If you read the mainstream papers, then you probably have some idea of what you think socialism is: Socialism happened years ago under Labour governments, but only a few old men in cloth caps still believe in it. Or, socialism is this nice idea about equality that never worked. Or, socialism was a terrible one-party dictatorship, like the ones that used to exist in Eastern Europe, where you couldn’t speak your mind, and had to queue for ages just to get a few poor-quality products. Whatever socialism was, it’s had its day now, and is a thing of the past, they say.
Well we at Revolution know that to fight injustice today – the Criminal Justice Bill, racist deportations, the new Job seekers Allowance – the rich history of the victories and defeats of socialists and workers in their struggle for a better life, provides us with the lessons we can use to turn our struggles into victorious ones.
All over the world there exist working-class movements and parties at the forefront of the fight against oppression, who see the fight for socialism as part of their fight. But why?
Society is divided into classes. One class, the working-class, lives by selling its labour for wages. Another class, the ruling class, makes its living by owning companies, banks and factories, and receiving huge profits from the work of others. We call this system Capitalism.
The conflicting interests of the two classes cause a struggle between them. The working class struggles for a better life, decent wages and against oppression. For as long as classes exist, there will continue to be class struggle. And with it, a working class-led struggle for a classless society, for socialism.
How is socialism different?
Under capitalism, all the decisions in the economy are made by a minority, the ruling class, for their own profit: what to make, who to sack, and so on. The rest of us have no control over the situation. Millions are unemployed, on low wages or working and living in terrible conditions, while a minority live off the fruits of our labour.
Under socialism, the economy will be owned by the people as a whole. They will plan it for their benefit, and not for the benefit of a rich few.
“Socialism sounds like a nice idea, but it never works in practice: just look at Eastern Europe.”
The old Eastern European states and the ex-Soviet Union were not socialist. In those states, capitalism had been overthrown and the economy planned by the state, but there was no democracy. Therefore an elite arose in those countries which enriched itself and acquired a lot of power and privilege. They maintained control over society through extreme repression of any forms of dissent. Under socialism, all leaders would be truly accountable, through elections at every level. If someone’s not doing their job properly, they’d be replaced by someone else.
Many look at the way people used to queue for poor-quality goods in Eastern Europe and at how life is more comfortable in Britain. Politicians and the bosses’ papers use this to claim that socialism doesn’t work, and that no matter how bad capitalism is, this is the best we can expect: “You’ve never had it so good”.
This is not so. The problem is Eastern Europe was not a planned economy, run by the people, for the people. The problem was with how the planned economy was run. Without the decision makers being accountable to everyone, there was no way mistakes could be spotted and dealt with immediately. Socialism only exists when there is democracy, when everyone can play a part in running society.
“Socialists set their sights too high”?
A lot of young people involved in various campaigns are disillusioned with politics, and don’t see why they need to have political ideas to change things for the better. For them, it’s enough to be struggling against injustices, without having grand ideas about the “big picture”
But the “think globally – act locally” idea can’t work. The state is organised on a national basis. Police sent to attack striking miners in 1984 or protesters against the British National Party or the Criminal Justice Act more recently, were trained and organised from across the whole country. Multinational companies exploiting the Third World don’t just think globally, they act on a global basis. They have the United Nations and the armies of many countries to defend their interests. Any successful struggle for real change means having to think beyond the specific campaign you are involved in now. And that means having political ideas.
Isn’t socialism something to do with the Labour Party? Why not just vote Labour?
The Labour Party was set up by the trade unions to be the voice of the workers in Parliament, and receives the votes of millions of working-class people. In power, it has sometimes made reforms of capitalism, such as the creation of a free health service, education, benefits and so on.
But the Labour Party has repeatedly betrayed the aims and struggles of the working class, both in and out of office. In power, it has sent the police against strikers and passed racist immigration laws. In opposition, it has failed to support struggles such as those of the miners in 1984. During the big movement against the poll tax, the Labour Party not only failed to support the people fighting against it: Labour councils sent bailiffs against non-payers and put some in prison. It has been responsible for brutal imperialist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Labour Party, only seeks to change society in the interests of working-class people through Parliament and elections. But the real power doesn’t lie in Parliament. Most decisions are made by the huge unelected state machine: the unelected judiciary, senior civil servants, army and police chiefs.
These people are tied by family connections, common interest or ideological outlook to the ruling class. Any serious attempt to change society through Parliament would meet with their outright opposition, and they wouldn’t stop short of violence or overthrowing the government to achieve their aims. In Chile in the early 1970s, an elected leftwing government started on an ambitious policy of trying to achieve socialist-style changes through parliament. The result? The elected government was overthrown by the army and tens of thousands of workers and young people killed.
Because of this powerful state machine, the only way socialism can be achieved is by revolution. This does not mean that you shouldn’t take elections seriously. Afterall, thousands come out every five years to vote, believing that they’re making a difference. We have to vote Labour but organise to fight Labour once in office, and mobilise the unions to make Labour meet our needs. What it does mean is that socialists cannot base their long term strategy on winning elections.
“Why make such a big deal about class?”
Of course, other forms of oppression exist that aren’t simply based on class. Oppression exists under capitalism on the basis of race, sex, sexuality and age. But socialists base the struggle for change on the struggle of the working class because it’s the only class with the real interest and ability to abolish all forms of oppression. The working class, because it lives by selling its labour, can, like no other group in society, stop the capitalists dead in their tracks. By going on strike for example, goods are not produced and the bosses make no money. Workers, united under the banner of Socialism, have the power to not only hit the capitalists where it really hurts, but the power to bring this whole retched capitalist system down.
The choice we face is a stark one. The choice between a world of poverty, exploitation and war, and a world of democracy, equality and plenty.