What would socialism look like?

Reforming capitalism is not the same as socialism, argues Sadie Robinson. Another society is possible—but can only come about through a revolution by working class people

Bernie Sanders’ success in the Democratic Party primaries in the US has helped put the idea of socialism back on the map.

As a result even the bosses’ Forbes magazine worried recently that, “Bernie Sanders is surging in the polls and the idea of socialism is gaining traction among young people.”

Sanders describes himself as a “democratic socialist”, but his vision is still very much one of change within the system.

Some other socialists like Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, who suffered defat in December’s election, also see sweeping change as possible through parliament.

Yet socialism is so radically different to capitalism that winning it means overthrowing the system.

Capitalism is driven by competition. Society is divided into classes—the working class and the ruling class, which controls the means of production.

Bosses compete to make the most profits by exploiting workers—paying them less than the value of what they produce and keeping the rest.

Under capitalism, real power doesn’t lie with parliament but with a tiny group of rich people.

Their control of huge corporations and wealth gives them the ability to sack thousands of people at a minute’s notice, and withhold investment capital in order to damage economies.

In any case most governments back up the rich over ordinary people. And most of the state—the police, judiciary, army and so on—is unelected. Its role is to maintain the social order and protect the property of the rich.

Our rulers use oppressions such as racism and sexism to help keep workers divided and wage wars for control and influence over land and resources. They are refusing to act on climate change in order to defend the wealth of the fossil fuel corporations.

Capitalism is a brutal, chaotic and wasteful system that fails the vast majority of humanity in the name of making a minority obscenely wealthy. The world’s billionaires have more wealth between them than 4.6 billion people, according to Oxfam’s recent wealth report.

Socialism would reverse all of this.

Under socialism, the mass of working class people would develop their own institutions to collectively organise production—and society as a whole.

There would be real democratic decision-making. Society would be organised to meet people’s needs and look after the environment, not make profits for a few.

Instead of wasting billions on arms, for instance, people could shift resources to housing or nurseries.

Ultimately socialism would do away with class divisions, inequality and oppression.

Past upheavals

Revolutions and revolutionary upheavals in the past have shown how dramatic the changes can be.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 is the only time in history when workers successfully took state power. Working class people set up workers’ councils called soviets and began to run society themselves.

Revolutionary journalist John Reed’s description of a Congress of Soviets meeting in his book Ten Days that Shook the World gives a flavour of this new democracy.

An army officer attacked the Congress and claimed to be speaking for “delegates from the front”.

“Soldiers began to stand up all over the hall. ‘Who are you speaking for? What do you represent?’ they cried. “You represent the officers, not the soldiers! What do the soldiers say about it?’ Jeers and hoots.”

The revolution saw an explosion of interest in political ideas.

People who had been illiterate learned to read. Hundreds of thousands of leaflets, pamphlets, newspapers and books were distributed across Russia.

Reed wrote, “The thirst for education, so long thwarted, burst with the Revolution into a frenzy of expression. Russia absorbed reading matter like hot sand drinks water, insatiable.

“Every street corner was a public tribune. In railway trains, streetcars, always the spurting up of impromptu debate, everywhere.”

The revolutionary government quickly brought in measures to undermine old oppressions.

It gave women the right to abortion and divorce on demand. It set up nurseries and canteens to shift the burden of childcare and feeding from individual women and onto society as a whole.

Homosexuality was legalised. A Jew, Leon Trotsky, was twice elected leader of the Petrograd soviet in a country that had been strongly anti-semitic.

The Chinese Revolution in 1927 saw a similar shift in ideas. In his book The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution Harold Isaacs wrote, “Bandages were torn from the bound feet of children.

“Superstitions and old habits suffered. ‘The clay and wood gods have already lost their dignity,’ said a report from the country. ‘The people no longer need the Five Classics and the Four Books.

“‘What they want is political reports’.”

In revolutions, ordinary people come to the fore and achieve things they never dreamed possible. After living in societies that insist they must “know their place”, they begin to glimpse their own potential. Old hierarchies become irrelevant.

In Portugal a revolutionary upsurge in 1974-75 saw workers occupy factories and soldiers elect their officers. Luxury houses were turned into creches or used to house workers.

More recently during the revolution in Egypt some hospital workers met in their workplaces and set about reorganising things on their terms. They demanded that old managers who had backed dictator Hosni Mubarak were removed.

The meetings involved workers on every level, including doctors, porters, cleaners and admin workers.

It was a glimpse of what could have been, but there were not enough organised workers involved in the revolution to bring about a socialist transformation.

The old regime was able to regroup and violently reassert control.

But there is no way of transforming society without challenging the capitalist set-up.

The revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg argued that people who say they want socialism through reforms aren’t arguing for socialism at all.

They “do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society they take a stand for surface modifications of the old society.”

Of course, we can win reforms under capitalism and it is worth doing so.

It matters whether we have a decent Medicare system or not, or whether abortion is legal or illegal, for example. And fighting for reforms can spill over into bigger struggles and help ordinary people discover their power.

But reforms under capitalism are not the same as socialism. They don’t challenge the privilege of the rich. And they leave all the exploitation, oppression and horror of the system intact.


Socialism can only come about through revolution “from below”—from the mass activity of the majority of ordinary people.

This is why strikes and mass demonstrations are so important—they give workers a sense of their power to change society and point towards the kind of struggle needed for fundamental change.

As the revolutionary Karl Marx put it, “The emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class.”

Socialism can’t be handed down to us from above. Marxists argue that revolution is needed for two main reasons.

First, winning socialism requires challenging the ruling class and the state machines that back them. They will resist this.

In Russia some 14 armies invaded to aid the counter-revolutionary White Army.

The only way to win a socialist society is by workers imposing it and resisting any attempts at counter-revolution from the old rulers.

The second reason is to do with the transformation it brings about in those taking part.

Marx wrote, “Revolution is necessary, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.”

In the process of creating a new world, people begin to transform themselves.

Of course revolutions are not simple affairs. Any successful socialist revolution will have to spread internationally in order to survive. It will need a well organised and rooted revolutionary party.

Old ideas and superstitions won’t completely disappear straight away. And the ruling class will throw everything it has at destroying any revolutionary movement.

But a socialist revolution can get rid of the exploitation, oppression and violence that destroys so many lives today.

And the numbers that the working class can mobilise are far, far greater than anything the cops and the state can throw at it.

We have the resources, the power and the potential to build a very different world. Class struggle is built into capitalism. And time after time, this has grown into a revolutionary challenge to the system.

There will be revolutions in the future but change is not guaranteed. Our job is to push for a socialist transformation of society.

Republished from Socialist Worker UK


Solidarity meetings

Latest articles

Read more

Why you should be a socialist

Maeve Larkins explains why socialism is the solution to the interlocking crises that dominate our world

The case for socialism

In this extract from his new pamphlet, David Glanz explains what’s wrong with capitalism and the necessity of socialist revolution

Is international revolution possible?

Eliot Hoving continues our series on socialism, arguing that international revolution is both possible and necessary