What Is Socialism? A (very) brief answer

One of the very first things people ask the DSA tends to be one of the hardest to answer: what is socialism?

Socialism is a very long tradition and you can find bits of socialist thought in most religions and philosophies. But when people say socialism, they usually mean the ideas that bubbled up in Europe after the French Revolution of 1789, which famously overthrew the monarchical government of the time. It was nice, but it didn’t solve most of the problems people faced. Instead, the revolution made it obvious that people’s lives aren’t only organized by their governments. We don’t just live in states or nations. We don’t just live out cultures. We also live in, and create, societies. Power is not just governmental. It is also economic, gendered, racial, imperial — it’s social.

As the name suggests, socialism is one way of trying to think through this question — not just what should our government be like, or what should our culture be like, but what should our societies be like? And that question can only be answered once we’ve worked out what our societies are like.

Socialists knew at least two societies had existed in Europe: feudalism and capitalism. They were different in all sorts of ways, but the most basic differences were who worked for whom, and why they worked. In feudalism, peasants worked for the aristocracy because the aristocracy owned the land and had access to other kinds of non-governmental power (like swords and goofy, but effective, armor). They also more or less owned the peasants. So, the peasants worked for the aristocrats because the peasants needed to eat. The aristocrats got most of the money and used it to buy swords and goofy armor and bigger castles and so on.

Socialists knew that their 19th-century societies weren’t like this. The people who owned the land didn’t use their money to buy swords, etc. They used it to buy more land or more peasants — or more and more factories. The people who worked in the factories weren’t peasants. And the people who owned factories weren’t necessarily aristocrats. There were two new classes: laborers and capitalists. The laborers earned a wage or a salary because they needed to eat, and the capitalists received the profits from their factories, which they mostly used to make new factories. Aristocrats are sexy because they “waste” their money on booze and wigs. Capitalists do not waste money. They reinvest it because they want to grow their profits.

Capitalism has changed a lot since then, but the basic structure is the same: our economies, and our societies, are organized around the idea that some people will own the factories (or land or newspapers or social media platforms) and most everyone else will work for them. And all of this is done in search of profit. That is unique to our kind of societies. Aristocrats did not seek ever-growing profits. They sought political power and a good time. Peasants did not seek to become ever more productive. They stopped working if they had enough to eat. But capitalists seek profits, and they can only get them by making the rest of us ever more productive. That is the society we live in: capitalism.

Socialists think this isn't great. The most basic reason is that it makes small numbers of people very rich, and large numbers of people miss out on that wealth, even though all the people are working harder and harder to keep the profits rising. And, because only a few people own the factories/newspapers/social media platforms, those people get a much bigger say over everything. They get a bigger say in the government; they get the only say in their factories; they get a bigger say in communities. Capitalism is fundamentally anti-democratic.

For better or worse, there has never been a socialist society. If one ever exists, it will not have a fixed class hierarchy in which most people work and a few people profit. It will have economic and social democracy as well as (or instead of) democratically elected governments. And it will not necessarily be designed to increase profits.

If you think that sounds good, then get ready to fight for it. Socialists have tried a lot of stuff over the last two centuries, and we’re still trying.

To learn more about socialism, marxism, and leftist political thought, you can check out our Socialist Night School page for extended videos and guides on a wide range of topics.

Related Entries