What socialism means

Since its origin in the early 19th century, the term ‘socialism’ has evolved to mean many different things to many different people, and has been misused by dictatorships to describe their Draconian  management of capitalism. Pieter Lawrence explores what ‘socialism’ really means

Although the word socialism is itself more or less modern, its meaning can be said to go back to early religious sects of the ancient world and was taken up by religious dissidents in mediaeval times. Words attributed to John Ball during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 capture its meaning very well: “My friends, things cannot go well in England, nor ever, until everything shall be held in common, when there shall be neither vassal nor lord and all distinctions levelled, when lords shall be no more masters than ourselves.”

But it was not until the 19th Century that the concept of socialism (or communism) was developed by utopian socialists and then more systematically by Marx and Engels. Since the early 19th Century socialism has meant an alternative, classless society which can be set out under three main headings as follows:-

1. Common Ownership.
2. Democratic Control.
3. Production solely for use.

These features of socialist society would be dependent on each other and could only operate together as basic parts of an integrated social system. In combination, these define a way of organising society that in every important aspect of production, distribution, decision making and social administration, is clearly distinguished from the operation of capitalist society.

1. Common ownership means that the entire structure of production and all natural resources be held in common by all people. This means that every person will stand in equal relationship with every other person with respect to the means of producing the things we need to live, that is, mines, industrial plants, manufacturing units, all land and farms, and all means of transport and distribution. This also means the common ownership of all natural resources. Perhaps “common ownership” is partly a misnomer because what is meant is that means of production and resources would not be owned by anyone. In place of the property relationships of owners and non-owners, means of production will simply be available to the whole community to be used and developed solely for the needs of all people.

2. Democratic control means that social policy would be decided by communities. In place of rule by governments, public decisions would be made by people themselves. One great advantage of democratic practice in socialism would be not only the organisation of decision making but also the freedom to carry out those decisions. This freedom of action would arise from direct control of community affairs following the enactment of common ownership and removal of the economic constraints of the capitalist system. Without powers of action decision-making is meaningless.

3. Production solely for use means just what it says. People in socialism would be free to co-operate voluntarily with each other in producing goods directly for the needs of the community. This would be useful labour co-operating to produce useful goods solely for consumption. Production solely for use would replace production for sale at a profit. Things produced for sale under the capitalist system are of course intended to supply a need of one kind or another but as commodities they are produced primarily with a view to money gain and the increase of money capital. As a general rule the market system is a system of ‘no profit no production’. In socialism this profit motive would be entirely removed. In a moneyless socialist society the factors of production would operate only in a useful form and not as economic categories with a price. Labour would not be wage labour serving the interests of an employer but would be free labour. People at work would be creating only useful things and not economic values from which profit is derived.

There should be no doubt that these basic features that define socialism clearly distinguished it from the capitalist system. Common ownership of means of production would be in direct opposition to private, corporate or state ownership; democratic control would be fundamentally different from rule by governments; production for needs would be in direct opposition to production for sale at a profit. These contrasting features of the two systems cannot be operated together; they are mutually exclusive. The mistaken idea that they can be operated together has been a major cause of political confusion about what socialism means.

Production solely for needs

What is meant by needs should not be understood as mere personal consumption. It should not suggest a rampant consumerist culture. Production for needs would include a wide range of considerations such as the need to protect and conserve the environment. In defining socialism we should emphasise that it will provide for one vital need in a way that is impossible under the capitalist system. This is the need of peoples throughout the world to bring the organisation of their community affairs under their own democratic control and to develop them in the interests of the whole community.

It was with the emergence of the capitalist system that society lost its direct control of its productive resources. In previous societies, accepting that they were ruled by privileged classes in their own interests, it was often the case that production was at near maximum capacity given the technology and resources available and this determined what could be distributed. In times of good harvests the whole community could benefit in some shape or form. But with the development of the capitalist system this was eroded as what is produced depends crucially on what can be sold. This means that distribution through sale in the markets determines production and this is always less than what could be produced.

Market capacity is inherently unpredictable. If too many goods are produced for a market and they remain unsold, a crisis and recession may occur with reduced production, increased unemployment, bankruptcies, and large scale writing-off of capital values. Despite the many attempts that have been made, no theory of economic management has ever been able to predict or control the anarchic conditions of the market system. This is rule by market forces which serve minority interests and which generate the insecurities, crises and conflicts that shape the way we live. The fact that we have great powers of production that cannot be organised and fully used for the benefit of all people has devastating consequences and is at the root of most social problems.

In this way, the capitalist system places the production of goods and services, on which the quality of all our lives depends, outside the direct control of society. Contrary to this, a socialist system would bring the entire organisation of production and distribution under democratic social control.

Social class

A further basic distinction between the two systems is that whereas the capitalist system is inherently class ridden, in socialism, social relationships of common ownership and equality will end class divisions. Much discussion of class centres on various sociological differences between groups which may be useful for some purposes. However, sociological differences can tell us little when seeking to explain how production is organised

Some evidence may suggest, superficially, that we live in a society of greater equality. For example, we can accept that not so long ago “toffs” were people who played golf and went on motoring holidays, touring the Continent. Now, many people from all walks of life do these things. This shows that these pursuits have become relatively cheaper and that some working people are now able to enjoy them, but this in no way alters the economic relationships of production. It does not alter the economic, class relationship between capital and labour which dominates the way we live. At the point of production, the workers and their employers who may be sharing a golf course in their leisure time remain in a relationship of conflicting economic interests which, whilst it continues, must always condemn our society to the class divisions of strife and to the many ugly comparisons that we see of poverty amidst luxury. Class is a social relationship that invades and has a corrupting influence on every part of our lives.

An economic definition of class based on the categories of capital and labour in a system of commodity production is basic to our explanation of how we produce and distribute wealth and the economic motives that are involved. Social class defined as economic relationships is a key to how the operation of the market puts profit before needs and places constraints on all our activities. Our lives and the quality of our society depend upon our relationships of production and on the services we can provide. An analysis using economic/class categories tells us who gets what from the pool of wealth that is made available and how a privileged class has accumulated great wealth and property; it therefore explains the great social differences that we see about us.

In addition, we find that increasingly, giant global corporations own and control the world production of goods and services together with the natural resources of the planet. The sole object is to amass greater concentrations of capital and to increase their economic and political powers.

We live in a society of deep class divisions with a conflict of economic interests between those who work the productive system and those who own it. This economic conflict can only be reconciled by the relationships of equality and cooperation that would integrate the community in socialism.

Whilst it is right to feel outrage at the great class divisions that exist socialists do not come to this question in a negative spirit of class hostility. The aim is to end it. Class conflict has gone on for too long; there has been too much strife and we have to heal the wounds of history through entirely democratic means.

Class society is both morally and materially indefensible. It need not linger on and on as part of an outdated system. An ethical society would be one in which all people would live their lives, free from the disadvantages of under privilege and class injustice. To live in a classless society would be in the interests of all its members. Freedom for every person to develop their skills and talents on equal terms could benefit everyone. Equality has the potential to enrich all our lives and would be a basis for a true community of shared interests.

Socialism – a human-centred way of life

Having set out what socialism means, and having set out features that distinguish it clearly from capitalism, these can be summarised as one all important difference. Whereas the capitalist system works for sectional economic ends that are alien to the interests of the whole community, a socialist system would be wholly dedicated to the interests of all people. There would also be a difference of complexity and simplicity. Whereas, working within the complex economic limitations of the market system, our endeavours are frustrated and often blocked by the barriers of costs, in a socialist society, communities would be free to set up their goals and then organise their resources of labour, materials and technology to achieve them in a straightforward way. People in socialism would need only to work with the material factors of production and not any economic factors.

Given the control of human affairs that a socialist system would bring, people in socialism would be able to take charge of their destiny. What is undeniable is that we are a species with great talents. In science, technology, in art, crafts and design we can call upon a wide range of great skills. The point now is to release these for the benefit of humanity.


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