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Editorial:What is socialism?

This may come as a surprise to regular readers of the Socialist Standard, but apparently “we are all socialists now”. A claim made (incorrectly) on various occasions during the last century has resurfaced.

On both sides of the Atlantic, western-style capitalism has supposedly succumbed to a socialism of sorts. UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown is a socialist again according to some in the media, and not only the new US President Obama, but also some of the final regulatory activities of the Bush administration have been deemed in some quarters as “socialist”.

The Socialist Standard and the World Socialist Movement have however decided not to shut up shop in triumph at this speedy success. This use of the term socialism to describe a few mild amendments to capitalism is of course just lazy thinking and sloppy journalism. It is also partially the legacy of a century of supposed revolutionaries and radicals – from V I Lenin to K Livingston – who have viewed state control of productive resources as somehow a part of a genuine revolutionary project, and who have in the process served to confuse the case for socialism as a genuine alternative to capitalism.

The “socialism” being referred to relates then, to nothing more than the fact that governments in North America and Europe have bailed out the banks and are in the process of doing the same for the car industry and various other struggling sectors of the economy.

This attempt to position socialism as a mere version of capitalism – rather than a fundamental alternative to it – defuses it. This is why we strongly argue that these terms should be used accurately. World socialists argue – and have done consistently for over 100 years – that nationalisation of sectors of the economy (e.g. manufacturing, mining, oil and gas extraction, power distribution, transport), or “socialisation” as its termed in the US, is a measure used to differing degrees by every capitalist economy in the world.

Indeed, far from somehow being in some sort of contradiction with capitalism, government ownership is in reality an absolutely essential aspect of capitalism in all regions around the world. Some parts of the economy are simply too central, too important to all the other parts of the economy, for their survival to be left to chance or the vagaries of the market.

For example, during the First World War, many pubs located close to munitions factories were nationalised. This wasn’t an example of early government concern with the binge-drinking menace that is currently preoccupying politicians, but was undertaken in order to enable the watering-down of the beer and other means of controlling consumption by workers in these factories, thereby minimising the risks of accidents with serious consequences for this critical industry in time of war. Left to its own devices, the market system would bite off its own (invisible) hand and happily unleash drunk workers into explosives factories.

For world socialists, socialism means a moneyless, wageless, classless and stateless society. Socialism is not just a “nice idea”, nor a change of name. It doesn’t refer to tinkering on the margins of the profit motive, but – in contrast to the phoney ideological debate over “nationalisation” – represents a genuine alternative to capitalism.