Philosophy Political Philosophy Politics

What is Socialism? A Philosophical Overview

Like all political terms, socialism is brandied about by apologists and critics without much specificity or understanding. Today, most people who call themselves socialists are really liberals, and more specifically, just progressives. Those who use socialist as a pejorative wield it in much the same manner as those who claim opponents as fascist—“socialist” is an epithet of the political right to denote someone whom they simply dislike. Originally, socialism meant a political theory in which the workers controlled the means of production. This definition, however simple, details for us important things when understanding socialism.

Socialism is a direct outgrowth of the liberal worldview. In this post covering liberalism, we explained in philosophy that liberalism is the worldview of technological and scientific progress within a materialist understanding of man and the world. Socialism emerges from these presuppositions. Socialism accepts the materialist understanding of man and the world but becomes more specific than the abstracted theoretical notions that liberalism is based on. Socialism, specifically, asserts a few general points: 1) workers should control the means of economic productivity and not business owners, aristocrats, or “capitalists”; 2) workers, who produce the goods and services of the world have an innate solidarity that transcends the arbitrary boundaries of community and nation; 3) workers across the world, in that solidarity, have a brotherhood (or friendship, which is where the cognate of socialism, socii—friend in Latin—comes from) that binds them together and the goal of socialism is to foster those international ties; 4) politics should be about the creation of a world of equality and prosperity without exploitation as much as technically possible.

With this basis for socialism rooted in the workers’ control of the means of production and the materialist understanding of human nature, socialism is a political philosophy of worker-class internationalism wherein workers and the friends of workers advance policies that will bring about peace, prosperity, and minimize bodily harm through workers-class programs and initiatives. Part and parcel of the socialist vision, then, is the belief that the world’s material problems are a product of institutional corruption (this is a view inherited from Jean-Jacques Rousseau). Human antagonisms are a result of materialist competition: competition for resources. Ending the problem of war, for instance, would entail ending the competition over material resources. This is what gives socialism its cooperationist ethos that naturally aligns with internationalist concerns.

Because socialism is cooperationist and internationalist, it is inherently anti-nationalist and anti-patriotic. Nationalism and patriotism are false beliefs propagated by various power groups and individuals to keep humanity divided and in competition with each other to which the already powerful and wealthy benefit from. The same goes for religion.

We also hear, from time to time, of “religious socialism.” This is an oxymoron. Jesus wasn’t a socialist. The term hadn’t been invented yet and the political ethics of socialism are not the ethics of Jesus. “Religious socialism” emerged through an eschatological, not a materialist and technologist, worldview. “Religious socialism” is also concerned with spiritual principles and not political principles. The seeming similarities between aspects of religion, in the Western case Christianity, with aspects of socialism are simply coincidental and ultimately unsubstantial. Socialism is predicated on materialist egalitarianism (all humans are ultimately mass clumps of matter) and a “technologically achievable” egalitarianism in economics. “Religious socialism,” insofar as we keep that term, is predicated on spiritual equality (all humans made in the image of God) and a communal solidarity rooted in progressing toward holiness. This may not dissuade people from using the term but we must minimally understand the gulf of differentiation between “religious socialism” (something that doesn’t really exist in any meaningful political sense) and socialism (a political phenomenon that clearly does exist and has a specific political meaning).

Socialism has two general traditions. Agrarian socialism and industrial socialism. Agrarian socialism is the older of the two principal socialist traditions. Rooted in the same materialist worldview of liberalist modernity, agrarian socialism was basically medieval feudalism married with the scientifically possible “equal community” because of technological advancement. Technology, in agrarian socialism, would be the tool to create equality among the people as access to technology would make all equal (the physical and regional or provincial inequalities would be made equal through technology). Industrial socialism emerged after the Industrial Revolution and quickly became the dominant strand of socialism as workers were no longer predominately peasants (except in certain countries like Russia) but industrial factory workers and other industrial laborers. Socialism spread into cities and became an urban industrial movement which it still is today.

Socialism’s relationship to technology is what we can call techno-utopian. Socialism sees technology as a positive force for egalitarianism, technology will “level the playing field” as the popular saying goes. Technology and science will reveal the equality of humanity and serve to create a world of practical equality in living standards. When workers realize that they themselves control technology and science (as all technology must be produced and science, insofar that it is utilized in the production of technology, is therefore also controlled by workers in the producing process), they will be able to create that better world for themselves. This realization is the “class consciousness” and “workers’ solidarity” that socialists historically spoke of.

Socialism still exists in parts of the world. However, socialism has largely been superseded and blended with progressivism. The historic difference between socialism and progressivism is this: socialism is government by the workers whereas progressivism is government by the experts. Both, however, have similar goals in mind: the creation of a materially prosperous, peaceful, and harmless world. Socialism sees this as being achieved by the workers controlling technology and science on their own behalf. Progressives sees this as being achieved by experts controlling technology and science on the behalf of all.

Most people who call themselves socialists are really progressives: people who believe that experts should control technology and science to create a world of material prosperity and peace with as minimal bodily harm as possible with a specific focus aimed at workers and other marginalized and oppressed groups (the updated consciousness of class/worker solidarity). This brand of progressivism (because it is really government by experts despite a preference for certain oppressed groups) generally goes under the names of democratic socialism and social democracy. One should see how that socialist impulse carried itself over into the new politics of progressivism.

Historically, socialism was the political philosophy of international workers, in their solidarity, eventually coming to control technology and science (the principal means of production) to create a better (material) world for themselves. Today, socialism—insofar that the term is used by those who use it to identify themselves (e.g. democratic socialists and social democrats in particular)—means experts should use technology and science to (materially) improve the lives of various oppressed groups of people around the world. Socialism’s fundamental belief which is in the background of “workers controlling the means of production” is that technology and science are tools of equality. This distinguishes socialism very specifically from liberalism and progressivism where technology and science are the tools of material progress. Socialism will agree with the principle of material progress but goes one further: technology and science will create equality. The most elaborate understanding of socialism was offered by Karl Marx, in which socialism—once it created that world of equality—would disappear and be replaced by the end-state existence of communism.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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