Socialism is an as yet unrealized system of social and economic organization by which the society as a whole controls, and equitably distributes, the yield of human work and machinery for the benefit of everyone. Socialists differ on how to get there.
Karl Marx, one of the first major exponents of socialism, offered an entirely theoretical scenario in which capitalism’s internal contradictions would lead it to a collapsing crisis. The working classes would then take control through a revolution and “dictate” a new social compact under which socioeconomic classes would eventually wither away. He died in the 1880s and did not see any of this come to fruition.
Marx had predicted that the revolution would occur in an industrially advanced capitalist country, he cited his native Germany several times. However, the first politically successful revolution to espouse Marx’s ideas occurred in backward Russia in 1917 under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin, a polemicist who read Marx as justifying brutal terror and dictatorial rule by a self-appointed “vanguard.” The Marxist-Leninist regime, which in time came to call itself Communist, put together a vast repressive system to defend modest social and economic redistribution of wealth and power; its entirely state-owned economic institutions became internally corrupt and inefficient until Communism collapsed bloodlessly in 1991.
Meanwhile, in western Europe after World War II, the exhaustion of traditional unfettered capitalism and a shared poverty brought on by two vastly destructive wars allowed non-Communist parties aligned with the Socialist International (of which Marx himself had been a member) to eventually gain power in Britain, France, Sweden, the Low Countries and eventually Germany, Spain and Italy. All of these carefully avoided too explicit an identification with Marx, due to the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, but they managed to launch a variety of vast reforms that developed what was called “the welfare state.” This was a womb-to-tomb system of social insurance to protect workers from poverty, unemployment and their worst effects, without actually attempting to force the end of private enterprise.
In North America, Canada leans toward the European socialist model although no socialist party has ever won a governing majority. The model is roughly what socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders proposed for the United States in the 2016 presidential election campaign.
This is a repost from my replies to questions posted on Quora, a question-and-answer site where questions are asked, answered, edited and organized by its community of users, at quora.com. The questions in italics and their subtexts are not mine.