Socialism is a political theory according to which people would be happier and better if the means of production—that is, the land of a country and its buildings, ships, machines, rails, etc.—belonged to the Government instead of belonging, as they now mainly do, to private citizens and private corporations.
That is the only exclusive meaning of Socialism. All the other wobbly ideas that have been tacked on to it by its enemies or its friends—that it is "atheistic," or that it involves sexual "immorality," that it is “progressive," that it is "Christian"—have nothing to do with the one proposition which alone distinguishes it from all other policies.
A Socialistic State need be neither more democratic nor less democratic than the present state of affairs. A State in which all the means of production were owned by the Government might be under a despot or under an aristocracy, or it might be managed as a democracy. However it was managed it would be a Socialistic State if the means of production were owned and controlled by Government.
Socialism does not in its essence imply that nobody should own anything. There is no reason why a man in a Socialistic State should not own a great quantity of things for his own private enjoyment. The only thing, that would be denied to private ownership would be something commonly used or usable as a means of production; something which, when one part of the community owns it and the other part does not, permits the owning part to live upon the labour of the non-owning part. A man in a Socialistic State would be allowed to own ornaments and purely possessions such as pictures and furniture, watches, and even productive machines should they be used for his own enjoyment alone; but he would not be allowed a share, large or small, in a factory, or a shop, or a railroad, or a commercial steamship, or a piece of land (to be used for profit), except that share which he might be said to own as a member of the community whose Government owned and controlled all these things.
Again, a State could be Socialistic and yet have very different degrees of enjoyment among its citizens. The Government might reward men according to merit, distributing very unequally the wealth produced by labour applied to the capital and land it owned. The Government might give large amounts of the good things to a few whom it thought deserved them, and very little to the mass of mankind whom it might think so wicked as not to deserve them. It might make an unequal distribution by giving high rewards to the talented, the good organizers and the good managers, in order to secure efficiency of production, and very little to the general mass of labourers. It might act purely by caprice, giving large amounts to its favourites and small amounts to the rest of the community. It might (as many confusedly think that it must) distribute to each according to his need; it might make a rigidly equal distribution to each family in the community according to the age and number of its members. Whatever form the distribution took, whether there were great differences between the amounts distributed or exact equality in them, whether the distribution were determined by competition in talent or caprice, or by the sense of human equality, the State would still be a Socialistic State if the means of production were owned and controlled by the Government.
This is the main point to seize; for it is in this, and in this alone, that Socialism differs from other political theories.
It is certain that, whatever may have happened in other parts of the world, our ancestors here in Western Europe never had anything of the kind. There was plenty of co-operative production in the Middle Ages; there was plenty of common land (as there still is) side by side with land privately owned. There existed for a short time a legal fiction, which still theoretically survives, that the land of the country belonged to the Crown; but in practice no Socialistic State can be discovered in the past history of men of our own blood. Many have thought to discover it, and guessed it to be present in certain ill-understood and very obscure primitive customs, but the evidence in favour of this kind of guesswork was never strong enough to convince a close critic of evidence, and, as research proceeds, gets weaker every day.
The proposal, then, which is the Socialist proposal, to convert all private property in the means of production—that is, in the factories, machines, land, houses, etc.—into Government property is a novel proposal. It is a proposal to do something quite new and as yet untried by men of our descent with our inherited traditions and instincts and ways of looking at things. Why has so revolutionary a proposal been made, and what arguments can be brought forward in its favour?
This revolutionary proposal has been made because the present state of society is in itself a novel one, suffering from evils new in the history of our country, and, for that matter, of the world; and the arguments in favour of it—the arguments, that is, by which it is attempted to prove that England would be a better and happier country under Socialism, are many and strong. As things now are in England, a small proportion of the inhabitants of the country possess by far the greater part of the means of production. It is very difficult to obtain exact figures, and all general statements made in this connection must be received with caution. But I think the following general statement is not very wide off the mark, though, of course, it does not pretend to be rigidly accurate. I think one may say that less than two hundred families at the very most control one-quarter of our means of production. Another quarter is in the hands of perhaps two thousand families at the most. And the remaining half (unless we are to include properties so small that they hardly count as capital) cannot at the utmost be made to include as much as a sixteenth of the whole community. The rest consist of families working for a wage, and unlikely, save in exceptional individual instances, to be anything other than wage-earners, either now or in the future. Side by side with this concentration of ownership in few hands you have a highly competitive system of production under which security of employment is at its minimum. Thus a great and increasing proportion of the population-so it is maintained-has no share in the permanent wealth of the country, and can only enjoy what it does on condition of continual labour for others who own that permanent wealth; while the workers, though not perhaps becoming actually poorer, are becoming relatively poorer compared with the owning-classes, and with all this they are less and less secure of permanent employment as trade competition extends over a wider and wider area of the world’s surface. A good crop of some product on the other side of the globe may suddenly throw out of employment any number of men employed here in the production of a similar article. The cessation of demand for something produced by us, but consumed by people whom we have never seen, in India or in China, may suddenly destroy the livelihood of a whole group of artisans in England. Every progress even, every new invention, tends to bring into the experience of some group of labouring men a period of insecurity at the best, and at the worst of acute distress. Meanwhile there is a constant tendency for property to amalgamate still further, there is a constant tendency for the big business to swallow up the small one, and it is the main Socialist argument that if we leave things as they are we shall end in a state of society where quite a small number of exceedingly rich men will control the destinies of all the rest of their fellows. It will, moreover (they say) be a state of society in which competition for employment will always maintain the average earnings of the labouring class at an exceedingly low level, and the power of enjoyment of the mass of the community will be miserably small compared with the power of enjoyment of the few owners who control it.
It is to avoid a consummation of this kind that Socialists propose the fundamental transformation of our social system, towards which transformation they are working with such enthusiasm and conviction.
Now let us look at another aspect of the matter, and consider certain consequences that would follow upon Socialism were it ever brought into being.