The difference between socialism and reformism
Left to right: Robert Owens, utopian socialist; W.E.B. Dubois, scientific socialist; Bernie Sanders, "democratic" socialist | composite image, credited in order from left to right: Wikipedia; Patheos blog; Michael Dwyer/AP

The fact that capitalism arose within the framework of feudalism has caused many to search for ways to establish socialism within the framework of capitalism. But historical experience and scientific theory has shown this is not possible. Socialism involves a radical restructuring of the whole of society and requires that the new ruling class of working people have control of the government, all of its coercive apparatus as well as all the main features of the economy and the main civil institutions affecting health, education, culture, etc.

Such a change cannot come about in a gradual, spontaneous way, but requires a fundamental break with the prevailing capitalist society and the formation of a revolutionary working-class state. This state must first suppress any effort of the capitalists to regain power, then govern on behalf of the interests of the working class, while actively rooting out the vestiges, values and practices of the old society and preparing the way for the classless society of communism.

By arising in the cities under feudalism the capitalists developed their own government structures and armed forces that were eventually able to overcome those of the landowning aristocracy, but this is not possible under capitalism, especially in its imperialist stage where the police and military forces are so massive.

The fact that socialism cannot arise within the framework of capitalism has not prevented countless attempts to do this anyway. These have fallen into three broad social, economic and political categories that persist to the present day. They include:

  1. Utopian socialism. As the horrors of the industrial revolution and the factory system became obvious in the early 19th century, many philanthropists and social reformers thought they could establish socialist or communist communities in capitalist countries and use moral arguments to persuade the rest of society, including the ruling classes to abandon the capitalist system of exploitation and oppression. One such person was the Welsh textile manufacturer, Robert Owen, who drew up and publicized a blueprint for a cooperative society. In 1825, Owen was actually invited to present this proposal to the U.S. Congress where he gave two lengthy addresses to the assembled representatives of the ruling class of slave owners, bankers and other businessmen and professionals tied to the slavery- based economy. After listening politely, the legislators tabled the proposal and no vote was ever taken, so the issue is still unresolved!

Owen purchased land in Indiana and began building a community based on his blueprint and inspired the formation of sixteen other similar communities around the country. All of these, together with hundreds of other socialistic utopian communities based on various religious sects and the ideas of other reformers, eventually disintegrated or were absorbed by the surrounding capitalist society.

In more recent times, numerous attempts, especially in West Coast states in the 1960’s by young people alienated by the profit-driven, militarist, racist, male supremacist values of U.S. imperialism met the same fate. Friedrich Engels demonstrated the theoretical reasons for the inevitable failure of this approach in “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific,“ 1892)

  1. Economism. The idea here is that socialism can be achieved by continually raising wages, expanding health care, pensions and other benefits as well as lobbying for pro-labor legislation to secure adequate living standards and social and economic equality. A similar idea underlies movements to establish model worker-owned cooperatives that would presumably outperform privately owned enterprises and come to dominate the economy. Despite powerful mass trade union movements in all capitalist countries and even successful cooperatives in Spain, these efforts, important as they are in defending workers’ rights, limiting their level of exploitation, and teaching them how to organize and fight, have never established socialism in any country. The problem is the capitalists continue to own the means of production and hold state power so whatever concessions are made in one area can be taken away in another. Wages can rise, but then these gains can be taxed and returned to the capitalists. Karl Marx and Engels exposed the fallacies of such ideas in their criticism of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (“Poverty of Philosophy,” 1847 and “Value, Price and Profit,” 1865) and the powerful labor leader Ferdinand Lasalle (“Critique of the Gotha Program,” 1875) as well as in polemics against Eduard Bernstein and the reformist British Fabians.

In 1902, Vladimir Lenin subjected economism to a thorough-going critique (“What is To Be Done?”) showing that trade unionism by itself can only lead to trade union consciousness and that class and socialist consciousness and organization must be brought to workers by revolutionaries with an understanding of scientific socialism. He showed that economism is essentially a ruse driving the working-class movement into accepting the leadership of bourgeois liberals, who may agree to temporary reforms, but whose fundamental aim is to preserve the capitalist system.

  1. Social Democracy. Here, at least is an understanding that socialism is a political movement that requires winning state power. This is the ideology of the labor and social democratic parties that won national elections in many western European countries after the defeat of fascism in World War II. Governments led by these parties enacted many reforms including progressive taxation, improvement of working conditions, public education and national health care. However, none of these governments, even after being in power for decades, established socialism. Private individuals retained ownership of key means of production, had the allegiance of the coercive arms of the state and controlled political parties and much of the media. They continually worked to weaken and reverse the reforms that had been won.

This is also the outlook of Sen. Bernie Sanders. Sanders ran for President in 2016 as a “democratic socialist” and even called for some kind of grassroots “political revolution.” Barbara Walters interviewed him to find out just how far he meant to take this. “What did he mean by ‘socialism,’” she asked. Sanders answered it meant Medicare for all and free higher education. But, Walters persisted, “Are you against capitalism?” Oh no, Sanders replied, he was just for the kind of programs that exist in Scandinavia.

In breaking with the Second “Socialist” Internationale, in his powerful theoretical work, “State and Revolution,” (1917) and his scathing polemic, “The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky,” (1918) Lenin demonstrated that social democracy amounts to reformism and that its aim is not socialism at all, but democratic capitalism. He showed that Communists must actively work for the maximum democracy and living standards under capitalism as a “minimum program,” but must never rely on bourgeois liberals or weaken or abandon their independent organization and their maximum program of socialist revolution. Socialism, he said, means total working-class power, the dispersal of the capitalist state and its organs of coercion. It means the abolition of the private ownership of the means of production and the suppression of any attempt by the capitalists to regain power using whatever force is necessary and an unrelenting struggle against the oppressive values and practices of the capitalist class so as to prepare humanity for a communist society free of classes, coercion and want.

The Communist Party USA was formed in 1919 out of the struggle within the old Socialist Party of America, which was tied to the Second Internationale. A similar development occurred in many other countries leading to the establishment of revolutionary working-class Communist parties in each nation and the formation of the Third Communist Internationale. This organization was disbanded during World War II as a concession to maintain the anti-fascist alliance with capitalist democracies. In the aftermath of World War II Communist parties won power in China, North Korea, Mongolia, Eastern Europe and later in Cuba (1959), as well as Vietnam and Laos (1975).

Ideological weakening of Communist Parties by the influence of bourgeois liberalism allowed counter-revolutions to take place in the Soviet Union, Mongolia and Eastern Europe beginning in 1991. But, in the remaining countries, Communists retained power and continue to lead the struggle to build prosperous, socialist societies. These countries are all still in the process of accumulating the capital, technology and skills needed to make this possible. Thus, all still allow different forms of capitalist property and foreign investment, in ways that advance the interests of working people under the leadership of the ruling Communist parties. In the most advanced case, the Communist Party of China, seeks to achieve “a moderately prosperous society by 2021 and a modern socialist society that is strong, democratic, cultured and harmonious by 2049,” according to Chinese President Xi JinPing.

In highly developed capitalist countries, the economic basis for full socialism already exists and socialism could be essentially established by a revolutionary working-class government that nationalized economic sectors under private corporate control and suppressed the forces of counter-revolution. This would still allow for small business and family farming. The problem for such a government would be to overcome deeply rooted capitalist ideological baggage including racism, male supremacy and nationalism as well as win over the residual small enterprise owners to accept and take part in the building of socialism and, ultimately, communism. This could take a very long time and require much experimentation.

But, as the great African-America scholar-activist, W.E.B. DuBois, wrote in his 1961 application to join the Communist Party:

“Capitalism cannot reform itself; it is doomed to self-destruction. No universal selfishness can bring good to all. Communism – the effort to give all men what they need and to ask of each the best they can contribute — this is the only way of human life. It is a difficult and hard end to reach. it has and will make mistakes, but today it marches triumphantly on in education and science, in home and food, with increased freedom of thought and deliverance from dogma. In the end communism will triumph. I want to help bring that day.”


Rick Nagin
Rick Nagin

Rick Nagin has written for People's World and its predecessors since 1970. He has been active for many years in Cleveland politics and the labor movement.