What is Socialism?

What is socialism? – The Socialist Party’s view

by Hannah Sell, is the best introduction to the ideas of socialism today.

Here Hannah, writing in 2002, outlines the ideas explained in her book:

“FOR MOST of human history it has not been possible to satisfy even the most basic human needs. Now, as a result of the labour and ingenuity of working people, the potential exists to eliminate want forever.  The barrier to achieving this is the capitalist system itself. Based as it is on the private ownership of the productive forces (factories, offices, science and technique), capitalism creates immense inequality and deprivation when the potential exists for providing the material components of a decent life for all. Capitalism is driven by big business’ need to make the maximum possible profits. A socialist society, by contrast, would be driven by the need to provide a decent life for all humanity, whilst protecting the environment for future generations.


Socialism has to be international. It’s impossible to create socialism in one country, surrounded by a world capitalist market. Nonetheless there is an enormous amount that could be achieved by a socialist government after it came to power as part of a transition from capitalism to socialism.  A genuine socialist government would extend and deepen democracy enormously. This would be much more far-reaching than the parliamentary democracies of capitalism where we simply get to vote every few years for MPs who do what they like once elected.

Elected representatives would only receive the average wage. Nationally, regionally and locally – at every level – elected representatives would be accountable and subject to instant recall. So if the people who’d elected them did not like what their representative did, they could make them stand for immediate re-election and, if they wished, replace them with someone else.  It is often argued that socialists simply want to share out the wealth. This, it is asserted, would only mean increased misery for the rich – as the wealth would not be enough to obliterate poverty. But we are not interested in merely doing this. Of course, it would be nice to take some of Bill Gates’ $36 billion (£24 billion), but in order for socialism to work it would be necessary to do much more than that.  Some of the immediate measures that could be taken include:

Eliminating arms spending

The US has promised to rebuild Afghanistan after bombing it to smithereens. Yet the $297 million (£200 million) it has pledged in 2002 is equal to just seven hours of US defence spending!  Arms spending has accounted for $1 trillion a year world-wide since the end of the cold war. This alone could provide $1,000 a year for every family on the planet. Just 25% of the cost of president George W Bush’s Star Wars programme would provide clean drinking water for the billion people who are currently without it.

Sharing out work

Even at the end of the economic boom in the late 1990s there were still 35 million unemployed in the European Union. At the same time, those in work are working longer hours than ever before. This is madness: a socialist government would immediately share out the work.  In addition, it would use modern technology to limit the number of hours it was necessary to work. A socialist government could immediately introduce a maximum 35-hour week, with no loss of pay. Capitalism’s remorseless drive for profit means that new technology has been used, not to shorten the working week, but to throw workers on the scrap heap.

A socialist government would harness technology to lower the number of hours people have to work. This would give working-class people more time to participate in running society. Combined with a massive programme of socially necessary projects – such as increasing the numbers of teachers, doctors and nurses – unemployment could be eliminated.

Ending competition and duplication

Private ownership of the means of production results in constant duplication. Companies fiercely compete to produce a certain product first and best. Socialism would eliminate this and thereby save a huge amount of resources.  There would also be no need for marketing, on which capitalism spends $1 trillion a year. This does not mean, as is commonly claimed, that socialism would result in a lack of choice or poor-quality goods: a society where everyone dresses in a grey uniform.  It would be possible to have far more choice of the things which people desire to have a variety of (such as clothes, music, holidays etc) than under capitalism. However, a socialist society might choose not to have 200 brands of washing powder!

Real alternative

A SOCIALIST economy would have to be a democratically planned economy. This would mean bringing all the big corporations, controlling around 80% of the British economy, into democratic public ownership, under democratic working-class control.  Of course it would not mean bringing small businesses, such as local shops, many of which are forced out of business by the multinationals, into public ownership. Nor would it mean, as opponents of socialism claim, taking away personal ‘private property’. On the contrary socialists are favour of everyone having the right to a decent home and the other conveniences of modern life.

The capitalists argue that a democratically planned economy could not work. Yet, in reality capitalism has provided the tools which could enormously aid the genuine, democratic planning of an economy.  We have the internet, market research, supermarket loyalty cards that record the shopping habits of every customer, and so on. Big business uses this technology to find out what it can sell. Could it not be used rationally instead to find out what people need and want?

Despite all the propaganda of big business, socialist ideas will continue to gain ground. World-wide millions of people are fighting back against the reality of capitalism. They are the Bolivian masses who rose up and prevented the privatisation of their water supply and the Argentinians who overthrew four presidents in two weeks.  They are the ten million Indian workers who took strike action against privatisation. They are the workers in Spain who held a one-day general strike against attacks on unemployment rights, and the workers in Italy who have mobilised in their millions against the right-wing government of Silvio Berlusconi.

At the same time as the poor and oppressed of entire countries are fighting back against the effects of capitalism, a minority are beginning to consciously look for an alternative system. It is this reality that ensures that socialism isn’t a spent force but the wave of the future.”

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