Some Notes on the Meaning of the Term Socialism And Some Common Misuses of the Term, as Well as Some Common Related Terms
Socialism is a term much in the media and political conversation today. Unfortunately, due to a number of factors - primarily far right lies and propaganda -- but also poor political education and the misuse of the term by certain popular politicians, social media pages, and media outlets -- there are a number of misunderstandings about the meaning of this term as used by socialists.
As such, it is important to understand exactly what is meant by this term, especially as used by actual socialists. Hopefully, this corrective will help you understand what is meant by the term when used by leftists/socialists.
At its most basic, socialism is defined as "worker control of the means of production".
There are many varieties of socialism, but all entail these basic tenets.
Frequently, you will find that some socialists will add more to this or use slightly different wordings.
One common addition is to add an end to the capitalist mode of production. This is the system by which the owning class extracts the surplus value -- aka profit -- of the working classes via capital accumulation and wage labor.
Another common variation is to add production for use in contrast to production for profit.
Another common variation is social; that is to say all people, not just those who are able to work, have their needs met.
Some other common variation on the basic definition that may be found specify democratic control or substitute ownership rather than control. Sometimes people use the term collective control.
These differences are mostly sectarian and historical and aren't terribly important unless one is deeply involved in discussions of political theory.
Some Common Types of Socialism
Some of the better-known varieties of socialism include:
Democratic socialism is a variety that seeks to achieve this via democratic, electoral means. It is largely used in contrasts with revolutionary socialism and more authoritarian forms of socialism.
State socialism is a variety in which worker or social control is exercised through a state entity.
Libertarian socialism a variety in which worker or social control is not exercised through a state entity. Rather, worker or social control happens through a collective of users and/or occupiers, such as a worker' co-operative where the workers as a group control the means of production that they use and occupy. Libertarian socialism is associated with and may be considered synonymous with anarchism. Closely related are syndicalism and mutualism.
Communism is a variety of socialism in which the means of production are held in common by all individuals in society. It usually means a classless, stateless society. This contrasts with other varieties of socialism in which the means of production ae held in cooperative ownership or state ownership.
Marxist communism is a variety of communism in which an intermediate stage of socialism called the "dictatorship of the proletariat" leads to a transition to a classless, stateless society. Note that, while Marx posited that the goal of socialism is communism, these terms predate his usage. Furthermore, not all socialists agree with Marx or consider themselves Marxist.
Anarcho-Communism is a variety of communism in which the intermediate stage of socialism is skipped and there is a more immediate transition to a classless, stateless society.
Some Things Frequently Confused With Socialism
In political discussions, people who are not well versed in the proper meanings of terms often confuse other political and economic systems (and note that the economic is political) for socialism.
Social democracy is probably the most common of these. This is the system many people (including Bernie Sanders) mean when they mistakenly refer to "democratic socialism" or "Nordic socialism" and similar errors. While social democracy came out of socialism, it is no longer socialism. Rather, it is a variety of capitalism. Under social democracy, the injustices of capitalism are ameliorated via economic and social intervention, including state welfare, collective bargaining arrangements, regulation of the economy, and minor redistribution of income and wealth. Social democracy also features a commitment to representative democracy.
State capitalism is a term used by some socialists to describe system in which the state replaces individual capitalists. Under state capitalism, the state, via state-owned business enterprises, either controls or dominates the means of production, and acts to replace privately owned capitalist corporations, engaging in capital accumulation and extracting the surplus value from the workers via wage labor. Some related terms are "degenerated worker's state" and "deformed worker's states. These terms are generally used by socialists who disagree with other socialists. They are frequently applied to authoritarian states such as the USSR and PRC
What Socialism is NOT
Socialism is NOT "stuff the government does". This is an old lie, spread by the far right to discredit government services.
It is NOT the police, the Border Patrol, the FBI, or the military. Those are the institutions used by capitalists to maintain control and oppress the working class.
It is NOT public transportation, libraries, public schools, fire and EMS services, disaster relief, and the like. Those are public services.
It certainly is NOT water. That's a chemical compound.
It is NOT cell phones, TV, radio, or the internet. Those are forms of technology.
It is NOT driving or air travel. Those are simply modes of transportation.
It is NOT safe food. That's a combination of modern technology and proper sanitation techniques.
It is NOT money. That's a medium of exchange.
It is NOT insurance, bank bailouts, corporate subsidies, or patents. Those are capitalist institutions of economic oppression.
In summation, don't be fooled and misled. There are a number of ideas about how socialism can and should be achieved and what exactly it should or will be like, but they all come back to one simple idea.
Socialism is the worker control of the means of production.