Socialism is an economic system, a political movement, and a social theory. Most socialists believe those national or local governments, rather than individuals, should own a nation’s resources and control their use. Socialism calls for public ownership of land, factories, and other basic means of production.
The word socialism and communism once meant about the same thing–a society based on public ownership of the means of production. Today, people draw sharp distinctions between the two terms.
Members of Communist parties consider socialism as a stage in the development of Communist societies. During this stage, a Communist party is in power in a country, most private property has been eliminated, and the economy is run on the basis of a national production plan. However, the nation is not yet rich enough to give its citizens all the material benefits they need, and the government must coerce (force) people to work hard for little reward. In a later stage, the nation will be wealthy enough to satisfy everyone’s economic wants. That stage of development is Communism. Communists claim government coercion will disappear under Communism.
Democratic socialists–that is, socialists in non-Communist countries–do not accept the Communist definition of socialism. Most of them believe that some government coercion is necessary because some people must be forced to be good citizens. Democratic socialists reject most of the methods used by Communist parties, such as revolution and other forms of violence as means of gaining power. Democratic socialists also oppose dictatorial methods of running the state after they are in power. Unlike Communists, democratic socialists believe in democratic processes and do not wish to get rid of all opposition parties. They care more about the fair distribution of goods and services than about rapid economic growth. Democratic socialists also favor democratic methods for determining what goods are to be produced.
Socialists claim that free enterprise systems are inefficient and wasteful. They believe that capitalism leads to such problems as unemployment, poverty, business cycles, and conflicts between workers and the owners of the means of production. To solve these problems, socialists believe that a nation’s wealth must be distributed more equally and justly. They strongly oppose social inequality and discrimination. Socialists aim for a society based on cooperation and brotherhood rather than on competition and self-interest.
Socialism proposes to fulfill its aims by placing the major means of production in the hands of the people, either directly or through the government. Ownership may be by national or local government or by cooperatives. Many socialists favor a mixed economy–government ownership of basic industries and private ownership of many other businesses. The government, however, would regulate the private businesses.
Socialists believe that a country’s resources should be used according to an overall economic plan formulated by manufacturers, farmers, workers, and government officials working together. By such planning, socialists hope to adjust production to the needs of the people. Although the forces of supply and demand may influence production and prices under the socialist economic plan, political authorities will make many decisions regarding how much to produce and what to charge.
Socialists disagree over how much wealth should be left in private hands and how to deprive the rich of their excess property. Many socialists call for redistribution of wealth through taxation. They favor laws to help the aged, the unemployed, disabled people, widows, dependent children, and other people in need. Many socialists believe that the government should also provide free education and medical service to everyone and should help all citizens obtain safe and sanitary housing at rents they can afford.
The idea of collective ownership (common ownership) of property dates at least from the time of ancient Greece. In the 300’s B.C., the Greek philosopher Plato proposed that a ruling class own everything in common, putting the welfare of the state above all personal desires. Since ancient times, a number of groups have had some form of community ownership of property.
Karl Marx, a German economist and social philosopher, became the most influential socialist of the 1800’s. Marx’s basic socialist ideas were first expressed in the Communist Manifesto (1848), which he wrote with his friend Friedrich Engels. Marx called his socialism scientific socialism to distinguish it from utopian socialism. He believed that all history is a series of struggles between the ruling and working classes. Marx taught that capitalism would be replaced by socialism. He predicted that the ruling class would be overthrown. The victorious working class would then set up a society based on common ownership of the means of production, not on economic privilege.
The word socialism was first used in the early 1800’s. At that time, socialism meant opposition to the selfishness that some people thought was the root of any capitalist, or free enterprise, system. During the early 1800’s, the Industrial Revolution in Western Europe caused severe social problems. For example, many factory owners made their employees work long hours at low pay and under unhealthful conditions. Socialists claimed that public ownership or control of productive resources would assure fairer treatment for all members of society.
During this time period, several writers and reformers criticized industrialism as the cause of great hardship and suffering among working people. Such men as Robert Owen of Great Britain and Charles Fourier and the Comte de Saint-Simon of France made various proposals for setting up communities with ideal social and economic conditions. Owen and followers of Fourier established short-lived cooperative settlements. These socialists were frequently called utopians. This term comes from the book Utopia (1516) by the English statesman Saint Thomas More. Utopia is an account of an ideal society that provides equality and justice for all its members.
During the late 1800’s, several socialist political parties were formed in Europe and North America. In time, these parties became united in an international organization with a single set of beliefs inspired by the writings of Marx. Between 1890 and 1914, the socialist movement grew strong, and socialist parties nearly won control of the government in several countries. But beneath the seeming strength, deep divisions existed. The movement included moderates, radicals, and revolutionaries. In addition, some socialist leaders rejected the doctrines of Marx. The international organization even included groups or parties that were non-Marxist. For example, the Fabian Society, a socialist group in Great Britain, derived its beliefs from Christian ideas and long-established traditions for achieving reforms.
After World War I began in 1914, the international socialist movement collapsed. Socialist leaders had to decide whether they were loyal to the movement or to their country, regardless of who governed it and how. Most socialist leaders decided to place patriotism above their socialist convictions.
Following the Russian revolution of 1917, revolutionary socialists founded new parties, which they called Communist parties. Since then, democratic socialists and Communists have become bitter enemies. Most socialists today are more critical of the writings of Marx than were early socialists. As a result, socialism can no longer be described as a Marxist ideology (set of doctrines), though many socialists consider Marx one of many important teachers.
In the United States, for various reasons, socialism has never been so strong as in Europe. In Europe, socialism was largely a working-class movement. But the labor movement began later in the United States and grew slowly. Many scholars believe that labor developed slowly in the United States because the frontier and the untapped wealth of the country provided greater opportunities–even for the poor–than Europe did. Other scholars believe those American ideas of freedom and individualism weakened the appeal of socialism. Some people think that socialism remained weak in the United States because a wide variety of socialist groups sprang up between the 1880’s and World War I, and socialists could not develop a unified program.
The Socialist Party has been the most successful socialist political group in the United States. The party reached its greatest strength in 1912, when it had more than 118,000 dues-paying members. In the 1912 presidential election, the Socialist candidate, Eugene V. Debs, received almost 900,000 votes. In the 1920 election, Debs received about 920,000 votes. After Deb.’s death in 1926, Norman Thomas became the party’s leading spokesman. He was the party’s candidate in every presidential election from 1928 through 1948.
Since the early 1920’s, Socialist strength has greatly declined. The Socialist vote fell to about 2,000 in the 1956 presidential election. Since then, the Socialist Party has nominated candidates for the 1976, 1980, 1988, and 1992 presidential elections. But these candidates received only a scant number of popular votes.
The United States has basically a free enterprise system, though it has adopted many ideas and methods that have been part of socialist programs. For example, the government regulates and controls many private businesses. It also has set up many social welfare programs to aid the needy, and a few public services are free to everyone. The government strives to keep employment at as high a level as possible. The United States government also uses its strong taxing, spending, and credit powers in an attempt to achieve maximum employment, production, and incomes without large increases in prices. However, the United States has far fewer socialist features than most other industrialized countries.
Most socialists are firmly committed to work within the framework of a country’s constitution. They seek to cooperate with all parties and regard socialism as representing broad popular concerns, not just those of the workers. Many socialists do not insist on placing all major means of production under public ownership. They are content to place private business under government regulation. Most socialists oppose Communism.
Today, socialists disagree on many points. Some want a strong central government running the economy. Other socialists favor as much local control as possible. Still others believe that there should be no government in a socialist society. Some argue that socialism can be achieved only through revolution and violence. Others believe that socialism must come gradually, within the framework of existing political institutions.
Most countries today have socialist political parties. Many nations have socialist governments, and almost all countries have adopted some of the ideas and methods that have been part of socialist programs. In addition, the countries in which Communist parties control the government are sometimes called socialist, but most socialists reject this use of the term.
No countries today are purely socialist. Even countries governed by Communist parties have some free enterprise, though most resources are in public hands.
“Only then will the separate individuals be liberated from the various national and local barriers, be brought into practical connection with the material and intellectual production of the whole world and be put in a position to acquire the capacity to enjoy this all-sided production of the whole earth (the creations of man). 1” Most socialists societies display humanistic and materialistic views. In socialism there is no place for religion; unless, of course, God governs the society, but in this case religion is looked upon as a hindrance for total cooperation and control of the society. Religion is a means of choice and individual freedom; therefore, religion would contradict the goals of a socialistic society. When there is no religion, the state itself becomes god. As a result, most socialists do not believe in a Heaven or Hell but that man controls his own destiny and eventually will evolve into a higher level of conscientiousness.
Socialism differs from Christianity in many different ways. Christians believe in Heaven and hell, that God created all things, and that man cannot control his own destiny. There are many problems with socialism. “The question ‘can you have your cake and it eat it too’ remains a controversial matter, wherever applied. Can a system of social means of control coexist with individualism? In Socialist states, the people are falsely represented by one person or group of people, eliminating the idea that the community controls the means of production. 2” Individuality is part of are human nature and our human nature is also sinful and corrupt.
“The problem in a Socialist state is that corruption plagues those who have the power to control all wealth and economy within a society, which is what must be prevented. In Communist theory, a human nature does not exist. However, what prompts a young child to lie, or misbehave, is not entirely, if any, the parents or society’s influence. Call it what you may, we do all have feelings and emotions. If human evil nature did not exist, a communist society would certainly work a lot better, but the fact remains people behave in malice. 2” For socialism to work and be successful, man’s nature must change and until the Lord returns man will always be imperfect. Even communism as well, human nature will desire more wealth and power preventing such a system to succeed. “I understood that this was not really the dictatorship of the proletariat. I realized that there were classes. They had done away with the old bourgeoisie, but there was another class, the Soviet Bourgeoisie—in other words, the rich generals and their wives with fur coats and nice apartments and so on. . . . I learned that communism doesn’t work. And I learned why it’ll never work, because in order for it to work or succeed, you would have to change human nature. 4”
Socialism and Communism state that there is no use for god or religion in their societies; hence, by rejecting God they have already condemned themselves to fail as a reliable economic system.