6.2 Socialism and capitalism as coexisting social systems

Socialist alternatives to capitalism have origins which are nearly as old as capitalism itself, beginning in the form of various utopian theories about societies or communities that would replace or coexist with capitalism. A century before the political triumph of capitalism in England, discussion of a socialist alternative was stimulated by the publication in 1516 of Thomas More's Utopia, which presents images of a society that harkens back to biblical communalism.

While in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries England spread its (by then) economically and politically dominant capitalist system from its birthplace to the English colonies in America and Australia, feudalism – particularly monarchical political power - remained dominant throughout much of the rest of the world. Even upon the publication in 1848 of the Communist Manifesto, in which Karl Marx and Frederick Engels had already prophesied the replacement of capitalism by socialism, the political dominance of capitalism had not yet fully matured in Germany – or indeed anywhere in Continental Europe.

Only through the efforts of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1871-1890) - on behalf of monarch Wilhelm I - did capitalism come to dominate the recently unified German states both economically and politically, including a limited parliamentary democracy, state protectionist support for industrial capitalist expansion, and the introduction of welfare state measures (usually taken from the programs of socialist political parties) to stave off socialist opposition (a model subsequently copied by capitalist governments wherever they felt themselves threatened by the possibility that a working class majority would replace capitalism by socialism).

Remarkably, the first occurrence of a ruling socialist alternative to capitalism was the brief Paris Commune of 1871. (See the account of the Paris Commune by Karl Marx, with introduction and postscript by Friedrich Engels, The Civil War in France (1871), which can be found online at http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/civil-war-france/index.htm.) Recruited into the National Guard to defend the bourgeois dominated National Assembly of France against Bismarck's Prussian army, then threatening at the gates of Paris, the working class of Paris was well-armed. Although soon abandoned by its erstwhile bourgeois allies, frightened by the prospect of a democracy that might include a majoritarian working class, the workers' militias were left to fend off the surrounding Prussian troops. In doing so, the working class of Paris took political – that is, legislative - power, successfully defended the city, put into law the political promises their bourgeois allies had made and took the first steps towards establishing socialism before being overwhelmed by the combined forces of the opposition. That opposition included a treacherous capitalist class which by then had again allied itself instead with monarchical France and, for as long as necessary, even the invading Prussian army.

This failed effort of the working class of Paris became part of the learning curve of Marxist intellectuals and workers whose later achievements included the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917 in Russia and the creation across the Soviet Union of a model their successors claimed to be socialism which survived until 1991. This model, in turn, before the collapse of the Soviet Union and most of its allied – some say subordinate - states, inspired imitative, modified and contrary socialist movements and governments in nearly all countries and regions of the world.

But were the Soviet Union and its imitators socialist societies? Canadian economist Michael A. Lebowitz (2012, Monthly Review Press) The Contradictions of Real Socialism: The conductor and the conducted, concluded (p184) from a study of the mature post-1950s socio-economic system of the USSR that "a society divided into conductors and conducted (even if there were no exploitation as such) has little to do with anything Marx looked forward to". Instead, as Marx clarified in his study of the short-lived Paris Commune, his version of socialism is a system in which working people develop themselves in the process of transforming their society – one that precludes the intercession of a self-appointed Communist vanguard.

While this chapter aims to offer interested readers the opportunity to view green social democracy in historical perspective, a more thorough critique of socialist alternatives, particularly 20th century alternatives, was offered in 1989 by Michael Harrington, Socialism: Past and Future. Other accounts which the reader is also likely to find helpful are referred to in what follows.

From the beginning of the cold war (launched from the capitalist West against the communist East after the Second World War) to the present, now featuring Wall Street opposition to the recent emergence of new socialist-leaning governments in Latin America, the historical record might seem to suggest that most actually existing socialist and capitalist systems are co-existent alternatives rather than successive stages in the evolution of human society. There are grounds for making such an argument either in those cases where self-described "socialist" governments have existed alongside capitalist ones, sometimes separated by "iron curtains", or when both "socialist" and capitalist forms of economic activity have existed within the same political boundaries (as, for example, in Scandinavia or, indeed, in any capitalist society).

There may even be reason to ask whether contemporary capitalism could long exist without the co-existence of some form of socialism, either as a temporary relief from the worst of capitalism or as authoritarian states attempting to build socialism from the top-down. While the former acts as a relief valve, the latter serves as a convenient villain, both diverting attention away from the ills of capitalism. We argue below, however, that most self-anointed socialist governments that have co-existed so far with capitalism have characteristics that decidedly have bound them to capitalism and the continuing dominant global position of the capitalist system. We allow, though, for the possibility that some of the new governments that have embarked on a path to socialism in this century, and maybe one or two of those remaining from the last century, may have learned enough from history to become the first wave of enduring alternatives to capitalism.

Parenthetically, those of us in the more developed capitalist countries should not leave the brave peoples in the periphery embarking on paths to socialism to struggle alone. Our main responsibility is to take the decisive steps to free the world from rule by a now transnationalized capitalist class. We do this by replacing rule by the political representatives of global transnational corporations with popular democratic rule over the nation states within the historical core of capitalism, in the first place the United States and the United Kingdom. With that accomplished, global popular democratic control over the primary political-economic institutions of the transnational capitalist class is assured, including among others the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization and the various trade agreements that today prioritize the rights of transnational capitalism over the rights of the world's peoples to a just, sustainable existence.

Returning now to our main argument, it is perhaps inevitable that the leading forces everywhere for alternatives to capitalism have carried and continue to carry with us the traces of the dominant cultural values and habits of the preceding exploitative forms of society, the authoritarian traits of capitalism and even of feudalism and slavery. We identify these traces as continuing curbs on democracy, science, imagination and education. Internally weakened by these shortcomings and externally challenged by the economic, political and military forces of global capitalism, socialist beginnings have not yet matured into an enduring alternative to capitalism.

It is to history that we must turn to identify and recognize the force of the cultural characteristics that continue to bind us to a system that is now in its descent. If humanity is to move beyond merely ephemeral independence from capitalism, our revolutionary activity must include our cultural development as an essential condition. We must change ourselves in the process of changing our world and vice-versa.

For emphasis, the order in which Marx presented a similar argument has been reversed. Many of his followers have apparently expected that by changing the world (by which these Marxists mean the formal relationships of production – the way we interact to make a living) we would automatically change ourselves. In reality, it appears that more is needed. We must change our world and ourselves simultaneously if either change is to endure.

Among early proponents of socialism were members of the classes ultimately displaced by emergent capitalism. They brought with them their cultural values. They were joined over time by members of the new oppressed classes created by capitalism, primarily the working class, whose cultural values also included the traces of those they brought with them from pre-capitalist society. The displaced classes also included members of the feudal nobility and their intellectual and military servants, with corresponding habits and dispositions.

Not all members of the disappearing feudal ruling classes, of course, took the direction of opposition to capitalism. Most were able to convert their feudal property or privileges into capitalist property and privileges, a pattern that repeated itself in subsequent social revolutions and counter-revolutions. When new class relationships emerge, the members of the old ruling classes often find it easier to make a soft landing, including a place among the new ruling classes. To those new ruling classes, the former bring at least traces of the former ruling cultural values.

The early socialist opposition to capitalism also included the skilled members of the feudal guilds who were being displaced by the less skilled working classes needed by burgeoning capitalist production and distribution. They brought with them to socialism their organizational skills and independence, but also hierarchical values from the feudal society in which they were previously embedded.

The new capitalist society also included those driven off the land by enclosure laws designed to supply capitalism with an expanding number of economically dependent workers. Many brought with them communal values that thankfully persist to this day.

As means of transportation improved and populations expanded beyond the resources of European capitalist and feudal states, emigrants from these countries carried their property views and other cultural values into the lands of indigenous peoples, where indigenous, capitalist and feudal cultural values commingle to this day. Increasingly, however, the moral high ground has been sought and found by representatives of indigenous cultural traditions.

Such historical facts help to explain why socialism has been a moving target – an idea with a seemingly unlimited variety of meanings, including such mutually exclusive uses as national socialism and socialist internationalism. Our aim here is not to negate the use of socialism as a word defining the social aims of individuals, political parties or governments. It is specific well known case examples of socialism in practice that most concern us (exemplified by the authoritarian versions of socialism that ultimately prevailed in the former USSR and its Eastern European allies and the repeated capitulations to capitalism by center-right variants of socialism, notably in Western Europe. These have seriously discredited socialism.

By identifying dead-ends reached by many of these socialist movements, we hope to avoid them in the future. As previously declared, our aim is not to litigate history; it is to identify those examples of socialism that do not correspond to our present circumstances and needs. Unfortunately, those appear to the present authors to be most of the varieties of socialism that have so far achieved governmental power during this five hundred year epoch of the ascendancy of capitalism as the dominant form of socio-economic relations.


This website was launched September 1, 2010 in support of a green social democratic alternative to neoliberal capitalist policy and practice. The primary result is a work by Charles and Karen McFadden of seven chapters, grouped under the title, Towards a Green Social Democratic Alternative to Capitalism available here in pdf and html formats.

Below under the heading What’s New can be found the most recent materials posted on this website, including opinion pieces, book reviews, articles and selections from the 2017 edition of the main work.  For the interest of new and returning visitors, new materials will be included quarterly.

What's New


Authors' Preface

1.6 The epochal nature of the period we are entering

6.0 The socialism we need against the "socialism" of the 20th century

6.8 Additional concerns about 20th century variants of "socialism"

6.9 The people united!

7.1 Policy alternatives and political movements to advance them


Charles and Karen McFadden, Is revolutionary transformation on the agenda

Charles and Karen McFaddenHumanity on the Brink

Charles and Karen McFaddenMovements of Resistance to Movements for System Change

Charles McFaddenTranslating Green Principles into Education Policy and Practice

Charles and Karen McFadden, The Role of Revolutionaries in the Labor Movement


Charles and Karen McFadden, “The Shape of Water” as an Antidote to the Age of Trump 

Charles McFadden, Decolonizing the U.S. & Canada: The People United for a More Just Sustainable Future

Karen and Charles McFaddenCan emergent early 21st century neo-fascism be defeated without coming to grips with late 20th century restructuring of capitalism into a global system

Karen and Charles McFaddenA Dominant Capitalism or a Sustainable Environment? Why we can't have both.


William I. RobinsonThe Crisis of Global Capitalism and Trump's March to War

William I. RobinsonTrumpism, 21st Century Fascism, and the Dictatorship of the Transnational Capitalist Class


George HewisonWINNIPEG 1919 & THE COLD WAR

George HewisonArt Manuel - "Unsettling Canada

George HewisonThe NDP and LEAP


Albert Einstein, David Swanson, Jill Stein, Chris Hedges, William I. Robinson, and others Selected articles for Winter 2018



1.7 The dynamics of capitalism as a system and the limits of single issue reforms

2.11 The economy in transition towards a new deal for labor and the community

3.1 The challenge of a moribund economic system

3.7 Public banking: A cornerstone of a green social democracy

4.7 Economics and culture

6.5 Using the non-market economy as an opportunity to begin moving beyond capitalism


1.6 The epochal nature of the period we are entering

2.0 Theoretical Perspective: Defining Green Social Democracy

2.5. Socialism and green social democracy in historical materialist theory

4.3 Culture in historical perspective

5.1 Contrasting a green social democratic world with the currently prevailing, but challenged neo-liberal one

6.2 Socialism and capitalism as coexisting social systems


2.11 The economy in transition towards a new deal for labor and the community

5.7 Defeating neo-liberal capitalism: The role of social movements

7.3 Justice: Creating a just society, based on the right of all to a dignified, secure existence

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) applies to all work posted on this website except that which appears with authors whose last name is other than McFadden, in which case standard copyright should be assumed to apply.