Socialism is popular, especially among young people. It’s both a moral ideal and a badge of identification with a kind of punchy, controversial leftism.
But despite socialism’s global popularity, it’s hard to find a clear definition of a socialist society. It’s easy to understand what motivates socialists, but what’s the end goal? We know what socialists are against: inequality, injustice, oppression and all the rest. But what do we fight for?
Is it a society in which the self-described socialists have become the government, enacting reforms, guided by a vision of fairness? Is it a radical redistribution of wealth based on absolute equality: same pay, same possessions, same living standard for all? Is it a world in which we all act ethically towards one another, based on living a socialist morality at an individual level?
The confusion isn’t new. It’s existed for as long as the word “socialist”. From day one, most self-described socialists have been clear on their motivations, but cloudy about the conclusions.
In the 19th century, radicals throughout Europe fought for various combinations of personal freedom and political democracy. If you also cared about poverty and economic inequality, you were concerned with the “social question” and therefore were a socialist. What that meant was up for grabs, and generations of socialist reformers and revolutionaries advocated schemes by which they hoped to answer the “social question” once and for all.
Some are still famous for their all-encompassing utopias: blueprints for perfectly ordered and harmonious societies. Equally ambitious – and totally impossible – were plans to end poverty by somehow winding back the industrial revolution and creating a global society based on small farmers trading locally.
Others favoured reforms that still find advocates in mainstream politics: policies such as state-owned banks offering cheap loans, guaranteed jobs-for-all programs to solve unemployment, steep taxes on inherited land or cooperative businesses in which the employees all own stock in the company. All these ideas were supposed to solve the social question, and were therefore socialism, as understood at the time.
Many of their advocates were sincere, courageous and self-sacrificing reformers. Their ideas gave much inspiration to the emerging working class movement. In a sense, many contemporary socialists are their direct heirs.
But all these kinds of socialism never escaped the logic of the society they tried to overcome. Socialism represented a worthy, reforming ideal. But we need more than worthy ideals that can’t be realised as they crash into the reality of capitalist power relations. And we need more than piecemeal reforms to a society whose logic is bringing human civilisation to the brink of disaster.
We have a name for our society: capitalism, a class society in which everything serves the accumulation of profit and the protection of private property. Socialism can mean many things. To us, it means a society that has transcended that logic, and ended it. What is wrong with the logic of capitalism, and how can it be ended? Answering these questions gives us a meaningful idea of socialism.
Humans are social animals. From the moment we’re born, we depend on each other. We live through our relationships with other people: everything we do, we do with, and for, others. We speak to each other, create food with each other, build cities with each other and collaborate on scientific discoveries.
And unlike other animals, we can change how we organise these social interactions. Human history reflects the development of new ways of organising social creativity. Once, we lived in relatively small and simple societies. Over time we developed different ways of dividing and reorganising how we relate to each other: we invented masters and slaves, lords and peasants, kings and queens.
Each reorganisation gave us new ways to relate to each other, new problems and new possibilities. We have to analyse how we organise this social life under capitalism to see how we might reorganise it to create a new society worthy of the name “socialism”.
As Marx pointed out near the beginning of his political life, the core dynamic of capitalism is the alienation of labour. Under capitalism, humans achieve extraordinary things. We grow food and supply it to billions of people we will never meet. We sew clothes for people on the other side of the world. We create computer technologies, medicines and weapons of incomprehensible power. We achieve these things collectively, as a species, using the combined, cooperative efforts of billions of people. This cooperation connects us to each other: our work is how we participate in society. Yet we are forced do it in a way that oppresses, divides and dis-empowers us.
At work, we make no real choices, have no meaningful control over what we’re doing or why, and are treated –if our bosses get their way – as brainless cogs in a dead machine. Our enormously complex social life, spanning the whole globe, is organised in an anti-social way: we participate in it as powerless individuals. Our own collective hopes, ideas and creativity are expunged from the labour process so that the logic of capital can dominate us.
That means all the enormous potential of humanity is put to work destroying the planet, and we can’t do much about it. Meanwhile, our own lives and our connections to each other become a painful necessity: something we simply endure to get the money we need to survive.
If we don’t like it, we’re encouraged to channel our discontent, and our collective ideals, into the farcical arena of official politics, where we can be “public servants” and carry out our “civic duty”. Politics is invested with so much pomp and ceremony precisely because it decorates and fortifies a society in which the key social bond between people – participation in the labour process – is unfree and inhuman.
This is the domination of capital, of private property, over human life. As Marx pointed out, most pre-Marxist forms of “socialism” and “communism” accepted this logic, even without meaning to.
Some advocated a society based on total equality – turning everyone into an identical “worker” employed by the state or dividing property equally among everyone. Hoping to equalise work, wages or property, they assumed that the capitalist form of work, wages and property would exist forever: they just sought to make it more “fair” in how it degrades people. Many right wingers still think such schemes are “Marxism”, but Marx and Engels developed their revolutionary strategy in opposition to these ideas.
For Marxists, overcoming capitalism means overcoming the capitalist form of work.
We all know what it means to be creative: from childhood, we love to create things with others, to develop our skills and to try to do things well. Every great work of art we love also teaches us something about our own potential, because it was made by someone just like us. Even under capitalism, we still take pride in a job well done, where we can.
But creativity, purpose and freedom are taken away from us in the areas where they count the most. In a society not ruled by capital, our labour would be a means to work collectively with each other, to decide ourselves the meaning of our work and to enjoy the results together. As a young man, Marx expressed his vision of an emancipated society: “Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature”. He returned to the point late in his life: “Labour [would] become not only a means of life, but life’s prime want”.
That doesn’t mean we would all live lives of indulgent leisure, writing pastoral poetry in hammocks all day, although we would do a lot more of that than we do now. We would still have to till soil, lay roads and build machines. But to end capitalism, and to end the logic of profit and domination that governs that behaviour, would transform our experience of life.
To fire bricks in a factory run by a boss, so they can be sold to god-knows-who, is a meaningless and dehumanising experience. To create the same goods in a factory run by the working class, collectively, would be a fundamentally different experience. The work would be about aiding the construction of schools, hospitals, libraries and public parks, after a collective and democratic society-wide debate about what we want to build and why. Our products would be Marx’s “mirrors” in which we saw reflected our choices, desires and collective humanity.
Exploitation of labour is the core logic of the capitalist system: as long as that remains in place, no “socialist” policies or utopias can get us out of the mess we’re in. Just as labour is central to human history, so too is the class struggle: the working class are those of us who are in the furnace of alienation, whose collective self-assertion disrupts and can ultimately overturn the whole logic of capitalism.
Marx developed his ideas as he saw the emerging working class movement challenge the alienation of labour through collective struggle. The Marxist socialist focuses on the emancipation of labour: the ending of the capitalist labour process. That’s inseparable from our focus on the self-emancipation of the working class: a socialist revolution based on the fight for working class power.