I would like to respond to the comments of David Palmeter and “Marcel Proust” but I think they are too long to reproduce here so I will count on people who are interested to read them before reading this post. I agree with the thrust of both comments.
Let me begin by saying that the proper question is not “What will socialism look like when it arrives?” as though it were a foregone conclusion that something called “socialism” but rather “How should we organize an economy and society based on the collective ownership of the means of production?” now that such a state of affairs is for the first time structurally and organizationally possible. The word “socialism” is a placeholder, not an answer to a question, and as David Palmeter indicates in his comment, there are dangers to be guarded against as well as opportunities to be seized and questions to be answered.
Is it possible – or desirable – to maintain the explosive economic growth manifested by capitalism without private ownership of the means of production? What legal and political defenses can be designed to protect against tyranny or simply the inevitable desire of those in positions of collective leadership to protect and augment their influence? Can the freedom and independence of the press be maintained in some way other than private ownership of newspapers and television stations? (Indeed, we might ask, is freedom and independence of the press maintained now by such private ownership?)
These are not rhetorical questions intended to close off discussion and leave us sadder but wiser with the conclusion that capitalism is the best we can do. They are genuine questions, answers for which would have to be developed and defended in an economic system grounded on collective ownership rather than private ownership of the means of production.
Would it be best to permit even very large accumulations of private wealth in the hands of those who themselves initiate innovations in production or distribution but then deny them the opportunity to pass ownership of that wealth to the heirs?
If I may raise in modern form an old question that troubled the Bolsheviks once they took power in Russia, can there be socialism in one country or would collective ownership of the means of production have to be a worldwide rearrangement of affairs?
I do not see these as questions that armchair critics like myself can answer after a bit of thought and study. Not even the wisest and most farseeing social observers in 16th century Europe could have anticipated the development of capitalism in sufficient detail to engage in anything remotely like social planning. The reason why I spend so much time emphasizing the tendencies now observable within capitalism and so little time speculating about ideal futures is that I think all of these questions can only be answered by the struggle and the effort of scores of millions of men and women working to make a better world for themselves and their children.
As for the comments of “Marcel Proust,” alas, I agree with them all too well. I have some confidence in my judgments only about the United States, where I can draw on eight decades of personal observation, and it is clear to me, as I have written on a variety of occasions, that four centuries of slavery and its aftermath have so darkened and distorted our collective social life that for scores of millions of men and women these days the desperate effort to preserve some measure of their white supremacy takes precedence over any consideration of economic justice.
A long time ago, in my writings and public speeches, I argued repeatedly that the secret to remaining politically committed and engaged was to find some way of fighting that one enjoys so that one would continue doing it even when the bands were not playing, the banners were not flying, and the folk singers were not singing our songs. Now that I am not too far from my 90th year, I am compelled to acknowledge that as good advice for my grandchildren because the fight for social justice will still be going on when they are my age.