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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.”

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    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
    Commented Apr 11, 2019 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
    Commented Apr 12, 2019 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.
    – JJJ
    Commented Apr 12, 2019 at 0:21
  • Pretty much every commonly-used word has more than one meaning: freedom, right, law... Language doesn't work like you seem to think it does.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Oct 20, 2022 at 20:12
  • How come there are so many definitions of the word "cat". Like Big cat, domestic cat, tomcat, a cool cat, bobcat. Why should all these definitions exist?
    – James K
    Commented Oct 20, 2022 at 20:44

3 Answers 3

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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.

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  • 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
    Commented Apr 12, 2019 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
    Commented Apr 12, 2019 at 11:35
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TL;DR it's basically a utopian vision and as the ideas developed long before the application basically anybody could and did add their own two cents.

Speaking from a Euro-centric perspective, the 19th century was a time of massive change. The "old regime" with its "god given social hierarchy" consisting of the 3 estates (peasantry, nobility and clergy) had taken major damage. Ideologically the enlightenment questioned it's religious foundation, economically the upcoming mercantilism and capitalism questioned it's economic supremacy and politically the middle class demanded participation. Initially often in the form of reforms and amending the status quo with a constitution but as these were often suppressed and kept down, leading to more radical steps like the revolutions in America and France. Which weren't able to settle for a constitutional monarchy and so went straight for a republic without monarch. All while the industrial revolution was coming up, providing unseen opportunities on one end and grim working conditions on the other.

So it was a time of massive change with lots of hopes and fears about what the future was about to bring forth. Like on the one end of the spectrum you had conservatives with existential dread cause of the crumbling of their system, who wanted to turn back the time and go back to the "god given hierarchies" and for whom all of that was "a fall from grace" or something like that. While on the other end of the spectrum you had people with high hopes that now EVERYTHING is possible. Like seriously the political spectrum ranged from literally absolute monarchism (pure tyranny) to full fledged anarchism and I don't mean that Anarcho-Capitalist bullshit, but REAL Anarchism. Like "no god, no state, no slaves, no masters". Like rejecting all authority, law, hierarchies, morals unless it originates from the free and equal association of the people themselves, with no leaders, authorities, institutions and no social, political, economical or any other sort of hierarchy that would have some people rule over the rest. So self-government without rulers.

Now while "liberalism" would in its idealism and slogans reflect the latter, with their hopes and dreams of universal freedom and equality, no more cast systems, people being only constraint by nature and the freedom of other people. Stuff like "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" or the "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité" of the French Revolution really driving home the point that of democracy being government by the people for the people, through the people. The state being property of the people (republic) not the king (monarchy) and resting upon a social contract rather than some folklore or religious mysticism, all rights being crafted by the people based on consent and agreement.

However when they finally took power the result was not without a major anticipointment. Rather than the end of all caste systems and universal freedom and equality or even a direct democracy, people got a representative democracy where often enough voting rights were tied to income and so it was more of a "meet the new boss, same as the old boss". Which lead to the "classical liberals" moving from the far left progressive side of the spectrum to the rather right wing side where the conservatives welcomed them, because while the original conservatives were executed or had to realize the futility of their goal (or had to wait for the barbarian resurgence of their ideas with fascism) at least the capitalism of the liberals largely preserved their traditional power structures, just with a different narrative. Now the aristocracy is no longer the ruling class because they have historically proven to be the best (or at least paid someone to forge such accounts) and been a descendant of those, but because they own large portions of land and are still filthy rich. Sure the circle with who they have to share power widened and the industrial factory owners will soon exceed them in wealth, but so far lots of stuff is remaining the same so the conservatives often made their peace with the liberals as long as they'd betrayed their ideals or see them as fulfilled with the "progress" that they made and aren't going further with that pace.

So now the last of the 3 major ideologies coming out of that post-enlightenment mess, is: Socialism. And the reason why it's so lousily defined is because it basically includes the entire rest of the spectrum that is not satisfied with how things are. And that includes a whole spectrum of ideologies of its own. Like you have anarchists and authoritarians, reformists and revolutionaries, militants and pacifists, unionists, political parties, individualists, collectivists and a whole lot else. Their smallest common denominator is basically that with the political progress they see the largest roadblock to equality and freedom as universal rights within the unequal distribution of the means of production and the massive social and political power that is generated out of the economic inequality and so their proposed solution is that these crucial assets of society that give power over other people should not be privately owned for the profit of the owner alone.

The the basic idea for socialism is a society of free and equal people who share the ownership of the means of production and in which members produce according to their ability and receive according to their needs with a direct political mandate of the individual to decide that.

Now that's obviously utopian, not in the sense that this would be impossible, but in the sense that this isn't realized anywhere yet and so basically any and all models of society that roughly matches those constraints could call itself socialist/communist (at the time and depending on the language these two used to be used largely synonymous) and so even at the time when Marx himself was around there had already been hundreds of definitions of socialism/communism. Just read the intro to the communist manifesto:

A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot,French Radicals and German police-spies. Where is the party in opposition that has not been decried as communistic by its opponents in power? Where is the opposition that has not hurled back the branding reproach of communism, against the more advanced opposition parties, as well as against its reactionary adversaries? Two things result from this fact: I. Communism is already acknowledged by all European powers to be itself a power. II. It is high time that Communists should openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the Spectre of Communism with a manifesto of the party itself. To this end, Communists of various nationalities have assembled in London and sketched the following manifesto, to be published in the English, French, German, Italian, Flemish and Danish languages.

Or in other words everybody knows something is about to happen and every progressive either calls itself socialist/communist or even if they don't are called that way by conservatives to defame them and because no one has a plan of what that actually means "we" are going to define our goals here.

Now after the first socialist revolution of the Paris Commune in 1871, was kinda underwhelming in terms of the organization and the fact that it was brutally gunned down (to be fair a republic within a city, within a war was ambitious to begin with, though made the revolution part easier, we'll come to that one later). Marx proceeded to bully out the anarchists from the first international (workingmen association) and was really kind of a bitch towards anything utopian. Like he studied economic science and tried to give socialism not just a utopian but also a scientific foundation, at least that's what he called it and let's be fair for the time the standards of science weren't all that high. Also apparently "the state" was no longer seen as the problem, like the anarchists would see it, but as some means to exercise power that would "wither away" once it served it's purpose as Marx apparently anticipated some time of turmoil after a revolution before things would fall into place.

Then Marx died and in Russia communists were having a meeting in which Lenin got a slight majority for his plan to form a revolutionary vanguard party to make the revolution, it's apparently the only time he ever got a majority for his plan in a free election. He nevertheless kept the term for majority as his party name (Bolshevik). However he was largely ineffective got himself imprisoned and missed the revolution of 1905 and 1917. The first established a parliament but that got stuff with czarist cronies so that the progress was largely rolled back. However it featured an interesting concept that would be relevant later namely "soviets". That is councils of workers and soldiers that would on the ground organize the revolution in a direct local democracy. So when in a perfect storm lots of people protested in Saint Petersburg in February of 1917 the czar resigned and the revolution spread across the country. Now Russia was still amid fights of WWI and was starving, so the provisional government that continued the war was soon as unpopular as the czar while the soviets and their congress of soviets became an alternative government leading to the "dual reign", one government with officially backing but little public support and another with a democratic mandate but not officially recognized as such.

Now according to Marx the revolution was about to happen as a result of the most industrialized countries driving social and economic inequality to such extremes that there were only 2 classes with no middle ground and than they would clash. Which wasn't really the case in Russia, which had barely started industrializing and was largely peasant and didn't even have a successful liberal revolution.

So people were contemplating what to do next when Lenin came back from exile in Switzerland with the help of the Germans who hoped he would create trouble and make Russia lose the war and he did. He ran on open doors and agitated against everyone the provisional government the soviets and before the soviets could meet and decide what to do next he attacked the provisional government and seized power. Then he made elections, lost to more left leaning parties and dropped the concept of elections as not successful.

He then fought a several years lasting civil war and then rolled out an economic program which promoted capitalism in an attempt to do social democracy to make Russia ready for the next step. All while calling his reign socialism, because that was kinda popular at the time.

Now similar to the liberals who didn't really follow through with their ideals. That was largely not what people expected socialism to be and so Stalin apparently argued that this "intermediate state of turmoil" that Marx talked about should from now on be called socialism and that this is where they are because obviously it wasn't the stateless classless utopia that communism was supposed to be. Also it wasn't really soviets anymore either as it was transformed more towards a top down government whereas soviets where decidedly bottom up. And really that state was just a temporary solution that would "wither away".

So both the "Soviet Union" and it's adversaries called it socialist because the soviet union thought socialism is cool and popular and the adversaries to defame the very concept, at the time America actually had some union and anarchist action going on and if peasants in Russia can topple a government a lot of capitalists and governments around the globe got something to worry about.

Meanwhile not all socialists were too fond of the soviet union. First of all it also murdered it's leftists as "counterrevolutionaries" and basically rolled back most of the progress that was being made moving to first liberal capitalism and under Stalin to some state capitalism where the state serves as one giant company. So that the term "real existing socialism" was used by proponents and critics of Soviet Union to denote that it was not what was expected.

Then WWII and capitalists were once again afraid of socialism, also the USSR had become quite imperialist. And so again anybody and everybody that wasn't in line with the status quo was a filthy socialist. Muddying the already muddy water. Tons of socialists were not to fond of the USSR but as it's the main representation in the world that is using that label their image is what sticks for many people and capitalists are pretty glad to be able to point to a failing example to argue "see that's what you get if you demand fair wages and participation".

So if there hadn't already been a lot of confusion about socialism means the cold war propaganda alone would have created it. So essentially socialism can mean anything from a vague ideal of a society with universal freedom and equality to some Marxist-Leninist (Stalinist) approach of an authoritarian government that tries to industrialize itself to the point where they can transition or... you know never transition and be neo-conservatives with under a red banner. You know the party is still a hierarchy and maximizing their profits and power is precisely what a king would have done as well. Same story yet another narrative to legitimate it.

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    +1 for a good historical overview, but... "an economic program which promoted capitalism in an attempt to do social democracy to make Russia ready for the next step" - no, not like that. NEP was a desperate attempt at avoiding total economic collapse of the country (and losing power as a consequence). No bolshevik (and Lenin in the first place) was happy about doing it.
    – Zeus
    Commented Oct 21, 2022 at 6:07
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Originally — and by that I mean prior to Marx — the term 'socialism' was used in opposition to the term 'individualism' within the context of Liberal thought. Liberal individualism had led to an explosive rise in adventure capitalism, with a consequent increase in economic practices that abused laborers, uprooted communities, damaged the environment, and ran roughshod over culture and tradition. Any number of groups eventually stood up against that by declaring that the social group — thus 'socialism', aka 'social liberalism' — had rights and interests that were as important as the rights and interests of the individual.

Marx came along, and while his thinking falls under that general rubric of social liberalism, he never really used the term 'socialism' much, because he focused on the problem of 'class' in society. Marx's problematic wasn't individuals vs the community as in earlier social liberalism; it was the class which controlled production vs the class which produced. Marx's most significant use of the term 'socialism was as a particular stage of state socialism that lies between the end of capitalism and the true classless society. IN this stage the working class (proletariate) takes over the means of production and administers it for the benefit of everyone. Such state socialism — while arguably superior to capitalism in Marx's view — was still a degenerate, illiberal form of governance, liable to collapse into dictatorship.

After Marx's death, a number of different thinkers started working through the concepts of socialism and classless society. This led to an array of theories — democratic socialism, social democracy, syndicalism, anarcho-socialism, etc. — none of which were ever explicitly implemented anywhere. The only 'successful' offshoots of Marxist thought came from those (notably Lenin and Mao) who decided that Marx's classless society was out of reach, and instead aimed to implement state socialism despite its flaws. This led to the socialist states in Russian and the USSR, and the communist state in China. Here socialism and communism are pragmatic terms more than philosophical ones. Russia (post-0revolution) was an industrializing nation and organized itself to nationalize industrial capacity, leaning towards the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' that was explicitly socialist, while China was still broadly agrarian and so more naturally inclined towards communes (communities of farmers working with shared resources). However, they were both authoritarian states, with the same basic precept that they had to break the capitalist 'habit' through reeducation and indoctrination.

After World War II, with China and the USSR established, the entire socialist project became associated (in Europe and the US) with authoritarian dictatorship, and the fear-based political environment made it extremely difficult to hold distinctions between different kinds and forms of the socialist project. They were all evil, and anyone who said otherwise was evil as well. That attitude has persisted to the present day, where people on the Right use terms like socialist, communist, Marxist, etc., in a content-free way to mean 'bad' and 'dangerous'. As often as not, such people merely create or crib a definition of 'socialist' or 'communist' that includes whatever it is they want to defame.

In short, the concept of socialism has evolved from pre-Marxist thought through Marxist thought and into post-Marxist thought, and then suffered political attacks from National Socialism, McCarthyism, and more modern Rightist tropes until the core principles are slathered in mud and muck.

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