Roderic Day
Editing: Alice Malone

The Case for Socialized Ownership (2024)

23 minutes | English | The Crew

Adapted and expanded from a popular thread. [1]

“Workers must seize the means of production!” Yes. But what does this mean in practice?

Marxist researcher Ian Paul Wright recently mused on the tasks set before the worker movement, as a kind of open challenge:

Any revolutionary strategy worthy of the name must include a plan to accumulate capital held in common at scale. A necessity that is hugely under theorized and hardly practiced. [2]

I found the sentiment accurate and well-expressed. I therefore want to contribute by tying together this matter of “a plan to accumulate capital held in common at scale” and the well-known task of “seizing the means.” This will necessarily also touch on why the supposed choice between “collectivism” and “individualism” is false and misleading.

Bourgeois economists model the economy as individuals meeting in the market to buy and sell commodities. Some sellers sell objects, other sellers sell their time and energy — labour-power. [3] For the bourgeois economist modelling the economy, what matters is that we all stand equal, as humans before God, before the “free and open market.” That workers should be compensated “fairly” for their time and effort is not at all denied by bourgeois economics. But what is fair? The bourgeois economist answers bluntly: whatever the worker is able to get, whether by skill or by chance, from voluntary exchange. There is no other benchmark — this is the only “fair” value we can speak of without veering into mysticism.

Marxism doesn’t actually disagree with this basic outlay. In the Manifesto Marx and Engels can be clearly seen railing against a sentimental “Feudal socialism” that tries to “barter truth, love, and honour, for traffic in wool, beetroot-sugar, and potato spirits.” [4] A decade later Marx would insist: “it is preposterous to weep” over “buyer and seller, these bourgeois economic types” as “signifying the abolition of individuality.” [5] So, Marxists are very far from begging that we infuse human economic intercourse with charity and dignity through willpower and temperance. Nothing in human history indicates that this will be possible at scale.

Instead, the Marxist insight is its focus on what the rise of massive industrial complexes has done to this picture. It’s rather simple to say that a producer of potatoes, or a seller of singing lessons, has earned their take-home “fair and square.” Indeed, this has little to do with capitalism as such: people were selling potatoes and singing lessons long before any capitalism entered the historical picture. However, the class of capitalist business-owners was brought to power precisely by the rise of massive manufactories — huge machine-driven enterprises that drew workers into themselves from the countryside like powerful industrial whirlpools. This gave rise to dozens if not hundreds of workers collaborating with each other to produce a prodigious amount of commodities — very much in contrast to individual artisans. What does this do to “individual exchange”?

Let’s take the specific example of the production of a commodity ubiquitous both in ancient and modern times, and all over the world: boots. Hundreds of years ago, a cobbler would buy some leather at a “fair” price, fashion it into boots, and then sell them for a higher (and still “fair”) price, keeping the difference. So far, so good! Now let’s take the same commodity today: a conglomerate produces millions of footwear items. The conglomerate employs designers, engineers, stitchers, marketers, store operators, logistics managers, and delivery drivers — as well as human resources, legal departments, etc. We know that raw materials went in, and that boots went out, and that the whole conglomerate made a very tidy profit off the difference. We also know that each worker was necessary for the final product, and that each worker relied on the other workers completing their own specialized task. But their labour is inextricably combined into the final product as seen by the buyers and wearers of the boots. Who can be said to have “made” any one individual pair of boots?

This is exactly where Marxism is modern, and bourgeois economics behind-the-times. Marxists charge that, in large industry, production is already socialized — collectivized. Workers being “interchangeable” is not a matter of personal opinion or ideology, it’s a material fact of industrial life. While romantics constantly decry this state of affairs as dehumanizing, Marxists take a position that is radically opposite: if workers understood that they made the shoe together, they’d understand that together they are powerful, and could unite and begin planning how to distribute the booty they earned together democratically. In absence of this consciousness, however, the social arrangement defaults to what it was in its primitive origins: work is organized by capitalists, who minimize the compensation of all workers, and for their organizing efforts get to hoover up all the rest. They are then free to reinvest it, or frivolously dip into it, as they privately — individually, unaccountably, undemocratically — see fit. In other words: compensation is already determined politically, but in a despotic manner.

Thus we read about how capitalist “freedom,” emancipatory relative to serfdom, remains incomplete due to its being premised in private ownership:

The right of man to private property is, therefore, the right to enjoy one’s property and to dispose of it at one’s discretion, without regard to other men, independently of society, the right of self-interest. This individual liberty and its application form the basis of civil society. It makes every man see in other men not the realization of his own freedom, but the barrier to it. […] Hence, man was not freed from religion, he received religious freedom. He was not freed from property, he received freedom to own property. He was not freed from the egoism of business, he received freedom to engage in business. [6]

And about how capitalist industry, by the logic of its own inner development, abolishes the real basis of individual exchange, upon which the entire justification for private property rests:

The petty-bourgeois Proudhon demands a world in which each person turns out a separate and independent product that is immediately consumable and exchangeable in the market. Then, as long as each person only receives back the full value of his labour in the form of another product, “eternal justice” is satisfied, and the best possible world created. But this best possible world of Proudhon has already been nipped in the bud and trodden underfoot by the advance of industrial development which has long ago destroyed individual labour in all the big branches of industries […]. The finished product immediately exchangeable or consumable is now the joint work of the many individuals through whose hands it has to pass. [7]

This brings us to the understanding of why it is nonsensical to speak of “collectivism” in communism and “individualism” in capitalism:

  1. It is precisely capitalist industry and capitalist technology that led already to the “collectivization” of nearly all work for the vast majority of people — it’s not a question of “if” or “when.”

  2. Collectives are made up of individuals who find self-realization within the collective. The marketers need the programmers, the musicians need the sound technicians, etc.

From the Marxist point of view it’s not a question of advocating for the arrangement of socially-owned means of production because that would be morally better than privately-owned means of production — although it is; for example, we should expect workers to favour peace over war because they’d be the ones at the front lines, whereas capitalists would more readily pull the trigger out of a simple expectation of net profit. It’s a question of realizing that, from the perspective of workers, with interdependent labour inside big manufactories, it’s no longer “the market” that determines the value of their work-hour. Capitalist opposition to salary transparency — proven to raise salaries [8] — demonstrates that when it comes to labour-power, employers are far from eager to let it all be spontaneously and immediately determined by the market. Executives prove their worth precisely in this domain of secret discretion and speculation — pushing the envelope, seeing exactly how much they can get away with.

But there is some truth in that production within any given industry is too particularly intertwined to allow for “market forces” to credibly arbitrate the value of worker-hours between industries. As bourgeois economists don’t tire of arguing, paying for some skills identically across industries and locations regardless of the profitability of given particular enterprises leads to global inefficiencies of its own — less profitable economic activities might become non-viable without specialists. However, we don’t have to accept the bourgeois economist’s prescription: that workers simply tolerate this inconsistency as a matter of pragmatism. The worker can access the Marxist insight instead: that “individual exchange” is in practice already obsolete, but we as a society insist on a kind of ongoing farce of it simply to justify the privatization of its products, for the real benefit of very few. Why do we decry despotism in civil society, but tolerate despotism in the “private” workplace? It’s an inconsistency, a musty prejudice that workers simply absorb uncritically from their masters. The value of labour-power as a commodity is already determined very politically, by employers constituted as a cartel of exploiters, who certainly allow no “open market competition” within their fiefdoms. In short: “private ownership” laws lag far behind the reality of already-socialized production.

So, other than trying to become exploiters, what can workers aspire to instead? Marxists have historically opposed, scathingly, any fantasizing or romanticizing aiming to return to an idealized past:

Those who, like Sismondi, wish to return to the true proportion of production while preserving the present basis of society are reactionary, since, to be consistent, they must also wish to bring back all the other conditions of industry of former times. […] Thus, one or the other: Either you want the true proportions of past centuries with present-day means of production, in which case you are both reactionary and utopian. Or, you want progress without anarchy: in which case, in order to preserve the productive forces, you must abandon individual exchange. [9]

What does abandoning individual exchange entail? It essentially means actively moving towards organizing production on an altogether different basis than the antagonistic clash between capitalists and workers. It means consciously seeking and refining the mechanisms of workplace democracy — mechanisms that truly correspond to the organization of production already in place, a result of social and technological progress.

What might this “social ownership” entail, at least conceptually?

Marx and Engels did not speak at great length about specific solutions. The prospect of “labour vouchers” is brought up sometimes. At other times it seems the project starts simply by disciplining the worst offenders, apparently letting the more decent capitalists continue to operate as organizers (“Confiscation of the property of [only] all emigrants and rebels”). [10] Personally — without being, I think, too radical — I like asking coworkers why, if our manager can fire any one of a dozen of us for underperformance, we don’t have the right to reciprocate collectively, replacing them by unanimous vote with a better one, for everyone’s benefit. Why does such decision-making flow in only one direction?

At any rate, specific measures are a very open question. What first matters, Engels writes, is to agree about the ultimate purpose of such measures in general:

[W]ith social production conditioned by modern large-scale industry, it is possible to assure each person “the full proceeds of his labour,” so far as this phrase has any meaning at all. And it has a meaning only if it is extended to mean not that each individual worker becomes the possessor of “the full proceeds of his labour,” but that the whole of society, consisting entirely of workers, becomes the possessor of the total proceeds of its labour, which it partly distributes among its members for consumption, partly uses for replacing and increasing the means of production, and partly stores up as a reserve fund for production and consumption. [11]


Nothing is less practical than “practical solutions,” concocted in advance and universally applicable. Practical socialism consists rather in a correct knowledge of the capitalist mode of production from all its various sides. A working class which is secure in this knowledge will never be in doubt in any given case against which social institutions, and in what manner, its main attacks should be directed. [12]

Class consciousness is the key to any given practical solution. In other words, workers wanting to maximize their own private individual take-home income is rational — it’s a step up from resigned submission to impoverishment! But it’s a petty goal, in the literal sense of “small-minded.” One who acquires socialist class consciousness aspires to so much more — both to access of the massive hoards of capital being currently mismanaged by inept capitalists, and to the responsibilities of managing them better.

We can again think about this more concretely with an example. “High-speed mass rail vs. cars” works rather well as a “socialism vs. capitalism” metaphor today. Transportation-wise, do we want futuristic ultra-fast means where we can read books and watch movies leisurely? Or do we prefer the dominant means to be an anarchic collection of neurotic little hands-on private fortresses?

Another interesting example is that of the now well-known perks of ritzy tech companies, providing “free” snacks, massages, and daycare for their employees. Justifying these to their shareholders, tech executives speak of “maximizing productivity” and “employee retention.” So, although presenting a ruthlessly competitive face to the outside world, the fancy tech corporation internally exhibits some bizarre commune-like features, providing various “universal” amenities which distinguish little between executives and grunts. And this is somehow efficient?

Countries could similarly decide that universal healthcare or public daycare is efficient too, but here is where liberal ideology plays its most insidious role. Capitalists fearmonger with the possibility that this leisurely interdependence, if extended to society at large, would put private owners at the mercy of the rabble, to dangerous consequences. “Those who would give up liberty for security deserve neither liberty nor security,” they might say. They therefore consistently prescribe conservative and anti-social behaviour: hustling, policing, hoarding, isolation.

It’s a terrible argument, failing to notice the massive and irreversible interconnectedness of existing society (highways, telecommunications, armies, etc.), but it holds understandable appeal for the petty bourgeois individual. Unlike the proletarian, classically defined by their “owning nothing but their ability to work” (in terms of production), the petty bourgeois owns a little, and wants to keep and grow that little. They weigh social and environmental welfare against the growth of their own piddly retirement fund. Some are wiser and some are duller, but they all “get to choose.”

Marx and Engels pinned their hopes and aspirations on the class-conscious proletariat precisely because it was that segment of society that (1) understood itself as valuable outside of petty individualism, and (2) “had nothing to lose but their chains.” Pre-Marxist Russian political theorist Nikolai Chernyshevsky put the same idea forward in the national context:

The usefulness and necessity of mutual concessions can he learned only by bitter experience and prolonged thought. In the West, a better system of economic relations is bound up with sacrifices, and that is why it is difficult to establish. It runs counter to the habits of the English and French peasants. [13]

Marxist consciousness in the West remains underdeveloped. Anger against capitalism is certainly growing, but a great deal of this anger is still wasted in reminiscing about a lost and idealized past — and not even the silver linings of this past are well understood. [14] There’s still not much in the way of looking forward towards a socialist-proletarian future.

It also remains customary to argue for socialism mainly on moral grounds, in the manner of pre-Marxist socialists. This moral impulse should not be quelled, but it does urgently need be complemented with a crystal-clear understanding that the struggle does not boil down to socialism being righteous and capitalism being callous. After all, the pious petty-bourgeois can and do cry rivers of genuine tears for whomever they deem oppressed. The problem is that it does not reflect advanced understanding, but rather mere pity. [15]

Similarly, this is why socialism should be understood as friendly and sympathetic to co-ops and trade unions — it is by no means opposed to any of these small steps towards better living! [16] But it must be equally understood that socialism is not the same as trade unionism, neither in terms of origins nor in terms of goals. Communist organizations are more ambitious and universalist than trade unions. [17] As Lenin put it:

The secretary of any trade union always helps the workers conduct their economic struggle, organizes factory indictments, explains the injustice of laws and of measures that hinder the freedom of strikes or the freedom to establish pickets (to warn all and sundry that there is a strike at a given factory), explains the partiality of the arbitration court judges who belong to the bourgeois classes of the people, and so on and so on.

We cannot insist too strongly that this is not yet Communism, and that the ideal of the Communist should not be a secretary of a trade union but a people’s tribune who can respond to each and every manifestation of abuse of power and oppression, wherever it occurs, whatever stratum or class it concerns. The people’s tribune can generalize all these manifestations into one big picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation, is able to use each small affair to set before everybody his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, and to explain to each and all the world-historical significance of the liberation struggle of the proletariat. [18]

Socialist consciousness needs to be founded in a realistic notion of the incredible things we could accomplish if we built our society purposefully and together. Socialism is not a whimpering plea for “decency,” and it is not about “fair” wages and working hours; it’s much more ambitious than that. The social class that is able to give real content to the rhetoric of “seizing the means” will prove it by rising to the challenge of presenting a better vision about how to organize the whole of society; the vision that actually corresponds to our actual economic reality.

That’s what it would mean to have a plan of how to organize accumulation of capital under socialized ownership.

[1] Roderic Day, 27 April 2024 on Twitter. [web] 

[2] Ian Paul Wright, 23 April 2024 on Twitter. [web] 

[3] Alice Malone, “Labour and Labour-Power” (2023). [web] 

[4] Communist Manifesto (1848). [web] 

[5] CCPE (1859). [web] 

[6] Karl Marx, 1844 cited in Roderic Day, “Masses, Elites, and Rebels” (2021). [web] 

[7] Friedrich Engels, The Housing Question (1872). [web] 

[8] “Pay Transparency and the Gender Gap” (2019), Statistics Canada. [web] 

[9] Karl Marx (1847) quoted in V. I. Lenin’s “The Sentimental Criticism of Capitalism” (1897). [web] 

[10] Communist Manifesto (1848). [web] 

[11] Friedrich Engels, The Housing Question (1872). [web] 

[12] Friedrich Engels, The Housing Question (1872), part 3. [web] 

[13] In Friedrich Engels, “Marx, Chernyshevsky, and Economic Stages in Russia” (1894). [web] 

[14] See Alice Malone’s “Concessions” (2023). [web] 

[15] See Losurdo’s 2009 discussion of Christianity, Hegel, and Nietzsche with Telepolis magazine. [web] 

[16] Antonio Gramsci, “Socialism and Cooperation” (1916). [web] 

[17] On this basis imperialists have occasionally succeeded at exploiting rifts between them. See “AFL-CIO’s Dark Past” (2004) by American unionist Harry Kelber, about the American trade union movement’s collaboration with American imperialism, bribing various trade unions around the world throughout the “cold war.” [web] 

[18] V. I. Lenin, What Is To Be Done? (1902). [web]