[ soh-shuh-liz-uhm ]
/ ˈsoʊ ʃəˌlɪz əm /
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a theory or system of social organization that advocates the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, capital, land, etc., by the community as a whole, usually through a centralized government.
procedure or practice in accordance with this theory.
(in Marxist theory) the stage following capitalism in the transition of a society to communism, characterized by the imperfect implementation of collectivist principles.


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How To Use The Terms "Socialism" vs. "Communism"

Socialism and Communism are two words that fall under the category of: learned it a while ago, probably should know it, but actually don't because these are confusing are hard. So what do these terms mean?

Were you ready for a quiz on this topic? Well, here it is! See how well you can differentiate between the uses of "was" vs. "were" in this quiz.
Question 1 of 7
“Was” is used for the indicative past tense of “to be,” and “were” is only used for the subjunctive past tense.

Origin of socialism

First recorded in 1830–40; social + -ism


pre·so·cial·ism, nounsem·i·so·cial·ism, nounun·so·cial·ism, noun
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2022


What does socialism mean?

Socialism is an ideology or system based on the collective, public ownership and control of the resources used to make and distribute goods or provide services. This involves ownership of such things not by private individuals but by the public (the community as a whole), often in the form of a centralized government.

The things needed to make goods or offer services—the raw materials, tools, factories, and labor—are known as the means of production. Under socialism, the means of production are owned collectively, rather than by private enterprises.

The noun socialist refers to someone who supports socialism. It can also be used as an adjective to describe things involving socialism or that operate under socialism, such as countries or economies.

Socialism is both a social and an economic theory, with many varying interpretations as to what it truly entails. In general, socialism values people working together to meet individuals’ needs. It’s based on the belief that everyone who helps create goods or services should have a share in them. To achieve that, socialism calls for the government to own the raw materials used to make goods, such as wood and metals, and everything you need to make things out of them, including machinery and factories. Some versions of the ideology are based on the belief that the government should also set all purchase prices and workers’ wages to ensure that everyone’s wealth stays equal. In this version of socialism, doctors, bakers, clerks, teachers, and accountants would all be paid the same.

Many socialists think that essential services—such as healthcare, education, and even food—should be provided to the citizens by the government. The idea is that since community members worked together to produce those goods and services, everyone should have equal access to them.

There are many common misconceptions related to socialism. One is that a nation cannot be both socialist and democratic at the same time, yet many socialists agree with the idea of democracy.

Another common misconception is that there is no private property in a socialist society. But many people who consider themselves socialists are concerned only with property that has to do with production. In a society based on socialism, you could theoretically still have iPhones, jeans, and cars. The difference would be that the government would own everything required to make them. Abolishing private property is actually a part of communism, an ideology that is often confused with socialism. In Marxist theory, socialism is sometimes considered a middle stage in the transition from capitalism to communism.

Why is socialism important?

The first records of the word socialism come from the 1800s. It is made from the word social, meaning “relating to life, welfare, and relations of humans in a community,” and the suffix -ism, which indicates a theory, doctrine, or ideology.

As a political ideology, socialism is often traced back to the Industrial Revolution. Technology innovations during this time allowed business owners to become very rich while people who worked in their factories worked long hours in dangerous conditions for little pay. Socialism emerged as an alternative to this system of capitalism.

In capitalist systems, most things are privately owned, prices and wages are determined by a free market economy, and goods and services are available only to those who can afford them. Capitalism often leads to a wealthy upper class and a poorer lower class. In contrast, an ideal socialist system aims for no economic classes.

Today, there is no completely socialist country or government. Even countries like Sweden that are often labeled as socialist have capitalist economies based on free markets and competition. China is a communist, one-party state that still has many privately owned corporations and businesses. Even strongly capitalistic countries such as the United States still have some very popular socialist programs, such as Social Security.

Did you know ... ?

Although the theory of socialism has its roots in the Industrial Revolution, socialist ideas can be found in ancient works, such as in Plato’s Republic.

What are real-life examples of socialism?

Like other economic and social systems and ideologies, socialism is complicated and is often a source of debate.


Quiz yourself!

In socialism, the means of production are controlled by which of the following?

A. private owners
B. the church
C. a council of elders
D. the community as a whole

How to use socialism in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for socialism

/ (ˈsəʊʃəˌlɪzəm) /

an economic theory or system in which the means of production, distribution, and exchange are owned by the community collectively, usually through the state. It is characterized by production for use rather than profit, by equality of individual wealth, by the absence of competitive economic activity, and, usually, by government determination of investment, prices, and production levelsCompare capitalism
any of various social or political theories or movements in which the common welfare is to be achieved through the establishment of a socialist economic system
(in Leninist theory) a transitional stage after the proletarian revolution in the development of a society from capitalism to communism: characterized by the distribution of income according to work rather than need
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Cultural definitions for socialism


An economic system in which the production and distribution of goods are controlled substantially by the government rather than by private enterprise, and in which cooperation rather than competition guides economic activity. There are many varieties of socialism. Some socialists tolerate capitalism, as long as the government maintains the dominant influence over the economy; others insist on an abolition of private enterprise. All communists are socialists, but not all socialists are communists.

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.