“socialism was a middle-class movement, communism a working-class movement. Socialism was, on the Continent at least, “respectable”; communism was the very opposite. And as our notion, from the very beginning, was that “the emancipation of the workers must be the act of the working class itself,” there could be no doubt as to which of the two names we must take.”

1888 English Preface to the Communist Manifesto, Frederick Engels

With the 150th anniversary of the first workers revolution upon us, we think it pertinent to reflect on what socialism means, especially as new groups crop up who use the term opportunistically. Recently, a new chapter of the democratic “socialists” of america has reared its head in the NRV.

The rise of petty bourgeois and professional-managerial class aspirant peoples and their disgruntlement with the false promises of capitalist utopia has also resulted in the rise of this non profit organization most suited to this class stratum. Originally founded by Michael Harrington, the DSA has been the home to labor bureaucrats in the unions, non-profit staffers, academics, and other professional-managerial class elements who’ve always played a supporting role to the Democratic Party. Despite the claims of a new generation of recruits, the political character of the DSA has not fundamentally changed and persistently has advocated for a social democrat politics at best while still operating within the Democratic Party framework. 

This is not something current DSA membership disputes in a fundamental way. The two primary positions of debate for political strategy within the DSA are centered around the idea of breaking from the Democratic Party. There are those who call for a “clean break”, meaning severing all ties with the Democrats materially and ideologically and to do so immediately, while the dominant line calls for a “dirty break,” which amounts to postponing the question of when to break with the Democrats until an undetermined future date. The fact this is the starting point for an organization like the DSA does not bode well for those who like to claim it’s the “largest socialist organization” in the US.

Even though the DSA rationalizes their big tent orientation of “many definitions of socialism” for the sake of increasing their membership, the reality is there are only two types of socialism – reformist socialism and revolutionary socialism (communism). Before we break these things down further we have to provide some historical background to explain why this all matters. It starts with Marx.

Karl Marx is seen as the primary figure of socialism. His socialist theory is the basis for practically all modern variations of what is colloquially known as socialism. The problem is the common conceptions of what socialism is understood as is entirely at odds with what Marx theorized and which has been the foundation for all modern revolutions since at least the Russian Revolution. What common misconceptions of socialism we have in the US and the world largely draw their inspirations from what Marxists refer to as revisionists – those who take the theory developed by Marx and twist it to mean its opposite, which results in reformist politics. 

What is reformism? Reformism is a political tendency that pursues a strategy of achieving socialism through winning social reforms through the capitalist state. Reformists believe that socialism can be achieved through electoral means, that socialists can eventually win the executive office of the capitalist state and use it to restructure society according to socialist principles. They believe that this can be achieved in a peaceful way. While this all sounds nice, it is entirely utopian and unrealistic. Nowhere in world history has this strategy been successful.

The closest examples were actually some of the most tragic defeats – such as in Chile when Salvador Allende and his Chilean Socialist Party were deposed and executed during a real coup led by Augusto Pinochet and the Chilean army, with the aid of the US and Chilean capitalist classes. This is the logical conclusion of those who seek an electoral road to power for socialism anywhere in the world. 

“The theoretical conclusions of the Communists are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented, or discovered, by this or that would-be universal reformer. They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes.”

– Proletarians and Communists, The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels

Marx is not an infallible figure. We don’t point to him or Engels or other revolutionary communists because of idol worship, but because workers across the globe have seen the methodology they developed (often referred to as “Marxism”) as providing a scientific social analysis and strategy for organizing to complete the necessary task of achieving communism. Marx and Engels were the first to develop this methodology known as historical materialism.

It’s this method in which Marx elaborates the laws of motion of capitalism, its historical development, and why it inevitably has to result in either communism or barbarism. It’s on this basis that revolutionaries across the globe drew upon Marx’s analysis to achieve the first successful workers revolution in history. This is what defines socialism, not vague economic policies enacted through the capitalist state via reformist measures (which never work), but by organizing the working class to seize state power and establish a workers democracy while smashing the capitalist state and all its infrastructure. Marx based much of his theory on how workers would achieve socialism from the historic Paris Commune. Workers there didn’t take power through legislative means over the old French state, but took over all infrastructure in the city with arms, abolished the cops, and set up their own government to rule over the city by the workers themselves.

“One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.”

– 1872 German Preface to the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels

Marx understood the nature of the capitalist state very well, and while he did advocate using the limited political rights we have under the capitalist state as workers he never operated under the illusion that socialism could be achieved by peaceful means through the capitalist state. Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks took this lesson to heart. They knew socialism can only be established through revolution and that, even prior to a revolutionary seizure of power, social reforms cannot be won by electioneering within capitalist parties, but by waging a militant struggle by the workers independently from capitalist parties and against capitalist parties.

We have repeatedly seen the revolutionary analysis and politics of Marx and other communists used successfully to seize state power. The problem is how to further the revolution once it’s been won. Reformists never consider these questions, instead constantly reaffirming their utopian strategies on how we will win piecemeal reforms by being a pressure group inside the Democratic Party while retaining capitalism.

“Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”

– Critique of the Gotha Program, Karl Marx

“the scientific distinction between socialism and communism is clear. What is usually called socialism was termed by Marx the “first”, or lower, phase of communist society. Insofar as the means of production becomes common property, the word “communism” is also applicable here, providing we do not forget that this is not complete communism. The great significance of Marx’s explanations is that here, too, he consistently applies materialist dialectics, the theory of development, and regards communism as something which develops out of capitalism.”

– The First Phase of Communist Society, State and Revolution, Vladimir Lenin

Socialism inherently is defined by the working class being organized independently to pursue its own class interests of abolishing capitalism by seizing state power and smashing the capitalist state. This is a fundamental, non-negotiable position for those who call themselves Marxists. This has nothing to do with the idea of state funding and programs under a capitalist class dictatorship – as many argue and often understand socialism to be (both by proponents and opponents).

Nationalizing an industry is not inherently socialist. It depends entirely on which class has state power, and the working class cannot achieve state power under a liberal democratic system. It cannot elect itself through capitalist democracy to seize state power. The working class can only exploit the limited political rights granted to us under capitalism up to the point of waging insurrection, at which point the class struggle transforms from a buried conflict to an open war.

The fathers of socialism adamantly argued for the arming of the working class and argued against disarming workers at all costs. They knew what it would take for the working class to seize power and establish socialism. This is not what the membership of the DSA has in mind when they talk about “socialism”. What they are referring to is moreso Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies and hence why so much of their rhetoric and slogans reference it (“the green new deal”, etc).

The New Deal was not socialism. It was a series of economic policies enacted by the US capitalist state during economic and social crises where the threat of a workers revolution was real, as the US Communist Party organized the multiracial working class to engage in historic strike-waves as they fought for power in the factories and across every state and city in the country. It was the revolutionary struggle of workers and communists in the US which pressured FDR to enact the New Deal, not just because he was a “bleeding heart liberal”, but because the threat of socialist revolution was real. What the DSA proposes and organizes around is not socialism, but liberal welfarism under a capitalist state where workers still are exploited and oppressed by the capitalist class.

If you want to understand what socialism is and what it will take to be won you have to study the Paris Commune. You have to study the Russian Revolution. You have to study the Shanghai Commune. These were not hippy hideouts where bohemians dropped out of society to grow organic veggies and make homemade kombucha. These were economic and political organizations of workers who ruled over their workplaces, their neighborhoods, their cities, and were able to defend their victory through arms and by repressing their class enemies.

The DSA and many organizations around the world that share their orientation are attempting to defang the working class to remain powerless and defenseless in the face of capitalism. They ultimately work to collaborate with capitalists rather than fight for workers power and socialist revolution. Any well intentioned person who joins the DSA will either have to reject these reformist politics and embrace true socialist politics or engage in opportunism and perpetuate the weakness of the US working class enforced through the liberal order.

3 thoughts on “Socialism: what it is and what it aint

    1. thanks so much! this is what we hoped for, it’s important to establish clear lines so as to better build an ideological and political foundation for revolutionary organizing.


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