The word “socialism” has been used by all sorts of people to mean all sorts of things. Like “democracy”.
That’s really because (like democracy) socialism is such a good idea that all sorts of political tricksters and frauds have wanted to lay claim to it.
William Morris was famous as a designer, but also an active socialist. Over 130 years ago, at the time when socialism was first becoming a stable and organised movement, he summed up how he understood it.
“What I mean by socialism is a condition of society in which there should be neither rich nor poor, neither master nor servant, neither idle nor overworked, neither brain-sick brain-workers, nor heart-sick hand-workers, in a word, in which all people would be living in equality of condition, and would manage their affairs unwastefully, and with the full consciousness that harm to one would mean harm to all — the realisation at last of the meaning of the word commonwealth”.
The language seems old-fashioned, but the thought is as relevant now as it was then.
Measured against that definition, the old USSR and the East European states which called themselves socialist were the very opposite. There, a minority of bureaucrats lived in luxury and lorded it over the workers.
Real socialism is more than just a good idea, and more than just a different interpretation from the tricksters, because it builds on how the working class develops under the existing economic system, the private-profit or capitalist system.
By working class we mean everyone who has to sell their capacity to labour to an employer for a wage in order to live (also, of course, the children and elderly or disabled people who depend on others’ wages).
The employer, who is a position to buy our capacity to labour because they’re rich and own the factories, the offices, the equipment, and facilities necessary for production, makes profits through the exchange.
In Britain these days, for example, each worker produces an average of about £74,000 in goods and services. Of that, just £22,000 comes back to the worse-off 80% of households in wages.
The employers try to increase their cut by keeping wages down, by pushing us to work harder and longer, and dividing us so that some groups of workers can be pushed down to even lower wages.
Across all countries and times, workers respond by organising to help each other, and banding together to improve their collective conditions. That is what trade unions are about. That’s solidarity.
Socialism is solidarity raised up and projected to become the guiding principle of all society. It will get rid of exploitation by making the factories, offices, equipment, facilities, collective social property, rather than private property run for private gain.
The privileges and perks of managers, officials, bureaucrats and shareholders will be abolished. There will be democratic self-rule at all levels of the economy, including the workplace. Each electorate will control its representatives and be able to use a right of recall and re-election at any time.
Production will be democratically planned for need. Waste will be reduced. Economic activity will serve human life, rather than human life serving “the economy”. Individual liberty will expand.
Versions of this picture of socialism have been widely though vaguely recognised as long-term aims in the labour movement for decades. Only, with the movement lacking confidence and daring, its leaders of the movement have too often aimed only to go forward inch by inch, on ground which the capitalists are simultaneously moving backwards beneath our feet.
Build up the confidence and daring! That’s what the active socialists work for.