As mentioned in my last piece, The French Revolution was truly a Watershed even in the history of the world. Not only did it mark the beginning of the end of monarchies and herald the hastening of attempting to establish a more equal political world order for all citizens of each state. We haven’t got there yet, nor ever will but, we now know, that is what mankind will continue to seek till the end of days.
But this revolution’s greatest contribution was the introduction of the subject of political economy; which brought the significance of economy as a factor, of equal importance as political science in the comprehension of social sciences and the betterment of human life.
Hitherto, political philosophy focused on structuring a state to ensure better, and ever better protection of the rights of all peoples of the state. Experts were all very conscious that, at the very top of the list of the ends this study sought, was a better socio-economic life for all peoples in a state. Perhaps, it had not yet occurred to any of them that states could structure economies as well; nor that states could be constructed entirely on an economic order.
Thus far, economy was truly “free for all”, as Laissez Faire as it was possible to be. If you had wealth or means and used them well, you made as much as you could from it. You had to pay your taxes but, since the [Monarchist] state governed through a nobility which governed their estates as they chose to, taxes were for the nobles and princes, not for welfare.
Thomas Paine probably set the ball rolling in his book, Agrarian Justice, in 1797, by proposing a tax on land owners for the welfare of peasants. It was however, a Frenchman, Henri, Count of St. Simon, who is titled as the father of French Socialism, who first lucidly spelt out the structure of a [possible] socialist welfare state. Thereafter, the subject found an increasing following, including the better known German socialists, Joseph Engels and Karl Marx.
Socialism did not challenge political thought of the time, it only took the reasoning further in a socialist [welfare] direction. The reasoning went thus: “if a social contract is to be formed, in which the state is to assume responsibility for the rights of all citizens, it stands to reason that all that lies within the boundaries of any state, is also owned by the state, on behalf of the people and that, thereafter the state assumes its responsibility to fulfill all needs of its peoples”.
When socialism began to be viewed increasingly seriously, in the 19th century, the concept of Political Economy also emerged. Socialists averred that even the purest of democracies provided its practitioners with plausible “deniability” for their actions and that, only a socialist state could be a truly welfare state.
And, while socialism, essentially an economic construct, needed a political framework, based on devolution of governance. Perhaps influenced by the devolution of authority to the nobility in monarchical times, the concept of “Communes”, communities of governable size wherein local governance could more easily address local needs, emerged and was titled Communism.
I cannot find this quote now but I believe Karl Marx once commented that, “Socialism is a period between democracy and communism”. Whether he did, or not, this reflects a view of the times. Although Socialism was emerging as an economic system challenging Capitalism, many Socialists viewed Communism as the final form of a social welfare state. Marx also said that, “Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution”; asserting the supremacy of Communism.
But, neither Socialism nor Communism turned out to be the panacea of all socio-politico-economic woes of the people. Capitalists, scared of the threat of socialists taking their possessions, painted communism and socialism as evils, just as communists did them.
As communism spread, post WW II, an “Iron Curtain” fell across Europe to divide the Communist-socialist world from the “Free World”. It didn’t do much good either; ideas are sans borders. It seems that even philosophers, the most gifted minds of their era can be blinkered and refuse to look beyond their horizon. Socialistic communism merely added another dimension to the growth of political thought.
Today we find countries that have systems best described as socialist-capitalism or capitalist socialism; and democratic communism or communistic democracies.
Socialists are semi-capitalists and capitalists have become socialists. Unemployment benefits, free health care, free education, etc. are all socialist concepts. But, what is significant is that, whatever the mix, there is no headway in finding that elusive “[perfect] Welfare State”. Nowhere has “Life” improved merely because of the type of welfare state. Where there has been some improvement, it has been due to individuals, never the system.
Is that the real secret of life? Is life a perpetual attempt to seek “The Holy Grail” of equal justice, to no avail, just as the grail has been? With each avenue turning equally dark as the last, after the first curve? Perhaps. But, even if it is, life is the enjoyment of making the effort and breaking new ground.
Keep going and have fun.