The Progress of the Socialistic Idea in the Late 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries in Europe

The concept of equality as a principle of societal governance had a growing impact from the initial expression during the French Revolution.  The development and evolution of this concept led to more and more focused attempts to carry it out, through a variety of means and governmental organisations.  Sri Aurobindo described the approach:  “The progress of the socialistic idea would seem therefore to lead towards the evolution of a perfectly organised national State which would provide for and control the education and training, manage and govern all the economic activities and for that purpose as well as for the assurance of perfect efficiency, morality, well-being and social justice, order the whole or at any rate the greater part of the external and internal life of its component individuals.  It would effect, in fact, by organised State control what earlier societies attempted by social pressure, rigorous rule of custom, minute code and Shastra.  This was always an inherently inevitable development of the revolutionary ideal.  It started to the surface at first under pressure of external danger in the government of France by the Jacobins during the Reign of Terror; it has been emerging and tending to realise itself under pressure of an inner necessity throughout the later part of the nineteenth century; it has emerged not completely but with a first rudimentary sketch of completeness by the combination of the inner and outer necessity during the present war (n.b. World War I).

Much of the development took place under the extreme conditions of warfare, which implied that the first watchword of the French Revolution, “liberty” was very much curtailed.  This, while not an absolutely necessary result, was a first step towards more extreme formulations of the socialistic idea into the 20th Century with the rise of communism in various places, and the development of National Socialism in Germany.  In these various instances, the individual freedom was suppressed in order to achieve some form of equality, and due to the authoritarian nature of the regimes who implemented these steps, the concept of equality was itself sacrificed through the development of a ruling class of political leaders and a subordinated class of citizens who simply were asked to obey and support the ideas of the ruling elite, and a third class of those who were disfavored and not entitled to the fruits of equality at all!

This does not imply that the idea itself is faulty and we see a resurgence in today’s world of a focus on the increase of income inequality and unequal access to education, health care, and opportunity throughout the world, which is putting a new emphasis, from a new direction, on the need to achieve some balance between individual liberty and structural equality in the society.

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part I, Chapter 10, The United States of Europe, pp. 76-77