A much used, and abused, term. It can be employed to refer to quite different social and political systems. In eastern Europe before 1989 the 'socialist states' referred to the Communist countries; while all other states, including those where social democracy prevailed, were known as 'capitalist countries'. In western Europe socialism was regarded by most observers as quite different from 'Communism', the Soviet political and economic system. This was because democracy had come to be seen by them as an essential ingredient of socialism.
Socialism as a set of policies has two fundamental ingredients. One is a belief in public ownership as a fairer and better form of enterprise than private ownership. There is much debate among socialists about how much industry ought to be publicly owned. Communists claim almost all, while many socialists would go no further than public utilities such as gas and water. Again, Communists would nationalize most distribution while socialists tend to believe almost all retailing should remain privately owned. Thus the Communist state had a command economy, while Socialist countries to a great degree allowed market forces to operate.
The second basic component of socialist policy is the welfare state. egalitarianism is a socialist idea, though socialists may vary in their attachment to it. But there is general agreement in redistributive measures which take from the rich in taxation and allocate the surplus to children, the aged, the impoverished and the sick. The belief that no one should be allowed to sink below a certain living standard is encapsulated in the concept of a 'National Minimum'.
Socialism, both as a system of thought and as a movement, is best interpreted as a reaction against the Industrial Revolution and its consequences. Socialist thought in the early nineteenth century was Utopian and prescriptive. By the end of the century socialists like William Morris (1834–96), who were of this kind, were in reaction against the ugliness of industrialization and mass production. Their solution tended to be a unrealistic reversion to rural society. 'Scientific socialism', of which Karl Marx (1813–83) claimed to be a proponent, benefited from a much greater experience and understanding of what industrial capitalism implied. Marx thought it was inevitable that it would be succeeded by a socialist society, though he was extremely vague about how a socialist economy would operate. The 'revisionist socialists', who have been in a majority among post-Marxist socialists, beginning with Evaluating Socialism (1899) by Edouard Bernstein (1850–1932), leader of the German Social Democrats, tended to discard strategies of revolutionary working-class action and turned to taming capitalism through democratic majorities and legislative action. syndicalism, however, was still a creed supported by some socialists with tradeunion links.
In the twentieth century the Russian Revolution in 1917 led to a division among socialists that was to last for at least 70 years. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republic, as Russia became, did not recognize the democratic socialist parties of Europe as 'socialist'. Much of the argument raged around the relationship of democracy to both capitalism and socialism and was complicated greatly by the cold war. A more competitive world economy and the inability of Keynesian measures to deal with the inflationary crises of the 1970s led to a retreat by western socialist parties from their basic positions.
Bealey, F.W. 1999. 'Socialism'. In Bealey, F.W., R.A. Chapman and M. Sheehan. Elements in Political Science. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Crick, B. 1987. Socialism. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
Korpi, W. 1983. The Democratic Class Struggle. London: Routledge.
Miliband, R. 1961. Parliamentary Socialism. London: Allen and Unwin.
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