The following is a talk that was written for DSA SF’s monthly Intro to Socialism event. It was first delivered by Taylor B. on November 11, 2020.
Socialism and Capitalism
I have been asked to talk about socialism and capitalism. So we must ask: What is socialism? What is capitalism? These are really big, complicated questions, so I will only try to sketch them out in the limited time that we have.
What is Socialism?
Let’s start with socialism. For our purposes we can be very general and say that socialism is the name of a diverse, global political tradition that has fought against the domination of the few over the masses by guaranteeing political, economic, and social rights for all people. We can oppose socialism as a political system to liberal constitutional democracy–like what we have in the US. For example, you have the right to free speech in the US, to practice your religion, to vote, to own as much property as you are able to acquire. But do you have the right to food? To clean drinking water? To safe housing? To medical care? To a job? You do not. Socialists have always pointed out the obvious: that the right to speech and a vote doesn’t mean much without the means to live. Real democracy requires guaranteed social rights.
Now there have been many movements for socialism by many different groups of people across particular times and places around the world, produced by a variety of historical circumstances. These movements have succeeded and failed to reform and overturn capitalist society. To put this very simply, socialists have always thought and disagreed over many important things.
So what I think is important to emphasize is that in the final analysis, there are no experts to consult on how the world should be. There are no holy books that contain the “Truth” of how we should live and who we should be. By its very definition, socialism must always be redefined by the people who come together to demand it. Which means that our movement for socialism will be based on our collective struggle toward a vision for the future that we want based on our understanding of our moment. We all have a role to play in shaping that future.
Why Ask About Capitalism?
Let’s turn to our second question–what is capitalism? This question has been crucial to the socialist tradition and it was Karl Marx who was the first to seriously pose it. As Friedrich Engels shows in the pamphlet “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific,” what distinguished Marx from other socialists was his rigorous, scientific understanding of capitalist society. So allow me to talk about Marx for a moment.
Now we might know that Marx’s political goal was the emancipation of every human being from all forms of oppression. Marx called this society free of exploitation and oppression communist society, with socialist society being the transition between capitalism and communism. A socialist society would be the workers taking state power to end private property, reorganize society on the basis of greater equality and freedom, and abolish the state altogether.
But we should be clear: for Marx, theorizing ideal socialist and communist societies was a complete waste of time. Why? Because for Marx the question was not what an ideal communist society would be, but what must be done to create a society free of oppression from the current one. As he wrote in 1852: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”
As the Guyanese revolutionary and historian Walter Rodney argues in a 1975 speech called “Marxism and African Liberation,” what Marx developed was a methodology for understanding capitalist society so that we can take concrete steps toward socialism. While some claim that Marxism is a European phenomenon, Rodney notes that these people don’t seem to realize that Marxism has “been utilised, internalised, and domesticated in large parts of the world that are not European.” Today we might be immediately familiar with Russia, China, Vietnam, Cuba, and Venezuela. I think this list of countries is enough to support Rodney’s point.
Three Theses on Capitalism
So now that we’ve talked about socialism and why investigating capitalist society is directly related to building socialism, I want to advance three theses about capitalism. But I don’t think I will be saying anything you don’t already know.
Thesis one: capitalism is not a natural system that has existed since the beginning of time. It does not correspond to innate human qualities or characteristics. It is a system that, through many sputters and starts, through a great deal of trial and error, has been created and corrected and maintained by people who have an interest in doing so. Capitalism has produced incredible productive capacity and wealth for a few while simultaneously condemning the masses to immiseration. Genocide, slavery, war, ecological destruction, and famine have been common occurences in the course of the development of the capitalist system. The point here is that if capitalism is sustained and reproduced by people, then it can also be ended by other people. Which is to say that as much of a struggle as it might be, we can end capitalism. This is possible.
Thesis two: the capitalist mode of production requires people to play particular roles in relation to each other to reproduce the capitalist system. That’s a bit of a mouth-full. Let’s take the capitalist and wage-worker roles for example. I assume most of us are very familiar with playing the role of the wage-worker. So it will be no surprise to hear that this relationship is characterized by the capitalist’s domination over us, the workers.
For the capitalist to be a capitalist, they must own capital to invest in the production process, and constantly accumulate more of it because they compete with other capitalists on the market. When the capitalist hires us wage-workers, it is on the condition that the final product belongs to the capitalist so it can be sold for a profit. The profit motive of the capitalist is what drives the entire system. Marx compares the capitalist to Sisyphus of Greek mythology, who is condemned to forever push a boulder up a hill only for it to roll back down again: the capitalist invests money only to make more money to invest again. There’s no point to the system beyond that. Furthermore, capitalists must compete against one another to survive, and those with the greatest profit margins prevail. In order to maximize profits, capitalists must try to get everything that goes into their product for as cheap as possible, which means keeping the wages of their respective workers low.
Now for workers to be open to working for a capitalist, they must not have any other option. I mean who just voluntarily chooses to work 15 hours a day in a dangerous workplace without any breaks for minimum wage to make something so a rich person can sell it to get richer? Not a great deal! Without capital of their own or access to the means of production, without any access to a house or food or water or any means of sustenance, we workers have no choice but to sell our ability to work in exchange for a wage for a set duration of time.
So we can immediately see the key contradiction in capitalism: production is a social process that involves many people working together, but the fruit of our collective labor is taken or expropriated by one or a few people. We see that at the heart of capitalism is a deeply undemocratic and unjust relationship that is completely legal in liberal constitutions. Ironically, it is these liberal constitutions that promote democracy, freedom, the rights of man, and so on. And yet there really isn’t much freedom for either the capitalist or the worker in the capitalist system.
Thesis three: the relationship between the capitalist and us workers is fundamentally antagonistic. This unresolvable conflict between the capitalist and us workers is overcome by oppressed and working people of the world uniting to abolish class society and capitalism itself.
We should ask what this means in relation to things like taxing the rich to fund schools, Medicare for All, and the Green New Deal. While these are important reforms, we should recognize that they do not end the capitalist’s domination over us workers. As Rosa Luxemburg pointed out, socialism has to tie together social reforms with social revolution: “The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim.”
Now why is this? Since capitalism is a global system, progressive policies or even socialism in one or several countries cannot on its own end capitalism: immiseration will simply be displaced onto a different set of workers. After all, the history of colonialism and imperialism clearly shows that exploitation of people in one place can easily be the basis for a better standard of living for people in another. This is why at the end of The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels call for workers of the world to unite: international solidarity and anti-imperialist struggle is the only way capitalism can be eradicated.
So as I said, for Marx socialism was about reaching communism, which would mean the complete emancipation of all humanity. For Marx, the revolutionary subject in a capitalist society that could bring socialism is the working class. This was not because Marx had a romantic notion of working people, but because of their unique structural position within the capitalist system. If we workers realized our power and withheld our labor, then we could be like a Trojan horse that would topple the system. Regardless of how the world has changed since Marx’s time, this remains true.
But we must be very careful here: Marx did not think the working class was inherently revolutionary or that revolution was inevitable. Socialism has always only ever been a possible tendency that could emerge from capitalist society. In this sense, we can say that the working class is unique for its revolutionary potential. We can say that realizing this revolutionary potential is the task of organizing. And of course organizing is what we’re here to do in a socialist organization. So it’s a very good thing you’re here because we have a lot of work to do.
Texts referenced in this talk:
“Socialism: Utopian and Scientific” by Friedrich Engels
“The Communist Manifesto,” by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
“Marxism and African Liberation,” by Walter Rodney
“The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon” by Karl Marx