What is Socialism?

Out of all the major political ideologies of modern times, no other is as ill-defined and varied as socialism. While liberalism, conservatism, fascism and neoliberalism (the other defining schools of thought in this century and the last) are in many ways more clear cut, socialism is a word used for a plethora of political doctrines.

Liz Kendall, in a Labour Leadership debate, recently stated she was a “democratic socialist” – under any definition this is of course a nonsense (though this of course doesn’t make her “Tory-lite” – but centrism is still distinct from socialism), but it is in many ways a perfect example of how the term covers such a broad range of distinct beliefs. For instance, while one person uses it to express his or her attachment to nationalising the means of production, another will use it merely to express an attraction to effective welfare, a living wage and a decent level of equality of opportunity.

So what is socialism? 

First we have to look back to one of our founding fathers, the ever controversial Karl Marx.

Marx identified three stages of human society – the capitalist stage, for which little needs to be said, the socialist stage and the communist stage – the point at which a stateless, moneyless, classless society could be founded.

Marx’s conception of ‘socialism’ therefore was distinct from, for instance, the SPGB’s idea of ‘socialism’, which in traditional left wing thought is really the final phase of society – communism. But what does this ‘socialist’ state of Marx’s actually consist of?

Common ownership of the means of production – the pledge of the old Clause IV – and a worker run nation are the main characteristics, with an incentive based system for work and “the state” still being entities. This is pretty much the traditional conception of socialism, but is also a far cry from what many self proclaimed socialists (including myself) are really trying to express through the use of the term.

A Labour Party membership card, complete with the old Clause IV

We therefore have to introduce two more categories – social democracy and democratic socialism.

Social democracy is essentially a sub category of both socialism and capitalism, in that its vision of a mixed economy is a far cry from neoliberalism, but its acceptance of the essential founding stones of capitalism, such as private property and business, go right in the face of Marx’s conception of socialism as a transitional phase. A social democrat should, in theory, support a strong welfare system, some degree of nationalisation (though in the ilk of Clement Attlee rather than Vladimir Lenin) and trade unionism (amongst other things), though an emphasis should be put on reform rather than revolution.

A democratic socialist is many ways the same in this respect, in that he or she would use gradualistic methods to achieve his or her aims, and the initial programme of the democratic socialist would be almost identical to that of the social democrat. However, a distinction between the two lies in the destination set by the implementation of said policy – the initial programme may be pretty much the same, but the social democrat aims to use it to reform capitalism while the democratic socialist views it as the first step on the road to ending it (eventually reaching a more bottom up, socially liberal version of Marx’s second phase).

Can both legitimately be called “socialism” though?

Certainly democratic socialism can be called it, though I sincerely doubt that many people truly believe in nationalisation all industry. But what about social democracy?

Socialism JPEG
There’s a clear divide between social democracy and Marxism – so can both be described as socialism?

In my mind, at the heart of socialism lies not the idea of nationalisation everything in sight, but a very simple slogan that still encompasses social democracy (while leaving out ideologies like social liberalism) – “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”.

Taking a closer look at the phrase, it’s fairly clear that it’s laying out two distinct principles –

  1. Each member of society contributes to society according to his or her ability to do so, meaning that each individual does appropriate and fulfilling labour.
  2. In return, society gives back all that is necessary for said individual to fulfil his or her potential and live a satisfying life, with a living wage, welfare and certain state owned services (such as health, education and power) giving the means for this.

For such the old slogan to be fulfilled, common ownership of the means of production isn’t actually necessary, and for me, this goal is separate to and stands far below the goal of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. Therefore, a social democrat can still essentially be described as a socialist, despite the lack of commitment to completely ending capitalism.

But surely the idea of full employment, dignified living and fulfilling lives for all is also an aim shared by other progressives, and so isn’t a defining socialist quality?

To some extent this is true, though there are obvious differences – social democrats, democratic socialists and marxists all aim to either significantly reform or fully replace capitalism, while a centrist would not. This alone is enough to put a social democrat into a different bracket.

On top of this, the second part of the slogan is a clear call for decent state owned services. While the social democrat and democratic socialist would advocate these, the centrist would not to an adequate extent (and would certainly not implement things like national health, even if they’re superficially maintained under a centrist government).

So it’s fairly clear that social democrats, (such as myself) despite their opposition to nationalising the means of production, are indeed socialists and are distinct and different to liberals.

In short, socialism is a contract between the state and the citizen, a constant cycle that perpetuates dignified living for all citizens via publicly funded and accountable services. It is a category, rather than a single set of ideas, but ultimately must be at the heart of any political programme that hopes to establish equality, harmony and prosperity.

– Seb



6 thoughts on “What is Socialism?

    1. Thanks!
      It’s a bit tongue in cheek, granted, but there’s still a point being made about the absurdity of the whole “Red Ed” business.


  1. I would say socialism is the economic opposite to capitalism; a socialist society/ economic system would contain no free market and the means of production would be fully nationalised/ owned by ‘the people’. Social liberalism shouldn’t, then, refer to the economics of a society but instead to the political workings. Unfortunately everyone on the left calls themselves ‘socialist’, from Corbyn to Miliband and even, as you noted, Liz Kendall – meaning the term has been completely distorted from its original meaning.


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