The Origin Of The Terms “Socialism” and “Communism”

The Origin Of The Terms “Socialism” and “Communism”

 This is one of those rare times when I post here about my academic research, but on this matter, well, I think this is of broader interest than the usual obscuranta that I usually study academically.

So, my wife, Marina, and I were asked to contribute to a “Handbook on Comparative Economics.” We were supposed to have sent in our chapter by the end of September. There will be a conference on this around Oct. 18 in Trento, Italy, neither of us will make, although we have committed to presenting there.

I am not going to describe what our paper is supposed to be about, which it will deal with, oh matters of how to do comparative economics.  But while writing this paper we got distracted by certain foundational issues that we, authors or one of the most widely used comparative economics textbooks in the world, thought we knew the answers to. But we did not, and I note that my wife was one of those rare people in the old USSR who was allowed to visit the Marx-Engels archives that are still there in Moscow.  No, we should have known this stuff, but we did not, and our textbook contains errors on this matter,

So indeed, the issue is as the title of this post puts it, what were the origins of these widely used terms: “socialism” and “communism”?

In our textbook, we erroneously identified the “utopian socialist,” Robert Owen, as the person who coined the term.  He indeed picked it up within a year of its coinage and spread it in 1835 as part of his effort to develop trade unionism in the UK. But he got it from Pierre Leroux, who in turn wrote about it in 1834, although reportedly he was talking about it two years earlier, and there are claims it was around even earlier.  But he was the first to put it in print, with a Christian and utopian overlay on it, generalized sharing. He was a follower of Saint-Simon, who was not much of a socialist, despite everybody from Marx to Hayek labeling him as such (long part of our paper). Marx much admired Leroux, although he rarely cited him in his writings. But when he first got to Paris he sought him out, and would later put him on the Executive Committee of the First International. Later in his life, Pleroux would become mayor of his hometown (sorry, not sure its name) in France, where, apparently there is a statue of him.

This brings us to the more controversial term, “communism.” The hard fact is that neither I nor Marina knew the origin of this term.  In our textbook, we labeled it (accurately) as having come out of France somewhere between the late 1830s and the early1840s.  We both sort of thought that maybe was Proudhon who originated it. I have not read his work in great detail, but I think he used the term. Of course, this makes things complicated, especially for someone so official as Marina was in the old days of the USSR, with her special access to the original texts of Marx and Engels. But even she thought it was Proudhon who might have originated it. But, fortunately, our joint doubt on the matter, within fact that neither of us really knew the answer, led us to be vague in our textbook, simply attributing the origin accurately, if ignorantly, to French radical movements of that period.

So, in fact, while somehow both Marx and Engels never mentioned Pleroux in print, Engels in his notes to the “official” 1888 English translation of the Communist Manifesto, actually provided a footnote on who originated the word, “communism.” It was yet another utopian socialist, Etienne Cabet, who advocated “Icarian” communities, and put forth the term in his book on this, published in 1840, although apparently, he put it out in 1839, from whence it spread. He competed with Fourier, who inspired the Transcendentalist Brook Farm in MA, and Owen, who organized New Harmony in IN, for starting utopian communities in the US, where, well, land was inexpensive,  In the end, 140 such communities were founded, some of which, such as New Harmony, survived to become just regular towns in the US. Anyway, as a final irony, a utopian community inspired by the communist Icarain Cabet in California, which he had a hand in, had as one of its more prominent participants a relative of Pleroux.

This leaves us with a further old and not regularly remembered point: back in those days there was no clear distinction between these two terms, “socialism” and “communism,” with this there in the Communist Manifesto. Indeed, many think that Marx defined pure communism in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program. But in fact, when there he laid out as an ultimate goal “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” as well as the famous “withering away of the state,” in fact he claimed he was describing the “higher stage of socialism,” no mention of “communism.”

Barkley Rosser