Maarten Maartensz:    Philosophical Dictionary | Filosofisch Woordenboek                      

 S - Socialism


Socialism: Social ideal first named "socialism" in 1827 that is concerned with justice and aims at a radically better human society than existed so far.

There have been given many meanings to "socialism" once the term was invented, and many practices, governments, constitutions, states and parties have dignified themselves with the name "socialist".

It is somewhat difficult to extract a common core of all the movements, groups, parties, governments, systems or ideals said to be socialistic.

First, there is a fundamental division between marxist and non-marxist socialists, that was from the start much insisted upon by Marx and Engels: Other socialists were "utopian", meaning idealistic with little sense of reality, but marxian socialists were "scientific", meaning in practice that they believed in Marx and Engels, and more specifically in their theories that history had been proved by Marx to lead necessarily to socialism; that capitalist economy had been proved by Marx to be based on theft and to move towards a necessary collapse; and that the way forward towards socialism was by class struggle and revolution. A related later distinction between marxists and communists on the one hand, and so-called democratic socialists on the other, was that the former were revolutionaries, and the latter believed the social revolution they desired could be achieved by parliamentary elections and legal changes. For more, see: Marx, Engels, Marxism .

Having stated the specifically marxist view of socialism, I will not further consider it and refer the reader to the above entries.

Second, there have been many kinds and flavours of socialism, socialist ideals and practices, and socialist movements. The main tenets most of them agreed about may be summarized as follows:

  • Capitalism is bad: The existing - capitalist - society and its institutions are unjust and immoral. This might refer to many different things, individually or collectively: exploitation of farmers or of workers; the lies, fantasies or practices of the churches; the unfairness of the law; the incompetence or corruptness of government.
  • Socialism is good: There is a better - socialist - society with just and moral institutions. Here there will be no exploitation of man by man, and everyone will be able of developing his or her talents and to work for society and the interests of all for a fair wage.
  • Revolution is needed: The coming of socialism requires a radical transformation of existing society, that amounts to a revolution. However, different socialists differed on how this revolution is to happen or to be made, and many believed it could be achieved through the ballot box and legal changes, and might happen gradually.

Here are some brief comments on these three socialist theses.

1. Capitalism is bad

The common objection to this thesis is that if capitalism is bad, this is because human beings on average, at least since the Fall from Paradise, are not very good, and that diffferent social institutions will not make men better, less egoistic or more rational.

This is a fair criticism in the sense that socialist ideals have been committed to the perfectability of man, and that this generally assumes that men on average, and political leaders and bureaucrats in particular, are better or more capable of improvement than they are in fact, so far as can be learned from history.

One major weakness of all socialist ideas and ideals is that they were founded on a very optimistic view of mankind, that holds at best, if at all, for a small minority of mankind.

2. Socialism is good

The common objections to this thesis are usually two: First, socialism as stated and originally conceived was utopian, and much of it still is utopian except for a few extreme optimists about human perfectability. Second, in so far as socialism has been practised in any radical way, it soon turned into a dictatorship, and also did not work: Socialism in Russia or China did not lead to great welfare for the working population, nor to freedom, nor to an economy based on rational and fair planning, but to an exploited, unfree population and an economy hindered and hampered by the lack of a free market.

This is a fair criticism in the sense that all radical socialist experiments have failed, often in a radical and painful way, and usually for at least two related reasons: The leaders were more interested in personal power and personal improvement than in really practising the public plans they got power with, and the people by and large were not willing to practice according to socialist ideals.

3. Revolution is needed

The common objections to this thesis are usually two: First, revolution is not needed, for socialism may be introduced gradually and peacefully, through elections and propaganda. Second, revolution is harmful, because it destroys society and may murder many, and indeed most socialist revolutions made by violence have soon resulted in dictatorships.

Again this is a fair criticism. Indeed, the basic criticism of socialism in general is that it is far too optimistic about human beings.

Finally, it should be remarked that, in spite of marxist teachings, a fair case may be made that it has been shown by the practices and legislation in west-european capitalist states, that many of the ideals or ends of socialism can be and have been realized through the ballot box, trade unions, and legal changes, and all by basically non-violent means, through the course of several generations, and on the basis of the technological improvements that science made possible.

In brief, and contrary to much socialist teaching, there is a practical possibility of capitalism-with-a-human-face, at least in the sense that all workers get a fair wage, fair working hours, considerable leisure, basic freedoms, and the possibility for their children to study when talented, and all adult persons have the same rights and duties in principle, while the differences between the richest and the poorest in society are far smaller than they used to be a hundred or more years ago.

This may not have delivered many of the promises or hopes of earlier socialists, but it turned out to be practicable, and to have the active or passive consent of great parts of the population, irrespective of their political creeds, for even the liberals and conservatives have for generations supported the welfare state, and this seems to have worked out as a more equitable system of distribution of economical goods than under any other system practised so far. And none of this has enlightened or improved mankind noticeably - what happened was mostly that the burdens of living and making a living have been spread more equitably.


See also: Communism, Conservatism, Liberalism, Marxism



 Original: Feb 16, 2006                                                Last edited: May 7, 2014.   Top