With more avowedly socialist candidates gaining traction in mainstream U.S. election and socialism’s favorability generally ascendant, especially among Millennials, it is worth noting exactly what is meant by the word socialism. Far from being straightforward, like most political ideologies, various schools of socialism have evolved in various places and times. Although there are literally as many variants on the theme as there are governments that, at one time or another, have implemented policies that could be described as socialist, there are still a few main schools of thought and essential features that distinguish this political ideology from its more capitalist-oriented counterparts.

What is the essence of socialism?
At its core, socialism is an economic arrangement where the people or the state that represents them own the means of production. What exactly constitutes ownership can take a wide variety of forms, depending on who you talk to. In the end, you will find those who believe that no Americans own their own homes because they are required to pay property taxes. At the other extreme, you have people who insist that only a command economy, like the kind that was seen in the Soviet Union, represents true state ownership of a business.

But from a capitalist perspective, it can be said that there are two key characteristics of socialism that are absent in pure capitalist systems. The first is that for a system to be socialist there must be some redistribution of wealth. The second is that there must be the threat or use of state violence to effect this redistribution.

While far from being a purely socialist system, this means that the United States itself has been a partially socialist state since at least the introduction of the Social Security system in the 1940s. This is because the Social Security system was introduced as a means for redistributing wealth from current taxpayers to those who were no longer in a position to earn sufficient money for decent survival. Unfortunately, the Social Security system also fulfills the criteria of threatened state violence for enforcement because its revenues are taken from FICO tax, a form of income tax. Failure to pay this tax will eventually lead to the authorities placing the tax evader under arrest, by force of arms if necessary.

Therefore, socialism, in the broadest sense, can be seen as any redistributive system that affects its ends through the use of state violence.