“Socialism and the Lexicographers” (1892)

Socialism and the Lexicographers.

Liberty is informed that the Collectivists expect to prove their claim to a monopoly of the name Socialism by reference to the Century Dictionary as an indisputable authority. They will find that the Anarchistic Socialists are not to be stripped of one-half of their title by the mere dictum of the last lexicographer. If the dictionary-makers were in substantial agreement in making Socialism exclusive of Anarchism, the demand that Anarchists should cease to call themselves Socialists might be made with some grace. But that there is no approach to unanimity among them on this point will be seen from the following definitions of Socialism taken from various cyclopaedias and dictionaries, for the compilation of which Liberty is largely indebted to the industry of Comrade Trinkaus.

Stormonth’s Dictionary of the English Language.

That system which has for its object the reconstruction of society on the basis of a community of property, and association instead of competition in every branch of human industry; communion.


The science of reconstructing society on entirely new bases, by substituting the principle of association for that of competition in every branch of human industry.

In the various forms under which society has existed, private property, individual industry and enterprise, and the right of marriage and the family have been recognized. Of late years, several schemes of social arrangement have been proposed, in which one or all of these principles have been abandoned, or modified. These schemes may be comprehended under the general term Socialism.

Allgemeine deutsche Real-Encyklopaedie.

The body of teachings, developed into a system, which aim at removing the evils of existing society by the establishment of a social order based on a new distribution of wealth, labor, and industry, and thereby creating the lasting welfare of all, but especially of the classes without capital, within a general grand development of humanity.

Globe Encyclopaedia.

A term which is practically synonymous with Communism, though, strictly speaking, there is a distinction between the two words, which is explained in the article Communism. Communism means the negation of private property; it describes a society in which the land and instruments of production would be held as joint property and used for the common account, industry being regulated by a magistrate, and the produce being publicly divided in equal shares, or according to wants, or on some other principle of distributive justice.

Socialism does not necessarily involve the abolition of private property, it merely insists that the land and instruments of production should be the property of the association or government.


A theory or system of social reform which contemplates a complete reconstruction of society, with a more just and equitable distribution of labor.

Encyclopaedia Americana.

Socialism, in general, may be described as that movement which seeks by economic changes to destroy the existing inequalities of the world’s social conditions. Into all Socialistic schemes the idea of governmental change enters, with this radical difference, however; some Socialists rely upon the final abolition of existing forms of government and seek the establishment of a pure democracy, while others insist upon giving to government a paternal form, thus increasing its function, instead of diminishing it.

Encyclopaedia Britannica.

A new form of social organization, based on a fundamental change in the economic order of society. Socialists believe that the present economic order, in which industry is carried on by private competitive capital, must and ought to pass away, and that the normal economic order of the future will be one with collective means of production and associated labor working for the general good. [The “Britannica,” in the same article, cataloguing the varieties of Socialism, includes in the list Anarchism, of which it calls Proudhon the acknowledged father.]

Meyer’s Konversations-Lexicon.

Literally a system of social organization, commonly a designation for all those teachings and aspirations which contemplate a radical change of the existing social and economical order, in favor of a new order more in harmony with the requirements of the general welfare and the sense of justice than the existing order.

Sanders’s Wörterbuch der deutscher Sprache.

A system according to which civil society is to be founded on the community of labor and the proportional distribution of the product.

Johnson’s Universal Cyclopaedia.

Socialism holds an intermediate position between pure Communism and simple coöperation. Unlike Communism, it does not advocate the absolute abolition of property, but aims simply at a more just and equitable distribution of it. Every man according to his capacity, and every capacity according to its work, is the great maxim laid down by Saint Simon, and to carry out this maxim is the great goal of all Socialistic movements.

Chambers’s Encyclopaedia.

The name given to a class of opinions opposed to the present organization of society, and which seeks to introduce a new distribution of property and labor, in which organized coöperation, rather than competition, should be the dominating principle.

American Cyclopaedia.

The doctrine that society ought to be organized on more harmonious and equitable principles. Communism and cooperation are its principal divisions or varieties. Communism and Socialism are sometimes used as synonymous; but generally the former term refers to the plans of social reform based on, or embracing, the doctrine of a complete community of goods. Coöperation is understood to be that branch of Socialism which is engaged exclusively with theories of labor and methods of distributing profits and which advocates a combination of many to gain advantages not to be realized by individuals. Viewed as a whole, Socialistic doctrines have dealt with everything that enters into the life of the individual, the family, the church, or the State, whether industrially, morally, or spiritually.

Universal Cyclopaedia.

A system which, in opposition to the competitive system at present prevailing, seeks to reorganize society on the basis, in the main, of a certain secularism in religion, of community of interest, and in coöperation in labor for the common good.

Blackie’s Modern Cyclopaedia.

The name applied to various theories of social organization, having for their common aim the abolition of that individual action on which modern societies depend, and the substitution of a regulated system of coöperative action. The word Socialism, which originated among the English Communists, and was assumed by them to designate their own doctrines, is now employed in a larger sense, not necessarily implying Communism, or the entire abolition of private property, but applied to any system which requires that the land and the instruments of production shall be the property, not of individuals, but of communities, or associations, with the view to an equitable distribution of the products.

Lalor’s Cyclopaedia of Political Science.

An analysis of this word may be reduced to this: In every human society, whether it advances or retrogrades, modifications more or less profound are always going on, modifications which are more or less perceptible, and which, with or without the knowledge of such society, act upon its economy. Apparently such a society remains the same; but in reality it is daily affected by changes of which it becomes entirely conscious only after time has fixed them in the habits and customs of the people, and marked them by its sanction. This is the course of civilizations which are being perfected, or which are declining. The honor of a generation is to add something to the inheritance it has received, and to transmit it improved to the generation which comes after it. To employ what has been acquired as an instrument of new acquisition, to advance from the verified to the unknown; such is the idea of progress as it presents itself to well-ordered minds. But such is not the idea of the Socialists. In their eyes, the situation given is a false one, and the process too simple. Reforms in detail do not seem to them worthy of attention. They have plans of their own, the first condition of which is to make a tabula rasa of everything that exists, to cast aside existing laws, manners, customs, and all the guarantees of personal property. It seems to them that we have lived thus far under the empire of a misconception, which it is urgent should cease; our globe, according to them, is an anticipated hell, and our civilization a coarse outline only. What is the remedy? There is only one, — to try the treatment of which the Socialists hold the secret. That treatment varies according to the sect. There are Socialists with mild remedies, and Socialists with violent remedies; the only difficulty is in the choice. But with all their differences, there is one point on which they agree, — the formal condemnation of human societies as they are at present constituted, and the necessity of erecting on the ruins an order of things more conformaable to the instincts of man and to his destiny here below.

Century Dictionary.

Any theory or system of social organization which would abolish, entirely or in great part, the individual effort and competition on which modern society rests, and substitute for it coöperative action, would introduce a more perfect and equal distribution of the products of labor, and would make land and capital, as the instruments and means of production, the joint possession of the members of the community.

Littré’s Dictionary of the French Language.

A system which, subordinating political reforms, offers a plan of social reforms. Communism, Mutualism, SaintSimonism, Fourierism, are Socialisms.


A political doctrine tending to establish égalitaire association as the basis of government.

Dictionary of the French Academy.

The doctrine of those who desire to change the condition of society and reconstruct it on an entirely new plan.

Cassell & Co.’s Encyclopaedic Dictionary (1887).

Scientific Socialism embraces:

(1) Collectivism: An ideal Socialistic state of society, in which the functions of the government will include the organization of all the industries of the country. In a Collectivist State every person would be a State official, and the State would be coextensive with the whole people.

(2) Anarchism (meaning mistrust of government and not abandonment of social order) would secure individual liberty against encroachment on the part of the State in the Socialistic commonwealth. They are divided into Mutualists, who hope to attain their ends by banks of exchange and free currency, and Communists, whose motto is, “From every man according to his capacity, to every man according to his needs.”

From this interesting assortment of broad-gauge and narrow-gauge definitions the Anarchists can glean as much encouragement as the Collectivists. None of them are authoritative. The makers of dictionaries are dependent upon specialists for their definitions. A specialist’s definition may be true, or it may be erroneous. But its truth cannot be increased or its error diminished by its acceptance by the lexicographer. Each definition must stand on its own merits. With this remark as a preface, I offer once more the definition of Socialism which I printed in these columns nearly two years ago, and am willing to leave it to the reader whether it meets the requirements of a scientific definition more or less satisfactorily than the definitions in the dictionaries:

“Socialism is the belief that the next important step in progress is a change in man’s environment of an economic character that shall include the abolition of every privilege whereby the holder of wealth acquires an anti-social power to compel tribute.”


Benjamin R. Tucker (and William Trinkaus), “Socialism and the Lexicographers,” Liberty 8 no. 34 (January 30, 1892): 3.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.