Philosophy 220 - 11.4.5 Socialism

Rather than look to the individual, the often confused triad of socialism, Marxism, and communism examines inequality from an economic perspective. While socialism and communism both seek to address inequalities in goods and resources, socialism says that goods and resources should be owned and managed by the public and allocated based on the needs of the community rather than controlled solely by the state. A socialist system allows for the ownership of private property while relegating most control over basic resources to the government. Sometimes, as with democratic socialism, this is done through the democratic process, with the result that public resources, such as national parks, libraries, and welfare services, are controlled by a government of elected representatives.


Concepts of Socialism

Critique of Capital

While what are commonly called “Marxist ideals” did not originate solely with Karl Marx, he is responsible for coauthoring perhaps the most famous treatise criticizing capitalism, The Communist Manifesto (1848), and laying out a vision of a yet-unrealized true communist society. As such, it is important to examine his ideas in more detail.

Marx is critical of the private accumulation of capital, which he defines as money and commodities. Stockpiling of capital allows for private accumulation of power. Marx holds that the value of an object is determined by the socially necessary amount of labor used in the production of that object. In a capitalist system, labor is also a commodity, and the worker exchanges their work for a subsistence wage. In Marx’s view, workers’ labor in fact creates surplus value, for which they are not paid and which is claimed by the capitalist. Thus, the worker does not receive full value for their labor.


Marx identifies several kinds of alienation that result from the commodification of labor. To illustrate this, imagine some factory workers who have recently moved to a large city. Prior to the move, they lived in a small village, where they worked as furniture makers. They were responsible for each stage of the production, from imagining the design to obtaining the materials and creating the product. They sold the product and kept the profits of their labor. Now, however, they work on an assembly line, where they are responsible for producing a small part of an overall product. They are alienated both from the product and from their own productive nature because they have no hand in the product’s design and are involved in only a small part of its construction. They begin to see their labor, and by extension themselves, as a commodity to be sold.

The result of selling their labor is that they begin to see others as commodities as well. They begin to identify people not by who they are but by what they have accumulated and their worth as a product. In this way, they become alienated from themselves and from others, seeing them always as potential competition. For Marx, this leads to a sense of despair that is filled with material goods, thus solidifying the worker in their dependence on the capitalist system.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax