Socialism Seminar #1: What is a socialist society?

I see a lot of misinformation about socialist societies on tumblr, a lot of it coming from socialists who grew up under Western anti-communist propaganda. I’ll be making posts about socialism, the USSR, and other topics to hopefully clear up some of these misconceptions and get some good discussion.

Socialism means the collective ownership and control of the means of production by the working people or producing classes (these two terms are used interchangeably). Control means the power to decide how physical resources will be used and expanded, what is to be produced, and how labor is to be allocated. It includes the ability to see that decisions are implemented, even against the will of others. Ownership means legitimate control, i.e. control that is recognized and accepted. Ownership also implies that the dominant class can dispose of what they control in any manner they like, include selling it to others and passing it on to their children after their deaths. It follows that a group may have full power to control property throughout their lifetimes, but not the power to transfer it to others either through sale or inheritance (i.e. they dont have ownership rights).

The most important concept in defining social formations is control, not ownership. Thus a society must be considered capitalist if a group of people control the means of production, whether or not they have a legitimate right to them, whether or not they have the power to dispose of property as they wish. The defining characteristic of a capitalist society is only that an exploiting group appropriates the surplus labor of the producing class through wage labor and disposes of it in its own interest.

Operation refers to the day-to-day running of the means of production. It is possible that a group that does not control the means of production may exercise day-to-day decision making power.

It is just as possible for a producing class to hire state officials to run day-to-day matters and to take the initiative in formulating major policies, as it is possible for the owners of capitalist industry to secure officials to do exactly the same thing. There are important differences between a power elite and a ruling class, a power elite is made up of those individuals who occupy command positions in the leading institutions of a society and exercise day-to-day decision making power. A ruling class, on the other hand, refers to that class which controls the means of production (whether or not it owns them) and which dominates the state apparatus (whether or not it has a legitimate right to do so, and whether or not it exercises day-to-day operational decision making). Ruling classes in all forms of class society have hired intellectuals, scientists, engineers, and experts of all kinds as well as officials, managers, and top government leaders to come up with new ideas as well as carry them out. In fact most new ideas and policies in such societies come from people outside the ruling class, e.g. US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s foreign policy during the 1970s, But such ideas and policies are always stamped  with the interests of the class that controls the means of production and the state, and for whom these hirelings work.

Thus state socialism, where the initiative as well as day-to-day operational decision making is in the hands of state officials, is just as much a socialist society as decentralized socialism where initiative and day-to-day decision making are in the hands of the producing classes themselves. Whether or not a society is in fact socialist cannot be determined at the political level by whether or not there is a power elite which initiates policies and makes day-to-day decisions. It must be determined, instead, on the basis of whether or not the decisions made are in the interests of the producing classes, and whether or not the decision makers could have made other decisions and whether or not the decision makers could have made any other decisions and still remained in their positions (ie whether or not the producing classes exercise control over them). If decisions are made in the interests of the producing classes, but the power elite could have gone against them and kept their positions, then the producing classes cannot be said to exercise control over the power elite.

Consequently, to prove that a society is not socialist, it is not sufficient to prove that it has a power elite which takes the initiative in policy formation and which makes day-to-day decisions. It must further be demonstrated that there is a ruling class which exploits the surplus labor of the producing classes and uses it in its own interests.


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