AskDefine | Define socialist

Dictionary Definition

socialist adj
1 of or relating to or promoting or practicing socialism; "socialist theory"; "socialist realism"; "asocialist party" [syn: socialistic]
2 advocating or following the socialist principles; "socialistic government" [syn: socialistic] [ant: capitalistic] n : a political advocate of socialism

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see Socialist




  1. Of, promoting, practicing, or characteristic of socialism.


  • 1848 — John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, Book II, Chapter 1 must be remembered that in a Socialist farm or manufactory, each labourer would be under the eye not of one master, but of the whole community.
  • 1949 — Albert Einstein, "Why Socialism?", Monthly Review: May, New York
    I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals.


of, promoting, practicing, or characteristic of socialism


  1. One who practices or advocates socialism.
    • 1848: John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, Book II, Chapter 1
      A contest, who can do most for the common good, is not the kind of competition which Socialists repudiate.


one who practices or advocates socialism
  • Czech: socialista
  • Dutch: socialist, socialiste
  • German: Sozialist
  • Portuguese: socialista
  • Russian: социалистический (sotsialistícheskiy)
  • Swedish: socialist

Related terms

Extensive Definition

Socialism is a socio-economic system in which essential industries, social services, property and the distribution of wealth are publicly and cooperatively owned and democratically controlled with a view to equal opportunity and equal benefit for all. Since the ownership and distribution of wealth is controlled by the whole community as a collective, and not individually or by groups of individuals that do not comprise a whole community, socialism has been identified with communism. In a practical ideology, members of the community would contribute as much as reasonably possible, yet they would be capable of consuming as much as reasonably necessary.
The modern socialist movement largely originated in the late-19th century working class movement. During this period, the term "socialism" was first used by European social critics, who spoke against capitalism and private property. Karl Marx, who helped establish and define the modern socialist movement, wrote that socialism would be the socioeconomic system that arises after the proletarian revolution.
Since the 19th century, socialism has coalesced into several movements with differing and sometimes conflicting ideas, such as those focused on reform and revolution. Some revolutionary socialists, influenced by the Soviet model of economic development, have championed complete nationalization (state ownership) of the means of production. Reformist socialists, on the other hand, have proposed selective nationalization of key industries within the framework of mixed economies.
Market socialism is another major strand of socialism which arose following the great economic calculation debate. During the 1970s and 1980's, Communists in Yugoslavia and Hungary proposed market socialism. Chinese Communists since the reform era, as well as some Western socialist economists, continue to propose various forms of market socialism. In socialist market economies, consumer demand has a greater influence over which items will be produced by the centrally controlled means of production., rather than central planners, guide production and exchange. Social Anarchists, Luxemburgists (such as those in the Socialist Party USA) and some elements of the United States New Left favor decentralized collective ownership in the form of cooperatives or workers' councils over government ownership of the means of production.

Historical precedents

Certain elements of socialist thought long predate the socialist ideology that emerged in the first half of the 19th century. Thomas More's Utopia has been cited as including socialist ideas. The fifth century Mazdak movement in what is now Iran has been described as "communistic" for challenging the enormous privileges of the noble classes and the clergy, criticizing the institution of private property and for striving for an egalitarian society. William Morris argued that John Ball, one of the leaders of the 1381 Peasants' Revolt in England, was the first socialist. John Ball is credited with saying: "When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?" During the English Civil War in the mid 17th century, movements identified with the socialist tradition include the Levellers and the Diggers; the latter believing that land should be held in common.
During the 18th-century Enlightenment, criticism of inequality appeared in the work of political theorists such as Jean Jacques Rousseau in France, whose Social Contract began, "Man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains." Following the French Revolution of 1789, François Noël Babeuf espoused the goals of common ownership of land and total economic and political equality among citizens.

Origins of socialism

The appearance of the term "socialism" is variously attributed to Pierre Leroux in 1834, or to Marie Roch Louis Reybaud in France, or else in Britain to Robert Owen, who is considered the father of the cooperative movement.
The first modern socialists were early 19th century Western European social critics. In this period, socialism emerged from a diverse array of doctrines and social experiments associated primarily with British and French thinkers—especially Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Louis Blanc, and Saint-Simon. These social critics criticised the excesses of poverty and inequality of the Industrial Revolution, and advocated reforms such as the egalitarian distribution of wealth and the transformation of society into small communities in which private property was to be abolished. Outlining principles for the reorganization of society along collectivist lines, Saint-Simon and Owen sought to build socialism on the foundations of planned, utopian communities.
According to some accounts, the use of the words "socialism" or "communism" was related to the perceived attitude toward religion in a given culture. In Europe, "communism" was considered to be the more atheistic of the two. In England, however, that sounded too close to communion with Catholic overtones; hence atheists preferred to call themselves socialists. By 1847, according to Frederick Engels, "Socialism" was "respectable" on the continent of Europe, while "Communism" was the opposite; the Owenites in England and the Fourierists in France were considered Socialists, while working class movements which "proclaimed the necessity of total social change" termed themselves "Communists". This latter was "powerful enough" to produce the communism of Étienne Cabet in France and Wilhelm Weitling in Germany.

The International Workingmen's Association — the First International

In 1864, the International Workingmen's Association (IWA) or First International, was founded in London. Victor Le Lubez, a French radical republican living in London, invited Marx to come, "as a representative of German workers", according to Saul Padover. The IWA held a preliminary conference in 1865 and its first congress at Geneva in 1866. Marx was appointed a member of the committee and, according to Padover, Marx and Johann Georg Eccarius, a tailor living in London, were to become, "the two mainstays of the International from its inception to its end". The First International became the first major international forum for the promulgation of socialist ideas.
The Social Democratic Workers' Party of Germany was founded in 1869 under the influence of Marx and Engels. In 1875, it merged with the General German Workers' Association of Ferdinand Lassalle to become what is known today as the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). Socialism became increasingly associated with newly formed trade unions. In Germany, the SPD built trade unions and in Austria, France and other European countries, socialist parties and anarchists played a prominent role in forming and building up trade unions, especially from the 1870s onwards. This stood in contrast to the British experience, where moderate New Model Unions dominated the union movement from the mid-nineteenth century and where trade unionism was stronger than the political labour movement until the formation and growth of the Labour Party in the early years of the twentieth century. In the United States, the first socialist party was founded in 1876 and was organized as a Marxist party in 1890; the Socialist Labor Party exists to the present day. An early leader of the Socialist Labor Party was Daniel De Leon who had considerable influence beyond the United States as well.
Socialist groups supported diverse views of socialism, from the gradualism of many trade unionists to the radical, revolutionary theory of Marx and Engels. Anarchists and proponents of other alternative visions of socialism, who emphasized the potential of small-scale communities and agrarianism, coexisted with the more influential currents of Marxism and social democracy. The anarchists, led by the Russian Mikhail Bakunin, believed that capitalism and the state were inseparable and that one could not be abolished without the other.

The Second International

As the ideas of Marx and Engels took on flesh, particularly in central Europe, socialists sought to unite in an international organization. In 1889, on the centennial of the French Revolution of 1789, the Second International was founded, with 384 delegates from 20 countries representing about 300 labour and socialist organizations. It was termed the "Socialist International" and Engels was elected honorary president at the third congress in 1893. Just before his death in 1895, Engels argued that there was now a "single generally recognized, crystal clear theory of Marx" and a "single great international army of socialists". Despite its illegality due to the Anti-Socialist Laws of 1878, the Social Democratic Party of Germany's use of the limited universal male suffrage were "potent" new methods of struggle which demonstrated their growing strength and forced the dropping of the Anti-Socialist legislation in 1890, Engels argued. In 1893, the German SPD obtained 1,787,000 votes, a quarter of votes cast. However, before the leadership of the SPD published Engels' 1895 Introduction to Marx's Class Struggles in France 1848-1850, they removed certain phrases they felt were too revolutionary.
Marx believed that it was possible to have a peaceful socialist transformation in England, although the British ruling class would then revolt against such a victory. America and Holland might also have a peaceful transformation, but not in France, where Marx believed there had been "perfected... an enormous bureaucratic and military organization, with its ingenious state machinery" which must be forcibly overthrown. However, eight years after Marx's death, Engels argued that it was possible to achieve a peaceful socialist revolution in France, too.

World War I

When World War I began in 1914, many European socialist leaders supported their respective governments' war aims. The social democratic parties in the UK, France, Belgium and Germany supported their respective state's wartime military and economic planning, discarding their commitment to internationalism and solidarity.
Lenin, however, denounced the war as an imperialist conflict, and urged workers worldwide to use it as an occasion for proletarian revolution. The Second International dissolved during the war, while Lenin, Trotsky, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, together with a small number of other Marxists opposed to the war, came together in the Zimmerwald Conference in September 1915.

The Revolutions of 1917-23

By 1917, the atmosphere of enthusiastic patriotism which had greeted the start of the First World War had evaporated and was replaced by an upsurge of radicalism in most of Europe and as far afield as the United States (see Socialism in the United States) and Australia. In February 1917, revolution broke out in Russia and the workers, soldiers and peasants set up workers', soldiers' and peasants' councils (in Russian, soviets), while power was placed into the hands of a Provisional government prior to the convocation of a Constituent Assembly. Lenin arrived in Russia in April 1917 and called for "All power to the Soviets". The Bolsheviks won a majority in the Soviets in October 1917 and at the same time the October Revolution was led by Lenin and Trotsky. At the Petrograd Soviet on the 25 October 1917, Lenin declared, "Long live the world socialist revolution!"
On 26 October 1917, the day after seizing power, Lenin drew up a Draft Regulations on Workers' Control, granting workers' control in enterprises with not less than five workers and office employees, who were to be granted access to all books, documents and stocks, and whose decisions were to be "binding upon the owners of the enterprises." The new Soviet government immediately nationalised the banks and major industry, and repudiated, or refused to acknowledge and pay, the former Romanov regime's national debts. It implemented a system of government through the elected workers' councils or soviets. It sued for peace and withdrew from the First World War. The elections to the Constituent Assembly were held in November 1917 and were won by the non-Marxist, peasant-based Socialist-Revolutionary (SR) party with almost twice as many votes as the Bolsheviks. The Constituent Assembly was convened for 13 hours between 4 p.m. and 4:40 a.m., January 5-6, 1918. The SR leader Victor Chernov was elected President of the fledgling republic. The following day the Bolsheviks dissolved the assembly.
The Russian revolution of October 1917 gave rise to the formation of Communist Parties around the world, and the revolutions of 1917-23 which followed. In this period, few Communists — least of all Lenin and Trotsky — doubted that the success of socialism in Soviet Russia depended on successful socialist revolutions carried out by the working classes of the most developed capitalist countries. For this reason, in 1919, Lenin and Trotsky drew together the Communist Parties from around the world into a new 'International', the Communist International (also termed the Third International or Comintern).
The German Revolution of 1918 overthrew the old absolutism and, as in Russia, Workers' and Soldiers' Councils almost entirely made up of SPD and Independent Social Democrats (USPD) members were set up. The Weimar republic was established and placed the SPD in power, under the leadership of Friedrich Ebert. The Workers' and Soldiers' Councils were put down by the army and the Freikorps. In 1919 the Spartacist uprising challenged the power of the SPD government, but it was put down in blood and the German Communist leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were discovered and brutally murdered. A Communist regime under Kurt Eisner in Bavaria in 1919 was also put down in blood. A Communist regime briefly held power under Béla Kun in Hungary. There were revolutionary movements in Vienna, the industrial centres of northern Italy, and revolutionary movements in the Ruhr area in Germany in 1920 and in Saxony in 1923.
However, these revolutionary movements failed to spread the socialist revolution into the advanced capitalist countries of Europe. In Soviet Russia things were desperate. In August 1918, Lenin was shot in the head and wounded by Fanya Kaplan. Under siege from a trade boycott and invasion by Germany, UK, USA, France and other forces, facing civil war and starvation, the Soviet regime implemented War Communism in June, 1918. All private enterprise was made illegal, strikers could be shot, "non-working classes" were forced to work and the Soviet regime could requisition grain from the peasants for the workers in the cities.
By 1920, the Red Army, led by Trotsky, had largely defeated the White Armies. In 1921, War Communism was ended, and under the New Economic Policy (NEP), private ownership was restored to small and medium enterprises, and especially to the peasants. The peasants had resented and hindered the requisitions of grain so that the situation in the cities remained desperate or was getting worse. Lenin declared that the "commanding heights" of industry would still be under state control, but that the NEP was a capitalist measure in a country that was still largely unripe for socialism. Businessmen and women, called 'NEPmen', began to flourish, and the rich peasant (or 'Kulak', meaning 'fist') gained more power.
Lenin, now half-paralyzed from several strokes, castigated the powers the state had assumed in the Soviet Union by 1923. It had reverted to "a bourgeois czarist machine... barely varnished with socialism." After Lenin's death in January 1924, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, falling steadily under the control of Stalin, rejected the theory that socialism could not be built in the Soviet Union on its own. Stalin declared a policy of "socialism in one country", namely the Soviet Union. Despite demands by the increasingly marginalized Left Opposition for the restoration of soviet democracy, the Soviet Union continued to develop a bureaucratic and authoritarian model of social development, which was condemned by Democratic Socialists, Anarchists, Trotskyists and others for undermining the initial socialist ideals of the Russian Revolution.

The inter-war era and World War II

The Russian Revolution of October 1917 brought about the definitive ideological division between Communists as denoted with a capital "C" on the one hand and other communist and socialist trends such as anarcho-communists and social democrats, on the other. The Left Opposition in the Soviet Union gave rise to Trotskyism which was to remain isolated and insignificant for another fifty years, except in Sri Lanka where Trotskyism gained the majority and the pro-Moscow wing was expelled from the Communist Party.
In 1922, the fourth congress of the Communist International took up the policy of the United Front, urging Communists to work with rank and file Social Democrats while remaining critical of their leaders, who they criticized for "betraying" the working class by supporting the war efforts of their respective capitalist classes. For their part, the social democrats pointed to the dislocation caused by revolution, and later, the growing authoritarianism of the Communist Parties. When the Communist Party of Great Britain applied to affiliate to the Labour Party in 1920 it was turned down.

Socialism after World War II

In 1945, the world’s three great powers met at the Yalta Conference to divide the world between them. UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill joined USA President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union's Central Committee. With the relative decline of Britain compared to the two superpowers, the USA and the Soviet Union, however, many viewed the world as "bi-polar" — a world with two irreconcilable and antagonistic political and economic systems. Many termed the Soviet Union "socialist", not least the Soviet Union itself, but also commonly in the USA, China, Eastern Europe, and many parts of the world where Communist Parties had gained a mass base. In addition, scholarly critics of the Soviet Union, such as economist Friedrich Hayek were commonly cited as critics of socialism.
This view was not universally shared, particularly in Europe, and especially in Britain, where the Communist Party was very weak. In 1951, British Health Minister Aneurin Bevan expressed the view that, "It is probably true that Western Europe would have gone socialist after the war if Soviet behaviour had not given it too grim a visage. Soviet Communism and Socialism are not yet sufficiently distinguished in many minds."
In 1949, the Chinese Revolution established a Communist state in China. Criticizing the invasion and trade embargo of the young Soviet state, Bevan wrote "At the moment it looks as though the United States is going to repeat the same folly in China... You cannot starve a national revolution into submission. You can starve it into a repressive dictatorship; you can starve it to the point where the hellish logic of the police state takes charge."
In 1951, the Socialist International was refounded by the European social democratic parties. It declared: "Communism has split the International Labour Movement and has set back the realisation of Socialism in many countries for decades... Communism falsely claims a share in the Socialist tradition. In fact it has distorted that tradition beyond recognition. It has built up a rigid theology which is incompatible with the critical spirit of Marxism."
In the postwar years, socialism became increasingly influential throughout the so-called Third World. Countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America frequently adopted socialist economic programs. In many instances, these nations nationalized industries held by foreign owners. The Soviet Union had become a superpower through its adoption of a planned economy, albeit at enormous human cost. This achievement seemed hugely impressive from the outside, and convinced many nationalists in the former colonies, not necessarily communists or even socialists, of the virtues of state planning and state-guided models of social development. This was later to have important consequences in countries like China, India and Egypt, which tried to import some aspects of the Soviet model.
The last quarter of the twentieth century marked a period of major crisis for Communists in the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, where the growing shortages of housing and consumer goods, combined with the lack of individual rights to assembly and speech, began to disillusion more and more Communist party members. With the rapid collapse of Communist party rule in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe between 1989 and 1991, the Soviet version of socialism has effectively disappeared as a worldwide political force.

Social democracy in power

In 1945, the British Labour Party led by Clement Attlee was swept to power on a radical programme. Socialist (and in some places Communist) parties also dominated postwar governments in France, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Norway and other European countries. The Social Democratic Party had been in power in Sweden since 1932, and Labour parties also held power in Australia and New Zealand. In Germany, on the other hand, the Social Democrats were defeated in Germany's first democratic elections in 1949. The unity of the democrats and the Communist parties which had been established in the wartime resistance movements continued in the immediate postwar years. The democratic socialist parties of Eastern Europe, however, were destroyed when Stalin imposed "Communist" regimes in these countries.
Social democracy at first took the view that they had begun a "serious assault" on the five "Giant Evils" afflicting the working class, identified for instance by the British social reformer William Beveridge: "Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor, and Idleness." However on the left wing of the Labour Party, Aneurin Bevan, who had been responsible for introducing the Labour Party’s National Health Service in 1945, criticised the government for not going further. Bevan demanded that the "main streams of economic activity are brought under public direction" with economic planning, and criticised the Labour Party's implementation of nationalisation for not empowering the workers in the nationalised industries with democratic control over their operation. In his In Place of Fear, which Crosland called the "the most widely read socialist book" of the period, Bevan begins: "A young miner in a South Wales colliery, my concern was with one practical question: Where does the power lie in this particular state of Great Britain, and how can it be attained by the workers?"
The Frankfurt Declaration of the refounded Socialist International stated:
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