Socialist Worker

What is socialism and can it work?

As thousands take to the streets to fight for climate action and against racism, Tomáš Tengely-Evans and Alistair Farrow look at what kind of society can fight the injustices of capitalism

Issue No. 2645

How can we win socialism?

How do we fight back?


What would a socialist society be like?

Socialism is a society based on meeting the needs of people and planet, not maximising the profits of the rich. It would mean a radically democratic society, with ordinary people collectively running things for themselves.

It’s hard to know what socialism would be like exactly, but looking back at big struggles against the system gives us an idea.

A socialist society would be one where items are produced because they are needed, rather than because they are profitable.

It would mean an end to a system where millions of people struggle to make ends meet while the rich sit on piles on money.

Ordinary people would collectively own big industries, services and banks—and decide democratically how to use the Earth’s resources.

Central to socialism is the idea that ordinary people should run every aspect of society through their own democratic organisations.

This means the mass of ordinary people—workers, students and unemployed—would get to elect their own bodies to make decisions about how society is run.

Such organisations have developed organically in each big uprising against capitalism.

But socialism isn’t something that’s going to be won by a small group of revolutionaries with berets and guns.

It also won’t be won through MPs in parliament—some call this “socialism from above”.

It will have to be fought for by a mass movement of ordinary people who want to challenge capitalism and fight for something better.

This “socialism from below” would be a huge democratic process.

In our capitalist society, working class people are dismissed as too stupid or selfish to decide how to run things. We are told we need “experts” to do this for us. But it’s the knowledge, skills and experience of ordinary people that allow capitalism to function.

For instance, who knows more about running a hospital? It’s not the private management consultants, but the nurses, doctors and other health workers.

In a socialist society, health workers would get to decide how hospitals are run—and important decisions about patient care and working conditions wouldn’t be left to the bosses.

Under capitalism, a tiny minority of billionaires and corporations make decisions that affect millions of people.

But capitalism isn’t an inevitable feature of human society.

People have organised themselves in different ways in the past, and they can again in the future.

How can we win socialism?

Many people call themselves socialists—from Bernie Sanders in the US to Jeremy Corbyn in Britain.

Some socialists are influenced by the ideas of Karl Marx.

Marx was a revolutionary writer and activist who worked to understand how capitalism functioned—and how workers can overthrow it. For Marxists, revolution is key to changing society.

This would mean ordinary people using their collective power to change society in a fundamental way.

The people at the top of society are terrified of this happening—the rich and powerful fear anything that threatens their power and profits.

A revolutionary movement would include the mass of ordinary people struggling together to make it impossible for the rich to rule as before.

There will need to be mass strikes and protests that unite workers against the bosses.

Right wing people say that revolutions have to be violent.

But there’s nothing more violent than the wars of the present system. And history shows that violence occurs in revolutionary movements when the army and police turn on protesters.

Why shouldn’t ordinary people be able to take to the streets, not just the ballot boxes at election time, and decide how society is run?

Can socialism work?

The Russian Revolution in 1917 was a genuine socialist revolution where working class people seized power for themselves.

It showed that workers were capable of destroying the old capitalist order and building and running a new society.

It meant a country of over 150 million people was under the control of workers. Workers took over factories, and peasants took control of land from landowners.

But right wingers have spent the past century using it as an example of why socialism can’t work.

A hundred years on from the 1917 Russian Revolution - when workers stormed heaven
A hundred years on from the 1917 Russian Revolution - when workers stormed heaven
  Read More

The Bolshevik party, which had given leadership to the revolution, always argued that it’s impossible to have socialism in one country.

But socialist revolution failed to break through in other countries, leaving Russia isolated. Meanwhile, Britain and 13 other armies invaded Russia.

The Red Army in Russia was organised and led by workers. It repelled the invaders but the war devastated the working class that had made the revolution.

This left a small number of state officials with huge amounts of power. These bureaucrats developed into a new layer of powerful rulers under Joseph Stalin.

Many countries have called themselves “socialist” or “communist” since then.

But Socialist Worker always argued those societies were not socialist because socialism is about working class people having control.

The experience of Russia a century ago doesn’t mean that socialism is doomed to fail—but it does show the rich and powerful will throw everything at stopping it.

Can the Labour Party win a socialist society?

Jeremy Corbyn has captured the imagination of hundreds of thousands of people who have flocked into Labour since his leadership election in 2015.

But Labour isn’t a vehicle for bringing about socialism. Its strategy is focused on reforming capitalism through parliament, rather than overthrowing the system entirely. Real power doesn’t lie in parliament. It lies with unelected bankers and big businesses, who use it to pressure governments.

That’s why we need struggle on the streets, campuses and workplaces to pile pressure on MPs, but also to take on the power of the bosses. Corbyn’s vision of socialism is very different to the one held by Marxists.

Reformists want to win changes within the current system, rather than winning a different system.

Reforms through parliament don’t challenge existing social and economic structures. And they leave power in the hands of MPs and bosses.

Even the most left wing Labour MPs want to implement “socialism from above”.

“Socialism from below” would be built by the group of workers who had built resistance strong enough to overthrow capitalism.

Revolutionaries unite with other workers to fight for reforms. This also helps create a layer of people who could run a new society.

But the establishment will fight any major reforms to their system.

Just look at how Corbyn is treated in the mainstream media and by his enemies inside the Labour Party.

A more radical solution—revolution—is needed to overcome such strong opposition to real change.

Is socialism just about workers?

Socialism will mean an end to racism, sexism, transphobia and every other form of oppression that exists under capitalism.

Oppression isn’t natural and it hasn’t always existed.

It is constantly driven from the top of society. It serves the bosses’ interests because it divides workers against each other, and encourages ordinary people to blame each other from their problems.

Our rulers give the impression that the solution to oppression is individuals changing their opinions, not changing society.

Every instance of oppressive behaviour and language should be challenged—but doing that isn’t enough to get rid of it.

Oppression is systemic and built into the way capitalism is organised.

For instance, tax breaks are given to married couples to reinforce the idea of the nuclear family.

Black people made up 43 percent of stop and searches in London last year, yet only make up 15 percent of the population.

And if you’re a Muslim you’re 50 times more likely to be referred to the Prevent programme.

Because oppression is part and parcel of capitalist society, it takes more than changing people’s individual ideas to get real change.

To get rid of oppression once and for all, rather than just pushing it back temporarily, we need to get rid of the rotten society that creates it.

How do we fight back?

The Socialist Workers Party is a revolutionary socialist organisation.

Revolutionaries are a small minority most of the time, even at the start of revolutionary periods.

But they organise to promote arguments and tactics that can push the movement forwards.

Revolutionaries fight for these ideas in the wider movement. This can be in trade unions, on demonstrations, or in universities and colleges.

A revolutionary party is very different from other political parties. It’s not like the Labour Party’s “broad church” that can have both Diane Abbott and warmonger Tony Blair in it.

In a revolutionary organisation, there is general agreement among members over ideas and activities.

This makes the party more effective at working to achieve the aims it has democratically agreed upon.

Being organised in a revolutionary party makes it easier to organise protests, strikes and campaigns.

And it builds up a layer of people with experience of fighting back and challenging the system.

In a revolutionary situation, with the government of the capitalist state teetering on the brink, there is a lot of confusion.

People debate the way forward as seismic events take place around them.

In these situations revolutionary parties can look back at the lessons of the past to see what should be done next—and avoid repeating mistakes.

And the party can organise to put such arguments into the wider movement.

Revolutions, such as the one that took place in Egypt in 2011, are the product of a vastly unequal society. Their success rests partly on the level of organisation within the working class.

Becoming a revolutionary today strengthens the fight for a better world tomorrow.


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