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Introduction

Socialism seems to have many definitions, and we sometimes come across arguments and discussions based on different definitions on this site as well. For example, user4012 stated on meta:

First of all, a LOT of political disagreements are due to definitions being poor and imprecise. Witness for example "socialism" or "capitalism" for which even Wikipedia openly states there are no good unified formal definitions. That leaves aside the ubiquitous yet even more horrible "left" and "right".

And even dictionaries list different definitions (some examples will follow below).

Question

What, if it's at all clear, caused these different definitions to coexist? Did it start with one and did the others come in later on or has the term always been used very loosely?

Background

A dictionary example by Merriam Webster:

2a. : a system of society or group living in which there is no private property

  1. 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

Wikipedia lists even more options on its disambiguation page for socialism (I list only those that may be commonly referred to as socialism as an -ism):

democratic socialism, scientific socialism, social democracy, real socialism

The Guardian quoted Merriam Webster Dictionary on the following, but that doesn't seem to explain the different meanings of socialism seeing that each of the named Wikipedia pages have information going back over a century whereas the increased popularity related to the rise of Bernie Sanders seems to have started only in this decade:

Merriam-Webster said that the fact that Sanders has embraced socialism “shows the term has moved beyond its cold war associations”. It has now included new information in its dictionary entry for the term, writing: “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.”

  • Denmark pushed back against Bernie's assertion that they are socialist thelocal.dk/20151101/danish-pm-in-us-denmark-is-not-socialist In fact, their economy is more free-market and less regulated than the U.S. economy – holaymolay Apr 11 at 23:28
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    My personal commentary, but you absolutely can't expect accurate facts about Socialism from a dictionary website. For complex economic and government terms like Fascism, Nazism, Socialism, Nationalism, etc. you really need to check somewhere like wikipedia. Merriam Webster will basically give you the dumbed-down one sentence version with the complexity of fifth grade social studies; and Merriam Webster is NOT expected to be a subject area expert on government and economics. Plus, things like Nazism have extraordinarily elaborate definitions with dozens of characteristics. – John Apr 12 at 0:17
  • @John while that may be the case, I think it's still useful as an example given the descriptive nature of English dictionaries. While it may not draw from expert sources per se, it does show how a word is actually used, which is part of what makes or breaks a definition. – JJ for Transparency and Monica Apr 12 at 0:21
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Classic Socialism and Communism are hard to differentiate

While there is a technical difference, many Communist states (i.e. the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) wanted to be known as Socialist, even though they were totalitarian Communist regimes. Indeed, trying to differentiate them, in some cases, results in splitting hairs

In both communism and socialism, the people own the factors of economic production. The main difference is that under communism, most property and economic resources are owned and controlled by the state (rather than individual citizens); by contrast, under socialism, all citizens share equally in all economic resources as allocated by a democratically-elected government.

The problem there is, if the government allocates the resources, that means it owns them for all intents and purposes. That makes them nearly indistinguishable from a practical standpoint. As such, many other countries like Cuba, North Korea, etc. have all called themselves Socialist. So when the term is used in this context, it's hard to say which idea they're endorsing. As this video notes, Venezuela may be best described as Socialist, a label which some actively argue against. But those arguing against it being a failure of Socialism, tend to belong to another group trying to reclaim the word.

Modern Socialism brands itself as a "Not Capitalism" club

When most modern people (like Bernie Sanders) use Socialism, they generally mean central planning, where the government makes some major decisions for society (healthcare, transportation, energy, etc), while permitting some Liberal Democracy ideals (i.e. you can still own your own house). They want to avoid Communism and its stigmas. Some people are even promoting the idea of a post-Capitalist society

The most obvious answer is that capitalism has left a lot of people behind in the last 30 years. Everyone can see that the top 1 percent, the top 10 percent, the top 20 percent, have captured most of the benefits of economic growth over the last 30 years, and the rest of the population has been marginalized.

and

First, let me just say that it will be easier to do these sorts of things than it will be to go full socialist. If we lack the political will to fix the kind of capitalism we have, then there’s surely a higher political barrier to the full socialist model of national health insurance, free college for everybody, and guaranteed income for every individual, whether they work or not.

This has become a much more common argument of late. Capitalism is failing (or has already failed) and needs to be replaced, and the thing that will fill that gap is "Socialism", and they're totally not into that whole "seize everything" that Classic Socialism entailed

As for socialism in general, Bennett says that "we at the Boulder County DSA run into confusion about what it is, especially since, here in America, there have been so many negative connotations coming out of Cold War propaganda. I see a lot of people associating socialism with authoritarianism and poverty — state-enforced poverty."

To counter the supposed connection with authoritarianism, he defines socialism of the sort promoted by the Boulder County DSA as "the expansion of radical democracy not just in our political system, but also in our economy at the national and local levels and in our workplaces, including having a measure of worker control. There are various means to accomplish this, but it's important to have a say in these systems that affect your life and control your livelihood — to help influence how they're built and run."

As such, it's much harder to nail down what people mean by Socialism. Is central planning (i.e. single payer healthcare) Socialism, or just post-Capitalist? As such, the word tends to take on whatever political viewpoint you espouse, as long as that viewpoint excludes most or all of Capitalism.

  • Note that in the 1970s, Sanders was a classical socialist, advocating for nationalization of industries. It's only modernly that he has disclaimed that kind of socialism and instead advocated the social democracy of the Scandinavian countries. I.e. in his early political career, he was a socialist by almost any definition. – Brythan Apr 12 at 5:41
  • @Brythan At times I'm not sure even Sanders knows what he thinks. His waffling over Nicholas Maduro has hurt him somewhat – Machavity Apr 12 at 11:35

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