Socialism is a term that is often used but rarely understood. What does it really mean?
Socialism is a form of social organization that is opposed to the free market form of capitalism that gives rise to so much inequality among members of a society and leads to so much suffering for those who experience the worst conditions. Whereas capitalism is a system that promotes endless creative destruction producing both winners and losers, socialism is a system that tries to eliminate the fact that losers should be created systematically. However, beyond this belief, socialists agree about very little in terms of what socialism should be or how it should be organized.
Socialism may be traced to the Utopia of Thomas More and even the Republic of Plato. The most significant contributions to the development of the idea arose during the Industrial Revolution and its impact upon society. Initially, socialists were very concerned with identifying the correct form of ideology which should be privileged above all others in defining socialism but, over time, ideology has become less important as aspiration has replaced forced change. For example, few socialists in the modern age believe that every person should be exactly equal in economic terms; instead, modern socialists (who may be called market socialists) accept and even welcome the fact that some people will inevitably achieve great economic success in society and will encourage those people to contribute to the rest of society according to their means. On the other hand, market socialists are more concerned to see that those at the bottom receive a decent level of income, housing, health care and education. They may also try to introduce measures to promote social mobility such that more talented individuals from the lower classes are able to improve their situations while also ensuring that membership of upper classes (defined in economic terms) is not fixed and unchangeable. People in better conditions would not be so concerned to maintain an inflexible system at the top if they were reassured that decline for their family through lack of talent or application would not lead to penury. However, this aspiration has been very difficult to realize in reality since people have a strong desire to retain their wealth and make it available for their offspring, irrespective of an objective assessment of the productive ability of those offspring.
The principal means by which socialists attempt to control the economy is through national ownership of some or all economic activities. It is clear that some industries are important for society and cannot be operated on a purely market-based system (e.g. water or electricity supply) and that when this has been attempted it has resulted in public health problems and potential disorder as some parts of society are denied access to vital resources for economic reasons. While some socialists believe that government-appointed boards are appropriate means of running industries, others believe in decentralized workers’ or citizens’ communes or committees to be most suitable. Different solutions are usually preferred based on the scale and scope of the issue involved.
As many successful governments have proved in continental Europe and elsewhere, there is no conflict between democracy and socialism or between socialism and freedom of speech and freedom of association. After all, freedom of speech is usually restricted by regimes which seek to hide the means by which inequality is promoted in society.