What is Socialism?

“This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.

I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion. A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.”Albert Einstein, 1st Edition of the Monthly Review, 1949.

We’re on an island where there’s a multitude of groups that are all ‘Socialist’ and offer differing interpretations of Socialism so that’s exactly what I’m not going to do. To understand socialism, we define and understand capitalism.

I would define capitalism as a method of organising the economic, political social life in accordance with the needs of capitalists.

Then the question arises: well, who are the capitalists?

Capitalists are those who own capital. Often when having a discussion or disagreement in Ireland, people say “Well I support capitalism, ergo I am a capitalist”, but I think this is untrue. Firstly because we’re taught in school to reason this way and I’ll elaborate on this later – and secondly because to be a capitalist you need to own capital and use said capital in a way that makes you a capitalist. Most people do not fit this criteria.

Then we extend the argument, what is capital? Capital is essentially a form of wealth that can create further wealth. So in many ways it can be anything but it is the special relationship between the party and their capital that turns them into a capitalist. For example owning your own home and living there doesn’t make you a capitalist. However, if you own a house and rent it out to others and live elsewhere then you are a capitalist, albeit a very small one. What is determined in the usage of this term is the nature of the relationship to the asset that an individual or a party has to it.

If one section of the population are ‘capitalists’ who own capital, what of those who do not own capital? We refer to them as the working class because they have to work, or more specifically sell their labour in order to survive and get by. Most people in Ireland sell their labour to get by so they would be workers.

Some people think they are ‘middle class’ and not workers. I would suggest that there is no such thing as ‘middle class’ and it is merely a word used to describe one section of slightly better off workers against another section of those who are not as well off. It is also a culture that divides people. Many who are working would say they are middle class and therefore have nothing in common with the working class. For some time it has worked, but what we have seen since 2008 is a shrinking of the so called middle class.

Now – I have briefly touched upon classes within capitalism. To summarize, there are those who own capital and have a special relationship to capital that makes them into capitalists and there are those who work for the capitalist class.

Workers work, in exchange for what? They do so in exchange for wages. Then the question arises – what are wages?

Wages are usually a pre-determined amount of money offered to workers for a set amount of time. Usually, this amount is the lowest possible amount a capitalist can pay. This is done in order to minimize the costs of production. The cost of production includes the labour cost. A minimized cost of production means a higher margin of surplus value.

What is surplus value? Surplus value is the wealth that is created by a worker beyond their hourly wage. For example, a barista sells a cup of coffee for 3 euro. If they sell four cups of coffee per hour, they have made their wage. Most baristas will tell you that they will sell a lot more than that. In Cork City, a busy barista might sell 50 cups of coffee in a busy hour. The surplus value is the amount of wealth the barista created from the remaining 46 cups of coffee. This is how the capitalist class accumulate wealth. Another question worth asking is this: if most industry and enterprise is privately owned then where does the surplus value the workers create go?

Paying rent or purchasing commodities is a little different but what in effect happens is that the worker, who has received a wage now trades their wage which Marx also states is a commodity for another commodity for the most profitable price for the seller. Of course what is often forgotten is that many commodities enjoy state subsidies (meat industry for example).

How are wages determined?

Wages are determined by a few features, but I think the most important feature is ultimately the capacity of the organised capitalist class to collectively bargain against the organised working class. Essentially, can workers organise and bargain for better wages and conditions or can groups like IBEC continue to repress wages and maximize profits for their members?

If I was to pass to now pass around a sheet in the room with three categories and you had to place yourself in one: Working class, middle class or ruling class – provided by my above definitions, where would you find yourself in?

Now we’re returning to the beginning. Capitalist society is run in the interests of the capitalist class. Why are we for socialism and not for capitalism?

In capitalist society, all structures of society are orientated towards ensuring the market can remain free. What we see in practice is that the State functions as a wing of the ruling class. Connolly described this phenomenon as ‘governments in capitalist societies managing the affairs of the rich’. We routinely see favourable budgets for landlords and multinationals. We routinely see subsidies for low wages and the high cost of living via shoddy schemes. Here are some other examples of how the State props up the capitalist class:

1. The most recent budget included tax breaks for landlords.

2. The State refuses to build housing like it did in the 1930s and the 1970s, it instead subcontracts this out and ensures market prices for housing which is extraordinarily high.

3. The state subsidizes the high cost of living by creating schemes that “top up” peoples rent, last year 700 million euro was paid to private landlords.

4. The state ensures that the capitalist class does well by regulating and interfering in market dynamics and creating artificial scarcities within housing, health and the workplace.

5. The State ensures tax is low for multinationals so they remain here. But they pack up and leave whenever they want to (Dell, HP, etc) and invest nothing into the infrastructure.

6. The banks – which traded publicly and were privately owned crashed in 2008 were ,like the banks in the 1980 crisis, and the crisis before it, bailed out by the State i.e the public tax payer.

It is largely the same logic applied to Ireland by the British State during the famine times. Provision of free grains and food would have sunk the price merchants and big farmers wanted for their produce. Instead, the Tans introduced the Public Works Scheme so that starving Irish people would go get work, often pointless and then for the wages they receive go and purchase some food. This logic is prevalent today with the multiplicity of schemes and payments the state issues to people so that they can then go and buy food, pay rent or live – it is all done to ensure the ‘market price’ is upheld. Ironically there is nothing free about the free market.

Often critics of Socialism will say that social welfare or other social safety benefits are a form of socialism. Countries like Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Ireland and Venezuela are trumped out as ‘Socialist’ or ‘Socialistic’. But we have to ask: Who owns capital in these countries and what is their relationship to it? You will find that in every single example listed, most of industry and wealth creating structures are privately owned and operate for private interest. Social safety nets in the Western world are a by-product of the existence of the Soviet Union and the multitude of successes in housing, health and education that socialism provided for. In order to placate the workers of their nations and dilute their radicalism, certain compromises were made in the fields of housing, health and education. In the workplace, trade unions militantly fought for all the things we take for granted such as the eight hour work day, premium pay at night, Sunday premium pay, national holiday/bank holiday pay and so on.

Since the collapse of the major Socialist power in Europe, these benefits have been attacked left right and center. In particular the last austerity government propped up by the Labour Party and now Fianna Fail has ruthlessly attacked the most vulnerable people in society for example we saw that in the cutting of the single parents allowance. But I will say that there is a huge resurgence of the Communist movement around the world and notably in the West, including in Ireland.

How does the Irish Communist movement understand Socialism?

Socialism is not the reform of existing planks of capitalist society – but a total overhaul of society as we see and understand it.

Socialism is a different form of democracy to the one we live in today. It is the mass involvement of the people through new mechanisms and structures in all fields.

Socialism is the public management of wealth production in society and the orientation of the surplus value workers in Ireland create towards societal needs.

I have no interest of making broad and vague statements though so I will provide you with clear cut examples of the quantitative changes we are looking for:

A new socialist constitution for a united Ireland should include extensive explanation of the duties and responsibilities of local government and direct communal management of the municipality.

A new socialist constitution should include the right to recall members of local and national government as well as members of the judiciary.

A new socialist constitution should enshrine housing, health, education and work as social directives and responsibilities that have to be provided for.

A new socialist constitution should specifically outline that key commanding heights of the economy such as the airlines, shipping lines, agriculture, financial institutions and so on will be publicly owned and managed.

In force it means that there will be a social ownership of capital, rather than a private ownership of capital. It means that artificial scarcities in things such as housing or employment will be eradicated. It means that the super profits created from the backs of workers will guarantee those very same workers a high standard of living through the reinvestment of the wealth they create back into society.

There is no doubt I think, that these are the key building blocks of a socialist society on an economic perspective. But there is more to it. It is not simply a question of what kind of State it is – be it proletariat or capitalist in nature, but also a question of the culture and the consciousness which we seek to nurture. Capitalist society promotes greed, individualism, selfishness, consumerism – Socialist society does not. We are not simply talking about political power for the working class, we are talking about a new human being who views themselves, their friends, other people and their relationship to society in a more meaningful and humane way, all because of a new found investment and participation in the way society is operated and run.

It is also worth noting that Ireland is uniquely distinct and therefore socialism here is not intended to be a ‘copy’ of socialism elsewhere, but a socialism reflecting the issues Ireland and it’s people face. Socialism with Irish Characteristics.

In Ireland, we have formed the view that Socialism will come about only through the extraparliamentary organisation of workers in unions and in their community. That only a class conscious mass movement, involving all sections of society, the LGBTQ community, women, young people, older people and so on can successfully overthrow capitalism and in my capacity as General Secretary of the CYM, that is the direction I am leading the organisation. That is why our slogan is ‘AGITATE – EDUCATE – ORGANISE!”’ That is why our work is focused on the questions of precarious work and precarious housing, as the two most chronic issues facing people of all ethnicities, religions and genders.


An excerpt from the speech given at NUIG’s motion ‘THIS HOUSE SUPPORTS SOCIALISM’, by the CYM General Secretary, 07.03.2019.

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