From each according to his abilities to each according to his needs. You may have heard this before, but did you know it's a quote from Karl Marx that discusses one of the key points of Socialism? Socialism is one of the most influential political ideologies in history, but there are a lot of misunderstandings about what it really means. So here we will discuss what socialism is, the different types, and examples of socialist countries. 

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Table of contents

    Meaning of Socialism

    Socialism is a historically influential ideology which advocates for and is based on Common Humanity, Collectivism, Equality, common ownership, Class Conflict, and a strong state.

    Socialism The socialist symbol of Hammer and Sickle StudySmarterFig. 1 The socialist symbol of Hammer and Sickle

    Common humanity is a core concept in socialism, which assumes that humans are inherently social creatures who desire to live and act cooperatively rather than compete. As such, humans are bound by their fraternity.

    Socialists also believe in collectivism. This argues that cooperation is the most effective and moral way to achieve goals. Socialists argue that collective action is the only way to truly transform society. This is based on the idea of common humanity, that humans are inherently social. This also forms the basis for common ownership.

    We can see the implementation of collectivism in the economy by looking at the Soviet Union, which collectivised its entire economy, especially agriculture. This means that everything was owned collectively and was planned by the government. We can also see less extreme examples of collectivism in nationalised industries like utilities or state-run educational systems.

    Equality is another of the key concepts in socialism; in fact, ensuring equality of outcome is one of the primary aims of socialism. This is important as most socialists disagree with the idea of equality of opportunity, which is common in Liberalism, as they argue that inequality stems from the structure of capitalist society, and therefore there cannot be equality of opportunity under such a system. There are, however, debates within socialism about whether true equality can be achieved.

    Socialists' views of common humanity, collectivism and equality all form the justification for common ownership. This is when a society abolishes private property, and all property is shared. Though it can be applied in a limited way as well, for example, nationalising an industry like railways or steel-making.

    Social class and class conflict are also important parts of socialism. Socialists argue that social class is the main thing that divides societies and creates inequality. Some socialists, especially communists, have also pointed to the conflict between classes as the driving force in history and say that this conflict is inevitable. Improving conditions for the working class, or proletariat, is an important aim of socialism, though the view on how this should be done and if class can be eradicated depends on the type of socialism.

    How socialists define social class depends on the form of socialism. Communists tend to emphasise individuals' labour in defining class so that those whose main value comes from labour are the working class or proletariat, and those who control the means of production or capital are the bourgeoisie. Whereas social democrats tend to focus on divides like income and social status in defining classes into lower or working classes and middle and upper classes.

    The last important concept in understanding the meaning of socialism is the state's role in society. This can vary hugely depending on the type of socialism. However, all socialists tend to believe that a strong state is necessary in order to push through reforms and redistribute wealth.

    Socialism: is a political ideology based on concepts of common humanity, collectivism, equality, common ownership, social class, and a strong state.

    Characteristics that define a socialist society

    As a result of this definition of socialism, some of the characteristics that we might expect to see in a socialist society are:

    • A strong state: this could look like anything from a dictatorship of the proletariat to a democratically elected but powerful government.

    • Common ownership: this could be the abolishment of private property altogether or even just energy companies being owned by the government

    • Collectivism: this could vary from a completely collectivised economy that is planned by the state to just key industries being collectivised and regulated by the state

    • Equality of outcome: this could look like the same income for everyone or just a minimum quality of life for everyone

    • Classes: this could vary from a completely classless society to a society where the difference between the classes is minimised

    Types of Socialism

    Socialism is very broad, and many different types of Socialism have evolved over time. Here we will look at the three main types of socialism; Revolutionary Socialism, Revisionist Socialism and Third-way Socialism.

    Revolutionary Socialism

    Revolutionary socialism is also known as Communism or Fundamentalist Socialism. What makes a socialist a revolutionary socialist is, primarily, their idea of how a state will become socialist, that is, through revolution.

    The most important forms of revolutionary socialism include Classical Marxism, Orthodox Communism (also known as Marxism-Leninism), and Neo-Marxism. One of the biggest misconceptions about socialism is that communism and socialism are the same thing; as such next, we will discuss the major differences between the two.

    Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels are perhaps the most significant socialist thinkers in history, having hugely contributed to the development of communism, especially with Marx being the namesake of Marxism. Marx and Engels were German philosophers and political theorists in the 1800s who focused on society's economic, social, and philosophical aspects. They were close collaborators, and their most famous and influential joint works include Das Kapital and the Communist Manifesto.

    Revisionist Socialism

    Revisionist Socialism is based on revising more traditional socialist theory to make it more relevant to the modern world. The main difference between Revisionist Socialism, and other types of Socialism, especially Communism, is that it seeks to limit and humanise capitalism rather than abolish it, seeming more achievable in today's society. Revisionist socialists also tend to reject the process of revolution in favour of a more gradual and peaceful change.

    The most significant types of revisionist socialism include Classical Revisionism, Social Democracy, and Ethical Socialism.

    Third-Way Socialism

    The last main type of Socialism is known as 'the Third-Way', that is because it splinters off from both Revolutionary and Revisionist Socialism. It is also known as Neo-Revisionism. The main point that differentiates Third-Way Socialism from other types is that it doesn't favour state intervention in the economy as both Communism and Revisionism do; instead, it looks to globalisation to make the economy more effective through the increased transfers of technology and information.

    They also focus less on social class and inequality differences than other forms of socialism. Importantly, they tend to favour equality of opportunity over equality of outcome, as communists and revisionists do.

    Globalisation is the process of increasing communication, interdependence, and integration of people, communities, businesses, and governments globally.

    Differences between Socialism and Communism

    The main three points that differentiate communism from other forms of socialism are their views on implementing communism, the state's role, class, and collectivism. Firstly, communists believe that the only way to truly implement communism is through a revolution to install a dictatorship of the proletariat.

    Next, while all socialists believe in a strong state, communists believe that there should be a strong state in the short term to implement communism, but after this happens, the state isn't necessary anymore and that we can and should live in a stateless society. Similarly, communists tend to argue that classes should be abolished altogether and that this is necessary in order to gain equality of outcome.

    Lastly, communists tend to take a more extreme view on common ownership and collectivism. That is, private property should be abolished, all property should be shared, and that the entire economy should be collectivised and controlled by the state.

    Examples of Socialism

    Socialism is a prominent political ideology worldwide. It has therefore been used as a political structure throughout history. However, most attempts to have a socialist society have been unsuccessful. Below is a list of the countries that have used socialism as a political structure.

    1. China: Became communist in 1949 after the Chinese Revolution. Since their economic reforms began in 1978, they have transitioned towards a more market economy.

    2. Soviet Union: Between 1922 and 1991, the Soviet Union was communist, specifically Marxist-Leninism.

    3. Finland: Modern Finland is an example of revisionist socialism, particularly social democracy. We can see this in their strong welfare state, democratic regime, and regulated economy.

    Socialism World Map with Socialist Countries highlighted on it StudySmarterFig. 2 Map showing states that are/were self-proclaimed socialist

    Socialism - Key takeaways

    • Socialism is based on ideas of common humanity, collectivism, equality, common ownership, social class, and a strong state.
    • The main types of socialism are revolutionary socialism, revisionist socialism, and the Third-Way.
    • There are also several important differences between socialism and communism, especially regarding how to implement socialism, the role of the state, social class, and collectivism.
    • Some important examples of socialism today and historically include China, The Soviet Union, and Finland.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Socialism

    What does socialism mean?

    Socialism is a political ideology which is based on concepts of common humanity, collectivism, equality, common ownership, social class, and a strong state. 

    What are features of socialism in government and politics?

    Some important features of socialism in government are a strong state, common ownership, a collectivised economy, and minimised or abolished social classes.

    What are examples of socialism?

    Some important examples of socialism today and historically include China, The Soviet Union, and Finland.

    What are the benefits of socialism? 

    According to Socialists, Socialism provides a fair and equal society that is more efficient in its economy. 

    What are Marx's quotes on socialism?

    One of Marx's most famous quotes is: "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs."

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What era did socialism fully appear? 

    How are the people viewed in socialist theory?

    What are the two classes of capitalism?


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