Apr 08, 2010 Print this article

What is Socialism?

Socialism is often described as a social and economic system based on collective or state ownership and administration of the means of production. It is also a philosophical and political theory, in addition to the political movement trying to establish this system. Thus, socialism is more than an economic system. It is a doctrinal system that proposes a major change in lifestyle and social structures.

As Jesuit philosopher Fr. Victor Cathrein points out:

"We call Socialism a system of political economy, not as if it did not also lead to many political and social changes, but because the gist of socialism consists in the nationalization of property and in the public administration and distribution of all goods."


"The fundamental principles of socialism belong not to economical but to metaphysical science. Foremost among its tenets is the equality of man..." 1

Socialism is, therefore, much more than an economic, social or political system: it is a whole view of man and the universe. It is what the Germans call a Weltanshauung (a comprehensive view of the world and human life). This worldview, grounded on egalitarian metaphysics, deserves more attention.

Socialism and Communism

From the ideological or philosophical standpoint, there is no substantial difference between communism and socialism. The founders of modern communism - Karl Marx and Frederick Engels - called themselves "socialists." 2

The Soviet Union called itself the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Communist China, Cuba and Vietnam likewise define themselves as socialist regimes.

Socialism can be applied in varying degrees. Thus, in practice, there can be a difference between an incomplete application of socialism and full-blown communism, which is socialism taken to its ultimate consequences.

Therefore, to define socialist doctrine we can use socialist and communist authors interchangeably.

1. Rev. Victor Cathrein, S.J, Socialism Exposed and Refuted - A Chapter from the Author’s Moral Philosophy, Translated from the German. by Rev. James Conway, S.J. Second edition. Benziger Brothers, New York, Cincinnati, Chicago: 1902. Retrieved from http://www.archive.org/stream/...
2. Engels even coined the expression “Scientific Socialism” (Frederick Engels. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. 1880) to describe the philosophical-social-political-economic theory opened up by Karl Marx, as opposed to “utopian socialists” (everyone else, before them...).
Besides, Engels, in his Communist “Catechism” (The Principles of Communism), answering the question “How do communists differ from socialists?” does not disagree with the socialists on principles but only about methods, or the degree of radicalism in the application of the principles to concrete situations (Frederick Engels, The Principles of Communism [1847]. Q. 24. Retrieved from http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/11/prin-com.htm)