Theory: Socialism – the alternative

Our society has an obscene gulf between rich and poor. The private assets of the 200 richest people are more than the combined incomes of the poorest 2.4 billion people – almost half the world’s population.

The UN "estimated that the additional cost of achieving and maintaining universal access to basic education for all, basic health care for all, reproductive care for all women, adequate food for all, and safe water and sanitation for all is roughly $40 billion a year… This is less than 4% of the combined wealth of the 225 richest people."

Poverty is not due to a lack of resources. It is caused by the way our capitalist economy mis-allocates resources. Agribusinesses and construction industries do not feed the hungry and house the homeless, because it is not profitable for them. Privately owned corporations in a market economy cannot worry about anything except maximizing their short-term profits, or else they will be out-competed by their rivals.

Karl Marx pointed out one of the fundamental contradictions of capitalism – that it draws more and more people into a social division of labor and a global economy, yet it concentrates capital into fewer and fewer hands. Capitalism is organized around profits rather than human need. Brian Moffat, Chairman of a European steel company Corus, recently admitted this after cutting 6,000 jobs, saying: "Corus does not make steel. It makes money."

The movement against corporate globalization is directly challenging global inequality, but this new generation of activists is often not clear about how a viable alternative to capitalism could work.

Under capitalism, although business owners "earn" their wealth through legally established rules, but it is the working class who works day in and day out to create that wealth in the first place. The only way to end class inequality is through common ownership of the source of wealth, or what Marx called "the means of production." The top 500 corporations and banks must be taken out of private hands and into public ownership under workers’ democratic control, laying the foundation for the construction of a new socialist society.

Efficiency, Productivity and the Environment

Socialists often encounter the question: "If everyone’s basic needs were provided by a socialist society, why would anyone choose to work?"

But if workers collectively owned and managed production and distribution, rather than taking orders from a boss, we would take tremendous pride in our work. Especially if we could choose work that we love instead of jobs that pay the most, we would work much harder and produce a much higher quality product. As the American socialist Eugene Debs put it: "Men do not shrink from work, but from slavery. The man who works primarily for another does so primarily under compulsion, and work so done is the very essence of slavery."

If capitalism is supposedly so efficient, why are 2.5 billion people struggling to survive on less than $2 a day? Why are 2 million Americans, mostly people of color, rotting away in prisons? Why do companies waste on average 1/3 of their budgets on advertizing, packaging, and marketing when we could simply use internet directories and catalogues instead?

Productivity in a democratically planned economy would far surpass the level of a "free market" economy. A global socialist economy would employ the fifth of the adult population that is currently unemployed, increasing our workforce by almost a billion people. This would enable us to shorten the workweek to 30 hours while still raising productivity and living standards

If capitalism’s crazy drive for short-term profits was ended, shoddy products and environmental destruction would become a thing of the past. Products would be built to last. With democratic control over the economy, the polluting oil, auto, chemical, agribusiness industries would be phased out. Workers in those industries could re-construct alternative energy and transportation choices that work for people and the environment.

No More War

The biggest waste of resources under capitalism is the $800 billion wasted around the world on the military every year. Bush has half that amount budgeted for the military next year in the US alone. That’s over $1 billion a day.

What if all that money was spent on wiping out poverty instead of war? That would root out terrorism far more than Bush’s wars against the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, which will actually lead to more tragic terrorist attacks.

Under capitalism, the ruling classes of each nation have no problem sending working class people off to die in wars so that they can enjoy more profits and power. But if the working class took over and abolished class divisions, we could provide an extremely comfortable standard of living for everyone. There would be no more wars over resources because everyone’s needs would be provided for. No longer would powerful countries pillage and plunder poor countries.


Big business owners argue that socialism would take away the freedom and initiative of the individual. But it is capitalism that is running small shops out of business and trying to turn human beings into alienated robots, cogs in a machine.

Corporations have developed elaborate marketing techniques that appeal to children from an early age, to get them hooked on certain consumer habits and products. They use TV to raise generations of passive spectators and gazers. Their ideal society is an entire population of drones who follow orders and mindlessly accept the boring routine of the working, commuting, and shopping.

The ruling class has convinced many working class and oppressed people that their low social status is due to the fact that they are not as special as glamorous movie stars, or as talented and hardworking as CEOs. The cosmetics and fashion industries want us to feel insecure so that we will buy their latest products. They have women telling themselves: "My thighs are too fat. I am so ugly." Corporate marketers try to make women focus almost exclusively on their sex appeal, at the expense of developing their minds, skills, and confidence.

The ruling class attempts to divide and conquer the working class by oppressing certain genders, races, and nationalities. Politicians try to convince white male workers that their jobs are being taken by women and people of color. Meanwhile, these same politicians trade away our jobs through the NAFTA, WTO, and FTAA trade agreements.

Real Democracy

The US is supposedly a democracy, but what kind of democracy excludes Ralph Nader from the three televised Presidential debates when over 60% of Americans wanted him in the debates? What kind of democracy only lets you vote for corporate funded and controlled candidates once every few years? The 2000 Presidential elections showed that the Electoral College and Supreme Court ultimately decide who is President anyway.

A socialist society would transform our sham democracy into a real democracy, extending democratic decisions to all aspects of life, including the economy. Workplaces, schools, neighborhoods, and all institutions would be democratically controlled by elected councils of workers, consumers and all communities. In most socialist revolutions, these workers’ councils have begun to link up on a local and national level to form the basis of a new government.

There should be no special privileges for elected public representatives, and they should be subject to immediate recall. Elected representatives should not make any more money than the average worker they represent.

A socialist government would have a multi-party system and the right to freedom of speech, association, press, and religion. Discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, creed, and disability would be prohibited.

Today, approximately 80% of all media outlets in the US are owned by only seven mega-corporations, which means that a few people decide what information is disseminated in the mass media. In a socialist democracy, all forms of media would be open to every point of view and group that can prove that they have support in society.

A Nice Idea in Theory but…

The capitalists’ main argument against socialism is: "Socialism is a great idea in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice. Wherever it’s tried, like in Russia, it always results in a dictatorship because humans are greedy by nature. There will always be those few individuals who will acquire more power and wealth whether we have a capitalist or socialist system."

Although socialists would not say that human beings are greedy by nature, socialists would agree that human beings are fundamentally self-interested. People tend to act according to their material interests.

However, that is precisely why socialists believe that socialism is possible. Socialism will not come about because people will become spiritually enlightened, but rather because it is in the material interest of the majority of the world’s population, the international working class, who is being exploited.

Until now, the only places where capitalism has been overthrown has been in the poorest countries like Russia, China, and Cuba. Those poor countries did not have an advanced level of industry to provide for the entire population, although the planned economy did raise living standards dramatically. Even though these regimes called themselves "communist," they were in reality planned economies that were parasitically controlled by brutal Stalinist dictatorships.

The dictatorships consolidated power, not because of human nature, but because there was not enough industry and material resources for it to work. Socialism can only work in a relatively industrialized country where there is enough wealth for everyone. The working class can take power and begin to build a socialist society in either a rich or poor country, but genuine democratic socialism will not be established in a poor country unless the movement succeeds in overthrowing capitalism in the advanced capitalist countries.

Is Socialism Really Possible?

There has been challenge after challenge to capitalism by the working class in the 19th and especially the 20th centuries, although you’d never get that from official history. There were working class revolutions in Paris 1871, Russia 1905 and 1917, throughout Europe right after the 1917 Russian Revolution, in Spain 1936-9, France and Italy 1945, China 1949, Cuba 1959, France again 1968, Portugal 1973, and Eastern Europe, Russia and China 1989-1991. And this is by no means a complete list, particularly in the colonial countries.

Due to the crisis of US capitalism, the working class in the US has suffered a serious blow to our living standards over the last 30 years. 45 million people in the US now live below the poverty line and have no health insurance. Americans now work six more weeks per year than we did in 1979. Corporate America is trying to squeeze more profits out of the workforce, but the working class will not tolerate this forever. As the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, there will inevitably be social explosions around the world, even in the US.

The working class already runs society. Nothing would move without the workforce. What is needed is for the working class to become conscious of its power as a class, and organize itself into unions, organizations, and our own mass workers’ party to take power.

Many famous revolutionary thinkers of our time have been socialists.

"This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career. I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals." – Albert Einstein

"The movement to date has done much for the middle class but little for the black underclass. We are dealing with class issues. Something is wrong with capitalism… Maybe America must move toward democratic socialism." – Martin Luther King

"We do not fight racism with racism. We fight racism with solidarity. We do not fight exploitative capitalism with black capitalism; we fight capitalism with basic socialism… The very nature of the capitalist system is to exploit and enslave people, all people. So, we have to progress to a level of socialism to solve the problems." – Bobby Seale, Co-founder of the Black Panther Party

"The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it." – Karl Marx

This article first appeared in Justice (Issue 31, September/October), paper of Socialist Alternative (CWI section in the US)

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August 2002