As politicians struggle to find solutions to the worldwide economic recession that began in December 2007, the word socialism has become a political hot button. A quick Google search of “socialism in America” leads you to heated arguments on political forums, anti-socialist tirades, and equally fanatical pro-socialist defenses. The U.S. news on any particular day includes a report of Republican politicians and Tea Party activists accusing President Obama and the Democratic party of dragging America toward socialism, occasionally accompanied by a brief interview with a professed socialist saying, “no, the president is not a socialist, thank you very much.” The people who attack socialism often use the word as an epithet, attaching it to any government-funded project they disapprove of-from national health care to paved roads. The people who defend socialism tend to describe it in utopian terms. On the one hand, socialism is evil. On the other hand, socialism is salvation.
But what, exactly, does socialism mean?
It's not surprising that many people are confused about what socialism means. Both its opponents and its proponents often take a position similar to that of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart on pornography: They know it when they see it. In fact, like democracy, socialism is an umbrella term for a wide range of doctrines, including anarchism, Marxism, social democracy, farm cooperatives, communes, and communism, that are bound together by their critique of capitalism and their commitment to the creation of an egalitarian society.
Socialism's complex history stretches back three centuries. It has inspired political realities as far apart as Robert Owen's experimental community in New Harmony, Indiana, and Joseph Stalin's brutal Russian dictatorship. Its proponents have included pragmatists and visionaries. Some have called for reform; others have called for revolution. Socialists have formed, and rejected, both political parties and trade union movements. The only thing that holds them all together is a shared concern with restructuring society in a way that corrects social and economic inequalities.
Socialism has been one of the formative forces of the modern world. In 1895, King Edward VI of England proclaimed in a speech “We are all socialists now-a-days.” It was his exaggerated acknowledgement that over the course of the nineteenth century the socialist movement, in its various incarnations, changed European society and politics in fundamental ways.
The purpose of this book is to introduce you to the different types of socialism, socialists' basic beliefs, and their influence on the modern world, beginning with socialism's origins in the social turmoil of the Industrial Revolution and ending with its modern-day interpretations.