Socialism has captured the imaginations of many since the very beginning of capitalism. The ideal of a classless, democratic and liberated world is an unsurprisingly attractive alternative to the debased, poverty-stricken, war-prone reality of global capitalism. In recent years, a new generation of radicalising young people has again adopted the socialist label.

That socialism is a desirable alternative to capitalism is a no-brainer. The real question is: how do we get there? Much of the history of the left has been a battle over different strategies and ideas for how to achieve a socialist future. Often shrugged off as internecine squabbles, getting this answer correct is crucial; socialism is just a utopian dream without the correct ideas for how to make it happen.

The most serious and longstanding debate on the left has been whether we can reform the system through parliamentary elections, or whether we need a revolution to overthrow it. This has again sharpened in recent years with the revival of reformist figures and organisations such as Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and the Democratic Socialists of America. The case for reformism rests on the assertion that we can use the democratic structures of parliament to elect a left-wing government—possibly in tandem with some sort of mass movement—that will redistribute wealth, nationalise industry, restructure the economy to be environmentally sustainable, dramatically increase social welfare, make health care and education free and so on.

This strategy is based on, at best, a naive understanding of capitalist state power, at worst, an acceptance that all we can ever hope to achieve is some partial reforms to make life a little better. This is not to say the fight for meaningful reforms is irrelevant. They can be important outbreaks of struggle that improve the confidence and combativeness of the oppressed and exploited. But, as Polish Marxist Rosa Luxemburg wrote more than 100 years ago, limiting our sights to partial reforms consigns the workers’ movement to a labour of Sisyphus—the figure from Greek mythology who repeatedly rolled a boulder to the top of a hill, only to see it roll back down the other side—because progressive reforms won under capitalism are only ever temporary, like free education was in Australia.

Radical reformists claim to be fighting for much more than a few scraps wrung out of the ruling class. They argue that we can actually overcome the rule of the capitalist class (those who own or control most of the wealth) and live in an egalitarian society by following the path of electoralism. However, it is inconceivable that the rich and powerful would stand quietly to one side and watch their wealth be stripped away by a radical reforming government. Are the billionaires likely to accept the loss of their companies, fortunes and mansions? Hardly. They will instead organise to crush any government, and any movement in the streets aligned with it, that tries to redistribute their immense wealth. So will the heads of the military, the police and the other state bureaucracies, who also form part of the ruling class and won’t submit to a government working against their own interests.

Modern history is littered with examples of democratically elected governments being overthrown by military or palace coups, including leaders who fell far short of calling for an end to capitalism. Even here in Australia, the Labor government led by Gough Whitlam in the 1970s was unilaterally sacked by the governor-general, the representative of the British monarchy. There have been more than a dozen coups in Latin America over the past century, often backed by the United States and almost always to overthrow left-wing governments that had mass popular support.

Even short of violent military coups, parliamentary electoralism consistently fails to deliver many goods. Most self-described socialists sell out long before being overthrown; think of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez supporting $738 billion in military spending for the Pentagon. Or the Syriza government in Greece, which was elected in 2015 on a mandate to end austerity but ended up signing a new austerity package just six months into its term. The parliamentary road to socialism has been tried and tested many times. It has only chalked up failure after failure.

Another common strategy for social change is “ethical consumption”, the idea that, as consumers, we can “vote with our dollar” to direct money away from the most cruel and exploitative companies and practices, instead purchasing goods only from “ethical” suppliers. The idea is that, thanks to the laws of supply and demand, if enough people get on board the latest boycott, over time the cruel and destructive aspects of capitalism will hit the wall.

Ethical consumerism holds less sway than it did a decade ago, at least as a sole political strategy. In the context of a decade of austerity, rising imperialist tensions, catastrophic climate change and now the social crisis unleashed by a once-in-a-century global pandemic, the idea that the kind of straws we choose to drink from can really hit the system where it hurts has understandably lost some currency.

The economic power we wield as individuals is so small as to be negligible. British Petroleum (BP) turned over $4 billion in profit in 2019; it is hardly concerned by some people choosing to ride a bike to work so as not to purchase petrol. If Adani’s Carmichael coal mine in Queensland becomes operational, it will become responsible for more carbon emissions annually than New Zealand. So every single New Zealander could emit absolutely nothing for an entire year and have less of an impact than the project of one company. Instead of replacing socially and environmentally destructive industries, the ethical consumption trend has just opened up new vegan/organic/reusable markets to cater to those concerned about their carbon footprint.

Ethical consumerism is not only ineffectual, but often counterproductive. First, it assumes there can be an “ethical capitalism”—that it’s acceptable to produce things for profit, rather than for human need, as long as the right kind of companies are doing the producing. In reality, all profits come from the unpaid labour of workers, which builds the hoards of the wealthy minority of bosses. Second, it is a lifestyle out of reach for most workers the world over, who have neither the time nor money to overhaul the goods they are buying, or their lifestyle practices. It’s ridiculous to think most people are “voting” for inhumane working conditions when they don’t buy fair trade, or support the destruction of the environment when they forget to bring their green bags to the supermarket. Ethical consumerism places blame on the “unethical consumer”, rather than industry bosses who make all the key decisions about how production is organised.

Somewhat related to this, in a more extreme form, is the idea that before we can think about building socialism globally, first we must work to recreate our local communities and social circles to prefigure the future society we want to see. Once captured with the slogan “think globally, act locally”, today this strategy lives on in the ideas of mutual aid, collective farming, cooperative housing and so on. These localised actions fit a larger method of social change by acting as an inspirational, non-capitalist ideal that others will then emulate, spreading until the capitalist norm has been totally subverted.

This is a utopian conception of mass, global social transformation. Subversive communities operating somewhat outside of the global market are able to exist only because they do not represent a threat to the structures of global capitalism. And they don’t represent a threat precisely because, as with “ethical consumerism”, there is a limited number of people who can participate.

A common thread to all these strategies is the reliance on a minority to make the changes, rather than a focus on mass politics that can involve the majority of people. Some anarchists recognise this, and instead turn to spontaneous mass movements as the antidote to elitist political organising. They valorise the alleged “leaderlessness” of political uprisings that seem to explode out of nowhere and bring everyone together outside of the traditional hierarchies of mainstream politics.

Spontaneous mass movements are indeed fabulous moments of political awakening and a shock to the status quo. Like the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprising in the United States, or the Hong Kong revolt in 2019, suddenly, millions of people are propelled into collective struggle, eschewing the traditional methods we’re taught are all we can rely on to make an impact, like voting in elections or writing to a politician. These movements have the potential to develop a revolutionary momentum that can eventually lead to socialism, like the February revolution leading to the October insurrection in Russia.

But spontaneous mass uprisings are not the end game for revolutionary struggle. Many such moments have erupted throughout the history of capitalism, but they are mostly, unfortunately, a litany of defeats. The elation and unity experienced in the early days of an uprising can’t last forever. Some important questions are quickly raised: What to do if popular demands aren’t met? How to organise against state violence? Should we pin our hopes on an election or do we need to deepen and spread the rebellion and try out new tactics? Different political traditions will have different answers to all of these.

Nor can millions keep turning out onto the streets day after day for months on end. Most protesters will have a job they need to keep, families to feed, responsibilities that can’t be abandoned indefinitely. If the initial outburst of resistance doesn’t develop into a revolutionary movement with the ability to take power, it will eventually dwindle and die. When the movement subsides, and not all that much has changed, a period of demoralisation and despair can set in, and participants can simply return to their regular lives or become incorporated into the traditional political currents like reformism or liberalism.

Marxists argue that a mass, revolutionary workers’ party can bridge the gap between an initial uprising and a future socialist society. Workers hold a unique power in their ability to shut down all industry and halt profits, the very lifeblood of capitalism. This can strike at the system in a way that no street campaign, however inspiring and heroic, will. Following that, workers can start up the system again—we already operate and create all goods and services—but this time under the democratic control of the majority. That is socialism.

Challenging capitalism will be no easy feat. It will involve immense organisation and strong revolutionary leadership. A revolutionary party must be a mass party; an organisation of a few thousand in a movement involving millions will only be sidelined. Most revolutions of the past century were not defeated due to a lack of will or commitment from those involved, but because no party existed that could draw together the most radical workers behind a coherent and winning strategy, bringing the majority on board along the way. The Russian revolution in 1917 is the exception to this, before its eventual defeat, which is why revolutionaries today still look to it.

There are many ingredients needed to build an emancipated socialist society. And there is no recipe book that details exactly how to do it. But socialists in the 21st century have the benefit of more than a century of working-class movements to learn from: both what strategies and tactics proved successful, and what lessons we can draw from defeats. One thing we can say is that every strategy for establishing an egalitarian society that was not oriented to a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism ultimately failed. That’s a good reason to consider revolutionary socialism.