Socialism: Meaning, Definition, Characteristics, Types, Advantages, Countries and Facts


Socialism: Meaning, Definition, Characteristics, Types, Advantages, Countries and Facts

Meaning and Definition of Socialism

Socialism is a concept that finds place in the thoughts of many political philosophers and theorists ranging from Karl Marx to Robert Owen, many a times denoting slightly different things. Benjamin Tucker, the American individualist anarcho-socialist, in his essay titled ‘State Socialism and Anarchism’ defined it as a tendency that advocates for government control over the means of production as a precondition for establishing socialism.

Socialism also signifies a transitory state between Capitalism and Communism where the proletariat has expropriated the means of production, but the state and alienation had not yet vanished. It arose as a reaction against the social and economic condition generated in Europe by the growth of industrial capitalism.

Socialist means the system under which economic system is controlled and regulated by the government so as to ensure welfare and equal opportunity to the people in a society. The idea of socialism is first introduced by Karl Marx and Fredric Engels in their book, ‘The Communist Manifesto’. The word socialism means ‘all things to all men’.

According to Samuelson, “Socialism refers to the government ownership of the means of production, planning by the government and income distribution”. According to Samuelson, “Socialism refers to the government ownership of the means of production, planning by the government and income distribution”.

Socialism as a politico-economic doctrine is the product of western thought. Although socialist sentiments like the urge for social amelioration, concern for the downtrodden, the craving for social justice and cooperative living are expressed in the scriptures of the East as well as the west, the doctrine of socialism in the present form is not older than the 19th century.

In company with other ideological concepts, socialism has a double reference. On the one hand, it refers to ideals, values, properties of what is often called the socialist vision.

On the other hand, it refers to empirical features of social and political institutions, which are supposed to embody the vision. On the level of values socialism stands for the values of freedom, equality, community, brotherhood, social justice, the classless society, cooperation progress, peace, prosperity, abundance, and happiness - to mention just the most important ones.

On the level of institutions socialism is opposed to capitalist private enterprise system which it seeks to replace by a system of control over wealth and property and the social supervision or organization of economic activity, this is often summarized in the formula, the common or public ownership of the means of production A socialist is not satisfied with merely economic reforms, but advocates a comprehensive educational, ethical policy. Socialism is not only a vision of life in a rational society in which there will be no exploitation. One cannot deny that the compassion for the downtrodden and the concern for social injustice have inspired social reformers and socialists, but it is equally true that these alone do not constitute socialism. Socialism in its wide meaning attaches importance to the economic aspect of human well being.

The definition of socialism in terms of production, rather than distribution is consonant with Marx. For socialists economic equality is regarded as the central tenet of socialism. Socialists insist that planned social purpose should guide, control and mitigate evils of the system of production and consumption. Socialists consider that it is essential that profit based competitive economy should be replaced by a cooperative management for the welfare of all.

Socialism believes in the removal of disparities and aims at providing equal opportunities to all. Socialism is opposed to religious creed dogmatism and believes in secularism. Socialism in developing countries aims at total welfare for all citizens. It stands for social justice, rapid economic growth and planning. It aims at the ending of monopolies and social injustices in society.

In essence socialism implies a fellowship, which denies distinctions of class, believes in equality, common ownership, and socialization of the means of production and equal opportunities for the development of personality to all. Socialism undoubtedly presents a bewildering variety of forms and doctrines. It is also very difficult to give a precise and neat definition of socialism which will embrace all socialists and exclude all non-socialists. No doubt the several schools of socialists differ considerably in their programme of actions. But as Coker remarks, they agree in certain of their general aims, all seek to secure, through some substantial limitations on the private ownership of property, a fairer and practically more satisfactory apportionment of wealth and economic opportunity.

The Encyclopedia of the Labor Movement defines socialism as a working class doctrine and movement aiming, through class struggle, at the collective control of society by the workers and the establishment of self-government in industry.

Proudhan is quoted as having defined socialism as consisting of every aspiration towards the amelioration of society. Lenin has defined socialism as proletariat plus philosophy.

According to Bertrand Russell, Socialism, like everything else that is vital, is rather a tendency than a strictly definable body of doctrines. Communal ownership may mean ownership by a democratic state, but cannot be held to include ownership by any state, which is not democratic. Ludwig Moses has defined Socialism from an economic angle in his book Socialism; Socialism is a programme for transforming the economy and constitution of society according to a defined ideal. Socialism is essentially concerned with the idea of equality. It aims at the highest rationalization of material life, a rationalization which capitalism could never attain. The essence of socialism is that all the means of production are in the exclusive control of the organized community.


Marx and Engels’ Concept of Socialism

Karl Marx propounded a set of doctrines that is known by his name as Marxism or Communism which perhaps has become one of the most important political philosophies in the study of politics. Without question the most influential of all socialist and communist theorists was Karl Marx. In fact, Marxist philosophy resulted in creation of socialist political systems in almost half part of the world in the twentieth century. Marx has been a prolific writer, who has written tremendously on the rise of industrial capitalism in Western Europe, its expected demise and its replacement with the communist form of governments. Frederich Engels has been his lifelong collaborator and co-author of many of works by Marx. They shared similar intellectual convictions and nurtured friendship that help Marx sustain through the financial troubles plaguing his life.

Marx saw capitalist society as unequal and unjust society which flourished at the cost of the working class. The dynamics of industrial capitalism produces two classes: the capitalist class and the working class. The capitalist class owns the mode of production and expropriates the resources of the society to further its own interests. The goal of the capitalist or bourgeoisie class lies in maximizing its profit or surplus generated by exploiting the working or proletariat class. The working class is compelled to slog for long working hours, have no share in the surplus, and lose all control over their creativity and their lives. This leads to alienation in the working class. Since the interests of both these classes are hostile to each other, there is ongoing class war in capitalist societies. This is explicit in the famous lines of Karl Marx, as he says the history of all societies hitherto is the history of class struggle. In other words, Marxism argued that history is narration of class struggle between two diagonally opposite classes. It is the private property which is the malefactor and responsible for all social divisions and exploitation in the society. Individual ownership is despised as it leads to an unequal and oppressive social order. Industrial way of life in Western Europe has been the exemplifier of this reality. In fact, Marx thought that bourgeoisie class’ control is so encompassing that the state also acts as the executive committee of the ruling Bourgeoisie. Therefore once he said that “the theory of communism may be summed up in one sentence: Abolish all private property.

The way out is the revolution that will overthrow the existing capitalist mode of production by the communist mode of production. Marx believed that the capitalism harbored inherent contradictions due to which it was doomed to collapse. On one hand capitalism has higher development of forces of production. On the other hand, within them, exist most efficient forms of class exploitation and highest development of human alienation. Because the workers are paid so poorly, their purchasing power will be limited, causing overproduction and under consumption leading to periodic crises. These self-contradictions in capitalism will lead to crumbling of such system under its own pressure, thought Marx. The annihilation of capitalism will give way to socialism. In the Socialist mode of production state/ public ownership would replace private ownership of major means of production, conscious public planning would replace the anarchy of capitalist decision making, and social equality would progressively replace class inequality. Marx believed that when the polemics in the society will reach its extreme, revolution will become inevitable. Following that, the proletariats class will seize power establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat. Socialism will be a transitory stage leading to establishment to communist society. This society will be a classless, non exploitative society in which the state will wither away. There will be equal opportunities for all, and enough for everyone. The guiding principle will be from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.

Ironically his predictions did not come true. There could never emerge that assumed surge of working class against the capitalist class as workers and labor unions won concessions on the working conditions and voting rights in the times of Marx itself. On the contrary, later on, capitalism in different countries explored various ways to avert such crisis and survived by co-opting the working class. Examples are Market-led capitalism, Negotiated/consensual capitalism, Developmental state forms of capitalism being practiced in many countries of Europe. For example Social market capitalism followed by Germany’s obliges the capitalists to generate strong sense of job security and other incentives for the workers.


Characteristics of Socialism

Some of the characteristics of socialism are as follows:

1)  Public Ownership

2)  Economic Planning

3)  Positive Role of Government

4)  Egalitarian Society

5)  Work and Wages According to Ability and Needs

6)  Provision of Basic Needs

7)  No Competition

8)  Maximum Social Welfare


1) Public Ownership: This is the core tenet of socialism. In a socialist economy, the means of production and distribution are owned, controlled and regulated by the public, either through the state or through cooperatives. The basic motive is not to use the means of production for profit, but rather for the interest of social welfare.

2) Economic Planning: Unlike in a capitalist economy, a socialist economy is not driven by the laws of supply and demand. Instead, all economic activities such as production, distribution, exchange and consumption are planned and coordinated by a central planning authority, which is usually the government. A socialist economy relies on the central planning authority for distribution of wealth, instead of relying on market forces.

3) Positive Role of Government: In socialism, government plays significant role in decision making. Thus, government has complete control over economic activities like distribution, exchange, consumption, investment and foreign trade etc.

4) Egalitarian Society: Socialism rose as an opposition to the economic inequality brought about by early capitalism. As such, it aims for an egalitarian society where there are no classes. Ideally, all the people within a socialist economy should have economic equality.

5) Work and Wages According to Ability and Needs: In socialistic economy, work is according to ability and wage according to need. It is said that under socialism from each according to his ability to each according to his needs, is socialism.

6) Provision of Basic Needs: In a socialist economy, the basic needs such as food, shelter, clothing, education, health and employment are provided by the government without any discrimination. This is one of the greatest advantages of socialism. Provision of basic needs by the government can. However, result in the masses thinking that they cannot survive without the government, creating a perfect environment for the rise of authoritarian governments.

7) No Competition: Typically, when you want to buy a car, you are spoilt for choice. There are different brands and different models with varying features and prices. It is up to you to choose one the best one for you. The same applies for many other products. In a socialist economy, there is no competition in the market since the state is the sole entrepreneur. The state only focuses on provision of necessities, which results in limited consumer choice.

8)  Maximum Social Welfare: The sole objective of socialism is the maximum social welfare of the society. It means that there is no scope of exploitation of labor class. Government keeps a close eye on the needs of the poor masses while formulating plans.


Structure of State socialism

1) Common Ownership and Collectivization: Many literatures of early communists reflected on the idea of common possession. In early times common possessions were looked upon by many as ideal to be looked at. The early Christians held everything in common. With in major religions like Christianity, there have been strong voices in favor of common ownership. Jan Hus is one such name from early 15th century who held radical views about papacy and questioned its ambit of power. He was executed in 1415 but this led to rise of Hussite kind of communism.

2) Central Planning and Economy One of the generic features of socialist political systems has been to have a highly regulated economy. It meant state ownership of major means of production, including banks, factories, large farms etc. Central planning was adopted to bring the desired change in economy. The aim was to subsume societal production within one enormous bureaucracy. This led to state-owned monopolies and centrally planned command economy. This meant that the government completely controlled the economy by controlling the price, rolling out the subsidies and guarding the production process. The objective of the central planning was to upgrade production to the level that could take care of needs of all in the society. For example, Soviet leadership was aware of the hardship and poverty in Czarist Russia.

Therefore, the task was to create abundance. The economy was geared up to generate enough resources for basic amenities of food, shelter and to provide social security in terms of medical care and education, transportation etc. In principle, the production in socialist societies was driven by catering to the society rather than the market calculus of capitalist societies.

All socialist and socialist- oriented state place high priority on developing means of public consumption such as health clinics, schools, passenger buses and parks to make it available to the poor. Now all post communist states are reworking on their economic policies trying to liberalize their economy. Their productivity is now being guided by private consumption and market incentives. But in some of the countries like Russia, a wealthy class has emerged that has prospered during this transition to capitalism.

3) One Party State and Centralized Political Control: Generally, most of the political regimes that call themselves socialist or follow state socialism organize themselves as one party state. It means that these states are ruled by a single political party. This feature of monopoly of one party state became trademark of Soviet Union, People’s Republic of China, People’s Republic of Hungary and such other countries. The only party permitted in such societies is the communist parties of these states. This communist party acts as the apex of political life. The principle of Party as the Vanguard as proposed by Lenin is strictly followed. The government is organized on the basis of the policy of Democratic Centralism. It is difficult to identify party separately from government as party controls the government. All executives and officials of the government are occupied by the Communist party. Communist systems employ huge bureaucracy to carry on their political and economic agenda. Over all, the system lacks transparency, and covert operations are carried out to strictly control the state and society.

Most of the socialist systems developed formidable state structures. Like Soviet Union constructed a police state in which power is distributed and stability maintained by force and intimidation and in which civil liberties are routinely abused. Centralization of government became an essential political character of all communist societies. Resultantly, the power became highly concentrated in the hands of an elite group who furthered their interest in the name of maintaining socialism. A complex network of ‘social organizations’ are used by the party to gather information and impose additional social control. The communist parties are cadre based parties with wide membership and hierarchy. They socialize, indoctrinate and mobilize masses to support and serve the system.


Examples of Socialist Countries

Examples of socialist countries include:

Soviet Union




Republic of India

United republic of Tanzania

Republic of Angola

Portuguese of republic

People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka 

People’s Republic of Mozambique


Types of Socialism

Many types of socialism exist around the world, and they all differ when it comes to ideas on how best to incorporate capitalism into a socialistic structure. In addition, the different forms of socialism emphasize the diverse aspects of social democracy.

Some of the types of socialistic systems is as follows:

1)  Utopian socialism

2)  Communism

3)  Marxism

4)  Leninism and Marxism–Leninism

5)  Stalinism

6)  Anarchism

7)  Mutualism

8)  Collectivist anarchism

9)  Democratic socialism

10)     Social democracy

11)     Eco-socialism

12)     Green anarchism

13)     Liberal socialism

14)     Ethical socialism

15)     Libertarian socialism


Utopian Socialism: Is a term used to define the first currents of modern socialist thought as exemplified by the work of Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier and Robert Owen, which inspired Karl Marx and other early socialists. Although it is technically possible for any set of ideas or any person living at any time in history to be a utopian socialist, the term is most often applied to those socialists who lived in the first quarter of the 19th century who were ascribed the label "utopian" by later socialists as a negative term, in order to imply naivete and dismiss their ideas as fanciful or unrealistic. Later socialists argued that visions of imaginary ideal societies, which competed with revolutionary social democratic movements, were not grounded in the material conditions of society and were therefore "reactionary". Forms of socialism which existed in traditional societies, including pre-Marxist communism are referred to as primitive communism by Marxists.

Communism: Communism (from Latin communis, "common, universal") is a philosophical, social, political, economic ideology and movement whose ultimate goal is the establishment of a communist society, namely a socioeconomic order structured upon the ideas of common ownership of the means of production and the absence of social classes, money and the state. Along with social democracy, communism became the dominant political tendency within the international socialist movement by the 1920s. While the emergence of the Soviet Union as the world's first nominally communist state led to communism's widespread association with the soviet economic and Marxism- Leninism, some economists and intellectuals argued that in practice the model functioned as a form of state capitalism or a non-planned administrative or command economy.

Marxism or Marxist communism: It refers to classless, stateless social organization based upon common ownership of the means of production and to a variety of movements acting in the name of this goal which are influenced by the thought of Karl Marx. In general, the classless forms of social organization are not capitalized while movements associated with official communist parties and communist states usually are. In the classic Marxist definition (pure communism), a communist economy refers to a system that has achieved a superabundance of goods and services due to an increase in technological capability and advances in the productive forces and therefore has transcended socialism such as a post-scarcity economy. This is a hypothetical stage of social and economic development with few speculative details known about it.

Leninism and Marxism–Leninism: Vladimir Lenin never used the term Leninism, nor did he refer to his views as Marxism–Leninism. However, his ideas diverged from classical Marxist theory on several important points (see the articles on Marxism and Leninism for more information). Bolshevik communists saw these differences as advancements of Marxism made by Lenin. After Lenin's death, his ideology and contributions to Marxist theory were termed "Marxism–Leninism", or sometimes only "Leninism". Marxism–Leninism soon became the official name for the ideology of the comintern and of communist parties around the world.

Democratic socialism: In democratic socialism, factors of production are under the management of an elected administration. Vital goods and services such as energy, housing, and transit are distributed through centralized planning, while a free market system is used to distribute consumer products.

Revolutionary socialism: The running philosophy of revolutionary socialism is that a socialistic system can’t emerge while capitalism is still in play. Revolutionaries believe that the road to a purely socialistic system requires a lot of struggle. In such a system, the factors of production are owned and run by workers through a well-developed and centralized structure.

Libertarian socialism: Libertarian socialism works on the assumption that people are always rational, self-determining, and autonomous. If capitalism is taken away, people naturally turn to a socialistic system because it is able to meet their needs.

Market socialism: Under market socialism, the production process is under the control of ordinary workers. The workers decide how resources should be distributed. The workers sell off what is in excess or give it out to members of the society, who then distribute resources based on a free market system.

Green socialism: Green socialism is protective of natural resources. Large corporations in a green socialistic society are owned and run by the public. In addition, green socialism promotes the development and use of public transit, as well as the processing and sale of locally grown food. The production process is focused on ensuring that every member of the community has enough access to basic goods. Moreover, the public is guaranteed a sustainable wage.


Advantages of Socialism

a. Elimination of discrimination: The system disapproves discrimination, and each person does what he is good at or what he enjoys best. If there are jobs that should be done and there is no one to perform them, a higher remuneration is provided. Natural resources are protected for posterity.

b. Deficiency of exploitation: A socialistic system ensures that no worker is exploited. How? Well, each of the workers in the community has a say on how the resources are managed, and each person receives and contributes based on an individual’s potential. According to the socialistic system, each person is guaranteed access to basic goods, even those who are not able to contribute. As a result, the system helps to minimize poverty levels in the society. In addition, each person has the same right to access health care and other important social aspects, such as education.

c. Absence of business fluctuations: A socialist economy is also superior to a capitalist economy that is free from business fluctuation. Generally planned economy co-ordinates the action of various producing units, prevents discrimination between saving and investment and make full use of available resources. It is able to control over production and avoid general deflationary trend.

d. Economic Growth: I will consider economic growth as an important advantage of socialism because it adopts economic planning as a means of promoting rapid economic growth. A planned socialist economy functions right according to the plan in a systematic and orderly manners and marches rapidly on the road to economic progress.


Disadvantages of Socialism

a. Lack of competitiveness and innovation: Socialism does not reward entrepreneurial ventures or competitiveness. Consequently, a socialistic system does not encourage innovation as much as capitalism.

b. Dependence on cooperative pooling: Perhaps the greatest disadvantage of a socialistic system is its reliance on cooperative pooling to get things done. In addition, people who are competitive in the community are viewed in a negative light. The society expects cooperation and not competitiveness. According to socialism, competitive individuals tend to find ways to cause social unrest for personal gain.

c. Red-Tapism and Inefficiency: In socialism there is a lot of involvement of bureaucracy and are the drivers of all economic machinery. The work civil servants are not comparable with the private entrepreneurs. Civil servants merely do the jobs because it is their duty and they will get paid whatever the consequences. Thus inefficiency arises and in the long run the economy suffers.

d. An Artificial System:  As a socialist economy is a planned economy, every aspect of the economy is to be determined by the government. Forces of demand and supply do not apply which is one of the disadvantages of socialism. Thus in the long run the economy becomes state rather than wasted, whereas these make an economy prosper.

e. Consumers Suffer: In the final analysis it is the consumer who loses out. Sovereignty of consumer does not apply in a socialist economy. Consumers do not enjoy the status of a consumer as in a capitalist economy. Choices of goods and services are able to maximize their total satisfaction.

f. Economic Equality: Socialists claim more equal distribution of wealth but practically it is proven that complete economic equality is virtually impossible. There is a distinction between the rich and poor. Moreover since it is a planned economy the poor suffer even more.

g. Non-existence of economic and political freedom: Freedom of enterprise, freedom in choice of occupation and many other essential freedoms for an economy to prosper are out rooted from society. The true spirit of democracy dies away. The basic needs although it has been agreed that the six basic needs in life are met within a socialist economy but all this is obtained at the expense of economic and political freedom.



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