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Socialism refers to various theories of economic organization advocating co-operative, state, worker or public ownership and administration of the means of production and allocation of resources, and a society characterized by equal access to resources for all individuals with a method of compensation that corresponds to the amount of labor one contributes to the social product. Contrary to popular belief, socialism is not a political system; it is an economic system distinct from capitalism.

Basically, a socialist economy is based, in some way, on the organization of the economy toward the direct production of use-values. This is the opposite of capitalism, which is based on the production of exchange-value in order to realize a financial profit. There are various different theories as to how the specifics of a socialist economy might be organized; this ranges from market socialism to co-operative and self-managed economies, as well as state socialism and economic planning.

In terms of class-relations, socialism —in a few words— requires that the means of production are owned and controlled by the proletarians in some sense, and not by the bourgeoisie. Socialism is not the same as communism, which is a classless and stateless society, as descibed in this section.


The socialist perspective is generally based on historical materialism and an understanding that human behavior is largely shaped by the social environment. In particular, scientific socialism holds that social mores, values, cultural traits and economic practices are social creations, and are not the property of an immutable natural law.[1] The ultimate goal for Marxist socialists is the emancipation of labour from alienating work. Marxists argue that freeing the individual from the necessity of performing alienating work in order to receive goods would allow people to pursue their own interests and develop their own talents without being coerced into performing labour for others. For Marxists, the stage of economic development in which this is possible is contingent upon advances in the productive capabilities of society.

Socialists argue that socialism is about bringing human social organization up to the level of current technological capability to fully take advantage of modern technology. They argue that capitalism is either obsolete or approaching obsolescence as a viable system for producing and distributing wealth in an effective manner.[2] Socialists generally argue that capitalism concentrates power and wealth within a small segment of society that controls the means of production and derives its wealth through a system of exploitation. This creates a stratified society based on unequal social relations that fails to provide equal opportunities for every individual to maximize their potential,[3] and does not utilise available technology and resources to their maximum potential in the interests of the public,[4] and focuses on satisfying market-induced wants as opposed to human needs. Socialists argue that socialism would allow for wealth to be distributed based on how much one contributes to society, as opposed to how much capital one holds.

Socialists hold that capitalism is an illegitimate economic system, since it serves the interests of the wealthy and allows the exploitation of lower classes. As such, they wish to replace it completely or at least make substantial modifications to it, in order to create a more just society that would guarantee a certain basic standard of living.[5][6] A primary goal of socialism is social equality and a distribution of wealth based on one's contribution to society, and an economic arrangement that would serve the interests of society as a whole.

Socialism abolishes private ownership of the means of production and the exploitation of man by man, eliminates antagonisms in social development, and fundamentally modifies the character and goals of economic progress. “The goal of socialism is to more fully satisfy the growing material and cultural needs of the people by the continuous development and improvement of social production”.[7] Socialism differs fundamentally from capitalism, over which it has tremendous advantages. The socialist system eliminates all social barriers that hinder scientific, technological, economic, and social progress; puts an end to economic crises, unemployment, and national dissension; opens up wide vistas for the development of science and culture and makes scientific and cultural achievements accessible to the broadest masses of the people; and establishes the conditions for the comprehensive and harmonious development of the individual. The decisive advantages of socialism include much higher growth rates in production and labor productivity, as well as the use of economic achievements for the systematic improvement of the standard of living of the people.

In the view of VI Lenin, when socialism is implemented,

"Officials and bureaucrats are either displaced by the direct rule of the people, or at any rate placed under special control; they not only become officers elected by the people, but they also become subject to recall at the initiative of the people."   "Under socialism ... for the first time in the history of civilized society, the mass of the population will rise to independent participation, not only in voting and elections, but also in the everyday administration of affairs. Under socialism all will take part in the work of government in turn, and will soon become accustomed to no one governing at all."[8]


The economic structure of socialism is characterized by an adequate material and technical basis and a system of production relations based on social ownership of the means of production. Socialist production relations, which completely dominate social production, ensure the rapid and stable growth of the productive forces in conformity with a plan. [No, not necessarily a plan. This is only one version of socialism. There are also versions calling for relatively decentralised worker control, as well as various ideas on market socialism, which was fairly successful in Yugoslavia.] The distinguishing feature of the socialist economic system is harmony between the production relations and the character of the productive forces. The establishment of public ownership radically changes the developmental goal and mode of functioning of production. The spontaneous forces of anarchy and competition are replaced by the organization of economic processes in conformity with a plan. The direct producers are united with the means of production, full employment is ensured, each individual is assigned to work corresponding to his capacities, and broad new prospects are opened for the development of the personality. The characteristic feature of a socialist society is the complete dominance of public ownership of the means of production in all spheres and sectors of the national economy. [Again, it is debatable whether this has to be state ownership.]

Creating a successful socialist society takes a long time and a lot of hard work. According to Wen Jiabao prime minister of China, speaking in 2013 as he left office, "China is still in the primary stage of socialism and will remain so for a long time."[9]

Social theory

Marxist and non-Marxist social theorists agree that socialism developed in reaction to modern industrial capitalism, but disagree on the nature of their relationship. In this context, socialism has been used to refer to a political movement, a political philosophy and a hypothetical form of society these movements aim to achieve.


Karl Marx, 1875.

In the most influential of all socialist theories, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels believed the consciousness of those who earn a wage or salary (the "working class" in the broadest Marxist sense) would be molded by their "conditions" of "wage-slavery", leading to a tendency to seek their freedom or "emancipation" by throwing off the capitalist ownership of society. For Marx and Engels, conditions determine consciousness and ending the role of the capitalist class leads eventually to a classless society in which the state would wither away.

Marx wrote: "It is not the consciousness of [people] that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness."[10]

The Marxist conception of socialism is that of a specific historical phase that will displace capitalism and precede communism. The major characteristics of socialism (particularly as conceived by Marx and Engels after the Paris Commune of 1871) are that the proletariat will control the means of production through a workers' state erected by the workers in their interests. Economic activity would still be organised through the use of incentive systems and social classes would still exist, but to a lesser and diminishing extent than under capitalism.

The transformation of socialism into communism

The growth of socialism into communism is one of the objective, lawlike regularities of the development of the communist mode of production. Because socialism and communism have the same social character and are based on social ownership of the means of production, there can be no specific period of transition from one to the other. The transition from socialism to communism is a continuous process. It is just as incorrect to delay artificially the construction of a communist society by hampering the development of its elements as it is to force the pace of the transition to communism by skipping necessary stages of development and neglecting the objective laws.

Three interrelated tasks are completed during the transformation of socialism into communism: the creation of the material and technical basis for communism, the transformation of socialist social relations into communist social relations, and the creation of the new man. As the productive forces develop and the relations of production mature, the essential differences between the city and the countryside are overcome, as well as the differences between intellectual and physical labor. Society becomes completely homogeneous. The socialist state of all the people is replaced by communist self-government. Labor is no longer simply a means of living. There is a growing consciousness of the necessity of working for the general welfare, and the wealth and potential of the human personality emerges. The creation of abundant material and cultural goods simultaneously with the shaping of comprehensively developed people will make it possible to put into practice the following principle: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”

During the lawlike transformation of socialism into communism, the leading role of the Marxist-Leninist party increases further, owing to the growing scale and complexity of the problems encountered in building communism, which require a higher level of political and organizational leadership. Other reasons for the enhancement of the party’s leading role include the increasing creative activity of the masses and the involvement of millions of workers in the management of state affairs and production; the further development of socialist democracy; the increasing role of public organizations; the growing importance, creative development, and propaganda of scientific communism; and the necessity of strengthening the communist education of the working people and the struggle to eradicate vestiges of the past from the consciousness of the people.

The construction of socialism and its transformation into communism depend on the creative development of the theory of scientific communism by the CPSU and the fraternal Marxist-Leninist parties.

Utopian versus scientific

The distinction between "utopian" and "scientific socialism" was first explicitly made by Friedrich Engels in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, which contrasted the "utopian pictures of ideal social conditions" of social reformers with the Marxian concept of scientific socialism. Scientific socialism begins with the examination of social and economic phenomena—the empirical study of real processes in society and history.

For Marxists, the development of capitalism in western Europe provided a material basis for the possibility of bringing about socialism because, according to the Communist Manifesto, "What the bourgeoisie produces above all is its own grave diggers",[11] namely the working class, which must become conscious of the historical objectives set it by society. In Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, Joseph Schumpeter, an Austrian economist, presents an alternative mechanism of how socialism will come about from a Weberian perspective: the increasing bureaucratisation of society that occurs under capitalism will eventually necessitate state-control to better coordinate economic activity.

Eduard Bernstein revised this theory to suggest that society is inevitably moving toward socialism, bringing in a mechanical and teleological element to Marxism and initiating the concept of evolutionary socialism. Thorstein Veblen saw socialism as an immediate stage in an ongoing evolutionary process in economics that would result from the natural decay of the system of business enterprise; in contrast to Marx, he did not believe it would be the result of political struggle or revolution by the working class and did not believe it to be the ultimate goal of humanity.[12]

Utopian socialists establish a set of ideals or goals and present socialism as an alternative to capitalism, with subjectively better attributes. Examples of this form of socialism include Robert Owen's New Harmony community.

Reform versus revolution

Reformists, such as classical social democrats, believe that a socialist system can be achieved by reforming capitalism. Socialism, in their view, can be reached through the existing political system by electing socialists to political office to implement economic reforms.

Revolutionaries, such as Marxists and Anarchists, believe such methods will fail because the state ultimately acts in the interests of capitalist business interests, and a socialist party will either be subsumed by the capitalist system or find itself unable to implement fundamental reforms. They believe that spontaneous revolution is the only means to establish a new socio-economic system. The task of socialist organizations or parties is to educate the masses to build socialist consciousness. They do not necessarily define revolution as a violent insurrection, but instead as a thorough and rapid change.[13]

By contrast, Leninists and Trotskyists advocate the creation of a vanguard party, led by professional revolutionaries, to lead the working class in the conquest of the state. After taking power, Leninists seek to create a socialist state dominated by the revolutionary party, which they see as being essential for laying the foundations for a socialist economy.

Revolutionary Syndicalists argue that revolutionary trade or industrial unions, as opposed to the state or worker councils, are the only means to establish socialism.

Other theorists, such as Joseph Schumpeter, Thorstein Veblen and some of the Utopian socialists, believed that socialism would form naturally and spontaneously without, or with very limited, political action as the capitalist economic system decays into obsolescence.


The major socialist political movements are described below. Independent socialist theorists, utopian socialist authors, and academic supporters of socialism may not be represented in these movements. Some political groups have called themselves socialist while holding views that some consider antithetical to socialism. The term socialist has also been used by some politicians on the political right as an epithet against certain individuals who do not consider themselves to be socialists, and against policies that are not considered socialist by their proponents.


Communists aim for a stateless and classless society. Therefore, communism is very different from socialism, since socialism requires the existence of such state, so that it can control the means of production. However, some communists view (state) socialism as a transitional stage from capitalism to the stateless communist society; while others, e.g, anarchists, advocate a direct transition from capitalism to anarchism-communism.


Anarchism features the belief that the state cannot be used to establish a socialist economy and proposes a political alternative based on federated decentralized autonomous communities. It includes proponents of both individualist anarchism and social anarchism. Mutualists advocate free-market socialism, collectivist anarchists advocate workers cooperatives and salaries which are based on the amount of time contributed to production, anarcho-communists advocate a direct transition from capitalism to libertarian communism and anarcho-syndicalists advocate worker's direct action and the General strike.

Democratic socialism

Democratic socialism is a broad political movement that propagates the ideals of socialism within the context of a democratic system. Some democratic socialists support social democracy as a road to merely reforming the social, economic and political framework of Capitalism, however, the extent to which they adhere to democratic socialism is heavily criticised by the more hard-line proponents who advocate revolutionary tactics, such as spontaneous revolution, in order to abolish Capitalism and establish a Socialist society based on economic democracy.

Democratic socialism generally refers to any political movement that seeks to establish a socialist economy based on economic democracy which is by and for the working class. Also, democratic socialists oppose the concept of democratic centralism and the revolutionary vanguardism of Leninism. Democratic socialism is difficult to define, and groups of scholars have radically different definitions for the term. Some definitions simply refer to all forms of socialism that follow an electoral, reformist or evolutionary path as opposed to a revolutionary one as democratic socialist, [14] however revolutionary democratic socialists argue quite the contrary.


Leninism promotes the creation of a vanguard party, led by professional revolutionaries, to lead the working class in the conquest of the state. They believe that socialism will not arise spontaneously through the natural decay of capitalism, and that workers by themselves are unable to organize and develop socialist consciousness, therefore requiring the leadership of a revolutionary vanguard. After taking power, Leninists seek to create a socialist state dominated by the revolutionary party, which they see as being essential for laying the foundations for a socialist economy. Leninism has branched off into three distinct factions; Trotskyism, Stalinism and Maoism.

Libertarian socialism

Libertarian socialism advocates a non-hierarchical, non-bureaucratic, stateless society without private property in the means of production. Libertarian socialists oppose all coercive forms of social organization, promote free association in place of government, and oppose the coercive social relations of capitalism, such as wage labor. They oppose hierarchical leadership structures, such as vanguard parties, and are opposed to state socialism. Currents within libertarian socialism include Marxist tendencies such as left communism, council communism and autonomism, as well as non-Marxist movements like anarchism.

Social democracy

Traditional social democrats advocated the creation of socialism through political reforms by operating within the existing political system of capitalism. The social democratic movement sought to elect socialists to political office to implement reforms. The modern social democratic movement has abandoned the goal of achieving a socialist economy, and instead advocates for social reforms to improve capitalism, such as a welfare state and unemployment benefits. It is best demonstrated by the economic format which has been used in Sweden, Denmark, Norway & Finland in the past few decades.[15]


Syndicalism is a political movement that operates through industrial trade unions and rejects state socialism. Syndicalists advocate a socialist economy based on federated unions or syndicates of workers who own and manage the means of production.


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First International and Second International

First International was an international organization which aimed at uniting a variety of different left-wing socialist, communist and anarchist political groups and trade union organizations that were based on the working class and class struggle. It was founded in 1864 in a workmen's meeting held in Saint Martin's Hall, London. Its first congress was held in 1866 in Geneva.

Revolutions of 1917–1936

After World War II

Early 2000s


  1. Ferri, Enrico, "Socialism and Modern Science", in Evolution and Socialism (1912), p. 79:
    Upon what point are orthodox political economy and socialism in absolute conflict? Political economy has held and holds that the economic laws governing the production and distribution of wealth which it has established are natural laws ... not in the sense that they are laws naturally determined by the condition of the social organism (which would be correct), but that they are absolute laws, that is to say that they apply to humanity at all times and in all places, and consequently, that they are immutable in their principal points, though they may be subject to modification in details. Scientific socialism holds, on the contrary, that the laws established by classical political economy, since the time of Adam Smith, are laws peculiar to the present period in the history of civilized humanity, and that they are, consequently, laws essentially relative to the period of their analysis and discovery.
  2. A Childish Fancy, on Retrieved October 14, 2010, from
    That is what socialists are urging you to do, to bring social organization to a level of modernity consistent with this development – a world in which our astounding technological and organizational abilities may serve in the meeting of our needs. Socialists feel that capitalism, which reached its zenith as a promising young adolescent in the Victorian era and has been teetering clumsily about as an angry alcoholic adult ever since, is a form of social organization that has long outlived its usefulness.
  3. Socialism, (2009), in Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved October 14, 2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online:, "Main" summary: "Socialists complain that capitalism necessarily leads to unfair and exploitative concentrations of wealth and power in the hands of the relative few who emerge victorious from free-market competition—people who then use their wealth and power to reinforce their dominance in society."
  4. Marx and Engels Selected Works, Lawrence and Wishart, 1968, p. 40. Capitalist property relations put a "fetter" on the productive forces.
  5. Saint-Simon, Henri de. Letters from an Inhabitant of Geneva to His Contemporaries, 1803
  6. Marx, Karl Heinrich. Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875
  7. Programma KPSS, 1976, p. 15
  8. Quoted in Christopher Hill, Lenin and the Russian Revolution, pp 108-9.
  9. "Chinese Premier’s Parting Words Include Warning" article by Andrew Jacobs and Chris Buckley in The New York Times March 5, 2013
  10. Marx, Karl. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, (1859)
  11. Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto
  12. The life of Thorstein Veblen and perspectives on his thought, Wood, John (1993). The life of Thorstein Veblen and perspectives on his thought. introd. Thorstein Veblen. New York: Routledge. . ""The decisive difference between Marx and Veblen lay in their respective attitudes on socialism. For while Marx regarded socialism as the ultimate goal for civilization, Veblen saw socialism as but one stage in the economic evolution of society."" 
  13. Schaff, Adam, 'Marxist Theory on Revolution and Violence', p. 263. in Journal of the history of ideas, Vol 34, no.2 (Apr-Jun 1973)
  14. This definition is captured in this statement: Anthony Crosland "argued that the socialisms of the pre-war world (not just that of the Marxists, but of the democratic socialists too) were now increasingly irrelevant." (Chris Pierson, "Lost property: What the Third Way lacks", Journal of Political Ideologies (June 2005), 10(2), 145–163 URL: Other texts which use the terms "democratic socialism" in this way include Malcolm Hamilton Democratic Socialism in Britain and Sweden (St Martin’s Press 1989).

Further reading

Christopher Hill, Lenin and the Russian Revolution. London, England; 1947. About 245 pp. Has a summary of times and events but is mostly about the ideas and social forces at play. Author sounds like he might be a Marxist. text (about 350 kB) , .pdf and other formats also available from es:Socialismo nl:Socialisme ru:Социализм