On Socialism

Socialism is a badly misunderstood word. Does it refer to a concept, a philosophy, a political system, an insult? Here’s an excellent explanation of the basic premise of socialism, such that I could use with undergrads (and other people who need it).

In my view, the most fundamental characteristic of socialism is its commitment to the creation of an egalitarian society. Socialists may not have agreed about the extent to which inequality can be eradicated or the means by which change can be effected, but no socialist would defend the current inequalities of wealth and power. In particular, socialists have maintained that, under capitalism, vast privileges and opportunities are derived from the hereditary ownership of capital and wealth at one end of the social scale, while a cycle of deprivation limits opportunities and influence at the other end. To varying extents, all socialists have therefore challenged the property relationships that are fundamental to capitalism, and have aspired to establish a society in which everyone has the possibility to seek fulfilment without facing barriers based on structural inequalities.

Later the writer explains that, in his view, socialism is a distinct product of nineteenth-century industrial society, although ideas that socialists can identify with occur earlier in history. He points specifically to the Marxist mode of analysis as the underpinning of “socialism” in the modern sense, a point with which I completely agree. The whole book is tight and focussed — not a word wasted. Excellent.

Michael Newman, Socialism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp 2–3.

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