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 There was a recent letter describing the irony of President Trump defending Social Security and Medicare while denouncing socialism. Letter Writers, Twin Cities, "Letters: Capitalism isn’t perfect, but it lifts societies out of poverty," 21 Oct. 2019 Left-leaning young adults, in contrast, seem to be embracing socialism and even, in some cases, communism with an enthusiasm that at times seems detached from the history of the 20th century. Jonathan Haidt, The Atlantic, "Why It Feels Like Everything Is Going Haywire," 12 Nov. 2019 Thirty years on, Germany has become the most powerful economic and political force on the continent, but there remain deep misgivings among some in the country about how the transition from socialism to capitalism was managed. Frank Jordans, SFChronicle.com, "Germany, allies gather to mark 30 years since fall of Berlin Wall," 9 Nov. 2019 Nevermind the fact that the latter policy bears as much relation to socialism as Trump does to a rose petal. Libby Watson, The New Republic, "The Plot Against Medicare for All," 8 Oct. 2019 Walker said conservatives are troubled by polls showing large numbers of younger Americans are sympathetic to socialism or feel less pride in their country than do older Americans. Craig Gilbert, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Former Gov. Scott Walker to take the helm of conservative group, says he won't run for office in 2022," 15 July 2019 Studies suggest that young people with few memories of the Cold War embrace socialism far more than older people do. New York Times, "‘Yes, I’m Running as a Socialist.’ Why Candidates Are Embracing the Label in 2018," 20 Apr. 2018 Among young Americans, socialism is ever less of a boo word (see chart 2). The Economist, "Big business is beginning to accept broader social responsibilities," 22 Aug. 2019 The unfinished business of the Democratic party is socialism. Kevin D. Williamson, National Review, "The Democrats Are the Socialist Party Again," 20 June 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

1 Dec 2019

Cite this Entry

“Socialism.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/socialism?utm_campaign=sd&utm_medium=serp&utm_source=jsonld. Accessed 7 December 2019.

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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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Comments on socialism

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