What Is Socialism?

There is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about what “socialism” means, particularly among Americans. For those who are not familiar with it, let’s get one misconception out of the way right at the start. Socialism, as we use the term, is not what existed in Soviet Russia, even before Stalin, or in China, even under Mao (nor, for that matter, is communism). Socialism also is not the same as the “social-democratic” capitalism that exists in Scandinavia and some other parts of Europe today. However the actual nature of those societies may be characterized (which is a harder question), none of them conforms to the definition of socialism that we use.

Socialism is not a political system, it is an economic and social one. However, in the sense that we use the term, socialism is compatible only with a democratic political system – that is, one in which choices about policy, and about the leaders who will administer its implementation, are made by the people themselves. No totalitarian or autocratic system, like Stalin’s USSR or Mao’s China, can be considered socialist. (By the same token, we might add, no capitalist system can by considered genuinely democratic!)

The kind of democracy we envision as coexisting with socialism is one in which the formal law-making bodies of bourgeois democracy, such as legislatures and parliaments, will be replaced by organs of direct democratic governance at the level of the workplace, neighborhood, and school. These in turn will be coordinated at broader levels by groups of democratically chosen administrators answerable to, and serving at the pleasure of, the local bodies that selected them. Decisions at all levels will be made on the basis of objective information, considered reflection, and widespread input and debate on the part of all stakeholders.

Socialism, as we envision it, is an economic system under which all natural resources, as well as all means of producing goods and commodities (above the scale of individual artisanship), and of organizing the delivery of services, will ultimately be owned and managed by a democratically-run government for the benefit of the society as a whole. That government, in turn, will take full responsibility for meeting everyone’s fundamental needs – food, clothing, shelter, health care, education, transportation, a healthy ecosystem, access to cultural and recreational resources – at the highest level possible.

Rational planning, not competition for profit, will drive the allocation of resources, with the goal of meeting the needs of society as a whole. Under capitalism, advances in technology are used to replace workers, so that the wealthy owners of large enterprises can increase their profits, while the displaced workers are thrown out on the street and left to fend for themselves. Under socialism, in contrast, advances in technology – intelligently designed and environmentally sustainable – will be planned and implemented so as to reduce the level of human drudgery. Advances in productivity will result in reducing the length of the work week and raising the standard of living for everyone, rather than enriching a privileged elite. Everyone will reap equal benefits from, and thus have an equal stake in, improving the way goods and services are created and delivered.

Under this system, everyone will enjoy an equally decent standard of living, and an equal opportunity to enjoy the richness of life. As machines and technology replace more and more manual labor and routine chores, people will be freed to devote more time to leisure pursuits such as recreation, creative endeavors, and social relationships. Meanwhile, better education, improved technology, humanely and democratically operated workplaces, a shorter work week, and an emphasis on cooperation will all combine to make work a more rewarding, less stressful experience. Under these circumstances, people will understand that everyone who is able to do so must work, and few (if any) will be reluctant to make their appropriate contribution to society in this way. All workers – not just those in a few lucky professions – will be motivated by a positive desire to help others, rather than by the need to avoid hunger and homelessness.

To the extent possible, maximum consideration will be given to finding work that fits the individual’s talents and preferences. Where jobs involving drudgery, danger, and/or difficult working conditions remain necessary, they will be filled on a voluntary basis, using incentives such as extra time off and early retirement to recruit for them. Those with unusual talents, energies, or skills will be encouraged to use them to the fullest extent, for the benefit of society. Extraordinary contributions will be rewarded through public recognition, allocation of resources for additional projects, and the satisfaction inherent in the work itself, rather than through money or material privileges. Those who can create new or improved products, processes, and services will still have the incentive and the opportunity to do so, but the results will benefit the entire society, not just a privileged few.

Parents of children below school age will be able to choose freely how much time they want to spend at home with their children, and how much they want to work, with the support of free, high-quality professional childcare. Those unable to work full-time, or at all, due to illness or physical or mental disability, will be treated with dignity and provided with all the necessities of life, including suitable opportunities for recreation and cultural enrichment. Behavior that victimizes other people or the society will be handled not through punitive measures such as incarceration, but by determining and addressing its underlying cause.

Education will be free at all levels, throughout a person’s lifetime. Primary education will be structured so as to inculcate the young with critical thinking skills; intellectual curiosity and independence; a sense of responsibility to those around them and to society as a whole; and a preference for accomplishing mutual goals through cooperation over striving for individual glory through competition.

All objects of great cultural or artistic significance will be housed in museums open to all, rather than displayed privately in the homes of the wealthy. Goods whose scarcity is intrinsic and/or cannot be reduced (such as access to uncrowded wilderness, or tickets to a particular cultural performance) will be allocated fairly, such as by waiting list or lottery, rather than through money and social privilege.

If you like the sound of this, join us in fighting to make it a reality!