What will a socialist society be like?

September 16, 2016

At the most basic level, socialism will be the polar opposite of capitalism. But can we get more specific? Jessica Hansen-Weaver explains how Marxists approach the question.

THE 2016 presidential election has created an environment where millions of people who are sympathetic to socialism will be pressured to choose between the revolting and ridiculous Republican bigot Donald Trump and the supposed "lesser evil" Hillary Clinton.

In order to build a left that can resist the pressure to give in to "lesser evilism" this year, we have to provide an alternative that offers real hope for the future--with a vision of what socialism, an entirely different kind of society, could look like.

The starting point of this vision of socialism is that it is a society that has to be created by revolutionary means--not only, as Karl Marx wrote a century and a half ago, because the ruling class will not voluntarily give up power in any other way, but because it is only through our own struggles for social change and ultimately revolution that ordinary people can learn how to rule democratically and develop socialist consciousness.

As Hal Draper wrote in his classic essay The Two Souls of Socialism:

The soviets of the Russian Revolution provided a model of the basic building block of workers' democracy
The soviets of the Russian Revolution provided a model of the basic building block of workers' democracy

How does a people or a class become fit to rule in their own name? Only by fighting to do so. Only by waging their struggle against oppression--oppression by those who tell them they are unfit to govern. Only by fighting for democratic power do they educate themselves and raise themselves up to the level of being able to wield that power.

HOW DOES this happen? We can get a small taste of the process from the struggles of today. For example, after this spring's victorious strike by Verizon workers, one striker interviewed by SocialistWorker.org said, "For a section of the membership, [the strike] was a transformative experience where we really felt our power. And it was obvious that this came from our personal participation and the widespread popular support for the strike."

Participating in protest movements challenges the "common sense" we've been taught by capitalism and breaks working people out of the deliberately fostered isolation that keeps us from seeing our shared interests with one another.

We are all shaped by the racist, sexist, homophobic and nativist ideas perpetuated by the ideological institutions of capitalism. In order to get rid of these rotten ideas--what Marx called "the muck of ages"--we have to collectively challenge the system that perpetuates and depends on them to defuse dissent.

Another example from the president: During its 2012 strike, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) consciously set out to build unity between a multiracial teaching force and the Black and Latino communities that make up the vast majority of public school students. The CTU connected its struggle for a fair contract with wider questions about poverty, racism and police violence.

In this way, the teachers' fight became a cause for all working-class Chicago to embrace. The strike succeeded both because of the unity of rank-and-file teachers within the union, but the solidarity of working people who supported their teachers and students.

Organized workers not only have the potential to win strikes, but to bring together the majority of oppressed people in society to take on those in power. This is the potential that led Marx to call workers the "universal class."

The central role in changing society that socialists assign to the working class depends not on its numbers, but on its position within the capitalist economy. Workers have the ability to shut down production and draw behind them other sectors of society--even in countries where the working class is a minority, though this is less and less the case as the free market has spread and developed around the globe.

This is the starting point for understanding what socialism will look like. At its heart, socialism is a society based on workers' power, where the state functions in the interests of the working class because the working class has control of workplaces and the state itself.

A government that acts--or claims to act--on behalf of workers isn't the same as a workers' state. The question to ask is who is actually in charge. It is not enough for representatives to act in the interests of workers--there must be mechanisms for workers to assert their power from the bottom up. This begins in the workplace, but extends to all aspects of social life.

SOCIALISTS ARE often accused of being dreamers. But in order to devote our energy to the overthrow of capitalism, we must be able to imagine a different world from the one we live in--and believe that different world is possible.

There are limits on the imaginations of socialists, however--based on our understanding of how the historical development of a given society allows certain possibilities, but rules out others.

In past class societies, the lower level of technological and scientific development made it impossible to produce enough food to abolish food scarcity for at least some--which made a society based on equality and abundance impossible, too.

As Marx and his colleague Frederick Engels pointed out in the Communist Manifesto, capitalism was a revolutionary advance over the old order because it developed the productive capacity of society beyond the old limits of scarcity. But achieving a world in which there is enough to go around depends on harnessing all the resources of society under genuine democratic control to everyone's needs--ultimately, on an international basis.

The Russian revolutionary Lenin explained why this historical materialist approach is the way to take our dreams more seriously, not less:

The rift between dreams and reality causes no harm if only the person dreaming believes seriously in their dream, if they attentively observe life, compare their observations with their castles in the air and if, generally speaking, they work conscientiously for the achievement of their fantasies.

Lenin grappled directly with these questions as a leader of the Russian Revolution of 1917, during which millions of people self-organized into soviets--the Russian phrase for "workers' councils"--overthrew the monarchy and began the attempt to create a socialist society.

While the revolution was eventually defeated and a dictatorship led by Joseph Stalin established in its place--though falsely still claiming the name of socialism--this was mainly because the movement for socialism was ultimately defeated in wealthier European countries. Revolutionary Russia was left poor and isolated, decimating the working class at the heart of the revolution.

ANY IMAGINING of a socialist future must involve the expansion of social rights and class-based democracy. Liberation can't be a reality until people's basic needs are met: from food and housing to education and interpersonal connection.

Many of the kinds of transformations we want in education can be won as reforms under capitalism, as part of the struggle for social rights more broadly. Examples of these changes would be abolishing private education, putting greater resources into public schools, and eliminating standardized testing as a means of measuring the quality of education.

But other aspects of a truly liberatory education can't be achieved under capitalism--due to the role that the education system, as part of a broader system that Marxists call social reproduction, plays in maintaining capitalist social relations.

Social class is marked indelibly on every aspect of education. The rich send their children to schools that encourage creative and critical thinking--the traits that these things produce are necessary for running society.

But the rich don't need the children of the working majority to run society. Thus, schools attended by working class students are shaped by segregation, discipline, competition and conformity--despite the best efforts, in many cases, of teachers who want the best for their students.

Under socialism, we can imagine education being a means for working people to have greater control over their lives. A people's history will need to be written to explain the story of the horrors perpetrated by capitalism, how they came about, and how we were able to struggle for a better world.

Liberatory education needs to create an education based on questioning and an approach that opens rather than closes the process of thinking, comparing, reasoning, perspective-taking and dialogue.

Under capitalism, most of us don't have the time or energy to develop ourselves outside our social roles as workers, parents, students, caregivers and the like. These roles end up defining who we are and taking up most of our waking lives.

By removing the imperative to generate profit, in a socialist society, people will no longer need to work so many hours, and work can be organized to maximize non-work time. With more leisure time, people can begin to redefine their social roles and explore creativity in new ways.

Access to art-making and culture-making should be a social right. Under socialism, this would open the door to new ways of seeing, new forms of artistic expression and new meaning for art and aesthetics.

We know this from the glimpses we have of the future in the revolutionary struggles of the past--in revolutionary Russia, for example, theater, music and art thrived in spite of the country's poverty--because of the energy of mass democracy and participation.

If material conditions fundamentally shape who we are, then we can imagine that a society which puts resources into public health, child development, education and recreation would produce healthier and happier people. The concepts of health and happiness would be enhanced beyond their current meaning of freedom from disease and violence.

DURING THE immediate period after a revolutionary struggle wins control over the commanding institutions of society, including the state, elements of capitalism will remain.

One such element is the former ruling class and counterrevolutionary forces that look to it. These cannot be allowed to wield their old power--they must be prevented from doing so to defend the revolution.

Centuries of oppression, exploitation and ideological warfare have allowed the capitalist class to amass enormous amounts of wealth and power, and to develop institutions for protecting that power. Some form of state power will be required to dismantle these institutions.

There will be much more to dismantle after a successful revolution than merely the power of the ruling minority of the old order. Reparations will due to African Americans, Indigenous people, women, the poor, the incarcerated and others. There will be a need for sustained policies and programs needed to address the gross inequalities and collective traumas inherited from the previous society.

After the Russian Revolution ended the rule of the pro-capitalist Provisional Government, the soviets immediately passed a series of decrees that, for example, gave women equal rights to divorce and other measures.

But the Russian revolutionaries didn't stop with decrees and laws. They initiated campaigns and programs to challenge the social practices and ingrained attitudes carried over from a society in which women were oppressed. The aim was to make the legal decree of equality into a social reality.

Probably the greatest challenge facing a socialist society in the future will be the global effort to combat and reverse climate change and environmental devastation, and to restore a healthy metabolic relationship between our biosphere and humanity.

Centuries of careless fossil fuel production, deforestation, pollution of oceans and rising temperatures means resource abundance is not guaranteed. Sustainability and availability of resources will determine how the new society is able to produce what it needs and where, and so forth. There will no doubt be heated debates about the best way to go about these tasks, taking into consideration the needs of people across a variety of regions.

After the revolution, revolutionaries must continue to struggle for workers' democracy, and certainly not depend on the state to "democratize society" for us. There is no blueprint for how socialism will play out despite our best efforts--because history is made by human beings, under circumstances not of their own choosing.

THE PRIMARY reason that people today are questioning capitalism and considering socialism as an alternative is because the system isn't working for them.

Capitalism has been able to survive as a system of blatant exploitation and inequality by successfully dividing and oppressing the working class. The material basis for these divisions is produced by false scarcity in the labor market that pits workers in competition against one another over access to jobs and benefits. This allows capitalists to lower overall wages and undermine workers' collective organizing.

As social beings, we are evolved to depend upon human connectedness. Under capitalism people are simultaneously living in greater proximity to each other and feeling profoundly isolated.

This is why a socialist world today is not only possible but necessary. Young people are open to socialist ideas because their economic prospects have been systematically degraded by the student-debt nightmare, the high cost of housing and stagnation in wages. Millenials also have dramatically different ideas about gender and sexuality.

This ideological shift isn't some natural human evolution nor evidence that socialist revolution is on the immediate horizon. Rather, it reflects the decades and centuries of struggle that have won important reforms, resulting in changed generational ideas.

But these changes can drive people to look for the answer to bigger questions still: How do we end climate change? How do we end wars? How can we make sure all children are fed?

The answers to these questions must lead people to consider socialism as an alternative to our current state of affairs--and to seek to put the ideas of many generations of working-class fighters to the test of creating a new society.

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