So, what is Socialism anyway?

Out of all my googles, I really can’t find anything that provides a clear and solid definition of socialism and its principles. All of the pro-socialism sites I’ve run into simply ramble about how capitalism is the devil, and the anti-socialism sites all seem to claim that it’s a form of “wussy communism,” and leaves it at that. I need some objectivity! I know it’s somewhere in between capitalism and communism, but I’m looking for its specific goals, objectives and principles.

So, please, someone enlighten me… what is socialism?

To a true communist, the distinction between communism and socialism is not that clear when referring to the economic systems. From this point of view, “communism” and “socialism” both more or less mean the same - a society where means of production are controlled by the society as a whole, not private entrepreneurs.

If you use the term referring to a particular political movement, then “Socialism” is a watered-down (and more widely accepted) term than the shocking word “Communism”. A lot of parties in democracies worldwide, including ones that are running capitalist countries, call themselves socialist to express that they’re left of the center. Historically, the socialist parties are closely linked to the communist ones if you regard their development, but socialists tend to deny that, because in public consciousness the term communism unvariably reminds someone of stalinist terror, with which democratic socialists don’t have anything to do.

“Socialism” seems to be regarded as a pretty cool word just as well - remember the Nazis, who ultra-right-wing, called themselves National Socialists. So the term has a wide range of different meanings depending on the context.

I suppose you get socialism = “wussy communism” because in communist theory, it is the state of government/society (one in the same in a single-party state) before “pure” communism.

Full blown socialism is where the benevolent Big Brother government regulates the economy via controls over the distribution of all goods and services. Lesser degrees of socialism would then mean lesser amounts of government regulation and control over the economy. The essential assumption is that government should have the prinicple controls over economic life, as opposed to leaving it to a free market in which presumably evil capitalists supposedly use to exploit, control, and oppress the masses.

What I have seen first hand in a country that is run by a Socialist Party (though in a nominaly multi-party state) is that there is a large (unregulated) shadow economy for people to get what they want and need. There also is a sort of “free lunch” general expectation that the government is supposed to provide very greatly for individuals, while they themselves need not contribute to the common good in like wise by paying their taxes and fees in full.

Consider also that in the country I am referring to, this huge shadow economy (where an estimated 50 percent of the GNP goes) and this tax avoidance/evasion on a masive scale takes place is under a legal system where the the accused is presumed guilty until proven innocent, unlike the United States.

In order to avoid the impression that “socialists” are automatically dictators, I’d just like to say that the currently governing parties in fully democratic countries like Spain, Greece or Portugal.

“Socialists” comprises quite a lot, from moderately left like Britain’s Labours (although those don’t call themselves socialists, there are many parties along the Labour line that do) up to hardcore communists. It’s a pretty popular word.

A bit like “democratic” and “republican”, really.

That’s exactly it. To someone grown up in a country with a strong labor movement, “socialist” feels somewhat cosy.

Economic system which is based on cooperation rather than competition and which utilizes centralized planning and distribution.

Some communists call it “A society run by the working class; the period of transition between the overthrow of bourgeois rule and the development of a classless, communist society.”

Socialists might say: “A political and economic theory of social organization based on collective or governmental ownership and democratic management of the essential means of the production and distribution of goods.”

I tend to think of socialism as a political system, as opposed to communism’s being an economic system. Economic systems concern themselves with production and distribution of goods; political systems are concerned with the allocation of rights and resources.

It was surprising finding this question posted; I have been giving this very issue a lot of thought in the past week.

Noam Chomsky once wrote that if the term “socialism” meant anything, it meant a system where the workers who actually produce the profits have the first claim to them. This is distinct from capitalism, where the owners and lenders have the first claim, and communism where the state has the exclusive claim.

Historically, the term “socialism” has been used a lot in Europe to describe various conflicting ideas and systems, whether it was appropriate to do so or not, because the term is viewed favorably there. In America it is used indiscriminately as well, but to describe things people don’t like.

For instance, a coworker was complaining for some weeks that the economics class he was taking at night was a “class in compulsory socialism”, apparently because it involved exposure to a variety of viewpoints, some of which he disliked or found difficult to understand. He wanted his professor to watch a dramatic movie he had seen about life in Russia after the Communist revolution, as he somehow thought this had something to do with socialism and his economics course. Just how, he couldn’t explain.

Recently he dropped out of the class. On the whole I get the feeling that he would have been happier at Liberty College, where, Jerry Falwell proudly promises, “your boy or girl won’t be exposed to a lot of radical ideas from some liberal professor”.

My friend was hardly the only person to use “socialism” to mean anything difeent than what he was comfortable with. Last week in a national chain bookstore I saw a book on “cultural literacy” for fifth graders. It said that Karl Marx was the founder of socialism.

The meaning of words evolve over time, but if we stop using the word “socialism” to mean something in particular, and don’t find another word as a substitute, our ability to talk sense about politics and economics is impaired. These days, people often act as though they have somehow satisfactorily proven that something is a bad idea merely by saying that it is socialism. Since they use “socialism” as a synonym for “bad idea”, though, they are really only saying that something is a bad idea because they think it is a bad idea.
In practice, it seems that government efforts to regulate the economy are denounced as socialism if they are aimed at helping the poor or middle class, and are “market-based economics” if they favor the rich or very large corporations. This is what is known as out national political dialogue.

This broadening and the blurring of fundamental terms until they become close to useless seems to be something Americans are especially prone to with respect to economics. Possibly it is done just as much in other countries–I am just not in a position to say.

For instance, the term “inflation”, as used in the United States, used to mean the growth of a money supply at a rate faster than the growth of goods and services which the money could be used to buy. One consequence of this is that money becomes less valuable and products, being scarcer relative to money, become more expensive.

Then reporters and headline writers started saying things like “high prices fuel inflation”, which is sort of like saying forest fires lead to playing with matches. Then economists started using “inflation” as a synonym for “rising prices” too. And now we have no good way of talking clearly about inflation, as opposed to the rising prices which may result from it.

Socialism espouses community (i.e. government) regulation of property and production to encourage fair distribution of income, while communism espouses community (i.e. government) ownership of property and means of production.

So in a socialist system, you still pay for your own car, but everyone has about the same opportunity to buy a car. Under a communist system, the government owns all the cars and they let you use however many they decide you need. I think all so-called communist nations have been socialist. The only places you’ll find communism are small communities of like-minded hippies.

These are my own definitions that probably restrict meaning more than they should. However, all the dictionaries define socialism as “somewhere between capitalism and communism,” and you already knew that.