Socialists Define Socialism
Who are the most important socialist intellectuals and politicians in history?
We here offer quotations from eight prominent socialists, representing a wide geographical and temporal range.
Intellectuals: Karl Marx (Germany), Henri de Saint-Simon (France), Robert Heilbroner (USA), Michael Harrington (USA).
Politicians: Vladimir Lenin (Russia), Mao Zedong (China), Clement Atlee (Britain), Jawaharlal Nehru (India).
The quotations illustrate the author’s motivation for advocating socialism, the actions necessary to bring about socialism, and/or the expected results of socialism.
A guiding question: Based on the following quotations, what common characteristics best define socialism?
Karl Marx, socialist philosopher and activist
Marx on communism as the highest phase of socialism:
“In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but also life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly—only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banner: from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”
— Karl Marx, "Critique of the Gotha Program," 1875, Part 1
Marx on how socialism will be achieved:
“there is only one way in which the murderous death agonies of the old society and the bloody birth throes of the new society can be shortened, simplified and concentrated, and that way is revolutionary terror.”
— Karl Marx, “The Victory of the Counter-Revolution in Vienna,” Neue Rheinische Zeitung, No. 136, 1848
Henri de Saint-Simon, socialist theoretician
Saint-Simon on socialism’s religious-authoritarian vision:
“Anybody who does not obey the orders will be treated by the others as a quadruped …. All men will work; they will regard themselves as laborers attached to one workshop whose efforts will be directed to guide human intelligence according to my divine foresight. The Supreme Council of Newton will direct their works.”
— Henri de Saint-Simon, “Lettres d’un habitant de Geneve a ses contemporains,” 1803
Saint-Simon on socialism’s moral goal:
“The whole of society ought to strive towards the amelioration of the moral and physical existence of the poorest class; society ought to organize itself in the way best adapted for attaining this end.”
— Henri de Saint-Simon. Nouveau christianisme (New Christianity), Paris, France, 1825
Robert Heilbroner, socialist professor of economics and best-selling author
Heilbroner on socialism as government central planning:
“Socialism—defined as a centrally planned economy in which the government controls all means of production”
— Robert Heilbroner, “Socialism,” Concise Encyclopedia of Economics
Heilbroner on socialism as requiring militaristic command methods:
“[T]he creation of socialism as a new mode of production can properly be compared to the moral equivalent of war—war against the old order, in this case—and will need to amass and apply the power commensurate with the requirements of a massive war. This need not entail the exercise of command in an arbitrary or dictatorial fashion, but certainly it requires the curtailment of the central economic freedom of bourgeois society, namely the right of individuals to own, and therefore to withhold if they wish, the means of production, including their own labor.”
— Robert Heilbroner, Marxism: For and Against (W.W. Norton, 1980), p. 157
Michael Harrington, socialist professor and founding member of Democratic Socialists of America
Harrington on “the vision of socialism itself” as transcending current human reality:
“This is not an immediate program, constrained by what is politically possible, or even projection of a middle distance in which structural changes might take place. It is the idea of an utterly new society in which some of the fundamental limitations of human existence have been transcended. Its most basic premise is that man's battle with nature has been completely won and there is therefore more than enough of material goods for everyone. As a result of this unprecedented change in the environment, a psychic mutation takes place: invidious competition is no longer programmed into life by the necessity of a struggle for scarce resources; cooperation, fraternity and equality become natural. In such a world man's social productivity will reach such heights that compulsory work will no longer be necessary. And as more and more things are provided free, money, that universal equivalent by means of which necessities are rationed, will disappear.”
— Michael Harrington, Socialism, New York: Saturday Review Press, 1970, p. 344
Harrington on rejecting capitalism’s concept of justice and conditional survival:
“The ideal, the radical notion, is to break the link between income and work that exists in the capitalist societies—to break the idea that what you receive is proportional to what you provide or give. In Utopia, what you receive is what you need, and what you give is what you can give.” “The basic necessities of life—food, shelter, clothing, education, medical care—are met in my Utopia. I don’t care if they are lazy, promiscuous, irreverent, rotten people. No one should have to go hungry or cold—scoundrel or not. And in my Utopia I wouldn’t change a single facet of human nature as we now know it.”
— Michael Harrington, Omni, April 1988
Vladimir Lenin, socialist revolutionary and ruler of the Soviet Union
Lenin on socialism’s goal:
“We want to achieve a new and better order of society: in this new and better society there must be neither rich nor poor; all will have to work. Not a handful of rich people, but all the working people must enjoy the fruits of their common labour. Machines and other improvements must serve to ease the work of all and not to enable a few to grow rich at the expense of millions and tens of millions of people. This new and better society is called socialist society. The teachings about this society are called socialism.”
— Vladimir Lenin, "To the Rural Poor", Collected Works, vol. 6, p. 366
Lenin in on socialism’s methods:
In 1917: “The state is an instrument for coercion … We want to organize violence in the name of the interests of the workers.” In 1920: “A good Communist is at the same time a good Chekist.”
— Vladimir I. Lenin, quoted in George Leggett, The Cheka: Lenin’s Political Police, Oxford University Press, 1987
Note: The Cheka were the secret police in the early Soviet Union.
Mao Zedong, socialist revolutionary and chairman of the Communist Party of China
Mao on socialism’s productivity in contrast to capitalism’s:
“Socialist revolution aims at liberating the productive forces. The changeover from individual to socialist, collective ownership in agriculture and handicrafts and from capitalist to socialist ownership in private industry and commerce is bound to bring about a tremendous liberation of the productive forces. Thus, the social conditions are being created for a tremendous expansion of industrial and agricultural production.”
— Mao Zedong, "Speech at the Supreme State Conference" (January 25, 1956)
Mao on socialism’s methods:
“Socialism … must have a dictatorship, it will not work without it.”
— Mao Zedong, quoted in Frank Dikötter, The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution, 1945–57, Bloomsbury Press, pp. 236–237
Clement Attlee, socialist and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom:
Attlee on capitalism’s evils and public ownership as the remedy:
“Socialism is not the invention of an individual. It is essentially the outcome of economic and social conditions. The evils that Capitalism brings differ in intensity in different countries, but, the root cause of the trouble once discerned, the remedy is seen to be the same by thoughtful men and women. The cause is the private ownership of the means of life; the remedy is public ownership.”
— Clement Attlee, The Labour Party in Perspective, Left Book Club, 1937, p. 15
Jawaharlal Nehru, socialist and Prime Minister of India
Nehru on socialism’s central planning as scientific and universal:
“We have accepted the socialist and cooperative approach ... the planned and scientific approach to economic development in preference to the individual enterprise of the old laissez faire school ... Planning and development have become a sort of mathematical problem which may be worked out scientifically ... It is extraordinary how both Soviet and American experts agree on this. If a Russian planner comes here, studies our projects and advises us, it is really extraordinary how his conclusions are in agreement with those of, say, an American expert ... The moment the scientist or technologist comes to the scene, be he Russian or American, the conclusions are the same for the simple reason that planning and development today are almost a matter of mathematics.”
See our collection of philosophical memes on the issue of socialism