Does the discipline of economics have an accepted rigorous definition of socialism?
I.e. not something like "some economists would quote Hayek and say that so and so constitutes socialism" but an if and only if definition that most economists would agree on.

Sister question to Definition of capitalism.

Apropos of the throwaway comment

real economic terms like free markets or socialism that are sometimes used as pejoratives but have actual pre-existing economic definitions, theories and literature behind them and originated in academia.


3 Answers 3


Yes it does. According to Nove 2018 socialism is defined thusly;

A society may be defined as socialist if the major part of the means of production of goods and services is in some sense socially owned and operated, by state, socialized or cooperative enterprises. The practical issues of socialism comprise the relationships between management and workforce within the enterprise, the interrelationships between production units (Plan versus markets), and, if the state owns and operates any part of the economy, who controls it and how.

  1. Nove is widely considered to be one of, if not the most, prominent scholar of soviet and socialist economic history (see Thatcher 1995).

  2. Nove’s article is well researched and has a references to various academic sources. Moreover, it does not rely on Hayek’s definition of socialism1

  3. Nove draws from wide variety of sources, focusing on writings of socialists economist or intellectuals themselves (e.g Marx) and writings of well known economic historians (e.g Schumpeter2).

  4. The Nove’s definition is included in the New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics (NPDE).

    NPDE is a peer reviewed academic dictionary published by Palgrave Macmillan and online by Springer (both very reputable academic publishers).

    NPDE lists widely accepted explanations for various academic economic terms. As opposed to regular English dictionary, it does not include just definition itself, but provides lengthy context for the definition and various usages.

1. Although to my best knowledge Hayek did not had his own personal definition of socialism.

2. Most people nowadays recognize Schumpeter primarily for his work on Political Economy and Macroeconomics but he was also renown economic historian (See Laurence S. Moss (2013) Joseph A. Schumpeter, Historian of Economics).

  • $\begingroup$ I don't know, it is a little vague, but the abstract for capitalism is even vaguer. To get some clarity: so most countries are neither socialist nor capitalist, because majority of production is not done by the state but state production is present? $\endgroup$
    – Giskard
    Commented Apr 4 at 1:00
  • $\begingroup$ Are there any present-day countries that are socialist by the NPDE definition? $\endgroup$
    – Giskard
    Commented Apr 4 at 1:02
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Finally: I didn't single out Hayek because he was Austrian or something, I just wanted more than a mere quote. Haven't heard of NPDE before, perhaps it's good enough. $\endgroup$
    – Giskard
    Commented Apr 4 at 1:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Giskard 1. I disagree that the definition is vague. Rather it’s broad. Let me explain. When it comes to definitions of large macro scale systems it’s difficult to be specific. For example, definition of aggregate supply is whole production, that is highly non-specific but not necessarily vague. Of course, the definition above is bit more vague than definition of AS so it’s not 1:1 but I believe the point stands. $\endgroup$
    – 1muflon1
    Commented Apr 4 at 1:06
  • $\begingroup$ 2. Note the definitions states predominantly. Although this is little bit vague it’s clearly something >50% (I would argue based on context above 67% - in my understanding less than 33% would be considered capitalism, between 33 and 67 mixed economy and above socialism). In any case while it’s not as rigorous definition as definition in some mathematical theorem, it’s relatively rigorous to definitions of economic systems (I agree capitalism has less rigorous definition but that comes from its history - whereas socialism is term that was coined by socialists, capitalism was also coined $\endgroup$
    – 1muflon1
    Commented Apr 4 at 1:12

Socialism has clear and consistent definition in economics.

I think a good way to determine if there is a consistent definition of socialism in economics is to review multiple economic or educational sources and seeing if the definition is consistent.

Sherman, Howard J.; Zimbalist, Andrew (1988). Comparing Economic Systems: A Political-Economic Approach. Harcourt College Pub. p. 7:

Pure socialism is defined as a system wherein all of the means of production are owned and run by the government and/or cooperative, nonprofit groups

Rosser, Mariana V.; Rosser, J. Barkley (2003). Comparative Economics in a Transforming World Economy. MIT Press. p. 53

Socialism is an economic system characterised by state or collective ownership of the means of production, land, and capital

Badie, Bertrand; Berg-Schlosser, Dirk; Morlino, Leonardo, eds. (2011). International Encyclopedia of Political Science.

Socialist systems are those regimes based on the economic and political theory of socialism, which advocates public ownership and cooperative management of the means of production and allocation of resources.

National Geographic in economics section of its encyclopedia:

Socialism is a political and economic system wherein property and resources are owned in common or by the state.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Socialism is both an economic system and an ideology (in the non-pejorative sense of that term). A socialist economy features social rather than private ownership of the means of production.

These may sometimes use different words but they all describe a system where means of production are owned primarily by collective society as opposed to private individuals. I believe this shows the definitions is consistent.

I also stopped after these sources, but there are more, the other answer cites Nove who also defines socialism as collective ownership of means of production.

The definitions are also clear, if that is what you mean by rigorous.

  • $\begingroup$ You honestly find these definitions consistent? Sure, they use similar worlds, but they are quite different in details! 1st and 5th are in clear contradiction? Also, most of these sources are not from academic economics? $\endgroup$
    – Giskard
    Commented Apr 4 at 17:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Giskard you can honestly in good faith say they are not consistent!? What is the contradiction between 1 and 5? Def1 says "Pure socialism is defined as a system wherein all of the means of production are owned and run by the government and/or cooperative, nonprofit groups". Def2 says "A socialist economy features social rather than private ownership of the means of production." They are completely consistent. Let us explore that. First definition talks about pure socialism. Clearly that implies existence of less than pure socialist economy and would predominantly favor or $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 5 at 11:17
  • $\begingroup$ use government and/or cooperative, nonprofit groups. Next you are maybe point to def1 using phrase "government and/or cooperative, nonprofit groups" and def2 using phrase "social rather than private ownership", but if you actually click on the source it defines later in full body of the text social ownership to be not just government ownership but also ownership through cooperatives or nonprofit groups provided the workers there have control. Clearly they are talking about the same consistent idea and only difference is in phrasing. I don't see how can you disagree if you read the sources. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 5 at 11:18
  • $\begingroup$ I have a feeling that you made this question with your mind already being firmly decided on this issue and now you just trying to nitpick any minor cosmetic difference that does not make the definition inconsistent. Even definition of natural science concepts like biosphere, nature or life will have small variation textbook to textbook, paper to paper. Applying such unreasonably high standard for definition to be consistent will immediately disqualify any definition in every field unless we are talking about mathematical models. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 5 at 11:18
  • $\begingroup$ You are entitled to your feelings! Right now I am just fact checking what you wrote. Do you think 1st and 5th are not contradictory? $\endgroup$
    – Giskard
    Commented Apr 5 at 11:35

Socialism is a range of ideologies and economic systems in which the government owns and manages most or all means of production. There are many different socialist ideologies, Marxist-Leninism (which was the dominant political ideology in Eastern Europe, much of Southeast Asia, the Soviet Union, and certain other places throughout much of the 20th century), being the most famous of them all.

Also the Nordic system is often called "socialism", it's actually social democracy. Social democracy is still largely capitalistic, but adds higher levels of taxation and more generous welfare programs.


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