can also be (or perhaps also
invariably is) the history of an idea. In the case of community, or socialism, we
imagine that our focus upon the group, the cause, or the location will bring us greater
pleasure and a better life, but we are thinking of the concept even as we experience the
feeling. The two are identified, and what makes the concepts and the spoken words
work for us is the experience we associate with them.
So, far from group membership chiefly being represented through a programmatic
cluster of ideas,32 we need to see group identity as an overwhelmingly emotional
experience in which the role played by ideas is perhaps always secondary at best (or must
be understood as qualified by an intention of affiliation or belonging), and in which
individual identity may in certain (extreme) circumstances be derivative rather than primary.
Ideas can indeed wield immense power over us, particularly when seared into our memory
as part of some collective eventthe inability to recognise this was of course ironically one
of Marxs great failings. We will fight and indeed commonly enough die for the ideas of
nation, religion, race, Volk, tribe, purity.33 These ideas become a core part of our identity.
We are quite literally wedded, ritually, to them. But what they stand for is our relationship to
the group, and here it is the interplay between words (also spoken words: think of accent as
a badge of identity) and emotions which is central. The need to belong is a primordial one,
and the concepts we associate with it tell us much about who we are, but an historical
27

Pocock, Political Thought and History, xiv.


A start here, though, for instance, is An Emotional History of the United States, edited by Peter Stearns and
Jan Lewis (New York, NY, 1998).
29
Pocock, Political Thought and History, 110.
30
Think merely of two usages of social: the invitation, Oh, come round to our house, were having a social
do, and it is your social responsibility to assist that man who has fallen on the pavement.
31
But those who analyse propaganda, myth, collective manipulation and so on will disagree. Perhaps this
project is less history as philosophy or political philosophy, and more history as history. Pocock, it might be
noted, rejects the history of ideas as an adequate label for his own activities, while this is Berlins preferred selfdescription, and also sees himself, unlike Skinner, as not engaged in philosophy as such; see Pocock, Political
Thought and History, 127, 130.
32
Boas, History of Ideas, 132.
33
To illustrate the power of suggestion, Freud gives several examples of Maoris who died after finding out that
food they had eaten belonged to a chief, which was taboo; see Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo (New York,
NY, 1962), 4243.
28

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G. Claeys

method which focuses on genius and individuality, and the expression of thought as
axiomatically a cognitive and intellectual activity, as the history of ideas has tended to do,
will probably miss this more crudely sensual dimension of our collective existence, if not
reject it as the steamy effluence of the herd with its blood up, as Burke did. (Whether the
sentiment precedes or always underpins the thought is another issue, but we are here chiefly
concerned with how ideas are propagated rather than how they germinate.) If the history of
political theory is thus held to consist of the study of a canon of classic texts, then,34 we
need to know more about the relationship between texts and groups, and we need,
paraphrasing Collingwood, not only to enter into the thoughts of past writers but equally
their feelings. We may study these texts historically, as John Dunn has written, without
getting any closer to a sense of how that history has come about.35 And if here individual
psychology can assist us, so much more can group psychology. For what individuals feel
may also be felt by a group, may indeed become contagious, and this contagion of
sociability may then swell into a feeling of collective identity, the We of Zamyatins
confessedly sinister title of 1924. This is clearly the case with socialism, at least according
to later critics like Gustave Le Bon.36 This does not mean that texts are reducible to a group
context, which writers like Dunn associate with bad Marxist readings of the historical canon
only that they cannot be understood, at least in some cases, outside it. As the word
paradigm implies, the group holds ideas in common which are important not only because
they are ideas but because the group network comes to be defined by them.37
What we are concerned with here in part, then, is our collective psychological
dispositions, for which ideas as such are only markers or indicators signifying identity.38
Ideas here represent the tip of a psychological iceberg, but much of what we need to
explain lies beneath the surface. But as historians of ideas we recognise of course that the
object of our explanation has shifted. We are here no longer concerned with how ideas
emerge and develop, but why. We wonder whether we can reclaim a lost historical or
sublimated psychological sociability. We query, with Marx, whether an original speciesbeing can be tapped or rediscovered, or with Freud, whether we possess a primary egofeeling which coexists in many people with a later, more individuated ego like a kind of
counterpart to it, and whose ideational content parallels the oceanic sense of the
infinite which Rolland held to be the basis of all religious sentiment.39 Questions arise
more quickly than answers can meet them.

4. Conclusion
Socialism proved the most important challenge to traditional political ideas of the modern
epoch, and yet the canonical great text approach tells us very little about that movement.
Marx, in particular, does not stand for or represent socialism, even though any attempt
to confront socialism invariably ends up at a Marxian terminus. As we have seen, an
34

Dunn, History of Political Theory, 17.


Dunn, History of Political Theory, 18.
See most notably: Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (London, 1896); Gustave Le
Bon, The Psychology of Socialism (London, 1899); Gustave Le Bon, The Psychology of Revolution
(London, 1913).
37
See Pocock, Political Thought and History, 7273.
38
This is partly covered by a concern with climates of opinion noted by Lovejoy as the sociological
contribution to the historiography of ideas; see Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Historiography of Ideas, in Essays in
the History of Ideas (Baltimore, MD, 1938), 4.
39
Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (New York, NY, 1961), 15.
35
36

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approach which focuses upon group psychology and the history of religion does much to
augment this deficiency. We should distinguish, however, between socialisms formal
attempt to supplant Christianity and the substantive quasi-religious sentiment which often
underpinned this. Many leading early socialists (Owen, Fourier, Saint-Simon) offered a
New Christianity or New Religion based upon what they took to be the secular
essence of Christian doctrine. Only in varying degreesroughly speaking, in proportion
to their communitarian commitmentdid they also demonstrate the feeling of intensive
communality which they identified as the core of Christian practice which required to be
emulated. Just as Christianity ranged from the latitudinarian to the enthusiastic, so too
socialism ranged from a formal but loose devotion to the social to an intense and quasievangelical near-worship of community in which the space for individuality was much
more tightly compressed. The latter enthusiasm however was certainly transmitted into
Marxism-Leninism, which both formally and substantively presented itself as a new
religion, with prophets (Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, etc.), a papal figure or leader, a
devil (the bourgeoisie or imperialist), sacred texts, a variety of formal rituals, relics and
reliquaries, the party as holy order, and earthly salvation or perfectibility presented
delivered by historical inevitability in the form of the emancipation of the proletariat.
Already in Marx something like human emancipation or universal emancipation was to
be the outcome of the revolutionary process. This is perilously close to a secular form of
salvation, brought about by a proletariat whose nature, both collectively and individually,
was to be remade in the process, and then replicated in the form of the new proletarian
man and woman to emerge thereafter. From this viewpoint Marxism, and even more
Leninism, represent the last great millenarian revolt in Western history, and not the
abolition or supersession of religion, but rather its replication on another level. Soviet
Man came close to becoming Bunyans Pilgrim, Christian, after his arrival in the
Celestial City.
To return to my starting point, we see, then, that some of the main strands of early
socialism can still be described as utopian in four main senses (barring the commonlanguage definition of impossible or unworldly): in the sense of continuity with the
programme and ideals of Mores Utopia; in the chronological sense of early or preMarxian; in the possession of some set of characteristics making its realisation less likely
than other forms of socialism; in any essentialist presumption that it can tap or strengthen
a social or communal basis in human nature which has been somehow eroded or
repressed by the development of civilisation. However, no development into a scientific
socialism took place.40 To the contrary, the utopian element in Marxism, then, might lie
in any or all of the following assumptions: that human behaviour or nature might
improve dramatically following the revolutionary reconstruction of society, particularly in
the direction of recapturing any supposed social essence in human nature (which might
have been evidenced in earlier, more primitive societies); that the coercive apparatus of
state, army, police might be dramatically reduced in future as a result (the state for Marx
was to wither away once the eventual stage of communist society had been reached);
that a limited range of improvements in behaviour possible in a small-scale community,
and often inspired by religious motives, might be transferred to a national scale and
motivated by a secular ideology; that national, centralised economic planning is viable;
that rotation of employment might be combined with a plan for large-scale collectivisation
40
Which poses additional problems for any Comtean or other scheme of progressive historical secularisation in
suggesting the possibility of degeneration rather than maturity.

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on a national scale. We see, too, that, from the perspective of the early socialists, Marxism
is in at least one fundamental sense more utopian than the communitarian schools, for it
accepted the logic of behavioural improvements while making two unacceptable
assumptions: that revolution as such would aid in remaking working class behaviour;
and that improvements possible on a small scale could be transferred to the nation state.
Yet this allows us to see that a long-term historical investigation of these aspects of the
socialist tradition can tell us much about deeper trends in human behaviour across a much
longer period still.
Acknowledgements
This paper was first given at the Approaches to Intellectual History Workshop, EUI
Florence, on 1 March 2013. I am grateful to Ann Thomson in particular for her suggestion
to prepare it in the first instance.