Socialism | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Socialism is a political doctrine that criticizes the existence of social, economic and political inequality in society. Seeking to lessen class inequality, socialists call for a redistribution of power from the affluent owners to the working class.

Socialists favour collective action by workers to overcome their unfavourable condition. They advocate direct economic organization (eg, the formation of trade unions, labour protests and strikes) and political action (eg, the formation of socialist and/or labour parties) with the goal of reorienting the state from defending the powerful few to protecting ordinary workers.

The term "socialism" was first employed in the early 19th century by utopian socialists such as Robert Owen, Charles Fourier and Saint-Simon. Later, others including revolutionary communists (eg, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels) and evolutionary socialists (eg, the revisionist Eduard Bernstein and the British Fabian socialists) used the term. Thus, socialism has been used historically to describe both the revolutionary and evolutionary left and considerable confusion exists about the exact meaning of the term. The Russian Revolution of 1917 partially clarified matters with the two different socialist traditions opting for contrasting labels: the revolutionaries choosing the term "communist", while the evolutionary wing opted for the labels "socialist" or "social democratic" (see Social Democracy).

Both the revolutionary and evolutionary socialists agreed on the need to limit the excesses of private ownership and wished to expand public ownership. They also saw the necessity to introduce state planning to regulate the erratic cycles of the capitalist market. Socialists also agreed that social and economic democracy were important rights in establishing a more egalitarian community. Where the revolutionary and evolutionary socialists disagreed was the degree of public ownership and state planning required (historically, the communists opted for extensive amounts, while social democrats opted for a mixed economy) and the methods selected to achieve political power (the communists opted for revolutionary action, the social democrats opted for peaceful legislative changes). In the end, the differences over means proved to be highly significant. Democratic or evolutionary socialists were able to define themselves as being opposed to both capitalism and communism.

Over the years, a number of Canadian parties of varying orientations have arisen claiming to be socialist. These have included the Socialist Party of Canada (1904), the Social Democratic Party of Canada (1911), the Communist Party of Canada (1921), the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) (1932), the New Democratic Party (NDP) (1961). In Canada, the peaceful, evolutionary tradition of socialism prevails. Probably the most famous Canadian socialist document is the Regina Manifesto (1933), drafted by the CCF amidst the global capitalist crisis of the 1930s. Leading CCF-NDP politicians have included J.S. Woodsworth, T.C. Douglas, M.J. Coldwell, David Lewis, Ed Broadbent, Alexa McDonough and at the provincial level Dave Barrett, Mike Harcourt, Allan Blakeney, Roy Romanow and Gary Doer.

Tommy Douglas's government in Saskatchewan was North America's first socialist government and pioneered medicare in Canada. In recent years, NDP governments have been formed in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and the Yukon. As the century ends, many within and outside the socialist movement have suggested a need to reformulate socialist doctrine. The call has come from both the revolutionary and evolutionary streams. Among the questions being debated are the role of the state, public ownership, the globalization of capital, domestic and international indebtedness, national vs. international unions, technological change and the future of work. It is evident that the debates about the nature of socialism still occur and as such the ideology will continue to evolve.

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