Economic Systems: Socialism Research Paper Starter

Economic Systems: Socialism

Dissatisfaction with the status quo has long driven philosophers and theorists to search for the ideal society. Socialism offered an alternative that promised to erase the class conflict and social problems that appeared to be a direct result of the prevailing capitalist system. As with any political philosophy, within the history and development of socialism there have been significant differences among socialist thinkers about what socialism means, how it can be implemented, and how it might provide a way to reach the ideal or utopian society. On a basic level, though, as well as in the most popularly known Marxist-Leninist interpretation, socialism is typified by collectivized ownership and distribution of resources by a central government.

Although Soviet communism collapsed in 1989 and China has significantly retreated from many aspects of Maoist communism in practice, the concept of socialism remains in various forms ranging from democratic socialist governments in Latin America and Europe to industrialized welfare states. Socialism has also been influential on other political ideologies such as radical environmentalism, various anarchist movements, and even as part of economically capitalist countries in the form of social welfare policies.

Keywords Authoritarian; Command Economy; Egalitarian; Eminent Domain; Laissez-Faire; Mixed Economy; Nationalization; Proletariat; Socialism; Statist; Totalitarianism; Welfare State


Economic Systems: Socialism


Generally, socialism refers to an economic system or political organization in which the means of production and distribution are owned or controlled collectively, often by a centralized government. Centralized government management of the economy is also known as a command economy and is a state-centric form of socialism. Socialism also has a specific meaning under the Marxist-Leninist theory as the intermediate stage between capitalism and communism marked by the "revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat" (Marx, 1875 as cited in Tucker, 1978, p. 538), where strong government rule is seen as the method by which resources are collectivized. The Marxist-Leninist meaning of the word is only a part of the much broader concept of socialism. Socialism has influenced a variety of movements, governments, and programs from totalitarian Soviet imperialism to welfare. In this way, each could be considered a subset of socialism or, perhaps more appropriately, each specific movement that includes a component of socialism.


Socialism, like many political and economic theories, can be considered a product of the human desire to create a utopian or ideal society motivated by dissatisfaction with perceived inequality or social injustice. Plato's Republic (380 BCE) was a vision of the ideal society in which philosopher-kings were raised and trained from birth to be logical and wise. Thomas More, the sixteenth-century philosopher wrote Utopia, a book about a fictitious island with a welfare state representative of democracy based on freedom of religion and equality of the sexes. In the nineteenth century, Karl Marx's vision of the ideal society was a communist society reached through a progression of phases culminating in collective efforts for the common good.

Historically, socialists have held differing opinions on the strategy of implementing socialism into society. For example, socialist thinkers such as Leon Trotsky argued for the necessity of an international socialist regime. This international movement was evident in Marx's First (1864) and Second (1889) International Working Men's Associations. In the twentieth century, some socialist goals focused on national politics and the "harnessing of modern science, technology, and industry." In addition, "alternative visions of a socialist future [emphasized] the potential of small-scale communities and agrarianism rather than full-scale industrialization" (Dictionary: Socialism, 2003).

Further Insights

Early Socialism: The Utopians

Early socialism came to be known as utopian socialism. These utopians predated Marx and Engel's Communist Manifesto (1848), which would later become the defining vision of socialist thought. Marx and Engel's themselves, though, actually coined the term "utopian socialists" in reference to those that they claimed had an underdeveloped understanding of class oppression. While many utopian socialists later adopted the Marxist interpretation, their initial ideas were quite different. Utopian socialists endeavored to transform capitalism into a more egalitarian system in order to realize a collective well-being for all people, even those Marx would call privileged. They held such values as association, community, and cooperation to be superior to the pursuit of individual self-interest. They emphasized solidarity and mutual interdependence as the means to replace conflict, instability, and upheaval with genuine social harmony (Dictionary: Socialism, 2003; Marx & Engels, 1848, as cited in Tucker, pp. 497–499).

The word socialism was first used in the early 1830s in Britain by the followers of the British socialist pioneer Robert Owen and in France by French philosopher and reformer Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon.


Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon (1760–1825), was a founding father of modern socialism. Saint-Simon was concerned with the fate of European society following the collapse of the monarchy and feudalism. He believed that the modern forces of science, industry, and technological innovation as well as religion would be drivers of social integration. He was the first to cite economically based conflict between classes as the ruin of the feudal system. After his death, Saint-Simon's followers

… modified and elucidated his principles into a system of thought known as Saint-Simonianism. Partly because of their eccentricities, the Saint-Simonians achieved only brief fame. Led by Barthélemy Prosper Enfantin and Saint-Amand Bazard, they organized a series of lectures (published in 1828-30 as "L'Exposition de la doctrine de Saint-Simon") calling for the abolition of individual inheritance rights, public control of the means of production, and the gradual emancipation of women. Although the movement developed into a moral-religious cult and … disintegrated by 1833.

It exerted significant influence on later socialist thinkers, including Marx (Biography: Saint-Simon, Comte de, 2003).

Robert Owen

Robert Owen was a humanitarian who experimented with utopian social organization. Owen's social experiments consisted of communes of between 2,000 and 3,000 people, which he established in New Lanark, Scotland, in 1800 and in New Harmony, Indiana, in 1824. The operation of these communes reflected Owen's belief that a person's environment is entirely responsible for shaping his or her character. He sought to replace money with the free distribution of goods according to need. This concept of receiving goods according to need latter became a central tenet in the anti-individualist socialist systems to follow (Pilbeam, 2001; Biography: Robert Owen, 2003).

Charles Fourier

Charles Fourier (1772–1837), another early socialist, advocated a socialist system in which societies would be arranged into autonomous profit-sharing phalanges composed of 1,600 psychologically compatible individuals. Each individual would choose his or her work, and everyone would rotate jobs every hour. Each phalange would make a profit, which would always be shared among its members. Fourier opposed communal property and thought equality was unnecessary; instead, he focused his plan on achieving happiness through individual fulfillment (Pilbeam, 2001).

Common Forms of Socialism


The basic values of socialism lent much to several other ideas for social organization. Perhaps the most well known is communism in its most commonly understood Marxist-Leninist form. Within communist theory, socialism is an intermediate stage between capitalism and communism wherein resources are collectivized under the authoritarian rule of the working class or proletariat. Communism itself developed into several related doctrines. In China, Mao Zedong interpreted communism differently from the Marxist-Leninist interpretation. For lack of a significant industrial working class, the Maoist focus was on the agrarian class instead of the working class.

In the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin, during his political reign, known as the period of Stalinism, practiced a socialism implemented by brutally repressing dissent and rigidly controlling the economy through government. Later, Soviet socialism took other forms, and the policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (economic restructuring), developed under Mikhail Gorbechev in the 1980s, represented a significant ideological change in Soviet socialist philosophy compared to the earlier Stalinist regime (McWilliams & Piotrowski, 2005 pp. 458–507).

In 1989, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the majority of former...

(The entire section is 4080 words.)