What is Socialism?

Extract from a Socialist Party contribution to a panel on the subject organised by the Platypus Society on 23 March.

In 1893 in Britain William Morris took the initiative for the publication of a Manifesto of English Socialists which declared:

‘Our aim, one and all, is to obtain for the whole community complete ownership and control of the means of transport, the means of manufacture, the mines and the land. Thus we look to put an end forever to the wage-system, to sweep away all distinctions of class, and eventually to establish national and international communism on a sound basis.’

That this was signed by such non-Marxists as GB Shaw and Sidney Webb shows that, at that time, the difference between reformists and revolutionaries, possibilists and impossibilists, was not so much over what the aim was as over how to get there.

This definition of socialism was shared by Marx and Engels. They themselves got it from workers in the 1840s in Paris and Manchester who called themselves ‘communists’ or ‘socialists’. This definition is reflected in the Communist Manifesto which talks of ‘the communistic abolition of buying and selling’ and endorses measures advocated by ‘Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism’ such as the abolition of the wages system and ‘the conversion of the functions of the State into a mere superintendence of production’.

In other words, a classless, stateless, wageless, moneyless society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production by and in the interest of the whole community. This definition of socialism was shared by the tenors of the pre-WW1 Second International still read today: August Bebel, Karl Kautsky, Rudolf Hilferding, Rosa Luxemburg and by Bolsheviks such as Alexander Bogdanov, Stalin and Lenin himself. They all argued that socialism would be what the Germans called a ‘natural economy’ as one where wealth would be produced directly for use and not for sale on a market.

Here, for instance, is August Bebel, one of the most popular leaders of German Social Democracy, on ‘the future society’ in his Women and Socialism:

‘It does not produce “commodities’ to be bought and sold,but produces the necessaries of life that are used up, consumed, and have no other purpose … There being no “commodities” in future society, neither can there be any money’ (Society of the Future, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1971, p.47. Bebel’s emphasis).

And the Bolshevik Alexander Bogdanov, in a textbook used both before and after the Bolshevik coup:

‘The new society will be based not on exchange but on natural self-sufficing economy. Between production and consumption of products there will not be the market, buying and selling, but consciously and systematically organised distribution’ (A. Bogdanov, A Short Course of Economic Science, Labour Publishing Co, 1925, p. 389. His emphasis)

In 1848 Marx and Engels had called it ‘communism’. In his preface to the first English edition of the Communist Manifesto, forty years later in 1888, Engels explained why it hadn’t been called a ‘Socialist Manifesto’ (because at that time ‘socialism’ was more associated with various schemes proposed by Utopian Socialists who rejected the working class struggle for political power as the way to get there). So, had the manifesto been first published in 1888 it could just as well have been called ‘The Socialist Manifesto’ and might in fact have been better understood if it had been. This reflected the fact that, for Marx and Engels, ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ were interchangeable terms describing the same society they expected to see replace capitalism.

The change of meaning of ‘socialism’ – a decisive break with previous practice – came in 1917 when the Bolsheviks planned to seize power in Russia. Up till then Lenin had held the same definition of socialism as the rest of the Second International and also its view that a socialist revolution was not possible in a backward country such as Russia. When he returned in April 1917 from exile in Switzerland, Lenin astounded even members of his own party when he proclaimed that the immediate aim of the Bolsheviks was now to seize power, not to complete the bourgeois revolution as had previously been their policy, but for ‘socialism’.

When those who stuck to the Second International definition of socialism reminded him that this was not possible in Russia, he cleverly gave the specious reply ‘You are talking about Communism but I’m talking about Socialism’. As he put it in his The State and Revolution when critics ‘talk of the unreasonable utopias, of the demagogic promises of the Bolsheviks, of the impossibility of ‘introducing’ socialism, it is the higher stage or phase of communism they have in mind…’

He immediately went on ‘And this brings us to the question of the scientific difference between socialism and communism’, a distinction which no one had ever heard of nor was remotely ‘scientific’. In 1875 Marx had indeed written about a ‘first phase’ and a ‘higher phase’ of communist society but, as just pointed out, this could equally have been said to be about a first and higher phase of socialist society. In any event, these were, precisely, phases of the same society – a classless, stateless, wageless, moneyless society of common ownership and democratic control of the means of production. They were not two, distinct types of society.

Lenin’s innovation (distortion, actually) was to label the first phase ‘socialism’ and the higher phase ‘communism’. By ‘communism’ he meant what before 1917 had been called ‘socialism’. Not that his definition of ‘socialism’ corresponded with Marx’s ‘first phase of communist society’. Referring specifically to ‘the correct functioning of the first phase of communist society’, Lenin wrote:

‘All citizens are transformed into hired employees of the state, which consists of the armed workers. All citizens become employees and workers of a single countrywide state “syndicate”. All that is required is that they should work equally, do their proper share of work, and get equal pay…’ (Chapter V, section 4).

So the wages system was not to be abolished. Instead, everyone was to become a hired employee of the State. This, of course, was not socialism in its previous sense but state capitalism, the wages system under new management. Which in fact is what the Bolsheviks did eventually establish in Russia.

As the Bolsheviks retained state power and enjoyed a certain amount of prestige among militant workers and with the aid of the Russian state, they were able to impose their definition of ‘Socialism’ at the expense of the previous definition. Hence, today’s confusion where most people equate socialism with state capitalism rather than with its original meaning.


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