What is Socialism?

Marx in 1882 – Public Domain
Do CounterPunch, ABRIL 11, 2019

As the presidential election of 2020 approaches and socialism is used to characterize the ideas and platforms of some of the candidates, a relatively large number of explanations of the concept have appeared in the press.

Most of these explanations are really non-explanatory. Whether written as a list or in a more discursive form, they are little more than descriptions of some social democratic order, usually in a Northern European country such as Sweden. Their “explanations,” in other words, are not explanatory, they do not go beyond portraying how, for example, health care, education, public transport and similar institutions work in these countries, mostly as state organizations. Political theorists who have contributed to discussions of socialism have avoided its philosophical grounds and instead given an account of its history and, depending on their own political views, its successes or failure.

Most of these non-explanatory articles draw on familiar tropes in the American political imaginary about socialism, describing it, for example, as a form of redistributionism through state institutions to undo inequalities. Or, they define socialism as public ownership of the means of wealth. However, the state, as the agency of equality, and collective ownership of the means of production are only instruments of socialism. They do not explain its underlying philosophy. To understand socialism, one has to go beyond descriptions of its agencies and engage its philosophical principles.

The most concise explanation of the philosophical premises of socialism is by Marx in his Critique of the Gotha Programme.

The text is a critique of the evolutionary tendencies among some socialists and the reformism that underlies the manifesto for a party conference in Gotha.


Here Marx writes that socialism is an historical state of in-between-ness: the transitional period from capitalism to communism. It is therefore a hybrid condition in which a residual capitalism is mixed with an emerging communism.

Marx’s main point is that although socialism, as the first stage of communism, is an advance over capitalism because it abolishes classes, the socialist right to equality remains an abstract right, and as such, it produces inequality.

Under socialism, people contribute to society through their labor and, in return, receive from society an equivalent amount of labor in the form of the “means of consumption.” People’s earnings are equivalent to their labor; no one has income from owning the means of producing wealth or capital, and labor is no longer exploited for profit.

However, in the exchange of labor for labor, socialism reproduces the logic of commodity exchange in the capitalist market, which is the main source of inequality.

The socialist “equal right” is, therefore, an empty right because people are not equal: one person is different from another in physical or mental abilities and is able to offer more labor during the same time and thus receive more in return for her or his labor. Socialism implicitly acknowledges the right to “natural privileges” that lead to economic inequality.

Bernie Sanders, who is identified with (democratic) socialism, seems to accept such “natural” inequalities. He wants a just society in which (in)equalities are proportional to people’s own work.

But justice and equality are part of the seemingly timeless rights such as liberty, individuality, free market and property that now ground capitalist democracies. While they are represented as universal, they are actually ideological. These “rights” essentially stabilize capitalism by normalizing its class antagonisms as individual differences. In contrast, a society without class conflicts is beyond this narrow sense of justice and equality. As Marx writes, “Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and the cultural development conditioned thereby.”

In a post-socialist society therefore, human “rights” are superseded by human “needs,” and the socialist principle—”from each according to their ability, to each according to their work”— is left behind. Different people have different needs. Fulfilling their “needs” frees them from “necessity” beyond which, Marx argues, begins “that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom.”

Freedom from necessity (not “freedom of speech),” emancipates people from the social relations of exchange and wage labor: humans return to themselves “as social beings” and their existence and essence become one.

Bernie Sanders mostly talks of socialism as the freedom of working people. Socialism, however, is the first phase of building a society based on freedom from work itself—a society that will “inscribe on its banner”: “From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.”

Teresa L. Ebert’s books include The Task of Cultural Critique. She is professor emerita of cultural theory at the University at Albany, SUNY.

Mas’ud Zavarzadeh has written Seeing Films Politically and several other books. He is a retired professor of critical theory at Syracuse University. They are co-writers of Class in Culture and their new book, “Subtractive Interpretation,” is forthcoming from Routledge.

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Teresa L. Ebert is a professor of Cultural Theory at the State University of New York at Albany. She is the author of The Task of Cultural Critiqueand other books. Mas’ud Zavarzadeh is a retired professor of Critical Theory at Syracuse University. He is the author of several books includingSeeing Films Politically. Ebert and Zavarzadeh are co-authors of Class in Culture and the forthcoming The Poverty of (Post)Humanities.

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