England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

What is socialism? Big questions answered

Wat is Socialism?

What is socialism?

To answer the question ‘what socialism?’, it makes sense to start by asking what kind of system we live under now. The current system of capitalism, supposedly based on free trade and competition, has totally failed us. Not only has the wealth divide widened, but the absence of any kind of planning or co-ordination in the world economy has led to vaccine nationalism, climate breakdown and the constant threat of war. 

Furthermore, capitalism is a system that survives through state repression, and by using sexism, racism and other forms of oppression to super-exploit and divide working class people. In the last few years the widespread police violence against black people has been exposed through the Black Lives Matter protests, and movements such as #MeToo and the protests following the murder of Sarah Everard have shone a light on rampant gender violence and abuse. 

Socialism however stands for an alternative system, based on taking the big corporations and resources into public ownership. Working-class people make society run, and socialism would mean that they have collective, democratic control over how and what society produces, in order to genuinely meet the needs of humanity and the planet. It means replacing markets and competition with planning and cooperation, using the wealth workers produce for the benefit of the vast majority rather than for the profits of a tiny elite. With working class people in real democratic control of how society is run, we could put an end to attacks on our living standards, oppression and the endless endemic crises we face today.

It sounds nice but aren’t people too greedy for it to work in practice? What incentive would there be to innovate rather than be lazy?

Socialism is based on the democratic planning of the whole economy which would actually for the first time give us all a say in how things are run. Priorities would include the equal distribution of food, effective vaccines, and the introduction of a sustainable energy policy. Rather than for the profits of a few, the vast wealth in society could be used to offer affordable social housing for all, a decent education, the elimination of unemployment, and decent wages. The basis would be laid for oppression and exploitation to be eliminated in favour of a good standard of living and the ability to reach our potential for everyone. Surely that would be sufficient incentive for everyone to buy into such a system?

However, Socialism would offer more. We could oversee the introduction of a shorter working week, using modern technology to do away with boring and repetitive work, freeing us all from the drudgery of the workplace. 

Even on the basis of capitalism, where countries or businesses have trialed 4 day working weeks, they have found sickness absence has gone down and productivity has gone up! Working people are not intrinsically lazy, but rightly resentful of workplaces which offer long working weeks and poverty wages. The incentive to work revolves around being valued, feeling like your work is worthwhile, and being paid a decent wage. 

As for greed, that is a legacy of a capitalist system which is based on a minority accumulating massive wealth at the expense of the majority. In fact, working class people are naturally – because it is essential to us being able to survive and to get things done together in the workplace – extremely generous and cooperative, shown time and again but huge solidarity and finances given by the poorest in times of war and natural disasters, for example. Socialism would guarantee everyone a decent standard of living and a stake in how things are run. We would all have the freedom to not only participate in the running of society, but also to pursue our own creative instincts, hobbies and pastimes that so many of us cannot participate in because of work and other life commitments. 

This is totally different from the “greed” we see under capitalism, based on brutal exploitation. Collectively, wanting a good standard of living and a life of plenty is something we should strive for – and something that only socialist change can deliver. 

Can’t we have a balance between socialism and capitalism?

It is normal for people to be sceptical of revolutionary ideas at first. Often people will envision the solution as a mixed economy, where capitalism has had its excesses curbed by policies like the nationalisation of certain industries, and public provision of services. 

It is understandable to look to fix what we already have, rather than building something new altogether. However, the problems of capitalism are fundamental and inevitable.

Capitalism is based on private ownership of society’s wealth, resources and the means of production (the levers of the economy that produce more wealth). It is driven by making profits, even at the expense of destroying the planet and pushing working class people into poverty and unbearable conditions. It is inherently an exploitative system, as workers are never paid the value of what they produce, as otherwise the employer wouldn’t be making any profits. 

All major crises we can think of are related to the profit driven system. How come corporations continue to burn fossil fuel when there is a scientific consensus about the need to immediately transition to renewable energy to prevent a climate catastrophe? Why do big pharma companies compete with one another and hide essential medical information through using patents instead of collaborating with one another to save lives? Why is there food poverty when tons of food is being thrown away every day? This is the rationale of a system that serves only the profiteering interests of a tiny elite of billionaires and the logic of the market – both of which  are in conflict with society’s needs. In other words – we cannot control what we do not own.

Things like health and safety laws, the NHS, and the welfare state did not grow naturally under capitalism, nor were they introduced willingly by the ruling class. They were fought for by the working class. Through struggles of social movements, Trade Unions and communist and socialists. Collectively the working class can win significant gains from the ruling class, especially when threatened by revolutionary movements. We support and fight for any improvement in standards of living (what we would call reforms). However, reforms alone are never enough and are never safe – the system will always seek to undermine or reverse them. 

In the UK and in most countries to one degree or another, these gains have been under sustained attack over decades. Publicly owned industries and services have been privatised, austerity measures and cuts to social security have been carried out and laws restricting trade union rights have been imposed. Where gains have been defended, it has required a constant level of struggle. 

So to provide all working class people with a decent standard of living and to save our planet, we can’t compromise with the rule of the billionaire class, as we know everything we win will be undermined.


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