By calling himself a ‘democratic socialist’ Senator Bernie Sanders has revived interest in the subject of ‘socialism.’ More people are trying to find out what ‘socialism’ means. If you are one of them then this site is designed to help you. The issue of ‘socialism’ is surrounded by an enormous amount of confusion. One of the reasons for that is that different people use the same word to mean quite different things.
For Bernie Sanders ‘socialism’ means a series of reforms to make American society fairer and more democratic—more like what exists in West European countries and especially Scandinavia. He wants the capitalists who own most of the means of life—the land and other productive wealth—to pay more taxes. He wants more effective government regulation of their business activity. But he never talks about the need to replace capitalism with a fundamentally different system.
There are other people for whom ‘socialism’ means the ‘communist’ dictatorships that used to exist in Russia and other countries. (In a few places they are still in power.) Under these regimes, the means of life were owned by the state and controlled by officials. However, there exists another tradition of socialist thought in which socialism means neither the reform of capitalism nor state ownership. It means social (or communal) ownership—that is, democratic control of the means of life by and for the whole of society (or the whole community). It also means production for use, not profit.
This is the meaning given to ‘socialism’ by the World Socialist Movement (WSM.) 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.”
The WSM views socialism as a worldwide society. The interconnected nature of today’s world makes it impossible to create a new society in a single country. Capitalism is a world system, so socialism too must be a world system. Socialists often describe socialism as a society where there will be free access, but what could this mean in concrete terms?
Socialism will be a society of free access to what has been produced. This does not mean alcohol being made available to children or anyone being able to get hold of guns. But there’ll be no money, credit cards or cheque books, no artificial barriers to people having what they’ve decided they want. But how would free access work, and would it lead to a free-for-all and chaos as people just took more and more?
Abolition of Money!
Down through the ages this wild and visionary slogan has been whispered by a subversive few. Ever since human beings discovered cash, they have hated it and tried to rid themselves of it – whilst their own actions have kept it alive. In this respect, money is like syphilis. When bacteria enter a person’s bloodstream, so that person’s health is gradually undermined. It is the same with money as with bacteria. Since money has unlimited power in the world, the ways of the world are bound to be increasingly debased. Step by step, morality is bound to be ruined and human nature faced with corruption. In the end, society is driven to destruction.
400BC: Hey all you thirsty people, though you’ve got no money, come to the water. Buy corn without money and eat. Buy wine without money and milk without price (Isaiah)
1652: There shall be no buying and selling . . . If any man or family want grain or other provisions, they may go to the storehouse and fetch without money (Gerrard Winstantley)
1968: The Abolition of Money. The abolition of pay housing, pay media, pay transportation, pay food, pay education, pay clothing, pay medical help and pay toilets. A society which works towards and actively promotes the concept of 'full unemployment' (Yippie election leaflet)
If socialism had to be summed up in a single phrase we could say that it was conscious social control of all aspects of life, including the production and distribution of wealth. This is why Marx once spoke of real history only beginning with socialism, by which he meant that humans had until then been the victims of natural scarcity (low productivity imposing hard labour and material shortage on the bulk of the population) and. under capitalism, of blind economic forces beyond their control; pre-history would end with the end of capitalism as the establishment of socialism would precisely put social life under conscious human control; in socialism, the human race would be carrying out their own desires and decisions.
What will give humans this freedom in socialism is the fact that all the Earth's resources, including the means for producing wealth, will have become the common heritage of the whole of humanity. Actually, this is just another way of saying that the world will belong to nobody: there will be neither property nor territorial rights over any part of the globe. Humanity will, therefore, be free to organise its social life in accordance with its wishes. To do this—to decide on and carry out its wishes—humanity will have to organize itself, inevitably democratically, since if decision-making were left to a permanent minority they would constitute a new owning class.
If producing a thing is technically possible and if someone somewhere wants it, then it will be supplied. But most people might feel that a single individual should not have so much leverage over others’ work. A rule might be established that a new product will be supplied once a certain number of people have registered a request for it. The number of requests required could vary, depending (say) on the difficulties involved in providing the new product, but also on how essential it was to those asking for it. Thus, specialised medications and prosthetics would surely be prepared even for very small numbers of people suffering from rare conditions – something that capitalist firms are reluctant to do because it is unlikely to yield a profit.
When socialists speak of democracy we mean something very different from the concept the mainstream media provides. Instead of giving you permission to vote for some careerist to serve and define your political interests (improbably) for five years we insist that any meaning democracy must entail the involvement of the community at every level in political/economic decision making. When confronted by this definition of democracy our rulers and their media are incredulous and produce a torrent of reasons why this is impractical at best and political madness at worst. Most of the objections are ideological and do not deserve any serious consideration but there is one that has to be discussed: Does our technological culture depend almost entirely on the expertise of a minority of specialists whose knowledge cannot be easily understood by the ‘layman’ and is, therefore, inaccessible to democratic debate and decision? Are these ‘technocrats’ the only ones with the talent and ability to make decisions concerning, for instance, scientific research and technological application?
Apart from material things, socialism will bring many intangible benefits that capitalism denies us.
From the What Is Socialism website