What Socialism Would Look Like
By The Organizer
Due to the horrific legacy of Stalinism, many people associate the words “socialism” and “communism” with totalitarianism and conformity.
This article aims to counter these powerful myths about socialism by responding to the following questions: What would a socialist society look like? How would things get done? Would there be more democracy and freedom — or less?
Our ability to reply to these questions is admittedly limited. There is no detailed blueprint for what socialism will look like — which is why Karl Marx, for example, wrote so little on this subject. It will be up to the generations that overthrow capitalism and grow up after the revolution to build the new socialist society.
Nevertheless, there are various reasons why it is important to outline today a realistic vision of what socialism would look like. First of all, it is necessary to debunk the capitalist argument that any attempt to build a classless society is utopian and in practice will only lead to an oppressive dictatorship.
James P. Cannon — an important American labor and Marxist leader, whose excellent speech What Socialist America Will Look Like will be quoted throughout our text — explains another reason for discussing our vision of socialism:
“The new generation of youth who will come to our movement and dedicate their lives to it will not be willing to squander their young courage and idealism on little things and little aims. They will be governed by nothing less than the inspiration of a great ideal, the vision of a new world. We are quite justified, therefore, in tracing some of the broad outlines of probable future development; all the more so since the general direction, if not the details, can already be foreseen.”
We will base our arguments on the real experiences of dozens of workers’ revolutions (Russia 1917, Spain 1936, Bolivia 2003, etc.); we will turn to the illuminating writings of Marxist activists on this topic; and we will try to use a little bit of common sense and imagination.
Dynamics Toward Socialism
Before continuing, we should make two preliminary points. First of all, while reading this article please keep in mind the dynamic nature of a post-revolutionary society, which will be constantly changing and developing.
The societal changes described in this text cannot be introduced overnight — it will take decades and decades and many generations to overcome the legacy of class society on the economy, human psychology, and the environment.
We will describe the transition from a workers’ government to a classless and stateless society of plenty, an era which some Marxists call communism — but which in this article we will simply refer to as socialism. And even such a classless society is not the “final destination”, but rather the beginning of a whole new chapter in human history.
“It is important to realize,” wrote Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin, “how infinitely false is the ordinary bourgeois conception of socialism as something lifeless, rigid, fixed once and for all, whereas in reality only socialism will be the beginning of a rapid, genuine, truly mass forward movement, embracing first the majority and then the whole of the population, in all spheres of public and private life.”
The second preliminary point is that socialism is possible — but not inevitable. In the words of the Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, the alternative facing humanity is “socialism or barbarism.” If working people do not succeed in overthrowing capitalism, then capitalism will very likely destroy humanity — whether through environmental catastrophe, nuclear war, epidemics, or the spread of Iraq or Rwanda-style chaos.
And the system will not crumble automatically. It will take the mass action of millions plus the conscious intervention of a revolutionary Marxist leadership to bury this irrational system once and for all.
What About “Human Nature”?
Let’s begin by dealing with one of the most common objections to socialism: the argument that “human nature” makes socialism impossible.
Socialists acknowledge that many people today are racist, violent, and greedy. But these traits are not inevitable. The way people act and think (“human nature”) is highly conditioned by the social environment in which you are raised and in which you live. Karl Marx noted that “conditions determine consciousness.”
A child raised in the Amazon rainforest will have certain morals, habits, and ideas — but raise that kid in New York City and you’ll have a very different person. Likewise, if you had been born under the Aztec empire or in ancient Egypt, you would act and think quite differently. Study after study, likewise, has demonstrated that little children do not see racial differences until they are taught them.
The world-famous biologist Stephen Jay Gould explains the physiological basis for this wide range of customs and behavior:
“Human uniqueness resides primarily in our brains. It is expressed in the culture built upon our intelligence and the power it gives us to manipulate the world. Human societies change by cultural evolution, not as a result of biological alteration. We have no evidence for biological change in brain size or structure since Homo sapiens appeared in the fossil record…. All that we have done since then—the greatest transformation in the shortest time that our planet has experienced since its crust solidified nearly four billion years ago—is the product of cultural evolution… . In short, the biological basis of human uniqueness leads us to reject biological determinism.”
Because society is constantly evolving, human social norms constantly change too. Things have not always been the way they are today. Indeed, modern anthropologists have shown that for thousands of years — for most of human history — there was no state and no social classes.
Anthropologist Richard Lee explains:
“Before the rise of the state and the entrenchment of social inequality, people lived for millennia in small scale kin based social groups, in which the core institutions of economic life included collective or common ownership of land and resources, generalized reciprocity in the distribution of food, and relatively egalitarian political relations.”
Some of these communistic societies still exist today, such as the !Kung people in Namibia and Botswana. Lee lived with the !Kung and noted:
“Food is never consumed alone by a family: it is always shared out among members of a living group or band … Each member of the camp receives an equitable share … This principle of generalized reciprocity has been reported of hunter-gatherers in every continent and in every kind of environment.”
Consciousness is different in these societies because economic and social conditions are different. Doesn’t this fact pretty much shatter the “human nature” argument? The real question is not if a classless society is possible, but if it is possible again.
Individuals under our current system are like 100 rabbits living in a small cage with only enough food for 25 of them — we scramble, fight and even kill just to survive. But if you were to give those rabbits more than enough food, wouldn’t they treat each other much differently? The same basic argument is valid for humans.
Here’s the central reason why socialism is possible: The technological and economic potential exists today to eliminate the scarcity of goods that marks our current society. (We’ll return to this crucial point throughout this article.) Socialists do not think humans are “naturally good.” We think history and experience demonstrates that “human nature” is very flexible and can change — and has changed.
Wouldn’t it make sense that if the post-revolutionary society were able to provide everybody with quality homes, nourishment, jobs, hospitals, schools, etc., people’s behavior will begin to change — not overnight, but eventually? Remember that “conditions determine consciousness” and imagine a baby born into a world without hunger, prejudice, or poverty.
It is hard for many of us to envision a truly free society because we’ve been conditioned by growing up under capitalism, with its dog-eat-dog morality. Capitalism is all we know, so it’s easy to think people will always be like they are today. But heed the warning of Cannon: “Don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that anything contrary to capitalism’s rules and ethics is utopian, or visionary, or absurd. No, what’s absurd is to think that this madhouse is permanent and for all time.”
The Workers’ State
Let’s look at the very first moment in the transition from capitalism to a stateless and classless society: the period of a workers’ government.
Any insurrection that successfully smashes the old state machinery — such as Russia (February 1917), Germany (November 1918), Spain (July 1936), Bolivia (April 1952) — is immediately faced with a question: What will replace the capitalist state? Anarchists argue that self-governing communities without any central authority should be set up immediately after the overthrow of the old power.
This perspective sounds good on paper but is utopian for one basic reason — it doesn’t take into account the inevitable resistance of the old ruling class.
The class struggle does not end with the triumph of the insurrection. The history of all past revolutions (from the French Revolution of 1789 to the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1979) shows that the overthrown ruling class will stop at nothing to try to take back power. And seeing as a simultaneous world revolution is unlikely, the capitalists will also count on the support of whatever imperialist governments remain in the rest of the world.
To withstand and defeat the inevitable armed resistance and economic sabotage of the capitalist reaction, the workers will need to organize a temporary alternative power, with a democratic system for making and implementing decisions, and with a coordinated workers’ militia and revolutionary courts. This alternative power — regardless of what it decides to call itself — is in essence a state, that is, an apparatus of force to defend the rule of one class against another.
V.I. Lenin, in The State and Revolution, notes:
“The proletariat needs the state only temporarily. We do not at all disagree with the anarchists on the question of the abolition of the state as the aim. We maintain that to achieve this aim we must temporarily make use of the instruments, resources, methods of state power against the exploiters.”
Here’s a hypothetical example that illustrates this point. Imagine that in the United States, after a successful national insurrection, the capitalists and their lackeys have regrouped in Florida, Montana, and Maine and have begun a military offensive to take back the rest of the country. To defend itself, the revolution would have to decide what forces to send to each location and how to arm, transport, and feed the revolution’s troops. This co-ordination could only be undertaken within the framework of a national decision-making structure — a workers’ state. The failure to coordinate the defense of the revolution would be a guaranteed recipe for defeat.
But what, you may ask, would happen to the capitalists after they are defeated? Cannon offers one option:
“The little handful of recalcitrant capitalists who don’t like what is happening will not have to stay and watch if they don’t want to. The workers’ government of rich America could easily afford to give them an island or two, for their exclusive habitation, and pension them off and get them out of the way. How big is Catalina Island? That might be just the place for them. Just send them to Catalina. Let them take their bonds and stock certificates with them — as mementos of bygone days — and give them enough caviar and champagne to finish out their useless lives, while the workers go on with their work of constructing a new and better social order.”
A Real Democracy
But what will a workers’ state look like? We can base our answer to this question on the real experience of the various times the working class has taken power — for example, France (1871), Russia (1917), and Spain (1936).
George Orwell, in his memoir of the Spanish Revolution, Homage to Catalonia, vividly described his impression of Barcelona under workers’ control when he first arrived in 1936:
“Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags. Every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties.
Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized. Waiters looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. All the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black. The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. The loudspeakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night.
So far as one could judge the people were contented and hopeful. There was no unemployment, and the price of living was still extremely low. Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.”
Even in the early period before the definitive triumph of the world revolution, a workers´ state will be completely different from all past states. It will be a state directly run by the vast majority in the interest of the vast majority. Democratic rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of association will be cornerstones of the new state.
Grassroots, multi-party, democratically run workers´ councils, will decide all major economic, cultural, and societal questions. The councils in each workplace, school, and neighborhood will most likely elect representatives to a local council; these local councils will delegate some of their members to a regional and a national structure, with all power flowing from the bottom up.
Such workers’ councils have arisen time and time again during revolutionary periods, the most recent example being the Popular Assembly formed in June 2005 in El Alto, Bolivia.
V.I. Lenin put forward four key points to ensuring the democratic functioning of the workers´ state and preventing a privileged bureaucracy from usurping power:
1) All positions in the government must be freely elected and subject at all times to recall.
2) No official can receive a wage higher than a skilled worker.
3) There will be no permanent, standing army.
4) Gradually, the tasks of administering the workers’ the state will be more and more rotated. As Lenin put it, “When everyone is a bureaucrat, no-one is a bureaucrat.”
“We shall reduce the role of state officials,” wrote V.I. Lenin, “to that of simply carrying out (the people’s) instructions as responsible, revocable, modest paid ‘foremen and accountants’ — of course, with the aid of technicians of all sorts, types and degrees.” (Later in the article we will explain why things didn’t work out as planned in Russia.)
George Orwell explains how the Spanish workers took important steps in this direction, before their power was crushed by the capitalists and the fascists:
“In theory it was perfect equality, and even in practice it was not far from it. There is a sense in which it would be true to say that one was experiencing a foretaste of socialism. Many of the normal motives of civilized life — snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc. — had simply ceased to exist. The ordinary class-division of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the money-tainted air of England; no one owned anyone else as his master.
It lasted long enough to have its effect upon anyone who experienced it. One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism. In that community one got, perhaps, a crude forecast of what the opening stages of socialism might be like. It deeply attracted me. The effect was to make my desire to see socialism established much more actual than it had been before.”
A Planned Economy
The central economic task of the workers’ government will be the abolition of the private ownership of the major means of production. This requires nationalizing the huge corporations and banks, factories, mines, large-scale farms, transportation and communication systems and putting them under workers’ control.
This doesn’t mean that “everybody has to share everything” or that the workers’ state would take over people’s houses or TVs. It means putting large-scale production — not individual possessions or small “mom and pop” stores — under the democratic and planned control of the majority, for the benefit of the majority. Different plans for what to produce will be freely proposed by working people and democratically voted on.
A planned economy will be far superior to the irrationality of capitalism — in which there is no general coordination, in which the sole motive is making profits for the bosses.
“American industry,” notes Cannon, “operates blindly, without a general plan. There’s no concern about what’s going on in other industries or in other parts of the same industry. There’s no concern about whether the people need this or that, or don’t need it.”
Historic experience demonstrates the superiority of a planned economy. For example, because of its planned economy, the Soviet Union — despite the bureaucratic inefficiency of Stalinism — went from being the most economically backward country in Europe to one of the most advanced within the span of less than two decades. Likewise, the restoration of the “free market” in Russia in 1989-91 has only brought deindustrialization, unemployment, a lower life-span, and generalized misery.
The billionaires parasites that sit at the top of the capitalist social pyramid don’t actually do much in directly running society, they just reap the rewards of ownership. In the words of a French revolutionary slogan from May 1968: “The bosses need you; but you don’t need the bosses.”
In reality it is working people — plus a few technicians and managers — that actually run everything already. True, these specialists would still be needed for a transitional period but these layers would now take their orders from working people and their government. And eventually a massive rise in education levels would allow all workers to be specialists of some sort.
Ultimately, the expansion of direct democracy in the economy and the government depends primarily on a reduction in the length of the workday, which will be possible once production is put towards meeting human needs. In order to regularly attend meetings, carry out assignments, and have time to educate yourself on the issues, you need free time. Real democracy is impossible when most people are obliged to work 50 or more hours a week to survive.
A workers’ government in the U.S could immediately cut the length of the workday by one or two hours to allow for a daily space for discussion and decision-making by the majority.
What will be the method for deciding on who will do what jobs and how much they will get paid? It is impossible to know this ahead of time — it will be up to the majority of the population to decide on these (and all) questions. That said, it seems likely that in the first phase of a workers’ government the worst jobs (e.g. trash collection, janitor work, etc.) could be rotated among many people — and eventually these jobs could be eliminated all together through automation.
Will mistakes be made? Of course. But the direct democratic participation of the people in the decision-making process will provide a framework for these mistakes to be corrected.
Tasks of the Workers’ Government
The first years after the revolution will be marked by an all-out effort to eradicate the evils created or perpetuated by capitalism, such as poverty, discrimination, disease, hunger, and environmental devastation. It will be a challenging and exciting time.
Tremendous advances can be made under a workers’ government just by eliminating various forms of capitalist waste. There will be no more billionaire parasites hoarding so much wealth; no more need for the military machine and wars for empire; no more need to rely on environmentally harmful fossil fuels such as oil; and no more pervasive corporate advertising to make you buy things you don’t really need — or buy shoddy products meant to quickly break down.
There will be no unemployment. Under capitalism, a large pool of unemployed people is needed to keep wages down. But under a workers’ government, all the currently unemployed could be given jobs in the nationalized enterprises and in massive public-works projects to build homes for the homeless, clean the rivers and oceans, build parks, paint murals, organize concerts — you name it.
Imagine what changes you and your neighbors would make to your community if you had real control. Imagine what your workplace would be like if you and your co-workers democratically ran it from the bottom-up.
A workers’ government will have the material means and the will to turn the abstract rights we are promised under capitalism into realities.
Here’s an example. Under the more democratic forms of capitalism, everybody has the right to free speech — but nevertheless all the major media is controlled by the corporations. We all have the right to run our own television channel — there are no laws stopping us from doing so. But for most of us this is an abstract right because, unlike Rupert Murdoch, we do not have the billions of dollars needed to act on this right. But under a workers’ government all the media will be run directly by ordinary citizens and put to the service of society as a whole.
Under a workers’ government, there will undoubtedly be a tremendous popular mobilization from below to build quality homes, hospitals, schools, parks, concert halls, and art spaces for all.
Scientists will stop being obliged to build better bombs. They will set out to make agriculture more productive and more sustainable. They will be able to fully dedicate themselves to curing cancer, AIDS, and all other epidemics. Vast sums will be set aside for medical education, research and experiment. It is a crime against humanity that so many poor people suffer and die from treatable or preventable diseases.
By eliminating capitalism’s mad drive for private profits, we will be able to save the environment and end global warming by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, using sustainable agriculture, building widespread green mass transportation, and funding large-scale environmental clean-up operations.
End of Racism
Many historians agree that racism did not exist before the rise of capitalism. The completely unscientific ideology of white supremacy was created in the 16th and 17th centuries to justify the enslavement of millions of Africans and the colonization of the Americas.
Racism outlived the abolition of slavery because it proved to be an extremely useful tool for the ruling class. Contemporary capitalism breeds and relies on racism to super-exploit the most oppressed sectors of society and to prop up the system through the strategy of “divide and conquer.” This is why the precondition for eliminating racial oppression is the overthrow of the capitalist system.
But, in the words of American Trotskyist George Breitman’s in his article Race Prejudice: How it Began, When it Will End: “A workers’ state is necessary to eradicate racism, poverty and similar evils, but that doesn’t mean it is sufficient, or that the eradication process will be automatic.”
“When we talk about the problems of a workers’ state in the United States, including the problem of ending racism, we are assuming that an alliance between revolutionary white workers and the Blacks and other minorities has been achieved before or during the revolution; that means assuming that a decisive section of the white workers has overcome the worst aspects of the racism with which capitalism indoctrinated them. We have to assume this because unless it happens, and until it happens, there will be no revolution and there will be no workers’ state.
But even if large numbers of white workers begin to abandon enough of their prejudices to make the revolution and workers’ state possible, that won’t signify the complete abolition of the racist heritage.
The workers’ state, in which all national and racial minorities will be represented, will of course outlaw all racist practices, and it will enforce such laws. It will recognize the democratic rights of the oppressed minorities, up to and including their right to separate and form nations of their own if they desire. It will make full use of its resources to educate the new generation and reeducate the salvageable elements among the old. Those who cling to racism will be thrown onto the defensive, will become isolated and discredited.
Revolutionary Blacks will not accept words for deeds after the creation of a workers’ state any more than they will before. As a vanguard of the most oppressed, and as part of the revolutionary leadership, they will be sensitive to any delaying or vacillating tendencies on the part of the new state, and they will be in a position to exert strong pressure against such tendencies.
Black nationalism offers Afro-Americans a form of organization and struggle right now, through the revolution, and until the point in the development of the workers’ state when Black people will feel no need for further independent organization and struggle because they have become convinced that racism is dead and beyond revival.”
Women’s and LGBT Liberation
The oppression of women predates the rise of capitalism, but like racism, it can only be eliminated through the overthrow of the current system.
The workers’ state — in which women and all oppressed sectors will play a vanguard leadership role — will have the means to fully put into practice the most progressive gains the women’s liberation movement has won so far, such as legal equality, the right to divorce, the right to equal wages, and free access to birth control and abortion. But these steps will just be the start.
With the elimination of the corporate media will vanish the exploitative use of women’s bodies to sell products, as will the constant drive to convince women to buy cosmetics and other products to conform to some arbitrary “beauty standard.” Mass campaigns against sexist prejudice and violence against women will be organized.
But, most importantly, the liberation of women requires that cooking, cleaning, child-care, and other domestic tasks cease to be their individual “duties” within the framework of the nuclear family. True equality and liberation is impossible as long as women spend so many of their waking hours on these tedious tasks.
“The average poor housewife in this country is made to think that she was born into this glorious world for the chief purpose of fighting dust and wrestling pots and pans,” explains James P. Cannon. “One thing I’m absolutely sure is going to happen early in the period of the workers’ government, maybe during the first five-year plan — there will be a tremendous popular movement of women to bust up this medieval institution of millions of separate kitchens and millions of different housewives cooking, cleaning, scrubbing, and fighting dust.
What a terrible waste of energy. The enlightened socialist women will knock the hell out of this inefficient, unjust and antiquated system. The mass emergence of the socialist women from the confining walls of their individual kitchens will be the greatest jail break in history — and the most beneficent. Women, liberated from the prison of the kitchen, will become the free companions of free men.”
Full women’s liberation requires the flourishing of communal restaurants serving quality and inexpensive (and eventually free) nourishment; childcare centers to watch over infants and young children; and free housecleaning and laundry services for all. With the expansion of such programs, the institution of the family as we know it will wither away.
Society will do away with the narrow and oppressive gender and sexual norms that have marked class society. With the end of the patriarchal family and capitalist scapegoating will vanish the basis for discrimination against gay, bi-sexual, lesbian, and transgender folks. People will finally have the ability to express their sexuality openly and freely.
The guarantor of the abolition of racism, sexism, patriarchy, homophobia and all forms of oppression will be the liberation movements of the oppressed that will play vital roles for years after the revolution.
The transformation of human relations will be undoubtedly be profound — almost unimaginable so for those of us who have grown up under the repression and alienation of capitalism.
Frederick Engels, in his influential 1884 classic The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, eloquently writes:
“What we can conjecture about the way in which sexual relations will be ordered after the impending overthrow of capitalist production is mainly of a negative character, limited for the most part to what will disappear. But what will there be new? That will be answered when a new generation has grown up: a generation of men who never in their lives have know what it is to buy a woman’s surrender with money or any other instrument of power; a generation of women who have never known what it is to be with a man for any reason other than real love. When these people are in the world they will care precious little what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion about the sexual practice of each individual – and that will be the end of it.”
The seizure of power by working people will spark a deep cultural revolution, a modern-day Renaissance. Art — freed from the corruption of corporate studios and the stuffy confines of mansions and galleries — will show its true potential. Dances, poetry-readings, concerts, movie-showings, and other cultural events will become accessible to all.
“The wall between art and industry will come down,” predicts Trotsky. “Humankind will educate itself plastically, it will become accustomed to look at the world as clay for sculpting the most perfect forms of life.”
The ugly, unhealthy, suffocating cities of class society will be torn down.
“A new science and new art will flower—the science and art of city planning,” predicts Cannon. “Under socialism some of the best and most eager students in the universities will take up the study of city planning, not for the profitable juxtaposition of slums and factory smokestacks, but for the construction of cities fit to live in. Art in the new society will undoubtedly be more cooperative, more social. The city planners will organize landscapers, architects, sculptors, and mural painters to work as a team in the construction of new cities which will be a delight to live in and a joy to behold, with the natural advantages of the countryside and the cultural associations of the town.”
And, generation by generation, the psychological baggage of class society will fade away. Take, for example, the pervasive sense of fear that plagues us today.
Imagine living in a world where you don’t have to worry about how you will pay the bills or whether you will still have a job next month; where you can walk around your neighborhood without fear of a police brutalizing you because of the color of your skin; where women can walk around without fear of rape; where children can play outside at any time of day.
“In the socialist society of shared abundance, this nightmare of fear will be lifted from the minds of the people. They will be secure and free from fear; and this will work a revolution in their attitude toward life and their enjoyment of it. Human nature will get a chance to show what it is really made of.”
Differences Between Russia and the United States
Many people think that the experience of the Russian Revolution of 1917 proves that socialism can’t work and that revolutions inevitably lead to totalitarian regimes. But the Stalinist degeneration of the Russian Revolution was not inevitable — nor was it due to some innate flaw in “human nature.”
Moreover, there are big differences between Russia in 1917 and present-day United States — and these differences will all work in favor of U.S. workers when they come to power.
As we explain in this article, socialism can only be built on the basis of highly developed industry and technology. But 1917 Russia was a terribly underdeveloped and impoverished semi-feudal country, in which the vast majority of the population were illiterate peasants. The basic economic conditions to reach socialism simply not exist within the borders of Russia.
Cannon compares Czarist Russia to the United States:
“Where Russia was poor and industrially backward, America is rich and highly developed. Capitalism has done its work here, so that when the workers come to power they will fall heir not to a ruined, backward, hungry country, but to the richest country with the most highly developed productive capacity in the whole world. The abundance which the planned economy will provide for all, plus the time for leisure, for education and cultural development in general, will be the surest safeguards against a usurping bureaucracy, infringing on the rights and liberties of the people. When there is plenty for all, there is no material basis for a privileged bureaucracy and the danger, therefore, is largely eliminated.”
Russian’s economy was not only underdeveloped — it was decimated first by World War One, then by a bloody imperialist-funded Civil War (1918-22), a military intervention of 14 foreign different countries, and a foreign trade embargo. The workers’ government survived this onslaught but found itself in charge of a country in ruins. The most militant revolutionary layer of workers and peasants had been killed in the civil war, the majority of workers had fled to the countryside to look for work, and hunger and disease were rampant — to the point that cannibalism arose in the countryside.
In the early 1920s, the terrible lack of basic goods like food and clothing led some government officials in Russia to begin to appropriate goods for themselves and their families. Trotsky used the analogy of the policeman to explain the role of bureaucracy:
“The basis of bureaucratic rule is poverty of society in objects of consumption with the resulting struggle of each against all. If we have only a limited supply of goods, then the workers must get in a line. If the workers line up, a policeman is required to keep order in the line. The workers hate the line; the policeman owes his livelihood to the line. Who wants to keep the line? The bureaucrat.”
Socialism cannot be built within the borders of one country, especially not a poor, peasant country like Russia — or Cuba or China for that matter. This is why Lenin, Trotsky, and the Bolshevik Party, saw Russia as “the advanced outpost of the world revolution” and sought to spread the revolution internationally.
Stalinism was only able to arise because of the defeat of the massive revolutionary wave that swept Europe and the world after 1917, in which workers’ revolutions in Hungary (1918), Italy (1919-20) and, most importantly, Germany (1918-23) were defeated because there were no revolutionary parties able to help the working class successfully take power.
In order to secure its privileged position, the emerging bureaucratic caste, led by Joseph Stalin, had to eliminate all organs of democracy in the party and the government — and physically liquidate the Bolshevik leaders who had led the October revolution. V.I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and their co-thinkers put up a heroic struggle against Stalinism, but only the expansion of the productive forces in Russia through the spread of the revolution to economically advanced capitalist countries such as Germany could have reversed this tendency to bureaucratization.
The crucial point to understand is that, as Harry Ring explains in his pamphlet Socialism and Individual Freedom:
“Capitalism bears the ultimate responsibility for the degeneration of the Soviet Union and all its consequences. After world capitalism tired to strangle the revolution and drown in it blood, the grotesque bureaucracy became a willing partner of the capitalists in maintaining the status quo.”
But there is little reason to fear that this tragedy would be repeated in the United States.
“Counterrevolution can hardly be a serious threat to the workers’ government in America,” argues Cannon. “The workers are an overwhelming majority in this country, and their strength is multiplied by their strategic position in the centers of production everywhere. How is there going to be any kind of a counterrevolution against a government with such a broad and solid social base? I don’t think the American capitalists will try it. The real exploiters are a very small minority. They couldn’t get enough fools to do their fighting for them, and they are opposed in principle to doing their own fighting.
War, and the threat of war, which made Soviet Russia’s path so difficult, will be no problem for the American workers’ government. What country could attack the United States? If we are not the last capitalist nation to join the march toward socialism, our coming in will seal the doom of capitalism everywhere. The remnants of the whole world system will fall like a house of cards.”
Socialism can only be established on a worldwide level. Capitalism is international; no country today is economically independent from the world market and thus no workers’ government would have on its own all the resources needed to produce a super-abundance of goods. As long as imperialist governments remain in power, they will do everything possible to smash the existing workers’ states. It is not possible to create islands of socialism in a sea of capitalism.
The Fourth International — a worldwide revolutionary socialist party established by Leon Trotsky and his co-thinkers in 1938, which today has sections in over 45 countries — was founded precisely because of this burning need for a worldwide revolution.
There is no way to predict which countries will first overthrow capitalism or how long the period between the first workers’ revolution(s) and the final overthrow of world capitalism will last. But a few points on “international relations” should be made.
Any workers’ government in the U.S. worthy of its name will reverse the legacy of imperialism by allowing for full self-determination for our current colonies (such as Puerto Rico, Guam, etc.) and de-facto colonies (most of the “Third World”), by canceling the “foreign debt”, abolishing the IMF and World Bank, and handing back all the natural resources currently controlled by U.S. corporations. A workers’ government in the U.S. will pour tremendous resources into solidarity with the formerly-dominated countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, in order to help them to catch up technologically and industrially with the so-called “First World.”
All borders will be fully opened and all individuals, regardless of their country of birth, will have equal rights. People will be free to live and travel wherever in the world they please. And, eventually, all our existing borders and nation-states will fade away. “Human solidarity,” writes Cannon, “will encircle the globe and conquer it.”
Disappearance of the State
With the definitive defeat of the capitalist counter-revolution on a world scale and the gradual disappearance of social classes, the workers’ state will wither away because it will cease to have any role to play. Who would need to be repressed in a society without exploiters and exploited?
The government over people (militia, police, courts, prisons) will be replaced by the administration of things (coordination of services, distribution of goods, etc.) Key to this process is the step-by-step demilitarization of all countries and the eventual destruction of all arms.
Will there be problems, fights, disputes? Most likely. Marxists have never argued that a post-revolutionary society, especially in the early years, will be a utopian “paradise on earth” free of all such problems.
But, after a few generations, the threat of social ostracism will be sufficient pressure against anyone who threatens the collective or harms another — as it was in past classless societies. And if occasionally an individual for some reason becomes violent or commits an injustice against another, the local community can respond without the need for a repressive state apparatus, just as people today step in to break up a fistfight.
“The state has not existed from all eternity,” explains Engels. “There have been societies that did without it, that had no idea of the state and state power. Social classes will fall as they arose at an earlier stage. Along with them the state will inevitably fall. Society, which will reorganize production on the basis of a free and equal association of the producers, will put the whole machinery of state where it will then belong: into a museum of antiquities, by the side of the spinning-wheel and the bronze axe.”
Increase in Productivity
As we mentioned at the beginning of the article, the essential reason why a classless society is possible is that the economic and technological potential exists today to produce more than enough goods and services for everybody on this planet — a super-abundance.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of this point. All the enormous cultural changes described in this article can only proceed from a dramatic rise in society’s economic productivity, through the use of technology to produce more quality goods, more efficiently and more sustainably.
Socialism cannot be created from will alone. For millennia, people have dreamt and fought for an egalitarian social order, but all such past movements were faced with the insurmountable obstacle of the material poverty of their society. No matter who was in power there was still not enough wealth to go around.
But the rise of capitalism has created the possibilities for providing enough for all.
“We’re not anti-capitalist 100%,” writes Cannon. “We’re pro-capitalist as against feudalism, and chattel slavery, and industrial backwardness in general. We are pro-capitalist in recognizing the progressive historic role capitalism played in developing the forces of production, as illustrated to the highest degree in this country. But in making this acknowledgement, we add a postscript: Capitalism has exhausted its progressive role; now it must leave the stage to a higher system.”
Even a fair distribution of existing resources could quickly and drastically improve the standards of living of most people on the planet. And just think about the tremendous advances possible when we put the trillion dollars currently wasted on military spending each year towards something useful!
But even worse than the capitalist system’s unequal and irrational distribution of existing resources, is its complete inability to use the full potential of technology to produce new resources for humanity.
Under capitalism, over-production creates problems and crises, instead of solving them. Under our current system, producing more useful goods for more people lowers product prices and thus cuts into corporate profits — which is unacceptable for the billionaires that run the economy. Thus it is more profitable for the bosses today to invest in destructive enterprises, such as militarism, drugs, and privatization.
Moreover, economic depressions occur in the “free market” when too many goods are produced to be sold in the market at a profit. Because of the “danger” of over-production, capitalist governments actually pay farmers not to grow crops!
“I wonder,” asks Cannon, “what the future human, the really civilized human, will think when she reads in her history books that there was once a society, long ago, where the people might be hungry for the products of farms and factories. And the workers in the factory might be eager to produce and needing the work so that they could live. But because the hungry people couldn’t buy the products, the workers weren’t allowed to work and produce them, and the factories were shut down, and agricultural production was artificially restricted.”
But imagine a society freed from capitalism’s straightjacket on technology and production. The potential for exponential progress is truly amazing — a small laptop today can process more data than the most powerful computer on the planet 40 years ago.
A democratically planned world economy, even with today’s level of economic development, could guarantee a decent standard of living for everybody on the planet. But the productivity of labor under a new, more efficient system will be expanded all the time.
Scientists will constantly be looking for new ways to produce quality food and goods more efficiently, particularly through the use and development of labor-saving inventions and techniques. All this can be done in an environmentally sustainable way, through a radical shift towards the use of renewable energy (solar, wind, etc.) and resources.
A society of super-abundance is completely reachable — but we can’t get there until we get rid of capitalism.
The Elimination of Wages and Money
During the initial transitional period of a workers’ government, people will still be paid wages for their work and will buy goods with these wages. But as society is progressively able to shorten the workday and create a super-abundance of all services and goods (food, homes, clothes, computers, guitars, etc.), this wage/money system will wither away.
Human societies in the past have functioned with no money and no wages — why can’t a future society do the same on the basis of economic plenty?
Harry Ring, in his article Socialism and Individual Freedom, responds to those who say this perspective is utopian:
“You will often hear the argument that such a setup goes against human nature — even if it could be created, human beings wouldn’t be able to handle it. That might be largely true for us who have grown up with the capitalist system. But I think people who live under a rational, cooperative system would be able to adapt quite easily.
As an example, consider people’s attitude toward water. In normal situations, people in most cities in the United States still have a superabundance of water, more than is needed. It’s right there behind the tap. The result: people generally have a rational attitude toward water. They take it for granted. Normal human beings don’t sit up at night filling buckets with water and then hoarding them. The purpose of socialism is to create a superabundance of all material goods, so that we can take the same take the same rational attitude toward them as we do toward water.”
What purpose would money or wages have when you can simply walk into a well-stocked community “store” and take what you need for free? Of course, if you were so inclined, you could take more than you needed — by hoarding dozens of computers or a thousand oranges, for example. But the only impact this would likely have is that the store would have to restock its supply — and your neighbors would think you were a bit silly.
“In the socialist society, when there is plenty and abundance for all, what will be the point in keeping account of each one’s share, any more than in the distribution of food at a well-supplied family table?” asks Cannon. “You don’t keep books as to who eats how many pancakes for breakfast or how many pieces of bread for dinner. If you have a guest, you don’t seize the first piece of meat for yourself, you pass the plate and ask him to help himself first. When there is plenty for all, what purpose would be served in keeping accounts of what each one gets to eat and to wear? There would be no need for compulsion or forcible allotment of material means. ‘Wages’ will become a term of obsolete significance, which only students of ancient history will know about.”
In short, distribution will be based on the principle, “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.”
The Shortening of the Workday
On the basis of the rise in productivity will come a progressive shortening of the workday. This development will give individuals the precious right to free time. Without free time it is virtually impossible to participate in your community, to work on things you are interested in, to educate yourself, or to just plain enjoy life.
Even within the first years of a workers’ government, the workday could be lowered to four hours, with no drop in pay, and with productivity continuing to increase. But this will be only the first step.
“The necessary amount of productive labor time which will be required of each individual in the new society cannot be calculated on the basis of the present stage of industrial development,” explains Cannon. “The advances in science and technology which can be anticipated, plus the elimination of waste caused by competition, parasitism, etc., will render any such calculation obsolete. Our thought about the future must be fitted into the frame of the future.
Even at the present stage of economic development, if everybody worked and there was no waste, a universal four-hour day would undoubtedly be enough to provide abundance for all in the advanced countries. And once the whole thought and energy of society is concentrated on the problem of increasing productivity, it is easily conceivable that a new scientific-technological-industrial revolution would soon render a compulsory productive working day of four hours throughout the normal lifetime of an individual absurdly unnecessary.”
As we noted earlier, automation could eventually eliminate the most unrewarding and mindless jobs — like mining, janitor-work, household cleaning, garbage pick-up, the factory assembly line, etc. Capitalism has already begun to use automation — e.g. ATMs, gas-pumps, recorded phone tellers, etc. — but under the current system these new technologies result in people losing their jobs; under socialism, it would mean freeing everybody up to do more important and creative things with their time.
“The progressive reduction of this labor time required of each individual will, in my opinion, soon render it impractical to compute this labor time on a daily, weekly, or even yearly basis,” Cannon continues. “It is reasonable to assume — this is my opinion, but only my opinion, and not a program — that the amount of labor time required of the individual by society during his or her whole life expectancy, will be approximately computed, and that he or she will be allowed to elect when to make this contribution. I incline strongly to the idea that the great majority will elect to get their required labor time over with in their early youth, working a full day for a year or two.
Thereafter, they would be free for the rest of their lives to devote themselves, with freedom in their labor, to any scientific pursuit, to any creative work or play or study which might interest them. The necessary productive labor they have contributed in a few years of their youth will pay for their entire lifetime maintenance, on the same principle that the workers today pay for their own paltry ‘social security’ in advance.”
Marx spoke of the transition to socialism as the leap from the “realm of necessity” to the “realm of freedom.” Socialist intellectual George Novack specifies:
“Humankind’s freedom comes down in the last analysis to freedom from compulsory labor. The expenditure of time and energy in procuring the material means of existence is an inheritance from the animal state which prevents men and women from leading a completely human life. Free time for all is the characteristic of a truly human existence. The prehistory of humanity will end and its development on a truly human basis begin, when wealth of all kinds flows as freely as water and is as abundant as air and compulsory labor is supplanted by free time.”
Work and Incentives
The transition from capitalism to socialism will bring with it a deep transformation of individual’s relationship to labor and incentives.
Under capitalism, the essential incentive to work is survival — you need to pay the bills. You resign yourself to monotonous, degrading, alienating jobs — in which all decisions come from above, in which your labor is exploited so that the bosses can make their profits — because you need money to pay for dinner and next month’s rent. In the words of Novack, a modern wage slave “is a prisoner with a lifetime sentence to hard labor.”
So what, you may ask, will be an individual’s incentives under socialism?
First of all, it is important to note that even under capitalism people do things for many reasons other than making money for themselves. Think about students in high schools who play sports or act in theater; musicians, writers, and painters who create art with no thought of personal gain; teachers who teach despite the poor pay; immigrants who work extra hours to feed their relatives in their home countries. Think about the hundreds of thousands of activists who spend their free time fighting for a better world, often putting their jobs and lives on the line.
The powerful motivations lying behind these actions can become the norm — just as they were under the societies that existed before the rise of social classes. Love, creativity, sympathy, friendship, solidarity, imagination, and passion will blossom.
A key incentive under socialism will be the praise of peers. Cannon explains:
“Public opinion, uncontaminated by phony propaganda, will be a powerful force. The desire to be approved by one’s associates will be a powerful incentive. In the new society the most useful people will be acclaimed; not the rich exploiters, the slick fakers, the lying politicians, and the generals famed for slaughter. The youth will venerate heroes of a new type — the scientist, the artist, the poet. The applause and approval of the people will be the highest incentive and the highest reward of the socialist human.”
Moreover, under socialism there will very likely be more competition than under capitalism — not less. Of course, it won’t be competition like we have today, where people kill each-other for material goods. Instead, it will be competition in the field of ideas, the arts, science, philosophy, sports, and beyond.
Leon Trotsky explains in his visionary 1924 book Literature and Revolution:
“All forms of life, such as the cultivation of land, the planning of human habitations, the building of theaters, the methods of socially educating children, the solution of scientific problems, the creation of new styles, will vitally engross all and everybody. People will divide into ‘parties’ over the regulation of the weather and the climate, over a new theater, over chemical hypotheses, over two competing tendencies in music, and over a best system of sports.
The struggle will have no running after profits, no betrayals, no bribery, none of the things that form the soul of ‘competition’ in a society divided into classes. But this will in no way hinder the struggle from being absorbing, dramatic and passionate. And as all problems in a socialist society — the problems of life which formerly were solved spontaneously and automatically, and the problems of art which were in the custody of special priestly castes — will become the property of all people, one can say with certainty that collective interests and passions and individual competition will have the widest scope and the most unlimited opportunity.
In a culture whose foundations are steadily rising, the human personality, with its invaluable basic trait of continual discontent, will grow and become polished at all its points. In truth, we have no reason to fear that there will be a decline of individuality or an impoverishment of art in a Socialist society.”
Having finally freed themselves from the daily struggle for survival, humans will move on to more important things. “Once the transition period has been passed through, once all the problems of abundance and plenty have been solved,” Cannon explains, “the people will want also to live right in the larger sense—to provide for their cultural and aesthetic aspirations. They will have a great hunger and thirst for beauty and harmony in all the surroundings of their lives.”
Indeed, one of the central incentives under socialism will be the individual urge to create and discover, as a means of self-expression.
Individuality and Art
A truly socialist society — far from “making everybody the same” — will allow for the exponential expansion of individual freedom and the blossoming of the individual. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels defined socialism as an association in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” The stifling conformity characteristic of both Stalinism and capitalism will become distant memories.
“All-sided cultural development under socialism will not be some special gift or opportunity for favored individuals, but the heritage of all,” notes Cannon. “Socialist humans will have the most priceless of all possessions: time. They will have leisure. They will have time and the means to live, to play, to grow, to travel, to realize to the full the expression of their human personality.”
Cannon explains that everybody will have the opportunity to be an artist of some kind:
“Under class society, millions of children have the spark of talent, or even of genius, snuffed out before it has a chance to become a flame. Children of the poor, who like to draw already in school, soon have to put all those ideas out of their minds. They can’t afford to be drawing pictures. They have to learn some trade where they can make a living, and forget about their artistic aspirations.
In the new society, one who has an instinct and feeling for words can become a writer. Every child who has a talent for music or drawing or sculpting or writing—and there is no such thing as a child without some talent—can become an artist of one sort or another.”
A socialist society will be in a constant state of development and innovation. Humanity will have to confront the endless stream of new possibilities (and problems) that will inevitably arise.
“Life in the future will not be monotonous,” writes Trotsky. “Humankind, who will learn how to move rivers and mountains, how to build peoples’ palaces on the peaks of Mont Blanc and at the bottom of the Atlantic, will not only be able to add to its own life richness, brilliancy and intensity, but also a dynamic quality of the highest degree. The shell of life will hardly have time to form before it will burst open again under the pressure of new technical and cultural inventions and achievements.”
“The ultimate aim of the new socialist order,” argues Novack, “is to bring about conditions that will make both individual and collective creativeness the rule, rather than the exception in human life. We can only dimly surmise what human beings with such highly organized social consciousness and material powers will be like. They will produce wonders that will make flight into space seem like child’s play. And not the least of these wonders will be what humanity will make of itself.”
Freed from the struggle for survival, humans will radically reshape not only their surroundings, but themselves. The study and improvement of the human body and mind will progress in directions we can only dimly imagine.
“The human species will once more enter into a state of radical transformation,” foresees Trotsky. “Social construction and psycho-physical self-education will become two aspects of one and the same process. People will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; their bodies will become more harmonized, their movements more rhythmic, their voices more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.”
There is no way for us today to foresee what wondrous paths humanity will travel down — any more than a cavemen could have predicted the invention of the internet or space travel. So our article is obliged to end at the point in time where the real history of humanity will begin.
We hope we’ve been able by now to convince you that socialism is a world worth fighting for. We’ll conclude with one last quote by James P. Cannon:
“We ourselves are not privileged to live in the socialist society of the future. It is our destiny, here and now, to live in the time of the decay and death agony of capitalism. It is our task to wade through the blood and filth of this outmoded, dying system. Our mission is to clear it away. To work for that socialist future is the most important, the most inspiring and the most satisfying occupation of all.”
We invite you to join Socialist Organizer, the U.S. section of the Fourth International, to participate in this historic struggle for the liberation of humankind.