Alternative Socio-Economic Ideas, 1789-1871

Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC)

Insight Development Grant, 2020-23

Summary of project

Following the global economic crisis that erupted in 2008, many countries saw a rapid decline of traditional major political parties, coupled with the rise of new political forces and leaders that, in a variety of ways, served to contest the existing economic and social order. As a result, the “free market” is no longer entirely synonymous with democracy, and there is has been a renewed interest in alternative socio-economic ideas for the first time since the fall of Berlin wall. Yet, while debates over the negative consequences of capitalism unfold, ideas about how to promote a more just and democratic socio-economic system have lagged behind.

The aim of this project is to re-examine economic, social and political alternatives to capitalism across Europe following the French Revolution. The period between 1789 and 1871 (the year of the Paris Commune) was tumultuous and inspired a significant body of literature outlining novel social and political ideas that merit further attention in light of the current global economic climate. The research will compare the inadequacies of the capitalist system of production and social organization in the 19th century with the contradictions and challenges that capitalism offers today, identify the main characteristics of alternatives to capitalism as conceived by theorists between the French Revolution and the Paris Commune, as well as the most significant reforms implemented in the same period after labour movement mobilizations, and assess the relevance of those ideas and experiments to tackling contemporary social problems and systemic challenges.

This research will culminate in an anthology of germane but long-neglected texts and several peer-reviewed journal article and book chapters that will be translated into multiple languages. The project will seek to promote academic reflection on the relation between economic systems and democracy and the PI will present his findings at a series of international conferences. The research will contribute to debates in sociological theory and will also enrich public discourse in the fields of social and political theory, economics and history. Long-term benefits flowing from this research will include bringing new critical approaches to understanding the structure of social organization, the drivers of change, as well as promoting a broader perspective regarding the potential for socio-economic alternatives.

By examining the nature and development of alternative conceptions to capitalism, this research will critically reframe issues related to social inequality and promote fresh consideration of such topics as labour rights and democratic practices. Outside the academia, the findings of the project will be disseminated through a variety of community and policy channels. A wide range of teachers, intellectuals, union leaders, and activists in social movements, political parties and NGOs will find the resources brought forward through this grant useful to developing broader and more critical perspectives on the sociological, economic and political issues of our time.

Principal investigator

Marcello Musto (York University, Canada)

Goals and Objectives

The central objective of this research project is to begin the recovery of lost and under-appreciated ideas, proposals and illustrations of concrete efforts to build alternative socio-economic systems, with a view to exploring their contemporary relevance. The project will unearth largely neglected texts written between the French Revolution (1789) and the Paris Commune (the first revolutionary government of the working class in 1871). The tumultuous period after the French Revolution inspired a significant body of literature outlining novel social and political ideas. Core texts from this period include academic writings and influential works of political propaganda addressing the variety of alternatives to capitalism either conceived in their entirety or proposed in terms of basic principles. These texts will be mined not only for their historical significance, but also for their insight into many of the enduring economic issues, paradoxes and struggles of contemporary capitalism. The main outcome of the research is the publication of an anthology that will collate these original texts and ideas. 

The chosen texts will be organized chronologically within themes that remain relevant today. Each piece will be accompanied with a brief introductory note that will identify: its date of composition and/or publication; its context; key information about its author; and details of where the text in question was first published and appeared in full. The anthology will be an accessible collection, suitable both for scholars and students. Limited to a single volume of 150,000 words, it will provide a meaningful, though not exhaustive, entry into the development of alternative socio-economic conceptions as a response to the industrial revolution and growth of capitalist social relations. This collection will be a valuable resource for a broad audience drawn to consider contemporary social alternatives, comprising academics, students, policymakers, union members and workers in non-governmental agencies. 

Studies of alternatives to capitalism have grown significantly in recent years and a sizable literature on the subject has emerged. It is striking, however, that notwithstanding a wealth of insights, these works only rarely and tangentially take account of the first flowering of socio-economic alternatives from the period following the French Revolution. While there is greater awareness of the issues and contradictions of more developed industrial capitalist society in recent formulations, the project adds significantly to the scholarly literature by unearthing insights from an intense period of economic change and distilling lessons from these early articulations of alternatives, including possibilities not pursued, developments and ideas that formed early foundations for growth of capitalism and its critics.


Specifically, the anthology will: 

1. provide, with the introduction written by the PI, an innovative critical reading of the pursuit of socio-economic alternatives, that will be distinct from the largely ideological reconstructions developed over the course of the twentieth century; 

2. offer a rigorous, but readily accessible, selection of the full range of writings on the critiques of capitalism as they emerged in the 19th century; 

3. glean insight from this material to provide new theoretical ideas capable of informing policies and political debate, in Canada and elsewhere, particularly in light of the new trends and developments in economic globalization, migration of labour, and the challenges of reconciling economics and democracy; 

4. encourage reflection on the similarities and differences between the challenges confronted in relation to 19th century capitalism, and the issues addressed by labour organizations and global protest movements in contemporary society.

Published Research Outputs


History and Political Legacy of the International Working Men’s Association”, Labor History, vol. 62 (2021), n. 6: 801-813.


Marcello Musto (Editor), Rethinking Alternatives with Marx: Economy, Ecology and Migration, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021 (xxxiii + 354 pages).


Strength to Struggle”, The Statesman (India), 23 March 2021, p. 6.

“The Paris Commune Is Still a Beacon for Radical Change”, Jacobin (USA), 18 March 2021, online. 

La Comune di Parigi. Come estinguere il dominio di classe”, Il manifesto (Italy), 18 March 2021, p. 10.

Book Chapter

Marcello Musto, “The Experience of the Paris Commune and Marx’s Reflections on Communism”, in Marcello Musto (Ed.), Rethinking Alternatives with Marx: Economy, Ecology and Migration, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021, pp. 263-284.