what is socialism?
Why talk about the question of what socialism is? Isn't this a sort of dead topic that to much time and energy has been wasted on, because after all socialism died in '91 right? Well since I've spent the time to write this I figure you can guess that my answer to that question is no. The question of Socialism matters a great deal, but not in the way you might imagine, for me socialism matters in so far as certain segments of the "left" still think of it as a way to escape capitalism. This conception is wrong and holding it will lead to the wrong kinds of political conclusions which I hope to show by this short piece.
Socialism is not itself a separate kind of economic system, but rather socialism is identical to the communization process, that is to say socialism is the period of time when we are turning capitalist socio-economic relations into communist ones.
Now this needs some unpacking. The first step in that is to understand what capitalism is and is not. Capitalism is not democracy, or free markets, or even simply private property, in fact capitalism can survive just fine without any of these. Instead it is a system of social production in which wage-labor and commodity production predominate. Now what I mean here by wage labor is the kind of system where someone enters into a labor market in order to exchange their labor for money. This is a very different type of economic relationship than what existed in the past under either slavery or feudalism. Under both of these systems people labored but they did not labor for wages. They either labored because they were forced to or they labored some part of the year for the landlord and the rest for themselves without money coming into consideration for their labor, in both of these cases although labor took place the exchange of money for that labor did not and as such it was not waged labor. Now yes people did engage in wage-labor under both of these systems, but what differentiates them is that wage labor did not predominate on a social scale.
Capitals second aspect, commodity production, also needs some explanation. Under capitalism when a capitalist wants to enter into enterprise, what they do is take some prior set of money (either saved or borrowed it doesn't really matter) and trades that money for commodities. They then take those commodities and place them through a labor process, and sell the result. This type of production cycle is called the money-commodity-money prime cycle, and is usually abbreviated as the M-C-M' cycle. Much like wage-labor, commodity production existed before the rise of capital, but it did not constitute the predominant form of production. Under earlier modes of production, things were mostly created for direct use rather than to be traded on the market, and its the element of being created for trade on the market that is one of the defining characteristics of the commodity..
Capitalism also has a third aspect, private property. I wanted to talk about this part last because compared to the other two aspects this one is the most overly stressed and sometimes is mistaken for being the primary defect of capitalism by it opponents. What most people mean by private property here mostly has to do with what is called the "means of production" which is things like heavy machinery, factories, etc. Basically the set of objects that are used in conjunction with the labor process to create more value as opposed to things might be called personal possessions, things like your personal dwelling place, car, TV. etc.).
Now I'm no fan of private property but where people get confused sometimes is in thinking that its simply a matter of taking away property from capitalists and putting it either in the hands of the state or in some form of collectivity. If all you were to do is take property away from the individual owners – which function as the lieutenants of capital – and put it into a collectivity without destroying commodity production and wage labor, then what you end up with is a collectively managed capital instead of a privately managed one.
Now the thing about Capitalism is that compared to slavery or feudalism it has historically been progressive. This era of progressive Capitalism fueled the industrial revolution and we reaped its benefits. However starting with the first world war, it became what we could call decadent, that is to say Capitalism can no longer provide humanity the benefits it once could. The reason for this has to do with the way capital must always expand. What I mean here is that Capital must always be seeking growth, profit and expansion into new markets. The nature of capitalist competition leads to a grow or stagnate and die cycle of business. So as capital expands in an area (commodity, market, location, country etc.) it gets oversaturated , to the point that it can not expand any more. It then has two choices expand to a new market or destroy the value in that area , either through war or economic crisis, or just plain self-destruction of commodities. Either way it doesn’t matter to capital. This cycle became more vicious and more widespread the more Capital expanded to encompass the whole world. Capital became a world system and when it did it became decadent and unable to provide for humanity the material benefits it once could.
So all of this was to say that basically socialism is the process of undoing the current state of things – commodity-production, wage-labor and private property – and replacing it with a world in which "the free development of each is the precondition for the free development of all".