One of my friends asked a question on Facebook after being unable to find a useful answer by other means. The following is my extended answer to the question and some general observations.
As a general piece of advice I’ll offer a couple of suggestions. If you want to understand a political or economic topic, then read primary sources and talk to non-activist political scientists or political philosophers who can provide context for those readings without being prejudiced. They will be biased of course, but that can be accounted for so long as they are open about their biases.
In the case of socialism, I suggest reading some of the following works from Engels, Marx, and Lenin to get a decent feel for the roots of socialist thought. Keep in mind that socialism is a family of ideologies united by a critical view of capitalism and a collectivist approach to decisions about resource management and distribution while also being deeply divided as to which methodologies should be used to address the problems in capitalist economies. There is a wide range of socialist perspectives, and I’m only providing links to a very limited number of them. I don’t subscribe to any socialist ideologies, but I find their historical analyses very interesting and often powerful to read.
A Brief Survey of Socialism
The definition of socialism is both profoundly simple and ever-increasingly complex. Socialism is a type of economic system in which the means of production are collectively owned. Obviously, this description could apply to quite a few significantly different economic systems.
Some might think that socialism is simply anti-capitalism, but there are a variety of anti-capitalist perspectives, and where socialism is compatible with their perspective the anti-capitalist may adopt it as an alternative to capitalism, but not all are socialists. Some are conservatives or traditionalists, others progressives, and yet others feminists whose primary concern is hegemony rather than economics. They may favor various kinds of mixed economies, communism, mutualism, and so on.
That said, socialism does make anti-capitalist critiques central to its theoretical foundation and seeks to provide an alternative to it via the collective control of the means of production. Beyond this point socialists often disagree on the optimal methodology for arriving at just economic conditions, and they may even disagree to some extent as to what just economic conditions would be in practice.
The divisions among socialists can often be mapped by identifying their thought with a particular figure. When hobnobbing with socialists, it’s not uncommon to encounter Marxists, Marxist-Leninists, Leninists, Stalinists, Trotskyists, Maoists, etc. These more traditional approaches to socialism can often be assigned to the category of state socialism, a class of socialist theories which see the state as the lever by which capitalist economic structures should be overturned and a dictatorship of the proletariat established. Among state socialists, there are numerous disagreements about methodology. Some are in favor of highly regimented central planning by the state, while others would prefer a more decentralized approach. It is important to note that central planning is not an intrinsic feature of socialism, nor is a capitalistic economy immune from central planning. Monopolies and trusts would be examples of planned economies within a capitalistic framework.
Other socialists take a more libertarian or even anarchist point of view, often suggesting that the most moral or efficacious means of achieving just economic conditions is the minimizing or abolishing of the power of the state. Libertarian Marxism, anarcho-syndicalism, and participism would be examples of these perspectives. These perspectives often propose decentralized democratic alternatives to a traditional conception of the state such as communes, worker’s councils, trade unions, or municipalism.