Language is one of the primary vehicles of thought. Consequently, it is also one of the first casualties of political discourse, because thinking is inconvenient when ideology is at stake. Take for example the word “socialism.” This word has been flung about with promiscuous abandon in much recent political discourse. But the sad fact of the matter is, not one person in ten-thousand who has employed this term of late has anything like a genuine clue about what the term can or even might mean. By and large, anyone who says that “Socialism is X” or “the definition of Socialism is X,” where “X” is anything less than a multidimensional complex of ideas (all of whose boundaries are foggy, to say the least), needs to be laughed off the stage.
Now, my areas of expertise do not include social/political philosophy, yet even I can recognize at least four major trends &/or primary thematic structures any one or combination of which could qualify as “socialism.” And while I am not prepared to stipulate that this list is comprehensive, I am most certainly prepared to insist that any simplistic definition of the subject is necessarily wrong.
So here is my rough taxonomy, using terms that are strictly my own (and only barely descriptive):
1. LEGAL SOCIALISM: As the name suggests, this is a legal system in which the laws favor the providors of labor and service. This is the form that is most directly opposed to Capitalism, which is a legal system in which the laws favor the holders of wealth and property. In this respect, neither Socialism nor Capitalism should be confused with economic systems. For example, there is no necessary opposition between at least some flavors of socialism and an economy driven by market forces — Sweden and France offer an example. At the same time, Capitalism bears no essential connection to market driven economies, as is demonstrated by Nazi Germany and South Korea under the military dictatorship of the ’70’s.
2. GOVERNMENTAL SOCIALISM: This is an aspect of socialism in which the government owns and operates various primary social “infrastructure” activities in a way that is largely or entirely not-for-profit. Such infrastructure activities could include major forms of transportation and roads, utilities, and healthcare. Here again, Sweden stands out as a relatively good example of a combination of 1 and 2. One might also remark that the ACA, also called “Obamacare,” is about as far from socialism as one might possibly get. A few helpful regulations on what remains a thoroughly profit-driven private industry hardly amounts to a proletarian revolution.
3. CRITICAL SOCIALISM: This would be more of a specifically philosophical position in which the structures and institutions of society are criticized from a perspective that places particular emphasis on unequal &/or unjust distributions of wealth and power. Clearly the interest and direction of such critiques can go in many different directions. But simply by virtue of being some such critique is hardly enough by itself to legitimize the label of “socialism,” particularly when those criticisms are driven by facts rather than ideology. Thus, for example, those who would damn Thomas Piketty as a socialist because of his recent work, Capitalism in the 21st Century, only succeed in demonstrating the vacuity of their understandings of both Piketty’s book and socialism. Piketty is arguing about rising economic and social instabilities that can be understood within their historical context and addressed within a still thoroughly capitalist system.
4. METAPHYSICAL SOCIALISM: This is the view that the basic unit of human reality is the community rather than the individual. This version of Socialism stands opposite to Liberalism, which (whether in its classical, laissez-faire varieties or its more progressive contemporary versions) always takes the individual as the irreducible “atom.” Once again, those who would conflate socialism with a liberal political orientation only succeed in demonstrating their own fatuous obtuseness. It is worth noting that this metaphysical version has various psychological, sociological and anthropological supports: humans always begin as absolutely dependent members of communities, and their “individualism” is something that is not only temporally later than their existence, but logically predicated upon this prior community for its very possibility. Versions of this position are sometimes called “communitarianism.” But this term has the misfortune of being easily collapsed into “communism” which it really is not by itself. (One can add in various additional premises and come up with something that could be called “communism.” But the two ideas are appropriately kept distinct.) The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King is a prime example of a metaphysical socialist. This would make attempts to co-opt Dr. King by some on the extreme conservative side in American politics laughable, were they not so genuinely pathetic.
The above list is far from exclusive — one can easily see how various categories can overlap in a great variety of ways. Nor is the list exhaustive. How, for example, is one to classify the anti-propertarian anarchists, a la Emma Goldman and the early Proudhon, the “all property is theft” folks? The “anarchy” element would seem to exclude 1 & 2, while 3 seems like rather weak tea. And what about the propertarian position of Thomas Aquinas, that all property is stewardship? When the stewards fail of their responsibilities it is no longer stealing to take this property away. (This according to Aquinas and reiterated by a Papal bull in the early ’90’s.)
So, the final lesson that one should learn from all this is: anyone who uses the term “socialism” casually or, worse, offers “the” definition of socialism, should be dismissed out of hand as insufferably ignorant.