What is socialism and what are its essential characteristics ?

Socialism is a catchword of the day. It began as a reaction against the upheavals caused by the industrial revolution. As Emile Durkheim observed : “Socialism is not a science, a sociology in miniature — it is a cry of grief, sometimes of anger, uttered by men who feel most keenly our collective malaise. Socialism is to the facts which produce it what the Groans of a sick man are to the illness with which it is afflicted, to the needs that torment him.”

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Today, socialism has become the most popular, economic ideology. the most vocal political slogan. During the decades following the Second World War, the global advance of socialism has been quite dramatic and unprecedented. As Prof. Daniel Bell has commented : “Rarely in the history of the world has an idea taken hold so deeply and grown so quickly.” Today, self-proclaimed socialists of one variety or another rule 53 of the world sovereign states, controlling 39 per cent of its territory and 42 percent of its population.”

There has been hardly any other word in the economic dictionary, more elusive, more ambiguous and confusing than ‘Socialism’. It has been hounded, criticized and extolled. Socialism as an economic ideology has been interpreted in different ways by different authors. Socialism has been called many things and many things have been called socialism. Socialism has been compared with a magic drug which would keep on changing according to the temperament and condition of the patient. Socialism refers to a body of writings, ideas, beliefs and doctrines……and it refers to real world political movements as well as to policies instituted by socialists in power.


Socialism is a flag of convenience which accommodates politicians of all hues. It encompasses all types of political system, detectorships, democracies, republics and monarchies. It embraces such disparate systems as an Islamic socialism practiced by Libya and Algeria, democratic socialism of Norway or Sweden, the Baathist Socialism of Syria and Iraq, the ‘Ujamaa’ socialism of Tanzania and so on.

Different countries have adopted socialist philosophy in the light of their peculiar conditions Sometimes even within a country different political parties Interpreted the socialist principles to fit into their own political philosophy. To emphasize the confusing nature of the term, George Dalton. Europe socialism is a good word but America a hard word. Roosevelt’s New Deal was called socialist to condemn it as was Keynes” economics In fact Roosevelt and Keynes were about as socialist as Queen Victoria.

“Socialism is the most complicated, many-sided and confused question that has ever plagued the minds of men. To use the socialist label has become politically fashionable. As is observed by Milton Friedman “(For many) Socialism implies egalitarianism and that people are living for society while capitalism has been given the connotation of materialism, ‘greedy’, ‘selfish’, self-serving and so on. King Edward VII once declared in a Mansion House banquet : “We are all socialists now-a-days.” He was fully correct.

There is no universal model of socialism. Everybody imagines socialism in his own way. Still it will be worth while to acquaint ourselves with some of the important definitions of socialism.

Definitions of Socialism :

It has already been observed above that due to innumerable inter­pretations of socialism the term has vague connotation. It has been appropriately observed by C.E.M. Joad, “Socialism was like a hat which had lost its shape “because too many people had worn it. Socialism is a chameleon like creed which changes its color according to its environment.” So to give a precise and concrete definition of socialism is extremely difficult. However, some important and popular definitions of socialism are quoted below :


According to H. D. Dickinson, “Socialism is an economic organi­sation of society in which the material means of production are owned by the whole community and operated by organs representative of and respon­sible to the community according to a general economic plan, all members of the community being entitled to benefit from the results of such socialized planned production on the basis of equal rights.”

In the .words of Loucks : “Socialism refers to that movement which aims to vest in society as a whole, rather than in individuals, the ownership and management of all nature-made and man-made producers goods used in large-scale production, to the end that an increased national income may be more equally distributed without materially destroying the indivi­dual’s economic motivation or his freedom of occupation.”

To quote the words of Pigou “A socialised industry is one in which the material instruments of production are owned by a public authority or voluntary association, and operated not with a view-to profit by sale to other people, but for the direct service of those whom the authority or association represents. A socialised system is one the main part of whose resources are engaged in socialised industries,”


According to Paul M. Sweezy : “In its primary meaning is a com­plete social system which differs from capitalism not only in the absence of private ownership of the means of production but also in its basic structure and mode of functioning.”

In the opinion of Schaffle, “The alfa and omega of socialism is the transformation of private competing capital into a united collective capital.”

G.D.H. Cole observes that “Socialism means four closely connected things—a human fellowship which denies and expels distinction of class, a social system in which no one is so much richer or poorer than his neighbours as to be unable to mix with them on equal term, the common ownership and use of all the vital instruments of production and an obligation on all citizens to serve one another according to their capa­cities in promoting the common well-being.”

It is pointless to go through the innumerable definitions given by economists, politicians, and sociologists. Its nature and form has changed with the changing times. Similarly under different circumstances and at different places the interpretation of socialism has varied. Despite its myriad and overlapping” forms and countless and diverse definitions socialism has certain features in common.

Essential Characteristics of Socialism :

There are thousand and one definitions of socialism. If we would try to traverse through them we are likely to be stuck in the cobweb of definitions. So we may discuss some common features which characterize socialist philosophy in the present-day world.

(1) Emphasis on equality—Economic and Social :

The moral imperative of socialism is egalitarianism. Socialism developed as a reaction against the injustice and miseries of industrial capitalism. It was considered that only by introducing greater equality into economic relations that the condition of the working classes can be improved. To issue a common level in economic progress, it aims at providing equal opportunities to all. Hence socialism has been termed as the economic philosophy of the suffering classes. All socialist movements aspired to a humane society. Socialism emphasizes the principles of liberty, equality-fraternity, co-operation, social communion and comradeship.

In 1952, in New Fabian Essays, Roy Jenkins wrote that equality is the concepts which differentiates socialism from liberalism and communism. According to Laveleye, “Every socialist doctrine aims to introduce more equality into social conditions.” It is recognized that extreme inequalities are socially unjustified, politically undesirable and economically harmful. Therefore socialism aims at introducing equality in the distribution of income, wealth and opportunity.

As W, Arthur Lewis said, “Socialism is not in the first instance about property any more than it is about the state. Socialism is about equality. A passion for equality is the one thing that links all socialists ; on all others they are divided—-Socialism is not a particular way of dealing with property, it is a demand for equality and social justice.” Socialism emphasizes on “fair shares for all.” “Socialism is an equalizer and leveler”. In a socialist society all members are supposed to be equal, none high, none low.

However, it would be wrong to imagine that socialism wants to bring about absolute equality. Such equality is neither desirable nor feasible. Socialism recognizes income differences based on merit and productivity.

(2) Social ownership of the means of production :

Under socialism, there is social or collective ownership of the means of production. It eliminates private property in land and other means of production. Thus, according to the Marian approach under socialism all lands, mines,, mills, factories, the entire system of finance and trade, etc., would be nationalized. Means of production become social property. According to this approach socialism is equated with nationalization.

Hearnshaw narrated the essentials of socialism as elimination of the capitalist expropriation of the landlord and extinction of private enter­prise. According to Herbert Morrison the essentials of socialism were that all big industries and should be publicly or collectively owned and that they should be conducted for the common good instead of pri­vate profit.

Socialists hold private enterprise as private robbery. So all the instruments of production should be owned by the people and opera­ted for the people. Socialism aims at ending of vested interests in agricul­ture, industry and other economic activities. Under socialism it is desired that the power to take economic decisions should be based with public authorities and not with the profit-seeking private individuals. Public ownership may assume the form of nationalization of existing private enterprises, municipal or regional enterprises or co-operative enterprises.

But under socialism, all the means of production need not be nationalized. It may be enough, if the principal basic, key and strategic means of production are nationalized. Other forms of economic-activities may be left in the private hands. But the entire economic sys­tem should be under the control and supervision of the state to ensure that public interest takes precedence over the interest of private profit.

(3) More emphasis on social welfare :

Under socialism there is a sub-ordination of individual interests to me. The individual interests of the community as a whole. The individual is simply a spoke in the social wheel. The in­dividual has no special or separate existence apart from the society. If the situation so demands the individual is to be sacrificed at the altar of the society. In fact, in the past, socialism has been identified with very which demands the subordination of individual welfare to the community.” At the time of a conflict between the individual and social interests, the social interests would run supreme.

Everybody knows how Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn were refused – permission even to receive the Nobel prize as their works were critical of the Soviet society. Jan Tinbergen while delivering the Jawaharlal Nehru memorial lecture in New Delhi in 1970 observed : “I see it (Socialism)as the institutionalization of solidarity among human beings and as the recognition that in the last resort the community is responsible for the welfare of its members. Its opposite is individualism in the sense of each individual being responsible for his or her own welfare. The word socialism having been derived from the same root as society, in my opinion, stands for this task of society to maximize the welfare of its members.”

Under capitalism economic activities are guided by profit motive. Luxuries are produced to the neglect of necessaries, in such a system, as the producers expect to earn more profit from the production of luxuries. So, if under capitalism profit motive is the driving force of the economy, under socialism the maximize of social gains is the guiding motive of production. Under capitalism the monopolies exploit the workers, ruin and impoverish the majority of the population as they want to maximise profits.

Socialist production would be meant to satisfy the material and, cultural requirements of the society. Instead of enrichment of the few the entire society should be enriched. Sidney & Beatrice Webb have succinctly put, “In the U.S.S.R. there is no distinction between the code professed on Sundays and that professed on week days. The citizen acts in his home and outside, according to the same scale of values. The only good life at which he aims is a life that is good for all his fellowmen.”

(4) Economic Planning :

Economic planning is an essential feature of socialism?” As the material means of production are owned by the state, conscious and deliberate productive decisions can be arrived at only by a board. In the absence of planning a socialist economy cannot function. Planning is an economic necessity of socialist production, a concomitant of the economic laws. With the establishment of social ownership of the principal means of production, the whole development of society is brought under conscious control. The systematic improvement of the material and cultural conditions of the masses necessitates planning. Pigou has rightly observed that it is impossible to imagine socialism as anything other than centrally planned.

(5) Establishment of a classless society :

Under capitalism the society is divided into two principal classes—the capitalists and the workers. There is eternal conflict and antagonism between these two classes. One class exploits the other. Socialism aims at establishing a classless society. Under autho­ritarian socialism, there is practically one class, that is, the class of the peasants and workers. As all the means of production are owned by the state, the capitalist class simply does not exist. Under liberal socialism, although private capitalists exist, yet their activity is controlled and regulated. They do not enjoy unrestricted freedom. They are under the constant scrutiny and observation of the state. Consequently the obnoxi­ous feature of class struggle is absent under socialism.

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