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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 33, August 9, 2014

Socialism — What, Why, How?

Friday 8 August 2014, by Bharat Dogra

I - Introduction

“I am convinced that there is only one way to eliminate these great evils (of capitalism), namely, through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented towards social goals....”

It was a long time ago—65 years to be precise—when Albert Einstein wrote these words with much faith and hope. Unfortunately this optimism could not be maintained as by and large socialism could not be implemented in ways that could inspire widespread and long-term support. In limited areas where some form of a socialist economy could be introduced, any success could at best be claimed only for short periods and in limited ways. On the other hand, the allegations of violation of democratic norms and human rights, resulting at certain times in mass distress under regimes which called themselves socialist, found much wider acceptance among the people.

This happened partly because very big, very sad mistakes were actually made in the name of socialism. In addition, of course, all the time big capitalist interests were trying to hinder and sabotage the progress of socialism, and to ensure that its achievements were understated and its mistakes were over-reported.

Despite all this, significant efforts against injustice and oppression still continue to be inspired by some vision of socialism and socialist thought. Among the people who come forward for justice, peace and environment protection, there are almost always a significant number who share socialist thoughts.

It is in this situation that, learning from past mistakes, creative efforts should be made to reclaim for socialism a very important role in creating a just, equal, sustainable, peaceful, ecologically protective and socially harmonious world. It is as a part of these wider efforts that the basic idea of socialism keeping in view the present-day situation and the challenges ahead should be presented in such ways that this can reach a much larger number of people, particu-larly the youth.


What is socialism? What are its most basic features? What are its non-negotiable basic values? How is socialism different from capita-lism, particularly from the more enlightened forms of capitalism?

The most basic tenet of socialism is equality of all human beings in all its aspects. Socialists do not require any debate about whether economic equality is better for economic growth or not, equality is cherished simply for its own sake and as a basic principle about how human society should be structured. It is a basic value of socialism that the fundamental human rights of all people should be respected and fulfilled, including the right to meet their basic needs with dignity and in non-discriminatory ways. To ensure this, the existing resource ownership and use, employment and fiscal or other policies should all be mobilised by public policy to first and foremost meet the needs of all people.

Enlightened forms of capitalism pay lip-sympathy to meeting the needs of all, but not to the need to change ownership patterns and government policies in significant and sustained ways to ensure this. Secondly, in the case of socialism, given the firm commitment to equality, there is no scope for meeting the needs in one society at the cost of another society. Plunder of other societies to meet the needs of its members is not allowed in the basic principles of a socialist society. So its most important means of meeting the needs of all its people is to adopt government policies aimed at bringing about equality.

However, such policies can succeed only if simultaneously efforts are made all the time to promote those values which promote care and compassion of all people and motivate the people to overcome selfish considerations to help the weaker sections. Such efforts can certainly be made in a big way in socialist societies because these are completely in line with their basic tenet of equality. But in the case of capitalism it is much more likely that the opposite values of selfishness, greed, getting ahead of others at all costs will get much more support in social, educational and cultural spheres. In fact many persons who become very rich by adopting highly questionable, unethical and corrupt practices manage to become iconic figures in capitalist societies.

In sharp contrast as equality is the defining feature of socialism, it is most likely that all the values allied to equality (such as selfless service, deep concern for the needs of others and high sense of social responsibility) can be achieved much better in socialist societies compared to capitalist societies.

Another prominent feature of socialism is that while the independent role of small/medium farmers and entrepreneurs is well recognised and encouraged, private interests are not allowed to achieve a dominant or controlling role in any sector of the economy. Even big industrialists and companies can have a very relevant role subject to the condition that they do not try to infiltrate and influence public policy-making in illegal and unethical ways. Secondly, laws relating to labour rights, environmental protection and consumer safety concerns should be respected. This again is very different from the capitalist system where powerful monopolies are not only tolerated but often have a very close relationship with ruling politicians.

Market plays an important role in socialist economies, of course, and any effort at excessive regulation can be self-defeating. In fact socialism can provide better opportunities for competition among producers and traders at a level playing field compared to capitalist economies which are increasingly dominated by very big manufacturing and trader corporates capable of influencing public policy in their favour.

Socialist economies also assign a very important role to planning to ensure that the basic needs of all people are met. The consumer and capital goods as well as infrastructure needed for this have to be adequately planned for so that any shortages, high prices and excessive profiteering can be avoided. Therefore along with the private sector the public sector is also assigned an important role in meeting the basic needs of all in manufacturing as well as distribution.

In capitalist societies private corporates play the leading role whereas in socialist countries along with private corporates the public sector, co-operative sector and independent small producers and distributers all together play important roles.

Equality not just within a nation but among all nations of the world is emphasised by socialism. Hence a lot of significance is given to replacing the existing inequalities based globalisation with a system of international economic and trade relations based on equality and justice. Multinational companies can participate in socialist economies only to the extent that they agree to abide with the wider goals of socialist economy.

While economic equality is a non-negotiable essential precept of socialism, this is of course accompanied by all forms of social equality including the ending of all discriminations and injustices based on race, colour, caste, religion, gender etc.

To summarise, then, socialism is a system based on willing acceptance of equality of all human beings as a basic precept, supported by other allied values of equality and justice. Thus use of public policy to ensure the basic needs along with dignity and justice to all people is the defining feature of socialism. This should be distinguished from the capitalist system based on pursuit of private profit as a defining feature. Socialism gives an important and enduring role to public authorities and the public sector in ensuring equality and justice for all, while the capitalist societies often minimise the role of the public sector, or else accept it only to the extent that it is needed to provide the necessary support to private corporates (such as building the expensive infrastructure which the private corporates need but try to avoid the vast expenses needed for this). The co-operative sector also has a more important role in the socialist economy. Socialist economies don’t allow any private interest to control any important sector of the economy, while capitalist countries generally allow this and often facilitate this. The overall socio-cultural values in socialism are those of social goals and meeting the needs of all; in capitalism these values are more about personal achievement, celebrity status, and getting ahead at all costs.


It has been widely propagated that capitalism has proved to be a very successful system, bringing prosperity not just to the Western capitalist countries but also to many ‘developing’ counties in other parts of the world. But let’s look at the bigger reality of what the spread of capitalism and related imperialism/colonialism/neo-colonialism to various parts of the world during the last three to four hundred years has actually achieved.

  • The scale of violence, war, mass cruelty, the resulting death and devastation have never been equalled in any previous period of history.
  • The extent to which nations and communities have been torn asunder, partitioned, divided, implicated in civil strife has never been equalled before. Several countries have received such shock treatment time and again. Ancient civilisations have been wiped out.
  • In no other periods of history were such vast number of people in distant lands subjugated in such ways that their lives and livelihoods were decided by the interests and whims of other people.
  • In no other previous period of history so many forms of animals, birds and other species were slaughtered, hunted, killed, subjected to unheard cruelties and exposed to mass extinction as in the last three to four hundred years.
  • In no other period of history were such destructive weapons accumulated that can destroy almost all forms of life on earth.
  • In no other period of history were such serious environmental threats created as to endanger the life-creating conditions on earth (the phenomenon of climate change and other related issues).

True, the scientific and technological advances made in the course of the advance of the capitalist system have improved human life in several important ways, but these frequently highlighted achievements should be seen together with the adverse side of capitalism. Even today the basic needs of simply too many people cannot be met despite all the outer shine and glitter of capitalism. Due to high rates of social disintegration, breakdown of relation-ships, chronic health problems, depression and alienation as well as increasing economic stress, overall distress may be on the rise in many capitalist societies, despite the improved data for some selected indicators.

At the same time, however, mass distress resulting from arbitrary actions in Russia under Stalin and China under Mao has been widely reported. Millions are alleged to have perished in these situations. There may be same exaggeration, but there is also substantial truth in these allegations.

So, in view of such a dismal record of what took place in the name of ‘socialism’, can we really recommend socialism to replace capitalism?

The serious mistakes made in the course of implementing socialism in the past have to be carefully considered, their causes should be clearly understood and lessons should be learnt. The core issues of socialism also need to be broadened to accord more importance to social harmony and improved relationships, comm-unity life, environment protection and peace related issues.

On the whole, socialism despite its not-so-good record is more capable of meeting the most critical challenges of our times and the near future. The basic precepts of socialism make it more responsive to the agenda of peace and environmental protection—two most critical issues of our times that present a ‘survival’ crisis.

There is increasing evidence that global warming and climate change, if not checked at the right time, can change life sustaining conditions on earth in irreversible ways. Very significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions have to be carried out and we’re running out of time. Socialism, with its emphasis on meeting the needs of all, social responsibilities, planning, co-operation, rejection of greed and consu-merism offers an alternative system, in comparison to capitalism with all its greed and consumerism, that can cope better with the responsibilities of climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Another survival crisis is posed by weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Apart from nuclear weapons (and hidden chemical/biological ones), the destructive power of some conventional weapons has also been increased to such an extent that any large-scale use of these weapons resembles WMDs, particularly if the conven-tional weapons include those with depleted uranium. How to phase out such destructive weapons as early as possible is therefore also a critical survival issue.

Again, socialism, with its emphasis on equality, is much better placed than capitalism to take forward the agenda of peace (compared to capitalism with its endless quest for profit and greed).


However, in order to live up to its potential of peace and environmental protection, socialism has to make a big effort to integrate these issues much more closely and comprehensively with its earlier agenda which has been seen mainly as an agenda of equality and justice. Similarly, the concerns of protecting all other forms of life, gender justice, social harmony and improved relationships have to be integrated more closely by making special efforts so that finally the agenda of socialism includes all critical areas of our times.

In the socialism of our times the basic concerns of equality and justice must be integrated with other most important issues of peace, environmental protection and social harmony in such ways that the creative energies of these various movements help and support each other.

Keeping in view the conditions in various societies and countries, using a bottom-to-top decentralised approach based on consultations with people, comprehensive specific programmes can be prepared to carefully merge and take forward the agenda of meeting the basic needs of all, equality, justice, dignity, peace, environment protection, social harmony, improved community and family life. This agenda should be in harmony with the global agenda of equality, justice, peace and environmental protection with special emphasis on phasing out destructive weapons, ending war and checking climate change in time.

This programme should be taken to as many people as possible with special emphasis on the youth. Efforts should be made on achieving the unity of the Left forces to the extent possible on such a common programme.

Socialist political parties should be completely honest and transparent in their functioning. Comprehensive efforts should be made to ensure internal democracy and transparency.

Inspiring efforts should be made to contest elections based on well-thought-out socialist programmes. Socialist governments, when elected, should set up high standards of honesty, integrity, transparency, concerns for democratic norms and patience with other points of view. Freedom of the media should be respected even if the corporate-controlled media is unfair to the socialist government. Cooperatives of journalists dedicated to socialist principles should be encouraged to provide news and views different from the corporate media. When defeated in elections socialist parties should play the role of the Opposition parties in a responsible and dedicated way emerging as the voice of the people against all forms of injustice. Multi-party democracy should be respected even if most of the political parties are opposed to socialism.

Special emphasis should be given to institutions of decentralisation where at the local level these may initially have more possibilities of getting the people’s support for the agenda of socialism.

At the community level those who are committed to socialism should set examples of community-level activism which is very helpful to people in various ways. In their mutual relationships, socialists should combine dedication and hard work with sharing the ‘small joys’ of life in such a way that, particularly for the younger generation, socialist work with all its challenges and difficulties also becomes a creative, joyful and inspiring experience.

It is extremely important to realise that the pursuit of socialist objectives should be based on the existing realities which have changed dramatically in recent times. With survival threats looming large, factors such as waiting for capitalism to mature before socialism can be established are completely irrelevant now. Anything that was said by anyone, no matter how great or scholarly, a long time back cannot be a guiding principle now. It will certainly retain its historical importance but cannot play a key guiding role now. Hence socialism today cannot be guided by Marxism, Maoism, or any other ‘ism’ attached to persons, no matter how great. This will be unnecessarily restrictive and stand in the way of wider Left unity. The effort must be based on widespread consultation with people with grassroots experiences and wide understanding of the existing realities. Just make the most effort to form an understanding of what is best now for equality, justice, peace, environment protection and social harmony, and go ahead with it.

Unfortunately the discussion so far has been focused mostly on what Marx wrote and the subsequent times. The history of struggles for justice and equality goes back to the earliest recorded times of human history. Socialism should reclaim this entire history from all parts of the world as its heritage. This will give it a much more inspiring and diverse heritage and history.

Bharat Dogra is a free-lance journalist who has been involved with several social initiatives and movements.

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