Letter to the Editors from the January 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard
An enquirer from the United States has sent us the following piece of anti-socialist propaganda doing the rounds there and has asked us to comment on it, adding “why do so many people think Socialism is a dirty word?”
“An economics professor at a local college made a statement that he had never failed a single student before, but had recently failed an entire class. That class had insisted that socialism worked and that no one would be poor and no one would be rich, a great equalizer. The professor then said, ‘Okay, we will have an experiment in this class’. All grades would be averaged and everyone would receive the same grade, so no one would fail and no one would receive an A. After the first test, the grades were averaged and everyone got a B. The students who studied hard were upset, and the students who studied little were happy. As the second test rolled around, the students who studied little had studied even less, and the ones who studied hard decided they wanted a free ride, too, so they studied little.
The second test average was a D! No one was happy. When the 3rd test rolled around, the average was an F. As the tests proceeded, the scores never increased, as bickering, blame and name-calling all resulted in hard feelings, and no one would study for the benefit of anyone else. All failed, to their great surprise, and the professor told them that socialism would also ultimately fail because, when the reward is great, the effort to succeed is great, but when government takes all the reward away, no one will try or want to succeed. Socialism has never worked anywhere in the world. It cannot be any simpler than that. Please pass this on, and remember – there is a test coming up – the 2012 elections.”
Our enquirer is right: many people do regard socialism as a dirty word, and that’s because of the meaning they attribute to it. It’s often equated to the former Soviet Union or to Cuba or China or to social reforms by the state. But our perspective on what socialism means is entirely different. So, predictably, the problem with what the ‘economics professor’ has to say about socialism is that he’s answering the wrong question. He takes on and tries to undermine the idea that in a socialist society everyone would be equal in all ways. But that’s not what socialism is about.
Socialism is a society in which everyone will be free to exercise and express their abilities and aptitudes whatever these may be and in which the whole idea of ‘failing’ or ‘passing’ would be absent. The important thing would be ‘contribution’. ‘From each according to ability, to each according to need’ sums it up. All this would be based on a moneyless, wageless society of voluntary work and co-operation, in which everyone would have equal access to all goods and services. So there would indeed be equality in the economic sense (‘no one would be poor and no one would be rich’) but, far from creating uniformity and mediocrity and a general lowering of standards as the professor suggests, this would be a basis upon which people could work to express themselves fully and fruitfully for their own satisfaction and the good of all. In fact, the professor’s idea that, ‘when the reward is great, the effort to succeed is great’, fits in well with a socialist society, for what greater reward can there be than to contribute to the general wellbeing (even many rich people in today’s highly individualistic, competitive society feel that) and to earn the approbation of others? And of course there would be no government to take that reward away, since socialism by definition depends on people running their own society democratically, not on having any government structure to do it. Socialism has indeed never ‘worked anywhere in the world’. But that’s because it has never been tried.
Socialism will be a society in which there is no private ownership (or put another way, one in which everyone owns everything). It’s hard of course to lay down the exact details of how a society of common ownership will function, but, given appropriate safeguards, is there any problem (especially with the technology we now have) in people engaging in their chosen activities (be that fruit/vegetable growing, computer designing, airplane manufacture, etc.) and delivering or making those products or services part of a common store on which people can draw as and when needed?
Human beings want to and need to exploit their potential via work if the conditions for them to do so are congenial. The problem with the current system of society is that it so often forces people to do work they don’t want to do or can see no point in – all to get money to survive. We all (or nearly all) want to do work of some kind, but employment (which is what work is in the present society) is a different thing. Capitalism in fact has put a kind of curse on work making so many of us see it as by definition something unpleasant that we are forced to do. Finally, you can’t have the fully democratic society that socialism will be until the vast majority of people want it. In other words, you can’t impose it, and if you try to do that you’ll be defeating its whole purpose. It simply couldn’t work, since it is a society based on willing cooperation.