Socialists stand for the establishment of a system of society fundamentally different from that which exists now. In a socialist society the means of producing and distributing wealth – factories, farms, mines, docks, offices, transport – will belong to the whole community. Common ownership will do away with the need for exchange, so that money will have no use.
Production in socialism will be determined by people on the basis of social need, not profit. At the moment people may need wealth but, unless they can afford to buy it, they must go without. Production is geared to sale with a view to profit. Socialism means production solely for use: bread to eat, houses to live in, clothes to wear.
What will be the incentive to work in a socialist society? There will be no wages, for in a classless society no person will have the right to buy another person’s ability to work for a price. Work in socialist society will depend on cooperation and the voluntary decisions of men and women to contribute to society in order to keep it going. Just as an individual could not survive if he or she did not eat, drink or take basic health care, so a socialist society would not survive unless the people in it acted cooperatively in a spirit of mutuality.
Socialism will not be a Utopia where all the problems of existence have vanished. Unpleasant work will still have to be done. Of course, much of the dirty work of the profit system, such as killing and conning and counting bank notes, will be dispensed with immediately in a socialist society. Other unappealing work can probably be taken care of by labour-saving machines. Where dirty work will have to be done in socialist society we can be quite sure of two things: firstly, it will not be done by the same people all the time – members of society will take turns; secondly, such work will be carried out by socially conscious men and women who will appreciate that society belongs to them and therefore its less pleasant tasks must be performed by them. In the knowledge that we own and control the earth, and all that is in and on it, it is unlikely that human beings will refuse to attend to the dirty work within socialism.
What about the lazy people in a socialist society? Critics of the socialist proposition often tell us that socialism would be confronted with millions of men and women who would refuse to do their bit to make society run efficiently. Indeed, socialist society will contain millions of babies and infants who will not be able to work down mines or milk the cows; but, in the sensible knowledge that these dependents will be the providers of tomorrow, we do not think that the inhabitants of socialism will let babies starve to death. Fifteen million children under five die of starvation every year at the moment – a society based on production for use would not tolerate such obscenity. There will be those in socialist society who are too old or too ill or too incompetent to offer much to society; but they are not lazy and there is no reason why society should not allow them to give according to their varying abilities and take according to their differing needs. And if one who contributes less takes more, why should this be a problem in a society which is based on the satisfaction of needs? Those people living in a socialist society who are too lethargic to work will not be a drain on society’s resources for very long, for if they lie in bed for long enough they will die – of boredom, if not of inertia.
But is it not the case that, given a society of unrestricted access to social wealth, human greed will lead people to consume all the wealth of society within one month? Such is the “problem” foreseen by the critics of socialism. To begin with, their prediction is based on the false assumption that socialism would be a society of consumption only, whereas it would obviously be a society where what is consumed would have to be matched by what is produced. So, if people in socialist society decide to eat ten dinners a day – as our critics seem to fear – there will have to be provision made to produce enough food to satisfy such unhealthy gluttony. Of course, in cases where people want what society is unable to produce, or has democratically decided it will not produce, their consumption will have to be limited. This may be bad news for the Utopian but, for the worker who is currently deprived of what he or she needs (not because society cannot satisfy the need or has decided democratically not to but because it is unprofitable to do so) the idea of democratically organised production for use is infinitely preferable to the present social arrangement. For example, the thousands of pensioners who have died of hypothermia are not likely to reject the socialist proposition because it will not allow them to eat ten dinners a day; at least a society based on producing for needs will ensure that no one is unable to have access to warmth.
But what about this greed? The critic of the socialist idea is truly worried that in a society of free access, people will take more than they need. Now it is quite true that if the stores were opened tomorrow and workers were invited to go in and take as much as they want without having to pay there would be a mad rush and the stores would be empty within a day. But why should this be the case if the stores are always open for free access? It would be odd indeed for the inhabitants of socialism to store dozens of loaves of bread, which would go stale before they could be eaten, when the option would exist to go to the store and collect a new loaf of bread each day or few days. It would be no less odd for us to read today of workers filling their lungs up with water because they fear that when they next turn the tap the free liquid will no longer be there to consume. Perhaps, in innocence, the earliest inhabitants of socialism will indulge in a few feasts of conspicuous over-consumption (who would be surprised at such action after years of poverty and social inferiority?), but such antics will soon end when the physical consequences of such irrationality are felt.
But is it not the case that, even if classes were abolished and all people were equal, a hierarchy would soon arise again and society would be back to square one? The opponent of socialism feels convinced that inequality is a phenomenon from which society can never escape. Perhaps – and only perhaps – socialist society will not eliminate inequalities of talent: one person might be a greater pianist than another will ever be, while another will run faster than another could ever train to run. But this does not mean that socialism will establish a hierarchy of pianists or athletes or poets or brain surgeons. In a cooperative society it will be recognised that poets cannot write their literary masterpieces unless the miner is willing to bring the coal from under the ground. Humanity lives interdependently. And who is to say that miners will not be poets when they are not down the mine and the greatest chess player in socialism will not sweep the streets so that the greatest brain surgeon can walk to the hospital without rats biting at the ankles? The rigid division of labour which is a feature of the present system will not exist in socialist society.
In general, critics of the socialist proposition are not saying that they are opposed to the establishment of a socialist world, as defined by socialists. Most of them are raising objections to socialism which reflect their own conditioning by the present social order. The “problems” which they fear are based on the wrong assumption that socialism is going to be imposed on the conditions of capitalism, including the consciousness which props up the system. Of course, a majority of people whose minds are still filled with the ideas and prejudices of the profit system could never run socialism. That is why the Socialist Party of Great Britain states emphatically that there can be no socialist society until a majority of workers understand and want it. Only then will the baseless fears of socialism’s critics become as absurd as the quaint old fears of the Victorians that electricity in all homes would lead to dangers which society would be unable to handle. Yes, the future always looks strange when people’s minds are imprisoned within the past, but the nearer we get to the next stage in social development the less strange the idea of production for need becomes.
There are thousands of workers walking around with ideas in their minds which are close or identical to those advocated by socialists; as that number grows, and as they gather into the conscious political movement for socialism, the doubts of the critics grow fainter and more absurd and what once seemed unthinkable rises to the top of the agenda of history.
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