Since its origin in the early 19th century by followers of Robert Owen, the term “socialism” has evolved to mean many different things to many different people and has been misused by dictatorships to describe their draconian management of capitalism. At the present time “socialism” is an unpopular word. Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot have poisoned our understanding by applying the word “socialism” to their barbaric tyrannies. In the course of the 20th-century socialism, as a word, came to be transformed from a doctrine and aim associated with the emancipation of the working class into a doctrine and aim associated with the coming to power of nationalist, anti-imperialist elites in the economically less developed parts of the world. It is something that is supposed to have failed in Russia and East Europe and something that the Labour Party is said to have rejected as archaic. The word has become a turn-off associated with bureaucratic control, regimentation and lack of freedom. It is certainly frustrating that the word “socialism” is almost invariably misused today. Recent years have seen the emergence of groups who recognise that socialism it is meant a society in which goods would no longer be produced for sale and in which people would no longer work for wages.
As an organisation that campaigns exclusively for socialism (as we understand it) we are in a position to know how people react to the word and if any words are more over-used and misunderstood today it is “socialism” and “communism” (we have also maintained the tradition of using them interchangeably). We are not the only group calling ourselves socialist. Anyone seeking to understand what is wrong with present-day society will come across others, all having some such word in their names as “socialist”, “workers”, “revolutionary” or “communist”. Most of these will be of Leninist or Trotskyist origin and have aims, theories and methods which we do NOT share nor advocate. The only thing we have in common is that, unfortunately, they too call themselves socialists. Although of course, we don’t like people calling themselves “socialist” when in our opinion they’re not, that’s something to be settled by political debate.
Does the word have any meaning anymore? We think so
But perhaps the current over-use of the term may bring unexpected results, even encouraging the curious to begin pondering what a truly post-capitalist society could look like. Some positive associations remain, however. We are part of an unbroken tradition going back to those who first used the word and which has retained the original meaning they gave to it despite and in face of Russia and Labour and similar governments. Indeed, as a result of years of misuse, the word “socialism” has now virtually come to mean “state capitalism” for most people. Yet why should we surrender the word, especially as Russia has failed and Labour-type parties are now openly pro-capitalist? The field is now open for us to assert the word’s original meaning. Who knows but it is maybe also quite possible that the growth of the revolutionary movement will breathe new life into the word “socialism”, freeing it from the connotations it has been burdened with by those who cannot see beyond capitalism.
But even if the World Socialist Movement comes up with the perfect word to replace “socialism” it would not necessarily bring us any closer to our goal, for our task, as socialists, is to persuade our fellow workers that capitalism has got to go and convince them that there is, in fact, an alternative. The task is the same in either case: revealing the limits and contradictions of capitalism and explaining how socialism (or whatever it may one day be called) solves the problems that are irresolvable as long as that capitalist system prevails. Sadly, capitalism has made the image a more important quality than substance but as long as we have to operate within capitalism we will be judged on petty points such as our party colour, just as much as we can be judged on the name and our ethos. If we are to change people’s stereotypical perception of socialism and socialists, which is difficult enough as it is, then we need to change how people view us rather than reinforce what they already believe.
One word alone, no matter how well-chosen, cannot accomplish all of that. The key is the concept and content of the future society as the answer to the social problems we face under capitalism, not the word used to indicate that new mode of production. The video we produced (which you can view on this home page of this website) “Capitalism – And Other Kids Stuff” manages to give an analysis without using the term socialist or communist.
Socialism’s meaning can be said to go back to early religious sects of the ancient world and was taken up by religious dissidents in mediaeval times. Words attributed to John Ball during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 capture its meaning very well:
“My friends, things cannot go well in England, nor ever, until everything shall be held in common, when there shall be neither vassal nor lord and all distinctions levelled, when lords shall be no more masters than ourselves.”
Nowadays many try to offer a definition of socialism as public ownership and government control of the major means of production (mines and railways, or whatever) for the benefit of the public at large or central economic planning and public ownership of the means of production which are basically descriptions of state-capitalist systems – not any sort of post-capitalist society that exists beyond production for profit.
Some might argue, then, that we should let the reformists and gradualists twist around the word “socialism” to their heart’s content while choosing a different term to describe the new society we are aiming to realise – some word less marked by confusion.
At times Karl Marx used the word “association” to indicate the society he envisaged as replacing capitalism. And this term is useful in terms of emphasising how the members of that society will freely enter into production relations with each other to produce social wealth. One obvious drawback, not to be overlooked, is that it would be rather awkward to describe oneself as “associator” or “associatist”. However, for many people, the words “socialism” and “socialist” hold the sort of vision of an alternative, free society that we stand for. This makes it a strength, and something that will attract people who consider themselves politically aware or socialist to the World Socialism Movement. The title “socialist” connects us to the long tradition of revolutionary ideas and movements of which we are a part of.
It may very well happen that a new different word other than socialism emerges out of the movement for the new egalitarian society. And it would be absurd in that situation to be a word-fetishist and cling to the word “socialism” as if it were the principle or concept itself. Various other terms have been suggested— “eco-socialism”, “world of free access”. Others, outside our ranks, have come up with “economic democracy”, “self-managed society”. The Zeitgeist Movement, for instance, describes socialism as “Resource Based Economy.” Another section inspired by a book by Aaron Bastani offers up “Fully Automated Luxury Communism.”
Some say we shouldn’t fixate ourselves and get too obsessed with words—any word can become abused and misused. Indeed you only need to think about how the term “democracy” has been rendered almost meaningless through its use by state and corporate mouthpieces. Descriptions such as socialism, communism, anarcho-communism, free access and commonwealth are all valid if used to convey meanings, explaining the sort of society we wish to achieve. There is nothing to stop us from using a multitude of words and descriptions for what we stand for in our propaganda (and that’s another word that has become distorted to have negative connotations).
What’s important is that we get our ideas over as effectively as possible. There is no reason why we should constantly shout “Socialism” from the material we produce and distribute, and anyway, much of the time we don’t.
But let us suppose that some other word came into use to express the very essence of socialism. This new word would then be subjected to the very same difficulties. The old word “socialism” would lose its meaning and significance. The new word would become abused in the same manner as the old one. Changing the name would not solve any problem
For the World Socialist Movement, the original idea of socialism or communism has not been forgotten, and all through the shifts and turns in the meaning of this word, we have been adding our own, albeit small, voice into shaping its social meaning, so that the idea about what socialism actually means isn’t forgotten. The idea has been held up above the jumble of letters that make up the word. It remains, though, a word worth fighting for, for its history, for its associations of cooperation and mutualism, and because it describes something positive, a situation to be aimed for – a just state of society. Socialism remains a good word to put our arguments across. Because of our different understanding of it, people are surprised by our answers and perspectives, and become genuinely interested, breaking out of the stale old left-wing right-wing arguments. And just as words such as “queer” have been rescued from negative senses in gay politics to have positive meanings, thus can socialism, with all its history and associations be wrested back as well.
It is our ideas, our practices, and our values, that makes us the World Socialist Movement, not simply the word “socialist”. It wouldn’t matter what we call ourselves, as our ideas grow a word would be found to express them, in their full meaning. Since we think that, historically, that word already exists, we choose to use it. The important thing would seem to be that socialists take an open-minded and non-dogmatic approach to the way we present and develop our ideas.
The word commonwealth goes back to the fifteenth century and was related to commonweal – that is, the common well-being or the public good. Later it came to be associated with the concept of a republic.
The term commonwealth came into popular usage during the 17th C English Revolution when the monarchy was deposed and a republic was declared and later as a name of the former British Empire nations. This framing of the state as a commonwealth derives from language of 17th-century thinkers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke and refers to the goal of creating a political community for the common good.
But for many radicals such as Gerrald Winstanley and the Diggers it had a deeper meaning they sought to build, the new models of communities they sought to build and not just a new model army and a mere formal constitution. The sentiment later to be revived by William Morris and the Socialist League and its journal called “The Commonweal.”
It was a word to be later adopted in the new United States of America when they had accomplished their own revolution against British colonialism. “Commonwealth”. sounds more positive to an American public, for the states Massachusetts, Kentucky, Pennsylvania or Virginia, and two U.S. territories Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands all call themselves commonwealths in their constitutions. Now another American state to be described as a commonwealth if statehood is granted to Washington DC, the would-be 51st US state will be officially titled the “State of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth.”
Later in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, however, commonwealth was widely used by opponents of capitalism to refer to their ideal post-capitalist society. The noun was usually combined with a clarifying adjective to form the phrase the socialist commonwealth or the cooperative commonwealth. Sometimes, however, the future society was called simply the commonwealth.
The idea of an economic system based on cooperatives has also found a more receptive hearing. America has known many utopian schemes that had co-operatives as its basis. There have been political parties that have promoted co-operatives as policy.
National Executive Committee member of the Socialist Labor Party, Laurence Gronlund wrote, the “Co-operative Commonwealth,” a vision for a cooperative economy and society echoed over the next decades in early-twentieth-century U.S. and Canadian leftist circles.
The pioneer of American socialism, Eugene Debs, would frequently apply the phrase “cooperative commonwealth” as a synonym for a socialist society.
The Commonwealth was also the name of a weekly newspaper published by the Socialist Party of Washington (the state) from January 1911 to April 1914.
In the 1930s, the populist Farmer-Labor Party could issue a radical platform:
“We declare that capitalism has failed and that immediate steps must be taken by the people to abolish capitalism in a peaceful and lawful manner, and that a new, sane, and just society must be established, a system in which all the natural resources, the machinery of production, transportation, and communications shall be owned by the government and operated democratically for the benefit of all the people, and not for the benefit of the few. Palliative measures will continue to fail. Only a complete reorganization of our social structure into a cooperative commonwealth will bring economic security and prevent a prolonged period of further suffering among the people.”
In Washington state, the Washington Commonwealth Federation, based on similar ideas, won control of the state Democratic Party during the late 1930s and early 1940s.
In a parallel development in Canada, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) was formed with some prominent Socialist Party of Canada members joining.
Even anti-socialists use the term, too. The free-marketeer Von Mises titled his book ‘Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth’. Nowadays the Commonwealth most often is associated in peoples’ minds with the former British Empire.
Cooperatives and the Cooperative Commonwealth
Today, with their own visions of the cooperative commonwealth, Richard Wolff and Gar Alperovitz have been receiving a lot of exposure on the progressive media websites for their own “radical” models for a cooperative economy. But what is there about their proposals to get excited about? They say that they are presenting alternatives to capitalism, but when examined closer, all they offer are prescriptions for curing capitalism with a form of “market-socialism” where workers would be self-exploited.
Cooperatives are still capitalist institutions i.e. capital – even if it’s “collective” or “democratic” or “social” capital – is invested to make more capital. Co-operatives that exist under a market economy inevitably replicate the problems of capitalism due to market pressure.
First, you can’t “out-compete” capitalism. Corporations will always have larger capital to invest in research, technology, and their willingness to cut costs through lower wages, less environmentally sounds practices, out-sourcing, etc, will give them an advantage.
Second, is that co-operatives are subject to market pressures to compete for just the same as capitalist enterprises and this lends itself to pressures to create the same practices of corporations.
Third, is that many cooperatives face the same issues as small business owners face. Often worker co-operatives are in the service, food or other speciality industries with lower profit margins and because they are smaller and do not have the advantages of scale which larger companies do.
Lastly, is the tendency of worker co-operatives to see their needs and interests as an entity apart from and/or above other workers. After all, as cooperatives exist within a market system, their interests are to compete with other companies and expand their market share.”
Socialist commonwealth, cooperative commonwealth
We share a vision of a real “commonwealth”. It means a global system of society where all wealth is held in common and is democratically controlled by all people. It is a society from which borders and frontiers, social classes and leaders, states and governments have disappeared, in which production is geared to meeting needs, not profit, and in which people give of their abilities and have free access to the benefits of civilisation. This is the real “commonwealth” socialists look forward to.
Alan Johnstone is a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, a companion party of the World Socialist Movement. He contributes to the blogs: Socialism or Your Money Back and Socialist Courier. Alan can be reached at: email@example.com.