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5 Questions About Socialism You’ll Get at the Holiday Dinner Table (And How to Answer Them)

Seeing family for the holidays can be stressful—especially for socialists! Here are five common questions that your less radical family members might ask you and how to rebut them.

Sybil Davis

November 27, 2019
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It’s that time of year again, the time that many of us will be traveling home to visit our families for the holidays. For socialists, this can be a challenging time, as most of us have family members who don’t share our politics, and “debating” us can often become a source of familial entertainment. Since coming up with complex arguments about dialectical materialism is not necessarily the easiest thing to do while asking Aunt Alice to pass the mashed potatoes, we have prepared an easy how-to guide for how to respond to five of the most common questions that socialists hear from their families around the holidays.

#1: You want to take my toothbrush/books/car?

No. We don’t.

This is a frustratingly common fear that comes from a misunderstanding of the phrase “private property.” As socialists, we oppose private property and want to seize it for the common good. We are not, however, opposed to personal property. Personal property is anything  you own for your personal use—like a toothbrush, a book, clothes, a car, etc. Basically everyone owns some form of personal property. Private property, by contrast, is the ownership of the means of production—property that allows you to exploit workers and get rich off of their labor. These are the people who must be expropriated, the big business owners and big landlords. Very few people actually own any private property. Even small business owners with a few employees or the family who rents out an extra room in their house can be allies of the working class. Unless you own a large business or are a powerful landlord, you won’t have any property taken.

In fact, for the majority of people, expropriating the private property of capitalists just means that now we get to decide democratically on production, and that those decisions are not based on profits but on what is best for consumers and producers. It means more control, not less. So don’t worry Grandpa, your toothbrush is safe. 

#2: But, people are fundamentally lazy, so under socialism won’t some of us will do all the work while other people do nothing?

The fear is that under socialism, some people will do all the work while others do very little and reap the rewards. The idea of this makes most people very upset as it isn’t “fair.” 

But that isn’t how socialism works; that’s how capitalism works. 

Under the current system, we go to work every day and waste our lives away while men in suits sit in cushy boardrooms and profit off of our labor. Profit is something that we—as workers—make that they—as bosses—take from us. The world of the hard worker slaving away to enrich the slacker is one that all of us are currently living in. Many working class people are holding down several jobs just to make ends meet. 

Besides, what is often called “laziness” is just what I would call the everyday rejection of work under capitalism: taking time to chat with co-workers in the midst of a job that is boring or dehumanizing, using all of your breaktime, or even complaining about the workday. “Laziness” is a reaction to feeling like your work is pointless, rather than something that is inherent to labor itself. 

But work doesn’t need to be this way. We could be involved in the planning of our work, understanding the process and the goal. In socialism, we could organize production differently: we could work fewer hours at a job we actually enjoy, we wouldn’t have to worry about money, and we could feel invested in the work we do.  The separation between manual and intellectual work would fall away and all work that people are asked to do would provide a material benefit to society. And most importantly, we could spend much more time not working. 

Why do we have this hyper-focus on productivity anyway? After all, the development of technology could allow us to work significantly less hours. Even in non-socialist countries like Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands, we see that workers can work fewer hours but still be more productive. Under a communist system, we wouldn’t have to work as many hours and we would still have more effective production systems so that we would have free time: time for art, for leisure, for whatever we want. 

#3: You have an iPhone and you still say that you hate capitalism?

This argument has been mocked pretty widely on the internet. However, it is still a pervasive counter-argument about socialism that is based on two assumptions: first, that those who live in a capitalist system are capitalists, and therefore are hypocritical for criticising it; and second, that only capitalism can bring about innovation. The first assumption is the easiest to discredit, since it is largely impossible not to engage in capitalism. By virtue of living in the world, we have to engage in some way with capitalism. We must pay for food, clothes, housing, and—yes—phones in order to materially get by in the world. That doesn’t make us capitalists or complicit in the capitalist system. Capitalists are people who own the means of production and make a profit by exploiting the labor of the vast majority of people who have nothing to sell except their own labor. Capitalists are not the folks who are struggling to make a living within a system we didn’t choose and struggle everyday to survive in. This argument makes the victims of capitalism—the working class—responsible for the system, rather than the bourgeoisie who are, in fact, the ones who are running this system.

The other assumption—that only capitalism can bring about innovation—shows a lack of understanding of both what a socialist society would look like and how the current system already functions. Capitalist innovation is based on what will be profitable. This means that time and resources are reserved only for what will make money—typically only in the short term. As such, things like renewable energy are not pursued because they aren’t thought of as profitable. Innovation under capitalism only happens when a clear profit potential can be seen. Additionally, because of the focus on competition, research isn’t shared, and so the process of innovation is constrained by what information the company funding the innovation has access to. Although capitalism has brought about many innovations—great innovations that have the potential to make life better, the search for profit is not only a hindrance for the developments we need, it’s also destroying the planet. 

Under socialism, the need to turn a profit will be removed, so we will be able to develop new technology and inventions that will actually make people’s lives better—this will be the primary goal. Research will be freely shared, and development will be done cooperatively instead of competitively, seeking the best innovation for people’s lives. This means that there will be no planned obsolescence: new technology will last longer and have fewer bugs. We will still have smartphones under socialism, but they won’t be manufactured-to-fail by underpaid workers in unsafe factories. 

#4: You want us to end up like Venezuela or the Soviet Union?

There is a lot to unpack here, so I’m just going to make some brief notes. I’d say that for socialists, there is a lot of reading to do here.  

Let’s start with Venezuela. Despite what the media will tell you, Venezuela is not, and never has been, socialist: there is private ownership of the vast majority of the means of production. It is a capitalist country with a constitution that protects private property. And it’s also true that there is a government bureaucracy that lives in better conditions than the rest of the population and that has stifled and repressed dissent.  Former President Hugo Chávez did implement some very progressive reforms, including some limited nationalizations, and he did use left and anti-imperialist rhetoric. But that isn’t socialism. The economic crisis in Venezuela is not due to a failure of socialism—it is the result of US imperialism. It is the result of a mix of falling oil prices and imperialist pressures, including numerous attempted coups and sanctions. There is currently a blockade against Venezuela which is causing mass poverty. In this sense, much of the misery in Venezuela, like that in other semi-colonial countries around the world, is the direct product of imperialism, whether that be through sanctions, coups, attempts to destabilize governments, or the hyper exploitation of the global south by U.S.-based multinational companies and organizations. 

Russia is a different situation because it was, for a time, a true workers state.The working class really did take up arms and expropriate the capitalist class, creating the first workers state in history. Incredibly progressive social reforms were implemented, like the right to an abortion.  Workers were given control of their workplaces and the oppressive tools of the state were re-oriented to defend the working class against the capitalist class. However, most of the revolutionary aspects of the Soviet Union were eliminated under the direction of Joseph Stalin, transforming the first workers state into a reactionary and counter-revolutionary shadow of its former self. 

That said, there is a larger argument present here, hiding just behind the surface, which is that socialism always leads to dictatorship and oppression. Those who make this argument will point to the above examples—most notably Stalin—as proof that socialism “only works on paper.” What this argument is missing is a material analysis of each situation where socialism has failed—is socialism doomed to failure by design, or are there ways that we can fight for socialism to succeed? To take the Soviet Union as an example, they were in a very specific economic situation wherein Russians were starving even before the revolution. In a country that was not very industrialized and that was being attacked by the imperialist armies of the world, some apparatus, in this case a state bureaucracy, had to emerge to distribute scarce resources. These material conditions are what lead to the rise of Stalin, not a fundamental problem with socialism. 

These material conditions aren’t present in the United States today, and as such, it does not make sense to argue that just because the Soviet Union fell apart, any revolution in the U.S. would also be betrayed. Rather than having not enough to go around, we have more than enough to go around. Ensuring that everyone has enough food and resources to live on while supporting workers revolutions around the world would be comparatively simple compared to less economically developed countries like 1910s Russia. Besides, the U.S. is the primary counter-revolutionary, imperialist force in the world. Once we have a revolution in the U.S., it’s not hard to imagine the rest of the world following suit, making sure that socialism isn’t confined to one country. It is precisely the act of abolishing borders and creating a planned economy on a global scale that will bring about communism.

#5: Aren’t the fire department/public library/military already socialist?

This is one of the most insidious and fast-growing myths about socialism. Academy Award-winning filmmaker Michael Moore has been a strong advocate of this way of thinking and goes around claiming that the platform of the Democratic Party in the 40s was socialist. This notion that everything the government does is socialist ignores almost every element of Marxism. To begin with, on the most basic level, socialism means the expropriation of the capitalist class. It means worker control over the means of production. Fire fighters, librarians, and certainly soldiers do not control the means of production in their work places. There are no worker committees of librarians who independently decide how to run the library.

The argument that government services amounts to socialism confuses progressive reforms and the welfare state with socialism. Medicare for All, for example, is an important progressive reform that will improve the living conditions of many workers, but it isn’t socialism. No reforms will single-handedly bring about a socialist state, not even the nationalization of certain industries. That is not to say that, as socialists, we don’t support reforms—quite the opposite. In fact, we believe that fighting for reforms can build working class power and develop the solidarity that is necessary to carry out the revolution. But we can’t just reform the capitalist state away because the state in itself isn’t a neutral thing.

There are some people, even some who call themselves socialists, who believe that we can–through elections and new laws–sand the capitalist state down into a socialist one. This, unfortunately, just isn’t how the state works. The state exists and was created to defend the interests of the bourgeois. It is an armed enforcement mechanism including the police, prisons, and the military that act on behalf of the capitalist class. If we attempted to actually institute socialism—by seizing workplaces and expropriating capitalists—the state wouldn’t just sit by and watch. No, they’d send the police and the military to repress us—just look at Chile in the 70s.

Trying to bring about socialism through reforms is like—paraphrasing the great Rosa Luxemburg—pouring lemonade into the ocean and expecting the ocean to transform into a sea of lemonade. Perhaps the water will taste a little sweeter but you haven’t changed anything substantial about what the ocean is. As long as workers are not in control of the state and do not control their own workplaces, we do not have socialism—no matter how many progressive reforms we may win.

Socialism is quickly becoming a buzzword in modern politics and at many holiday dinner tables. Consequently, many socialists will be called upon to give an impromptu defense of their politics and worldview. We hope that these answers will help you argue for the possibility of a better world without having to teach a seminar on the Communist Manifesto in between turkey and pumpkin pie. Good luck out there comrades.

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Sybil Davis

Sybil is a trans activist, artist, and education worker in New York City.

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