What is Socialism? : A Look at its Many Misconceptions

No word may be more used, yet less understood in colloquial political talk in the United States, than “socialism.” Socialism is getting more exposure in modern day politics as well. Occupy Wall Street had many socialist undertones, a self-described socialist is running for President, and yet it’s still often used incorrectly. Critics on the right have used “socialist” to describe President Obama and his policies such as Obamacare or any tax increases, to Pope Francis and his concern over income inequality in the world. Stephen Colbert probably summed up the debate over Obama.

Using “socialist” as a slur is nothing new to American politics; President Franklin Delano was called one when he pushed for Social Security and other reforms as part of his New Deal, and John F. Kennedy and later Lyndon B. Johnson were called “socialists” for their support of Medicare and Medicaid, government-funded healthcare for the elderly and economically disadvantaged, respectively.

A few timid people, who fear progress, will try to give you new and strange names for what we are doing. Sometimes they will call it ‘Fascism’, sometimes ‘Communism’, sometimes ‘Regimentation’, sometimes ‘Socialism’. But, in so doing, they are trying to make very complex and theoretical something that is really very simple and very practical. Former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt

800px-FDR_in_1933In modern-day American politics, if any politician in government attempts to increase taxes, make something for public use, or show support for welfare programs, they’re denounced as a socialist. Now let me make this clear, President Obama is not a socialist. Obamacare is not socialist. The Pope is not socialist. Heck, even the self-described “democratic socialist” running for President, Bernie Sanders, isn’t really what academics would describe as a socialist (Bernie falls into what is more known as a “social democrat”). The problem is, thanks to Cold War-era stigmas along with the success of Red Scares, many Americans equate the word socialist with the governments of the Soviet Union and China, which are more of authoritarian governments guise of communism that many academics describe as more of “state-run capitalism” (though even the forms of communism present in the Soviet Union and China are very different). No where in the world does “pure socialism” exist, much like how “pure capitalism” does not exist in any nation. Even with a nation like the United States does not possess a perfectly competitive market, with various regulations, and monopolies, conglomerates, and other institutions wielding differing degrees of market power. Socialism, in reality, is a broad term that encompasses numerous ideologies  and possesses no concrete definition, but rather several characteristics as defined by scholar, Angelo S. Rappoport:

  • general criticism of private ownership and capitalism causing poverty and socioeconomic inequality
  • a solution to the above problem should be to create more collective control over production/exchange/distribution of resources
  • view that collective control should be based on social justice or social equality to provide for the people’s needs
  • In general, valuing society above the individual
Karl Marx, founder of Communism and socialist thinker
Karl Marx, founder of Communism and socialist thinker

Just like how mammals differ drastically from whales to flying squirrels to humans, so do socialist ideologies from Stalinist state socialism to Libertarian socialism to Social Democracy.

Also, just because an ideology contains the word “socialism” in its name, doesn’t mean it is socialist, just like how the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is definitely not very democratic.

National Socialism, or Nazism, which was the ideology of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany, is a “flavor” of fascism, not socialism, which is an entirely different story. National Socialism was meant as an alternative to Communism and Capitalism, both of which Hitler despised. National Socialism is essentially an authoritarian government based on Social Darwinism that certain races are inferior to the supposed German Aryan “master race.” Mass genocide doesn’t really sound like social justice to me. The ideology was named National Socialism in order to broaden support and appear more favorable to the working class, as since Karl Marx was German and socialist-type parties had had previous success in Germany in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century. Once in the chancellory, Hitler also sought to eliminate Communists and Social Democrats before he seriously targeted Jews and those he considered racially inferior.

As the differences between the versions of socialism can be a bit hairy, I’ll attempt to broadly illustrate the differences.

“Pure” Socialism

What would be described as perfect socialism is a socioeconomic system in which all production and resources are managed and produced by social ownership. Production is based on economic demand and overall use to human needs, rather than generation of capital or profit. This can be achieved from various means, from worker-coops to state-run society to common ownership of goods. There is no “pure” socialist state in existence.


Communism is a facet of socialism, but differs from it in that the end goal is a society based solely on common ownership of all production, and government or state, money and class is nonexistent. Nations that we think of as communist (Soviet Union, China, Cuba) aren’t truly communist. These nations are considered still a full step away from communism as government, class and money are all still existent and are more in the realm of Marxist-Leninist states.

Vladimir Lenin during Russian Revolution


As the name suggests, Marxism-Leninism is a mixture of the principles of Karl Marx and leader of the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Lenin. In this system, all major economic decisions are controlled by a “revolutionary vanguard” or group of “enlightened” members of the working class to act as the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” This has been represented by authoritarian single-party governments lead by an official Communist Party. Political dissidence is suppressed and the economic system is usually better described as “state capitalism.” When Americans think of “socialism,” they are usually thinking of Marxism-Leninism.

Libertarian Socialism

A lesser known form of socialism is Libertarian Socialism or Social Anarchism, and actually has a strong history in the US. Libertarian Socialism is skeptical of state-run economic systems and government in general, focusing on smaller, decentralized systems that are more like utopias. Utopian socialist communities like Robert Owen’s New Harmony in Indiana and Brook Farm, which included members like Nathanial Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson, are popular examples. In these short-lived societies that ultimately collapsed, their economies were based on self-sufficient, decentralized systems focusing on the needs of its members.

Democratic Socialism

Democratic Socialism is a system that combines a social ownership of the economy and a democratic society. Democratic socialists argue that the failure of nations like the Soviet Union is a result of the establishment of authoritarian dictatorships. Value must be placed on individuals and governmental actions are only legitimate if the people themselves vote for them. They also view capitalism as antithetical to values central to democracy, like freedom and equality, and wish to replace capitalism with a method of social ownership.

Orwell’s 1984 is more of a warning of Soviet-style socialism, as he was a supporter of democratic socialism

Democratic socialist, Eugene V. Debs, ran for the President of the United States as a member of the Socialist Party in 1912 and received 6% of the popular vote.

Aside from being arguably the most influential physicist in history, Albert Einstein also dabbled in politics. A well-known democratic socialist, he published a famous editorial for the Monthly Review entitled, “Why Socialism?”.

Other notable democratic socialists in history include George Orwell and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. – George Orwell in “Why I Write” (1946)

Social Democracy

The last major branch of socialism is the form of socialism most of Europeans think of when the word “socialist,” is brought up. Social Democracy attempts to pursue social justice within a capitalist economic system, provide welfare measures or a social safety net, support trade unions and worker coops through collective bargaining agreements, reduce income inequality, and commit to a representative democracy for government.

Social democrats fight more to curb the more negative by-products of capitalism, they argue, like social and economic inequality and poverty. But they don’t push to replace capitalism or move to full socialism, rather a mixed economy. They push for universal public services such as education, childcare, health care, and workers’ compensation to help care for its citizens.

Scandinavian nations like Norway, Sweden and Denmark are social democracies and are also considered the happiest nations on Earth.

Bernie Sanders (I-VT) campaigning for a higher minimum wage
Bernie Sanders (I-VT) campaigning for a higher minimum wage

When Bernie Sanders is mentioned as a socialist, the more correct term would be a social democrat. Sanders has expressed that he believes capitalism provides great innovation and wealth to society, but argues that when excess wealth starts to corrode democracy and the wealthy have more control of the political system, it must be reformed. Sanders doesn’t wish to create a classless society and eliminate corporations, but rather create public services like universal single-payer healthcare, public-funded tuition-free college, and paid-maternity leave so citizens’ basic needs are meet and inequality is lessened.

While many in the US Democratic Party may support a few tenants of Social Democracy, only a very few in the progressive wing of the party (like Elizabeth Warren) could be considered social democrats. As stated before, President Obama’s Affordable Care Act is an individual mandate instead of a public single-payer system. He extended the Bush Tax Cuts and for the most part, hasn’t established larger social safety nets or done much to regulate commercial interests.

While President Obama may support some principles aligned with social democrats, like supporting a higher minimum wage and expressing concern over income inequality, he’s still far from a socialist.

Lastly, overall sentiment about socialism is changing in the United States. The McCarthy-esque paranoia about the “red menace” is falling by generation and the population is getting more skeptical about capitalism.

47% of Americans stated they would vote for a socialist President if their party nominated one (though they’d be more likely to vote for an atheist).

However, in another poll, among 18-29 year olds, socialism was viewed favorably by 49% of respondents, compared to 46% viewing capitalism favorably.

While it’s without doubt that some of these respondents probably didn’t know the correct definition of socialism, a large shift in beliefs regarding “socialism” and it’s meaning is undeniable.

Image Credit to Library of Congress/Branch of the National Union of Journalists/Win McNamee/Getty Images/John Jabez Edwin Mayall

2 thoughts on “What is Socialism? : A Look at its Many Misconceptions

  1. Equally misunderstood and misused is “Progressive”, which has somehow become the new term of art for “Liberal”. Not that anyone who reads John Stuart Mill would recognize the applied meaning of Liberal in the US either.

    Liked by 1 person

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