How did there come to be a range of definitions of socialism?

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The Politicus
Apr 11, 2019 10:24 PM 0 Answers
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Introduction

Socialism seems to have many definitions, and we sometimes come across arguments and discussions based on different definitions on this site as well. For example, user4012 stated on meta:

First of all, a LOT of political disagreements are due to definitions being poor and imprecise. Witness for example "socialism" or "capitalism" for which even Wikipedia openly states there are no good unified formal definitions. That leaves aside the ubiquitous yet even more horrible "left" and "right".

And even dictionaries list different definitions (some examples will follow below).

Question

What, if it's at all clear, caused these different definitions to coexist? Did it start with one and did the others come in later on or has the term always been used very loosely?

Background

A dictionary example by Merriam Webster:

2a. : a system of society or group living in which there is no private property

  1. a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done

Wikipedia lists even more options on its disambiguation page for socialism (I list only those that may be commonly referred to as socialism as an -ism):

democratic socialism, scientific socialism, social democracy, real socialism

The Guardian quoted Merriam Webster Dictionary on the following, but that doesn't seem to explain the different meanings of socialism seeing that each of the named Wikipedia pages have information going back over a century whereas the increased popularity related to the rise of Bernie Sanders seems to have started only in this decade:

Merriam-Webster said that the fact that Sanders has embraced socialism “shows the term has moved beyond its cold war associations”. It has now included new information in its dictionary entry for the term, writing: “In the modern era, ‘pure’ socialism has been seen only rarely and usually briefly in a few communist regimes. Far more common are systems of social democracy, now often referred to as ‘democratic socialism’, in which extensive state regulation, with limited state ownership, has been employed by democratically elected governments (as in Sweden and Denmark) in the belief that it produces a fair distribution of income without impairing economic growth.”

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  • April 11, 2019