1920s >> 1927 >> no-279-november-1927

What is Socialism?

The following is a letter from a correspondent, and our reply :—

London, October 20th, 1927.
Dear Sir,
I attended the debate at the Battersea Town Hall on “Socialism.”
Rather unfortunately, neither party defined Socialism, so the debate was rather a failure. Perhaps you can help me. “Socialism means the entire absence of private property. The State is to own and control everything.”
Would my P.O. bank account be confiscated ? Would they take away my little shop ? Should I be compelled, with a Grey Ticket, B.2, 48392, to deal at only one shop and take the goods they offer ?
Can I own a £5 note? Bernard Shaw says no, that would make me a capitalist. I heard him say that, at a lecture in answer to a question. Could I buy a cricket bat, and call it my very own ? How should I get the money ?
Could I buy a joint of beef without money ?
I am quite in a fog. Please discuss this and get the next socialist standard—a good paper—to reply.
Yours truly,


Mr. Firmin claims acquaintanceship with the SOCIALIST STANDARD, but he surely does not read it very carefully. If he did, he would have observed that the debate in question centred round the question which of the two parties should the working class support, and further, that every issue of the “S.S.” contains the definition of Socialism. Socialism does not mean anything so negative and silly as “the entire absence of private property,” nor is “the State” to “own and control everything.” The latter is a distorted description of State Capitalism which may justly be attributed to one section of the Labour Party. It is not Socialism, and has never received the support of the Socialist Party as our “Object” states (see last page). Socialism is “a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interests of the whole community.”

Mr. Firmin will see here that ownership and control will be vested in the whole community, not in the “State,” that common ownership is concerned with means of production which, as our “Principles” go on to explain, refers to land, factories, railways, etc. We hasten to relieve our correspondent of the horrible fear that we propose the communal ownership and control of his toothbrush and collar-stud.

Far from abolishing “all private property/’ Socialism will place it in the power of all of the population to share in the varied kinds of wealth which society can produce— something which at present is denied in large measure to most of them.

As for Mr. Firmin’s “little shop,” we suggest that he probably wants it only as a means to an end, the end being the obtaining of food, clothing, shelter, recreation, amusements, etc. Socialist society will place these things at the disposal of Mr. Firmin as for the rest of the members of society. As it is to obtain these useful articles that we all at present endeavour to secure £5 notes, we shall most of us lose interest in the means, e.g., the £5 notes, when the end can be secured otherwise. (The exceptions will be those who have a taste for collecting useless oddities. Speaking for myself, Mr. Firmin may at that time have all my £5 notes, then as valueless as old Mark or Rouble paper money.)

We are not responsible for the reported vagaries of Mr. Bernard Shaw. Mr. Firmin would not need to BUY a cricket bat, but we assure him he could have one for his very own.

We ask our correspondent to remember that buying and selling, and the use of money as the basis of the economic activities of human society are relatively recent acquirements. They have served their useful purpose, and the means now exist (as a result of the development of Capitalism), for society to arrange the production and distribution of wealth without the intervention of money. We do not know what Mr. Firmin sells in his little shop, nor whether he is the father of young children, but supposing that a hypothetical Tommy Firmin occasionally asks for food and clothes, etc., it is most unlikely that Mr. Firmin would insist on the production of money from members of his family (if any) before he allows them to eat or dress at his expense.

We trust that our correspondent is no longer in a fog, but if he is, we shall be pleased to answer any further questions or criticisms.


(Socialist Standard November 1927)

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