The word "socialism" lives a stunted life in current politics, but it's important to have a good vocabulary for discussing public policy. In this overview of many "socialisms", we hash out a few ways to think about all the ideas this one word contains.

Reading Time: 15 minutes

Without so much as cracking open a textbook, humans know how to weaponize language. It’s not really what we say, so much as how we say it, and in what context, that has the ability to whip up emotions and drive impulsive action. Any word shouted in an accusatory manner can gain power whether or not its actual meaning merits the hostility. And any insidious idea, presented calmly and pleasantly, can take longer to process.

The word “socialism” is one such performative vessel in the US: a group of sounds that some utter not to discuss how best to build a society, but to determine who’s on their “side”. Throw “socialism” contemptuously into a debate, and you might win on pure charisma, while the other speaker scrambles to explain why your use of the term is nonsensical.

But here’s the problem: these empty vessels diminish us all, and not just the people who use them as weapons. When someone throws around a term indiscriminately, they also flatten it for everyone else. We’re then left with two possible responses: arguing with the emotion, or arguing with the flattened definition. Worse still, even these responses can be weaponized. After all, if we want to contest the flattened definition of one term, shouldn’t we be ready to debate the nuance in every other term, too? (The meme, “It’s only Nazism if it’s from the Third Reich; otherwise it’s just sparkling fascism”, comes to mind.)

And yes, in an ideal world, sure. There’s a time and a place to discuss everything.

But not when such whataboutism is also serving as a distraction.

There are many philosophies under the umbrella of socialism, just as there are many approaches to democracy, religion, love, and peace. In some ways, the people who use “socialism” as a vessel for simple attack aren’t wrong: the word is just a vessel. All our abstract terms are.

What we need is a political culture interested in what lies behind these easy buzzwords. We need to develop a richer civic vocabulary, instead of reducing the most important topics in our lives into strict binaries.

How best can we reform our societies?

We start by changing the terms of our engagement with political thought.

Areas of ‘socialist’ concern

One of the biggest problems with political philosophy is that we can lose sight of the endgame: namely, the development and advancement of better public policy, along with a clearer sense of what our obligations, rights, and privileges will be in our communities. We want to know how all this grand theorizing impacts us personally. That’s why it’s important to re-center our conversation around specific realms of human experience.

Socialist thought diverges significantly around a few related issues.

One around the market: What is the role of labor in our affairs?

One around authority: Who should govern our affairs?

Another around social relations: What relationships matter in our affairs?

Another still around transformation: How will we achieve a better state of affairs?

In response to each question, you will find positions that dovetail with views held by people who would hate to be called “socialist”. Libertarianism and nationalism will find overlap in certain spheres. Some forms of socialism work fine with a level of capitalist enterprise, while others can trip easily into extremes like eco-fascism.

This range of political overlap should be our first sign that more is going on here than a single word can ever sum up. The fact is, a great deal of socialist discourse is just that: a conversation, still in progress. This is also why schools, universities, and media platforms make easy targets for the weaponized version of this word, “socialism!” By some metrics, even having a conversation about how best to build society counts as socialist enterprise. The alternative, a top-down imposition of ideas, is more to the preference of authoritarians.

Socialism and the role of labor

Let’s start with the easiest question, or at least the most familiar. The idea of the proletariat “seizing the means of production” is one of the most common representations of socialism and its close-kin term, communism. The phrase invokes the creation (through revolution) of labor collectives where workers run and distribute the profits of their enterprises among themselves. But such ideas, first made famous under Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, have gone through negotiation, refinement, re-purposing, repudiation, and of course caricature ever since.

The Communist Manifesto is a document that, among other things, asserts struggle as a natural state of human affairs. Quite a few forms of socialism do not agree.

What unites them is an anti-capitalist sentiment in the most literal sense of the term. A capitalist is someone who does not labor directly. They invest: meaning, they already have financial leverage over other people in their communities, and they use this financial leverage to create or take over spaces where other people will then labor for a smaller share of the overall profit.

You can maybe see the beginning of the challenge in that definition, though. Some argue that the capitalist is still doing work, and that perhaps the capitalist’s labor is the most valuable of all, because it creates or governs the spaces that allow others to work. This argument was used to describe the labor of the slave owner or the “white man”, as someone whose burden was supposedly greater than that of his slaves and/or other racialized people. This idea also shows up in Randian philosophy, trickle-down economics, prosperity-gospel notions of the capitalist as the modern Biblical “master”, neoliberal insistence that private ownership is best for most state functions, and effective altruism as sometimes practiced by billionaires.

All these modalities trade on the idea that, without individual innovators given free economic reign, we would never achieve anything as a society. This is a fundamental belief for some: that fellow human beings cannot amount to anything without a few guiding hands, who have perhaps proven their worthiness to lead through pre-existing ownership of disproportionate wealth, and that these guiding hands deserve to reap more from the labor of everyone working under them.

Socialism is generally united in its disagreement with this approach to labor.

But forms of disagreement differ widely in execution. Some socialists are called syndicalists, industrial unionists, one big unionists, or revolutionary unionists. These are your union-advocates, going back to the 19th century. Generally, they believe in the importance of direct action, including general strikes, and a central role for workers and their organizations in political life. Follow-through varies, based on how much different movements are willing to work with existing government structures, including mainstream political parties, and how committed they are to creating a single, overarching economic organization to replace traditional elections.

This latter idea was picked up by Vladimir Lenin, who was among a group of activists who imagined socialism as a pit-stop on the road to full Communism. Where some syndicalists just wanted trade unions given a stronger role in government, Lenin felt that a republic of workers should be government: one centralized party of worker-representatives, to ensure that no one would ever undermine a worker’s relationship to their labor again.

Lenin’s Bolshevik idea of socialism-on-the-road-to-Communism was further refined by Joseph Stalin: famously not the leader of a socialism in which workers controlled and distributed among themselves the fruits of their own labor. His Marxist-Leninism, or Stalinism, was a top-down state bureaucratic project, which differed widely from the call for global solidarity present in the work of Marx and Lenin. Stalin felt that Communism had to be brought through as a series of intense and ambitious national projects, with each country achieving its own authoritarian, heavily micromanaged revolution over pre-existing capitalist states.

Now, if you’re asking yourself how this could possible accord well with the idea of shaking off capitalists (people who do not labor directly, but control the means of production), that is a great question, and precisely why some (including Trotskyites who dissented from Stalin in his time) argue that Communism of this type is not “real” socialism. Anywhere authoritarians exist, and anywhere socialism is too hung up on nationalist struggle instead of global worker solidarity, we find arguments that their states are simply dictatorships.

This is also why there is so much confusion around National Socialism: a term that expressly has “Socialism” in it, but in practice was much more interested in the “National” component. The Nazis of the Third Reich expressly attacked groups like the anarcho-syndicalists, who had pursued worker-driven economic alternatives to postwar state leadership by non-violent means. The Nazis, like the Stalinists, were interested in top-down control of all facets of their societies.

This is also why some political theorists suggest that fascism and communism, while ostensibly at opposite sides of the spectrum, come full circle. One can subordinate a society under an authoritarian elected in general election or installed by military coup, and the other can subordinate society under an authoritarian elected by a workers’ organization or installed by a workers’ revolution. To-may-to, to-mah-to.

Socialism and the role of governance

States such as Stalin’s have become the standard representation of socialism in many spheres of Western political discourse. There’s some logic to this, because we love a good slippery slope. Thanks to historical precedent, we now know that if you give a mouse a cookie (er, a worker a living wage), you might end up with another Soviet Russia, or the current Chinese Communist Party, which has a practical monopoly on government through Xi Jinping’s unprecedented third term.

But the collapse of workers’ unions into all-consuming state enterprise is not the only path under socialism. There are many other endpoints in socialist philosophy, especially when one remembers that socialism is not all about economic labor.

The aforementioned anarcho-syndicalists offered one such counter to the idea that worker revolution should see trade organizations replace existing state structures. To this group of socialists, the state itself is a challenge to human welfare, because the state is primarily concerned with protecting property. The aim of such anarchists goes deeper: self-management in communities that are broadly federated but each guided by local choices. No wages would be necessary, because regional groups could organize and serve themselves.

This approach to local governance differs from anarcho-communism and anarcho-collectivism. The collectivist sees small worker collectives as necessary building blocks for a society in which the socialist mandate “to each according to their need” is fulfilled. Meanwhile, the anarcho-communist sees a risk of authoritarian creep in any unions, and prefers “affinity groups”: a looser association of people who share common goals, for however long they do. In the latter, greater individual agency is also treated as essential to better communal organization.

Both anarchist branches ran afoul in the 19th century of Marxist Communists, who believe in the central importance of replacing the capitalist system with economic organizations that can regulate every facet of society with greater efficiency. But to anarcho-communists, anarcho-collectivist thinking can be just as bad as Marxist/Communist thought, because both traditions appear to be seeking to “reform” government by swapping out components in its existing hierarchy, instead of dismantling hierarchical society entirely.

In this belief, the small-c anarcho-communists are joined with many other forms of socialist anarchism, including green anarchism, Black and Indigenous anarchism, and feminist anarchism. These branches hold that mainstream socialist and anarchist thought don’t go far enough to dismantle destructive paradigms. It’s not enough to dismantle “the state”; one must also dismantle the underlying ideologies that enforce hierarchies throughout our lives: on the basis of sex, sexuality, ethnicity, skin color, and entitlement to do whatever we wish to the lands in which we reside.

All of these positions lie on the side of dismantling the state.

On the side of reforming the state (although very, very differently from the plans of Marxist Communism), we also find social democracy. This is a form of socialism practiced in many countries, and as such a site of great frustration and heated debate about what counts as an example of “actual” socialism.

“Do you like public libraries? Ha! So you’re a socialist after all,” goes a common Western rebuttal to Red-scare panic. And on one level, this rejoinder is accurate—some facets of socialism are absolutely present in our societies already. But on another level, the gotcha doesn’t do much to provide a clear sense of what a socialist state actually is… in part, because socialist philosophy itself contains significant disagreement about whether its ideal form involves a “state” at all.

For simplicity’s sake, though, social democratic countries offer a reformist approach. Proponents believe that a happy blend of socialist and capitalist economic principles is possible, under the guidance of democratic liberalism. The state need not be directly democratic (it can have a representative party system instead), so long as it protects civic rights to direct democracy by other means.

Social democracy might also be best understood in contrast with its ridiculously confusing mirror term, democratic socialism. The latter is used fluidly in academic literature, and contains all kinds of state relationships wherein some form of capitalist market economy exists (giving way to ethical and market socialism) in a society with a democratically elected government. The binding feature in all of democratic socialism’s subcategories, which sometimes include social democracy, is the idea that wherever human beings have the capacity to make collective choices for themselves, so too exists socialism… however thinly.

Social democracy, conversely, is defined more by what its governing state structure does to facilitate these communal choices. It represents a capitalist-leaning society with a wage-based labor system, and also a state in which government has an obligation not only to protect property but also to manage social welfare, oversee at least some income redistribution, regulate its market economy, and protect civic rights to speech, assembly, and protest.

The other problem with using our world’s current social democracies as a “gotcha” in response to people crying “socialism!”, though, is that a country can do all of the above at the lowest level possible, barely funding its welfare system and only making weak efforts to protect direct democracy, to the point that its creaking apparatuses are doing more harm than good… and still be considered a social democracy, to the detriment of what that term ideally means.

Does this state of affairs help anyone figure out what system of government is best?

Socialism and the role of relations

Let’s take a step back, and think in broader terms.

The kind of anarchist most often invoked in our culture is the individualist: the person whose primary mission is not to be ruled by anyone. In practice, many socialist critiques of the state overlap with both individualist anarchist and libertarian positions, even if some libertarians would despise being called an anarchist or a socialist, and although many socialists would loathe being seen as at all equivalent to the other two.

Individualists see their primary duty as to themselves, whereas socialists (kind of by definition) are interested in their relationships to others.

To this end, some of the above socialist philosophies believe that our working relationships are more important than any others in our lives. We should prioritize our economic interactions as workers over any other political structure, and we should build societies that keep our relationship to personal labor front and center in any sociopolitical conversation.

Conversely, some see humans as more than workers, and critique the foundation of Marxism on the grounds that it neglects our other core relationships to one another. How can a purely labor-based view of socialism ever sufficiently serve the idea that we should provide “to each according to their need”?

Socialist theories of communalism have emerged in both religious and secular forms, on paper and in worldly practice. They are united in their thinking about human beings as operating best when we cultivate a sense of community together, which need not abide by any top-down hierarchy to thrive.

Communalism recognizes that we might not be able to see ourselves in immediate solidarity with every human being, but we can pursue that global ideal through collaborative local action and a prioritization of personal agency. Building a practice of public assemblies and consensus-based deliberation among more empowered individuals could provide us with plenty of social structure without all the rigid and only indirectly democratic facets of our current systems.

These socialist ideas would also change our relationship with stuff. In semi-capitalist forms of socialism, workers still need to monetize and copyright their labor to survive. But others go so far as to suggest that organizational structures like library socialism, absent all traces of capitalist exchange, would be far better for creators than our current scramble of a marketplace. In a system of communal curation of whatever extra we create, we wouldn’t need to worry about protecting copyright, because the underlying anxiety (i.e., receiving sufficient compensation to eat, and maybe thrive) will have been eliminated. All can then benefit from what we create.

Other socialists, including many Communists, distrust this free-for-all immensely. Their dissent arises from a fundamentally different view of human nature, as seen in The Communist Manifesto, which follows the view that all life is class struggle. But remember: if certain strains of socialist thought lead to the conclusion that a top-down, centralized state apparatus is necessary to ensure that humans operate responsibly toward one another, it’s only because history itself offers a rich tapestry of evidence for both positions (humans as communal critters, and humans as conflict-oriented critters). The argument wages on.

Socialism and the path to transformation

And nowhere more clearly does this argument wage on, than in the final question around which so many socialisms differ:

How will we arrive at this supposedly better political age?

As noted above, some approaches to socialism view the road to revolution as progressive: one has to go through “stages” to achieve a complete transformation of our world, and human beings need to be trained into readiness for that coming utopia. These stages of revolution could involve peaceful protest, the destruction of property, or violent seizure of political office and collectivization by force.

Others believe that revolution has to happen all at once, or close to it, if we don’t want to end up with new hierarchies that look suspiciously like the old. Such a revolution could come about from something as peaceful as a complete work-stoppage, or walking away from existing systems to start a commune somewhere new, but… the more probable path is militarized struggle, too.

(From the possibility of violent revolution being the sole path to change, we also gain a kind of Marxist-Leninist called “tankies”: people who believe that nothing less than full war, with all the machinery of such an outing, is necessary to topple the current paradigm, and whose allegiance in socialist struggle generally lies with the Russian state, in homage to Stalinism.)

Others still believe in the power of incremental reforms within the current political system. They not only see tweaking capitalism as sufficient, but also more practical. This is because transactional economies and formal hierarchies of labor have existed for huge swaths of human history. It’s easy to see this approach to human relations as inevitable, and working with it as necessary.

Lastly, though (and as noted at the outset), some believe that whenever we talk about the better society we want to inhabit, we’re already “doing socialism”. Even this article, by some metrics, would be considered part of “prefiguring” new relationships to labor, governance, each other, and social transformation.

But if this too is “socialism”… Well, that’s not so scary, is it?

Simply talking, with a more precise and less dramatic vocabulary, about whether the world we inhabit looks enough like the world in which we’d like to belong?

An invitation to a reading list

  • For anarchism and related socialisms:
    • Bakunin, Mikhail, “The Program of the International Brotherhood”
      • This mission statement outlines an approach to human behavior that views our systems as more culpable than individuals for the harm we do, and outlines a series of anarchist approaches to rectifying the perceived damage done by statism and its notions of property.
    • Combahee River Collective, “The Combahee River Collective Statement”
      • An expressly Black feminist approach to socialist revolution, as outlined in this statement and carried out in the group’s pursuit of a collectivist approach to social organization. The document emphasizes the importance of intersectional thinking if any socialist revolution is to succeed.
    • Ervin, Lorenzo Kom’boa, Anarchism and the Black Revolution
      • A comprehensive exploration of anti-racist and anti-oppression politics through an anarchist lens. In the section, “Why Am I An Anarchist?”, Ervin explicitly highlights the lack of intersectionality in existing anarchist movements and concerns about authoritarianism in certain threads of Black resistance discourse, too.
    • Kropotkin, Piotr, “Anarchist Communism”
      • This essay outlines Kropotkin’s view of socialism’s philosophical road to the conclusion that the elimination of the wage system and the elevation of human freedom are both essential goals in the creation of a “higher form of social organization”, outside all the capitalist hierarchies of the state.
    • Parsons, Lucy E., “I Am An Anarchist”
      • Born a slave, Parsons went on to be a decades-long active voice in the anarchist movement. This letter, published in The Kansas City Journal in 1886, was part of her work advocating for an approach to reform that was not intrinsically violent but had the willingness to do violence if freedom was on the line.
  • For communalism:
    • Bookchin, Murray, “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought”
      • An essay that illustrates intersections between anarchist thought and socialist thought, especially around the idea of social ecology. It’s also important because it shows some of the differences between socialist anarchy and forms of anarchy and environmentalism predisposed to authoritarian thinking.
    • Staudenmaier, Peter, Ecology Contested
      • This book outlines the democratic, egalitarian, and communalist principles of social ecology, by contrasting the philosophy with a strain of authoritarian, nationalist, racist, and paternalist thinking in relation to environmental rights.
  • For Communism/Marxism:
    • Engels, Friedrich, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State
      • This book is a fascinating look at anthropology as it was understood in the late 19th century. Even then, before substantial changes to the field over the last century, its findings could be applied to refute ideas about gender roles and social hierarchy in Western cultures as being at all natural and inevitable. This work joined with Engel’s other writings on labor to criticize the existing state project and advocate for Communist revolution of the status quo.
    • Engels, Friedrich, “The Principles of Communism”
      • An extremely straightforward introduction to some of the key terms of Communist theory, this document also reflects on democratic socialism and its perceived failings to go quite far enough (yet) in the pursuit of social reform.
    • Lenin, Vladimir, “The April Theses” / “The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution”
      • It’s widely known that Stalin significantly deviated from Lenin’s vision of Communist revolution, which was a much more international project in line with Marx’s ideas about global class consciousness and revolution. Nevertheless, this famous document also highlights the significant role of sweeping reform that Lenin felt necessary to bring about the movement’s desired ends.
    • Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto
      • A document that prioritizes worker relationships in political structures, views the history of humanity as one of constant struggle, and treats revolution as an internationalist imperative.
  • For democratic socialism:
    • Aronoff, Kate, Peter Dreir, and Michael Kazin, We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism, American Style
      • This text celebrates approaches to democratic socialist philosophy within the recent US Democratic context. This reformist approach to socialism advances policies that prioritize eco-consciousness and individual uplift alongside the pursuit of private property and wealth within a capitalist economy.
  • For library socialism:
    • “Library Socialism and Usufruct”, SRSLY WRONG Podcast
      • This is a comedy philosophy podcast, which blends lighthearted skits with deep political theory conversation. This episode reflects on property in relation to three civil law considerations: the right to use something directly, the right to profit off it indirectly, and (debatably) the right to destroy it. Their notion of library socialism highlights the benefit of focusing on the first two ideas, and not the last.
  • For social democracy:
    • NPR’s Throughline, “American Socialist”
      • This history podcast explores the life and legacy of Eugene V. Debs, a Social Democrat who built a socialist party within the US early in the 20th century.
  • For Stalinism/Marxist-Leninism:
    • Stalin, Joseph, “Dialectical and Historical Materialism”
      • So totalizing was Stalin’s view of the state, and its role in the creation of a Communist ideal, that he sought even to dictate society’s relationship to the natural world. This document shaped what was acceptable science and perceptions of the self in relation to their environment for decades. Stalin strongly believed that preparing humanity for Communism required a Lamarckian view of evolution: forcing rapid species transformation within a mere lifetime or two, by changing the material and social conditions in which humans existed.
  • For syndicalism/other forms of revolutionary unionism:
    • Damier, V. Anarcho-syndicalism in the 20th Century
      • Title aside, this historical overview of the rise of anarcho-syndicalism also reflects on revolutionary syndicalism in a broader context, with a significant focus on how both anarchists and revolutionary unionists strove to resist the rise of fascism.
    • Debs, Eugene V. “Revolutionary Unionism”
      • This speech invites workers at the turn of the 20th century to imagine participating in a bigger economic organization than small “craft unions”, which have not been able to more significantly defend the worker against the capitalist state. It is a classic meditation on the need for larger workers’ organizations.

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.

Notify of
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments