What do we mean when we talk about socialism?

Submitted by AWL on 29 October, 2008 - 11:59 Author: Editorial

“Socialism is the answer” to the crises and crying injustices, the inequalities and absurdities, of capitalism. But what is it, this socialism?

Too often it is a vague and cloudy and undefined “big word”. In part, this is deliberate policy by the socialists.

Before the great founders of modern socialism, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, socialism had been mostly what they came to call “utopian socialism”. Some great benevolent thinker — and some of them were very great thinkers and splendid human beings, such as the Englishman Robert Owen — would work out a blueprint for an ideal socieity, convert as many as possible to the vision, and then set about creating such a society in miniature, out in the wilderness somewhere, far from the imperfect capitalist society that had been created by history.

For instance, some socialists set up such a community in the wilds of Texas in 1848.

The idea was that these small nuclei of a better society would grow and spread, and by their example convert the whole of the surrounding capitalist society, the capitalists and landlords as well as the working people, to the superiority of the new system. Salvation for humanity would come from outside capitalist society.

In practice, those little communist colonies, starved of resources, confined to small groups of people, floundered, and fell apart after a few years or in some cases a few decades. The “example” they provided was not the one they had set out to create, but an opposite one.

The term “utopian” came from a book published in 1516 by Thomas More — the Saint Thomas More of the Catholic Church — a one-time Chancellor of England (a sort of prime minister then), who summed up his experience of government with the words:

“I can have no other notion of all the other governments that I see or know, than that they are a conspiracy of the rich... that they may engage the poor to toil and labour for them at as low rates as possible, and oppress them as much as they pleasure”.

Utopia meant “nowhere”, and “nowhere” neatly summed up the results of the utopian attempt to create model communist societies side by side with capitalism.

Marx and Engels and others inherited and built upon some of the ideas of the utopian socialists, and in particular their critiques of capitalist society.

Their new socialism, in sharp contrast to the utopians’, looked to forces within capitalist society to create socialism. To two forces in particular: to the trends of capital itself, and to the working class employed as “wage slaves” by the bourgeoisie.

The old utopian socialists were what we might call “absolute anti-capitalists”. The new socialists were anti-capitalist, of course, but recognised that capitalism had played and was playing a tremendously progressive role in the development of society.

They recognised it as the mother of the socialism they advocated and organised to achieve. It was the creator of the class in society that would create a socialist future, not in agreement with the capitalists, but in bitter class war against them.

For the old socialists, socialism was an idea, and proposals and schemes for its creation in life. The idea could have come into the head of some genius at any time in previous history. Indeed, it had. Many utopians recognised as their predecessors people in the distant past such as Thomas More and, many centuries earlier, Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher.

For the new socialists, the “Marxists”, socialism could only be the product of a long previous social evolution in which capitalism was the highest stage so far. The history of class societies had not been just a “mistake”, not just a senseless waste for lack of the benefit of the new great ideas which the utopians preached.

Class society had been unavoidable and necessary. So long as social labour — that of slaves and serfs, free peasants and artisans — produced only a small surplus beyond what it took to keep the workers alive and able to breed new workers, ruling classes would arise that would seize that surplus for themselves and enslave the producers.

So it had been through a series of pre-capitalist societies — the ancient slavery of the Greek and Roman world, the feudalism of the Middle Ages, the distinct societies of “Asiatic despotism” that had existed in China, India, central America, and elsewhere for thousands of years.

Capitalism for the first time organised social labour so that it was able to produce enough for a decent standard of life for everybody. It thus for the first time in history made socialism a real possibility.

Capitalism also created a working class which had no property in the means of production — in contrast with peasants, or with artisans and craft workers who owned their own tools and workshops. The new working class owned only its own labour-power, which it was forced to sell on a daily basis to those who owned the machines needed for them to work.

Historically, the capitalist bourgeoisie and this working class were tied together as two sides of one economic development — up until the working class “expropriated” the capitalists and made itself collectively the owner of the productive wealth of society.

The working class could not find anyone lower in the social scale to exploit. To free itself from exploitation by the bourgeoisie, it would have to free all of society.

While peasants could break up the big estates of the landlords into smaller farms, the working class could not break up and divide the factories into smaller bits. They could own the means of production only collectively, in common, as social property.


And they could not own the means of productive collectively unless they were administered democratically. A collectively-owned economy implied democratic administration; it implied comprehensive democracy.

Democracy, in turn, if it were to be real, and not confined to important but superficial things such as infrequent elections, implied collective ownership and democratic control of the economy on which the lives of the whole of society depended.

Democracy was thus central to Marxist socialism, in contrast to the utopians’. The new socialists would be a political movement, concerned with all aspects of the running of society, and aimed at organising the working class to take political power. In one of the early foundation-texts of Marxist socialism, the Communist Manifesto, published by Marx and Engels at the beginning of 1848, the goal of the socialist working class is defined as “to win the battle of democracy”.

That meant more than winning the vote, though winning the vote for the “lower classes” was in most places still to be done in 1848. It meant subordinating the economy to democratic, conscious, working-class control. It meant turning markets into tools in limited areas of the economy, dethroning the market as idol.

Marx and Engels and their comrades believed that the organisation of the working class, and its political education into a scientific overview of society, was the defining work of socialists.

The final overthrow of the capitalists and their system — the socialist revolution — would be the culmination of the work of “agitating, organising, and educating” the workers.

The wage-working class was, in their view, now the protagonist of history. Among its tasks was to organise the other working people who, though not wage-workers, were not exploiters of labour like the capitalists — small farmers, shopkeepers, “professional” workers — around its own democratic-collectivist programme for the reorganisation of society.

To prepare the “subjective” side of the socialist revolution by way of educating and organising the wage-working class, those without property in the means of production, was the precondition of socialism. Socialism could not happen until that education and organisation had first been done.

But, quite apart from the political readying of the working class, the capitalist system itself also prepared the socialist revolution.

Capitalists exist in a condition of war of varying intensities with each other – for markets, profits, survival. Especially in times of the periodically recurring economic crises, the stronger devour the weaker. Capitalism, on that level, is a cannibal-piranha society. (We have seen this very recently, with the Government encouraging and assisting the amalgamation of giant banks).

Tremendous concentrations of wealth are created. Whole industries come to be controlled by a few giant companies.

In this way, society becomes more and more collectivist — but under the control of the bourgeoisie, and for its essential benefit.

In our own time, we have seen this reach new levels with the growth of global corporations disposing of more income and more power than the governments of some sovereign states. The issue becomes not one of whether there will be social organisation of the economy, but of who will control the socially-organised economy, and in whose interests it will be run.

Because the working class was defeated repeatedly in its battle in the 20th century to take control of society — defeated by fascism and Stalinism and by bourgeois-democratic governments — the “socialisation” of the economy by the bourgeoisie has reached tremendous levels. We have just seen the most vehement advocates of free markets run to the governments that were no less vehement marketeers, to use the state to rescue them from the natural consequences of the capitalist market system — of the principle that profit is God and the market is his representative on Earth.

Everywhere, governments are stepping in to substitute for bankrupt bankers and financiers. But this is not socialism.

This is “social”, meaning governmental, running of key aspects of the economy, not for the mass of the citizens, but in the interests of the capitalist class as a whole. This is state capitalism, not socialism.

In the 1940s, the Labour government in Britain did similar service to the owners of the mines and railways, buying them out.


Socialism is the opposite of this state capitalism. It is the assumption of political power by a government of the working people which will expropriate the existing owners and administer society in the interests of all the working people — a workers’ government. The capitalists will not let us achieve that peacefully. Only by way of a working-class revolution will it be possible.

What will our socialism be, positively? What will it look like?

It will be a humane society run for the people, by the people, by elected and democratically-controlled representatives of the people. It will put people before property. It will cherish all the children equally, eliminating poverty and unequal education.

It will be multifariously democratic in all aspects of society. The economy will be collectively owned and democratically administered. Markets will be confined to limited areas, for the fine-tuning of distribution within the context of an overall planned economy.

Production will be for use, not profit. The tremendous advances in medicine will be available to all. The obscenities of drug companies robbing the sick will be relegated to the same niche in human memory as the old Aztec human sacrifices they so often resemble in their consequences, when they condemn people to chronic illness of death by depriving them of equal medical care because they can’t pay the blood-money demanded by the drug companies.

It is beyond our scope here to try to work out in detail what socialism will be. In any case, we can’t realistically do that. Too many things are unknowable for us. Marxism distinguished itself from the utopian socialists also by avoiding blueprints for an ideal future.

Yet, we know what socialism is not. It is not production for profit. It is not the subordination of human beings to the operation of inhuman market forces. It is not letting profit-makers control essential things like the provision of drugs to the sick.

It is not Stalinist state tyranny. It is not the ownership of the means of production and of society by a state that is itself “owned” by a Stalinist-style oligarchy.

Socialism, in a word, is the establishment of human solidarity, as the organisational axis and core ethic of a new society. Here and now, solidarity is the core of all labour movement, meaning workers standing together against the bosses.

Solidarity is both our great organising weapon now, and the simple definition of what will be the core of a humane, working-class-run, socialist society.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.