What Is Socialism? Neither Grim Hellhole nor Rainbow Utopia

Stephanie McMillanSkewed News — There are many contending claims of what socialism is. Let’s take a whirlwind tour:

There’s the Cold War propaganda version that paints it as gray block housing, billowing smokestacks and soot-smeared faces, ragged (gray) clothes, and an autocrat wielding a sharp-toothed Secret Police that comes for anyone who complains and shoots them in a basement. And it’s raining.

There’s the old-school Marxist stereotype of smiling workers holding hammers aloft, working hard to build a glorious new tomorrow with space travel and robust steel mills and synthetic food aplenty, red flags flying.

Then there’s the Bernie/Kshama/let’s-form-a-Labor-Party version, the cuddly idea that all we need to do is elect nice people who sincerely want what’s best for us and keep their promises, and then we’ll all get a better life with free health care and somewhat higher wages, while corporations and Wall Street will be restrained from their most evil excesses.

There’s the “post-capitalist” vision that has us evolving automatically into a system upgrade: a mix of automation, 3D-printing, sharing, workers’ co-ops, microfarms, localvorism, transition towns, community ownership and other bright green and compassionate new economy experiments that will combine together to overwhelm capitalism like a mighty tide and sweep it off the scene.

There’s the idea that we already have socialism because we share roads and libraries and fire departments. (Somehow the bad things we share are never mentioned in this example, like prisons and leaky nuke plants and civilian drone killings).

All of these conceptions have one thing in common: they’re total crap.

So what is socialism, and how will we know when we have it?

I’m going to say some scary words right now. Imagine ominous music and a blood-dripping, horror movie font. Ok. Here goes: *Dictatorship of the Proletariat*.

That phrase makes us quake with conditioned anxiety and confusion. What the hell does it mean? The proletariat: a screaming bunch of bloodthirsty rabble with pitchforks and torches coming to take away our flat screen TVs? Dictatorship: Stalin or Hitler or Kim Jong-il?

Calm down. Breathe. The proletariat means the working class. Dictatorship means we run things. That’s it. We will know we are in socialism when the working class is running things. Not just our own workplaces, not just the economy as a whole, but everything.

Anything else that claimed or claims to be socialism wasn’t, and isn’t, and won’t be.

If workers as a class are not in control—if instead we find ourselves still toiling away for layer of bloodsuckers, whether it’s the same old faces or a new bunch of bureaucrats telling us what to do and using the state as their personal ATMs, then it doesn’t matter what you call it—that’s not socialism.

What might workers do if we ran society?

  • We might organize it in our own interests instead of for the benefit of a minority of parasitical exploiters.
  • We might decide that everyone who can should pull their weight, which would provide full employment without being overworked.
  • We might demolish the capitalists’ government, armed forces, judicial system, and the rest of the institutions of their state apparatus, which only exist to enforce our exploitation and oppression.
  • We might, instead, make decisions in our own way, collectively and democratically.
  • We might break down class stratification and the division between mental and manual labor.
  • We might flatten wages and increasingly provide for everyone’s needs until it’s possible to finally abolish the wage system altogether.
  • We might shift resources from producing unnecessary crap to figuring out how to preserve the planet we live on.
  • We might abolish private property (another phrase we’re conditioned to fear—will they take my toothbrush??), which simply means preventing the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few, so that everything we collectively produce can benefit society as a whole, all of us together.

Socialism is definitely something to fear … for capitalists. For us, the worst thing that can happen is not to achieve it.


  1. The question that needs answering here is who’s a worker? Because the classical Marxist industrial worker is right out. That proletariat won’t hunt. But you say you don’t share classical Marxism. Who then? I’ve seen versions where workers include people in the service industry, office workers, et cetera. How can you see those people organising against capitalism a) among themselves and b) as a cohesive whole?

  2. @Daniel:
    A worker is everyone that has no means of production in a capitalist society, therefore forced to look for a capitalist to employ them. This is the shared class experience of workers, and also the basis of their organising: Understanding the reason for their plight and abolishing it.

  3. I didn’t know there was loose interpretation for socialism and private property. Socialism isn’t related to government structure, and private property inst your toothbrush. Interesting, I will start disregarding the definition of all words I use and blame capitalism, thanks!

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