What Is Socialism: A Basic Introduction

Contributor: Stefani Allegretti. Lesson ID: 13238

"You have two cows. The government takes one and gives it to your neighbor." Curious what cows have to do with socialism? Find out in this lesson!


Economics, World, World

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Beaver, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Quick Query

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Before you learn about this economic and political system, see what some notable historical figures thought about socialism. Use the arrow keys to view each slide.

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Socialism is a political ideology, or a system of ideas, that emerged out of Europe in the 1800s.

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of socialism is:

  1. economic and political theories that support group or government ownership of the production of all goods and their distribution
  2. a society wherein there is no private property because it is all owned and controlled by the government
  3. in Marxist theory, a societal stage between capitalism and communism where pay and goods are not distributed based on work done

Karl Marx, who wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848, is regarded as one of the founders of socialism, as well as communism.

  • Did you know that socialism and communism share many similarities?

It's true. In fact, Vladimir Lenin, former Premier of the Soviet Union, once said, "The goal of socialism is communism."

Lenin, leader of political upheaval in Russia in 1917

Watch What is Socialism? Government Review, from Hip Hughes, to learn a bit more:

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There are different forms of socialism, as you learned. Some are lesser forms of socialism like democratic socialism, and others are more extreme forms like Marxism-Leninism.

Despite the type of socialism, it's important to note that all types advocate for the rights of the majority over the rights of the individual.

  • What does that mean exactly?

Let's look at a very popular analogy, called The Cow Analogy, which will help us to better understand socialism in practice.

You have two cows. The government takes one and gives it to your neighbor.

cow analogy for socialism

Two major goals of socialism include the elimination of private property and government control over the means of the production of goods and services.

As you can see in the graphic above, you have two cows. They are both your private property and means to produce a product, in this case milk, which not only provides you (the owner) with something to drink but something to sell as well. This, in turn, can help you to build wealth.

In a socialist country, the government controls the means of production and, so, has the power to take one of your cows and give it to someone else who doesn't have a cow.

One important aspect to notice about this economic and political system is that the individual, you, no longer has a choice about what happens to your cows. In a socialist country, the government can take someone's cow and can give it to someone else who doesn't have one, whether the original owner likes it or not.

  • Why?

Because socialism dictates that the cow - a means of production, distribution, and exchange - is now controlled by the government and owned by the community as a whole.

Many critics argue that in socialist countries, without the freedom for individuals to produce goods and provide services, it is much harder for the country to create wealth and sustain economic growth. This is why socialism in practice, much like communism, typically leads to poverty for many people as well as increased dependency on the government to provide members of the community with basic needs.

To better understand, watch the video below about one student's experience living in a socialist country.

One Venezuelan Student's Heartbreaking Experience with Socialism from Foundation for Economic Education:

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The video shows how the government in socialist countries, like Venezuela, has control over many things the community and individual members of the community need to survive and live.

According to Socialist Countries Population, published in 2019 for World Population Review, there are only four countries that follow the extreme Marxist-Leninist principles of socialism:

  • Laos
  • Cuba
  • China
  • Vietnam


However, eight additional countries contain socialist principles in their constitutions and are, therefore, also considered socialist countries:

  • Bangladesh
  • Nepal
  • Guyana
  • Portugal
  • India
  • Sri Lanka
  • North Korea
  • Tanzania


Finally, there are 13 counties, including Venezuela, with governments run by socialist leaders, making that country socialist:

  • Angola
  • Ethiopia
  • Nicaragua
  • Bolivia
  • El Salvador
  • Tanzania
  • Congo
  • Greece
  • Uruguay
  • Ecuador
  • Mozambique
  • Venezuela
  • Guinea-Bissau


Great work in this section! Now, let's move on to the Got It? section to test your knowledge about socialism.

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