The basics of socialism

Frequently asked questions

Have there been people of significance advocating for socialism and/or communism?

Yes! Albert Einstein, George Orwell, Helen Keller, Leila Kahled, Malala Yousafzai, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Oscar Wilde, and Pablo Picasso just to name a few.

Sources.

Why should I be a socialist?

If you are a worker, then you are not paid your worth. The value that you produce as a worker is worth more than the wage that your boss gives you. Your boss exploits you and your labour for profit - to make money. In your workplace, you live under the dictatorship of your boss. You do not have freedom of speech (you can be fired for saying the "wrong" thing) and there is no democracy (the CEO and the Board of Directors decide everything - the workers are generally not allowed to make decisions for themselves or for the entire company). Under socialism, all workers would be allowed to reap what they sow and receive according to the value of the labour they put in, as well as democratically decide how the workplace is run.

Additionally, if you think that it's unfair that 8 people (0.0000001% of the world's population) own as much as 3.7 billion people (50% of the world's population), and that some people live in mansions whilst others sleep on the street, then you have motivation for becoming a socialist. (Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4)

What is capitalism?

In order to understand why socialism is necessary, you first have to understand what exactly capitalism is. Capitalism is the current dominating mode of production in the world. Capitalism allows for private ownership of the means of production, i.e. private (productive) property. In addition to this: Under capitalism, wage labour and labour-power are commodities to be bought by capitalists (the bourgeoisie, the upper class, the 1%, etc.). Capitalism allows for anyone (with sufficient capital) to create a business and produce anything they want, without obligation to do any actual work.

Here are a few terms which are important to know, as well as their definitions:

  • Capital: Wealth in the form of money or other assets owned by a person or organisation or available for a purpose such as starting a company or investing.
  • Means of production: The means of producing goods and generating capital (e.g. machinery, factories, and other workplaces).
  • Capitalist: An owner of means of production.

What problems do socialists have with capitalism?

Socialists do not believe that capitalism is inherently evil, or that it never should have been invented. On the contrary, if you took a socialist and sent them back to the time before the Industrial Revolution, they would no doubt support the establishment of the capitalist mode of production. Capitalism has unquestionably increased global production many times over, and increased the living standards of millions of people who used to work the fields for feudal landlords. But just like technological advancement moves ever onward, so must society continue to move forward, and socialists believe that capitalism is an outdated system. They do not believe that capitalism is the final mode of production, and that it has to be replaced by a superior system. Capitalism is politically, economically, and ecologically unsustainable.

But that begs the question: What, specifically, is wrong with capitalism?

"An entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off."

—Tyler Durden, Fight Club (1999)

Essentially, capitalism allows for anyone (that has sufficient capital) to create a business and produce anything they want, however they want, with no regard for democracy in the workplace, equal work participation (the owner does not have to work, just own the workplace), or indeed how the rest of society is doing. A capitalist (an owner of means of generating capital and a member of the bourgeois, or "upper", class) does not have to care about whether or not what their business is producing is necessary for society. All a capitalist has to worry about is making a profit. This is why socialists view capitalism as, among other things, ecologically unsustainable; because the Earth has limited resources, and each country has limited space for a limited amount of factories. Under capitalism, these factories are used for anything and everything that can generate profit, not for necessities that society actually needs. This leads to people who live in poverty to be able to afford a smartphone, but not always be able to put food on the table. Capitalist society produces too much of what we don't need, and too litte of what we do need, because the capitalist system is based on profit for capitalists, not human needs.

But capitalists don't decide it's time to stop making money once they reach a certain net worth. On the contrary, capitalists are never happy and continually seek to make as much money as possible. The problem with this is that money is merely a social construct with no inherent value. Money in itself is not worth anything, but instead it represents a value that exists somewhere. But this value is not infinite. Capitalists cannot keep making money forever, because eventually they will have taken all the value from the world and would have to start taking money from the poor. And yet this is exactly what has happened: The rich have become richer, and the poor have become poorer. The world's capital, the world's value, has accumulated among the 100-or-so richest individuals in the world, and this accumulation is still occurring. And this accumulation of capital will not simply seize, it will have to be stopped.

One of capitalism's most famous critics, as well as one of socialism's founders, was Karl Marx. Through the years, Marx described various problems with capitalism. Below are just a few examples.

Workers are paid little, whilst capitalists get rich.
Probably the most obvious problem that Marx had with capitalism is that the labourers, who do all the work, are paid very little, whereas the capitalists get rich. The method the capitalists use and have used since the dawn of capitalism is the method of primitive accumulation ("Urspüngliche Akkumulation"). The workers produce something for one price, and the capitalists sell it for a much higher one, whilst simultaneously shrinking the wages of the workers as much as possible, in order to maximise profits. The profit that capitalists make using the method of primitive accumulation is called the surplus value. According to Marx, this "profit" is simply theft, stolen by the capitalists from the hard-working labourers. Marx firmly believed that the workers have a right to the value that they produce, and that those who work with means of production should, alone, own those means of production. In other words, Marx believed that those who work in a workplace should collectively own and democratically decide how that workplace should be run. The only people allowed to be owners of something that can generate capital are those who actually generate that capital.

Capitalism is alienating - "Entfremdung."
Marx understood that work can be the source of our greatest joy, but that capitalism has turned it into something we all detest. Everyone hates Mondays. Monday is the day we lose the freedom of the weekend to start working. But why do people hate Mondays? Why don't people enjoy their work? Essentially, modern work has us do one thing all day, but alienates us from what we believe we could ideally contribute to society. Someone who might want to write symphonies may have to work in a factory, because they need to earn money in order to afford food and housing. And on the other hand, some people who do work with what they feel contributes to society (teachers, for example) are paid very little to do so. Another problem that contributes to alienation is that modern work has become extremely specialised. Capitalists and factory owners don't want master craftsmen to produce the chairs in their furniture factory, they want to be able to hire almost anyone to produce one leg of one chair, and three other people to produce the other three legs, because then it's easy to fire and replace someone if there's a profit to be made, or production can increase with technological advancement. Ten people could be replaced by a computer and one engineer to maintain the computer, leaving 9 people unemployed, all for the sake of profit.

Capitalism is very unstable.
From its very beginning, Capitalism is full of economic crises. Capitalists may dress up as these crises as "freakish" and "rare" and "soon to be the last one," but this is far from the truth, argued Marx, because capitalism is unstable by its very nature. Capitalism suffers from a crisis of abundance, rather than, as in the past, a crisis of shortage. Modern production is simply too effective. We produce too much: Much more than we could possibly consume. Modern work is so productive that we could give everyone on Earth a house, a car, enough food and water, as well as free access to a good school and a hospital. But, according to calculations by the World Food Program, there are over 795 million people in the world do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life. And according to the Global Campaign for Education, over 70 million people don't have access to education. If we were to only produce things we need, rather than, for example, 24 different brands of soap, very few of us would actually have to work, and we could ensure that the common person has what they need to survive. Once people have enough food and a place to live, we can start worrying about producing less essential things.

What is socialism?

When most people (in the western world, including North America and Europe) hear the word "socialism" they think of Scandinavian and Central European welfare states that have high taxes and different forms of social security nets. It is a common misconception that these countries are socialistic. The correct term to describe these countries is "social democracy", which is a revisionist form of socialism that does not advocate for a transition to the socialistic mode of production. These countries are by all accounts still capitalistic; they advocate for a reform of the current status quo, not a complete transition from capitalism to socialism.

What socialism is, actually, is a political and economic theory of social organisation which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned and regulated by the community as a whole, rather than by private individuals.

Socialists believe that workers have a right to "reap what they sow", i.e. that they have a right to the value that they produce, and that capitalists who do nothing but own businesses, factories, corporations, etc., do not have any right to steal value from the hard-working labourers. Socialism is inherently an anti-capitalistic ideology, and socialists believe that capitalism is an outdated system that has to be replaced, in order for the working class to achieve true freedom from oppression and exploitation.

"Socialism" can also be used as an umbrella term, describing a collection of ideologies that advocate for the socialist mode of production. This includes but is not limited to:

  • Anarchism
  • Communism
  • Democratic socialism
  • Libertarian socialism
  • Syndicalism
Most forms of socialism are based on, or are at least inspired by, Marxism.

What is the difference between social democracy and democratic socialism?

Simply put, democratic socialism advocates for a transition (whether revolutionary or reformistic) from the capitalist mode of production to the socialist mode of production accompanied by a democratic system, whereas social democracy advocates for a "better" version of capitalism achieved through reform of the current status quo that allows for government ownership of (mostly) non-profitable parts of society as well as social security nets and welfare paid for by raised taxes.

What's wrong with social security nets and welfare?

There is nothing inherently wrong with these things. In fact, socialists want more welfare and social security for the people. Socialists want to ensure that everyone has a place to live, enough food and water to lead a healthy life, as well as free access to good schools and hospitals, among other things (parental leave, work safety laws, paid sick leave, paid vacation, etc.). The problem most socialists have with social democracies (which are famous for providing their citizens with these luxuries) is that they firstly only provide some of these things for their citizens (social democracies don't provide free housing, for example), and that those things are paid for mostly through taxes. High income taxes goes directly against the socialistic idea of letting workers reap what they sow. By taking hard-earned wages from the proletariat (the working- and middle-class), the social democratic state becomes no better than the capitalist class, which uses the method of primitive accumulation to leech profit from their workers. More on this further down on this page.

What is Marxism?

Marxism is a world view and a method of societal analysis, as well as a collection of political and economic theories that were developed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marxism focuses on class relations and societal conflict, and uses a materialistic interpretation of historical development, and a dialectical view of social transformation. Marxist methodology uses economic and socio-political inquiry and applies that to the critique and analysis of the development of capitalism and the role of class struggle in systemic economic change.

Whilst socialism and communism existed before Marx, he and Engels were the ones who turned the utopian dream of a perfect society into a practical science. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels are alone responsible for popularising socialism and communism throughout the world, and it is safe to say that socialism would have remained an impractical, utopian, near impossible-to-implement ideology without Marxist analyses.

What is communism?

Communism is a social, political, and economic ideology and movement whose ultimate goal is the establishment of a communist society. Communist society is the last stage of socialism (from a materialistic perspective of history, see: Marxism). It is defined as a socio-economic order structured upon the common ownership of the means of production and the absence of social classes, money, and a state. The term "communist society" should be distinguished from the Western concept of the "communist state", the latter referring to a state ruled by a party which professes a variation of Marxism-Leninism.

What is the difference between socialism and communism?

In Marxist theory, socialism is the transitional state between the overthrow of capitalism and the realisation of communism. Communism is a higher stage of socialism, and socialism is a lower stage of communism.

"Communist" countries such as China, Cuba, Laos, Nepal, and Vietnam have never claimed to have achieved communism, but are communistic in the sense that their goal is the establishment of communist society.

So communists are socialists?

Yes, all communists are by definition also socialists, but not all socialists are communists. Most socialists agree that, theoretically, communism should be the next mode of production after socialism, but different socialistic ideologies have their own ideas for how this society should be reached and what it would look like (and if it can even be reached at all). In addition, many socialistic organisations and political parties no longer want to be associated with the word communism, after the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc essentially changed the meaning of the word communism from "a stateless, moneyless, global society without private ownership of the means of production" into "a state governed by a Marxist-Leninist political party".

Do socialists advocate for democracy or a dictatorship?

Democracy. During no stage of socialism is a dictatorship necessary. Socialists do, however, advocate for a so-called "dictatorship of the proletariat," which should not be confused with an actual dictatorship. In Marxist theory, all societies which have economic classes also have a dictatorship of one of those classes. In capitalist society, the bourgeois class holds political power over the proletariat, and so capitalist society can be called a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. On the other hand, socialist society is supposed to be ruled by the working class, so it is called the dictatorship of the proletariat, as in "rule of the working class." The dictatorship of the proletariat only exists in socialist society, however. In communist society, which is classless, there is not a dictatorship of any particular class.

That said, many socialists believe that it is impossible to achieve socialism through bourgeois (liberal, parliamentary) democracy, because those systems were designed by the rich in order to keep the rich in power. But it is not true that socialists don't want democracy. In fact, socialists want more democracy than there already is: Socialists want true democracy where every individual's vote and opinion truly matters. Socialists don't just want more direct democracy (i.e. allowing for the population to directly control how their country is run, rather than just letting them vote for a "representative" that super-promises to vote in their interests, but is under no real obligation to actually do so), but also allow for democratic control of the means of production. That is, allow all workers to democratically decide how their place of work is run, what is produced, how much it should sell for, and so on.

Was Nazi Germany socialistic?

Although the Nazi Party was called "National Socialist", it was not socialistic. The Nazis promoted a corporatist, class collaborationist ideology which they termed "socialist" in an attempt to gain working class support (socialism was a hugely popular idea in Germany at the time). In practice, Nazi Germany privatised most of the economy, made independent labour unions illegal, and placed communists, socialists, and social democrats in concentration camps along with other "undesirable" citizens such as Jews, people of colour, handicapped people, etc.

Would no one be allowed to own anything under communism?

If you're afraid the communists are going to break into your home and take your Xbox because private property has been abolished, you can sleep easy knowing that "private property" is not the same as "personal property." Private property refers to means of production (factories, machinery, etc.), whereas personal property refers to the things you the common person own. Your house, your car, and your Xbox are all personal property, and belong to you.

Would janitors and doctors be paid the same under communism?

No. Firstly, because unimportant positions such as "janitor" probably would not exist, and the duty of cleaning up would be shared among the people within a certain community (a workplace, a neighbourhood, etc.) Secondly, because money would not exist in communist society in the same sense that it does today.

However, the abolishment of money would not come at the same time as the abolishment of capitalism. Money would still be used in socialist society, probably for hundreds of years. A quite important part of socialism is that the workers would no longer be exploited by their employers, and could freely enjoy the fruits of their labour. For some time, this would probably manifest itself as money that could be spent to buy consumer goods: Video games, cars, cigars, good food, etc. Whatever it is the common people would want. If socialism was the dominant mode of production in the world, the need for money, as well as states, would wither away. At this point, socialist society would start transitioning into communist society.

Haven't all attempts at socialism failed? What about Stalin, and gulags, and so on?

No, plenty of them succeeded. In most places where you've heard of there being a socialist revolution, material conditions have massively improved. Had there not been revolutions in those places, you most likely would not have heard much about them, and they'd just be among the rest of the third-world countries you also probably don't think about.

When it comes to questions like "Was Stalin responsible for millions of deaths?", socialists very rarely agree with each other. There are generally three ways for socialists to view Stalin and his era of rule:

  1. Stalin was a brutal dictator who betrayed Lenin and socialism as a whole.
  2. Stalin did the best he could in a bad situation (World War 2).
  3. Stalin was not a dictator and made good contributions to socialism and the world as a whole.
But rather than trying to argue for one side or another, I'm going to recommend a couple of books that argue for different viewpoints on the matter that you can read. The links will be at the bottom of this page.

Is social democracy, or "Nordic-style socialism" a viable alternative to capitalism?

Social democracy is a system that, by definition, advocates for social justice within the framework of a capitalistic economy. It serves not as an alternative to capitalism itself, but rather a different, "friendlier" version of it. To many, the social democratic system seems like a good middle-ground between capitalism and socialism. But social democracy is a system built not only on the exploitation of the workers in the country it is established, but also on imperialistic exploitation of the global south's "third world" countries. Social democracy is not viable without the luxury that cheap offshore labour provides. If conditions for the workers in third world countries improve (e.g. child labour is outlawed and the 12-hour workday is changed to an 8- or 6-hour workday), the standards of living in social democratic countries fall.

Further critiques of social democracy include the fact that democratic systems of social democratic countries still serve the bourgeoisie. The rich and the corporations work tirelessly to undo any victories won by the workers through democratic means (universal healthcare, free education, unemployment subsidies, raising of the minimum wage, etc.), resulting in effectively half the parliament in any given social democratic country being bourgeois, and the other being social democratic, both sides of which carry on a back-and-fourth political battle that never ends and doesn't have a winner. The short 4-year terms only add to the problem: A party with majority parliamentary representation in a social democratic country tries desperately to make as much short-term change as possible, and do nothing when they don't have majority, resulting in no party ever making any long-term commitments and practically abandoning ideology altogether. It turns politics into a sports game where people vote for their favourite team, not for any ideological reason but because they believe their team is the best, or has the prettiest logo, or the best slogan, or the most handsome party leader, or simply because their parents vote for that party. [Source]

Socialism/Communism can't work because of human nature.

A quick glance at history and anthropology will ruin the idea that "human nature" is a static unchanging thing. Human nature and behavior is partly plastic (reflections of historical and cultural conditions in relation to the specific mode of production), which is evidenced by the vast disparities in human behavior and social organisation throughout various historical periods and geographical locations. Civil society, human behavior and ideology have changed over time in the same way that species alter genetically over time.

"To look at people in capitalist society and conclude that human nature is egoism, is like looking at people in a factory where pollution is destroying their lungs and saying that it is human nature to cough."

—Andrew Collier, Marx: A Beginner’s Guide

No one would want to work under communism.

The incentive to work is the same as it always is: that which is enabled by the mode of production. Selfishness is not the main motivation for work in many epochs. It's silly to think that without capitalism and capitalists we'd all just sit on our hands and starve to death. The vast majority of human history was without these things, in a form of primitive communism.

Think of it like this: You and two friends live on a farm. You all need a barn, so you get together and build a barn. Someone chops the wood, someone makes the plans, someone drags the wood to where the barn is supposed to be built, and then you all build the barn together. Because all three of you need the barn, and all three of you are going to use the barn, there is no need for money to be exchanged during this process. The means of producing the barn are owned by all three of you in a communal fashion. Congratulations: You just participated in communism. That wasn't so scary, was it?

There is no "Barn Building CEO" that dictates over the other two, pays them a wage, and then becomes the sole owner of the barn, charging the other two every time they want to use the barn. Because that's inefficient. Capitalism is inefficient. Capitalism doesn't work, because of "human nature".

Socialism/Communism is idealistic.

That really couldn't be further from the truth. Socialism is based on historical and dialectical materialism, rather than Hegelian dialectics. This means it is founded on an evidence based materialist understanding of society, and the conflicts that arise from different class interests - manifesting as physical conflict as opposed to ideological battles. Marxism is the social equivalent of the scientific method, it is analytical and advances and changes its analysis based on the changes in society.

Further reading: Socialism: Utopian and Scientific by Friedrich Engels.

Socialism/Communism looks good on paper, but it doesn't work in practice.

Yes, it does work. Just like Capitalism works and Feudalism work. The question is not does it work?, the question is which one works best for the common man? and since socialism is the ideology meant for the common man, rather than the rich, and history has shown us that only socialism is capable of turning an undeveloped feudal country into a modernised industrial powerhouse in just a few years, it is of no doubt that socialism not only works, but works better than the alternatives.

This question reminds me of the joke "Communism looks good on paper, but in practice it's usually sabotaged by a military coup d'etat financed by the CIA." Which has some truth to it.

Every time socialism has been attempted, the US has intervened either directly through war against socialist countries:

Or through having the CIA perform a government change:

And keep in mind that the above is only a list of successful regime changes by the CIA against socialist nations. It does not include unsuccessful attempts at regime changes by the CIA, nor any attempts (successful or not) at regime changes by the CIA against non-socialist nations. The CIA has been involved in at least 21 covert actions of regime change.

Or indirectly through supporting enemies of socialists:

  • Russian Civil War 1918-20
  • Chinese Civil War 1944-49
  • Greek Civil War 1944-49
  • First Indochina War 1946-54
  • Paraguayan Civil War 1947
  • Malayan Emergency 1948-60
  • Mau Mau Uprising 1952-60
  • Cuban Revolution 1953-59
  • Second Indochina War 1953-75
  • First Taiwan Strait Crisis 1954-55
  • Algerian War 1954-62
  • Second Taiwan Strait Crisis 1958
  • Central American Crisis 1960-96
  • Congo Crisis 1960-65
  • Eritrean War of Independence 1961-91
  • Dhofar Rebellion 1962-76
  • Sarawak Communist Insurgency 1962-90
  • Insurgency in Northeast India 1963-Present
  • Dominican Civil War 1965
  • Chadian Civil War 1965-79
  • Bolivian Campaign 1966-67
  • Second Korean War 1966-69
  • South African Border War 1966-90
  • Years of Lead 1968-82 (where the US supported Nazis fighting against Marxist-Leninist anti-fascists)
  • Communist insurgency in Malaysia 1968-89
  • Al-Wadiah War 1969
  • Civil conflict in the Philippines 1969-Present
  • Yemenite War of 1972
  • Angolan Civil War 1974-2002
  • Ethiopian Civil War 1974-91
  • Lebanese Civil War 1975-90
  • Western Sahara War 1975-91
  • Indonesian occupation of East Timor 1975-91
  • Insurgency in Laos 1975-Present
  • Civil conflict in Turkey 1976-Present
  • Ogaden War 1977-78
  • Cambodian-Vietnamese War 1977-91 (where the US supported the mass-murdering pretend-socialist Pol Pot and his invasion of Vietnam)
  • Mozambican Civil War 1977-92
  • NDF Rebellion 1978-82
  • Chadian–Libyan conflict 1978-87
  • Yemenite War of 1979
  • Afghan-Soviet War 1979-89 (where the US supported "freedom fighting" islamist groups who later went on to form Al-Qaeda and ISIS)
  • Internal conflict in Peru 1980-Present
  • Afghan Civil War 1989-92

What can I do if I support the establishment of a socialist economy?

The important part is to study (a lot) and join a local socialist party or organisation. See the section below for what to read. Once you're a member of a socialist party, be sure to actually join in their activities and be involved. Simply being a member doesn't help the party that much. Be on the lookout for local manifestations or events, agitate and teach your fellow workers about socialism, and maybe even share this website with your friends. Together we can build a better, freer, more democratic world, where none shall go without food, water, housing, work, education, or healthcare. In the timeless words of Karl Marx: "The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working Men of All Countries, Unite!"

I have more questions.

Feel free to contact me and I'll do my best to answer any and all questions you might have.