The Socialist 19 March 2005 |
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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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.