When the campaign preceding the UK’s EU membership referendum began and the ‘we want our sovereignty back’ catchphrase merged, it was almost immediately apparent it came from mostly people who have little or no notion of political structures and institutions that would support what they were saying.

Then obsessive comments about a USE or USSE began to appear. The former is easily deciphered; United States of Europe, but the latter is awkward and almost nonsensical, Union of Soviet Socialist Europe, whereby the necessary plural is not possible. What they do is accentuate the ideological positions of the authors of those comments who are far more afraid of political phantoms than the pros and cons of a balanced argument. They are blunt, simply said, but never explained. They are ostensibly left and right wing positions and reflect the tendency of people not to feel an obligation to explain their position or why. It therefore deserves examination.

Neither so-called left nor right has a good record at first glance. Look deeper, then that record worsens. The best approach to understanding how and why might be to take the two acronyms and go back to the original form. The United States of America and Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, to be precise. It is a story best told by brief incursions into ideologies and the people behind them. In both cases, bear in mind this is the shorthand version, so if detail appears interesting I leave that to readers to look at themselves.

Back to the roots

The deepest ‘taproots’ of both are found in early democratic ideals. That might be called early socialism, although in the first case the word had still not knowingly been used and if it was had still not passed into common usage as it would very quickly. The roots in fact go as far back as Cleisthenes, establishment of what is generally considered the first democracy in Athens in 508–507 BCE via Plato’s version in which the lower class grows greater and stronger, the poor become the winners and people become free to do as they please and live how they want, which appears very similar to what we now consider anarchy. We then take a long leap in time to the Reformation in the early 16 century, usually considered to have started with the publication of the Ninety-five Theses by Martin Luther in 1517, that contributed to break the back of the notion that monarchies were divine, thus delivered the word of god. A contemporary of Luther leading the protest that began the Reformation was Thomas More. In 1516 he wrote a book called Utopia that describes an imagined community in which its citizens enjoy the most desirable or near perfect qualities making it almost heaven on earth. More’s Utopian ideals have been borrowed many times over to suggest forms of society that usually place emphasis on egalitarian principles that describe societal organisation in terms of equality in the social, economic and political domains, extending into government and justice, using methods and structure of hypothesised implementation that varies according to ideology. Utopian socialism, for instance will be touched on later. En route to the contemporary we also have an English philosopher who is considered one of the founders of modern political philosophy, Thomas Hobbes, who is probably best known for his 1651 book Leviathan which established the social contract theory that has served as the foundation for most modern European (western and global northern) political philosophy. Although a champion of the rule of monarchy, he also described some of the basic principles of what came to be European liberal thought, thus including the rights of individuals, natural equality of all men (today we would use that generically to include women), the artificiality of the nature of the political order which in time led to the distinction between civil society and state) and the view that all legitimate political power must be representative and based on the will of the people, furthermore suggesting a liberal interpretation of law that gives people the freedom to do whatever laws do not unequivocally forbid. What Hobbes described has been aspired to but seldom achieved. In turn these things contributed to opening the door to the age of scientific revolution, the intellectual and philosophical movement we call the Age of Enlightenment at the beginning of the 17 century and throughout much of the 18 century when philosophers propounded ideas about individual liberty and religious tolerance, in opposition to the rule of absolute monarchy and the fixed dogmas of Roman Catholicism. All of the people who will now be mentioned will almost certainly have at least a passing knowledge of Plato’s version of democracy, interpretations of the notion of More’s Utopia and invariably mentioned Hobbes, if not Leviathan explicitly, at least one of them in whatever they wrote.

Thomas Paine

Three early names stand out before all others. All of them have their place in the Enlightenment within which they lived and worked. Firstly there is Thomas Paine, the English philosopher born in Thetford in Norfolk in 1737, who came to be both hated and revered in the USA, where now he is seen as a founding father. A close look at Paine begins to explain how common the deepest roots are. In 1776 he published Common Sense in which he advocated American independence, describing the superiority of republican government over monarchy, equality of rights for all citizens and the significance of the American Revolution by saying that in a world ‘overrun with oppression,’ America would be ‘an asylum for mankind.’ He was a staunch advocate of strong federal government whilst also a stern critic of economic inequality and poverty. He also devised the world’s first fully detailed scheme of social welfare provision. His political philosophy also introduced millions of readers to a radical critique of private property and class based society and described his concept of democratic politics as the solution. Was he a socialist or even proto-socialist? If we mean the definition of socialist that came about two or three decades years after his death that already used a definition that said that the working classes should control the means of production through the state, then probably not. However, if placed in the development of all forms of socialist ideology chronologically it is there at the beginning with a line that runs through all of its descendant variants.

Paine supported the ideas of political agitator Gracchus Babeuf in the French Revolution and was also influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who had a toe if not a foot in the origins of socialist ideology, but opposed Babeuf’s methods. Whilst Babeuf is often accredited as the first user of the word ‘communism’, in fact it was first used by the early utopian socialist John Goodwyn Barmby after a discussion with people he described as disciples of Babeuf’s Conspiracy of Equals coup in 1796. That that discussion took place after Paine’s lifetime and included Barmby’s views as an influential supporter of Robert Owen in the late 1830s and early 1840s.

The fledgling trade union and socialist movements on both sides of the Atlantic regarded Paine one of their intellectual fathers and the role model for democratic revolutionaries. In fact, no other single person was seen as a greater threat to the political establishments of his time than Paine, both the monarchies of Europe and the young American Republic feared his words. In his view, the world is the common property of humanity in which private property owners have no right to exclude others from the right to work. This was an ideal that was both venerated and reviled, thus making him an early predecessor of Karl Marx whose view was that private property refers to a specific social relationship in which an owner takes control of anything person or persons produce on or with that property. It is therefore an exploitative arrangement is maintained because of the structure of capitalist society. A slogan coined by French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in his 1840 book What is Property?, proclaimed ‘Property is theft!’, it gained traction in the development of European socialism but was more or less rejected in the USA, whether based on Paine or any other thinker’s words.

The American Revolutions of 1765 and 1783, the French Revolution of 1789 and the European Revolutions of 1848, the growth of trade union and socialist movements on both sides of the Atlantic were the role models for future democratic revolutions. The American Civil War of 1861- 65 determined what kind of nation the USA would be. It ultimately settled two fundamental questions left unresolved by the revolution which was whether it was to be a loose confederation of sovereign states or an indivisible nation with a single sovereign national government; secondly whether the USA that was born of a declaration that all men were created with an equal right to liberty, could continue to exist as the largest slaveholding country worldwide. The victory of the northern states consolidated the USA as a single nation and ended the institution of slavery that had hitherto divided the country. However, the path to modern capitalism had begun to undermine far more radical and democratic principles so that to this day they survive only as constitutional principles but in practice we see what the USA has become, especially its opposition to all forms of socialist or similar structure. In the 1870s industry began to expand beyond small scale, handwork production to mass manufacturing by 1900; innovations include railways, the internal combustion engine, telephone and telegraph made communications for sales and orders far quicker than before, likewise export and import orders were increased. Modern entrepreneurial capitalism gradually began to grow in what was still a country where somebody poor could arrive as a penniless migrant, then make a vast fortune in ways that have never been imaginable where they had come from.

The high principles of early reformers and activists made the USA a federal republic in which, in principle at least, everybody had equal opportunities, rights and basic freedoms that were to last until the Cold War period after WW2. However, some of the early developments of the USA that one might look to as a model for a future federal Europe were some of the early components of what would lead to the ideology that brought about the 1917 Russian Revolution and consequently the USSR, some of the early influences.

William Godwin

At the height of the French Revolution, in 1793 the second great influence, William Godwin, published his Enquiry concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness. The first part of his book reprised Edmund Burke’s 1756 A Vindication of Natural Society: A View of the Miseries and Evils Arising to Mankind which was written as a satire but is considered to be an early ‘anarchist’ critique of the state. The rest of it is his positive vision of how an anarchist society might work. Godwin’s book was very influential in its time, after those of Burke and Paine, and the most popular written response to the French Revolution.

Henri de Saint-Simon

Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) is the third noteworthy influence. He was a French political and economic theorist whose thought played a significant role in influencing politics, economics, sociology and the philosophy of science. He is best known for creating the political and economic ideology known as industrialism. He claimed that the needs of an industrial class, which he referred to as the working class, needed to be recognised and satisfied in order to have an effective society and an efficient economy. Unlike later notions that a working class consists of manual labourers, his concept included all people occupied in productive work that contributed to society including business people, bankers, administrators and scientists as well as manual labourers amongst others. In his view, the greatest threat to the needs of the industrial class was the one he called the ‘idling class’ that included those who preferred to be parasitic and benefit from the work of others while seeking to avoid doing work. In other words, he recognised a class dichotomy. He also criticised the expansion of intrusive government intervention into the economy beyond guaranteeing no obstacles to productive work. His ideology influenced utopian socialism, the liberal political theorist John Stuart Mill, the founder of ‘anarchism’ Pierre-Joseph Proudhon with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, identifying him as an inspiration for their ideas and as a utopian socialist.

Utopian socialism is an approach to social or political theory based upon the proposition of the construction of a perfect society, thus such thinkers as Robert Owen and St Simon thought in terms of class unity rather than the abolition of socio-economic classes. Marx was extremely critical of the belief that there could ever be any kind of situation that would promote class unity, thus argued that utopians dreamt of class unity rather than the abolition of class and who he viewed as late enlightenment idealists who believed their ideal could be imposed on the world. One of the gravest errors of the young USA at that time was that, despite slavery, they believed they could be a classless society, a claim generally upheld today despite vast disparities in living standards and personal wealth that, for instance, the recent counter current against so-called Obamacare even exacerbates.

Robert Owen

Robert Owen is perhaps a slightly lesser figure that Paine, Godwin and Saint-Simon ideologically. In order to test his political theory, he bought a large textile mill in New Lanark in Scotland from his father in law in 1799. His experiences and experiments would prove to make him famous and generate his ideas of socialist and communal living. He became aware of the awful conditions under which many workers lived, therefore set out to create a model in which the employer took responsibility for worker welfare and that of their family, especially children. Owen and some of his disciples attempted to replicate his model elsewhere, without great or lasting success, although to a small extent parts of the very small commune movement that lives on in the USA has its roots in his ideas.

The mere fact that Owen was the owner of the factory brought him contempt from the likes of Marx and Engels, yet one of the things they most favoured was the workers’ cooperative model that was in its time the original concept that fed into the revolutionary ideas of Russian revolutionaries. In some respects he did not differ a great deal from Paine, in that as a socialist Owen was originally critical of both capitalism and the joint stock method of organising, even for something as progressive as a utopian community, however changed his views to the extent that he regarded that as part of a possible transitional step towards attaining a perfect community. Communist ideology rejected the possibility of the Owenite utopian socialist ideal in favour of the workers as owners and controllers of the means of production and sole beneficiaries of that production, but from which the state and community would also benefit from a share of income.


At that point in time, the Russian Empire was not ready for change but there were increasingly small insurrections among the largely rural population whose serfdom kept them in feudal conditions that had little changed for hundreds of years. Industrialisation and large scale agriculture were late and slow arriving in Russia; indeed even where it was happening large parts of the labour force were urban serfs. In 1861 serfdom was abolished, however that was achieved on terms that were not always favourable for the peasants and served to increase revolutionary pressures. Tsar Alexander II freed them in a major agrarian reform that was partly motivated by his view that it was better to liberate the peasants from above than waiting for them to win freedom through uprisings from below. Abolition progressively happened throughout the vassal states that made up the Russian Empire. However, within Russia political liberalism was building up among intellectuals, some of them from noble and royal families. The most prominent of them was the Russian revolutionary agitator Mikhail Bakunin who is often seen as the father of 19 century anarchism and who was eventually to argue with Marx, thus dividing the anarchist and Marxist wings of the revolutionary socialist movement for many years after their respective deaths.

The other prominent Russian revolutionary and leading theorist of the anarchist movement was Pyotr Kropotkin. He pointed out what he considered to be the erroneous beliefs surrounding the economic systems of feudalism and capitalism. He believed that they created poverty and false scarcity while promoting privilege. The alternative he proposed was a more decentralised economic system that was based on mutual aid and support, also voluntary cooperation, affirming that the inclination toward that kind of organisation already existed as elements of evolution and within human society. He disagreed with the Marx’s critique of capitalism, including the labour theory of value, whereby he believed that there was no necessary link between labour inputs and prices of commodities. He attacked the institution of wage labour that was mainly based on power employers exercised over employees. He claimed that was made possible by the state protecting private ownership of productive resources more than the surplus value derived from the workers’ labour.

Both Bakunin and Kropotkin were supporters of Saint-Simon’s views; they would also have been quite close to Proudhon and would have known the work of Paine, Burke, much of the work of Godwin and Owen as well as Marx. In fact much more of their influence contributed to the roots of the revolutions of the 20 century than the work of Marx and Engels. There were also influences such as Giuseppe Mazzini who is one of the most underrated thinkers of the 19 century and is mainly linked exclusively to the Italian Risorgimento. During his exile in London, he propounded key debates that were critical of communist ideas.

According to him, communism as expressed by its mid 19 century exponents was a direct path to dictatorship. The communists sought a ‘champion’ to respond to that challenge; that was Karl Marx. It has been claimed that the Communist Manifesto, published in 1848, was in part a response to Mazzini’s condemnation of where communism was going that was published in 1846. In fact, Mazzini whilst an activist for Italian unification, was also a federalist who saw the future in the form of a united Europe, thus eventually the inspiration for the Ventotene Manifesto written by Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi.

The Russian revolutions and civil war

In 1905 there was a wave of mass political and social upheaval that spread across the immense Russian Empire. Some of it was directed at the government through worker strikes, peasant unrest and a number of military mutinies. It led to constitutional reforms that included the establishment of the Duma, a multi-party system and a constitution in 1906. The provisions of that constitution and the new constitutional monarchy the Tsar reluctantly agreed to did not satisfy Russians or Vladimir Lenin. The constitution thus lasted only until the fall of the empire in 1917. That year the February and October revolutions preceded a period of conflict that was actually to conclude with the civil war of 1921.

The October Revolution was led by Lenin who had written on the ideas of Marx; the political ideology has since been known as Marxism–Leninism, although not entirely interpreting Marx or other influences directly, but much of it based on Lenin’s own analysis of the Russian situation. It was nonetheless the starting point for the spread of communism worldwide in the 20 century. Soviet membership was originally freely elected, but many members of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, anarchists and other leftists groups opposed Lenin’s Bolsheviks from within the soviets. When it became apparent that Lenin’s people had insufficient support outside of industrialised areas of Saint Petersburg and Moscow, non-Bolsheviks were barred from membership in the soviets. This caused massive domestic tension for many activists who called for more political reforms, rebelled, and then called for a third Russian revolution. That movement received a remarkable amount of support with notable instances like the Tambov rebellion between 1920 and 1921, which was one of the largest and best organised peasant uprisings that challenged Lenin’s Bolshevik regime during the Russian Civil War. There was also the Kronstadt rebellion in March 1921 which was a major but unsuccessful uprising that consisted of sailors, soldiers and civilians which was ultimately one of the reasons for Lenin’s decision to loosen control of the Russian economy by implementing the New Economic Policy, thus a progression towards ‘state capitalism’ within the workers state . Kropotkin described the Bolshevik seizure of power as ‘the burial of the Russian Revolution’. Mazzini’s condemnation of where communism was going in 1846 turned out to be right, what Lenin himself embarked on was a direct path to dictatorship and then he became the first dictator.

The different socialist and anti-socialist movements, which made a wide range of demands and lacked effective coordination, were eventually defeated along with the White Army during the Civil War although there was always a small amount of resistance that lasted until WW2 when some opponents against the Soviet regime went over to the German side. However, when Lenin died in 1924, speeches were made by Mikhail Kalinin, Grigory Zinoviev and Josef Stalin in which the future of the USSR was decided. Leon Trotsky, who had been convalescing in the Caucasus but should have replaced Lenin, was notably not there. Had he taken supreme control, reforms he had proposed may well have happened. Stalin took the top position, the USSR became a state monopoly organised union of soviet republics, under the centralised control of a dictator who relied on the cult of personality that was carefully constructed around him. It lasted in a slowly dissolute form between Stalin’s death in 1953 and the end of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Russia, empire into USSR

Now we turn to the two models with essentially shared ‘taproots’ deep in the ground on which they grew, USA and USSR, but with a very wide divergence early in their existence. There we always key differences that contributed to the respective development of the two large unions. Russia had held its empire for centuries, parts had been lost to other powers such as the Ottoman Empire and Austro-Hungarian Empire and other parts had been gained through wars, purchase or inheritance. However, what became the USSR was essentially the same as the Russian Empire at the time of WW1 with the exception of Finland that rebelled against sovietisation in 1917 to finally become independent in 1919. The East Bloc, despite coming under Soviet influence and in a few cases becoming communist states following post WW2 Soviet invasion and temporary occupation, remain sovereign states. Within the actual USSR the soviet republics that had been vassal states within the Tsarist Empire in fact had nominally more independence than under the Tsars. They were often subject to Russian intervention and occupation, however under the ‘supervision’ of the Russian centre had their own constitutions and governments. Within what was actually European and Asian Russia there were massive resettlements of indigenous groups that resisted soviet rule, however many have survived until the present with own languages and cultures intact. The non-Russian republics have consequently recently emerged as nation states in their own right with ethnic identities, languages, cultures and often religions intact. Some nomadic groups in the northernmost regions and travelling people such as Romani people who had never been sedentary were able to cross borders including the so-called Iron Curtain in both directions. Many dissidents and political opponents were interned or executed at the beginning of the soviet period, lessening over the decades until by 1989 there was a strong opposition movement that contributed to the collapse of the USSR in 1991. When the collapse happened, the new independent republics already had administrative structures that, although often weak, gave them the basis upon which to establish their nation state identities very quickly.

The USA, from revolutionary colonies to republic

The USA is very different. It began as 13 British colonies whose relations with the mother country had been deteriorating for over a decade. Parliament in the UK had enacted a series of acts to increase revenue from colonies, convinced that they were a legitimate means of making them pay their share of the cost of keeping them in the British Empire. Many of the colonists had a very different notion of the empire. They were not directly represented in parliament; therefore they argued that there was no right to levy taxes. That dispute was part of a larger disagreement between UK and American interpretation of the unwritten British Constitution and extent of parliamentary authority over colonies. The British viewed Parliament as the supreme authority throughout the empire, thus everything they enacted was constitutional. In the American colonies the idea was that the constitution recognised particular fundamental rights that no government could violate, thus questions were raised whether Parliament had any legitimate jurisdiction in the colonies. Critics of British power over the colonies by a growing number of people that included Thomas Jefferson and the recently arrived Thomas Paine, stated that the colonies, having own legislatures, were connected to the empire by allegiance to the crown alone. Had the UK government bowed to the criticism and demands then War of Independence would probably never have happened.

However it did and in its wake the 13 colonies began a slow process of consolidation and acquisition. Some parts of what came to be the modern USA were purchased from France and Russia, others taken in wars with Spain and Mexico, much else through agreements with the original colonial power and others by acquisition and accession, the last being Hawaii in 1959. During the formative years of the modern USA there was slavery. When the Constitution was ratified in 1789 many of the northern states abolished slavery slowly but surely freeing the mainly African slaves, however in the south it continued until the the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution in 1865 that formally ended the legal institution of slavery entirely. It was however to be a long time, in fact and incomplete process even now, the end racial segregation. The indigenous people of North America were treated extremely badly, newly ‘imported’ diseases decimated their numbers, their traditional lands simply confiscated, genocides tolerated and excused along with small wars against them as inferior armed fighters who eventually always lost and were consequently collectively punished. Most of them were pushed into inadequate reserves, however with immigration greater land pressure forced them into ever smaller areas. Some tried to integrate but faced similar segregation to the descendants of African slaves. Other immigrant groups and Hispanic people also suffered serious discrimination. Many of those attitudes persist to the present.

Shared origins but no comparison

The formation of the two large unions, neither of which ever conformed to the strictest definition of a nation state, was in no way similar. Thus, given the contribution of particular ideologies and the thinkers behind them that had visions of socially equitable federations of equal partner states in which democracy was the prime force, all people would be equal and provision of welfare, education and health services be part of that democratic environment, neither achieved those ideals. Whilst the former USSR and now the Russian Federation that has succeeded part of the larger union is seen as having imperial designs, the USA has a military presence in over 150 of the 196 nation states in the world. If anything Mazzini’s 1846 condemnation of communism was right but he may well have seen the USA only as it was then still offering a promise of a new model of federal unions. It is, therefore, inconceivable that a set of around 30 states, allowing for forthcoming new members, with very different constitution, legal and civil societal structures would or could become a USE or USSE in the sense that has been implied by those who fear and oppose c loser union. What is far more conceivable is a federation of sovereign states in which self-governance continues as it has with only development on what the European Council has thus far failed to do but has the potential to achieve after considerable reforms. If anything, these two models provide the best examples of how a democratic Europe should proceed with ambitions that are little different to imperial designs of the past in which rich and powerful industrialists, financiers and politicians have replaced royalty and aristocracy but have either maintained existing socio-economic class structures or, as in the case of the USA, has created them. Ideally a social democratic, but not perhaps socialist, federation in which welfare models are shared to create a relatively common standard of living, where the distribution of wealth is better governed but without unrealistic attempts to end economic and social class divisions, but above all else in which peace and harmony are maintained is the best option.

Some of that hypothesis naturally rests in defining what is actually meant by socialism. As a political structure it is a quite broad range of economic and social systems that are characterised by social ownership and democratic control of the means of production. There is also diversity in its different manifestations as well as political theories and movements associated with them. For instance, social ownership may refer to forms of public, collective or cooperative ownership of the kind Robert Owen attempted to work with. There are so many variants of what is called socialism that no single definition can encapsulate all of them, although social ownership is the most common element in all of its various forms. Looking back over early protagonists in the search for an authentic American identity, democratic socialism should have been the most likely political future within a mixed economy that was open to all people with seemingly equal opportunities for all. I is there is the Constitution in all but the explicit use of the word. With the end of slavery the promise was there. It was never realised. Similarly, the USSR went from one form of oppressive regime to another with a distorted interpretation of an ideology that has a base in democratic, egalitarian ideals that were never applied. Cleisthenes’ democracy, More’s Utopia and Hobbesian liberalism are there deep down in the ideas that led to the creation of both the USA and USSR, arguably all were discarded along the way.

Does either fit the bill?

Those doomsayers who predict a move to either a communist USSE or hardcore capitalist USE are scaremongering. Earlier forecasters of the future of nations such as Paine, Owen, Saint-Simon and Mazzini would be disappointed with slow progress to where we have arrived, disappointed by the failures but would probably have good advice based on what they could see for something different that the doomsayers would find very difficult to refute, although they would ultimately find flaws anyway. There are models of federations, indeed empires of conjoined but essentially still individual nations throughout history. Nearly all have outlived their purpose or ended acrimoniously, most were more tyrannical than egalitarian or democratic. Those that survive, for instance Switzerland and the UK among them, do not project the kind of model on which to build. That has probably been the open goal for those who used USE or USSE imagined empires ruled from Brussels, supported by German leadership from Berlin, which dominated members. A few lonely voices have decried a Fourth Reich, however it is a notion to be ridiculed rather than visited. Those nations who have joined together to form the EU and those who will join have the opportunity of learning from the ‘models’ examined, not repeating errors and deviations from original intent, then doing it right. We often talk about political ‘road maps’ which, like all maps describing a journey, normally have a destination. What we know about previous attempts to form federal unions would simply be diversion that take us off route, thus should be considered an open journey, destination unknown, but when we are at least getting close we will know, then will be time to decide that that is exactly where we are going.

Brian Milne
A Social anthropologist who specialises in the human rights of children. In practice Brian Milne has worked on the street with 'street children', child labour, young migrants, young people with HIV and AIDS. Brian’s work has taken him to around 40 countries, most of them developing nations; at least four of them have been in a state of conflict or war, thus taking him to the front line in two. Brian’s theoretical work began with migration; working on, written and publishing on citizenship and generally best known as an 'expert' on the human rights of children. Brian has a broad knowledge of human and civil rights for all ages, environmental issues and has been politically active most of his life. An internationalist and supporter of the principle of European federalisation.

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