What is Socialism?

by Jacob Bilsky and Sam Skinner

As the United States approaches one million deaths due to COVID-19, economic conditions are worsening for working people. The cost of living is skyrocketing, with inflation increasing prices for basics like food, rent, transportation, and healthcare. Climate change is more obvious and dangerous. Inequality is deepening. Polls show support for the capitalist system has dropped by 4% since 2019. Over half of young people ages 18-34 have a positive view of socialism according to a recent Axios poll. As faith in the capitalist system declines, the popularity of socialism is also on the rise. 

Republicans like Donald Trump and Democrats like Joe Biden have denounced political opponents as “socialists” and “communists” in order to conjure up images of Cold War-era propaganda and Stalinist repression. Meanwhile, a minority of Democrats like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sometimes invoke the phrase “democratic socialism” to advocate liberal reforms.

From the beginning, socialists had to define what they meant when using the word “socialism.” Nineteenth Century socialists Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels differentiated their ideas and organizing from the crowd of reformers and establishment politicians by analyzing capitalism and the workers’ movement to develop scientific socialism — what would later be called “Marxism” — the theoretical basis for revolutionary socialism.

Capitalism vs. Socialism

In a capitalist system, the capitalist class profits from exploiting the working class. The capitalists own the means of production, including everything from the factories where products are made, to the land where resources are extracted, to the transportation systems, warehouses, and stores used to distribute them, as well as the computer networks and offices that organize the process.

Meanwhile, working people must sell their time and labor to capitalist owners to afford basic necessities. But, crucially, the value that working people create for the capitalist class is always more than the value of what workers are paid in wages. This difference between value created and added by labor versus wages paid is where the capitalists’ profits come from.

Socialists seek to eliminate capitalism, an economic system based on exploiting labor and the environment for the profits of a small capitalist class. In place of production for profit, socialism is an economic system where the working class plans and runs production and distribution democratically. An economy run by working people would meet everyone’s needs, and ensure the surplus we produce benefits us all. 

We know how to do our jobs, and can do them better without CEOs and managers getting in the way. Our experience can be used to meet the goals democratically decided within a socialist planned economy as well as improve processes and technology. Automation and increased productivity could reduce the amount of work to be done, improve our living standards, and enhance the quality of our lives. Cooperation and planning, instead of profit motive and “competition,” will drastically reduce redundancies, inefficiencies, waste, and pollution. Rather than letting empty houses sit and rot, we could refurbish them and build new housing to end homelessness. Instead of relying on fossil fuels to heat and power our homes, we could rapidly adopt cleaner, renewable sources of energy with a just transition for fossil fuel workers. 

Can we achieve socialism?

Capitalist commentators and economists love to claim that “capitalism is human nature.” They assert that human beings are naturally greedy and selfish, and that capitalism is the best system. Some supporters of capitalism will even go as far as to claim that capitalism has existed forever, and that it is the only economic system under which human beings can live. 

But when we look at the archeological evidence, we find the opposite is true. Rather than living in a state of primordial capitalism, early humans lived in what Marx and Engels called “primitive communism.” In these early hunter-gatherer societies people lived communally, sharing resources like food and tools and making decisions democratically. There was equality between men and women, and no private property or classes of people. 

This was how human beings lived for hundreds of thousands of years, until only around 12,000 years ago, when humans began domesticating plants and animals, leading to permanent settlements. As more agriculture created a surplus of resources like grains and wool, systems arose which enabled a minority of people in society to claim private ownership of that surplus. 

This control of society by a tiny minority laid the basis for the oppression of women, slavery, and different classes with various privileges for those at the top. History shows us that capitalism has not existed forever, and can be changed and replaced with a different and better system. 

History also shows us that the rule of a minority over the majority of society is not human nature, but a recent development which is only possible due to the fact that the minority in charge is armed with a state — court systems, a military, a police force, etc. — which allows them to rule over the majority of society with coercive violence. 

Marx and Engels based their vision of what a socialist society could look like and how it could be reached on this scientific understanding of society, which is why they called themselves scientific socialists. They pointed out how capitalism had greatly improved the productive capacity of human society in comparison to previous economic systems and created a global class of workers, packed together in workplaces and cities. Capitalism is a system in which the labor of the working class makes society run, which means the working class can run society, and democratically plan the economy to meet the needs of working people globally, rather than just the needs of a few wealthy capitalists. A socialist society would greatly expand democracy for working people, and give us real power over our lives. 

Can Capitalism be Reformed?

Capitalism can be ended, but the question remains what tactics can be used to achieve socialism. In the Democratic Party primaries for the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, Senator Sanders was labeled a “socialist” and occasionally spoke of “democratic socialism.” Sanders and progressive Democrats raise ideas about reforms in healthcare, wages, education, and debt forgiveness, but offer no way forward to win and keep significant reforms or solve the systemic problems of capitalism.

Progressive Democrats do not seek to end capitalism, but instead want to make it seem nicer by rebuilding some of the welfare programs and Keynesian economic policies which existed for some workers in the US from the 1930s to the 1960s. The capitalist class reluctantly allowed reforms in the face of a militant labor movement during the Great Depression, the civil rights movement, and mass protest movements like the anti-Vietnam War movement. After World War II, US capitalism profited from rebuilding Europe, Japan, and South Korea, and from escaping the destruction of WWII in comparison to its rivals. Record profit rates for US capitalism in the post-war economic upswing allowed the ruling class to give some social concessions for a time.

But capitalism is an unstable system, and the US’s post-war economic and military dominance came under threat from revolts against colonialism and the growth of European and East Asian economies. By the early 1970s, big business went on the offensive, seeking to increase profit rates, and moving to dismantle the concessions workers’ organizing and mass protest movements had won in the US. By that point, radical and socialist union leaders had been purged by the capitalists through McCarthyism and other repression during the Cold War. The remaining union leadership lacked any vision or strategy based in socialist ideas so they became bureaucratic and unwilling to mobilize members to fight back.

The problem with attempting just a “Political Revolution,” as proposed by Sanders, to strengthen social benefits is that capitalism would remain intact. So long as the capitalists control the economy, they will use it to enforce their control of the political system. For example, studies have shown that the day-to-day voting patterns of politicians have almost no correlation to what their constituents want, and everything to do with what wealthy business interests want, regardless of which corporate party these politicians belong to, Republican or Democrat (Vox, Jan 28, 2015). Corporate interests provide the financial base for both major political parties in the US, and often the same corporation will give money to both parties, as Federal Election Commission records show. 

Capitalists further defend their interests with the judicial system, which sends thousands of people to prison every year for petty theft, while largely ignoring the crimes of big business like wage theft, which affects up to two thirds of minimum wage workers. Individual capitalists and corporations send millions in donations to organizations which help arm and fund various police departments around the world — the same police called on to break strikes, suppress protests, evict people, and harass working-class neighborhoods. 

These factors ensure that despite the appearance of capitalist “democracy,” there is in fact only democracy for the capitalist class. Because of this, there is in reality no way for the working class to free themselves from capitalist oppression through the rules of capitalist democracy. 

So long as workers support the corporate Democratic Party and the limited reforms proposed by figures like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, we will be stuck in a vicious cycle where the capitalists always come out on top because they control the economy.

This does not mean we should ignore elections or give up on fighting for reforms. But we need to run our own candidates on a socialist program, free of corporate funding. Union organizing, strikes, and mass movements, as well as running and supporting independent left-wing candidates, can help build a workers’ party as part of the struggle for socialism.

Real socialists fight for every reform possible under capitalism that can increase the living standards and organizational strength of the working class. However, we do not limit ourselves to demands for reforms under capitalism. We advocate for transitional demands which link these reforms to the unavoidable need for a social revolution which brings both the economy and the government under the democratic control of the working class.

Socialism and Internationalism

Historically, capitalism overcame feudalism through a series of revolutions across Europe and its American colonies, alongside the conquest of Asia, Africa, and the rest of the Americas from the 1600s into the 1900s. The constant, violent expansion of capitalism ensured its place as the dominant global system, as well as ensuring the profits of the capitalist class. 

The capitalists will not allow this position to be challenged, and will quickly overcome their national differences to smother any spark of socialism that emerges. This happened in 1871, when workers and soldiers in Paris revolted against the French Empire after it lost a war to the German Empire. The resulting Paris Commune included many revolutionary socialists among its mixed progressive ranks, but in its short existence did not move past social democratic reforms to the existing state. Still, the international capitalist class would not risk letting France fall to the working class, and the German government came to the aid of their recent enemies to help the French army suppress the revolutionaries in Paris.

Similar repression took place earlier this year, when the masses took to the streets in Kazakhstan in protest of their government’s attacks on their living standards. International capitalism acted quickly to crush the demonstrations. Russian forces poured across the border to restore capitalist order as the US and UK condemned the protests.

The international nature of capitalism also points to the limits of the social programs proposed by Sanders and other progressives. For example, when Lyndon B. Johnson pushed programs like the Great Society (Medicare, Medicaid, etc.) in the US during the 1960s, he was also engaged in enforcing the capitalist exploitation of workers in the neo-colonial world, including escalating the war in Vietnam.

Revolutionary socialists recognize that we must always struggle in solidarity with workers around the globe if we wish to succeed. Working-class internationalism has triumphed over capitalism before. For example, German sailors brought an end to WWI by turning their ships around and overthrowing their own ruling class instead of fighting their fellow workers on the opposite side. In the same period, workers and peasants in the Russian Empire became disillusioned by the bloodshed on the Eastern Front as well as poverty and lack of democracy they faced under the rule of the Czar, nobility, and capitalists.

In 1917, the Russian working class and peasantry carried out two revolutions, first overthrowing the Czar, and then the capitalist, pro-war, government which succeeded him. Revolutionary, scientific socialists like Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin demanded an end to the war, the redistribution of food and land, and giving all power to the mass workers’ councils or “Soviets” instead of the Russian government. The result was the overthrow of capitalism and establishment of a socialist workers’ state.

The US and other capitalist powers could not tolerate this revolution, and led an invasion of the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics to support the pro-Czar, pro-capitalist White army trying to take power back from the workers. In the resulting civil war, internationalism triumphed once again as workers in the diverse former Russian Empire united across ethnic lines to defend the revolution. International pressure supporting the Russian Revolution included union members in the UK and US striking to stop the invasions of the USSR.

The Independent Socialist Group recognizes that working people are strongest when we overcome national and ethnic divisions to work together against our common class enemy. Capitalist economic and political power dominates the globe and is dependent on worldwide exploitation of labor and nature. The struggle for socialism needs to be international to undermine counter-revolution, invasion, and attempts to economically isolate and crush any country that succeeds in establishing socialism. A socialist economy cannot be organized within national borders.

This is why we are in political solidarity with members of the Committee for a Workers International. The CWI organizes on every continent to bring real democracy to both politics and the economy for working people and youth. If you agree with this goal and want to learn more, reach out to us and consider joining the Independent Socialist Group!

Image Credit: Glenn Halog via Flikr // CC-BY NA 2.0