socialism

noun
so·​cial·​ism | \ ˈsō-shə-ˌli-zəm How to pronounce socialism (audio) \

Definition of socialism

1 : any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
2a : 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

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Socialism vs. Social Democracy: Usage Guide

In the many years since socialism entered English around 1830, it has acquired several different meanings. It refers to a system of social organization in which private property and the distribution of income are subject to social control, but the conception of that control has varied, and the term has been interpreted in widely diverging ways, ranging from statist to libertarian, from Marxist to liberal. In the modern era, "pure" socialism has been seen only rarely and usually briefly in a few Communist regimes. Far more common are systems of social democracy, now often referred to as democratic socialism, in which extensive state regulation, with limited state ownership, has been employed by democratically elected governments (as in Sweden and Denmark) in the belief that it produces a fair distribution of income without impairing economic growth.

Communism, Socialism, Capitalism, and Democracy

Communism, socialism, capitalism, and democracy are all among our top all-time lookups, and user comments suggest that this is because they are complex, abstract terms often used in opaque ways. They're frequently compared and contrasted, with communism sometimes equated with socialism, and democracy and capitalism frequently linked.

Part of the confusion stems from the fact that the word communism has been applied to varying political systems over time. When it was first used in English prose in the mid-19th century, communism referred to an economic and political theory that advocated the elimination of private property and the common sharing of all resources among a group of people; in this use, it was often used interchangeably with the word socialism by 19th-century writers.

The differences between communism and socialism are still debated, but generally English speakers use communism to talk about the political and economic ideologies that find their origin in Karl Marx’s theory of revolutionary socialism, which advocates a proletariat overthrow of capitalist structures within a society; societal and communal ownership and governance of the means of production; and the eventual establishment of a classless society. The most well-known expression of Marx’s theories is the 20th-century Bolshevism of the U.S.S.R., in which the state, through a single authoritarian party, controlled a society’s economic and social activities with the goal of realizing Marx’s theories. Socialism, meanwhile, is most often used in modern English to refer to a system of social organization in which private property and the distribution of income are subject to social control. (The term is also often used in the phrase democratic socialism, which is discussed here.)

Communism and socialism are both frequently contrasted with capitalism and democracy, though these can be false equivalencies depending on the usage. Capitalism refers to an economic system in which a society’s means of production are held by private individuals or organizations, not the government, and where products, prices, and the distribution of goods are determined mainly by competition in a free market. As an economic system, it can be contrasted with the economic system of communism, though as we have noted, the word communism is used of both political and economic systems. Democracy refers not to an economic system but to a system of government in which supreme power is vested in the people and exercised through a system of direct or indirect representation which is decided through periodic free elections. (For discussion about whether the United States is accurately described as a democracy or as a republic, see the article here.)

Readers should consult the individual entries for a full treatment of the various ways in which each of these four words is used.

Examples of socialism in a Sentence

She is quite right, for example, to stress that Thatcher's crusade against socialism was not merely about economic efficiency and prosperity but that above all, "it was that socialism itself—in all its incarnations, wherever and however it was applied—was morally corrupting." — Stephen Pollard, New York Times Book Review, 18 Jan. 2009 Lenin's great genius, of course, was for ideology, which was redefined all too often to support the tactical requirements of the moment. But owing to his fanatical conviction of his own righteousness, especially where socialism was concerned, and also to the Promethean force of his will, his pronouncements were enshrined by his followers as universal truths. — Michael Scammell, New Republic, 20 Dec. 1999
Recent Examples on the Web And while Biden challenged Sanders' embrace of a version of socialism, most of his rivals seemed willing to overlook that political identity. Anchorage Daily News, "Front-runners Buttigieg and Sanders beat back debate attacks," 8 Feb. 2020 As for motivating innovation, America’s big businesses face a challenge similar to that of socialism. Paul Adler, The Conversation, "Sanders called JPMorgan’s CEO America’s ‘biggest corporate socialist’ – here’s why he has a point," 6 Feb. 2020 Democratic socialists believe socialism should be achieved democratically and slowly replace the free markets of capitalism. Katie Mettler, BostonGlobe.com, "GOP lawmaker who falsely said it’s legal to shoot socialists ignores his party’s calls to resign," 4 Feb. 2020 America's most famous banker is ruffling feathers by knocking socialism. Kate Gibson, CBS News, "Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon: I'll remember that," 23 Jan. 2020 Those who passed the legislation and those who benefited from it have a responsibility to make their case over the next year or risk losing the next generation to the fever dream of wealth redistribution and socialism. David Winston, Twin Cities, "David Winston: Elizabeth Warren’s big bad idea: Taxing our way to prosperity," 15 Dec. 2019 Three years after the referendum result to leave, everyone who had pinned their tattered hopes on remaining in Europe and on Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party socialism, woke up to all the feelings that Hillary Clinton’s supporters will remember so well. Sarah Mower, Vogue, "What Comes After Boris Johnson’s Election Win?," 13 Dec. 2019 One reason that socialism thrived there was the appalling exploitation of these tenant farmers. Trevor Paulhus, Smithsonian, "When the Socialist Revolution Came to Oklahoma—and Was Crushed," 19 Sep. 2019 And then too there were socialism and socialists to beat back, and boy oh boy did Al ever want in on that. Nr Editors, National Review, "The Week," 7 Nov. 2019

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'socialism.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of socialism

1833, in the meaning defined at sense 1

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Time Traveler for socialism

Time Traveler

The first known use of socialism was in 1833

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Statistics for socialism

Last Updated

24 Feb 2020

Cite this Entry

“Socialism.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/socialism. Accessed 26 Feb. 2020.

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More Definitions for socialism

socialism

noun
How to pronounce socialism (audio)

English Language Learners Definition of socialism

: a way of organizing a society in which major industries are owned and controlled by the government rather than by individual people and companies

socialism

noun
so·​cial·​ism | \ ˈsō-shə-ˌli-zəm How to pronounce socialism (audio) \

Kids Definition of socialism

: a social system or theory in which the government owns and controls the means of production (as factories) and distribution of goods

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