Hermann Duncker 1909

What is Socialism?

First Published: in Arbeiter-Jugend, January 30, 1909.
Source: Hermann Duncker: Introduction to Marxism. Selected Speeches and Writings, VEB Edition Leipzig, Leipzig, 1963, 2. enl. ed., pp. 194-200.
Online Version: Marxists Internet Archive 2021
Transcribed: Geoff
HTML Markup: Zdravko Saveski

Socialist, Socialistic, Socialism. These are foreign words which have been adopted into all the languages of the civilised world. In every country which features the main characteristics of capitalist commodity production: factories, propertyless wage-earners and ever-wealthier private owners of the means of production (we shall hear more of these later on), these words are pronounced by some with scorn and contempt, and by others with hopeful enthusiasm. The mighty spread of socialist thought appears quite plain for all to see at the review of the troops of the socialist labour movement of all countries at their International Congresses, and yearly in the news of the celebration of May Day socialism's international day of festivities.

What does the word socialism mean, then? Among the many written and spoken statements and explanations about socialism, one encounters very different answers, each according to the attitude which the author himself takes to the socialist movement.

The people who fight against socialism attempt to imprint on it the stigma of all possible folly and horror. In order to scare people away from any serious contact with socialism, they publicly and privately slander the advocates and followers of socialism, the socialists or social-democrats, to the best of their ability.

No doubt these "Socialist-killers" have also sketched for you, young readers, such a distorted picture of the socialists and their life-aim, socialism.

The teacher has deployed the emperor's word about the "rabble with no fatherland". Social-Democrats are enemies of the state, traitors to the fatherland. When the teacher for once sought to go a little deeper into the essence of socialism, he talked about the communal "share-out" by which, in the name of socialism, the diligent will be deprived by force of what he has painfully amassed.

The priest has used the Confirmation lessons to make accusing speeches against the wicked socialists who, in sinful discontent, stir up unrest, and want to dethrone, not only the "beloved Emperor", but even "the beloved God". "Blessed is he that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly." (Psalm 1,1).

The instructor or foreman (the big employer, worth millions, does not speak at all to a young worker) warns you against the red agitators who don't like work, but very much want to have high wages, who are incapable themselves and want to suborn their industrious colleagues and turn them into loafers, who instead of putting aside a nice nest egg, squander their good earnings in dissolute living, and then grumble about and curse the rich.

The capitalist newspapers then complete this "enlightenment": Because of the Social-Democrats everything becomes dearer, their shameless demands and irresponsible strikes are forcing the prices up. In the moral sphere, Social-Democrats care nothing for Faith and Beliefs; they preach perjury to their adherents; they want to destroy marriage and the family. So now you know what socialism means, what the socialists are and what they want. But an old German saying among the legal men says:

"One man's word is no man's word.
Both sides must be heard."

So neither will we let ourselves be satisfied with the statements of the anti-socialist, who perhaps even claims, with pride and contempt, never to have had a single one of the socialists' objectionable books in his hand. Instead we will listen to the socialists themselves, through their speeches and writings, through their own claims and actions.

In the first place we must realise that we cannot gather from the mere word "Socialism" what significance it holds today."Socialism" is an artificially constructed word, from the Latin socialis (social) which again belongs to the Latin societas (society) and the Latin socius (in German: Genosse) member of a society, a word which is still employed in trade and commercial language to describe a business associate.

We find then in the word "socialism" itself only the emphasis of social relations.

Therefore also the word was first adopted as the opposite to the notion of "individualism". Whereas "individualism" characterised a view which has had as its starting point the individual, that is the individual person, his rights and private property and so on, "Socialism" was at first only meant to reflect a conception which stressed the social dependence, the social relations of people. Thus the word "Socialism" was introduced into the literary language of France in the beginning of the 1830s. It is pointless to quarrel over who invented the word.

As a description of the followers of certain economic demands we meet the word used in England already at the end of the 1830s. Very quickly it entered the language of other nations as the name for a certain form of human economic activity, for a particular mode of production and its legal and social superstructure. As we all know men have not always conducted their economic activity as they do today. Various main forms can be differentiated as to the way in which goods were produced. Not only that which is produced, but the amount and constitution of the social goods have changed mightily in the course of the thousands of years of mankind's development, as a glance through a natural history museum will show.

But above all, the way in which the goods are produced, the technique, the use of the means of production (i.e. the raw material, tools, auxiliary material) and finally the destination, for whom it is being produced, and how the goods get into the hands of the consumers, have also changed mightily. Certainly the produce of nature's treasure store has always been drawn out by human labour; if we exclude that which nature hands out free like wild growing fruits and so forth which however must first be sought out, plucked and transported for human need. But human labour forces more and more raise their standard of performance and their productive power through the application of suitable means of production. With each improved tool, with every harnessing of new forces of nature, with every exploitation of new natural materials, man has extended his dominion over nature. But thereby the social and economic relations of men to each other have been altered.

If we take primitive conditions in which man wrung from nature all he needed by the labour of his own hands, backed only by the aid of tribal or family partners, then we find the soil and land, the most important means of production, owned in common by the social group, and light tools, as well as weapons, the personal property of whoever made them. The producer owns the essential goods produced by him and he consumes them himself.

With the increased productivity of labour, through the development of the social division of labour, and with the sharper development of private property rights, the producer ceases to produce goods essentially for his own use. He now produces commodities for sale, for the market.

So long as the means of production necessary for this, in the shape of the simple "hand tools" of the small enterprise, could still be made without great difficulty, and the main sources of raw material (for example timber from the woods) were still easily available, the private ownership of the means of production secured for the producer the produce of his labour. But through technological development the tools became machines, the apparatus of the means of production became ever more complicated, swelled and distended immensely. From the small enterprise grew the big enterprise. The machine, again, was itself the product of a series of interchanging labour processes for which a large array of labour forces of varying kinds were utilised. Now the individual could no longer provide himself more or less with the necessary means of production. Also the raw material from which they were made and on which they were to be employed, had for a long time not been available for the use of each individual. Forest and field, stone and iron, like the land in general had passed into the private ownership of certain economic "masters" and other important raw materials had to be brought from distant countries at great expense. But he who does not dispose of the necessary means of production, yet still wants to live in the world of private property, is obliged to attach himself to those who monopolise them (who own them as their exclusive private property).

To these - factory owners, contractors, employers, or whatever they are called, he must sell his labour power.

To these people, then, belong the products which are produced by the propertyless wage earner and which in the end will be consumed by those who are in a position to buy the commodities. So today it is precisely the private ownership of the means of production which gives to the owner the possibility to take hold of and turn to account the product of others' labour namely that of the actual producer. The means of production have become capital and their owners capitalists. Hence the powerful class divisions in the world: the class of wage earners, who to maintain their poverty-stricken existence have to produce, day in and day out, for the capitalist class, the owners of the means of production, who with the growth of the productive powers of human labour accumulate ever greater wealth.

This capitalist mode of production shall be replaced by the socialist mode. Under socialism, the means of production, land and soil, quarries and mines, raw materials, tools, machines, transport, will be transferred to the common ownership of society. They shall no longer serve individuals as a means of living of the labour of others, no longer be the means of the economic enslavement of the propertyless. Thus the commodity production of independent private producers is changed into a planned social production by the people and for the people. And through it will be engendered the greatest possible wealth for the enjoyment of life and the cultural development of all members of society. Thus socialism is man's highest cultural ideal.

Let us now once more compare this conception of the word socialism with the lies of the "socialist-killers": how laughable the tale of the dreary "share-out" seems. And since socialism will bring about the greatest possible good for all members of society, the most wonderful cultural blossoming of the homeland, are not the socialists, then, entitled to regard themselves as not just the "best", but as the most genuine patriots of their country? And since we make impossible all forms of exploitation of man by man, and, on the contrary, secure for each individual the maximum all-round development of his being and his talents, cannot the socialists also describe themselves as the "best Christians" in the sense of the true brotherhood of man. ("Love thy neighbour as thyself.")

We can see that our bourgeois "explainers" of the essence of socialism have stood everything on its head.

If "Socialism" today is in the main the description of a social order which is founded upon the common ownership of the means of production, the word is now also used in the broader sense of the theory, i.e. of the thought process which concerns itself with revealing a final socialist aim and the social development leading to it, by means of the criticism of contemporary economic and social life.

Finally one uses "Socialism" to describe the whole agitation, organisation and action of the mass of the people striving for socialism, that is the modern labour movement, the embodiment, the manifestation of those who believe in socialism - the socialists.

Socialism is at the same time knowledge and will, thought and action. That means that socialism is a world philosophy; and the thing is to establish such a socialist world philosophy in ourselves.

An introduction to the history of socialism will serve that end, from which, for the first time one can find a creative answer to the question: What is Socialism?