Become a fan of h2g2
Socialism can be defined in many ways, most of which are wrong. These definitions range from an authoritarian regime in which all resources (factories, banks, stores, your left index finger) are owned by 'the State', to a more modest, Utopian vision where everyone shares wealth equally in some vaguely conceived notion of solidarity.
Historically, Socialism owes its existence to various thinkers, notably Karl Marx, who despised capitalism and wanted all of the workers of the world to band together and take over the 'means of production'1. By doing this, Marx hoped to create a society void of class conflict; in fact, void of class altogether, in which the workers would plan production of resources based on the credo 'from each according to his ability, to each according to his need'.
More recently, socialists have taken various steps to modernise their approach to political and economic policy. Due to the collapse of the Soviet Union, most leftist thinkers have abandoned the notion of authoritarian state planning as a means to a socialist society. Some, notably the Socialist International, which embraces hundreds of social-democratic parties worldwide, have taken the radical step of accepting capitalism as the best engine towards prosperity, and by doing this, have essentially abandoned many of their founding principles. Other groups remain faithful to the socialist tradition - fighting capitalism at every step, working towards an equitable world of democracy both political and economic.
Different Schools of Thought
There are, therefore, several schools of thought that exist within the socialist world today. Those of the Socialist International are committed to the market economy but try to promote social justice and democracy within the capitalist system. Those such as the Socialist Party, USA, are fighting equally against the capitalist system as well as authoritarian communism. Finally, there exists the hard-core socialist-communist groups, represented by the Trotskyist Fourth International and the International Socialist Organisation.
The first school of thought emphasises that, while the market economy causes inequalities, these inequalities are nothing compared to the benefits that capitalism brings to any society. Thus, they fight for correcting these inequalities through state welfare programmes or other market regulatory controls. France, for example, has a dynamic capitalist society but the government intervenes in matters of worker rights, reduction of the workweek2, health-care, and so on.
The second school of thought, characterised by groups such as the Socialist Party, USA, and the Socialist Labour Party in Great Britain, take the attitude that capitalism contains too many internal contradictions and must therefore be seriously curbed or replaced. The Socialist Party, USA, fights for what it calls 'economic democracy' in which major economic decisions are made at the local and community level by citizens groups, and on the national level by other democratic institutions. According to the Party, this kind of decentralised economic planning will result in a more equitable, but at the same time dynamic, socialist society.
The third school of thought, characterised by the militant Trotskyist Fourth International, adheres to the idea that capitalism must be overthrown through a violent workers' revolution. This group generally approves of the 1917 Russian Revolution3 and idolises such figureheads as Lenin and Trotsky. Many of these groups support regimes such as are found in Cuba and China, with the Communist Party dictating all economic and political policies.