Wednesday, September 17, 2008

What is Socialism?

Socialism may refer either to a socio-economic system, or to a political ideology. As a system, socialism is primarily defined by public control over productive property and the distribution of wealth, with the goal of achieving a degree of social and economic equality. This control may be either direct — exercised through popular collectives such as workers' councils — or indirect — exercised on behalf of the people by the state. In particular, collective property over the means of production is seen as an important element of socialism.

As an ideology, socialism refers to a commitment to create the kind of society described above, though there is disagreement between socialists on many other issues, including the proper extent of equality and collective ownership, the best means to achieve them, and whether the state should be strengthened, kept as it is, or abolished. In this sense, it is debatable whether socialism is a single ideology or a broad movement containing several related ideologies. The modern socialist movement largely originated in the late-19th century working class movement. During this period, the term "socialism" was first used by European social critics, who spoke against capitalism and private property. Karl Marx, who helped establish and define the modern socialist movement, wrote that socialism would be achieved through class struggle and a proletarian revolution.

Marxism has had a lasting influence on most branches of socialism. It provides a criticism of capitalism, based on the view that capitalism allows the bourgeoisie (business owners) to exploit the proletariat (wage workers). It also provides a view of history as being driven by class struggle and revolutions, and it holds that the working class is the primary driving force of socialism.

Since the 19th century, socialism has been divided into several movements with differing and sometimes conflicting ideas. The question of whether a socialist society is best achieved through reform or revolution is the main divide between socialists. Another important issue is the extent of collective ownership over the means of production. Most Marxists, communists and democratic socialists champion the complete nationalization (state ownership) of the economy. Libertarian socialists, social anarchists, some Luxemburgists and some elements of the United States New Left favor decentralized collective ownership in the form of cooperatives or workers' councils. Market socialists envision a combination of state ownership with market mechanisms for making production decisions. Social democrats propose selective nationalization of only certain key industries, within the framework of mixed economies.

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