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Socialism refers to a broad array of doctrines or political movements that envisage a socio-economic system in which the ownership of industry and the distribution of wealth are determined by the state or by agents of the state or the collective. In its most general sense, socialism seeks the co-prosperity and common cause of all people, which could be accomplished without force in religious and utopian communities. But, in general practice, it refers to the use of state force to redistribute wealth.

Socialism developed as a political ideology in the nineteenth century as a reaction to industrial injustice, labor exploitation, and unemployment in Europe. For Karl Marx, who helped establish and define the modern theory of socialism, societal problems were rooted in an economic system which relied on the private ownership of property, and led to wealth remaining in the hands of a few and at the cost of the laborers who were the source of wealth. Marx advocated a revolution of the working class which would lead to collective ownership of the means of production (property and capital). This control, according to Marx's successors, may be either direct, exercised through popular collectives such as workers' councils, or it may be indirect, exercised on behalf of the people by the state.

Currently, there is a diverse array of ideas that have been referred to as "socialist," from forms of "market socialism," which advocate achieving economic justice through taxation and redistribution through state welfare programs to the hardcore communists who advocate total state control of all property and the economy, to a unique Asian and unclear variant known as "socialism with Chinese characteristics."

"Socialism" has often been used as a slogan by unscrupulous leaders seeking political power. They prey on the frustration and sense of injustice of low-paid or unemployed people. Both the National Socialism in Germany under Hitler and the Soviet-style developed by Lenin and his successors became totalitarian states that denied personal freedom to citizens. These totalitarian political systems had no checks and balances on power, which human civilization has learned is necessary to control the human tendency to take more than what one produces.


As an economic system, the command economy failed because it lacked understanding of human nature and economic incentive and rationally organized people as parts of a giant machine. People are unmotivated when they are asked to give whatever the state requests and to accept whatever the state decides to give. Further, no centralized system of rational distribution of goods and services can account for individuals at different stages of growth, or for biological or intellectual differences. As such, a rational command economy cannot understand what each person needs and provide true economic justice. By the mid-1980s, both Russia and China gave up on their experiments with a command economy. Today, some socialists propose selective nationalization of key industries within the framework of mixed economies. Others advocate "market socialism" in which social control of economy rests on a framework of market economics and private property.

History of socialism

Early socialism

In the history of political thought, elements of socialism long predate the rise of the workers movement of the late nineteenth century, particularly in Plato's Republic and Thomas More's Utopia. These theories are based on an ideal that everyone will live together with the best possible peace, prosperity, and justice in one mutually supportive human community—co-prosperity and common cause. Plato's Republic even advocates the sharing of wives and children. Aristotle criticized the idealism of Plato's Republic in his Politics,[1] saying that if all things were held in common, nothing would get cared for, and that if people had no property they could not host a guest or perform charitable acts that create community and give life meaning.

Early Christian communities aspiring to the social ideals of a caring and committed "body of Christ" are said to have eventually won over the Roman Empire by their attitude and exemplary concern and love for each other. However, once they attained power they were often accused of abandoning their idealism and becoming more Roman than Christian.

The term "socialism" was first used in the context of early nineteenth-century western European social critics as mass society was beginning to develop with the modern bureaucratic state and the mass production of goods through industrialization. The ideas were rooted in a diverse array of doctrines and social experiments associated primarily with British and French thinkers—especially Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Louis Blanc, and Saint-Simon. These theorists were reacting to the excesses of poverty and inequality in the period and, like young children who notice inequality, advocated reforms such as the equal distribution of wealth and the transformation of society into small communities in which private property was to be abolished. Outlining principles for the reorganization of society along collectivist lines, Saint-Simon and Owen sought to build socialism on the foundations of planned, utopian communities. At the same time, utopian socialist religious communities like the Amish and the Shakers were developing in the United States.

Early socialists differed on how socialism was to be achieved or organized, and they did not agree on the role of private property, the degree of egalitarianism, and whether the traditional family should be preserved. While many emphasized the gradual and modern transformation of society through small, utopian communities, a growing number of socialists became disillusioned with the viability of this approach, and emphasized direct and immediate political action.

The rise of Marxism

Karl Marx

In the mid-nineteenth century, the transformation of socialism into a political ideology was developed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels,[2] who systematized their theory of socialism as the outcome of a revolutionary class struggle between the proletariat and bourgeoisie. They bolstered their argument using a materialist rendition of the dialectic philosophy of Hegel, which served as a rationale for revolutionary action against extant governments that were once viewed as sacrosanct.

Marx and Engels claimed to be "scientific socialists," and distinguished themselves from the "utopian socialists" of earlier generations, even though in reality their own view of original human society was idealized and the final human society they envisioned was utopian. For the Marxists, socialism was viewed as a transitional stage in the history of human social development characterized by state ownership of the means of production and a dictatorship of the proletariat. They argued that this stage in history would be a transition between the capitalism that currently existed and the ideal communist society, that would mark the final stage of human history and would be marked by a withering away of the state and the full realization of human potential. For Marx, this final stage would have all the camaraderie and absence of social class that he described in his concept of the primitive human society that existed before the development of tools and the system of private property. In his early writings in Paris, Marx maintained that he had witnessed the incipient stages of such camaraderie amongst the laborers that he observed in Paris. Socialist society would become a garden of material abundance through the collective ownership of industry and through labor reclaiming control of the means of production that would lead to the blossoming of human potential. According to Marx, humanity would move on to a higher stage of society—communism. This technical distinction is used by Marxists, and is the cause of much confusion. The Soviet Union, for example, never claimed that it was a communist society, even though it was ruled by a Communist party for over seven decades. For communists, the name of the party is not meant to reflect the name of the social system.

Social Democracy vs. Communism

In 1864, Marx founded the International Workingmen's Association, or First International, which held its first congress at Geneva in 1866. The First International was an international forum for the promulgation of communist doctrine. However, socialists disagreed on a strategy for achieving their goals. Diversity and conflict between socialist thinkers proliferated and Marx lacked the diplomatic skills to bring about compromise. In fact, his own unaccommodating demeanor was one of principal causes of the collapse of the First International.

Despite the rhetoric about socialism as an international force, socialists increasingly focused their politics on the nation-state, which was the practical seat of political power. Socialism became increasingly associated with newly formed trade unions and mass political parties aimed at mobilizing working class voters in states.

The most notable of these groups was the Social Democratic Workers' Party of Germany (today known as the German Social Democratic Party or SDP), which was founded in 1869. These groups supported diverse strategies from the gradualism of many trade unionists to the radical, revolutionary agendas of Marx and Engels. While the orthodox Marxists in the party, led by Karl Kautsky, initially retained the Marxist theory of revolution as the official doctrine of the party, in practice the SPD became more reformist.

As socialists gained their first experiences in government, the focus of socialism shifted from theory to practice. In Germany, socialists became more pragmatic, as the success of their program increasingly depended on the consent of the middle and propertied classes, who largely retained control of the bureaucratic machinery of the state. Under Kaiser Wilhelm, the extension of universal male suffrage and the beginnings of the modern welfare state began and gradually spread to the rest of Europe and the United States by economists and scholars such as Johns Hopkins economist Richard T. Ely and social gospel preachers Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch[3] who saw this progressivist social vision as creating the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. The condition of the working class gradually improved in the Western world, and the socialist revolution predicted by Marx never happened there.

As social democrats moved into government, divisions between the moderate and radical wings of socialism grew increasingly pronounced. Eduard Bernstein, who assumed leadership of the socialist movement following Engels' death in 1895, was initially a strong proponent of Marxist doctrine. However, Marx's social and economic predictions for Germany, which predicted the imminent collapse of capitalism failed to occur. In his major work Evolutionary Socialism (1899) Bernstein pointed to fundamental flaws in Marxist thought. He concluded that socialism could best be achieved through the democratic political process (a model increasingly known as social democracy). On the other hand, strong opposition to social democracy came from revolutionary socialists in countries such as Russia where neither parliamentary democracy nor capitalist industrial infrastructure—theoretical precursors to "socialism"—existed. Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin defended Marx's position, arguing that capitalism had only endured because of imperialism. Lenin maintained that revolution was the only path to socialism.[4].

Meanwhile, anarchists and proponents of other alternative visions of socialism—emphasizing the potential of small-scale communities and agrarianism—coexisted with the more influential currents of Marxism and Bernstein's social democracy. The anarchists, led by the Russian Mikhail Bakunin, believed that capitalism and the state were inseparable, and that one could not be abolished without the other. Consequently, they opposed Marxism and most other socialist groups, and a split between the anarchists and the Socialist International occurred.

The moderate, or revisionist, wing of socialism dominated the meeting of the Second International in Paris in 1889. The majority of its members, led by Eduard Bernstein, were revisionists. Yet, at the Second International, Lenin and the German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg emerged as leaders of the left-wing minority. One of the key differences between the two factions focused on the question of membership. While Bernstein and his supporters favored a "big tent" approach, Lenin emphasized the need for disciplined cadres and had no interest in populating the party with individuals who failed to support the tenets of Marxism. Followers of German theorist Karl Kautsky constituted another smaller faction but Kautsky eventually allied with Bernstein.

Jean Jaurès haranguing workers under a red flag.

In the first decades of the twentieth century, social democracy became increasingly influential among many western European intellectuals. In 1884, British middle class intellectuals organized the Fabian Society. The Fabians helped lay the groundwork for the organization of the Labor Party in 1906. The French Section Française de l'Internationale Ouvrière (SFIO), founded in 1905, under Jean Jaurès and later Léon Blum adhered to Marxist ideas, but became a reformist party in practice.

In the U.S., the Socialist Labor Party was founded in 1877. This party, small as it was, became fragmented in the 1890s. In 1901, a moderate faction of the party joined with Eugene V. Debs to form the Socialist Party of America. The influence of the party gradually declined, and socialism never became a major political force in the United States. Communism also failed to gain a large following in the U.S. and Canada. The party fell into significant disfavor in the aftermath of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, which resulted in the Communist Party USA opposing any U.S. involvement in the war effort against Nazi Germany until the surprise act on the Soviet Union by Hitler in 1940.

The distinction between socialists and communists became more pronounced during and after World War I. When the First World War began in 1914, many European socialist leaders supported their respective governments and Lenin was very outspoken in his opposition to this. Lenin denounced the war as an imperialist conflict and urged workers worldwide to use the war as an occasion for socialist revolution. During the war, socialist parties in France and Germany supported the state wartime military and economic planning, despite their ideological commitments to internationalism and solidarity. This ideological conflict resulted in the collapse of the Second International.

The rise of the Soviet Union

In 1917, the Russian Revolution marked the definitive split between communists and social democrats. Communist parties in the Soviet Union and Europe dismissed the more moderate socialist parties and, for the most part, broke off contact.

The Soviet Communist Party sought to "build socialism" in the Soviet Union. For the first time, socialism was not just a vision of a future society, but a description of an existing one. Lenin nationalized the means of production (except agriculture), and implemented a system of government through workers' councils (in Russian, soviets) in lieu of democracy. Lenin repressed and executed any rivals and, early on, executed the entire family of the Czar. The Soviet Union developed a bureaucratic and authoritarian model of social development, condemned by social democrats for undermining the democratic and socialist ideals of Alexander Kerensky's February 1917 Revolution. When Stalin assumed power following the death of Lenin, he favored a "socialism in one country" policy in contrast to Leon Trotsky's call for permanent revolution. Like Lenin, Stalin recognized the fragility of the Soviet experiment and did not wish to jeopardize the U.S.S.R. He was prepared to make numerous compromises including negotiations with the West and with Hitler. Stalin's repression of opposition was systematized and genocide and brutality were commonplace throughout his almost 30 years in power.

The October Revolution provoked a powerful reaction throughout the Western world. One example was the "Red Scare" in the United States, which effectively destroyed the American Socialist Party of Eugene Debs. In Europe, fascism came to power in Italy under Benito Mussolini (a former socialist) in 1922, and in Germany, National Socialism developed under Adolf Hitler as separate nationalist movements that opposed both Western democracy and communism.

The interwar era and World War II

Despite division of the world socialist movement, western European socialist parties won major electoral gains in the immediate postwar years. Most notably, in Britain, the Labour Party under Ramsay MacDonald was in power for ten months in 1924 and again from 1929 to 1931.

Throughout much of the interwar period, socialist and communist parties were in continuous conflict. Socialists condemned communists as agents of the Soviet Union, while communists condemned socialists as betrayers of the working class.

However, with the rise of fascism in Italy and National Socialism in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s, socialists and communists made attempts in some countries to form a united front of all working-class organizations opposed to fascism. The "popular front" movement had limited success, even in France and Spain, where it did well in the 1936 elections. The failure of the German communists and socialists to form a "popular front" helped the Nazis gain power in 1933. The "popular front" period ended in 1939 with the conclusion of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. Socialists condemned this act as an act of betrayal by the Stalinist Soviet Union.

Many influential religious and labor leaders like Reinhold Niebuhr in the United States, who were originally sympathetic with the Bolshevik Revolution, turned against communism after they visited Russia and witnessed its socialist experiment in the 1920s and 1930s.

Cold War years

In Western Europe, socialism gained perhaps its widest appeal in the period immediately following the end of World War II when poverty loomed large. Even where conservative governments remained in power, they were forced to adopt a series of social welfare reforms that led, in most industrialized countries, to the expansion of the welfare state. The nominally socialist parties became increasingly identified with the capitalist welfare state and sided against the USSR and for the largely backed U.S.-led Cold War policies. This included the Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Frankfurt School scholars like Hannah Arendt denounced the Soviet Union as "totalitarian." Inspired by the Second International, the Socialist International was organized in 1951 in Frankfurt, West Germany without communist participation.

In the postwar years, backed by Soviet aid and propaganda, socialism became increasingly influential throughout the Third World, which lacked democratic leadership in many post-colonial states. In 1949, the Chinese Revolution established communist rule throughout Mainland China. Emerging nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America frequently adopted socialist economic programs. In many instances, these nations nationalized industries held by foreign owners. Soviet aid appealed to political leaders and communist propaganda appealed to those who were concerned about the vast economic disparities between the rich and the poor. Some countries, like China, India, and Egypt, sought to develop state planning and state-guided models of social development by importing some aspects of the Soviet model. India established strong economic ties with the Soviet Union during the Cold War period.

In the late last quarter of the twentieth century, socialism in the Western world entered a new phase of crisis and uncertainty. Leonid Brezhnev was unable to control the expansion of the burgeoning bureaucratic welfare state that began to face economic collapse. In this period, monetarists and neoliberals attacked social welfare systems as an impediment to economic development. With the rise of Ronald Reagan and "supply side economics" in the U.S. and with Margaret Thatcher in Britain, increasing pressure was put on the Western welfare state to become more efficient. With dramatic economic growth in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Western countries and international institutions rejected social democratic methods of Keynesian economics in favor of neoliberal policy prescriptions. In the Soviet Union, the centrally planned economy continued to deteriorate, with improved information technologies, it became increasingly challenging for the Soviets to conceal the extent of the failure of their system. Mikhail Voslensky's book, Nomenklatura: An Insiders Report, documented the rise of a new bureaucratic oppressive class rather than the "new man" communism was supposed to created. The collapse of the system was somewhat along the lines Max Weber, an expert of the nature of bureaucracy, had predicted in the 1920s.

Western European socialists were under intense pressure to refashion their parties in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and to reconcile their traditional economic programs with the integration of a European economic community based on liberalizing markets. The Labor Party in the United Kingdom put together an electorally successful set of policies based on encouraging the market economy, while promoting the involvement of private industry in delivering public services.

The last quarter of the twentieth century spelled the end of communism in the Eastern bloc, where the worsening shortages of housing and consumer goods, a stronger black market than official market, lack of jobs for young college graduates, the economic weight of an empire, combined with the lack of individual rights to assembly, association, movement, and speech, undermined the legitimacy of the communist regime. With the rapid collapse of Communist party rule in Eastern Europe between 1989 and 1991 due to Soviet disengagement from the region (and Western pressure), socialism as it was practiced in the Soviet bloc disappeared worldwide as a political force.

Contemporary socialism and the end of communism

In the 1960s and 1970s new social forces began to change the political landscape in the Western world. The long postwar boom, rising living standards for the industrial working class, and the rise of a large university-educated white-collar workforce began to break down the mass electoral base of European socialist parties. This new "post-industrial" white-collar workforce was less interested in traditional socialist policies such as state ownership and more interested in expanded personal freedoms and liberal social policies.

Over the next quarter century, efforts to adapt socialism to new historical circumstances led to a range of new left ideas and theories, some of them contained within existing socialist movements and parties, others achieving mobilization and support in the arenas of new social movements. Some socialist parties reacted more flexibly and successfully to these changes than others, but eventually all were forced to do so. In the European Union and the United States, unscrupulous political leaders and bankers appealed to socialist ideals and the welfare state to back highly leveraged government debt which put entire societies in shackles, with Greece being the first to collapse.

In the developing world, some elected noncommunist socialist parties and communist parties remain prominent, particularly in India. In China, the Chinese Communist Party has led a transition from the command economy of the Mao period under the banner of "market socialism." Under Deng Xiaoping, the leadership of China embarked upon a program of market-based reform that was more sweeping than had been Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika program of the late 1980s.

In Latin America, left-wing socialism reemerged with a nationalist and populist tinge, with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez leading the trend. The appeal of socialism became possible because national income is dependent on the sale of a national resource (oil), rather than the normal production of goods and services necessary for a stable economy that dominated original socialist debates. Political debates reflect how the proceeds from the sale of oil are to be divided, and not how economic development can occur. Ironically, economic development has also decreased in both Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, two other oil-producing nations, where battles over control of the resource has taken priority over genuine economic development.[5]

The Legacy of Socialism

Marxist and non-Marxist social theorists have both generally agreed that socialism, as a doctrine, developed as a reaction to the rise of modern industrial capitalism, but differ sharply on the exact nature of the relationship or the solution. Émile Durkheim saw socialism as rooted in the desire simply to bring the state closer to the realm of individual activity as a response to the growing anomie of capitalist society. Max Weber saw in socialism an acceleration of the process of rationalization commenced under capitalism. Weber was a critic of socialism who warned that putting the economy under the total bureaucratic control of the state would not result in liberation but an "iron cage of future bondage."

Socialist intellectuals continued to retain considerable influence on European philosophy in the mid-twentieth century. Herbert Marcuse's 1955 Eros and Civilization was an explicit attempt to merge Marxism with Freudianism. Structuralism, widely influential in mid-twentieth-century French academic circles, emerged as a model of the social sciences that influenced the 1960s and 1970s socialist New Left.

Human beings will continue to look for ideals of interdependence, mutual prosperity, and social solidarity in which everyone is treated with equal worth and dignity, and the collective conscience of human community fosters economic opportunity for all. While socialism as it is manifested in communism through "the appropriation of the means of production by the state on behalf of the masses," proved a failed shortcut to wealth for all. Millions of people died during attempts to implement communism in the Soviet Union and China.

Nevertheless, economic injustice continues to abound. The corporate scandals of Enron and WorldCom that devastated the pensions of myriads of Americans, the mergers and acquisitions that destroy the dreams and hopes of many in one fell swoop, the housing bubble created by government and banking collusion that put many hard working citizens out in the streets, and many other corrupt and selfish economic practices continue to evoke outcries of immorality and injustice.

Humanizing the economy is an ongoing quest, and various forms of religious morality and socialist ideals will continue to promote reform of unjust economic practices. However, economic justice will not be found in a simplistic zero-sum model of dividing the economic pie like communists tried. Rather, it will more likely be based on a positive-sum economic system involving checks and balances on large concentrations of wealth, regulation of corporate behavior, and laws against the collusion of politics and money. The efficiency of the market, the personal fulfillment that can be derived from ownership and entrepreneurship, and the possibilities resident in the mass production of goods and services, can all be integrated into an economic engine for human betterment.


  1. Aristotle, Politics, Book II, trans. B. Jowett (New York: Commercial Press, 1958).
  2. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, (ed.) Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Translated by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling. (New York: Modern Library, 1906)
  3. Robert T. Handy. The Social Gospel in America, 1870–1920: Gladden, Ely, Rauschenbusch. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966).
  4. V.I. Lenin. State and Revolution. (New York: International Publishers, orig. [1917] 1977. ISBN 0717801969)
  5. Jeffrey D. Sachs, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time (New York: Penguin, 2006, ISBN 0143036580).


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