The Origins:

Socialism is an economic-political system of social organization wherein major industries are owned by the state, with the means of production collectively owned by the members of a society.

Socialist movements first grew in the mid-late 1800s as a reaction against the ravages posed by capitalism. The central theoretical foundation for socialism – Marxism – was created by the economist Karl Marx and Frederic Engels, and has been implemented over the past century in many different forms. Marx’s work has certainly inspired many of the great thinkers of the 19th and 20th century - alongside the most vicious.

The Central Characteristics:

In opposition to capitalism, socialism rests on the idea of public ownership: that either the state or society as a collective whole should own the means of production. This  removes  power from the hands of private individuals and concentrates it in the hands of the state, which shapes the economic decisions regarding resource allocation and economic planning in the interest of the masses. The state is thus the central actor in socialism, tasked with the central planning of the economy. Under socialism, the goal is not profit, but specific objectives relating to the quality of life of its people, such as achieving equal opportunity and economic equity for its citizens, and providing the basic necessities of life.

Socialist ideology stems from an intellectual tradition of rejecting capitalism and wanting to end the exploitation of the masses by private, profiteering individuals. This conflict is referred to as the class struggle between the proletariat, or working classes, and the bourgeoisie, or the ruling class. Socialist theory predicts that ending class struggle is only achievable by a revolution of the proletariat.

"From each according to his ability,
to each according to his need" – Louis Blanc, 1851

Politically, socialism covers a broad range of movements, from social democracy, which advocates the achievement of a mixed capitalist-socialist system of government through small but cumulative democratic reforms, to communism. Generally, the rise of socialist governments, such as the leftist Scandinavian nations, has been accompanied by the nationalization of major industries and the institution of the welfare state. Communist governments have been marked by the abolition of most private property, especially of the lower and working classes, the institution of collectivization plans in agriculture and industry, and extensive bureaucracies that grant societal power to government officials over citizens.    

Socialism sounds great. Why has it failed?

It's not clear socialism has ever been implemented with integrity.

Socialism and communism do sound great in theory, but it is not clear that they have ever been implemented with integrity. Just like capitalism, these socialist systems have produced staggering body counts and unquantifiable human misery over the past century. Leftist programs have been plagued by corruption; social democratic and national-populist movements featured mass killing in the name of freedom; and the promise of equality, the hope for a state with integrity left swaths of humanity in utter despair as chaos reigned. Stalinism’s rise in Russia, along with its extensive police apparatus and cult of the personality, spread to spread to other countries like China and North Korea, while totalitarian socialist dictatorships like the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia murdered millions of its own people in the pursuit of socialist ideals. Additionally, socialist states were hampered by more than a fundamentally flawed implementation of doctrine. Western colonial powers, particularly the United States and Britain, disrupted many socialist and leftist experiments through the imposition of neoliberalism, an economic and political system in which economic institutions and industries as privatized as much as possible.

The russian revolution collapsed into corruption.

Spurred by Marxist theory and increasing alienation of the worker after the Industrial Revolution, socialists and workers organized to form political parties. A huge breakthrough for the movement came in 1917 overthrow of Tsarist autocracy in Russia by the Bolsheviks, who then instituted a Communist government. The rise of communist thought represented a threat to capitalism, especially as it encouraged workers to both unionize into groups of the working-class fighting for equitable treatment by their employers, and politicize their suffering — the action that Marx posited was central to the rise of socialism and overthrow of the bourgeoisie. The West responded through trade embargos and interventions that made it difficult for socialism to develop. Simultaneously, the domestic situation in Russia was transformed into a repressive and violent dictatorship. Part of the difficulty facing the Soviet Union was its struggle to develop and compete with other well developed capitalist nation states which was absolutely essential to its survival -- yet perhaps impossible without a centralizing, totalitarian bureaucracy that would force people to do back-breaking labor in a quest to industrialize a country as quickly as possible. In this context the imperative became getting enough basic resources to the entire population in a time of severe scarcity. The more idealistic vision of working through consensus and respecting individual rights was lost in the process. Marx himself envisioned socialism as a system that could only exist successfully if it replaced a capitalist system that had created surplus - otherwise the task of building an economy from scratch would either be a very long and gradual process with much democratic input or would deteriorate into an authoritarian state that wished to accelerate the process of accumulation and development. Following WWII, in which an uneasy alliance formed between Western powers and the USSR, Stalin built a totalitarian state that derived legitimacy from repression of dissent, collectivization resulting in mass starvation, industrialization schemes that disenfranchised Russia’s working class, and rampant corruption.

The end of World War II divided the globe  into two powers and ideologies: the “free world” and the “socialist bloc.”

The end of World War II divided the globe  into two powers and ideologies: the “free world” and the “socialist bloc.” Seeing opportunity in chaos, many developing countries organized to reject colonialism, creating new nation-states that attempted to centralize sectors such as energy, transportation and their national economies to keep them out of the hands of Western businesses. Some countries even set up welfare systems that improved the lives of their citizens, encouraged growth, and helped keep Western capitalist interests at bay.

Yet, under the guise of the Cold War, the US engineered the overthrow of many nationalist leaders that were not communist — such as Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh of Iran, who was democratically elected in 1951 and subsequently overthrown in a 1953 coup d’etat engineered by the CIA and British SIS after his attempt to bring secular progressive policies to Iran and nationalize the Iranian oil industry, threatening Western business interests and access to cheap oil. Many of these interventions — such as the coup d’etats funded or facilitated by American forces against Chilean President Salvador Allende’s policies of nationalization and collectivization, Patrice Lumumba’s pan-African platform and appeals to the USSR for aid in the Congo, Jacobo Arbenz’s social reform and nationalization policies in Guatemala — were not to stop the spread of communism in the “domino effect” that US citizens so feared, but in order to defend the economic and capitalistic interests of US corporations. Along the way, the US supported leaders in developing countries that supported US trade interests, but enacted brutal regimes on their people.

Additionally, the imposition of neoliberalism in the 1970s and 1980s, smothered welfare states of the developing world in their cradles through cheap loans that rapidly accumulated high interest rates. Through the establishment of the IMF, which acted as an international enforcer of debtor payments, and US economic and military support of neoliberal authoritarian rulers — particularly in Latin America, where the 1989 invasion of Panama made clear the consequences of shunning neoliberal economic policy — the developing world was forced to accept neoliberal free-market structures. Thus, the West systematically eradicated any socialist projects that threatened to destabilize the flow of capital from the Global South to North.

Meanwhile, the Communist governments in Russia and China were failing their people. Economic planning in both states led to famines that caused tens of millions of deaths, while political repression sent millions more to their deaths in “work camps” — gulags in Russia and laogai in China. Challenging the political status quo or exhibiting “bourgeoisie” traits got you a one way ticket.

However it is important to remember that if the human cost of development under the Communist system was horrific, Capitalism’s strategies for building wealth are bloody and brutal as well. Many Communist governments did also manage to achieve full employment, social services, and cheap transport, housing and culture as well as a higher material standard of living for its citizens.

By the early 1990s, the Socialist Bloc of Eastern Europe had collapsed and Western attempts to demonize communism and socialism as solely corrupt, violent ideologies had largely succeeded through long-standing policies such as McCarthyism, the arrest and repression of Marxist intellectuals, and the inclusion of simplistic narratives of Marxism in school curricula (hence the favored insult of US politicians: “you’re just a Commie.”) While China and North Korea still remain communist states today, China has moved towards a more free-market model since Deng Xiaoping took control following Chairman Mao’s death in 1976, and North Korea’s incredibly repressive regime remains reviled and isolated by the rest of the world.

Every time socialism arises, it is warped or stamped out.

Socialism and communism’s internal conflicts paved the way for power-hungry men to corrupt the system and put in place increasingly inefficient and violent state bureaucracies. But at the same time, stringent capitalist and Western opposition to socialism, based on corporate and colonialist interest, has stifled socialism at every opportunity, even when it was chosen by the people of a nation through democratic means. Even in places where socialism has taken root, it has been further warped and perverted through Western isolation, trade embargoes, and destabilizing military threats and intervention. Subsequently, socialism has never had a chance to resolve its internal conflicts in the same way that capitalism has tried — and failed — to do.

The failure of socialism has been inextricably tied to capitalist interference and sabotage; it has been simultaneously squelched and unable to resolve its own internal conflicts, resulting in catastrophic loss of life.