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What is socialism?

May 11, 2006

The United States is the wealthiest country in the world. Its Gross National Product is $12 trillion. Yet 45 million people in the United States live without health insurance. Some 33.6 million people are food insecure or hungry.

The United States is the wealthiest country in the world. Its Gross National Product is $12 trillion. Yet 45 million people in the United States live without health insurance. Some 33.6 million people are food insecure or hungry. Over 3 million people experience homelessness each year in the United States, 39 percent of them children. One out of every five children is born into poverty. That number soars to one out of two for the African American community.

That’s life under capitalism in the richest capitalist country. For most of the capitalist world conditions are much more severe. Nearly 800 million people are unemployed globally. Nearly 2 billion people survive on less than two dollars per day. Some 827 million are undernourished. Fewer than five hundred billionaires and multi-millionaires have assets equal to the three billion poorest people on the planet. While a tiny minority hoards society’s wealth, those who do the work are barely making ends meet or are living at the very edge. The capitalists promote this as the “natural order.” Socialists contend that this argument is merely an excuse for inequality and oppression.

There is an alternative.

For as long as there has been a working class, there have been efforts made to change society to meet the needs of the many. During the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s, workers organized in trade unions to demand better working conditions. In 1838, the Chartist movement in England tried to open up the Parliament to working people, eventually drawing millions into sometimes-heated battles with the police.

At the same time, early utopian socialists like Robert Owen in England and Charles Fourier and Comte Henri de Saint-Simon in France advocated socialist systems to provide just solutions to the injustices and inefficiencies of capitalism. They tried to win over rich and poor alike to the rationality of their ideas.

It wasn’t until 1848, however, after careful study of revolutionary struggles, that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels put forward a scientific approach to the problems of capitalism—as well as a way forward. The Communist Manifesto, issued by Marx and Engels for the Communist League at the outbreak of the 1848 revolutions in Europe, can be considered the founding document of the scientific socialist movement.

Marx and Engels drew lessons from concrete workers’ struggles and came to the conclusion that capitalism is based on inherent conflict between the working class and the owners of factories, banks and other means of production. But in addition to explaining the working class’s exploitation, they also showed how the working class was the one class that held in its hands the potential to overcome exploitation once and for all. It was for that reason that they wrote “the proletariat [working class] alone is a really revolutionary class.”

Based on the experiences of the 1848 revolutions, Marx and Engels came to the conclusion that the only way to end exploitation of the poor and oppressed is for the working class to take control of the means of production through a working class revolution. Only smashing the capitalist state and replacing it with a new workers’ state can lay the foundation for socialism.

Until 1871, Marx and Engels drew lessons from the workers’ movement—largely through its defeats. But in 1871 the workers of Paris, France showed for the first time that workers could run their own state. The Paris Commune, set up to defend Paris against Prussian invasion and the treachery of France’s capitalist government, gave the first glimpse into what socialism could look like.

The Paris Commune paid all public servants a worker’s wage. Elected officials were subject to immediate recall and were accountable for helping to carry out the laws they passed. The army and police that had served to oppress the workers were disbanded and the entire working class was armed.

The Commune was drowned in blood after three months by the combined might of the Prussian and French armies. But it remained an inspiration and an invaluable lesson to many of the subsequent workers’ revolutions.

Since the time of Marx and Engels, there have been many cases where the working class has been able to lead successful revolutions, removing the capitalist class from power. The 1917 Russian Revolution, the 1945 Korean Revolution, the 1949 Chinese Revolution and the 1959 Cuban Revolution all gave new experiences and lessons in the possibilities of building socialism—inspired by the Paris Commune.

Some important lessons have emerged from all these experiences in building socialism. In the first place, all these revolutions took the ownership of the means of production away from private owners and made them publicly owned. The revolutionary governments sought to steer the economy not through capitalist commodity relations but by means of a planned economy. Foreign trade, once the business of the biggest companies conducted for the purpose of private profit, remained exclusively in the hands of the state.

All of these means were viewed by the working-class leaders and governments as means to achieve socialism—a society where economic activity was based on fulfilling people’s needs, not the profit of a few. Marx and Engels saw this society as leading to a true classless society—communism—where there was no exploitation and no need for repression, police or jails.

The countries that have tried and are trying to build socialism are not utopias, nor are they paradise on earth. They all face enormous problems, including scarcity and aggression by U.S. imperialism. The science of rational economic planning has progressed in fits and starts. Some socialist projects, like the Soviet Union and the Eastern European socialist camp, were not able to withstand the pressures and have, like the Paris Commune, been defeated.

Nevertheless, these revolutions show the outlines of a new society where the working class is the ruling class. The Soviet Union lasted over 70 years without unemployment or economic recessions or depressions. China was able to feed its huge population for the first time in history. Cuba has maintained educational levels unseen in Latin America—not to mention in much of the developed world.

Socialists don’t claim that a revolution will solve all social problems at once. Many problems like racism, sexism, and anti-LGBT bigotry have festered for centuries as essential components of class rule. But eliminating the economic basis for these social diseases opens the door to waging a determined and successful struggle against them.

The working-class struggles over the past 150 years have shown that “another world is possible.” But wishing for it won’t make it happen. It takes revolution to achieve socialism.