I often hear socialists say that socialism is “democratic worker control of the means of production.” But is it really? In this essay, I’ll explain why it’s not, and why the issue of socialism vs. capitalism is a moral and political issue of property rights, rather than an economic issue of “modes of production.” Obfuscation and confusion aside, this ultimately holds true whether the socialism under consideration is classic Marxist socialism, “libertarian socialism,” or whatever other sort of socialism you want to name.
In a mostly capitalist country, like the US in the 1880s, there are many different kinds of business organizations: There are for-profit corporations, non-profit corporations, sole proprietorships, partnerships, credit unions, retailers’ cooperatives, consumers’ cooperatives, and employee cooperatives. That’s right, worker cooperatives can and do exist in what Karl Marx would call a “capitalist society.” Examples of consumers’ cooperatives include REI in the US and “The Co-op” in the UK. Examples of employee cooperatives include the Cheese Board Collective in Berkeley, California, the Rainbow Grocery Cooperative in San Francisco, and the Citybikes Workers’ Cooperative in Portland, Oregon. These latter three are companies where employees own and control the means of production in their company, democratically.
If “socialism” meant “worker control of the means of production,” as in a co-op, then people are perfectly free to have “socialist companies” under a laissez-faire capitalist government that protects private property rights.