Society and Culture

What “socialism” means – and why it matters


What is socialism?

If we go by the dictionary, this seems like a very straightforward and unambiguous matter.

Merriam-Webster defines socialism as “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods”, or more succinctly, as “a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state”.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines it as a “social and economic doctrine that calls for public rather than private ownership or control of property and natural resources. […] As socialists see it, true freedom and true equality require social control of the resources that provide the basis for prosperity in any society. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels made this point in Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848)”.

Investopedia says that socialism is an “economic and political system based on collective, common, or public ownership of the means of production. […] In a purely socialist system, all production and distribution decisions are made by the collective, directed by a central planner or government body.”

And according to Google’s English dictionary, provided by Oxford Languages, socialism is “a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole”.

So far, so clear. However, when well over 40% of US Millennials and Zoomers say they have a favourable opinion of socialism, or when two thirds of British Millennials and Zoomers say they want to live in a socialist society – is this really what they have in mind? Do they really want to live in a Cuban-style economic system? Or do they just use the word “socialism” when they actually mean something else?

There have been plenty of surveys over the past 7 or 8 years which show that socialism has become popular again, especially among the young and middle-aged. But what these surveys do not tell us is what people mean when they say “socialism”. Is it the concept that is popular, or is it just the word?

Some believe that it is the latter. For example, in his (otherwise very sympathetic) review of my Socialism book, journalist and writer James Bloodworth argues:

“The difficulty Niemietz faces in defining socialism is largely a result of the word being used as both a synonym for communism and a woolly affectation, an appellation which signals that one cares about worthy causes. […] [T]he variant of socialism which has gained popularity in Britain and the United States in recent times is more plausibly a left-wing strand of social democracy. […] It is social democracy that is gaining in popularity, not socialism”.

Is he right?

The short answer is that we don’t know. The new socialist movement – “Millennial Socialism”, post-Corbynism, Continuity Corbynism, or whatever you want to call it – is a highly confused movement, more of a vibe than an economic theory or a policy agenda. That makes it difficult to engage with it, regardless of whether you are a critic or a sympathetic observer.

However, the neo-socialist movement has its figureheads, its thought leaders, and its media stars, and they, at least, are crystal clear about what they mean by “socialism”. They are particularly clear about the fact that their idea of socialism has nothing to do with social democracy, and often define it explicitly in opposition to social democracy.

Take Bhaskar Sunkara, who, as the founding editor of the trendy socialist Jacobin magazine, the president of the progressive magazine The Nation, and the former vice-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), can reasonably be considered one of the movement’s thought leaders. In his book The Socialist Manifesto, he argues:

“[I]t is impossible to achieve certain socialist goals within capitalism. As we’ve seen in the history of social democracy, any achievements will be vulnerable […]

[T]he social-democratic compromise is inherently unstable, and thus we need to figure a way to advance rather than retreat in the face of that instability. […] [T]he route to a more radical socialism will come from the crisis of social democracy […] [T]he road to [democratic socialism] runs through [class-struggle social democracy].”

He does not tell us in detail how his version of “democratic socialism” would work, but he mentions several key characteristics, including collective ownership of businesses, the abolition of wage labour, and the abolition of capital markets. Which takes us back to the dictionary definition of socialism.

In an article entitled “Democratic Socialism isn’t Social Democracy”, sociology professor and Jacobin contributor Michael McCarthy also explains:

“The Nordic countries […] are social democracies. […] [C]apitalist control persists over the large majority of workplaces. In social democracies, public ownership of the main productive assets is limited […] [T]he Norwegian state still leaves the significant majority of workers working in capitalist firms for their survival.

Democratic socialism, on the other hand, should involve public ownership over the vast majority of the productive assets of society”.

So again, for Jacobin, the key characteristic of socialism is public ownership of the means of production. Which is the dictionary definition of socialism.

Or take Nathan Robinson, the editor-in-chief of the socialist Current Affairs magazine, and former Guardian journalist. In his book Why You Should Be a Socialist, he also argues:

“[T]here’s a key distinction we can draw […] between socialism and social democracy. The socialist is a utopian. […] [T]hey’re fundamentally unsatisfied by the idea that the highest human ambition is simply to turn the United States into circa 2019 Scandinavia. […] [T]his is not the dream. […] The dream is to see […] a change in the structure of who owns capital.”

Again, that last sentence is just a repackaged version of the dictionary definition of socialism.

Perhaps the most unlikely platform of Millennial Socialism is the fashion magazine Teen Vogue, which regularly publishes articles with titles such as “Who is Karl Marx: Meet the anti-capitalist scholar” or “Rosa Luxemburg: Who was the revolutionary socialist and author?”. In an article entitled “What is Democratic Socialism and why is it so popular?”, Samuel Arnold, a professor of political theory, explains:

“A […] mistaken conception of democratic socialism conflates socialism with social democracy; it says that countries like Denmark and Sweden, which tax citizens heavily and spend generously on social programs […], are socialist. […] But socialism isn’t, at root, about taxation or social spending; it’s about who controls the means of production.”

Which is, of course, the dictionary definition of socialism again.

Closer to home, the Marxist-Leninist economist Grace Blakeley, formerly the New Statesman’s Economics Commentator and now at the socialist Tribune magazine, also says:

“Today, the radical left in the UK, the US and France is calling not for social democracy but for democratic socialism. For me, the former means the taxation and regulation of private enterprise, while the latter means the democratic ownership of most large corporations and financial institutions.”

Sometimes, people are a bit coy to spell out their true political beliefs. Millennial Socialists, to their credit, are commendably open about theirs. They are not social democrats, and they do not pretend to be social democrats. They are socialists in the old-fashioned dictionary sense, and they do not pretend to be anything else.

Admittedly, this does not get us much closer to the initial question: when a relative majority – and according to some surveys, even an absolute majority – of UK and US Millennials express a positive view of socialism – what do they mean by that? People who read socialist magazines or socialist books may have a clear-enough idea of what “socialism” means – but how representative are they?

My guess is: not very. The post-Corbynite socialist movement is, as mentioned, a highly confused movement. Millennial Socialism is, first and foremost, a form of hipsterism, and socialist beliefs are primarily fashion statements. People call themselves “socialist” because it is considered cool and trendy to be a socialist. That does not mean that they all read Jacobin, Current Affairs or Tribune, or that they attend seminars on Marxist economics.

Nonetheless – if the apparent popularity of socialism was all just the result of a big sematic confusion, you would expect that confusion to clear itself up over time. If lots of people signed up for a movement, thinking it stands for one thing when it really stands for something else, I’d like to think that they would eventually find out. Misunderstandings of that nature are not uncommon in new-ish and not-yet-fully-formed movements, but they usually do not last forever.

So if the socialist movement is divided between both actual socialists, and social democrats who just erroneously think of themselves as socialists, why does that not create an internal conflict? Why do we never see any disappointed social democrats storming off? “I used to think of myself as a socialist, assuming it meant Scandinavian-style social democracy – but then I found out that the people I thought of as my comrades actually mean something completely different, and decided that it’s not for me”, said no Millennial Socialist ever.

To be clear, I believe that James Bloodworth is right. I believe that the word socialism is far more popular than the actual concept. Most politically engaged Millennials and Zoomers are vaguely left-wing, but they are not full-on Marxists. But then – I also believe that political labels, symbols and movements can create their own tribal identity, which can be more important than the actual ideological content.

Suppose you are a recently politicised young-ish left-winger who comes to identify with the label “socialist”. You see yourself as part of a socialist movement, and that becomes part of who you are, even if you do not really think very much about what exactly that word means. Then over time, you discover that a lot of your comrades are a lot more radical than you thought they were. You have some doubts about some of their positions, but you already feel at home in that movement. You have already made an emotional investment.

Under those conditions, you are not going to drop out, and cut your ties with the movement. Instead, you will subtly adjust your own positions in order to fit in. You will tell yourself that what they mean my “socialism” is also what you mean. You start by calling yourself a socialist, and then, post-hoc, you actually become a socialist. Once you identify with the brand, you may start liking the product.

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Recommended reading/watching/listening:

Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).


2 thoughts on “What “socialism” means – and why it matters”

  1. Posted 05/08/2022 at 18:06 | Permalink

    Democratic socialism is a fraud because invariably they have a dictator who stuffs ballot boxes to ensure that he is re-elected time and time again. This happens,so often that it is no longer a coincidence. The main plank of democratic socialism is the state owning the means of production. This is all very well in theory, but in practice human beings are flawed, and it is human beings who represent the state that has ownership of the means of production. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, so this accounts for the preponderance of dictators in these countries.

    Democratic socialists would have people believe that real democracy is unsatisfactory but handing the means of production to a few individuals in a party and expecting no corruption, is asking too much.

    Democracy may not be perfect, but if mistakes are made there is a decent chance they can be remedied, whereas in democratic socialism the media is state owned and problems are state secrets, never to be resolved.

    The economy is entirely inefficient with social democracy compared with a democratic market economy, where the price system automatically adjusts for scarcity and surplus. A planned economy a just unworkable and so is the concept of a one party state or a ballot stuffing dictator such as in Russia .

  2. Posted 06/08/2022 at 08:29 | Permalink

    Broadly speaking, capitalists believe that, with the right social structures, a more perfect society can be created by imperfect humans; while socialists believe that, with the right social structures, imperfect humans will be perfected. Having lived among humans for a few years, I know which of these beliefs seems more likely to me, and the last century provides 100 million reasons why the second belief is false.

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