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.
Socialism is not capitalism. And the difference between the two may very well be a matter of life or death.
Our very survival is now threatened under capitalism by the poisoning of the Earth and climate change. The danger of nuclear weapons grows greater with never-ending wars. Socialism, however, can save the human species from extinction.
What is it about socialism that is so different from capitalism? Let’s start with the differences in the basic economic systems that are the underpinning of human societies. I like Rick Nagin’s summary of the essence of capitalism offered earlier in this series. But in his definition, I would change “workers” to “working people,” so as to include family farmers, mom-and-pop storekeepers, etc. They too are exploited by capitalists even though they are not wage workers. So I would say: “The essence of capitalism is the private ownership of the means of production and the exploitation of the working people who create the wealth.”
As Nagin explains, the capitalist drive for maximum profits is built into capitalism. It is insatiable. It knows no limits except the ones that organized workers and their allies can win through class struggle and political action. It was the unlimited drive for profits that made U.S. slavery worse than anything in the past – because it was tied to capitalism and the banks’ unlimited drive for profits.
Denmark has been mentioned by Sanders as an example of the socialism he believes in. I wish our unions were strong enough to make gains like those won in Denmark. We are working on it, but even in Denmark, labor’s gains are in danger of being rolled back as long as it remains a capitalist country. With the key sectors of its economy privately-owned, Denmark is still a capitalist country.
Having gains rolled back is a bitter experience. Personally, I’m tired of fighting for the same things again and again. Take Social Security. I fought for that when I was in high school in 1933. And now they want to privatize it! Or take the minimum wage. I had a summer job in 1933. FDR’s new National Industrial Recovery Act changed my rate of pay from 15 cents an hour to 25 cents. (The minimum wage had to be reinstated in 1935 because the Supreme Court had thrown it out.) That 25 cents would be worth well over $20 today had the minimum wage been tied to cost of living. There are so many ways that capitalism takes back our gains. We are now fighting hard for just $15.
What is it about socialism that makes it so different from capitalism and could save us from climate change and nuclear extinction? Let’s look at the underpinning of society again, the economy. In a socialist economy, the key sectors are socially-owned instead of privately-owned by a few capitalists. Social ownership can take different forms including nationalized property, cooperatives, and collectives. Small business can also contribute to a socialist economy.
Social ownership eliminates private profits – that’s the main thing. For key sectors of a socialist economy, there is no profit motive, no putting profits before people. Without the profit motive, the great reservoir of human talent can be harnessed to stop climate change and pollution. Without the profit motive, there is no drive for war and all nuclear weapons could be eliminated. That is the big life-or-death difference between socialism and capitalism.
Without private profit, the purpose of production is to supply the needs of working families. That’s assuming that the socially-owned enterprises are democratically operated, of course. But that’s a big “if.”
I also agree with Nagin that the class struggle will continue under socialism. That is especially true if capitalism still rules in other countries. Also, it will take a big struggle to maintain democratic operation of the new socialist government and the socialized enterprises.
The fight to expand democracy must continue under socialism to wipe out the remnants of racism; sexism; language, religious, and nationality prejudices; and corruption of leaders. But the results, in terms of expanding the enjoyment of culture and human solidarity, are well worth the struggle.
Besides, there is no alternative. If the drive for profits is not checked and ended, the human race may not survive.
Beatrice Lumpkin is a long time labor activist with laundry workers, steelworkers, and teachers. As a math professor at Malcolm X College in Chicago, she fought to restore the contributions of people of color to the educational curriculum. She has served as a multicultural consultant to textbook publishers and to public schools in Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Portland, OR.