A Bird's Eye View of Socialism

By Bertell Ollman


The American humorist, James Thurber, tells the story of a friend who asked him, "How is your wife?" to which Thurber replied, "Compared to what?" Most judgments in our lives involve comparisons of one sort or another, but comparisons to what? The comparison we choose, and we often do so unconsciously, will decisively affect the judgment we make.

What object of comparison shall we use to judge American society? Contrary to what we are usually told by defenders of the status quo, it should not be some other country with a very different history and unique conditions. Those differences ensure that they couldn't be like us even if they wanted to, nor we like them. Hence, it makes little sense to respond to criticisms of the U.S. by saying—"Well, you're eating better than you would in India." With our particular history and conditions, the U.S. has the potential for being something other, something more, something much better than it is. Just as one judges an athlete's performance by what he or she can do, we should judge American society by what it could be, given all it has going for it. Given, therefore, our wealth, industry, skills, democratic traditions, and other conditions, what judgments can we make about our nation today?

If a man has lost his legs, that is a sufficient explanation for why he can't run. It doesn't make sense to add that he also uses a faulty technique in trying to run. Similarly, after recognizing that Russia in 1917 and China in 1949 had none of the material conditions Marx considered essential for developing socialism, does it make any sense to add that they also followed faulty strategies or that their experience shows that socialism can't work? In the case of our legless man, this shifts the blame to him. In the case of Russia and China, it blames their political leaders or the very idea of socialism. In short, it is one thing to mention the impossible situation in which these regimes began (most writers do, if only briefly); it is another to draw the logical consequences of such an admission (most don't).

While the so-called "socialist countries" were not in any position to build socialism, this does not mean they did not ameliorate the material existence of most of their citizens (something Eastern Europeans are increasingly willing to admit). Nor does it follow, since capitalism succeeded in accumulating wealth in Western Europe and a few other countries, that it could do so everywhere. Noting the absence of socialism in the so-called "socialist countries," should not be taken as a rejection of all these countries achieved, or as a backhanded endorsement of the capitalist road to development, with all its horrors and inconclusive results. Instead, we must examine what capitalism is and what we can do with the means it has made available to resolve the very problems it has created. Only then can we see whether socialism has become a real possibility.


Imagine walking down a clean street, encountering friendly people, and knowing that everyone you see has enough to eat and a decent place to live. You do not fear being robbed or otherwise abused, and the only police you see are directing traffic. Imagine that you are going to a job you enjoy, where you are respected, not overworked, and where all your suggestions are taken seriously; and that afterwards you meet with friends to pursue common interests with no worry about educational or medical bills that spoil most of our good times. Is this heaven? No, it's socialism, or what our capitalist society can become once we rationally re-order it, replacing capitalist conditions with new rules, new priorities and new decision makers. What might this look like?

In socialism, you will help make the decisions now made by the president and board of trustees of your university, by the boss on your job, by your landlord, by the owners of newspapers, TV stations, movie studios, and sports franchises, and by government officials at all levels. Extending democracy—the rule of the people—into all areas of society is the key difference. It is the socialist alternative to the dictatorship of money, and of those who have it, that dominates life in capitalist society. And everywhere, the aim of maximizing profit for the few will be replaced by the human aim of serving social needs.

In the economy, this means making more of the things people really need—which in our wealthy country could eliminate poverty in a few years—but also making them better and distributing them more fairly, while showing an equal concern for preserving the environment, protecting workers' health, and reducing work hours (all important "social needs"). This can occur because all the factors of production available to society would be put to full use. There would be no idle machines, wasted raw materials, and, above all, no unemployed workers. Recall the $13 trillion spent on arms since World War II, the waste in what gets made and in what doesn't, the conspicuous baubles of the rich, and all the money spent on repression and on brainwashing to keep people from asking just these kinds of questions. View all this in light of the rapid advances being made in automation, computerization, and robotization, and then tell me it can't be done.

The institutional form of democracy that will enable people to participate in making decisions on all such matters range from self-management committees at workplaces, schools, and home communities, to local councils, to national and world governments, to a central planning and coordinating board, whose members will be elected by everyone and whose priorities will be set, after general debate, by majority rule.

Though some small businesses will remain privately owned when socialism begins, the goal is to achieve full public ownership of the means of production and the social means of consumption (parks, railroads, and so forth), but not private means of consumption (cars, clothes, homes, and so forth), as soon as possible. By abolishing inheritance for everything but personal effects, even small capitalists won't be able to leave their businesses to their children, who will have to find real jobs like everyone else.

On the job, wage differentials, though greatly reduced, will exist as long as there are some people who require this kind of incentive to do their best. Over time, as other incentives, such as pride in a job well done, the praise of one's co-workers, and the satisfaction in serving the community, replace the desire to get rich and the fear of being poor (since there will no longer be rich or poor), wages will be about the same for everyone who works the same number of hours. These wages will be more than enough to buy what people want, since many of the things that cost so much today will be free—such as education, including college and other kinds of special training, health care, and probably very quickly, transportation, communication, and entertainment. Other costs will be heavily subsidized—such as housing and basic items of food and clothing. Also, with production planned to serve social good rather than private profit, and with most things we use apportioned by need rather than by cost, money's role in society will gradually diminish, and with it the grip money now exercises on our psyches.

Throughout socialist society, in education but also at work and at play, efforts will be made to counter selfishness and the fear of what is different, and to promote the values of cooperation and mutual concern. With collective control over our activities, their products, and social relations, alienation—and its feeling of disconnectedness and powerlessness—would give way to feelings of empowerment, and a sense of belonging to the human community. In the process, freedom, equality, and democracy—all the noble ideals that capitalism (to its credit) first set out, and then (to its shame) undermined and distorted—will finally begin to describe our actual life together.

Where there is little to share, socialism will have difficulty working, but where material abundance already exists and is simply badly distributed, socialism can flourish. Socialism cannot work without industrialization, but where it has occurred, it can. Socialism can't work if complex organizations for producing and distributing goods have not already been created, but where they have, it can. Socialism cannot work in a society divided into different classes with distinct and competing interests, but in a society divided into different classes with distinct earners and have the same basic interests, it can. Socialism cannot work without democracy, but where it exists and the people themselves have chosen to cooperate, it can. Under these conditions, not only can socialism work, but nothing else can work as well. All the experiences of nations, such as China and the Soviet Union, where these conditions never existed, simply have no relevance to what we could do here and now. That the media emphasize these negative experiences every time they discuss socialism should only serve to remind us who owns the media and the interest they have in misleading us about the real possibilities that make up our future.


George Bernard Shaw defined "barbarian" as "someone who takes the morality of his own country as human nature." Yet there is probably nothing about which people feel more certain but know less about than human nature. Thus, socialism often gets criticized because people are said to be too selfish, too competitive, too uncaring, and too full of fears and hatreds to live in a society that requires so much cooperation. Many people believe, therefore, that socialism, while a nice idea, could not work. Nor do these critics lack evidence for their conclusion, since we all know a lot of Americans—possibly even ourselves—who posses those negative qualities.

But even if we were to view (falsely) all Americans in this way, that would still be only a fraction of the earth's population. If we look at all societies "primitive" as well as advanced, past as well as present, what we find is an enormous range in what people do, believe, want, fear, and hope for. It becomes impossible to single out any particular traits—whether good or bad—as representing basic human nature. All we can conclude is that humans display a great variety of traits, and that our species has been extraordinarily flexible in adapting itself to very different conditions.

Like Shaw's barbarian, those who consider socialism impossible because of the prevailing morality in their country have simply mistaken what most people have been made into by capitalism for basic human nature. Socialists, on the other hand, believe that in a society where people are permitted, encouraged, and even rewarded for showing mutual concern and cooperative behavior, they will gradually develop these qualities: they will become a part of their human nature. This does not mean that people are naturally good or loving, or cooperative. While some socialists hold this view, it is more associated with anarchism. In contrast, the Marxist position is that people by nature are neither good nor bad but they have the potential for both, as well as for everything in between. The mixture of character traits people develop are those made possible, functional, desirable, and sometimes even necessary by their particular society and by their class in that society. This view best explains what we have seen in the past as well as what we see in the present. Why wouldn't it also explain what is likely to occur to people, under the uniquely egalitarian and democratic conditions that will be set up in the future?


Why socialism? We can boil all the reason down to the following: first and foremost, if you are a part of the working class, whether blue, white, or pink-collared, it is in your interest. Beyond this, socialism provides the only sure alternative to the material misery and other injustices of capitalism, and to the profit-driven destruction of the environment that will soon render our planet unlivable. Promoting cooperation and mutual concern is also morally superior on both religious and secular criteria to promoting competition and mutual indifference. Organizing production and distribution to serve social needs based on democratically devised plans also provides a more rational approach to life than succumbing to the vagaries of an uncontrolled market. Socialism also works more efficiently, since unlike capitalism (especially in times of crisis), it would fully use the available means of production—workers, machines, factories, and raw materials. With its concern for human values and beauty, socialism would curb the ugliness and shoddiness of capitalist production. With its concern for truth, socialism would also make unnecessary the hype, false advertising, and outright lying that defiles so much of our public life. It would also liberate knowledge to serve all humanity rather than the powerful few.

While socialism is generally argued for in the language of equality, it is every bit as much about freedom. Its equality lies in doing away with the various oppressions—of workers, women, people of color, and others—as well as with the special privileges that disfigure capitalism. Its freedom lies in making it possible for the first time in history for each person to develop his or her full potential as a human being. It is the final attainment of this goal that Marx calls "communism."


So, "Is it time," as William Buckley asked a few years ago, "to bury Karl Marx?" Well, it depends on the position one takes on Cacus. Cacus was a Roman mythological figure who stole oxen by dragging them backwards into his cave so that their footprints made it appear that they had gone out from there. After quoting Martin Luther's account of this story, Marx exclaims "An excellent picture, it fits the capitalist in general, who pretends that what he has taken from others and brought back to his den emanates from him, and by causing it to go backwards, he gives it the semblance of having come from his den."

Capitalists present themselves as the producers of wealth, as the providers of jobs, and as donors and public benefactors. When we examine their activities it appears as if nothing and no one gets going without their okay. These are the "footprints" in the sand, and they are there for all to see. From these appearances, it's easy to conclude that anything capitalists retain for themselves as profits is their just and well-earned reward.

But, as with Cacus, this tells only a partial story. To find out what really happened to the oxen, we would have to find out about the night before (to do a little history) and poke our heads into the cave (to examine the larger context). In the end, the full truth is exactly the opposite of the apparent truth. In the case of capitalists, only by investigating how most businessmen have extracted their wealth from the surplus labor of previous generations of workers (history) and by investigating how the laws and customs of our society are biased in their favor (the larger context), can we see that it is not capitalists who serve society (and thus, meriting a reward) but rather the rest of society who serve them. The businessman's power to make important decisions cannot be denied—the "footprints" are there. But when we place his role in its social and historic context, its meaning gets completely turned around.

In their different ways, all of Marx's theories perform this common work. Thus, as long as capitalism hides its real relations behind its appearances, its underlying processes behind its surface events, class struggle behind class collaboration, and the potential for an egalitarian democratic order behind the present inequality—so long will Marxism be needed to uncover the truth. And the capitalists and those Marx called their "ideological handmaidens," who insist, "It's time to bury Karl Marx"? Well Cacus, too, had an interest in keeping people from finding out what went on in his cave.