In the first half of the nineteenth century most social commentators in France thought that they lived in a sick society. Socialists can be distinguished from the rest in that they warned that the problems would become more acute unless radical solutions were adopted. Most of this book will focus on their strategies and solutions. This chapter is devoted to their definition of the problem, ubiquitously labelled the “social question”, tracing its origins and nature.
Explanations for the origins of the social question varied from the psychological and moral to the economic. All socialists were agreed that, fundamentally, humankind (some socialists were not entirely sure about women) had been created with equal natural rights, but that these had been subverted over time and that their own society lacked a sense of identity and common purpose. Liberals applauded the triumph of individualism, but socialists deplored the dominance of selfish, personal interests. Socialists identified five main factors to account for the social crisis of their times. These were economic inequality, psychological conflicts, problems in the running of the state, spiritual and moral bankruptcy and the impact of economic change. Some socialists stressed one, others a combination, and of course many of their ideas were not unique to people of socialist opinions, but were shared by radicals, both monarchists and republicans. We will begin by considering each factor, in the order given above, but as we trace the interconnecting links for different socialist groups, we will have to move out of strict chronological sequence.
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