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John Passant

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June 2010



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What do we mean by socialism?

Confusion abounds about the actual meaning of socialism. For most people, socialism evokes some notion of “equality” or redistributing society’s wealth. Many others derive their understanding of socialism from the so-called communist countries: the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Cuba or Vietnam.

When the conservative press labels Obama a “socialist” when he talks about lowering excessive CEO salaries or about reforming health care, it adds to the confusion about socialism and bolsters another commonly held perception that socialism simply means a society with a more interventionist or “big” government, a more nationalised economy, with more public or state-run services.

To reach any clarity on this question, a number of myths must be debunked, beginning with the lie that horrible dictatorships like those of Stalin’s Russia had anything to do with socialism.

None of the countries that have called themselves socialist have actually been so. In fact, the “Marxism” of the Stalinist regimes of Russia, China, Vietnam and Cuba was as far away from socialist principles as you can get; societies in which workers had no control over any aspect of their lives, were exploited for the purpose of economic competition with the West, and were brutally repressed if they dared dissent.

These were, and remain today, capitalist societies in which the ruling class cloaked themselves in the rhetoric of socialism to enforce their rule over the vast majority of workers.

It has always been very useful for advocates of capitalism to point to these states as examples of socialism to deter people for fighting for a different society, and reinforce the status quo. Many people who identify as socialists have reinforced the lie that the Stalinist states exemplified socialism by arguing that they were some form of workers’ states.

If socialism is not Stalinism, it is also much more than a more nationalised economy and a few more publicly run services. When we argue that another world is possible, we mean a world free of the class divisions and inequality of capitalism. A world in which all resources are directed towards enriching and bettering society and where production is determined by what the mass of workers want and need, rather than what will make profits for a tiny minority of CEOs and bosses as it is today. A world in which the workers who do all of the work necessary to run society have full control over their destinies, call all of the shots and make all the decisions about all aspects of that society, from how resources will be used to how everything will be organised.

This type of society is a far cry from capitalism, which today can’t even provide us with decent public health or an affordable, reliable public transport system. But it is precisely the type of society that Karl Marx thought it was possible for workers to build, having once struggled collectively to overthrow the old order.

Although Marx was never prescriptive about what a future socialist society would look like – stating that it would be up to workers themselves to determine it – he argued that such a society would for the first time, place real control and power in the hands of the majority, that it would be a society governed collectively by the majority and in the interests of the majority.

Towards the end of Marx’s life, the revolutionary struggle of French workers threw up an example that reinforced Marx’s ideas about what socialism could be like.

In 1871, the workers of Paris rose up and seized control of their city, replacing the rule of the government with the Commune. This body stood in stark contrast to the “representative” democracy we have under capitalism. Rather than have unaccountable politicians preside over society, workers elected delegates to the Commune who could be recalled immediately if they made decisions that went against workers’ interests. These delegates were paid no more than the average wage, in order to prevent a situation in which people stood merely to gain individual power or privilege.

In this way, the Commune represented an extension of democracy for workers, who immediately set about making Paris a more equal city. The Commune passed decrees that gave unemployed people work in abandoned factories, eliminated boring and repetitive work and shortened the working day.

Since socialist revolution is the act of the mass of workers taking control, the Commune also saw the full participation of all members of society, including women who defied the gender roles of the time to play an active role as political speakers and armed defenders of the Commune against the French state.

Although the Paris Commune was put down after a few months it stood as an inspiring example of what a society run by workers – socialism – could look like. Every revolution since has seen workers form democratic bodies like the Commune, which allowed the mass participation of workers in the running of society – from the soviets of the Russian revolution in 1917, to the shoras of the Iranian revolution in 1979.

While we can’t surmise how workers would organise every aspect of a socialist society, a few things are certain: resources would go towards improving health and education and eliminating poverty, towards feeding and housing people, curing illnesses and saving the environment from the destruction wrought upon it, instead of being squandered on barbarous wars that continue to kill millions in places like Afghanistan. A socialist society is not only desirable, but necessary.

This article by Rebecca Barrigos first appeared in Socialist Alternative online on 25 May 2010.



Comment from Arjay
Time June 9, 2010 at 10:22 pm

Perhaps those who want true democracy should distance themselves from traditional sterotypes of communism/socialism.

Currently we have oligarchy in which Corporates and Govt keep us in debt slavery via the fractional reserve banking system.We have to reform the banking system and our fiat currencies.

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Comment from Marco
Time June 10, 2010 at 7:14 pm


My personal experience with this subject is that the word “socialism” has lost all meaning in popular consciousness, and it can be and is attached to anything you oppose.

That’s why we find that Keynesianism is “socialism” (even though Keynes himself conceived these ideas in an attempt to save capitalism).

Liberalism in social matters (say, equal rights for homosexuals and ethnic minorities, abortion, equal opportunity and affirmative action, environmentalism, even republicanism in Australia) is also “socialism”: that’s why a guy like Malcolm Turnbull is a white fly (imagine the irony in that).

Barely a year and a half ago or so, Gerard Henderson was pretty much accusing Kevin Rudd of being socialist.

When Rudd decided to prove his right-wing credentials, by brandishing the whip against the refugees, is when right-wing commentators started to give him a break.

Now, this will probably change, what with the RSPT and all: this tax is “socialism”, too (even though the proceeds will go chiefly to capital).

Even Nazism is also “socialism” in the feverish mind of some… Yes, you read it right. That’s because of the meaningless National-SOCIALISM…

Go figure.

Comment from Chris Warren
Time June 11, 2010 at 11:37 pm

I think the author may be confused between communism and socialism.

The attributes associated with socialism above, may contradict the political economy of socialism – from each according to their ability, to each according to their contribution.

Marx demonstrated that humanity needed communism – from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.

The view that ‘workers in control’ represents socialism, is not adequate. Once workers get control, and do not have accurate knowledge of political economy, they start to act like corporate capitalists (but as co-operatives).

So socialism is more than this author has said, and has less benefits than the author implied.

The goal is communism, socialism is only a stage.

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