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What is Socialism?

by Leszek Kolakowski

This 1956 essay was seized by the censor and the student journal for which it had been written was closed down. The essay was then pinned up on a bulletin board at Warsaw University until - very shortly afterwards - the authorities took it down. From then on underground copies of it were circulated. It remained unpublished in Poland until after the fall of communism.

We intend to tell you what socialism is. But first we must tell you what it is not - and our views on this matter were once very different from what they are at present.

Here, then, is what socialism is not:

- a society in which someone who has committed no crime sits at home waiting for the police;

- a society in which it is a crime to be the brother, sister, son, or wife of a criminal;

- a society in which some people are unhappy because they say what they think and others are unhappy because they do not;

- a society in which some people are better off because they do not think at all;

- a society in which some people are unhappy because they are Jews and others are happier because they are not;

- a state whose soldiers are the first to set foot in the territory of another country;

- a state where people are better off because they praise their leaders;

- a state where one can be condemned without trial;

- a society whose leaders appoint themselves;

- a society in which ten people live in one room;

- a society that has illiterates and plague epidemics;

- a state that does not permit travel abroad;

- a state that has more spies than nurses and more room in prisons than in hospitals;

- a state where the number of bureaucrats increases more quickly than that of workers;

- a state where people are compelled to lie;

- a state where people are compelled to steal;

- a state where people are compelled to commit crimes;

- a state that possesses colonies;

- a state whose neighbours curse geography;

- a state where cowards are better off than the courageous;

- a state where defence lawyers are usually in agreement with the prosecution;

- a tyranny, an oligarchy, a bureaucracy;

- a society where vast numbers of people turn to God to comfort them in their misery;

- a state that gives literary prizes to talentless hacks and knows better than painters what kind of painting is the best;

- a nation that oppresses other nations;

- a nation that is oppressed by another nation;

- a state that wants all its citizens to have the same views on philosophy, foreign policy, the economy, literature, and morality;

- a state whose government determines the rights of its citizens but whose citizens do not determine the rights of their government;

- a state in which one is responsible for one's ancestors;

- a state in which some people earn forty times as much as others;

- a system of government that is opposed by the majority of the governed;

- one isolated country;

- a group of underdeveloped countries;

- a state that employs nationalist slogans;

- a state whose government believes that nothing matters more than its being in power;

- a state that makes pacts with criminals and adapts its worldview to these pacts;

- a state that wants its foreign ministry to shape the worldview of all mankind at any given moment;

- a state that is not very good at distinguishing between slavery and liberation;

- a state that gives free rein to proponents of racism;

- a state that currently exists;

- a state with private ownership of the means of production;

- a state that considers itself socialist solely because it has abolished private ownership of the means of production;

- a state that is not very good at distinguishing between social revolution and armed invasion;

- a state that does not believe that people under socialism should be happier than people elsewhere;

- a society that is very sad;

- a caste system;

- a state where people can be pushed around, humiliated, and ill-treated with impunity;

- a state where a certain view of world history is obligatory;

- a state whose philosophers and writers always say the same things as the generals and ministers, but always after the latter have said them;

- a state where city maps are state secrets;

- a state where the results of parliamentary elections can always be unerringly predicted;

- a state where slave labour exists;

- a state where feudal bonds exist;

- a state that has a monopoly on telling its citizens all they need to know about the world;

- a state that thinks freedom amounts to obedience to the state;

- a state that sees no difference between what is true and what it is in its interest for people to believe;

- a state where a nation can be transplanted in its entirety from one place to another, willy-nilly;

- a state in which the workers have no influence on the government;

- a state that believes it alone can save mankind;

- a state that thinks it has always been right;

- a state where history is in the service of politics;

- a state whose citizens are not permitted to read the greatest works of contemporary literature, or to see the greatest contemporary works of art, or to hear the best contemporary music;

- a state that is always exceedingly pleased with itself;

- a state that claims the world is very complicated, but in fact believes that it is very simple;

- a state where you have to go through an awful lot of suffering before you can see a doctor;

- a state that has beggars;

- a state that is convinced that no one could ever invent anything better;

- a state that believes that everyone simply adores it, although the opposite is true;

- a state that governs according to the principle oderint dum metuant;

- a state that decides who may criticize it and how;

- a state where one is required each day to say the opposite of what one said the day before and to believe that one is always saying the same thing;

- a state that does not like it at all when its citizens read old newspapers;

- a state where many ignorant people are considered scholars; the politics of its government will not allow you to discover this;

- a state that does not like it at all when its regime is analysed by scholars, but is very happy when this is done by sycophants;

- a state that always knows better than its citizens where the happiness of every one of its citizens lies;

- a state that, while not sacrificing anything for any higher principles, nevertheless believes that it is the leading light of progress.

That was the first part. And now, pay attention, because we are going to tell you what socialism is. Here is what socialism is:

Socialism is a system that ... But what's the point of going into all these details? It's very simple: socialism is just a really wonderful thing.

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