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Socialism refers to various ideologies/movements supporting that society should have a high degree of public, collective, or cooperative ownership. Such highly socialist societies range from societies where the government is the (almost) only owner (such as "dictatorship of the proletariat" communist states) to social anarchism. Societies having a high degree of socialism typically lack a capitalist "free market" system but may have a "market socialism" system which includes prices. A supposed characteristic of high degree socialist societies is the absence of a distinction between capitalist employers and employed workers.

Even in capitalist societies is possible to create collectives and cooperatives. Early socialists sometimes thought that capitalist societies could be changed to socialist ones by an increasing number of such voluntarily collectivist organizations. However, such collectivist organizations have often been outcompeted by privately owned organizations. Critics of socialism argue that his demonstrates that collectivist organizations, at least in some circumstances, are less efficient than privately owned ones. Later socialists have often abandoned such attempts to voluntarily transition to socialism and instead in effect argued that socialism must be implemented through coercive and non-voluntary methods such as through Communist revolutions/coups.

Classifying an ideology or a society as socialist or not is sometimes difficult. Societies typically have both private and non-private ownership. Even classical liberal societies often include some publicly owned institutions such as the military and the police and even Communist states often allow or allowed some private property. Several ideologies include the words "social" in their names (such as in "social liberalism") which may indicate support for a partially socialist society. It is possible to argue that some parts of the economy should be privately owned and argue that other parts (such as "natural monopolies") should be collectively owned.

Many socialists see socialist ideology as having arisen due to the poverty of the industrial revolution and being largely responsible for the rising living standards by forcing the rich to transfer part of their wealth to the poor due to measures such as higher wages forced by labor unions and due to higher taxes going to welfare systems. Critics of this have seen the scientific and technological revolutions as mainly responsible for increasing living standards. Classical liberals see wage competition between employers as being mainly responsible for increasing wages. That the industrial revolution even initially would have decreased living standards may be questioned. It may also be argued that while living standards for the new group of industrial workers in the cities initially were poor, their very survival and the large population growth would not have been possible without the agricultural revolution and that this survival of people who previously would have died should in itself should be seen as an improvement.

A less politically correct aspect is that several influential early socialists have been described as anti-Semitic. See the article on anti-Semitism.

Socialist or related views existed before the industrial revolution. It is possible to see early societies such as hunger-gatherers as highly socialist ones with the whole societal group often working together in activities such as hunting and collectively sharing the gains. This may have caused an evolutionary inclination or sympathy towards socialism despite high degree socialism not necessarily working well in more complex societies. Some aspects of Christianity such as collectivist religious orders with the members not owning personal property may be seen as partly socialist.

Medieval societies have sometimes been seen as being more complex than the exclusively negative feudalism claimed by many socialist (and liberal) historians inspired by Marx. While not socialist (or liberal) societies, European Medieval societies have been seen as having a communitarian and integralist ideology in which society was seen as an organic unit with all parts and groups having responsibility towards one another (such as noblesse oblige and partly religiously based responsibilities towards the poor). Such more complex views have influenced some critics of socialism and liberalism (and many aspects of feudalism) such as some forms of conservatism, fascism (broad sense), and nationalism.

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