On the Meaning of Socialism

7 March 2011

In a previous entry, I discussed the meaning — or lack of meaning — of the word capitalism. With an eye towards future entries, I want to write now about the word socialism.

The OED (and the New SOED) provide the original definition of socialism:

A theory or policy of social organization which aims at or advocates the ownership and control of the means of production, capital, land, property, etc., by the community as a whole, and their administration or distribution in the interests of all.

It's pretty straight-forward: collective, communal ownership of the means of production, and administration for the collective benefit. But there's at least three points to be raised here. First, and most important, is that different conceptions of the community are possible. The community in question might be the whole world; it might be every human being within a particular jurisdiction; it might be a particular religious community; or it might be members of an ethnic group of some sort. Second, the definition here does not intrinsically entail comprehensive communal ownership; that is to say that it doesn't declare that all means of production must be communally owned for a system to be socialistic. Third, those who indeed advocate a comprehensive communal ownership of the means of production often fail to note that labor is an important means of production, so that such ownership would mean that an individual must work when, where, and how the community or its representatives told him or her to work.

Merriam-Webster gives us set of definitions, each somewhat different from that original definition:

1: any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
2 a: a system of society or group living in which there is no private property b: a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state
3: a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done

The first three M-W definitions here (1, 2a, and 2b) all ignore the issue of for whose benefit the means of production are employed. Definition 1 is additionally broader than the original, in that it includes state ownership as possiby different from collective ownership. Definitions 2a and 2b are each otherwise narrower, as one precludes any private property, and the other insists upon state ownership. The final definition is introduced because Marxism, an important school of thought, made peculiar use of the term. Jointly, this set of definitions illustrate how a word can lose usefulness when popular use is uncritically accepted.

My 1975 copy of the AHD defines socialism as

1. A social system in which the producers possess both political power and the means of producing and distributing goods. 2. The theory or practice of those who support such a social system. 3. In Marxist-Leninist theory, the building, under dictatorship of the proletariat, of the material base for communism.

In the case of the first definition, one might begin by asking why the system should be called socialism; there is no mention of society or of community here, except in-so-far as this is a social order (as would be many in which producers would not have ownership or political power). Even if we regard the relevant community as that of the producers, the definition says nothing of them owning qua community; all property could be private, so long as the producers had means of production and distribution! Frankly, the author was so swept-up in his or her theory of socialism (recall the definition of capitalism that appears in the same edition) that he or she lost sight of its essential structure. (And perhaps the author was too enraptured to note that different folk would have different ideas about whom one should take to be a producer.) The second definition is purely derivative of the first. The third definition pushes-aside Marxism more generally in favor of Marxist-Leninism in particular, but is roughly a reïteration of the same notion, for about the same reason.

The 1993 version of the AHD defines it thus

1.a. A social system in which the means of producing and distributing goods are owned collectively and political power is exercised by the whole community. b. The theory or practice of those who support such a social system. 2. The building of the material base for communism under the dictatorship of the proletariat in Marxist-Leninist theory.

The first definition here has nearly restored the original sense: collective, communal ownership of the means of production, and administration for the collective benefit. (The three points that I raised in response remain germane.) But now there's an insistence that political power is exercised by the whole community. This is a response to the great embarrassment of decidedly undemocratic regimes claiming to represent the community in the administration of the means of production. (The reference to political power in the earlier edition was probably an ineffectual attempt to deal with that embarrassment.) The second definition is again purely derivative of the first. The third that from the earlier edition, with a non-substantive reördering of words.

All right now. When someone else has introduced the word socialism into the discourse, I've tried to respond to it based upon how that someone else is or at least seems to be using it, Or I've explicitly asked what he or she means by it; but when I've introduced or will introduce the word socialism into the discourse, what I've meant is

collective, communal ownership of the means of production and administration for the collective benefit

And I do plan to be writing again about socialism, very soon.

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4 Responses to On the Meaning of Socialism

  • the apocolyte says:

    The 1975 AHD definition seems the weakest. Of the definitions besides yours, I think I prefer the first. I am no expert on the subject, yet it seems that your explanation is concise.

    I must admit that certain aspects of socialism appear to hold merit, such as looking out for the good of all, while it's failings are unable to substantially address issues of power. Someone has to tell the worker what to do, and therefore must be elevated above the other. Humanity that holds power over others ultimately abuse that power in some fashion, which could perhaps develope into some kind of hybrid facism.

    What little i understand of the tragedy of the commons is another big detractor for any socialist-minded socialist.

    My knowledge of socialism and capitalism is assuredly dwarfed by yours, but they both seem flawed in many ways. Living in the USA I suppose I prefer capitalism, though class struggles are inevitable. Those who have will eventually resent those who have not, and/or vice versa, and the greater the gulf between, the more likely the decision to subjegate or even eradicate the lowers for the 'good' of the highers.

    How fortuitous that the 70th week of Daniel will likely occur before the population mandate of the Georgia Guidestones can be fulfilled.

    I look forward to you setting me straight on the issues, or as some call it, the 'smackdown'.

    Don't mind me...I think someone put an overdose of Charlie Sheen in my cocoa.

  • TWV says:

    I've written about defining socialism in a number of places. My breeziest attack was blogged years ago:


    Earlier, I wrote about what a “socialist" might be:


    And I explored co-operation in non-market situations:


    In my forewords to two books by Yves Guyot on socialism, I considered definitional matters at greater length. Here's a passage from the early pages of the LFB.org edition of Socialist Fallacies:

    ‘There is some popular confusion here about the terms.
    Socialism or Communism: which is it?
    Guyot explains this concisely. Marx and company chose “communism” in 1848 because, well, “the word ‘socialism’ had been too much discredited at the time.” But, to everyone’s confusion and delight, “they subsequently resumed it, for the logical conclusion of all socialism is communism.”
    And there’s more. “The word ‘collectivism,’” according to one socialist leader, “was only invented in order to spare the susceptibilities of some of the more timorous. It is synonymous with the word ‘communism.’”
    Like all contested words, various people insist on different distinctions, so there is no ironclad consensus on these labels. Still, Guyot’s working definition, which he developed in The Tyranny of Socialism, applies best: Socialism is the “substitution of state intervention for contract.” Socialists want to replace private property with public property — at least in the means of production — and markets with direct administration by government bureaus. A true-blue, radical socialist also wants to abolish money.’

    Excerpt From: Yves Guyot. “Socialist Fallacies (LFB).” iBooks; Timothy Wirkman Virkkala, foreword.

    I look forward to your future writings on socialism.

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