Socialism: What It Is and What It Is Not

Ann Robertson

“Socialism!” The mere uttering of the word conjures up the most horrifying nightmare for a small, extremely rich minority who, because it monopolizes the productive forces of society-the factories and businesses that make up our economy – succeed in pursuing unlimited profit and unimaginable riches by allotting to the rest of humanity an increasingly smaller share of society’s wealth. Having created an objectively unstable system because of the perilously lopsided distribution of wealth, these rich people are compelled to manufacture on a daily basis massive doses of propaganda to serve as their life-support system, with the earnest hope of convincing their victims that this is, after all, the best of all possible worlds. Socialism, a doctrine which threatens to pull the plug on their perverse system before it succeeds in destroying us, the environment, and the future of humanity, is deservedly the foremost target of this campaign of lies, deceit, and slander.

This small, capitalist, profit-addicted minority has consequently unleashed an unrelenting campaign intent upon tying socialism to totalitarianism, drawing the knot so tightly that the two concepts are pressed into one. One might note, by the way, that U.S. capitalists themselves have no particular aversion to totalitarianism – they have toppled countless democratically elected governments and replaced them with military dictatorships throughout the world. But they also know that ordinary, decent working people are repelled by any form of totalitarian rule and with hypocritical glee these capitalists eagerly exploit this human moral aversion in order to advance their own profit-pursuing interests.

This campaign of lies received an unexpected windfall ironically from the USSR itself. Having usurped state power, Stalin violently shredded every remnant of workers’ democracy and proceeded to establish a privileged bureaucracy which enjoyed all kinds of luxuries, although many people did not have enough to eat. While Stalin personally ruled over the bureaucracy, the bureaucracy in turn ruled over the entire country, smashing every independent voice with an iron fist and murdering those who dared protest. Then, having created its own repressive regime at the expense of the working population, the Stalinist bureaucracy was compelled to manufacture its own propaganda machine to give itself the semblance of legitimacy. Without missing a beat and with his own hypocritical smirk discreetly concealed from the masses, Stalin, with the pious hope that all honest aspirations for a genuinely socialist society would be safely set aside, proclaimed this wretched state of affairs a glorious “socialist” society .

What more proof could an unsuspecting, inquiring person need when the two superpowers, avowed enemies, nevertheless agreed that socialism and totalitarianism were one and the same?

But if one is seriously interested in the truth, would it not be appropriate to inquire whether Stalin, who was intent on suppressing millions of people, might not also be intent on suppressing the truth, if it served his interests? Or should we assume that, even though he fed the Russian people lies while depriving them of food, when it came to an explosive concept such as “socialism,” he became an honest man? And similarly, should the capitalist class in this country, who could lose their vast fortunes if the masses acquire a clear conception of socialism, be exclusively relied upon for an unbiased presentation of the facts? With these questions in mind, let us turn to Marx so that we may be in a position to separate fabrication from fact.

Marx has been credited with codifying the first scientific formulation of socialism. But in what sense is the term “scientific” being employed here? Other socialists, utopian as opposed to scientific, preceded Marx and were united by their moral repulsion when faced with the cruel exploitation of capitalism. All of them individually imagined their own version of a moral, more humane society and hoped that their vision might capture the hearts of humanity so that people would be moved to throw off the barbaric capitalistic system and reorganize society according to the principles they outlined. None, however, offered a realistic strategy that would suggest how their particular utopia could be achieved, nor did any of them argue why their particular version was a more realistic alternative than any of the others, or why it was a realistic possibility at all.

Marx departed from this utopian tradition and established socialism on a scientific foundation by undertaking two studies which enabled him to resolve the above problems. First, he engaged in a detailed study of history which led him to conclude that the propelling force that underlies historical development is class struggle: “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle.” Of course, such a statement is an empirical claim, but history is replete with so many examples that even bourgeois historians have been forced to resort to the concept of class in order to explain historical events.

But the fact that history is generated from class struggle still leaves unanswered the questions, within capitalist society: What are the contending classes? Which class will prevail in the struggle? What new kind of society will this class be compelled to create?

In order to tackle these questions, Marx’s second study amounted to a detailed analysis of capitalism, the results of which are recorded in his four volumes of CAPITAL. A few basic features of his analysis are of particular relevance to the questions at hand.

First, because it is an economy based on individual private property, capitalism, at least on one level, is a system which places everyone in competition with everyone else. In this respect, it is indeed Hobbes’ war of “all against all” where each individual attempts to maximize his or her own well-being at the expense of others. “The only force bringing them together, and putting them into relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interest of each. Each pays heed to himself only, and no one worries about the others.” (CAPITAL, Vol. 1.)

Second, and on a deeper level, we find that capitalism by no means places individuals on a level playing field in this Hobbsian war. At the outset some individuals, because of historical conditions, own the productive forces of society – the tools, machines, buildings, etc. that are required to produce articles that will satisfy society’s needs – but the majority of society’s members do not own them and are consequently forced to seek employment from those who do. The capitalists, the owners of the productive forces, are then in business to make a profit and thereby expand the amount of private property at their disposal. But the enterprising capitalist cannot be content with just any profit; each must aim at the maximum amount, since capitalists are in a perpetual state of competition with one another. Extra profits serve as an arsenal that a capitalist can employ to undercut and thereby eliminate a competitor.

But this requirement to maximize profits, resulting from inter-capitalist competition, in turn unleashes an inexorably antagonistic dynamic between the capitalists, on the one hand, and their workers on the other. All of the things that workers want for themselves and their family – higher salaries, health benefits, lengthy, paid vacations, sick leave, pensions, etc. – can only be won at the expense of the capitalists’ profits. The more the workers succeed in pressing their interests, the lower the capitalists’ profits. Consequently, capitalists and workers find themselves in a perpetual state of war with one another. Sometimes this war is waged quietly, almost invisibly, as workers simply leave work early and let someone else punch them out on the time clock. But at other times these antagonistic relations erupt violently where workers battle cops in order to defend their picket lines, defy court injunctions, and halt production until the owners are forced to their knees and concede to their demands.

Thus far we have considered the relation of capitalist-to-capitalist and worker-to-capitalist. Before we turn to the crucial relation of worker-to-worker, we should understand that Marx identifies various tendencies operating within this system.

First, there is a tendency for the working class to grow as a result of the competition among capitalists where the losers are precipitated into the working class.

Second, as one capitalist enterprise swallows up another, there is a tendency for the prevailing enterprise to increase in size, bringing an increasing number of workers into close proximity to one another.

Third, the growth in the size of the remaining enterprises then requires the assemblage of ever-larger quantities of profit to combat the ever-larger capitalist opponent. And this tendency correspondingly implies an intensified struggle between capitalists and their respective workers.

Finally, the chaotic, unplanned, every-capitalist-for-himself nature of capitalism has the inevitable result of spawning endemic economic crises so that huge sectors of the working class are thrown out of work and production in many industries comes to a grinding halt.

“Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.” (Communist Manifesto)

All of these tendencies conspire to compel the working class into action in order to defend its standard of living. Initially, workers will pursue the satisfaction of their needs individually since capitalism, after all, encourages everyone to operate as an isolated individual.

But workers soon learn the futility of obtaining all they want in terms of job security, health benefits, pensions, etc., by approaching the boss alone as individuals, since capitalists know very well that if they concede to the demands of one worker, the others will soon be knocking at the door. But while one worker alone is powerless, workers discover quickly that together they can wield tremendous power. For example, when they launch a strike, production comes to a halt, profits vanish, and the owner incurs ever greater losses as machines lie idle, products sit on the shelf, and customers threaten to seek out another producer.

However, to win a strike, it is not sufficient for workers to remain at home. They must transform themselves from workers who passively take orders at the work place into workers who take the initiative, actively organize themselves, and prepare for battle. They must organize picket lines, make provisions for food, train defense units, create public relations committees, etc. And when all these efforts pay off and workers claim victory, their celebration reverberates throughout the working class. Other workers say to themselves that they could do the same and proceed to organize themselves so that strikes spread like a wildfire. But setbacks are inevitable. Neither ‘the course of true love (nor the course of class struggle) ever did run smooth.’

But there comes a time amidst all these trials and tribulations that the workers come to the realization that this constant struggle is not the result of a few bad capitalists but of the capitalist system itself, a system predicated upon producing profit for the rich by exploiting the entire working class. Workers realize that they are not simply being oppressed individually, but as a class, since profits for capitalists can only be maximized by minimizing wages and benefits for workers. They come to understand that all competition among workers, all attempts to promote oneself at the expense of one’s co-workers, serve the interests exclusively of the capitalist class, while inevitably damaging the prospects of the working class as a whole. They realize that their only salvation lies in acting as a class: organized, unified, and galvanized by the principle, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” Moreover, because the working class represents the vast majority of the population, because all wealth is produced by its own sweat and blood, because the working class, like a beast of burden, carries the entire society on its shoulders so that capitalism would collapse in an instant without its willing participation, a deep-seated conviction begins to take hold of the consciousness of working people – a conviction that they alone have the power to seize history, shake society at its very foundations, and remake it according to principles that operate in their interests – the interests of the majority.

So Marx, in painstaking detail, demonstrates that the logic of capitalism ineluctably pushes workers into a march towards socialism. This is no utopian recipe: workers either move towards socialism or watch their standard of living decline. “Along with the constant decrease in the number of capitalist magnates, who usurp and monopolize all the advantages of this process of transformation, the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation grows; but with this there also grows the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united, and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production.” (Communist Manifesto)

Tired of watching their real wages fall, tired of being told the company will leave the country every time they ask for a raise, tired of monotonous work, long working days, short vacations, and tyrannical bosses, tired of watching politicians pander to every whim of the rich at the expense of the public welfare, working people will rise up, seize society at its foundations and overturn the entire system with the overpowering strength that comes when the immense majority of the population, act in their own interests and in the interests of all the oppressed members of society. “The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority. (Communist Manifesto)

This revolution – for nothing less than a revolution will suffice – will inaugurate a new age where working people take control of the economy and all the wealth they themselves created and begin to implement economic policies that reflect their own interests. The anarchy of capitalism, where individuals struggle to maximize their own private well-being, will be replaced by a democratically determined, planned economy where the most socially enlightened economic alternatives are implemented – those that maximize the well-being of everyone. “Let us finally imagine, for a change, an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labor power in full self-consciousness as one single social force.” (Capital, Vol. 1)

For example, in capitalist society huge expenditures are allocated to military production which are then employed to protect the profits of U.S. business abroad. Whenever an elected leader in some foreign country hints at nationalizing U.S.corporate property there, the U.S. government orchestrates a coup, installs a military dictatorship which proceeds to outlaw strikes, restrict unions, etc., and thereby succeeds in lowering wages and raising corporate profits. But as a result of these measures, the wages of American workers decline as they must now compete against cheaper foreign labor. Moreover, under capitalism vast sums of money are spent on advertising to convince people to purchase products that are actually harmful to them (cigarettes, fast food, alcohol, etc.), or products that they really do not need, or to convince people to buy one brand rather than another when there is no substantial difference between the two.

In a socialist society, workers will be in a position to discontinue these kinds of investments in favor of others that directly promote the social well-being of the majority; for example, quality education, housing, public transportation, heath care, cleaning up the environment, developing solar energy, organic farming, etc.

But all aspects of the economy can be similarly reorganized to reflect the interests of the majority. While capitalists strive to minimize the number of workers at every business, but maximize the amount of work each worker performs, thereby making unemployment endemic, under socialism everyone who is able will be encouraged to work so that the work week may be correspondingly reduced, thereby providing working people with more free time.

Moreover, work itself will be immediately humanized. In contrast to capitalism where workers are compelled to submit to the will of the boss, in a socialist society every position of authority will be elected so that these elected officials will nevertheless be required to submit to the will of the majority, under threat of being removed from their position. With this inversion of power, workers can take steps to organize production so that their own well-being and the interests of society are simultaneously maximized.

Once everyone is afforded a quality education, once workers’ control of production is institutionalized and the work week is reduced, the crippling division of labor that capitalism imposes on its work force will gradually be replaced by a society in which individuals will be encouraged to develop all their capacities. “…[T]he division of labor,” according to Marx, “offers us the first example of how… [an] activity is not voluntarily, but naturally, divided, man’s own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him. In contrast, under socialism, we will be in a position to move towards establishing a society in which “nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming a hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.” (The German Ideology)

Marx suffered no illusions about the possibility of establishing a fully developed form of communism in one single revolutionary leap because the kind of human nature engendered under capitalism – selfish individualism, an insatiable desire for the accumulation of material gain, unbridled aggression and the steadfast determination to avoid as much work as possible – will not be extinguished overnight: “What we have to deal with here,” he argued, “is a communist society, not as it has developed its own foundation, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.” (The Critique of the Gotha Program)

Accordingly, Marx distinguished a lower and higher stage of communism. In the lower stage, which has come to be labeled “socialism,” people will be rewarded in proportion to how much work they perform: “He [the worker] receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such and such an amount of labor (after deducting his labor for the common funds), and with this certificate he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as costs the same amount of labor.” (The Critique of the Gotha Program) In this way, people will experience a direct incentive to work.

Of course, this principle – rewards commensurate with the amount of labor performed – represents an about-face from the prevailing capitalist principle: those who have the most shall receive the most, regardless of whether they perform any work at all! Consequently, the wealthiest 200 members of the capitalist class enjoyed watching their wealth double in one year recently, thanks to the stock market, while 20% of working Americans worked full-time but were not paid sufficiently to rise above the poverty line.

One absolutely crucial ingredient in this process of historical development is the relation of the working class to the state. Under capitalism, the state is generally controlled by the wealthy, and democracy amounts to the rich determining among themselves which policies to impose on the rest of society. Even such bourgeois publications as The New York Times have supplied accounts detailing how capitalists – through an elaborate process of lobbying, campaign contributions, etc. – succeed in imposing their will on the public domain. But Marx did not simply endorse the working class trading roles with the capitalist class, taking the reins of government in its own hands and expelling its former oppressor. The capitalist institutions of government have become a huge bureaucracy, immune to dramatic change, a feature which serves capitalists quite well since they have no interest in forging great changes in a system that operates exclusively in their interests. But a bureaucratic government would be anathema for working people, since power is monopolized in the hands of a few while the majority is disenfranchised.

In order to create democratic institutions that could be wielded by the majority, not simply a minority, Marx insisted that the former bureaucratic institutions would have to be “smashed,” as he explained in a letter: “…[I]f you look at the last chapter of my 18th Brumaire, you will find that I declare that the next step of the French Revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it, and this is the preliminary condition for every real people’s revolution on the Continent.” (Letter to Kugelmann, 1871) In place of the oppressive bureaucracy, Marx envisioned commune-like institutions that were created by working people in Paris in 1871 and later in Russia prior to and at the time of the 1917 revolution. These are institutions that are created by workers on the most basic level of their experience, in the factory or in their neighborhoods, in order to democratically press their own needs. “Instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in Parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people, constituted in Communes….” (The Civil War in France) The centralized power was then to be demoted in favor of creating real power on the local level:

“…[T]he Commune was to be the political form of even the smallest country hamlet…. The rural communes of every district were to administer their common affairs by an assembly of delegates in the central town, and these district assemblies were again to send deputies to the National Delegation in Paris, each delegate to be at any time revocable and bound by the mandat imperatif [formal instructions] of his constituents.”

In this way, “The Communal Constitution would have restored to the social body all the forces hitherto absorbed by the State parasite feeding upon, and clogging the free movement of society,” and the former centralized, bureaucratic government would give way to “the self-government of the producers.” (The Civil War in France)

As socialism unfolds and scarcity is eliminated, removing the blight of poverty from humanity, and after people create new, more nurturing relations among themselves so that the individual no longer looks out in fear upon a hostile world, these social relations will give birth to a new human nature with a new social consciousness where people realize that no one can be free as an individual while others are enslaved. As social creatures dependent upon one another for the satisfaction of both our physical and psychological needs, we come to the realization that our individual well-being cannot be achieved alone. “Only in community [with others has each] individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible. ” (The German Ideology) Hence, “…the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” (Communist Manifesto)

Far from suppressing individuality, therefore, communism, as defined by Marx, will be the first social formation that actually allows individuality to blossom. Under capitalism, “… that for which I can pay – that I am…. Thus what I am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality…. I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honored and therefore so is its possessor.” Under communism, on the other hand, “…you can exchange love only for love, trust only for trust, etc. If you want to enjoy art, you must be an artistically cultivated person; if you want to exercise influence over, people, you must be a person with a stimulating and encouraging effect on other people. Everyone of your relations to man and to nature must be a specific expression, corresponding to the object of your will, of your real individual life.” (1844 Manuscripts)

A life in which most of our waking hours are devoted to acquiring the necessities to survive will give way to a life in which our physical needs are satisfied and we can proceed to develop our more spiritual talents: art, science, philosophy, literature, etc.

Finally, “…after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therefore also the antithesis between mental and physical labor has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banner; “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” (The Critique of the Gotha Program)

While the capitalist class and Stalinists have gone to exceptional lengths to conceal and distort Marx’s positions, Marx himself, with unbridled enthusiasm, did everything in his power to disseminate them in the most unambiguous form conceivable. And so the Communist Manifesto concludes:

The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!


Publication note: Originally published in Socialist Viewpoint, 2001.

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