Socialist Worker

What does socialism look like?

Reforming capitalism is not the same as socialism, argues Sadie Robinson. Another society is possible—but can only come about through a revolution by working class people

Issue No. 2518

Workers formed their own councils, or soviets, in Russia in 1917

Workers formed their own councils, or soviets, in Russia in 1917


The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader has encouraged a growth in left wing ideas. Many people say they support Corbyn because they support socialism.

And Corbyn’s popularity is so great that even his challenger, Owen Smith, has declared himself a socialist.

Smith doesn’t want to get rid of capitalism. He believes that “we live in a capitalist society and the Labour Party is about trying to achieve socialism within that”.

His socialism is about “ameliorating the situation, not overthrowing it by revolution”.

Corbyn is much more genuine in his desire for change, but he still hopes to win it within the system.

Yet socialism is so radically different to capitalism that winning it means overthrowing the system.

Capitalism is driven by competition. Society is divided into classes—the working class and the ruling class, which controls the means of production.

Bosses compete to make the most profits by exploiting workers—paying them less than the value of what they produce and keeping the rest.

Under capitalism, real power doesn’t lie with parliament but with a tiny group of rich people.

In any case governments back up the rich over ordinary people. And most of the state—the police, judiciary, army and so on—is unelected.

Our rulers use oppressions such as racism and sexism to help keep workers divided and wage wars for control and influence over land and resources.

Billions are wasted on arms such as this Trident nuclear missile. Wouldnt it be better to spend that

Billions are wasted on arms such as this Trident nuclear missile. Wouldn't it be better to spend that on human need? (Pic: US department of defense)


Capitalism is a brutal, chaotic and wasteful system that fails the vast majority of humanity in the name of making a minority obscenely wealthy.

Socialism would reverse all of this.

Under socialism, the mass of working class people would develop their own institutions to collectively organise production—and society as a whole.

There would be real democratic decision-making. Society would be organised to meet people’s needs, not make profits for a few.

Instead of wasting billions on arms, for instance, people could shift resources to housing or nurseries.

Ultimately socialism would do away with class divisions, inequality and oppression.

Revolutions and revolutionary upheavals in the past have shown how dramatic the changes can be.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 is the only time in history when workers successfully took state power. Working class people set up workers’ councils called soviets and began to run society themselves.

Revolutionary journalist John Reed’s description of a Congress of Soviets meeting in his book Ten Days that Shook the World gives a flavour of this new democracy.

An army officer attacked the Congress and claimed to be speaking for “delegates from the front”.

“Soldiers began to stand up all over the hall. ‘Who are you speaking for? What do you represent?’ they cried.“You represent the officers, not the soldiers! What do the soldiers say about it?’ Jeers and hoots.”

The revolution saw an explosion of interest in political ideas. People who had been illiterate learned to read. Hundreds of thousands of leaflets, pamphlets, newspapers and books were distributed across Russia.

Reed wrote, “The thirst for education, so long thwarted, burst with the Revolution into a frenzy of expression. Russia absorbed reading matter like hot sand drinks water, insatiable.

“Every street corner was a public tribune. In railway trains, streetcars, always the spurting up of impromptu debate, everywhere.”

The revolutionary government quickly brought in measures to undermine old oppressions.

It gave women the right to abortion and divorce on demand. It set up nurseries and canteens to shift the burden of childcare and feeding from individual women and onto society as a whole.

Homosexuality was legalised. A Jew, Leon Trotsky, was twice elected leader of the Petrograd soviet in a country that had been strongly antisemitic.

The Chinese Revolution in 1927 saw a similar shift in ideas. In his book The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution Harold Isaacs wrote, “Bandages were torn from the bound feet of children.

“Superstitions and old habits suffered. ‘The clay and wood gods have already lost their dignity,’ said a report from the country. ‘The people no longer need the Five Classics and the Four Books.

“‘What they want is political reports’.”

In revolutions, ordinary people come to the fore and achieve things they never dreamed possible. After living in societies that insist they must “know their place”, they begin to glimpse their own potential. Old hierarchies become irrelevant.

In Portugal a revolutionary upsurge in 1974-75 saw workers occupy factories and soldiers elect their officers. Luxury houses were turned into creches or used to house workers.

More recently during the revolution in Egypt some hospital workers met in their workplaces and set about reorganising things on their terms. They demanded that old managers who had backed dictator Hosni Mubarak were removed.

The meetings involved workers on every level, including doctors, porters, cleaners and admin workers.

It was a glimpse of what could have been, but there were not enough organised workers involved in the revolution to bring about a socialist transformation.

The old regime was able to regroup and violently reassert control.

But there is no way of transforming society without challenging the capitalist set-up.

The revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg argued that people who say they want socialism through reforms aren’t arguing for socialism at all.

They “do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society they take a stand for surface modifications of the old society.”

Of course, we can win reforms under capitalism and it is worth doing so.

Socialists campaigning in Manchester

Socialists campaigning in Manchester (Pic: Lewis Nielsen)


It matters whether we have an NHS or not, or whether abortion is legal or illegal, for example. And fighting for reforms can spill over into bigger struggles and help ordinary people discover their power.

But reforms under capitalism are not the same as socialism. They don’t challenge the privilege of the rich. And they leave all the exploitation, oppression and horror of the system intact.

Socialism can only come about through revolution “from below”—from the mass activity of the majority of ordinary people.

As the revolutionary Karl Marx put it, “The emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class.” Socialism can’t be handed down to us from above. Marxists argue that revolution is needed for two main reasons.

First, winning socialism requires challenging the ruling class and the state machines that back them. They will resist this. In Russia some 14 armies invaded to aid the counter-revolutionary White Army.

The only way to win a socialist society is by workers imposing it and resisting any attempts at counter-revolution from the old rulers. The second reason is to do with the transformation it brings about in those taking part.

Marx wrote, “Revolution is necessary, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.”

In the process of creating a new world, people begin to transform themselves.

Of course revolutions are not simple affairs. Any successful socialist revolution will have to spread internationally in order to survive. It will need a well organised and rooted revolutionary party.

Old ideas and superstitutions won’t completely disappear straight away. And the ruling class will throw everything it has at destroying any revolutionary movement.

But a socialist revolution can get rid of the exploitation, oppression and violence that destroys so many lives today.

And the numbers that the working class can mobilise are far, far greater than anything the cops and the state can throw at it.

We have the resources, the power and the potential to build a very different world. Class struggle is built into capitalism. And time after time, this has grown into a revolutionary challenge to the system.

There will be revolutions in the future but change is not guaranteed. Our job is to push for a socialist transformation of society.


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