Socialism describes any political or economic theory that says the community, rather than individuals, should own and manage property and natural resources.
The term “socialism” has been applied to very different economic and political systems throughout history, including utopianism, anarchism, Soviet communism and social democracy. These systems vary widely in structure, but they share an opposition to an unrestricted market economy, and the belief that public ownership of the means of production (and making money) will lead to better distribution of wealth and a more egalitarian society.
How Socialism Emerged
The intellectual roots of socialism go back at least as far as ancient Greek times, when the philosopher Plato depicted a type of collective society in his dialog, Republic (360 B.C.). In 16th-century England, Thomas More drew on Platonic ideals for his Utopia, an imaginary island where money has been abolished and people live and work communally.
In the late 18th century, the invention of the steam engine powered the Industrial Revolution, which brought sweeping economic and social change first to Great Britain, then to the rest of the world. Factory owners became wealthy, while many workers lived in increasing poverty, laboring for long hours under difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions.
Socialism emerged as a response to the expanding capitalist system. It presented an alternative, aimed at improving the lot of the working class and creating a more egalitarian society. In its emphasis on public ownership of the means of production, socialism contrasted sharply with capitalism, which is based around a free market system and private ownership.
Early socialists like Henri de Saint-Simon, Robert Owen and Charles Fourier offered up their own models for social organization based on cooperation rather than competition. While Saint-Simon argued for a system where the state controls production and distribution for the benefit of all society’s members, both Fourier and Owen (in France and Britain, respectively) proposed systems based on small collective communities, not a centralized state.
Owen, who had owned and operated textile mills in Lanark, Scotland, headed to the United States in 1825 to launch an experimental community in New Harmony, Indiana. His planned commune was based on the principles of self-sufficiency, cooperation and public ownership of property. The experiment soon failed, and Owen lost much of his fortune. More than 40 small cooperative agricultural communities inspired by Fourier’s theories, were founded across the United States. One of these, based in Red Bank, New Jersey, lasted into the 1930s.
Influence of Karl Marx
It was Karl Marx, undoubtedly the most influential theorist of socialism, who called Owen, Fourier and other earlier socialist thinkers “utopians,” and dismissed their visions as dreamy and unrealistic. For Marx, society was made up of classes: When certain classes controlled the means of production, they used that power to exploit the labor class.
In their 1848 work The Communist Manifesto, Marx and his collaborator, Friedrich Engels, argued that true “scientific socialism” could be established only after a revolutionary class struggle, with the workers emerging on top.
Though Marx died in 1883, his influence on socialist thought only grew after his death. His ideas were taken up and expanded upon by various political parties (such as the German Social Democratic Party) and leaders like Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong.
Marx’s emphasis on the revolutionary clash between capital and labor came to dominate most socialist thought, but other brands of socialism continued to develop. Christian socialism, or collective societies formed around Christian religious principles. Anarchism saw not just capitalism but government as harmful and unnecessary. Social democracy held that socialist aims could be achieved through gradual political reform rather than revolution.
READ MORE: Communism Timeline
Socialism in the 20th Century
In the 20th century—particularly after the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the formation of the Soviet Union—social democracy and communism emerged as the two most dominant socialist movements throughout the world.
By the end of the 1920s, Lenin’s revolution-focused view of socialism had given way to the foundation of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and its consolidation of absolute power under Joseph Stalin. Soviet and other communists joined forces with other socialist movements in resisting fascism. After World War II, this alliance dissolved as the Soviet Union established communist regimes across Eastern Europe.
With the collapse of these regimes in the late 1980s, and the ultimate fall of the Soviet Union itself in 1991, communism as a global political force was greatly diminished. Only China, Cuba, North Korea, Laos and Vietnam remain communist states.
Meanwhile, over the course of the 20th century, social democratic parties won support in many European countries by pursuing a more centrist ideology. Their ideas called for a gradual pursuit of social reforms (like public education and universal healthcare) through the processes of democratic government within a largely capitalist system.
Socialism in the United States
In the United States, the Socialist Party never enjoyed the same success as in Europe, reaching its peak of support in 1912, when Eugene V. Debs won 6 percent of the vote in that year’s presidential election. But social reform programs like Social Security and Medicare, which opponents once denounced as socialist, became over time a well-accepted part of American society.
Some liberal politicians in the United States have embraced a variation on social democracy known as democratic socialism. This calls for following socialist models in Scandinavia, Canada, Great Britain and other nations, including single-payer health care, free college tuition and higher taxes on the wealthy.
On the other side of the political spectrum, conservative U.S. politicians often label such policies as communist. They point to authoritarian socialist regimes such as that of Venezuela to raise concerns about big government.
The wide range of interpretations and definitions of socialism across the political spectrum, and the lack of a common understanding of what socialism is or how it looks in practice reflects its complicated evolution. Nonetheless, socialist parties and ideas continue to influence policy in nations around the world. And socialism’s persistence speaks to the enduring appeal of calling for a more egalitarian society.
Pablo Gilabert and Martin O'Neill, "Socialism." The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Fall 2019 Edition, Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
Peter Lamb, Historical Dictionary of Socialism (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016)
Glenn Kessler, “What is socialism?” Washington Post, March 5, 2019.