A Very Brief Introduction to Socialism
Socialism is all the rage again. Bernie Sanders is the leading Democratic candidate for president, a 29 year old latina democratic socialist primaried and unseated one of the highest ranking members of the Democratic establishment in 2018, becoming the face of the left wing of the Democratic party over night, and openly avowed socialists are running up and down tickets all over the country mostly through an overwhelmingly popular presence on Twitter and Tik Tok — they’ve even formed a caucus, the Rose Caucus, to support each other and unequivocally state the positions to which they all hold, such as abolishing ICE and the CIA, and passing a Green New Deal, and Medicare for All. It includes over 30 candidates so far! (You should go check them out and follow them online).
Since socialism is on the rise in popular discourse, I wrote this as a very brief introduction to socialism, Karl Marx, and his philosophy. Specifically, it describes who Marx was and what laid the foundation for his economic and political theories. From there, it explores those theories in brief, specifically socialism and its variants, and why these ideas are important, how they can be implemented, and most importantly, a call to action to create the future we imagine. There’s even a bit of anarchism thrown in for fun. I hope this is a helpful and accessible introduction to Karl Marx and humane, rational social organization. Solidarity!
Karl Marx was a philosopher/sociologist in the 19th century (1818–1883). You probably know that he spent his career critiquing capitalism, or, a mode of economic production by which a few people own business, factories, and resources, and most people “sell” their time and energy in the form of labor to those owners.
Marx was looking around after the industrial revolution of the 19th century and realized that we were making a whole lot of stuff and people were working a whole lot of hours, but most people weren’t actually making more money or moving up in the world. In fact, a lot of people were worse off than before the advent of capitalism, especially those in Western Europe’s myriad colonies around the globe. He noticed that a few people — the people who owned the businesses and factories — were getting super duper wealthy and the people who had to “sell their labor” for less than the value which was created by it, were living in ghettos, working inhumane hours in dangerous conditions, and even their kids had to work as child laborers to help make ends meet.
Thus, Marx attributed this inequality to the mode of production, or the economic system that we call capitalism, and he dedicated his life to studying capitalism and developing a philosophy known as dialectical materialism, or Marxism, as well as new economic system that reflected that philosophy, known as socialism.
A lot of people think of the words Marxism, socialism, or communism as interchangeable, but that’s not really true. Marxism is a philosophy, or a sociological and historical narrative; whereas socialism is primarily an economic system, and communism is primarily a political system. One could, in theory, subscribe to any of these without subscribing to the others. Let’s start with the most fundamental of the three, Marxism.
The term Marxism, technically speaking, refers to Marx’s philosophical theory through which he understood the world. This theory is called Dialectical Materialism.
To break it down, “dialectical” comes from Hegel’s philosophy, known as Idealism — But don’t worry too much about that. I’m going to oversimplify Hegel and get on to Marx. So to oversimplify, Hegel believed that the world is in constant development, and this development happens when two contradictory ideas or circumstances — or theses — synthesize together to form a new thesis, which will eventually synthesize with another antithesis, and so on.
This process is ultimately called history, and it’s how Hegel viewed history. This is why his philosophy is called “Idealism,” because Hegel believes that true reality is a potential ideal not yet realized, and Reason is the thing that will realize it. So as a concrete example, Hegel wrote during the Napoleonic Wars, so he may have seen his fractured and feudal hodge-podge of German states as a thesis, and Napoleon’s invading army, spreading the French Revolution’s rational ideals of democracy and equality as an antithesis, the resolution between the two hopefully being a new, unified, modern, and rational Germany, if not a whole new and improved Europe. That specific example is a bit of crude conjecture on my part, but it captures the idea. Two distinct things contradict each other and eventually form a new thing, specifically in regards to grand historical events or epochs. This basic process repeats over and over until Reason has negated all the false realities and all the world’s potentialities are realized and we finally have Freedom in the Absolute! …
… Right. Well, there’s a reason Hegel complained on his deathbed that no one understood him — except of course for his favorite student, but not even him really.
I’ve written a little bit about dialectics and negation before, but the upshot of this whole mess is that Marx applied this dialectical process to the second word in Marx’s philosophy — “materialism”— In other words, material goods: the resources, wealth, and economies throughout history.
Marx opens the Communist Manifesto with this iconic line:
“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”
In this application, Marx thought that history (remember that Hegel viewed this whole dialectical process as history itself) was driven completely by material goods, or, who has wealth — and therefore who has power — and who does not. Marx disregarded things like religion, which had no real value, it was merely a tool in the ruling class’ toolbox to distract and pacify the masses of people. (This view of religion and metaphysics comes from Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872). In a way, Feuerbach could be seen as an “antithesis,” to Marx’s fascination with Hegelianism, resulting in Marx’s own unique “synthesis” of philosophy, dialectical materialism. Marx wrote about Feuerbach’s influence on him in 12 Theses on Feuerbach). But this is what lead to Marx’s famous quote “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” Even religion can only be properly understood, according to Marx, through analysis of the class struggle for wealth and power.
For Marx, all that mattered is materialism — if you understood that and applied it, you could properly analyze history, psychology, humankind — everything.
Later, more postmodern socialists will question this “grand narrative,” of history and humankind, marking the first major deviation of socialists from Marxism itself. But class analysis remains integral to social theory. For Marx, though, history is nothing more and certainly nothing less than the process of certain people’s control over others by controlling their supply of work, resources, food, goods, and ultimately their power and agency to determine and control their own lives. Or as Hegel called it — Freedom.
Today, we still call this class struggle. When unions and socialists worked together to pressure FDR to pass the New Deal during the Great Depression, guaranteeing a minimum wage, social security, and unemployment insurance, or when working people collectively strike, halting production in order to achieve certain demands, like 8 hour work days, workplace safety, or an end to child labor, they are participating in class struggle. They’re actively driving the dialectic of dialectical materialism forward.
Ultimately, Marx believed if we continue to wage class struggle and push the dialectic forward, we will create a new mode of economic production, not just an alternative to capitalism, but specifically an advancement beyond and out of capitalism, known as socialism. Therefore, socialism is a product of Marxism, not necessarily a synonym for it. Let’s now turn to what socialism is, exactly.
As stated, Marx saw socialism as the next stage in that dialectical process of Hegel’s. This meant that Marx didn’t think capitalism was bad. He just thought it was time to move beyond it. He thought it had achieved its purpose, which was to be the next step in human history beyond feudalism, to increase our productive capabilities. Marx wholeheartedly agreed that those things had been achieved! People were no longer legally bound to a plot of land which they had to work, as in feudalism or serfdom, and we had factories and trade networks and organized specialized labor that gave us the ability to produce more goods than we could ever possibly need.
The problem, then, was that capitalism had outlived its usefulness. By Marx’s time, all that extra productive capacity seemed to, rather than allowing everyone to work less and play, learn, create, and commune more, still required the majority of people to work more than ever before, while only truly materially enriching and advancing a small class of people. Most people were still forced to sell their time and energy more and more as wage slaves, rather than as serf slaves, and still pay rent to a “landlord,” who, provided what services for this rent, exactly? So what had actually changed for most people? In many ways the workers seemed to be worse off than before, with even less freedom.
So Marx recognized the benefits and purpose of capitalism, and he didn’t think it was “bad,” or a mistake. He simply thought it was one stage of history, a stage which it was our responsibility to now move beyond. This would actually become a point of contention leading up to the Russian Revolution. Russia was still largely a feudal society up until World War I. Some revolutionary minded folks wanted to skip capitalism and get right on with socialism — I mean, just look at those child laborers and slums in London and Paris. You actually WANT that? — But still other revolutionaries who were committed to dialectical materialism argued that socialism would be impossible without the intermediary capitalist stage. Capitalism was seen by some as necessary to ramp up production and urbanize the workers and peasants in order to have the productive capacity for a socialist society. So you can begin to see how the philosophy and theory behind socialism becomes important in situations like this. Can we have socialism without following the rules of Marx’s dialectical materialism?
At any rate, the Marxists and socialists began to theorize a way to redistribute that productive energy to benefit everyone, allowing everyone to have their needs met, and work less than ever before, which is what technological and productive advancements should actually be used for. And in fact, in such a system, people who cannot work wouldn’t need to, because if production is allocated equitably we should be able to make so much stuff with so little effort that we can simply provide for disabled or elderly people, or people who want to pursue a life of learning or otherwise “unproductive” or “unprofitable” vocations, like art, music, philosophy, or homecare, because these are all valuable vocations to our society, although they may not be “profitable.” As Marx once described in Critique of the Gotha Programme, the vision was of an economy in which resources are allocated “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.”
“Well, that sounds great!” you say. “I would like one economy in which we may not have one day shipping on dog sweaters and no one gets a private jet, but also no one goes hungry and everyone can go the doctor, please!”
So how does one do a socialism?
Well, that would depend upon whom one asks. Ask 100 people how to do socialism and you will get 101 answers. Since this stage of the dialectic hasn’t technically happened yet, we are still a bit unsure of what a socialist stage of history would or will actually look like. And not everyone who subscribes to dialectical materialism and agrees that we ought to negate capitalism and usher in a new system agrees that that new system should be socialism proper. For one example, Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876) was a dialectical materialist (he might object to being called a “Marxist,” being a contemporary of Marx, but dialectical materialism is generally attributed to Marx’s name) but Bakunin was not a socialist or a communist necessarily. He was technically an anarchist, anarchists having their own theories about the economy and the role — or lack thereof — of the state in it.
People have obviously tried different ways of implementing a more equitable economic system, to varying degrees of success. From the Paris commune, to the Soviet Union, to the social democratic countries of Northern Europe, and to local or small scale unions, worker co-ops, and worker owned businesses. Socialism and its variants are, fundamentally, about relieving that small class of people which owns the businesses and factories (the means of production) of their burdens, and giving the power that comes with ownership to the masses of workers and citizens. There are different ways to do it, whether through militant and widespread unions, worker co-ops and businesses owned directly by the workers and run on a one-person-one-vote Democratic basis (anarchist model), or by state ownership of production (communist model), or by the state accepting the inequalities of capitalism and simply redistributing wealth and resources as needed via taxes, universal healthcare, transit, and education, communal reinvestment, universal basic income, etc. (social democratic model). They each prove to present their own problems, such as a weak central government which becomes vulnerable to outside threats in an anarchist model, an over-powerful and potentially corrupt central government in the communist model, and a weak and vulnerable mere safety net — which could be taken away with a vote in congress — in the social democratic model.
Perhaps the answer is a combination of ideas, but the fundamental idea here is the redistribution of power within society, so that those who own wealth and production cannot use their power to continue to accrue more and more power, then leave their wealth and power to their children who get a head start at accruing their own disproportionate power over the next generation. Socialism, in all its flavors, seeks to create a society in which everyone prospers and no one has too much power over anyone else. But this is why simply redistributing wealth does not actually solve the problems of capitalism, because as long as a small class of people owns businesses, factories, mines, resources, and the rest, those people will fundamentally have a disproportionate amount of power over everyone else. It’s why simply electing one socialist guy president isn’t enough — electoral politics at all is not enough, though it is necessary. The key to redistributing power is organization, because the masses of people have to work as a collective to flex the strength that their labor — or the withholding of their labor — provides. That’s why Bernie’s candidacy is exciting. It is not exciting because he is a nice old man who wants to get us healthcare, it’s exciting because his candidacy and the apparatus surrounding it is creating a structure of organization that can reach far beyond his term as president.
Socialism is about more than redistributing money — that can be undone. It’s about redistributing power through collective ownership of the means of production.
To conclude, we have seen that Marxism and socialism — though intimately intertwined — are their own unique things. One is a philosophical system, the other is a system of economics and production. One can be a Marxist, like Bakunin, without being a strict socialist, and one can also be a socialist — or anarchist or communist — without being a strict Marxist (like myself!). Either way, the fun part about the dialectic is that it isn’t finished! It’s just waiting there for an active subject to push history along and create a just and free society according to our own vision.