A simple question with a thousand answers, one classic example of the misunderstanding is this from ‘The library of economics and liberty‘:
Socialism—defined as a centrally planned economy in which the government controls all means of production—was the tragic failure of the twentieth century
This is wrong. It would be more accurate to say this of Communism (it would still be wrong but I’ll go into that in another post).
It is incorrect for different reasons (depending on which variant of Socialism you are looking at) the most important of which is the word ‘all’.
Under Socialism only the essential services are under government control (such as water, energy, public transport, health and education). Also Socialism doesn’t operate a purely centrally planned economy, much more of a mixed economy.
Who does this?
Spain, Italy, Sweden and Finland.
Are they failures?
No. According to a list of the best countries on the world (as depicted on the human development index) they rank as follows:
Sweden – 3
Finland – 11
Spain – 17
Italy – 22
To put this into some perspective the USA comes 23rd.
Other than that we can characterise Socialism as being a highly democratic system with numerous parties representing the people. Countries with elements in government that are not elected by the people are not socialist.
So that rules out the UK with its unelected house of lords and monarchy!
So basically Socialism is a political and economic system where its essential services are run by the government (paid for through taxation) at cost for the benefit of the people.
One final note on this issue is one of perspective. The British (and I believe Europeans in general) don’t think of Europe as being Socialist however it seems that in the US (both through its people and institutions) do think of Europe as being socialist.
When is a Socialist not a Socialist? When it’s in government!
Europe is perpetually ruled by Conservative and Socialist governments though in reality 99% of the time the Socialists are centre-left and the Conservatives are centre-right operating a reasonably similar form of government.
The US is of course less democratic and only really has two parties representing the entire country (if you consider the Tea Party to be a separate party then three) the central party, the right-wing party and the far-right party.
How will it happen?
A lot of Socialists and Communists (lets say leftists in general) believe that there will be a revolution (or series of revolutions) that will bring about Socialism like a volcano erupting, building up under the pressure of capitalism until finally the masses can’t be contained any more. While this could be true for a single country it is much more likely that Socialism will come about in a much more gradual process.