What is Socialism?

Nick Wrack

We are pleased to republish this article from the “Talking About Socialism” website as part of our ongoing commitment to debate and regroupment within the Marxist left.


Against the background of the failed experience of Corbynism in the UK and the rout of the socialist left inside the Labour Party, and with the development of a new wave of industrial working-class militancy, all serious socialists will see the importance of discussing what went wrong, what is happening now, and what path the working class should now take.

It is not only domestic issues that concern socialists. What happens in any one country must be seen in an international context. The whole world is so inter-connected that no country remains unaffected by events elsewhere. How should socialists react to the war in Ukraine? We consider that many socialists in Britain and internationally have taken a fundamentally wrong position in supporting, directly or indirectly, the imperialist aims of the US and its NATO allies in the war in Ukraine.

We aim to contribute to the debate and discussion that is taking place amongst workers and young people across Britain and the rest of the world about the crises we face and how socialists should respond.

Before we begin to address the specific issues that confront us – Corbynism and its legacy, the war in Ukraine, the new industrial militancy in the UK – in more detail, it is worth setting out the basic approach that we as Marxists share, so that readers can have some sort of framework by which to engage with our way of thinking.

The words ‘socialist’ and ‘socialism’ are contested words. They are used in a hundred different ways, to describe a hundred different things. There is immense confusion over what socialism is. Some see socialism in terms of the very limited idea of aiming for a few reforms that might make life more tolerable. This might include aiming for the nationalisation of public services. Some may even extend nationalisation to limited sectors of industrial production. All this while leaving the major parts of production in private hands, for profit, and leaving the state unchanged; that is, while leaving the economy and the state in capitalist hands. This is essentially what happened with the 1945 Labour government, which is the example, many argue, to be followed today. Some talk about ‘municipal’ socialism, based on reforms carried out in a small geographical area. Others talk about a ‘national’ road to socialism. The British Labour Party describes itself as a ‘democratic socialist party’ despite not supporting even those ideas of nationalisation set out above. None of these varying approaches can properly be described as ‘socialism’.

These varying views may be described as forms of ‘social democracy’. This amounts, in essence, to a repudiation of fundamental social change in favour of accepting the continued existence of capitalism with, hopefully, a few reforms to make it more habitable for the poorest in society. Social democracy is bourgeois, or capitalist, ruling-class thought in a socialist disguise. Albeit based on an appeal to the labour movement, it amounts to nothing more than a utopian programme which misleads the working class into believing that the profit system can be made to work in the interests of the majority. This is impossible.

All variants of social democracy are attempts to persuade the working class that the reform of the capitalist system is the most that can be obtained, that is, ultimately, that the working class should accept the continuation of the profit system with its billionaires, poverty, and constant attacks on working-class conditions of work and life.

Socialism, on the other hand, means complete political, social, and economic democracy. It requires a fundamental breach with capitalism and the sweeping away of the capitalist state. It means a society in which the wealth of society and the means of production are no longer in private hands but are owned in common. Everyone will have the right to participate in deciding how the wealth of society is used and how production is planned to meet the needs of all and to protect the natural world of which we are a part and on which we depend. Classes will have disappeared, for when everyone is a worker there will be no bosses.

Socialism is the antithesis of capitalism, which is based on the private ownership of the world’s resources and the exploitation of the working class for profit. Socialism cannot co-exist with capitalism. It means the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by a new society based on an entirely different premise – the democratic planning of production for the needs of all. It means the destruction of the capitalist state and the end of minority class rule.

Socialism is a synonym for communism, although that latter word needs to be rescued from the experience of the former Stalinist Soviet Union and its allied states, and from present day China. They have nothing in common with genuine socialism/communism.

We are Marxists based in Britain. But we are not small islanders. As Marxists we are internationalists. We take a world view. We look to the vast numbers and immense strength of the international working class as the only force capable of providing a solution to the many problems we face, from inequality and poverty to wars and climate change. In our opinion these problems have one root cause – the private ownership of the means of production and production for profit – and one solution – the socialist transformation of the world, with production for need.

For us, there is no national road to socialism. There can be no ‘socialism in one country’. The idea is one of the most pernicious and destructive to the cause of socialism. Socialism is international and any attempt to resolve the crises we face within national borders is doomed to fail. The integration of the world economy has bound each of us together. The experience of workers the whole world over, is the same. We share one enemy, the ruling capitalist class. Workers have no country, but a shared objective – to end their common exploitation. Only by common struggle by workers across national borders, ultimately to remove those borders, can we utilise the world’s vast resources – its land and natural resources, waters, factories, science, and technology – for the benefit of all. The idea that the location of oil or metals should benefit only the owners of the land on which they are found, at the expense of the rest of the world, is an impediment to the development of the world economy, and therefore of humanity.

The capitalist system is based on the exploitation of the working class in the workplace and extending into every other aspect of daily life – health, housing, education. The owners of the means of production – the capitalist class – make their profits out of the unpaid labour of the working class. The working class has only its capacity to labour. It is at the mercy of the capitalist class whether it can sell that labour power or not. When employed, workers labour for the essential necessities of life, forced by necessity to repeat the process daily. If workers don’t work, they suffer. Billions starve. The capitalists, on the other hand, are the pampered, privileged, idle, leisured class.

But the international working class has potentially immense power. Without the labour of the working class, nothing is produced; society comes to a stand-still. If only it were conscious of its own power, and knew how to use it, the private ownership of the means of production could be ended with relatively little resistance. The capitalist class is a tiny minority of the world’s population. The working class is counted in billions. The capitalist class relies on a lack of working-class consciousness about its own potential. The role of socialists is to help make the international working-class conscious of that potential.

The ruling class both produces and relies on the prevailing ideology – that the current way of doing things is the natural way of doing things, the only way of doing things – to keep things as they are. This way of thinking is fed into us from our first breath. It is promoted by the media, the educational institutions, the churches. It is reinforced by the leaders of working-class parties and the trade union bureaucracies, who limit their policies, at best, to immediate demands and some minor tinkering with the system, while leaving the exploitative capitalist system securely in place. Ultimately, the ruling class relies on its control of the state, with its laws, judiciary, prisons, secret services, police and armed forces. If challenged by the working class, the ruling class will use all weapons in its armoury to protect its power, wealth and privileges. Ruling class violence against the working class is not only part of the history of capitalism. It is present today.

The capitalist state is not an independent, unbiased arbiter between classes, although it tries to appear so. It is an instrument of class oppression. It is the ultimate line of defence of class rule. The capitalist state has been adapted and refined for 350 years. Many in the labour movement mistakenly look to the state as a means to accomplish beneficial social change. But this State stands in the way of any serious change that would benefit the working class. Only when confronted by the power of the working class will the ruling class and its state be forced to make concessions (reforms), to temporarily appease the majority, fearful of losing complete control, only to take those concessions back when events become more favourable to them. The task of socialists is to strip away the veneer of impartiality from the State, to reveal its class content. While fighting for any reform or concession from the ruling class, the working class must always have its eye on the ultimate goal – fundamentally breaking the power of the capitalist class and the capitalist state and inaugurating the basis of a new society.

The first task of the working class upon coming to power is to destroy the capitalist state and to create a new, different state, based on the majority working class. This new state would be different from the states in all hitherto forms of society – slave-owning, feudalism and capitalism – in that it would be an instrument of class rule on behalf of the majority, not the minority. Alongside this complete change in the class nature of the state would be the expropriation of the ruling class, a task to be carried out by the working class itself, asserting and imposing its power against any resistance by the private owners. Over time, with the disappearance of class differences, the role of the state as an instrument of working-class rule will itself become less and less necessary and the state will retreat more and more until it ‘withers away’ or disappears completely. The government of people will be superseded by the administration of things.

The task of carrying through this fundamental change – this revolution – is the task of the working class itself. Only the working class has the power to bring about such a change. It has nothing to lose and everything to gain. We cannot look to any other force in society to do it – not some educated elite or charismatic leader. This means that the working class must come to understand the need for its own independent, active participation in its own emancipation. It must rely on its own agency, recognising its own role in production and utilising the power that it has to accomplish its objective.

The ruling class will not give up its position without a violent struggle, unless the futility of resistance is forced on it by the size, potency and determination of the revolutionary working class which it has to confront. That means that we need the mass involvement of the international working class, led by mass working class parties with a clear programme for socialist change. These parties, based on Marxist ideas, still have to be built, whether out of existing parties or by creating new ones. The first step in building such parties is for Marxists to argue openly for their ideas within the working class and its organisations, participating in all its struggles while trenchantly criticising the social democratic ideas that currently dominate.

The salvation of humanity and the world we inhabit depends on us bringing about the revolution in the organisation of the world’s resources that is briefly outlined above. The survival of our environment and of future generations is in the balance.

Change is necessary. It is also possible. But to carry out the change required depends on socialists persuading the working class, through argument and actions, of the way forward.

We need mass socialist parties in every country. Parties of millions, and tens of millions. The socialist revolution will only succeed if it is democratic. That means that the majority in society has to participate in and support that revolution. Social and political eruptions are inevitable in modern conditions. No society will remain untouched by social upheaval in the face of poverty, inequality, exploitation, and human alienation.

We need mass socialist parties to learn the lessons from the past and future struggles, so that we can look forward to a decisive victory, the achievement of our ultimate goal – the ending of class oppression.