People’s World Series on Socialism
Everyone seems to be talking about socialism these days, but what does it mean? That was the question asked by Susan Webb in one of our most popular and widely-shared recent articles. Millions of Americans are considering alternatives to a system run by and for the 1 percent. They are taking an interest in socialism, a word that has meant a great many things to activists, trade unionists, politicians, and clergy around the world over the last century and a half. The article below is one of a series on socialism, what it can mean for Americans in the 21st century, and how we might get there. Other articles in the series can be found here.
The long transition of human society from capitalism to socialism is (and will be) the most profound change in human society in over 10,000 years. No other economic transformation, not even the rise of capitalism, can compare.
The reason is simple, yet also exceedingly complex.
It is simple because for the first time since the earliest of human societies, in the last century and a half people have finally started to practically work toward a social order not based on exploitation. That is, they’ve actually pragmatically started the work of transitioning toward a society in which a tiny elite will no longer have the power to use for its own benefit the labor power of the vast, usually impoverished producing classes. Given how long humans have been around, it was really bound to happen eventually. That’s the simple part.
The complex part comes once we start looking at the nuts and bolts of how to achieve such a task. After many millennia in power, those at the top can’t be expected to just surrender their position.
To understand how we got to the point where human society could even begin to imagine (and actually try to achieve) this goal, a short diversion into history is necessary.
Ours is a history of class domination
For the greater part of the 200,000 years since the appearance of homo sapiens, scholars have drawn a picture of societies often described as “primitive communism.” These were social orders where people lived in small groups (most often labelled tribes or clans) in a way where the work and the means of production were shared in common. There was what we would consider to be an extremely low level of technology, necessitating constant movement to find food and water.
At some point, approximately 10,000 years ago, social conditions changed. As a result of population growth, technological advance, and the end of the last Ice Age, there was the development of settled agriculture, the domestication of animals, and the rise of towns. Among these momentous changes came the rise of classes – a split between a majority who worked and a small privileged few who lived off the labor of that majority.
Over time, the system of shared economic relations was, for the most part, obliterated. The new systems of class society took many forms. Over the millennia, we have seen the division of society into two main classes: landlord/tenant, master/slave, lord/serf, and bourgeois/worker, among many other variations.
For thousands of years, any idea of economic and social equality became a distant dream that vanished every morning when people got up and went to work. In its place, cultural and political systems reinforced the belief that social division and all of its baggage – poverty, war, racism, male supremacy, and human aggression – were part of the “natural” order of things.
People of course never gave up the struggle for a better life, though. History is full of heroic efforts by oppressed people to make their existence meaningful and more tolerable. As Marx and Engels observed, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”
Therefore, in each transition of human society – from primitive production to slave-based production, to feudal, to capitalist and all the arrangements that came one after another – one master class replaced another. Until now.
No more masters
In 1848, The Communist Manifesto outlined in a scientific manner the inner workings of class-based societies and offered a framework by which the working class and its allies could overthrow the system of exploitation and build a new society without classes – a communist society. Indeed, since that time a “specter” has been haunting not only Europe, but the entire world.
The complexity of the struggle to achieve such a goal comes from the exceedingly complicated nature of human society. In the nearly 170 years since the publication of that small pamphlet, millions of dedicated people have worked ceaselessly in the movements inspired by it, sometimes at the cost of their lives, to bring about the changes necessary to end class-based societies forever.
But at the same time, the exploiters – be they finance capitalists, slaveowners, landlords, or foreign imperialists – have made every effort to divide, confuse, and weaken the people’s movements.
For they see the writing on the wall. They know that the genie is out of the bottle and that they have every advantage to lose. When the working class gains political and economic power, the ill-gotten wealth, power, and influence of the exploiters will disappear. The domination of one class by another, a feature of human society for 10,000 years, will become a thing of the past.
Vladimir Lenin called this change a “lengthy process,” and made no guess as to how long it would take. We are still probably only at its earliest stages. The road ahead will be arduous, with setbacks and diversions. What is vital, however, is that the people of our country and our planet stand together united with this goal: the 10,000-year era of exploitation that has gone before must be ended and a new society based on equality, justice, and peace should be our vision.
David Cavendish is a retired teacher and has been active in the union movement, the peace movement (nine years in an anti-Iraq/Afghanistan War vigil), and other progressive political activities. He is a longtime contributor to People’s World.