What Is Socialism?

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by Alan F. Zundel

Socialism is no longer a dirty word in the U.S.

Today the face of socialism is more likely to be Bernie Sanders than Nikita Khrushchev. Younger voters were born after the end of the Cold War, for them a part of history rather than memory. Older voters are more concerned about the threats posed by resurgent capitalism than by the threat of universal health care.

So what is socialism? There has been a lot of confusion, discussion and debate over this question lately. Which should not be surprising, since socialists themselves have been debating this same question for nearly two hundred years.

Words, especially words used in political conflicts, can be ambiguous—they can have multiple meanings and nuances in different contexts. Socialism has never meant exactly the same thing to everyone.

What is generally agreed is that “socialism” is different than “capitalism” and in opposition to it. But that doesn’t take us too far, not least because the definition of capitalism is not always clear either.

We can get some insight by tracing the history of these words. The word “capitalism” came into use in the 1800s as writers began to reflect on the remarkable changes happening in Western European societies. Feudal socio-economic relations, which had lasted for hundreds of years, were disappearing and something new was being born. “Capitalism” was coined to describe this new something.

There was general agreement on the main features of capitalism. Market transactions facilitated by money were much more widespread, whereas under feudalism most goods had transferred hands based on traditional relations between people. New conceptions of private property rights governed the use of lands. Tenant farmers and independent craftsmen became wage earners.

And, mostly importantly, those who owned “capital”—the material resources used in production, or the money to invest in these—controlled production and sought opportunities to make profits.

Most of these writers were trying to understand the source of the contemporary labor problem.  Under capitalism workers were often in open conflict with the owners and managers they worked for, fighting for better pay and working conditions, and there was a large class of impoverished people who were now dependent on wages but couldn’t find jobs.

The writers wanted to apply new scientific methods of studying society to get at the source of the problems and re-design economic relations so as to replace social conflict with social harmony and cooperation. Because of this emphasis, they called themselves “socialists.” Many of them had religious orientations.

Socialists had different ideas about what exactly needed to be fixed within capitalism, although they agreed that something fundamental was broken. Those who regarded private property as a chief part of the problem and advocated common ownership were known as “communists.” Karl Marx was one of the latter, but he was neither the first nor, at least during his lifetime (1818-1883), the most influential of the socialists.

It was when the intellectual socialists began to combine forces with working people’s movements that “socialism” was born. Socialism in this usage wasn’t an economic system, it was a social movement aimed at fundamental social change on behalf of working people. By the end of the 19th century socialist political parties had formed and Marx’s writings became the most widely used source for their theoretical orientation. But there was still debate over ultimate aims and tactics.

Around the turn of the century capitalist enterprises were growing into large corporations controlling all phases of production and distribution, from resource extraction to sales, and trusts held stock in multiple businesses to coordinate their operations. Many socialists saw the trajectory leading toward one big business controlling the entire economy. At that point, the state could simply step in and replace private ownership with state ownership. This became the unifying goal of the movement, although there were still dissenters.

The main split between socialists came over the question of evolution or revolution, that is, should the state takeover of the economy be achieved gradually by democratic processes or all at once by violent revolution? The former seemed the most realistic path until the 1917 communist takeover of the Russian government by Vladimir Lenin and his allies. After that the debate between democratic socialists and partisans of revolution, now simply called “communists,” heightened.

In the mid-20th century growing awareness of the totalitarian character of the Russia-dominated Soviet Union led many socialists to question the model of state ownership with centralized control of economic transactions. Some European socialists began to advocate mixed economic forms with both state and privately owned companies, market relations, and extensive social welfare protections such as national health insurance. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the once unifying socialist goal of state ownership collapsed with it.

Which brings us back to now. Is socialism simply a critical view of capitalism? A social movement on behalf of working people? A system of centralized economic control and public ownership of the means of production? A system of mixed ownership and extensive social welfare programs?

The word has had shifting meanings over the years, changing as the shape of capitalism changed and new understandings developed. The capitalism of today is not the capitalism of the 19th or the 20th centuries; it continues to evolve and change even as its characteristic features persist. Socialism needs to evolve along with it in order to address the problems of the capitalism of today.

In sum, socialists need to define socialism in such a way that the word has meaning for people living under current economic conditions. The definition of socialism is not so much a linguistic problem—it is a political problem.