Socialism (or communism) means ‘common ownership’ of the means of life.
But what does ‘common ownership’ mean?
Let us start with ‘ownership’. What does it mean to ‘own’ an ordinary object – a bicycle, say?
To own a bicycle means to be in a position to decide what to do with it. You can ride it. You can hang it upside down and spin the wheels. You can give it away. You can sell it. You can rent it out. You can leave it in the basement and forget about it. If you’re in a really bad mood you can take a sledgehammer and smash it up. It is up to you. It is yours. You own it.
Legal ownership and real ownership
That seems simple enough, but it is not quite as simple as it seems. It is necessary to draw a distinction between legal (or formal) ownership and real ownership. To have legal ownership of a bicycle means to have the legal right to decide what to do with it. To have real ownership of a bicycle means to have the real ability to decide what to do with it.
But don’t legal ownership and real ownership coincide? Not always. Suppose that your neighbor has stolen your bicycle. Suppose also that you are too scared of your neighbor to take any action to get the bicycle back. Legally you still own the bicycle, but you are no longer the real owner. The real owner is now your neighbor.
This distinction becomes even more important when we move on from ordinary objects to the more complex objects that constitute the means of life. Suppose that you own a few shares in some company. That gives you legal ownership of part of the company. You occasionally receive some dividends. But as a small shareholder you have no real control over the company. Only large shareholders, members of the Board of Directors, the Chief Executive Officer, and perhaps a few of his most senior colleagues can be considered real owners of the company.
Common ownership and state ownership
Common ownership means ownership by the community. For the community to own the means of life it is neither sufficient nor necessary for a law or constitution to declare their common ownership. What matters is whether the community really exercises democratic control over the means of life.
What about state ownership of the means of life? Is that socialism?
Many people think so. In legal terms, moreover, state ownership often looks like common ownership. In the Soviet Union, for example, under Khrushchev and his successors the Soviet state was officially described as ‘a state of the whole people’. ‘Ownership by a state of the whole people’ is perhaps not identical to ‘ownership by the whole people’ but it arguably comes pretty close. In reality, however, only the highest officials of the Soviet party-state exercised any control over the means of life. They and they alone were the real owners. That was not common ownership. It was not therefore socialism.
When and where means of life are owned and controlled by the state, the crucial question is always: who owns and controls the state? A group of wealthy oligarchs? A military junta? A council of religious clerics? Only if the state itself is fully democratic, only if every citizen is able to exert real influence on public affairs can it be argued that state ownership is equivalent to common ownership.
The meaning of democracy
The meaning of ‘democracy’ also needs to be clarified. There are many kinds of democracy. One distinction is that between direct democracy and representative democracy. It is widely held that direct democracy can only work on a small scale. However, computer technology expands the potential for direct democracy in the forms of online forums and referendums.
Another very important distinction is that between majoritarian democracy, in which the majority always prevails over the minority, and forms of democracy designed to protect the rights of minorities. In my opinion a socialist society should limit the scope of majoritarian democracy and give a minority every possible opportunity to convince the majority, if only because the minority is often right.
A socialist society is also likely to devise its own new forms of democracy.
Common ownership and free access
Some socialists consider 'abundance' and 'free access' essential aspects of common ownership and define socialism as 'a society of abundance' or 'a society of free access.' Elsewhere on this site I argue that the principle of free access to consumer goods, appealing as it may be, is inevitably subject to certain limits, especially in the early stages of organizing a socialist society. I also argue here that the impending catastrophe of global heating forces us to rethink our ideas about socialism and in particular the concepts of 'abundance' and 'free access'. The requirements of environmental stabilization will have to take priority over non-essential consumption. However, this does not mean that socialism as such is impossible. The essential aspect of common ownership is democratic control in the interests of the community as a whole. If the community finds it necessary to do so, it may democratically decide to place certain limits on free access and/or regulate consumption in accordance with some other principle. Therefore the concepts of 'abundance' and 'free access' are not inherent in the definition of common ownership.
The end of 'ownership'
Socialists use the concept of 'common ownership' to explain the meaning of socialism to people living under capitalism. This is done by contrasting 'common ownership' with different kinds of ownership that exist in capitalism. In socialism such explanation will no longer be necessary and it is likely that the very concept of 'ownership' will go out of use, replaced by other concepts better suited to the mode of functioning of the new society. Socialism can therefore also be described as a society without ownership.