Workers’ labour, not the “talent” of bosses, produces wealth under capitalism, as we argued in last week’s column.
And socialists support workers’ struggles to win a greater share of this wealth in their pay packets.
But what would work and pay look like in a socialist society?
We don’t have a “recipe book” setting out what life would be like after a revolution.
Revolutions aren’t about small cliques implementing a blueprint. They are mass uprisings where one class takes power from another.
But experience, from the Paris Commune to revolutionary Russia, gives us some idea of what a post-revolutionary society might look like.
First of all, revolutions don’t change everything overnight. Parts of the old society co-exist alongside parts of the new.
The long term aim of a socialist society would be to abolish wage differentials—and money itself. The goal would be to organise society so that everyone has access to the things they need—without having to pay.
In a similar way to how the NHS provides free health care, you would have free transport, free food and so on. There would be no need for wages or money.
But in the short term the priority in terms of pay would be to dramatically raise the wages of the lowest paid—like cleaners.
Some might think this is unjustified. But think about a hospital.
It will be full of qualified, well paid, workers such as doctors.
But if the hospital isn’t clean patients will pick up potentially lethal infections. It is low paid cleaners who stop this happening.
It takes hundreds of workers, from admin staff to nurses to lab technicians, to keep a hospital running. All are vital. So why should some be low paid?
For some years after a revolution a workers’ state will run society—and organise a defence of the revolution. It won’t be ideal.
Some people with essential skills who were highly paid under capitalism may not support the revolution. These people can be won over to socialism.
But in the short term the state may decide to pay these people more to make sure they do the jobs society needs.
People who are useless to society but grab vast fortunes under capitalism, like hedge fund managers, would see their money disappear. A workers’ state may decide to requisition the private wealth of the rich and use it to benefit the majority.
The bosses and the rich will resist this fiercely. This tiny minority will try to undermine the revolution made by the majority. They will try and turn the clock back to a time of exploitation, oppression, poverty and war.
The state would have to be prepared use force against such people to defend the revolution.
Once the new socialist society was functioning and stable there would be no need for this.
And the nature of work and pay would change again.
Under capitalism our rulers claim that ordinary people are greedy, lazy and selfish. We’re told that socialism is a pipedream because people won’t work if they aren’t compelled to in order to survive.
But the reason people don’t like work under capitalism is because the system distorts it. Work in a socialist society would be very different.
As the revolutionary Karl Marx described, our ability to transform our environment through labour distinguishes us from animals. Yet under capitalism we have no control over our work. This creates what Marx called alienation.
Marx wrote, “The worker feels himself only when he is not working. When he is working he does not feel himself.”
This “loss of self” in the workplace is what makes work under capitalism generally unpleasant.
In a socialist society our labour would not be exploited to make profits for bosses but it would be used for the good of all.
And everyone would have a democratic say in what was produced and how. Millions of people would collectively plan the economy through councils of workplace delegates.
Structures like this spring up again and again in revolutionary situations.
Unlike MPs in a capitalist parliament, the delegates represent workers, and can be recalled if they make decisions the workers do not agree with.
It’s the opposite of Soviet Union-style bureaucratic control—instead real democratic control is put in the hands of ordinary people.
In such a system, work would no longer be something unpleasant we do just to pay the bills. It would be a contribution to a better society.