Socialism is an economic philosophy based on the need for regulations on capitalism. Unchecked capitalism, most economists agree, can create serious problems in the long term, since short-term personal profit does not motivate companies to take care of infrastructure, the environment, or their workers. Socialists emphasize this fact and argue that only the government can solve the problems created by capitalism. Other economic philosophies generally acknowledge the problem, but advocate other solutions to it, while only a few extremists deny that there is any problem with absolute capitalism.
Although many people think that socialism and capitalism are completely incompatible systems, the fact is that most developed nations operate on a combination of both. For example, nearly every major city in the developed world has some system of government-run public transportation, such as bus lines or a subway. There are also laws against child labor, unsafe workplaces, and reckless pollution, and government programs that help provide education, food, and healthcare to the poor. All of these are socialist ideas that exist in relative harmony with capitalist economies. Capitalism vs. socialism is a question of balance, not an “either/or” question.
II. Types of Socialism
Socialists tend to be active social and political theorists, and have developed a bewildering array of different schools of thought. These various schools disagree on almost everything, but they all agree that unchecked capitalism is a dangerous and destructive force. Also, these schools are not mutually exclusive: that is, many people borrow ideas from several different brands of socialism and form their own unique political perspective within the broad umbrella of socialism. Here is a small sample of some forms that socialism can take:
This is one of the most extreme forms of socialism, and a highly controversial political philosophy. We will explore Communism in greater detail in section 3, but for now you can think of Communism as a highly exaggerated form of socialism (though some socialists argue that Communism is actually not socialist at all!)
b. Market Socialism
The government has an important role to play in protecting the poor, the environment, and future generations, but should not set prices or interfere too much in the market. Often combined with democratic socialism, or the view that socialism should be based on elections. Many countries in Europe pursue this model, which has helped them limit the effects of extreme poverty, but also imposes high tax burdens and in some cases, when not managed well, can create budget problems.
c. Christian Socialism
Lots of people today argue that socialism is anti-religion, but this is far from the truth. In fact, socialism is in many ways based on religion: Christianity heavily emphasizes helping the poor, an idea that would ultimately evolve into European socialism. Today, many Christians continue to preach a version of the “social gospel,” a blend of Christian ethics and socialist economics.
No one can deny that our planet is facing serious environmental challenges, from burning rainforests to bleached corals and melting glaciers. Eco-socialists argue that these problems can only be solved by government intervention, and that the capitalist profit motive cannot be reconciled with environmental protection. They advocate strict limits on pollution and extractive industries such as mining, fishing, and drilling.
e. Socialist Anarchism
Anarchism is an extraordinary family of political philosophies, some of which belong to the socialist tradition. Socialist anarchists believe that a socialist society can only emerge from the destruction of all existing governments, and argue that new, more socialistic systems will emerge after this worldwide collapse.
f. National Socialism (Nazism)
The Nazi Party referred to themselves as “National Socialists,” but they did not draw on the ideas of traditional socialism. Nazism belongs to the family of fascist ideologies, which are based on authoritarian capitalism rather than on socialism. Hitler criticized both capitalism and socialism, seeing his philosophy as a new, third approach.
III. Socialism vs. Marxism vs. Communism
These three ideas are often confused, but they’re actually very different, and each one is far more complicated than could ever be explained in a short article.
Refers to any of the philosophies derived from the works of Karl Marx. Marx was an extremely energetic writer, and his ideas are central in fields from economics and history to cinema and comparative literature. Above all, he was an economist who tried to understand the inherent structure of capitalism. He argued that capitalist economies inevitably favor those at the top, and that working-class people were always exploited either in overt ways (unsafe conditions, wage theft, unfair hiring practices, etc.) or more secretly (unfair contracts, employers conspiring with each other to keep wages low). In addition, the culture of a capitalist society is set up to favor the rich, as media, advertising, film, etc., all work together to make ordinary people buy, buy, buy. Marx lived before the age of mass media and advertising, so this aspect of his theory was mostly developed by later Marxists.
Marx was inspired by socialism, an economic philosophy that already existed in Europe. He agreed with the socialists that capitalism was creating problems for the working class, and his philosophy tried to explain why and how that could happen. In cooperation with a few other socialist philosophers, Marx invented Communism, an extreme form of socialism that would become extremely influential throughout the world. Communism eventually grew into a complete philosophy of government – in other words, whereas socialism is basically an economic philosophy, Communism is a broader philosophy covering economics, politics, culture, history, and even art. Some of its central ideas include:
- The need for revolution. Communist governments could not be set up unless people rose up and seized the “means of production,” i.e. factories, workshops, etc. Marx did not believe this could be achieved through nonviolence.
- Classless society. After the revolution, Communist believed, they could set up a society without any class inequality, one in which everyone shared in the resources equally. This was summed up in a popular Communist slogan, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
- Dictatorship of the Proletariat. The post-revolutionary phase was supposed to be a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” or absolute rule by the working classes.
Unfortunately for Marx and his followers, the predictions did not prove true, as we will see in section 5. As a result, Communism has become fairly unpopular in the developed world. Socialism, however, already existed before Communism and continues to thrive after Communism’s collapse.
IV. Quotes About Socialism
“I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic. And yet I am not so opposed to capitalism that I have failed to see its relative merits. It started out with a noble and high motive, [namely] to block the trade monopolies of nobles, but like most human system it fell victim to the very thing it was revolting against [i.e. class-based monopoly]. So today capitalism has outlived its usefulness.” (Martin Luther King, 1952)
Socialist ideas were a central part of the Civil Rights movement in America. Democratic Socialists like Martin Luther King argued that American capitalism was built on the exploitation of the poor, especially slaves and their descendants. Because of King’s socialism, he was frequently accused of being a Communist, an accusation that many socialists have had to deal with in America. Indeed, the U.S. government was so suspicious of King that the FBI ran a campaign to humiliate King and discredit his movement.
“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist.” (Dom Hélder Câmara)
Dom Hélder Câmara was a Brazilian Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church and an outspoken proponent of Christian Socialism. He argued that Christianity meant not just helping the poor, but actively working to counteract the systems that kept them poor. He famously argued that he was not a Marxist because his socialism was derived straight from the example of Jesus Christ, not from modern European philosophers.
V. The History and Importance of Socialism
Because socialism is such a complex and diverse family of philosophies, its origins are difficult to trace accurately. What we can say is that modern-day socialism was born along with many other radical philosophies during the Enlightenment. Nearly all of our modern-day political philosophies are the children and grandchildren of the Enlightenment, including liberalism, socialism, conservatism, libertarianism, Communism, anarchism, and even fascism. It was an extremely fertile period for political philosophy!
Socialism started to solidify in the early 1800s, when Europe was wracked with political turmoil. Anti-monarchists in France had succeeded in overthrowing the government in 1792, but they had been unable to agree on what kind of government should be established in its place. The result was a period of various authoritarian governments punctuated by bloody revolutions. In all this chaos, intellectuals in France and elsewhere in Europe were no longer constrained by attachment to traditional forms of government, and imagined all sorts of alternative possibilities, some of which would be grouped under the heading of “socialism.”
The watershed moment in socialist philosophy was, of course, the work of Karl Marx, who published The Communist Manifesto in 1848 and Capital in 1867. Marx advocated a worldwide Communist revolution and predicted that these uprisings would be followed by a Dictatorship of the Proletariat, and then, over time, the withering away of the state so that a stable Communist society could be achieved.
In many countries, Communist revolutions did take place, but none of them ever got past the so-called Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Rather than withering away as it was supposed to, the state always seemed to get more and more powerful in these countries. The most obvious example is the Soviet Union, which continued to have an extremely powerful and centralized state for decades after its revolution was carried out. The Soviet state never withered away, but instead collapsed and was replaced by the modern Russian Federation, which is also highly authoritarian.
During the Cold War, socialists in the West had a variety of reactions to the experiment taking place in the USSR. Some admired the Soviet government for improving the country’s industrial conditions and providing modern benefits like electricity and education to a population that had been deprived of them. Others, however, criticized the Soviets for their heavy-handed authoritarianism and their suppression of political debate.
In America, socialists were central to many social movements throughout the 20th century, most notably the Women’s Suffrage movement and the Civil Rights movement. Socialists continue to be active in America today, though they have rarely used that term to describe their own movements. Socialists want to build on the accomplishments of their predecessors in the previous century and advocate for a society based on the model of Democratic Socialist countries such as Norway and Finland.
VI. Socialism in Popular Culture
The setting for Wall-E could be interpreted as eco-socialist, since it shows how a capitalist corporation (Buy-N-Large) polluted the entire planet and made it unsuitable for life. This implies that if there had been stronger regulations the planet might have been saved. However, the movie is not overtly political and doesn’t advocate any specific solutions to the problem of pollution, so this interpretation is debatable.
“Tell your friends they don’t have to be scared or hungry anymore, comrades. Superman is here to rescue them.” (Superman, Red Son)
Superman: Red Son imagines the story of Superman with one twist: instead of landing in Kansas, baby Kal-El lands in the Soviet Ukraine and is brought up with Communist values. He has all the same powers as the traditional Superman, but his philosophy is reversed. In the comic, his arch-enemy is still the same: Lex Luthor, evil genius billionaire.
Socialism vs. socialism
Should the word “socialist” be capitalized? Like many economic and political philosophies, this word comes in two forms: socialist and Socialist. With a small “s,” it refers to a set of ideas and thinkers within the world of economic and political philosophy. With a big “S,” it refers either to a political party or a broad over-arching philosophy of life: so even if you believe in socialist economics, you might not be a member of the Socialist Party, and you might not think of yourself as having a generally Socialist identity. (“Communist” almost always has a big C, because it’s almost always viewed as a party or an overarching philosophy.)