What is Socialism?


“If we are to achieve a real equality, the U.S. will have to adopt a modified form of socialism.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

What is socialism? Socialism aims to eradicate forever authoritarianism, bureaucracy, poverty, and war; not by increasing government power, but by increasing democracy, the power of ordinary people, in politics and the workplace.

This is not authoritarian socialism, State Socialism, or Communism. This is democratic socialism, libertarian socialism. It is a vision of a better world.


Citizen Control of the State

Socialists seek the “socialization” of political power through direct democracy, a form of government that already exists in Switzerland. As Polish socialist Rosa Luxemburg said, “There is no democracy without socialism and no socialism without democracy.”

How would you like to have a say — a direct say — in public policy? How would you like decision-making power? Under direct democracy, all public policy would be decided by national vote, from abortion rights to whether the nation should wage war. Instead of only voting once every four or eight years, concerned citizens will vote many times a year, on national policy. They will vote on education standards, whether to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants, the federal budget, everything.

Socialism is the simple belief that the people should govern the politicians, not the other way around.

Citizens would have initiative rights for municipal, state, and national policy; that is, the ability to have a law or law change put before the people for a vote.

This is common at the local and state levels in the U.S. How did Colorado legalize marijuana in 2012? People gathered enough citizens on a petition, it was put on the ballot, the people voted, and it was done. No corrupt politicians in the way, swayed this way and that by lobbyists and their bribes. No bureaucracy, no unelected officials making decisions for the common people. Just socialized power.

Proposed laws would be available for reading online, under guidelines ensuring their readability and brevity (no more 1,000-page laws). There would be a required time for public debate before the vote, allowing people who choose to be active in politics to study the legislation, listen to media pundits scream at each other, sway others to their side, and finally make an informed, educated vote. Change will come through the battle of ideas, not the whims of corporations or power-hungry politicians.

Under socialism, the Supreme Court and the president would preserve a system of checks and balances. The people would essentially take the place of Congress, being able to overrule the president’s veto with a supermajority but not the Court’s.

Short term limits, the threat of veto, and the threat of immediate recall vote (perhaps even of the president) would keep officials in line with the desires of voters. If, say, two-thirds of Americans felt the president wrongly vetoed a measure passed by the people, he or she could be overruled by national vote, just as Congress can do today. If the president (or any politician) refused to enforce laws, a two-thirds majority vote could remove him or her from office immediately. Politicians must be terrified of the people.

To quote The Communist Manifesto, “The first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat [common people] to the position of the ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.” Power to the people, as the radical leftist saying goes.


A Simpler Government

Clearly, when the people become the lawmakers government will be simpler and smaller, in that bureaucracy will be all but eradicated and corruption (such as corporations pouring vast sums of money into politicians’ campaign coffers to influence legislation) will be extraordinarily difficult (how does one bribe the entire citizenry?).

But to enact the laws the people demand, there will still need to be various federal departments, like that of education, labor, energy, and so on (the members of which would be elected and at risk of immediate recall by popular vote, much different than unaccountable cabinet members appointed by the president). Fortunately, having been stripped of much of their power through direct democracy, their main task would be simple: writing checks.

The smaller government of socialism doesn’t mean no more taxes, but nor does it mean outrageous taxes. It means refusing to spend trillions on bank bailouts, wars, and a global military machine. It means using tax wealth (garnered progressively, having the rich pay higher rates than the poor and richer companies pay higher rates than smaller ones, as most people support) to meet human needs, primarily in three areas: healthcare, education, and jobs. There is a need for other departments to handle other things, of course (national defense and Social Security payments spring to mind), but these are the big three:

Guaranteed Work and a Strong Minimum Wage. Socialists envision using tax dollars to fund local public work projects. Even in the economic boom times of capitalism, there are not always enough jobs for those who seek them, and tens of millions remain very poor through no fault of their own. (Today, 48% of Americans are poor or make low income, as 50% of U.S. jobs pay less than $34,000 a year, about $24,000 after taxes.) But with public work projects, taxes could cover a basic salary to otherwise unemployed workers to rebuild our inner cities and slums, clean streets or rivers, tutor struggling students, plant new trees, paint murals on buildings — any productive task that betters society in some way. This has been accomplished successfully in the past, such as during the Great Depression. Some American and Canadian cities are already paying homeless men and women to do similar work, helping them crawl out of extreme poverty.

Such work need not be permanent (though governments could theoretically help workers organize into new, self-sustaining worker co-ops if there existed a consumer base for their mission), nor organized by the federal government. Federal tax dollars can be distributed to city councils based on annual unemployment levels, and cities can decide what projects they need to focus on to improve their communities.

Local projects run by locals, coupled with a strong minimum wage for all Americans (which many studies show does not increase unemployment and only causes slight increases in prices), would mean food stamps, child tax credits, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and other forms of welfare (except those for the elderly, sick, and disabled) could be eliminated. Unemployment compensation will disappear — paying someone for 99 weeks without work in return is extremely wasteful. Under socialism, men and women will be paid to work (see What Conservatives Will Love About Socialism).

In this way, unemployment and poverty can be eradicated.

Guaranteed Healthcare. Likewise, the State will not own the hospitals (as it does in Britain today) — the doctors, nurses, and janitors would (see below). But the Department of Health would receive medical bills from hospitals and would cover the costs — at the very least covering the costs of expensive surgeries and prescriptions that today leave many bankrupt (in 2013, an estimated 645,000 bankruptcies were linked to massive medical bills; at the beginning of 2016, 20% of insured Americans were having difficulty paying their medical bills) or dead from preventable problems (45,000 a year in the late 2000s died as a direct result of not having health insurance).

Universal healthcare already exists in virtually every industrialized nation besides the United States, and much can be learned from their experience.

The French system is more efficient, more popular, and far less expensive per citizen and as a proportion of GDP than the American system. Sweden insures all citizens, but uses private doctors and competition to keep down costs. True, these systems are not perfect, for example often relying on heavier taxes. Yet they are popular, even taken for granted, and no one is dying from preventable illnesses. Healthcare is seen as a human right, not something you must have a good job or enough money to have. The U.S. is wealthier than any nation that has universal healthcare today — if they can manage, so can we (and notice these democracies have yet to mutate into horrific Communist dictatorships).

Guaranteed Education. Under socialism, the State will not own the schools. Teachers, paras, librarians, and janitors will own their schools; professors, students, and groundkeepers will own the colleges (see below). But schools and colleges can be funded similarly to today (though school funding will no longer be based on property taxes, which ensures poor inner-city neighborhoods have dismal schools and rich suburban neighborhoods have very fine schools — schools will be funded equally).

In the same way taxation today provides free K-12 education for all, this could be expanded to cover the cost of college, something many other democracies have already accomplished. College only being available to those who can afford it or those willing to take on massive debts is an enormous waste of human talent. Anyone ambitious and willing to work hard should be able to earn a degree, regardless of whether they come from a rich or poor family. (One might ask if everyone has a strong wage and a job, why should college or healthcare be paid for? The answer is obvious: Tens of thousands a year for tuition or tens of thousands in medical bills would still not be doable for many families making a guaranteed salary of even $40,000 or higher — particularly those with multiple children, more than one sick parent, etc.)   

The teachers and workers who run the schools must of course have as much independence from the State as possible, more than they have today. In reality, a society where each school had total control over its curriculum (and all else) wouldn’t necessarily be incompatible with a socialist society. Likewise, neither would families being able to choose between any school they wished. However, it seems likely this “privatization” would cause serious problems. Should public schools have the freedom to simply not teach a subject? To gut the study of black slavery, the Civil War, or all of social studies for instance? And wouldn’t families flock to schools that align with their preferences, quickly making public schools divided by religion, political persuasion, race, and class…even worse than today? This is why schools should not be businesses that compete for students and tuition fees. It’s why schools and teacher salaries should remain funded through the State. (People will of course still have the freedom to create private schools; we’re talking about public schools here.) 

It seems reasonable to maintain a system where your public school is based on where you live. Though this is not a perfect system (most blacks and whites, for example, do not live in integrated neighborhoods, meaning they don’t share schools), it seems to offer the best chance for students to befriend and learn from other students and teachers who are culturally and ideologically different. Further, it makes sense to have a national curriculum, to keep learning consistent enough between schools, to aid both students and teachers who move around the nation.

The curriculum, of course, would be designed by an elected Department of Education and approved by the majority of the people. Should evolution and climate change be taught in public schools? Let the majority decide. 


Worker Control of Businesses

Socialism would not only end authoritarianism and bureaucracy in the State, it would mean the same for the place American adults spend most of their lives: their jobs.

Workers would own their workplaces. In a capitalist society, a business is structured like a dictatorship: an owner or small group of owners, board members, and investors hold all the power and make all the decisions, including how company profits are used — to increase production, to open new plants or stores, invest in new technology, increase advertising, hire more workers, increase worker pay, increase owner pay, and so on.

Predictably, owners often award themselves huge sums of money and pay workers little, creating massive inequality. Predictably, in the U.S. today the 1% of wealthiest citizens own as much wealth as the bottom 95% of citizens. The bottom 80% of Americans own just 7% of the national wealth, while the top 1% owns 40%. Capitalism is the few growing rich off the labor of the many. After all, could Steve Jobs have built all these devices himself? He needed workers.

Adam Smith, an economist that inspired Karl Marx, wrote in The Wealth of Nations of a central conflict under capitalism: “The workmen desire to get as much as possible, the masters to give as little as possible.” (Conservatives worship Smith, but would squirm if they actually read some of his insights.)

Marx believed, as do modern socialists, that wealth is created by workers. It’s a very simple idea. Originally, it is the company founder creating the good or providing the service, but eventually the owner hires workers and takes a managerial role. Without workers, an owner cannot produce on a scale larger than him- or herself. Wealth is created by workers because workers directly provide the good or service that is sold by the owner.

That sale covers the cost of production, the cost of labor, and a little extra: profit the owner uses as he or she chooses. This means workers are not paid the full value of what they produce for the company. Socialists call it exploitation. It is a theft by someone who would not have that profit without the workers. So socialists say profit should be kept and controlled by the people directly responsible for generating it. Under a system where all workers are owners, there would be no owner-worker conflict; unions would thus be obsolete.

True, owners make decisions that can lead to more sales and more profits. Like investing in a new technology, for example. But to put it bluntly, owners are not needed. The top-down, authoritarian structure is not vital. The workers can wield that decision-making power and keep the profits of those decisions. Worker cooperatives — businesses that are owned and run by the workers — are more democratic than capitalist-structured firms. They are “socialist” because power and wealth are “socialized,” or shared equally, within a firm. They still compete with other businesses to provide the best products for the lowest prices (market socialism).

Hundreds of successful worker cooperatives exist in the U.S., with many more around the world, some with a few employees, others with tens of thousands. Decisions are made democratically, by the vote of each employee, or by elected managers. Decisions on hours, pay, schedule, new hires, investments in new technology, opening new stores, and everything else is made by discussion and vote. Profits are distributed more equitably, enriching everyone, not just the few. More workers means profits are further divided, but just like in capitalist firms, more workers also mean higher profits. These cooperatives were organized by ordinary people, not the government.

When workers own their workplaces, there is little chance they will decide to fire themselves and outsource their own jobs to poorer nations. Capitalists do this so they can pay workers pennies and follow fewer worker safety and environmental regulations. Worker-owners are less likely to poison the soil, water, and air of their own communities, or ignore workplace safety guidelines. New technologies no longer lead to mass firings — they allow everyone to work fewer hours while making more money! Both worker ownership and people’s control of government will work in tandem to prevent oil companies and weapons manufacturers (the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned of) from influencing the decision to wage war, as has occurred countless times in American history.

Unsurprisingly, workers-owners are happier, wealthier, more productive, and their businesses less likely to fold than capitalist firms. There are challenges, such as the ability to get credit from banks suspicious of co-ops, but they are in no way insurmountable. There is nothing to say in 200 years America will not be a nation of worker cooperatives, if that’s what people choose.

Marx saw worker cooperatives by 1864 as a

…victory of the political economy of labor over the political economy of property. We speak of the co-operative movement, especially the co-operative factories raised by the unassisted efforts of a few bold “hands”. The value of these great social experiments cannot be overrated. By deed instead of by argument, they have shown that production on a large scale, and in accord with the behests of modern science, may be carried on without the existence of a class of masters employing a class of hands; that to bear fruit, the means of labor need not be monopolized as a means of dominion over, and of extortion against, the laboring man himself; and that, like slave labor, like serf labor, hired labor is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labor plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart.

To save the industrious masses, co-operative labor ought to be developed to national dimensions…

There are even some 60 American schools that have done away with authoritarianism, in their buildings at least, if not their districts.

Most private and public schools have top-down control, with the principal being the dictator at the top who makes all decisions on school policy and receives the biggest paycheck. So these experimental schools have simply done away with principals; teachers make all decisions, like hiring, curriculum, and school scheduling, democratically.

The Denver Green School in Colorado has a 4 day week for students, and on Fridays teachers, office personnel, social workers, and all other employees meet to discuss, debate, and vote on school policy. The Hughes STEM High School in Cincinnati has a principal, but he or she has equal power with teachers and cannot veto a democratic decision. Employees feel empowered, and in a profession with colossal turnover, the Avalon School in St. Paul has a teacher retention rate of 95-100%. Most teacher-led schools have on average fewer than 200 students, but larger schools are joining the trend, some with over 600. 


The Path to Communism?

Let it never be said that trying to accomplish these things will only lead to Communism. As you move toward democracy in politics and the workplace, you move away from Communism and State Socialism.

The goal of both democratic socialism and authoritarian socialism is the eradication of capitalism, but each has a different manner of going about it. Democratic (and guild, libertarian, etc.) socialism does so from the bottom-up, simply by workers (and even consumers or local communities) owning their workplaces. The government has no role except perhaps granting the lawful right of ownership. Communism destroys capitalism from the top-down, wherein the government owns all workplaces and organizes the economy and the workers according to a central plan. The people are supposed to own the government and thus the plan (this type of democratic nationalization is what Marx favored), but of course it doesn’t always work out that way.

Soviet Russia, for instance, was a command economy: top-down administration, an economy structured, ironically, like a single capitalist business. The iron fists of capitalists were replaced by the iron fists of dictators and unelected economic planners. This system is therefore called both state socialism and state capitalism in historical literature!

Opponents of socialism insist that these reforms — the government paying medical or tuition bills, expanded public sector work for the unemployed, worker ownership, and pure democracy — are a slippery slope to tyranny. Of course, Americans also insisted racial integration, Medicare, and social security would lead to authoritarianism! They were wrong. These types of arguments are often simply unfounded. Switzerland has direct democracy; a multitude of peaceful democracies in Europe and elsewhere have free college and healthcare; Germany requires large companies to have half their boards of directors elected by the workers (“codetermination”). Are these nations going to end up Communist dictatorships? When do we expect the gulags? Did New Deal programs destroy our right to start a business, work in a particular field, or vote for representatives? Did taxpayer-funded public schooling, small checks for the elderly, and covered healthcare bills for the disabled, very poor, and seniors?

It cannot be emphasized enough that direct democracy takes power away from the State and gives it to the people. True, the government has a role to play in footing bills, guaranteeing rights, and organizing and funding local work projects. (The right to workplace ownership would be in the same vein as minimum wage, workplace safety, anti-child labor, and anti-discrimination rights. You may see this as an evil government eradication of the right to be a capitalist owner, but rights are typically crushed by more ethical ones. The right of a worker to a minimum wage abolishes the right of the employer to pay him or her $2 per hour; the right of a person of color to be served at a restaurant ends the right of a white supremacist to deny him or her service; the right to workplace ownership makes history the right of capitalist exploitation and authoritarianism.) But direct democracy is the key to creating a government of, by, and for the people.

If you read the history of Marxism, the libertarian, democratic, and anarchistic socialists stood opposed to State Socialists like the Bolsheviks. There was a deep division between Marxists on bottom-up versus top-down control, which roughly determined who would go on to call themselves communists and who would call themselves socialists. In the Soviet Union, Communism crushed socialism through violence (read Anarchism, by Guerin, for a detailed and captivating study). The workers who took over their workplaces and their towns lost that power to the State at the end of a gun.

Perhaps nothing could better explain this dichotomy than an 1887 poem by Ernest Lesigne, a Frenchman. This was several decades after Marx and several before the Russian Revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union. It is called “Two Socialisms”:

There are two Socialisms.
One is communistic, the other solidaritarian.
One is dictatorial, the other libertarian.
One is metaphysical, the other positive.
One is dogmatic, the other scientific.
One is emotional, the other reflective.
One is destructive, the other constructive.
Both are in pursuit of the greatest possible welfare for all.
One aims to establish happiness for all, the other to enable each to be happy in his own way.
The first regards the State as a society sui generis, of an especial essence, the product of a sort of divine right outside of and above all society, with special rights and able to exact special obediences; the second considers the State as an association like any other, generally managed worse than others.
The first proclaims the sovereignty of the State, the second recognizes no sort of sovereign.
One wishes all monopolies to be held by the State; the other wishes the abolition of all monopolies.
One wishes the governed class to become the governing class; the other wishes the disappearance of classes.
Both declare that the existing state of things cannot last.
The first considers revolutions as the indispensable agent of evolutions; the second teaches that repression alone turns evolutions into revolution.
The first has faith in a cataclysm.
The second knows that social progress will result from the free play of individual efforts.
Both understand that we are entering upon a new historic phase.
One wishes that there should be none but proletaires.
The other wishes that there should be no more proletaires.
The first wishes to take everything away from everybody.
The second wishes to leave each in possession of its own.
The one wishes to expropriate everybody.
The other wishes everybody to be a proprietor.
The first says: ‘Do as the government wishes.’
The second says: ‘Do as you wish yourself.’
The former threatens with despotism.
The latter promises liberty.
The former makes the citizen the subject of the State.
The latter makes the State the employee of the citizen.
One proclaims that labor pains will be necessary to the birth of a new world.
The other declares that real progress will not cause suffering to any one.
The first has confidence in social war.
The other believes only in the works of peace.
One aspires to command, to regulate, to legislate.
The other wishes to attain the minimum of command, of regulation, of legislation.
One would be followed by the most atrocious of reactions.
The other opens unlimited horizons to progress.
The first will fail; the other will succeed.
Both desire equality.
One by lowering heads that are too high.
The other by raising heads that are too low.
One sees equality under a common yoke.
The other will secure equality in complete liberty.
One is intolerant, the other tolerant.
One frightens, the other reassures.
The first wishes to instruct everybody.
The second wishes to enable everybody to instruct himself.
The first wishes to support everybody.
The second wishes to enable everybody to support himself.
One says:
The land to the State.
The mine to the State.
The tool to the State.
The product to the State.
The other says:
The land to the cultivator.
The mine to the miner.
The tool to the laborer.
The product to the producer.
There are only these two Socialisms.
One is the infancy of Socialism; the other is its manhood.
One is already the past; the other is the future.

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