What is socialism?

Adam Powell-Davies, Oxford Socialist Students

In recent years, there has been an explosion of the word ‘socialism’ among young people in the UK. Many like myself will have been inspired by the ideas of Jeremy Corbyn – a self-described socialist politician who raised ideas like free education, nationalisation of the railways and public utilities, investment in council housing, and rent controls, among other things. According to a poll commissioned by the Institute of Economic Affairs this year, 67% of UK respondents aged between 16 and 34 in the UK said that they would like to live in a socialist economic system. So, what is socialism? And how can we achieve it?

Under capitalism, our current economic system, the means of production – raw materials, machinery and tools, workplaces, transport networks, and so on – are owned privately by a tiny minority of individuals. Workers – who sell their ability to work, are employed by these private owners (the capitalists), and the products made by the workers become the private property of the capitalists, who then look for a profitable market to sell them in. In the end, the capitalists will organise production – what is made, in what way, in what quantities – in pursuit of their own private profit, conceding just a small fraction of this to workers in the form of wages and other ‘perks’.

Compared to society as it existed beforehand, capitalism increased the productive forces in society and has raised living standards. Further, innovation has led to new technologies like electricity, computers, phones, aviation, rail – all things that have helped to increase global economic productivity at a rate once unimaginable. But the question for socialists is: who is currently benefiting from society’s productivity? Are these new technologies being utilised for their full labour-saving potential and how can production be revolutionised and developed further, to the benefit of all humans?

Capitalism is based on a minority of individuals growing richer and richer off the backs of workers – the people who actually create wealth through their labour – but this fact is especially clear today. The coronavirus pandemic has shown who really keeps society running – postal workers, nurses, factory workers, lorry drivers, refuse collectors, shop assistants, and many more.

Yet in the UK, it is precisely these working people who are now faced with pay freezes, brutal fire-and-rehire measures, and post-furlough redundancies. Young people in particular have been hit by massive redundancies during the pandemic, while graduate job prospects have fallen dramatically. But at the same time, UK billionaires increased their collective wealth by over a third in 2020, and similar gains (27.5%) were made globally by billionaires in the same year. Overall, the world’s 2,153 billionaires now have more wealth than 4.6 billion people, about 60 percent of the planet’s population. 

In place of a system that produces profit for a small minority while throwing billions into unemployment, poverty, and – ultimately – needless and preventable death, socialists fight for a world in which all humans work together to meet everyone’s needs.

A socialist society would cut out the unnecessary capitalist, whose only job is to own the means of production and its derived products while skimming off private profit. Instead, the means of production would be the collective property of workers, who via a socialist plan of production would decide democratically what to produce, using what resources, and who for. Why should there be a separate class of individuals in control of the economy, when it is the workers actually involved in production who possess the real talent and expertise to run and plan society, based on socialist co-operation, not capitalist competition?

Investment under capitalism is directed only towards goods and services that are deemed profitable. This means that socially useful advancements get put on the backburner in favour of short-term profits and financial speculation. In a socialist world, production would be planned to develop and implement new technology as and when its need became apparent. In fact, in the absence of multiple competing firms, resources and collective knowledge could be pooled to develop production far beyond what is possible under capitalism.

For young people in the UK, socialism would mean an end to the capitalist crisis that has characterised our lifetimes. We have grown up in a period of vicious austerity triggered by the global financial crisis of 2007-08; and with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, we face the deepest crisis of global capitalism since the 1930s. Youth unemployment is set to worsen as we witness the reconfiguration of the economy post-covid and post-Brexit. If not unemployment, then it is the quality of jobs that will affect young people. And how many of these jobs will help us move out of our parents’ houses after we finish school and university? All of these issues compound a mental health crisis that blights young people in particular.

Economic crisis is endemic in capitalism but the scale of the covid crisis is a sign of a socioeconomic system on the brink.

Yet capitalism will not automatically give way to socialism overnight. The capitalists will battle tooth-and-nail to maintain control of the economy and society, using the power of the state – like with the law, the police, the courts and the media.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels explained that the working class is the only force capable of leading the socialist transformation of society. A couple thousand billionaires would be unable to stop the billions from taking control – if properly organised.

The working class must also be linked together by international organisations, as socialism can only be achieved through the defeat of the global capitalist class. A socialist society cannot survive on a permanent basis surrounded by a world capitalist market. In a similar way, gains won by mass movements of the working class and young people – things like the NHS, council housing etc. – are always at risk of being eroded and made temporary within a capitalist society.

We can’t reform capitalism, which is a system based on exploitation, into its opposite – a socialist society. We need a fundamental change – a revolution – which means the permanent transferal of economic and social power to the working class on a global scale.

It is not enough to just wait for socialism to happen, We fight for any improvements in the living standards of the working class here and now. Through fighting, winning and building mass organisations the working class can feel our collective power to run society and democratically plan what we need.

As an activist group, Socialist Students campaigns against all forms of inequality and oppression. We seek to mobilise young people with a political programme that connects all struggles within the fight for socialism. It would also relay the basis of social relations, with the abolition of class divisions and the construction of a society centred on cooperation and genuine democracy. It would be a society based on need, not what makes a profit.

If you want to discuss with us how to change society and fight for socialism then join Socialist Students.

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