Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain (1991) Summer School Lectures - From Capitalism to Socialsism

Capital: the cause of social problems

The case for Socialism is that, with the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society, social problems like rising unemployment, repossession of workers’ homes and all the other social problems associated with the wages system will no longer exist. Unfortunately most workers still support capitalism.

The vast majority of workers are unaware of the case for Socialism that would provide them with a solution to the problems they face. They believe that the relationship of wage-labour and capital is perfectly natural and will always exist. They believe that buying and selling is the most efficient way of distributing goods, and that production for profit and competition is the best way to encourage innovation, invention, greater productivity, and therefore greater social wealth for all.

Even war, a product of capitalism, though destructive of human life and resources, is a consequence of capitalism. The working class are unable to see this and support wars “for king and country” or “democracy”. They do not see the capitalist cause of war as being national competition over trade routes, raw resources, and spheres of influence.

Workers erroneously believe that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with capitalism. They believe social problems are a result of poor policies of governments and politicians. All we need, they say, is the right political leadership, and then social problems like poverty, unemployment, bad housing, crime and so on, can be reformed away. However, reforms have been enacted for over two centuries to end poverty, war and unemployment, but they have failed and the problems still exist.

Socialists maintain that the problems facing the working class are caused by capitalism because it is a class system, based on the private ownership of the means of production where production only takes place for profit. As a consequence, capitalism cannot be made to work in the interest of all society.

The commodity, Marx said, is the “cell form” of capitalist production. Individual capitalists produce commodities, never knowing whether they will find a buyer or not. Production is not planned. As a consequence, capitalism is an unstable and unpredictable social system which cannot be controlled. Periodically there is an economic and trade depression. For the workers it means pay cuts, loss of work, and social pain and discomfort.

Social problems arise for workers from their class position in capitalism. Socialists define class as the way people are related to the means of production. Capitalists own them, while workers own little else than their ability to work which they are forced to sell to the capitalist employer in order to live.

Under capitalism, the worker sells his labour power for a wage or salary. However the worker produces a greater value than the value of the wage. This surplus value is the source of the capitalist’s profit. It is also the source of the class struggle over the intensity and extent of exploitation. Politically, it is a struggle over the ownership of the means of production.

Socialists have always insisted that the class nature of capitalism cannot be reformed away. You cannot have a classless society while the means of production are privately owned. A meritocracy still leaves the exploitive capital- labour relationship intact. The social problems capitalism creates cannot be reformed away. What Socialists say to the working class is that only a complete revolution from capitalism to Socialism can solve the problems of exploitation, poverty and unemployment.

Socialism: a historical necessity

Socialism is a system of society which will allow people to live useful, fulfilling lives and to develop their full potential in a humane society. To bring Socialism about, the working class, and the working class alone, must make this revolutionary change.

But is Socialism a real possibility as Socialists argue, or is it just a utopian dream as our critics would have it? Engels answered that question in his SOCIALISM: UTOPIAN AND SCIENTIFIC. He wrote:

Since the historical appearance of the capitalist mode of production, the appropriation by society of all the means of production has often been dreamed of, more or less vaguely, by individuals, as well as by sects, as the ideal of the future. But it could become possible, could become a historical necessity, only when the actual conditions for its realization were there. Like every other social advance, it becomes practicable, not by men understanding that the existence of classes is in contradiction to justice, equality, etc., not by the mere willingness to abolish these classes, but by virtue of certain new economic conditions.

It was Marx and Engels who placed Socialism on a scientific basis. Socialism for them did not represent simply an idea which had spontaneously developed in the brain of men and women: it was the recognition that certain material conditions and class relations had developed within capitalism which, as Engels said; “makes Socialism an historical necessity”.

Marx and Engels showed, by using their Materialist Conception of History, that human society passes through different stages. First, a primitive form of communism. Then in the order of social evolution came the property-based societies of chattel slavery, followed by feudalism, and then capitalism from which Socialism will arise as the result of the revolutionary class-conscious action of the working class. These great changes in society took place as the result of developments in the forces of production and, with the rise of class societies, class struggle became the conscious force of social change.

According to the materialist conception of history, the cause of social change is to be found in the methods by which society gets its livelihood, by the stages of development of the productive forces. Therefore, an important factor for the revolutionary change from capitalism to Socialism is the fact that the productive forces have been developed by capitalism to the stage of producing potential abundance; but actual abundance and meeting the needs of all society is prevented because production is restricted to producing goods and services only if that is profitable.

Also, capitalism has developed the forces of production into social forces, which makes production a social act. No worker produces a complete product any more, and individual workers are part of the whole system of the division of labour. These forces of production; factories, mines, machinery, transport, social labour and so on, conflict with the relations of production; the wage-capital relationship. These class relations restrict production to profitability but the forces of production are capable of producing much more.

Marx put it like this in his CRITIQUE OF POLITICAL ECONOMY:

At a certain stage of their development, the material forces of production in society come into conflict with the existing relations of production, or – what is a legal expression for the same thing – with the property relations within which they have been at work before. From forms of development of the forces of production these relations turn into their fetters. Then comes a period of social revolution. Preface, 1859

So, on the one hand, capitalism has developed an exploited class whose class interest is to abolish capitalism and establish Socialism. On the other hand, it has developed the means of production with the potential to produce enough food, clothing and shelter to meet the needs of all society. So the material solution to capitalism’s problems has been provided by capitalism itself.


Mankind always takes up only such problems as it can solve: since looking at the matter more closely we will always find that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions necessary for its solution already exist or at least in the process of formation.

Capitalism contains the seeds of Socialism and it is the historic role of the working class to act in their own interest in bringing about a Socialist society.


Men make their own history but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted by the past.
[NB Whichever translation Peter is using seems to me less clear than that of Eden and Cedar Paul (Allen and Unwin edition, 1926):-
Men make their own history, but not just as they please. They do not choose the circumstances for themselves, but have to work upon circumstances as they find them, have to fashion the material handed down by the past
. ]

So in this respect capitalism shapes and determines the society to come. The social nature of production, the class struggle between capital and wage labour, the needs arising from this struggle, the problems which capitalism causes but cannot solve, the contradiction between the forces of production and the social relations of production: all these determine the form of the future Socialist society. The Socialist case against capitalism is not an appeal to morality. It is the simple fact that capitalism has outlived its social usefulness. The social forces of production have outgrown the profit system.

Class Struggle

This brings us on to the class struggle and class consciousness, and the part these play in the attainment of Socialism.

Capitalism emerged from feudalism as a class society. As Marx explained in THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO:

The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society, has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones. Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinctive feature; it has simplified the class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.

Many changes have taken place within capitalism since Marx and Engels wrote THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO; however the class struggle has been a constant feature as a result of the diametrically opposed class interests of the capitalist and worker. The class struggle exists whether workers are conscious of it or not. The class struggle is thrust upon them as they struggle for higher wages and better working conditions, either individually or in trade unions. Large numbers of workers are brought together in factories and offices and form trade unions which form part of the economic aspect of the class struggle.

Yet, despite how well or otherwise the working class improve their conditions and wages, they remain an exploited class. The Socialist Party of Great Britain is the expression of the class struggle on the political field and its sole object is the establishment of Socialism by a majority of the working class through conscious political action.

Capitalism produces within itself two classes with antagonistic interests; the capitalist owning the means of production and thereby preserving his privileged position; and the worker whose interest lies in abolishing capitalism in order to gain freedom from exploitation. The class struggle is a political struggle, and in the working class capitalism has produced its own grave-diggers.

Before the workers can free themselves from exploitation, they must become class conscious; that is, aware of their historic role to abolish class society. They must understand and accept the Socialist case that to solve their social problems they must consciously and politically abolish capitalism and establish Socialism, a world-wide social system, so that society would be in harmony with the development of the productive forces.

This requires the vast majority of the working class to take the necessary political action for the sole purpose of establishing Socialism. To become Socialists, workers must reject the political idea that capitalism can be reformed in their interests. It cannot. Socialism can only be established through revolution.

And by revolution, Socialists do not mean direct action. The idea of taking direct action must be rejected because, even if they were successful in gaining control of political power, the majority of workers would still not be Socialists. Socialism cannot be imposed on workers from above by professional revolutionaries. And there is nothing to stop one insurrectionist minority being overthrown by another insurrectionary group. Equally, a general strike would leave the powers of the state in the hands of the capitalist class and their political agents who would be able to crush the insurrectionists. Socialism cannot be established by violence or in a state of social chaos.

The fact remains that it will not be possible to establish Socialism until a Socialist working-class majority vote for it. A Socialist majority must capture the powers of government, including the armed forces, in order to abolish private ownership of the means of production and establish Socialism. At the moment, the capitalist class can exploit, and have their wealth and privilege protected, because the capitalist state protects their class interests.

For Socialists the task is to persuade other workers to join us. Engels pointed out towards the end of his life that this would require “long and persistent work”. This is because workers are constantly confronted with ruling-class ideas. The media, school, family and friends carry ideas which favour the capitalist class. These ideas act as barriers to the spread of Socialist ideas. They slow down the development of class consciousness and the understanding of capitalism.

Since the formation of class societies, the class struggle has been the active force which has led the change from one social system to another. As Marx said in THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”. The class struggle for Socialism will mean that the immense majority of workers must agree and vote for it by the revolutionary use of Parliament. Here is a remark by Marx which Socialists agree with:

All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, the proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority.

Although, in their early years, Marx and Engels looked at armed revolt as the means for the working class to gain control of the government, they later changed their minds. In 1895 Engels said in the introduction to THE CLASS STRUGGLES IN FRANCE, “The rebellion of the old style, the street fight behind barricades, which in 1848 gave the final decision, has become antiquated”.

The class struggle between capitalists and workers arises from the fact that workers produce all the goods, and they run capitalism from top to bottom for the benefit of the owners of the means to life - the capitalist class. The struggle is not just over wages and conditions but a political struggle for the establishment of Socialism.

The process of establishing Socialism is clear: a majority of workers take the necessary conscious and political action as Socialists to gain control of the machinery of government, dispossess the capitalist class, and establish common ownership and democratic control of the means of production by all of society. Once the Socialist framework is established, then production solely for use will take place.

Establishing Socialism

Although we are greatly indebted to Marx for placing Socialism on a scientific basis, by his materialist conception of history, by his labour theory of value and by his political theory of class struggle, we do not automatically agree with everything that Marx said.

For example, in THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, Marx and Engels said:

The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest by degrees all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e. of the proletariat organised as a ruling class, and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible. Of course in the beginning this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production.

Socialists say that the conversion of the means of production to common ownership must be immediate and complete. It would not be possible to have Socialism at the same time as “wresting by degrees” all the means of production from the capitalist class. However, the political and economic changes that have taken place since the publication of The Communist Manifesto allow us to have this understanding denied to Marx and Engels at the time.

In THE CRITIQUE OF THE GOTHA PROGRAMME, Marx also referred to the “lower and higher” phases of Communism. He said:

What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whom womb it emerges.

And in the same context of a higher and lower phase of communism he wrote:

[In a higher phase of communist society after]... the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want

Socialists now say that, with the development of the productive forces since Marx’s day, .a “lower stage” of Communism is unnecessary.

This raises the question of the ‘transition period’. Is it necessary? It is quite true of course that Socialism would proceed, not in its developed form, but directly from the conditions left by capitalism. Does this mean that there would have to be a transitional period?

Socialism will inherit productive forces, skills and knowledge from capitalism, which will provide the potential to produce an abundance of goods and services. Capitalism has always restricted production to profitability, not to meet human need. As a result Socialism will need to increase production as quickly as possible on a world-wide scale in order to meet every individual’s need of food, clothing, shelter and so on. This would be the first practical task of Socialism. Only in this sense could it be described as a “lower stage of Socialism” but it will be Socialism - not a transitional period between capitalism and Socialism.

The time required to increase production will not be a problem. There would be the change of production away from its anti-social use under capitalism: there would be more social labour to produce useful things as workers switch from the work they used to do under capitalism in banking, insurance, armed conflict and state bureaucracies.

There will also be the urgent task of clearing up the mess left by capitalism. There would be the problems associated with capitalism’s wars: the safe dismantling of weapons, unexploded bombs, mines and so on. There is the question of pollution, and of course accelerating production so that people have access to the necessities of life.

There is no doubt that there will be a lot to do in the early stages of Socialism but only Socialism can provide the conditions in which these problems can be solved. Only Socialism can make full use of the available natural and human resources. The fact is that Socialism is possible now. The material conditions exist: the techniques of production and social co-operative labour. All that is missing is the lack of understanding of capitalism by the majority of workers, and the subsequent conscious and political action necessary to establish Socialism.

What would Socialism be like? It is a question that we are often asked, though it has to be understood that it is impossible to give a detailed specification of what Socialism will be like. The reason is simple. We do not know what the forces of production will be like when Socialism is established. It would be futile to produce a detailed plan for Socialist production and distribution based upon today’s conditions and present methods of production. As new methods of production and technology advance, such plans would become obsolete. By the time Socialism is established, it is quite possible that many products will require much less expenditure of labour - therefore making the working-day shorter. This would affect people’s lives and allow them to pursue other activities.

However, although Socialists cannot provide a detailed picture of Socialism, there are certain things which will follow from a society based upon common ownership and democratic control of the means of production. First; the social wealth of society will not take the form of commodities, there will be no buying and selling, no money, no creditors and debtors, no capitalists and working class. Consequently there will be no employment, no labour market, no buying and selling of labour power, no wages, and no profits. There will be no competition for resources, markets and trade routes, and no wars between competing nation- states. Production will be for use, not profit. The whole nature of work will change. Work would be freely entered into, creative and enjoyable. Socialism would also provide co-operative conditions for dealing with the environmental problems which capitalist production causes and which competing capitalist countries cannot deal with.

Socialism is a Practical Alternative to Capitalism

Although the social means of production already exist for the establishment of Socialism, the whole idea of common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society appears to some to be quite unrealistic. Of course, those coming across Socialist ideas for the first time are in a minority and most workers have not yet heard the case for Socialism. And workers who do come across Socialist ideas dismiss them because their thinking is so drenched with capitalist ideas.

When Socialists speak of a moneyless society where people will co-operate in producing useful things directly to meet human need, this goes against the experience of workers under capitalism and what they think about production and distribution. It is difficult for workers to understand how they could contribute according to their ability and take according to their need, without employment, wages and employers. They believe a society of equals without leaders and the led, just producing to meet human need, appears unrealistic.

One reason against Socialism put forward by our critics concerns planning. How could a moneyless world with production for use organise and plan production and distribution, without money, prices and markets? They believe commodity production and exchange for profit is the most efficient way of producing and distributing products, enabling them to reach people who need them.

However, it will be Socialism which will enable the rational planning of production and distribution. Under capitalism the anarchy of production rules, because commodity production is unplanned and unpredictable. Workers also lose control over what they produce, and instead the products control the producers.

As Engels explained in SOCIALISM: UTOPIAN AND SCIENTIFIC: “Every society based upon the production of commodities has this peculiarity: that the producers have lost control over their social inter-relations”. The fact is that under capitalism no company knows how much of a particular commodity will come onto the market.

It is a mistake to believe that society could not function without money, and that without money we would be reduced to an efficient barter system. In fact, money is unnecessary for the practical production and distribution of goods ands services. Money arose with the exchange of the products of labour. Marx in his analysis of commodity production showed that one commodity always arises in which all other commodities measure their value. This special commodity became the money commodity. The point is that there will be no exchange of products under Socialism; production will be for direct consumption. Money is simply part and parcel of commodity production for profit.

Profit is the motive for production under capitalism. Without profit there is no production. Competition forces the capitalists to produce to meet market demand, not human need. To plan and produce for human need is not compatible with commodity production and exchange for profit. Capitalism does not produce sufficient products to meet the needs of all society.


It is not a fact that too many necessities of life are produced… the reverse is true. Not enough is produced to satisfy the wants of the great mass decently and humanely (Chap. XV Internal Contradiction of the Law Kerr ed).

Only Socialism will provide the material basis for the rational planning of production to satisfy human needs. The social means of production would be owned by society as a whole to be used for the production of useful things. There will be no markets where producers compete to sell their products.

The practical task for Socialism will be to produce sufficient goods and services to meet the needs of everyone. If we consider the types of goods and services required by society, they are produced on a regular basis - like food, heat, water and so on; their quantities and supply are known, and can be planned for. The knowledge and skills exist to maintain the supply of goods and services against the need for them; and what surpluses occur would be stored and used in the future.

Also production would only take place to produce useful things. There would be no requirement for armed forces and their weapons, banks, advertising, police and so on. And production in Socialism would not produce inferior quality goods with built-in obsolescence.

Work will be carried on by freely associated individuals, not by workers employed by capitalists. Most work would be creative and satisfying, as well as making a useful contribution to society. There is no reason why people could not become accomplished in many different skills, with education and training available throughout a working life. With all the different abilities which would be available to production, democratic planning would be a natural outcome of Marx’s maxim: “from each according to ability, to each according to need”.

Human Nature is not a Barrier to Socialism

Something else which is always mentioned as a barrier to Socialism is ‘human nature’. Once Socialism is established, would human nature stop it functioning? However, as we have seen, Marx explained how societies evolved. He showed that one system gave way to another; that class struggle is the “motor force” of history; and that nothing is permanent, which includes human behaviour. Forms of human behaviour found in chattel and feudal societies just do not exist today.

The mistake made by those who believe ‘human nature’ would be a barrier to Socialism is that they equate various forms of behaviour caused by capitalism with what they believe to be human nature, regardless of the social system in which these acts take place. This leads them to the erroneous conclusion that competition, violence, trade, war and so on are innate, people would be unable to co-operate in Socialism. Of course, they forget that the human race would not have survived without some degree of co-operation.

Laziness, selfishness, greed and so on are all blamed on ‘human nature’ but, in a dog-eat-dog society such as capitalism, it would be a miracle if people did not behave in anti-social ways. However, even under capitalism, people also show kindness and generosity, give time for voluntary work, and so on. One could just as easily conclude that it is these social qualities which constitute human nature. Those who see human nature as a barrier to Socialism fail to see a connection between human behaviour and society. It is a mistake to graft onto Socialism ideas and forms of behaviour which capitalism has given rise to. Ideas and behaviour change with changes in the material conditions of existence.

It is not human nature which stands in the way of Socialism. It is not that Socialism is impractical or utopian. Nor is it because the material conditions are not present. It is because most workers are unaware of Socialist ideas, and are therefore unaware that capitalism is the source of their problems and Socialism the solution.

The mass understanding necessary to politically move from capitalism to Socialism recalls Engels’s remark that “it will require long and persistent work”. Perhaps a longer period of time than Marx and Engels initially thought. Yet the process from capitalism to Socialism has begun. As Socialists we strive to shorten the journey.

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