The Idea of Socialism: Radical Political Theory from Paine to Marx

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Course DatesLengthMeeting TimesStatusFormatInstructor(s)CRN
July 19, 2021 - August 18, 20217/19 - 8/184 WeeksOnlineWaitlistedOnlineSean Monahan

Course Description

Two hundred years after Karl Marx’s birth, socialism is making a comeback in American political discourse. Policy proposals from self-declared socialists like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are gaining support in Congress and among much of the electorate. However, it is not exactly clear just what the term “socialism” refers to—either in the thought of its opponents or its supporters.

This class will address the question by studying the central period of the socialist traditions’ formation in Europe and the United States. Students will read and analyze original sources—works of Thomas Paine, Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, Karl Marx, and more—representing some of the key texts of the early socialists. We will try to understand which commitments defined socialism and the degree to which contemporary political theory does or does not answer those concerns. Central themes will include: socialist criticisms of capitalism; the relationship between freedom, equality and fraternity; the socialist conception of politics; work and leisure in socialist society; collective ownership and control of property; socialism as a religious or a secular project; evolutionary and revolutionary change. We will ask such questions as: • How is socialism distinct from social democracy, anarchism, and other related ideas? • Is socialist thought compatible or incompatible with liberal and democratic ideas? • Are socialists egalitarians, and if so, what kind? • Is there a distinctively socialist conception of social harmony? • Why do socialists attend to the problem of work more than liberals do? • Is the socialist approach to property similar to or distinct from liberal ones? • Is socialism a political theory or does it reject politics? • Does socialism have its own conception of justice or does it move beyond justice? One key historical theme will be to think of Marx as a critic not just of capitalism but also of the ideas of the socialist tradition itself.

Students will leave the course with a much fuller understanding of the range of views socialists hold and some of the complexities involved in socialist thought. Students will also develop skills of reading, analyzing, and criticizing texts in a college-style setting. At the conclusion of the course, students will have: • the skills to critically read texts and make reasoned arguments of their own, • experience in communicating in an academic setting, • experience writing short papers in political theory, • and historical context from which to understand contemporary politics, social movements, and activism.

Prerequisites: This course will be particularly suitable for those interested in modern history and contemporary politics, but all are welcome! This course has no prerequisites.

Course Information

  • Course Code: CEPS0977

Program Information


Brown’s Pre-College Program in the liberal arts and sciences for students completing grades 9-12 by June 2021.

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