A note: while communism and socialism are often used to describe various levels of post-capitalism, both fundamentally operate on modes of production distinctly different from capitalism. For these purposes, communism and socialism will be used somewhat interchangeably
The phrase “socialism is when the workers own the means of production” is thrown around a lot. Despite being intuitive, this definition is theoretically unsound.
While the proletariat is the revolutionary agent of socialism, we must distinguish between means and ends. Workers’ states, unions, etc; are not the goal themselves, but the means towards advancing socialism. As socialist society develops, these organizational forms wither away. To even speak of a “worker” implies a social distinction based on an individual’s relation to production. This division is a class division. Socialism, therefore being in part defined as a classless society, has no workers.
Furthermore, the definition describes a class relation of ownership but puts the issue of the commodity aside. Commodity production is the core of capitalism. “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails presents itself as the immense accumulation of commodities” (Capital p125). The contradiction between a commodity’s use and exchange value is the central contradiction of capitalism. Many of the crises and issues under capitalism stem from the fact that production seeks to endlessly compound (exchange) value, rather than simply make useful things.
“Worker ownership of production” is so vague that certain forms of capitalism could feasibly meet this definition. Market socialism, cooperatives, mutualism, etc generally meet the mark of “worker ownership”, yet don’t necessarily abolish commodity production. Rather than being genuinely communist, the result is a kind of worker-owned capitalism. If we truly want post-capitalism, we have to go further than the question of “which class owns what”. Communism doesn’t simply re-organize our current social relations: it annihilates/transcends them and creates new relations in its wake. “Communism is the negation of capitalism” (A World Without Money: Communism p1).