What is Socialism? The Definition by Tina Phillips

Part 1: The Definition

Socialism has been a hot topic as of late. As a self-identified socialist for twenty years and someone who was active in an independent socialist political party for most of that time, I have a lot to say about it. One thing that has bothered me lately is how many times socialism is incorrectly defined. I think getting the definition right is very important. You need to know what it is to know if you support it, or want to work for it, or not. There seems to be widespread confusion about what exactly socialism is. 

Furthermore, it’s important to know there are not multiple definitions. The definition is not up for interpretation. Why? Because in order to bring about a socialist society certain conditions must be met. That is why socialism cannot be whatever people want it to be, decide it will be, or something that changes with time at its core. It’s something very specific for a reason. Central to the question of what is socialism is what are we working towards and why?

One reason I think people are so confused concerns Bernie Sanders. As much as Bernie Sanders has helped the socialist cause, he has also hurt it. Bernie Sanders was a long time member of the socialist Liberty Union Party of Vermont long before he became a senator. One cannot be part of a socialist organization for an extended period of time and not know the proper definition of socialism. The only thing I can think is Sanders has deliberately misled folks on the correct definition. Why he is doing this is unclear. My lead theory is that he wants to soften the image of socialism and make it more palatable for mainstream America. However, I feel this does a disservice to us. Why? Because we need and deserve actual socialism. And people deserve to hear the truth about what that is.

Socialism at its core means the collective social ownership of the means of the production, distribution, and exchange of commodities. Right now only the rich control these processes. Under socialism, everyone would have equal access to the tools used to produce. Workers  would own their workplaces, democratically control them, make decisions together, and equally reap the benefits of work. This is often called democracy at work or workplace democracy.

One phrase we keep hearing a lot is “democratic socialism.” What makes democratic socialism (Please read this definition, I consider it definitive.) any different from socialism? I’ll let you in on a little secret…There is no difference! Socialism is inherently democratic and anti-authoritarian, despite what we have been told. Have there been regimes that called themselves socialist and were authoritarian and undemocratic? Yes. However, they were never socialist, but socialist in name only. True socialism has not been achieved in many places, and in the places it did exist, it did not exist long (for various reasons).

Social democracy is reformed capitalism. Sure, it centers around a strong social safety net and social support for society paid through taxes. Some places also include protections for workers, paid vacations and other employment benefits, and support for parents etc. They tend to have universal “free” healthcare and college education. But they are not in any way socialist, because workers do not own their workplaces. Also, industry is not nationalized. There is no collective ownership of the means of production and distribution of goods and services. Under socialism, we envision all basic needs will be met without having to pay for them, including housing, which is currently the case in non-industrialized nations.

So, the call for socialism is the call for something relatively new to be built. When folks like Sanders point to Scandinavian countries and call them, “socialist,” they are continuing to mislead people. Those countries are welfare states with mixed market economies, and they are still capitalist countries. Social democracy has a separate definition from that of socialism. Socialism is a much more radical idea. And when I say radical, I mean getting to the “root.”

There are root causes and there are root solutions. Socialists aim to go to the root when looking to solve society’s problems and don’t look for band-aids. We want to pull up capitalism root to stem and replace it with a different tree all together. Reforms are often on the road to socialism, but it’s not socialism itself. Socialism is a radical action because it entirely replaces one system with another. In addition, it requires an abolishment of the capitalist system first. It’s a complete transformation of the political, social, and economic system into one where social relationships are no longer organized hierarchically. Meaning, no one has power over anyone else. Socialists don’t want to work for bosses or to make profit for the owners of a company. We want to work for the benefit of society and for ourselves. Socialism actually creates a society where the needs of the collective are balanced with the needs of the individual.

As socialists, we believe a society organized by cooperation and interdependence is better than one organized with competition and rugged individualism. We believe socialism is designed to meet human needs best. Socialists recognize human needs require close social bonds and for human beings to help each other survive. It is rooted in the word “social” and in social relationships with each other. We see that we are all better off when society is organized this way, instead of how capitalism sets up social relationships —as antagonistic, and where we are subjected to exploitation, oppression, and abuse in order to survive.

That brings us to capitalism. Why isn’t reformed capitalism good enough? Because capitalism is inherently hierarchical. The power relationship of owners over workers is inherently exploitative. Capitalism exists so that a tiny minority of people can be the owners and exploit the labor of others for profit. In fact, many may not understand this, but our employers actually steal directly from us. (That’s in part how they became rich to begin with.) Our labor makes more profit than workers create. Our employers take a huge chunk of our wages and pocket them for themselves. That is essentially what we call wage slavery. If we don’t agree to this coercive and manipulative relationship, we simply don’t get paid anything at all, and we starve. That’s a mighty threat.

You can see under these conditions this can never be called socialism. Because socialism is inherently radically democratic and anti-authoritarian: it and capitalism are virtual opposites. Social relationships under socialism are not based on force. Capitalism will always put profit over people. That’s what it is designed to do. And it’s based on accumulating as much wealth as possible at the expense of people and the planet. It’s not a very moral or ethical system. That is why it has to be eliminated altogether. There are no exceptions to this.

You can see now that capitalism and socialism are virtually opposites in how they are set up and therefore mutually exclusive. Furthermore, reformed capitalism is not socialism. We don’t have a problem with “casino capitalism,” “corporatism,” or “crony capitalism,” we have a problem with capitalism itself. And we absolutely must do away with it wholesale.

It’s important we see that the way in which socialism is defined definitely leaves out both the social democratic and authoritarian conceptions of socialism. Personally, I reject Leninism, Maoism, Trotskyism, and any other types of socialism which are not democratic. And I don’t really even consider authoritarian socialism to be socialist at all. It doesn’t completely abolish systems of hierarchy, often comes into being through systems of hierarchy, top down approaches (such as vanguardism and democratic centralism), and in non-democratic ways. They also tend to be more violent to achieve their aims. I see socialism is a fundamentally non-violent movement, but which does include self-defense when necessary.

Moreover, integral to this is the idea of socialism being transformational, and not a reproduction of capitalist patriarchy in any way. This means we must stay away from things like punishment, retribution, domination, and violence. If we want to avoid reproducing the things we say we are against, we must be consistent between our principles and our actions. This means socialism must be ethical, humane, and liberatory in nature. It necessitates that we eliminate brutality, barbarism, and cruelty in the here and now, and not just “after the revolution.” We must use the means that get us to the ends we say we want. Socialism believes in the redemptive power of human beings and seeks to bring out the very best humans have to offer. We fully believe that socialism would help us reach our full potential as human beings. In order to make this a reality, how we act today can determine our tomorrow.

Personally I identify as a libertarian socialist. This conception of socialism is highly decentralized, but not about government, state, or centralized control. I liken it also to participatory economics. A recent article put out by the Black Rose Anarchist Federation explains this  conception of socialism, and it’s definitely worth a read and careful consideration. The only way I diverge from their conception is that I believe in a diversity of tactics, which includes elections. Not that I think socialism has a very good chance of coming from the electoral system or ballot box, but because elections are one way to organize and educate others. It helps us raise consciousness and provides a platform from which to do so. It can help build movements, like a movement for socialism.

We are starting to see many take the mantle up of socialism, particularly young people in this country. How we get to socialism will be addressed in part two of this article. Until then, please enjoy the link section below and learn more about socialism!

Learn More About Socialism:

The Corporation, movie link!


Best introduction to socialism isn’t Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto, it’s Howard Zinn’s play, “Marx in Soho.” Watch it performed live here:


Socialism v. Capitalism Debate Video:


Martin Luther King, Jr. (My favorite Democratic Socialist):


Albert Einstein (arguably one of the smartest humans that ever lived):


Hellen Keller:


What Socialism Demands –Eugene V. Debs:


Debs on the two party system:



Is Venezuela Socialist? (Not so much).


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