There are, of course, many different definitions of “socialism”—what it is and what it is not.
That’s not new. Socialism has been intensely debated and variously defined since the term was first invented in the early nineteenth century in Western Europe, especially after it became “respectable” by the middle of that century. But it is interesting that socialism was the most looked-up word on Merriam-Webster’s web site this year.
“Socialism has been near the top of our online dictionary look-up list for several years,” said editor-at-large Peter Sokolowsk. “However, this year look-ups for socialism moved up even further, beginning with the July campaign events for Bernie Sanders, remaining high throughout the following months and spiking again after the first Democratic debate in October.”
Merriam-Webster said that the fact that Sanders has embraced socialism “shows the term has moved beyond its cold war associations”.
Unfortunately, the three main definitions offered by Merriam-Webster actually reflect its Cold War associations. Its usage discussion is a bit more accurate:
It refers to a system of social organization in which private property and the distribution of income are subject to social control, but the conception of that control has varied, and the term has been interpreted in widely diverging ways, ranging from statist to libertarian, from Marxist to liberal.
What is important right now is that curiosity about and interest in socialism are clearly on the rise. There will be plenty of time to debate the term—what is has meant historically (beginning with the so-called utopian socialists), what it means now (e.g., in the still-evolving Sanders campaign), and what it might mean (in the concrete circumstances of the United States and elsewhere)—if that curiosity and interest continue to grow.