What is Socialism? And How Can We Get There?

Socialism is a hot topic of discussion.

For a long moment the capitalist mode of production had reached full hegemony and history was at it’s end, but inevitably with this capitalism fell back into it’s endless boom and bust cycle. In 2008 a new generation had their entire lives derailed by a global economic meltdown.

The rich and powerful redefined what constituted a “recovery” and, once they made their money back declared it over. Occupy and the rise of Bernie Sanders in the United States, and growing mass protests across the entire Earth strongly indicate that the working class of the world have not been fooled, however.

What is socialism?

There’s a lot of confusion about this term. The right wing media spent the last few decades deriding everything they don’t like as socialism.

Social welfare programs are socialism. Taxes are socialism. Black people existing at all is socialism. Barrack Obama is a secret Kenyan Muslim socialist communist Nazi.

Because of this, the idea of what socialism is has been stretched beyond it’s breaking point. Even left wing economists have slid into this line of thinking.

The military is socialism. Bailouts for large banks is socialism, but for the rich.

So the definition of socialism is badly distorted.

Before the definition of socialism can be tackled, first we have to define the economic systems that will have preceded it.

Feudalism is an economic system where workers are tied to the land and work for the benefit of a land lord. These lords controlled the infrastructure required to operate society, the land, equipment and directly oppress the workers who make society function. These lords are decided along hereditary lines.

Capitalism is a system where a small group of economic elites own the infrastructure required to operate society: factories, farmland, living spaces, etc. The oppression that the working class faces is abstracted, no longer are they directly tied to the land they work, but instead they pay landlords for a living space, they pay merchants for the base necessities of life. The economic elites that own and control society are still decided along hereditary lines.

The problem with feudalism is the same as the problem with capitalism. A small group of economic elites have too much power and will use it for their own benefit. Capitalism does have one benefit, however, which, at high enough levels becomes another problem. Capitalism enhances economic growth. Workers do more work with less effort over time. The problem with this is that eventually that economic growth comes at the expense of the ecology of the planet and without a functioning ecology we can’t possibly survive.

Socialism must be what comes next.

Socialism is an economic system where society at a whole owns and controls the infrastructure required to operate it. The question of ownership is of the greatest priority because with ownership comes power.

Exactly who qualifies as society in this context can vary a little bit, ranging from the people who actually put in the work to operate society to everyone, regardless of whether they can work or not.

A social welfare system does not in and of itself change who owns what in society. Taxes do not change who owns society. Military spending only changes who owns what in society indirectly. The existence of big banks and the government’s willingness to give them a blank check to prevent them from destroying themselves does not change who owns what in society.

So long as we exist under capitalism these things will continue to unduly benefit the already rich and powerful.

Defining socialism brings up the following question: how do we build socialism and real power for the working class? There are three main strains of thought around this.

Social Democracy/Democratic Socialism

The theory behind social democracy is that you can build a massive social welfare system through sheer mass support and put the bill for this on the rich and powerful, this will make them less rich and powerful and erode their power over time. It is true that the Northern European countries have precious little poverty and the wealth and power controlled by their economic elites, but none of them have transitioned to social ownership of society and their relative wealth and power is largely backed up by the same global economic inequality as the rest of the capitalist nations. This may change in the future but it has not yet.

The most notable examples of democratic socialist projects in recent years have been built on the Pink Tide in South America, left wing movements that are themselves a reflection of decades of the United States propping up right wing power systems there. Venezuela, Brazil and Bolivia have all faced reaction against their movements, with Bolivia being recently conquered by a coup, Venezuela surviving a long standing coup attempt and Brazil having it’s government fall to fascism in recent years. It’s also important to keep in mind what happened to Salvador Allende’s Chile. When you have a working class movement that might actually seize power you see fascist reaction.

Support your local antifa, Bernie Bros!

And finally, remember that a hundred years ago that many of the groups trying to build socialism in Europe identified themselves as social democrats, most notably the Bolsheviks and the German Social Democratic Party. Investigating the history of these movements, how they grew, and how they either won or lost power is a massive topic that anyone interesting in building socialism here and now should investigate.


In it’s most basic form anarchism is defined by the lack of leaders and of hierarchy. There are many different strains of anarchism, ranging from nakedly insurrectionary anarchism to syndicalism (in which radical unions of workers will work together to seize power).

The most common anarchist method of revolutionary organizing is to build institutions of power that by their existence pull legitimacy and power away from capitalist power structures. These institutions are their attempts to put their ideas into practice in the existing world of today. The exact methods will vary greatly depending on what strain of anarchism is being utilized. Anarchists are not afraid of direct action to obtain what they want.

Some examples of major attempts to build anarchist socialism would be the Second Spanish Republic, the Zapatista autonomous communities, Occupy and the Rojava region of Syria. The Second Spanish Republic was a coalition government where anarcho-syndicalists held great power and which was destroyed by the fascist dictator Franco in the Spanish Civil War. The Zapatistas control a large autononous zone of Mexico, and, have managed to survive for decades without state control or a fascist movement crushing them. Occupy represented a rebirth of the radical left in America. It too was crushed by reactionary, fascist police violence, but the spark it lit has not been extinguished. Rojava is an autonomous zone established by a coalition of leftist forces in the fight against ISIS and the Syrian civil war. It has not yet been completely snuffed out either, even after Turkey has joined the war with it’s eyes toward conquest.

The reaction against these anarchist movements displays plainly why so many anarchists become involved in antifascist organizing.

Revolutionary Marxism

Revolutionary Marxism is the tendency to use the political theories of Karl Marx as a basis on which to build the power of the working class. There are different strains of Marxism depending on who you think brought the most vital new ideas into Marxism: Trotsky? Lenin? Mao?

There is also a strong current within democratic socialism to use Marx’s political theory to advance their political projects.

Many of the longest surviving socialist projects in the world have been based on revolutionary Marxist lines: the Soviet Union, Cuba, China, Vietnam and many others. All of these states have been unfairly tarred by the media of the capitalist nations, ironically with precisely the same crimes that the capitalist nations themselves were doing. Yes, the Soviet Union’s treatment of the Ukrainian famine of the 1930’s caused many deaths, but so too did the United Kingdom’s treatment of the Bengal famine. This kind of capitalist accounting puts the death toll for socialism at around 100 million. Similar accounting applied to capitalism would place it in the billions.

All of these states have been hierarchical and bureaucratic. They are not above criticism. But they also greatly increased the quality of life for the people living under them, vastly increasing life expectancy, gender equality and education. Before the fall of the Soviet Union it’s citizens actually had better nutrition than Americans. And since the Soviet Union’s fall the quality of life in Russia has cratered.

The dominant strain of thought within the revolutionary Marxist milieu right now would be the Marxist Center. They are a federation of organizations that seek to build a mass base of support for social revolution by building up institutions of working class power. This may sound similar to the organizing method of some anarchists, but the particulars are very different. They don’t oppose hierarchy and believe a formalized party structure will be helpful in winning socialism in the future.

None of these strains of socialist thought have successfully won the infrastructure that operates society fully over to democratic, social control for the long term. But the revolutions that won capitalist society didn’t happen over night either. The capitalist revolution took centuries.

And socialism has been brewing for centuries, now.

The primary challenge our society faces is that the economic elites think they will survive the damage they are doing to the planet, in bunkers under New Zealand or in Martian potato factories.

If we work together we can take the infrastructure that operates society from them, and with it the power to transform the world.

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