By Wendy Widom

The term ‘socialism’ is back in the headlines as Democratic presidential candidates spar over proposed programs like Medicare for All.

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With Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist,” currently edging to the lead in the Democratic presidential primary, heated debates about what socialism is – and isn’t – now fill our social media newsfeeds.

To gain a better understanding of socialism and what the fuss is all about, CBS 2 spoke with Robert Reamer Jr., a Teaching Fellow in the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. The conversation has been simplified, edited and condensed for clarity.

What is socialism?

“Socialism” is a contested term, as are many political concepts. There is no single, fixed, accepted definition. It tends to be understood, in the 19th century at least, as opposition both to the system of wage labor and to the class structure that gives rise to it.

For someone like Marx, the central problem is that there is a class of people who have no property and are thus forced to labor for a living.  Then there’s another class of people who own the productive capital. These people don’t have to engage in productive labor; they can command the labor of others.  They essentially compel other people to labor for them and then appropriate much of the wealth that is produced as their own property.

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Socialism has historically been a critique of this class structure and an attempt to overcome it.

Do we confuse socialism and communism?

Historically, it makes sense to think of communism as one sub-species of socialism. If socialism is understood as a system that overcomes or does away with class divisions and wage labor, then there are a variety of ideas about how best to accomplish that – some are communist and some are not.

What about taxes? Does socialism mean higher taxes?

That’s one of the areas in which I would say a conceptual confusion seems to be quite common today. Historically, socialism has been associated with questions of who owns the means of production and whether we have distinct classes of owners and non-owners.

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For most historical socialists, no amount of taxation would ever get you to a socialist society.