so·​cial·​ism ˈsō-shə-ˌli-zəm How to pronounce socialism (audio)
: any of various egalitarian economic and political theories or movements advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
If modern socialism was born in 19th-century Europe, it was subsequently shaped by, and adapted to, a whole range of societies.Michael Newman
Socialism is about a change in the means of production—so that the people who do the work are the ones who make the decisions about what gets produced and how.Sarah Jaffe
see also democratic socialism, guild socialism, utopian socialism
: a system of society or group living in which there is no private property
: a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state
Many socialists today believe that socialism is not inevitable but must be built slowly and laboriously by the political and economic actions of men and women seeking a freer and more just society.Richard Schmitt
compare capitalism, communism
: a stage of society in Marxist theory that is transitional between capitalism and communism (see communism sense 2c) and is distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done
Marx, we know, provided both a theory of society in which there would be a movement from feudalism through capitalism to socialism and an analysis of the nature of class exploitation under capitalism, and a sketch of the larger principles of a socialist society. Lenin would advance these ideas further …Carole Boyce Davies
see marxism
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 social democracies, such as Sweden and Denmark, democratically elected governments that employ some socialist practices but within a capitalist framework in the belief that extensive state regulation paired with limited state ownership produces a fair distribution of income without impairing economic growth. While social democracy has in the past been used synonymously with democratic socialism, referring to a movement seeking to achieve and perpetuate economic socialism through politically democratic means, the two terms are no longer considered interchangeable.

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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 discussion 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 They were so defeated by Reagan, and also, the end of the Cold War seemed to really discredit socialism. Sean Illing, Vox, 7 July 2024 The rest of the Labour manifesto combines a mix of modest centrism mixed with soft socialism. Luke McGee, CNN, 23 June 2024 When they’re informed that socialism doesn’t mean being social, the number of supporters drops. John Yoo, National Review, 23 June 2024 There are lots of things this country could do to lower drug prices, none of which involve socialism. Scott Maxwell, Orlando Sentinel, 19 June 2024 See all Example Sentences for socialism 

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'socialism.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

First Known Use

1833, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of socialism was in 1833

Dictionary Entries Near socialism

Cite this Entry

“Socialism.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 14 Jul. 2024.

Kids Definition


so·​cial·​ism ˈsō-shə-ˌliz-əm How to pronounce socialism (audio)
: any of various social systems based on shared or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
socialist adjective
or socialistic
Last Updated: - Updated example sentences
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