What is Socialism?

I’ve been developing this piece in my head for a few days now, even beginning it on at least one instance before scrapping it and starting over. Then, listening to the recent June 11, 2018 episode of The Guillotine Podcast, hosts Bones (@Ole_Bonsey) and Breht (@DeadIrishRebel) made a brief call to hear from their listeners about “what Socialism is” to them (around the 00:32:00 mark). So, thanks to those guys, I decided to go ahead and put that down here. Feel free to comment below and tell me how wrong I am or what I might have missed, and don’t forget to follow Breht and Bones and subscribe to The Guillotine, they do amazing work.

What is Socialism?

Whoooo, buddy, that’s a question, isn’t it?

And the answer isn’t any sort of simplistic one-liner. Even the immortal line “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need” doesn’t really cover it, though that is arguably the entire basis of Socialist thought in a nutshell. But when applied to today’s modern era, that simple idea immediately becomes far more intricate and complex.

So, what exactly does Socialism look like in today’s global community? Or on the national or local level, where every region and culture has their own conditions and problems to deal with?

As a starting point in order to understand what Socialism is on the grander scale, we might do better to ask what Socialism isn’t. Pretty much all of your generic, Google-type search results are going to be wrong, or too vague to offer any real substantive concept, and are coincidentally the perfect framing for such a discussion.


Aside from the near-universal misunderstanding of Socialism among centrists, corporatists, and conservatives as believing that the “when the government does stuff” meme is accurate, we can, in many ways, view Socialism in today’s economic climate as firmly based in workplace democracy. But where Wikipedia et al will tell you that Socialism is defined as “a political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole”, which is… somewhat… accurate, it leaves far more questions unasked and unanswered.

One of the major misconceptions we witness among Liberals and Centrists in particular, and among the Working Class as a whole, is that Marxism – and all of the theories developed from that foundation – somehow constitutes a solid plan for the future. The reality is that Marx never laid out any sort of solution or blueprint for constructing Socialism. In fact, he recognized and demonstrated that any revolutionary Socialist movement would look very different from one region to the next, depending on a variety of factors, i.e. developmental progress of national industries, historical conditions, pre-existing cultures, access to resources and arms, etc.

What Marxism did for us was to analyze the relations of production between the Capitalist and the Worker. Since the basis of Capitalism is to produce profit, this analysis showed us the methods by which profit is produced, and the class antagonisms that come along with it – i.e. those who actually produce that profit vs those who receive that profit, and all of the many forms that this takes shape. Professor Richard Wolff explains these ideas in a number of lectures and interviews that can be found on YouTube.

So, while Socialism does indeed advocate for workplace democracy and community ownership of the means of production, this is not a definition we come to from Marx and Engels – and their many revolutionary contemporaries throughout history – alone. And, as we do in fact live in an actual society and not just an economy, our definition of Socialism cannot end there.

How can we describe what Socialism is or isn’t without devolving into sectarianism? Is there a set definition of Socialism that every Marxist and Leftist-Anarchist school of thought can agree on? Looking at Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program, and at the personal rift between Marx and Bakunin, among other examples, we can see that leftist infighting and sectarianism has existed since these ideas were first developed.

In an effort to find a simple, yet accurate, definition of Socialism that encompasses all schools of leftist ideology, we should touch on a passage from Marx’s Gotha Critique:

Let us take, first of all, the words ‘proceeds of labor’ in the sense of the product of labor; then the co-operative proceeds of labor are the ‘total social product’. From this must now be deducted: First, cover for replacement of the means of production used up. Second, additional portion for expansion of production. Third, reserve or insurance funds to provide against accidents, dislocations caused by natural calamities, etc.

There remains the other part of the total product, intended to serve as means of consumption. Before this is divided among the individuals, there has to be deducted again, from it: First, the general costs of administration not belonging to production. This part will, from the outset, be very considerably restricted in comparison with present-day society, and it diminishes in proportion as the new society develops. Second, that which is intended for the common satisfaction of needs, such as schools, health services, etc. From the outset, this part grows considerably in comparison with present-day society, and it grows in proportion as the new society develops. Third, funds for those unable to work, etc., in short, for what is included under so-called official poor relief (welfare) today.

From this, we understand that Socialism is not just the concept of worker-owned means of production, but the idea that the profit from modern industrial production – surplus value created by the Labor of the Working Class – should not go to the pockets of a Capitalist but instead to benefit society, equally and as a whole. From the basis of Workplace Democracy – that is, workers controlling the means of production and determining, through horizontal democratic methods, what the surplus value created by their labor will go towards – we can start to develop a systematic theory of what the construction of a Socialist society would look like.

This is the antithesis of Capitalism, and in a sense we can loosely define Socialism as “Anti-Capitalism”. We can even take it a step further and say that Socialism is based on an ideal of empathy for fellow humans, with an understanding that the basic necessities of life – nutritious food, clean water, adequate housing, access to health care (NOT access to “affordable health insurance”, but actual health care from doctors and nurses in hospitals), etc are human rights and not commodities to be sold. These things that are necessary for basic survival not only can but should be provided to all members of society without exception.

At its core, this loose definition does not, to my understanding, contradict the basic values and principles of any school of leftist thought, but rather form the basis of leftism. Of course, the argument about whether or not a State entity is necessary to provide such a system or if individual communities are capable of handling these things for themselves deserves consideration on both sides. But, as necessary and as grand in scope as that discussion may be – it’s difficult to move forward without an idea of what should come next – it is still just an example of the differences of opinion in leftist thought that should not keep us from working together towards revolutionary actions.

Returning to Marx’s Gotha Critique, we can find an understanding that, despite some of the more utopian ideas that romanticize an instantaneous transformation from Capitalism to full Socialism after one single revolutionary development, the process of that transformation will be long and arduous:

Within the co-operative society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products; just as little does the labor employed on the products appear here as the value of these products, as a material quality possessed by them, since now, in contrast to capitalist society, individual labor no longer exists in an indirect fashion but directly as a component part of total labor…

What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.

And from Engels:

The state is not abolished, it withers away. The proletariat uses the State not in the interests of freedom but in order to hold down its adversaries, and as soon as it becomes possible to speak of freedom the State as such ceases to exist.

This is not to say that the Anarchists are wrong, because Statelessness is the goal of the Socialist society. This is not to say that Marxist-Leninists and –Maoists are wrong, because the necessity of a State entity, particularly in the beginning stages of a Socialist transition of society, is undeniable. This false dichotomy of “Left Authoritarianism” vs “Left Libertarianism” can and should be addressed, as both are inherent and necessary in a progressive Socialist society. But I wanted to use this example as a point of demonstrating an issue which should be addressed and which simultaneously does not inhibit us from moving forward towards Socialism today, here and now, locally, nationally, and globally.

The details of a Socialist society are going to be different in different parts of the world, and even in different parts of the same nation. The means and methods by which Socialism could be implemented in Wisconsin are probably going to look far different than the form of Socialism that arises in Texas, or in Mozambique, or in any place where a revolutionary proletariat has developed as a result of material conditions that are unique to that area and people. And that begins, in so many cases, with small groups of people demonstrating independence from the State by building systems to provide essential services on the local level to those in need.

Socialism is listening to the real struggles of real people, and addressing those struggles in a real, action-oriented, and tangible way that makes a positive and constructive difference in the lives and struggles of those people. It is securing the wellbeing of society at large, and applying that security equally and without prejudice towards any demographic separation – gender identity, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, ethnicity or nationality, or any other divisive label we apply to ourselves. It happens on a local level – a personal level, face to face with those we are supposedly advocating for. It builds from there, into systems that provide security and wellbeing for all people on a regional, and then national, and, ultimately, on a global level.

Socialism is empathy. It is humane. It is compassionate. It is accepting and tolerant of all lifestyles. It rejects those far-right ideologies that would exclude communities of people based on demographics. It rejects the liberalism that fosters those ideologies. Every picture of Socialism is going to be a little different than the next, with a slightly different idea of utopia and the methods to achieve it. But, despite that fact, I feel confident in saying that “Left Unity” is easily found when we all agree that all people should be treated equally and given security in the basic necessities of life as a human right. What works in one locale might be different from what works in another, and that should not deter anyone from working with one another in pushing towards a progressive Socialist society.

In the end, I believe that no one person can accurately say what Socialism is or isn’t, outside of their own personal perspective of their lived experiences, their individual material conditions, and what external points of view they may have internalized. I can describe what Socialism looks like to me, but not what it looks like to you. But as long as that core egalitarian principle is the driving force, we can work together.

So, what is Socialism? To me, it looks like equal security in the necessities of life, and a fostering of the full development of every human being. It looks like society benefitting from the production of their labor. It looks like peace, love, and compassion. It looks like humanity.

In solidarity.

William Forbin

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