What is socialism?

22 February 2016

The word socialism is the English language’s answer to Madonna: consistently topping the popular charts and maintaining its appeal across generations and among ever changing new audiences.

It is, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the seventh most looked up English word of all time, and in 2015 had more people seeking out its meaning than any other word.

It seems that, no matter how many times we are told that socialism doesn’t work or that we’re all too selfish to pull it off, the dream persists. So what exactly is it all about, and what’s the key to its enduring appeal?


An understanding of socialism starts with a critique of capitalism.

Capitalism is a system in which profit making is the determining factor in how resources are organised and distributed. Things are produced only insofar as profits can be made, and supplied only when the right price will be paid.

This is not the result of human nature or any other pseudo-psychological version of original sin, but because the minority of people who control of the factories, fields, mines, transport networks and power stations are in constant competition with each other to increase their profits, extend their market share and gain access to ever widening markets. The search for ever greater profits drives the system, and those with economic power within it by and large are elected by no-one and subject to zero democratic accountability.

The logic of profit is the reason why poverty and human degradation continue in a world of unrivalled plenty.

This includes people like Martin Shkreli, the CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, who last year bought the exclusive right to produce and distribute the 62-year-old HIV drug Daraprim, and then promptly increased the price by 5,455 percent because he wanted to and he could. His explanation was unashamed: “I’m trying to create a big drug company, a successful drug company, a profitable drug company”.

The logic of profit, sanitised though it may be under layers of business strategy, legal protections and management speak, is in fact the reason why poverty and human degradation continue in a world of unrivalled plenty.

It is the reason that, although there is enough food in the world to provide every person with a nutritious diet, 795 million people are starving or chronically undernourished, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. It is why 8,500 children die of starvation every day, even though food production per head has increased by 17 per cent over the last 30 years. If a profit can’t be made from selling food to hungry people, they are left to starve: that is just good business.

Things are no different in relation to the environment. Scientific opinion agrees that the planet is heading towards climate catastrophe, and yet the vested interests in the polluting industries would rather protect their profits than ensure the survival of the human race.

By buying up the patents for renewable technologies, threatening economical sabotage of governments that favour renewable industries and pouring money into “greening” the image of the polluting sectors, they are preventing any serious action being taken to address or reverse climate change. Again, keeping the profits flowing in comes ahead of all other considerations.


A socialist society could solve these problems quite simply.

Starving people could be fed by mobilising the world’s extensive transport networks to get the 1.3 billion tonnes of food that are produced each year to those who need it. There is no technological or logistical barrier to this: every day McDonalds already supplies millions of Big Macs and fries to its 35,000 outlets in 118 countries without too much trouble. But because there’s no money to be made in getting food to poor people, it doesn’t happen.

In terms of climate change, the US$5.3 trillion that is currently spent every year subsidising the fossil fuel industry could easily fund enough wind farms and solar panels to supply the world’s energy needs. These could be built in a matter of months if there was the political will.

The US$1.8 trillion that is wasted on military technology globally could likewise be put towards supplying clean running water and basic sanitation to the 2.5 billion people who currently languish without it. This would also drastically reduce the incidence of water-borne diseases, which, shamefully, still are one of the leading causes of death in the world.

Poverty could be alleviated without too much trouble in a socialist society. The wealth of the 62 individuals who hold more personal wealth than that of an entire half of the world’s population combined could be used to improve the living standards of the 2.8 billion who live on less than $2 per day, for a start. The fortunes of just the world’s four richest people could guarantee health care, clean running water and basic education to every person on the planet. This would in turn eliminate the need to waste time and money maintaining the repressive apparatus of police, courts and jails that are the capitalist system’s preferred method for dealing with extreme poverty and inequality.

The refugee crisis, presented as intractable by politicians and the media, could similarly be resolved relatively easily. There is a vacancy rate in residential property of around 3 percent in Australia, which means that there are 270,000 dwellings which could immediately be used by those who need them. Some of the $1.2 billion that is currently spent incarcerating refugees in offshore detention centres could also be put towards providing training, English lessons and recreational activities for new arrivals.

And in a socialist society, heavily armed military powers wouldn’t fight over access to resources, markets and trade routes in wars that destroy people’s lives. The 12 million people in Syria who have been displaced have been so because repressive regimes like that of Bashar al-Assad are routinely bolstered by foreign powers. But there would be no need for national borders in a socialist society, as resources would be organised on an international scale, eliminating the military and economic competition that we are familiar with today.

Clearly, none of these solutions can be implemented as long as the capitalist class remains in control of, and competing with each other over, the productive resources that are needed to meet the needs of the 7.4 billion people on planet Earth.

Socialism is therefore not just a blueprint for how wealth might better be used: it also involves a radical new form of democracy in which power would be transferred from those who own the wealth, to those who collectively produce it.

It would involve the extension of democracy to the workplaces and industries where the vast majority of people spend most of their waking hours, and where there is the potential for that majority to decide and carry out the redistribution of wealth according to their own needs. Collective control by workers at a grassroots level: only on this basis can there be genuine socialism.


This is a very different vision from that which is frequently associated with the word socialism. Although the Cold War is long over, the idea persists of socialism being synonymous with repressive one-party dictatorships like that of Stalin’s Russia, where “communism” meant citizens were spied on, democracy was a sham and there was no possibility of individual expression outside rigid limits.

Under socialism, the insecurity and atomisation that characterise capitalism – and that drive people to selfish or antisocial acts – would be done away with.

But Stalinist Russia had nothing to do with socialism. Stalin’s regime was consolidated on the back of the defeat of socialism and workers’ control, through the incarceration and murder of tens of thousands of revolutionary workers and their leaders, and through the reinstatement of exploitative working conditions geared towards out-competing the West.

What resulted was a system of wealth accumulation identical in fundamental ways to Western capitalism. The main difference was that the state, rather than a combination of the state and private capital, was the key mechanism through which accumulation was organised. It was a society in which a privileged minority depended on the exploitation of the majority of workers, but with a whole lot of window dressing about “communism”.


Nor is socialism about simply winning influence under capitalism and using it to implement social democratic reforms, desirable though they certainly are.

Fundamentally, this is because reform is limited by that fact that bosses have a power over and above parliament that they can readily bring to bear whenever reform unacceptably threatens their interests. This places strict limits on the degree to which capitalism can be reformed.

Just think of the bosses’ response to the former Rudd government’s far from radical proposal for a special tax on super profits in the mining industry: the bosses immediately threatened to withdraw their investments and build mines in other countries instead of Australia, and mobilised their media empires to whip up opposition to the proposal. In effect, they used their control of the economic resources to force an elected government to accede to their will.

Imagine then how they would react to an attempt to legislate for workers’ control of industry or to expropriate the wealth of the 1 percent – let alone the introduction of socialism! Without a commitment to challenging this power both inside and outside the official channels, and preparedness to go beyond simply securing reforms, a society of genuine economic and political equality is not possible. The idea that capitalism can be significantly reformed is more utopian today than at any other time in capitalism’s history.

Just witness the response to Jeremy Corbyn’s ascension to Labour Party leadership in the UK: apocalyptic scenarios have been predicted by pundits in the mainstream media should Corbyn become prime minister, while the savagery of the attacks on him even from within his own party have made Game of Thrones seem like pacifist propaganda. And all for advocating some fairly standard social democratic positions and refusing to be intimidated out of them.

The treatment of Bernie Sanders in the US has been slightly different but shares the same objective: to sideline and discredit a left wing challenge. Primarily, this has been done by denying Sanders a voice in the electoral debate, as well as by dismissing his proposals as unachievable and laughably out of touch with the realities of Congress. The world’s “greatest democracy” thus makes no secret of the fact that the sorts of policies supported by millions of people are not even up for consideration by the powerful.

In Australia, the same result is achieved courtesy of the Labor Party’s refusal to advocate any serious reform at all. It has instead opted for a strategy of competing with the Liberals on the questions of refugee cruelty, industrial relations “reform”, national security and welfare cuts. It accepts that the bosses are not prepared to tolerate social democratic reforms. The ALP would rather run capitalism than fight for policies that would improve the lives of workers.

All this points to the need for much more fundamental change than can be achieved under capitalism if socialism is to become a reality.

How socialism can be won

Clearly, any movement to replace the rule of a minority with that of the majority is going to be met with resistance from the capitalist class. They will not willingly hand over their corporate empires to lowly workers.

Indeed, any protest or picket line, however small, is guaranteed to attract a police presence, just as every Facebook post is forever stored on a server somewhere, available for future state scrutiny. And as we’ve seen in Egypt following the Arab Spring, if people really need to be put back in their box, there is always torture, jail and intimidation.

For socialism to become a reality, our side must have a strategy to confront and defeat the ruling apparatus of capitalism: both the armed might of the military, police and prison system, as well as the mass media, education and legal system, all of which work together to convince or compel us to accept the status quo.

This must be based on the one source of real power our side has: the industrial might of the working class when it gets organised and acts collectively. Workers not only have the power to paralyse production and profits by going on strike, but they also have the potential to reorganise production in their own interests under their own democratic control.

This has been seen on a limited scale time and time again throughout the history of capitalism, in historical periods and cultures as different as Russia in 1917, Iran in 1979 and Poland in 1981. All have provided a glimpse into what a socialist society would be like.

George Orwell described his experience of it during a brief period of workers power in Barcelona during the 1936 Spanish revolution: “It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers … Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivised; even the bootblacks had been collectivised and their boxes painted red and black.

“Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared … All this was queer and moving. There was much in this that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognised it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”

Under socialism there would be real day to day control over the production and distribution of the things people need to survive and be happy. As a result, the insecurity and atomisation that characterise capitalism – and that drive people to selfish or antisocial acts – would be done away with.

During the workers’ revolution in Hungary in 1956, for example, barrels were left in the street in which people put money to help the struggle. They were unguarded and yet nobody stole from them, as would be taken for granted in capitalist society.

As far off as that might seem today, the recent resurgence of interest in and enthusiasm for socialism nevertheless represents a tiny step in this direction. If the widespread disaffection with the system that underpins this is to build into a successful movement, it will need to cohere eventually around a strategic goal and vision of an alternative society. This is why understanding what socialism is, and what it isn’t, still matters so much today.

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