What does socialism mean? It means working class power

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

In everyday political discussions, “socialism” is used to describe policies in capitalist countries such as those in Scandinavia, where the means of production remain primarily owned by private individuals, but, through heavy taxation on excessive wealth and income, important social benefits like health care, education, and quality government services are provided to people.

This is the stated goal of self-described “democratic socialists” like Bernie Sanders, and compared to what we have now in the United States, such a set-up would certainly be a huge improvement. It would reflect a serious weakening of the extremist section of corporate power. But the problem is that there is no guarantee such benefits will last as long as capitalists retain economic ownership and control political parties continually seeking to reverse the gains achieved by working people.

The essence of socialism is the replacement of the capitalist class and private corporate power by the working class and allied forces (family farmers, small businesspeople, self-employed professionals, etc.) as the dominant influence in society. When this coalition is the new ruling class, it can then begin to reorganize the economy. Such a reorganization would include social ownership of key industries such as finance, energy, and armaments. It would mean developing policies that put people before profits and guarantee full democratic rights and economic security for all.

Socialism would still be a class society. But it would be one in which working class and trade union values become dominant – values like solidarity, equality, democracy, and peace. The trade union slogans of “an injury to one is an injury to all, united we stand, divided we fall” would be the watchwords of socialism in defense against residual forces looking to restore capitalism.

Historically, the establishment and maintenance of socialism has only been possible when the people have been led by well-organized political parties committed to the working class and with a vision of building a new socialist society. This has generally been the role of the Communist Parties.

However, coalitions of Communists and other progressive forces and parties are also possible. They may actually be able to guarantee a larger base of support, and thus greater political stability. This possibility was clearly demonstrated in Nelson Mandela’s government elected in South Africa following the end of apartheid – a coalition of the African National Congress, the South African Communist Party, and the South African Congress of Trade Unions.

The first effort to do away with millennia of private property ownership and class power, in the Soviet Union, faced ferocious hostility in an international environment still dominated by private capital. Socialism’s ability to flourish was, to say the least, greatly limited. The most serious challenge came with the rise of fascism and the Second World War unleashed by Nazi Germany and its anti-communist allies. Their goal was nothing less than the destruction of socialism in Russia and democracy everywhere else. Withstanding unprecedented devastation and loss of life, Soviet socialism overcame the Nazi onslaught, though, and an entire group of socialist-oriented states arose in Eastern Europe, North Korea, and China.

With the support of the socialist countries and peace forces in the capitalist world, Vietnam established a unified country with a socialist government defeating the U.S. in a war that took over three million lives. Similar support allowed socialism to arise and survive in Cuba – despite invasion, repeated attempts to assassinate government officials, and economic sabotage conducted by the United States.

Soviet socialism continued for decades under the conditions of the Cold War, but it was eventually destroyed because of both external pressure as well as internal corruption and mis-leadership. With the end of Soviet socialism, capitalist forces also regained power in Eastern Europe and Mongolia.

Nonetheless, the other socialist-oriented states survived, began to grow, and new ones continued to emerge, especially in Latin America and Africa. Today, governments in China, Vietnam, Laos, and Cuba use a mixture of social and private ownership as a way to accumulate the capital, skills, and technology needed to establish modern socialist economies.

In the capitalist countries, meanwhile, the rise of socialism greatly strengthened the hand of the working class and its allies over the years, especially in Europe. The example set by the socialist countries allowed them to expand democratic rights and wrest enough national wealth from capitalists to establish high-quality health, education, social services, and environmental protection.

In the 1980s, however, right-wing forces took power in the United States, the world bastion of capitalism. They launched a drive to reverse the gains won by working people around the world and here at home. Internationally, they aimed at achieving domination through vastly superior military power, especially after the demise of the Soviet Union. And domestically, the right wing conducted a sustained effort to suppress living standards and curtail democratic rights that has gone on now for more than thirty years.

In the new millennium, we once again find ourselves in a period of mass popular resistance and severe economic crisis. Support for the capitalist system today is greatly weakened, as the American people increasingly demand that the vast wealth they create be freed from private owners and used for the benefit of society.

At present, the class struggle in the United States centers on the clash between labor and its democratic allies on the one hand, and right-wing extremism on the other. Meanwhile, the material basis continues to grow for full socialization of the economy, universal abundance, and the emergence of a classless, modern, democratic, and green communist society sometime in the future.

To finally end class exploitation, though, working people and their close allies must establish a system where the socially-produced wealth is socially distributed. This requires progressive taxation of capitalist wealth and socialization of privately-owned means of production.

All of this can only fully happen if the working people take over the apparatus of government. Whether this occurs gradually or rapidly depends on a number of factors, including the will and ability of the capitalists to resist, and the will, organization, and ability of working people to overcome that resistance and take power.

In any case, this transformation is inevitable. The socialist genie is out of the bottle and cannot be put back. The genie is out because governments where working people hold power have been established and are flourishing on every continent, and in the remaining capitalist countries, working people have increasingly adopted socialist goals and democratized wealth and power.

Hopefully, the change to a society free of unpaid, i.e. slave, labor will occur as peacefully, democratically, and rapidly as possible. This would be the realization in practical terms of the long-held religious ideal of “the Beloved Community,” the secular ideal of the “Family of Man” (and Woman), and the communist ideal that “the international working class shall be the human race.”

This contribution to the People’s World Series on Socialism was adapted from a pamphlet, “A Handy Guide to Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy.” Funds are now being raised to publish a new third edition. Readers can donate here and contact the author at ricknagin1@yahoo.com about how to get copies of the new edition.




Rick Nagin
Rick Nagin

Rick Nagin has written for People's World and its predecessors since 1970. He has been active for many years in Cleveland politics and the labor movement.