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From The Socialist newspaper, 19 March 2005

What is socialism?

THE ARTICLE below is a slightly updated extract from the chapter How would socialism work? in the book Socialism in the 21st Century written by Hannah Sell. Hannah is a member of the Socialist Party's national executive committee and our national campaigns organiser.

FOR 300 years or so of its existence, capitalism has transformed the planet over and over again. Rail, electricity, the internal combustion engine, flight, space travel, telephones and electronic computers, the list is endless. The world economy is 17 times the size it was a century ago.

Despite this, all the technology developed by capitalism has not provided clean water for well over a billion people. As a result, 2.2 million people die every year from causes directly attributable to not getting enough clean water and sanitation.

Neither does it provide food for the 850 million who are seriously malnourished. The number of under-nourished people in the world is climbing at a rate of almost five million a year. Capitalism is capable of spending billions on developing weaponry used to bomb the poor of Afghanistan and Iraq, but it cannot solve poverty, hunger or disease.

And capitalism is threatening the very future existence of the planet. Scientists predict that, as a result of global warming, sea levels are likely to rise by up to one metre this century. Now some scientists have raised fears that the West Antarctic ice sheet may be disintegrating, raising the world's sea levels by nearly five metres!

Even a rise of one metre would devastate the inhabitants of the flood plains of Bangladesh and Egypt, and worldwide hundreds of millions of the very poor would be displaced.

Capitalism has enormously developed the productive forces but it is the blind forces of profiteering that are in the driving seat.

Human talent

Capitalism is incapable of fully harnessing the science and technology it has brought into being. It is incapable of providing for the needs of humanity or of protecting our fragile planet. By contrast, a socialist society would be able to harness the enormous potential of human talent and technique in order to build a society and economy which could meet the needs of all.

It is not possible 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 in the immediate period after it came to power, as part of a transition from capitalism to socialism.

A socialist economy would have to be a planned economy. This would involve bringing all of the big corporations, which control around 80% of the British economy, into democratic public ownership, under 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 in favour of everyone having the right to a decent home and the other conveniences of modern life.


Socialism would be a truly democratic society. Under capitalism most of the important decisions are not taken in Westminster or in local council chambers, they are taken in the boardrooms of the big corporations. A socialist government would bring major industry into democratic public ownership.

It would be necessary to draw up a plan, involving the whole of society, on what industry needed to produce. At every level, in communities and workplaces, committees would be set up and would elect representatives to regional and national government. Measures such as a shorter working week and decent, affordable childcare would enable everybody to participate in real decision-making about how best to run society.

A socialist government would ensure that no elected representatives received financial privileges as a result of their position but, instead, lived the same lifestyle as those they represented.

At every level, elected representatives would be accountable and subject to instant recall. If the people who had elected them did not like what their representatives did, they could make them stand for immediate re-election and, if they wished, replace them with someone else.

Capitalism today 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. We could use it rationally instead to find out what people need and want.

The general trend of capitalism, with its increasing monopolisation, is towards internal planning. Ford, for example, uses a huge internet programme to procure the cheapest possible components world-wide. However, under capitalism the process will never be finished.

A blind system based on profit and competition will never be able to be planned beyond a certain limit. But a socialist government would strengthen and develop the methods of planning - which are currently used to maximise profit and avoid taxes - in order to plan society for the benefit of all.

Even on the basis of current production, measures could be taken to meet the needs of the majority. Every year capitalism spends nearly $1 trillion on arms spending. This alone could provide $1,000 a year for every family on the planet. Just 25% of the cost of George W Bush's infamous Star Wars programme would provide clean drinking water for the billion people who are currently without it.

A democratic, planned economy could develop production to much greater level than is possible under capitalism.

There is no contradiction between developing technology and production and safeguarding the planet. What is needed if we are to save the world is long-term planning that would be able to develop alternative technologies that did not harm the environment.

This could only be achieved on the basis of democratic socialism. A democratically run planned economy would be able to take rational decisions on the basis of aiming to meet the needs of humanity.

It would decide what technology to develop and use, what food to produce, and when and where to build, while taking into consideration the need to protect and repair our planet for future generations.

Changing economic relations, the abolition of class divisions and the construction of a society based on democratic involvement and co-operation would also lay the basis for a change in social relations.

Society would move away from hierarchies and the oppression and abuse of one group by another. Human relations would be freed from all the muck of capitalism.

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In The Socialist 19 March 2005:

Blair's pensions climbdown

Pensions attacks: United action can win

Pensions - the socialist future

Why we voted to strike to defend pensions

Anger turns to action over pensions

Fight for a better future

What is socialism?

Iraq: troops out now

Iraq: occupation and the resistance

Bush and the 'democratic revolutions'

'Scary prospect' of US economic catastrophe

Massive strike in France

'Third World Debt' - who gains from Brown's plans?

Oppose Clarke's 'hideous experiment'

Good result for Roger Bannister

Building a new NUT leadership


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