What is Socialism?
Socialism is not synonymous with statism. A socialism worth defending must be about radically transferring ownership, power and control to the people
What comes to mind when you think of the word ‘socialism’?
I ask because I think that many people associate socialism with one of two things: They either think about the totalitarian state socialism enacted under Stalin in the USSR or they think about European social democracy, which entailed, in the immediate post-war period, nationalisation, redistribution, Keynesianism and welfarism.
In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with these mental associations: Social democracy and Stalinism are both different forms of socialism that existed in the 20th Century and, for many people, they serve as a model of what socialism was and may even guide what they think socialism ought to be in the future.
The problem is that both of these forms of socialism are what Hal Draper would have called ‘socialism from above,’ because both of these forms of socialism involve centralising power in the hands of the state.
I would argue that we need to reject these forms of socialism, because transferring power, control and ownership of the economy to the state does nothing to restructure society so as to empower working people. To given an example: Attlee’s post-war Labour government nationalised about 20% of the economy between 1945–51, but the industries they nationalised were generally those that were loss-making or struggling and they left existing management structures in place. For the average worker in these industries, nothing much had changed. In fact, some argue that the nationalisation programme helped to shore up capitalism by propping up the less competitive sectors of the industrial base. In addition to this, by leaving power and control of the industries with the existing managers and shop stewards, the dynamism that could have been unleashed by a more radical transfer of ownership, power and control was lost, helping to discredit socialism in the medium-term as Thatcher pointed to the inefficiency and sclerosis of the nationalised industries as a reason for privatisation in the 1980s.