Awesome blog! I already love Rimatara! Thanks for inviting me, Sam. I look forward to discussing things with you all. To introduce myself, I’m a Philosophy grad student at University of Kentucky. The discussion unfolding recently caught my attention, since socialism is one of my academic (and non-academic) interests. I consider myself Marxist, in a rather loose interpretation of that term. (To be technical, I'm roughly a "Marxist humanist" in Erich Fromm's sense of the term.) I am also a Catholic, and during the summers I go back to my undergraduate university (University of the Incarnate Word in Texas) and take graduate theology classes. So, all that does not explain the totality of my interests (academic or non-academic), but it does explain why a couple of the recent blog posts have finally led me to emerge from winter hibernation and throw in my two cents (sorry for the mixed metaphor). (Sam's comments about death counts are interesting to me too...but I drafted the following comments on socialism before his piece on death counts, so here goes...)
Defining socialism is a gargantuan task. Asked for a definition, socialists seem to flounder around in a morass of technical jargon about alienation, praxis, theory, historical events, class struggle, value, price, human nature, and so on. Socialism is sometimes defined as "worker ownership of the means of production," but that is a controversial definition, because many people (like me) would argue that socialism is about more than just "who owns what" (contra the watered-down definitions that both socialists and supporters of capitalism like to offer). Mere economic redistribution--like the Swedish welfare state--also doesn't really seem to qualify as socialism, nor does merely placing the ownership of the means of production in the hands of the *state* constitute socialism, at least not if one wants to be true to something like a Marxist approach to socialism. (Marx rarely speaks of the "state" at all, saying far more about the "workers.")
Nor, however, would I be satisfied with saying that socialism is merely non-capitalism(although if one were to add a commitment to "community" of some kind, as Sam suggests, that might get us closer to what we're looking for). From a practical standpoint, it would probably be awesome if everyone opposed to capitalism would jump behind the banner of socialism. But from a theoretical standpoint, there has to be more to socialism than just being anti-capitalist, because a movement for major change in society should be able to say something about what it is for, not just what it is against.
Of course, various historical events make the task of defining socialism even more difficult. On the one hand, it would be wonderful if a new definition of socialism could be developed that would enable socialists to get away from tiresome and hacked-over debates about why various historical attempts at socialism failed (or didn't fail)--I try to avoid those debates--and focus instead on addressing the pressing issues of the present (the increasing gap between rich and poor, ongoing U.S. military invasions, etc.). On the other hand, grappling with historical events seems unavoidable in attempting to define socialism. Slavoj Zizek says somewhere (can't recall where) that, whether they like it or not Marxists have to grapple with Lenin, like Christians have to grapple with Paul (the analogy doesn’t work perfectly). And non-Marxist socialists can't really avoid historical issues either, if they want to explain how they differentiate themselves from Marxist socialists.
Perhaps, rather than striving for a definition of socialism, we would be better off if we could address some pertinent issues relating to socialism, and thus dance around the topic, without attempting to hit the nail right on the head (sorry for another mixed metaphor). I'm not sure what alternative approach to suggest, but here is a possible question (to which I don't have an answer prepared): Does capitalism foster alienation, and how could alienation be reduced? (But if people want to discuss my worries about defining socialism, or some other topic altogether, have at it! :))
Anyway, that was fun! Nice to meet you,