What is socialism? Here's how 10 brilliant thinkers define it.

There is no one answer. But there are 10.

George Orwell and Albert Einstein. (Photo illustration: Big Think/Wikimedia Commons)
  • Like many ideologies, socialism can be many things to different people.
  • These ten quotes show what it means to ten different thinkers, including Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill.
  • While they leave the question of what socialism is unsettled, they do offer us great insights.

Socialism is one of those words that has been used so many times to describe so many different ideologies that it has lost all meaning. That doesn't stop people from trying to describe it though. Here, we have ten quotes by ten brilliant thinkers, capitalist and socialist alike, describing what socialism is.

Che defines socialism

"For us, there is no valid definition of socialism other than the abolition of the exploitation of one human being by another." – Che Guevara

Ernesto "Che" Guevara was an Argentine revolutionary known for his participation in the Cuban Revolution of 1959. He was trained as a doctor and took a view of socialism as a cure for the disease of capitalism. His views of what the world would be like after the disease was cured were often as romantic as our view of him, but they all tend to center on the idea of a world free of exploitation and alienation which was inhabited by a more complete human being than was typical under capitalism.

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Albert Einstein on the need for a socialist economy

"The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of the evil. We see before us a huge community of producers the members of which are unceasingly striving to deprive each other of the fruits of their collective labor... I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals." – Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein was a physicist well known for his theory of relativity. He once wrote an article advancing his socialist political views. In this quote, he explains the socialist belief that the disorganization of capitalism and the vicious competition it demands leads to many social ills and that the cure for it is collective ownership.

Debs explains what he stands against

"I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence." – Eugene V. Debs

Eugene V. Debs was an American labor leader and socialist presidential candidate who got six percent of the vote in 1912.

In this quote, given to the court that convicted him for sedition for opposing American entry into WWI, he expresses a key socialist idea: That the wealth of society is produced by workers and the capitalist system unjustly allows that wealth to be concentrated in the hands of people who do nothing but own capital.

MLK on the distribution of wealth

"Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God's children."– Martin Luther King Jr.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was an American minister and activist well known for his participation in the civil rights movement.

King was a democratic socialist who was as dedicated to economic justice as he was to civil rights. This quote speaks to a very basic socialist concept; that the current distribution of wealth is unjust and must be corrected through fundamental changes to our economic system. King, like many other socialists, bases this view on his Christian beliefs.

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No, socialists don't all love the USSR. Anton Pannekoek​ explains why.

"The system of production developed in Russia is State socialism. It is organized production, with the State as universal employer, master of the entire production apparatus. The workers are master of the means of production no more than under Western capitalism. They receive their wages and are exploited by the State as the only mammoth capitalist. So the name State capitalism can be applied with precisely the same meaning. The entirety of the ruling and leading bureaucracy of officials is the actual owner of the factories, the possessing class." – Anton Pannekoek

Pannekoek was a Dutch astronomer who became a leading left-communist philosopher. Here, he answers the question of if the USSR was socialist. For him, the answer is no, as the workers in Russia had no more control over the means of production than they did anywhere else.

As a council communist, he would argue this control requires local, democratic administration. However, many left-wingers thought the USSR was socialist and Soviet apologists exist to this day.

Paul Foot on Marx

"Marx argued that all human history was dominated by a struggle for the wealth between classes, one of which took the wealth, and used it to exploit the others. As science and technology developed, so one exploiting class was replaced by another that used the resources of society more efficiently. The necessity for exploitation, he observed, had ended with capitalism. If the working class, the masses who cooperate to produce the wealth, could seize the means of production from the capitalist class, they could put an end to exploitation forever and run society on the lines of the famous slogan: 'From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.'" – Paul Foot

Paul Foot was a British journalist. This explanation of the Marxist theory of history comes from his book Why You Should Be A Socialist. He explains very clearly both why Marxist socialists think history moves us toward a socialist system and why all socialists seek to replace capitalism with a system that doesn't rely on exploitation

Orwell reminds us that socialism has bigger goals than mere efficiency

"In every country in the world, a huge tribe of party-hacks and sleek little professors are busy 'proving' that Socialism means no more than a planned state—capitalism with the grab-motive left intact. But fortunately there also exists a vision of Socialism quite different from this. The thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the 'mystique' of Socialism, is the idea of equality; to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all." – George Orwell

George Orwell was the pen name of Eric Blair, an author best known for the totalitarian visions of 1984. It surprises many to learn that he was a dedicated democratic socialist. Much of his anti-totalitarian worldview was forged during the Spanish Civil War, where he fought for the Republicans and gained an admiration for the Anarcho-Syndicalists in Catalonia.

In this part of his memoir, Homage to Catalonia, he nostalgically looks back on the seemingly utopian society the anarchists were building in Catalonia. He uses it to remind us that any definition of socialism cannot be reduced to merely planned capitalism; it must include some notion of equality and the dismantling of the class structure to truly be socialistic.

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A Scot lays out his goals

"Socialism proposes to dethrone the brute-god Mammon and to lift humanity into its place." – Keir Hardie

Keir Hardie was a Scottish labor organizer, activist, and one of the founders of the Labour Party in the UK. In this quote, he expresses the socialist belief that capitalist economies are organized in a way that focuses on producing more wealth for those who already have it at the expense of humanity in general and those who own no capital in particular.

Socialism, in theory, would instead be organized to meet the stated needs of people and their communities and focus on production for use.

Churchill's response to these utopian dreams

"Liberalism is not Socialism, and never will be. There is a great gulf fixed. It is not a gulf of method, it is a gulf of principle ... Socialism seeks to pull down wealth; Liberalism seeks to raise up poverty. Socialism would destroy private interests; Liberalism would preserve private interests in the only way in which they can be safely and justly preserved, namely by reconciling them with public right. Socialism would kill enterprise; Liberalism would rescue enterprise from the trammels of privilege and preference ... Socialism exalts the rule; Liberalism exalts the man. Socialism attacks capital; Liberalism attacks monopoly." – Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill was an English writer and statesman who served as prime minister during WWII. His attitude reflects his understanding of socialism as antithetical to liberalism, which he supported. His anti-socialist attitudes were so great he claimed that "some form of a Gestapo" would be needed to implement a democratic socialist government in the UK.

In 1945, Churchill was crushed in a national election by the socialist Clement Attlee, who proceeded to implement a democratic socialist program in the UK. This was accomplished without the use of a Gestapo or the dismantling of liberal institutions. Churchill became prime minister again in 1951, but left the welfare state alone and only privatized a few state enterprises.

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The Weathermen remind us of the darker side of socialism

"Socialism is the total opposite of capitalism/imperialism. It is the rejection of empire and white supremacy. Socialism is the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the eradication of the social system based on profit. Socialism means control of the productive forces for the good of the whole community instead of the few who live on hilltops and in mansions. Socialism means priorities based on human need instead of corporate greed. Socialism creates the conditions for a decent and creative quality of life for all." – The Weathermen

The Weather Underground, also known as The Weathermen, were a left-wing terrorist group operating in the United States in the 1960s and '70s. This section from their manifesto Prairie Fire explains their view of what socialism is.

Notice that while they agree with the democratic socialists quoted above on the need to end exploitation and racism and show a desire to help the poor, they argue for violence and the creation of a dictatorship which is absent in the writings of many other socialist writers. While many thinkers on the left, such as Mao Zedong, and tons of them on the right, such as Milton Friedman, agree that socialism necessitates a dictatorship, this stance remains controversial and far from mainstream among modern Western socialists.

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