Communism (from Latin communis – common, universal) is a form of society in which there are no classes, no money, no state, and the means of production (tools, work materials, etc.) are held in common by all people. The word can also refer to the revolutionary movement whose aim is to create that form of society, or to the theory used in the movement.
The idea of communism is very old, and can be traced back at least as far as Plato (4th century BCE) and to early religious communes. In modern times, the idea gained a following in France in the years immediately after the 1789-1815 Revolution. It was by these French radicals that Karl Marx, communism's most famous theorist, was led to take up the idea.
Karl Marx developed an analysis in which communism inevitably supercedes the present form of socio-economic organisation, capitlaism, through a process of class struggle which is driven forward by changes in the technological basis of the economy. (See Historical materialism.) He predicted that the working class, or proletariat, would grow to be of enormous size under capitalism, and would rise up to throw off the rule of the parasitic capitalist class which lives off of the workers' labour. After the overthrow, a transitional stage which Karl called the dictatorship of the proletariat, and which has also sometimes been referred to as the socialist stage, would be necessary in which counter-revolution by the newly dispossessed capitalists would be guarded against, production shifted to production for use rather than production for profit, and the greedy, acquisitive states of mind fostered by capitalism, along with commodity fetishism and the reification of consciousness, would gradually fade away and attitudes of mutuality and egalitarianism, corresponding to the new relations of production, would take hold. Finally, the stage of communism would be reached, in which people would cooperate with each other on the principle, `from each according to her ability, to each according to her need', and since there would be no exploitation of the labour of one person by another, there would be no classes, no class rule or class oppression, and no need for a state whose function is to defend and implement class rule.
Plato, in the Republic, gives his vision of the ideal society as one in which the Ruling class live communistically and ascetically, sharing their simple possessions (and wives). Children would be reared by the group. Riane Eisler (2007) has pointed out that ancient Athens was hardly what we would call a real democracy. It was an authoritarian slaveholding patriarchy, albeit with some equality among the members of the ruling gang. Nikolia Bukharin and Evgeni Preobrazhensky were scathing in their criticism of Plato's quasi-communism:
Of such a character, for example, was the communism of Plato, the philosopher of ancient Greece. The essential characteristic of his system was that the slaveholders' organization would in 'comradely' fashion and 'jointly' exploit the mass of slaves who were to have no legal rights. As far as the slave-owners were concerned there would be perfect equality and all things would be held in common. The case of the slaves was to be very different; they were to become mere cattle. Obviously this has nothing whatever to do with socialism. – ABC of Communism, chap. 3
Some other communistic ideas and historical practices are listed below:
- In monastaries in the Eurpoean Middle Ages, `monks took vows of poverty and promised to share their worldly goods with each other and with the poor.'
- `The English humanist Sir Thomas More extended this monastic communism in Utopia (1516), which describes an imaginary society in which money is abolished and people share meals, houses, and other goods in common.'
- The Italian philosopher Thomaso Campanella created a fictional communist utopia in City of the Sun (1623).
- In 1534 and 1535, the Westphalian city of Münster was a communistic theocracy of the Anabaptists.
- The Diggers in the English Civil War of 1624-51 advocated a kind of agrarian communism in which the Earth would be `a common treasury' (Gerrard Winstanley, The Law of Freedom, 1652). They were crushed by Cromwell.
- The 18th century Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau was critical of private property.
- In the early 19th century, Charles Fourier, Saint-Simon, and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in France, and Robert Owen in England, espoused communistic schemes.
Ernest Mandel writes that in the United States in the 19th century, there were established a number of `small agrarian settlements based upon collective property, communally organised labour and the total absence of money inside their boundaries. From that point of view, they differed radically from the production co-operatives promoted for example by the English industrialist and philanthropist Robert Owen. [Wilhelm] Weitling himself created such a community, significantly called Communia. Although they were generally established by a selected group of followers who shared common convictions and interests, these agrarian communities did not survive long in a hostile environment. The nearest contemporary extension of these early communist settlements are the kibbutzim in Israel.'
A big difference between Karl Marx and earlier communisms was that they were voluntaristic in the sense of being constructed on the basis of the pre-exisitng ethical theories of their creators. They could, in principle, have been constructed anywhere at any time: they were not situation-dependent. Karl, on the other hand, believed that he was merely describing the social and economic trends of his day and forseeing their logical outcome (which would be the breakdown of capitalism and its replacement by public ownership). In this sense, Karl's communism was not an invention of his own, but merely a discovery based on correct analysis, analogous to a physicist's discovery of a new sub-atomic particle or a chemist's discovery of an element. For this reason, Karl called his communism `scientific', and Frederick Engels dubbed the theory `scientific socialism'. A strength of this method is that it provides a blueprint showing the way from present reality to communism, something that most of the earlier theories fatally lacked. Their communisms looked fine on paper but how was one to bring them about? Implementation was the weakness. A story goes that Charles Fourier, after publicising his ides for the creation of communistic philansteries, sat every day for the rest of his life at a table in a café in France, waiting for a wealthy bourgeois donor to materialise with funding for the project. None ever appeared.
Karl's term for these earlier, free-floating communisms was `Utopian', in view of their impracticality.
A notable aspect of the difference is that, while these earlier communisms could be implemented – or at least attempted to be implemented – in piecemeal fashion, here and there as isolated projects, Karl regarded communism as a world-historical event. You can't get just a small sample of it.
From Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology:
“Empirically, communism is only possible as the act of dominant peoples ’all at once’ and simultaneously, which presupposes the universal development of productive forces and the world intercourse bound up with them.... The proletariat can thus only exist world-historically, just as communism, its activity, can only have a `world-historical’ existence.”
And, earlier in the same passage:
“This development of productive forces (which at the same time implies the actual empirical existence of men in their world-historical, instead of local, being) is an absolutely necessary practical premise, because without it privation is merely made general, and with want the struggle for necessities would begin again, and all the old filthy business would necessarily be restored... (p. 49).”
Karl foresaw the communist revolution as occurring in fully developed capitalist economies, where there is a large, concentrated proletariat, and the forces of production (technology, basically) are highly developed. Ironically, the communist revolutions that have been successful have all occurred in countries where capitalism was far from fully developed, mixed in with feudal and other archaic forms. The first of these was Russia in 1917, an autocratic, semi-feudal monarchy with a population of ninety percent peasant farmers and a relatively small proletariat. Next was China in 1949, a similar agrarian, semi-feudal country. Some Marxist theorists have sought to address this paradox by taking an internationalist perspective, seeing these revolutions not as isolated, one-nation, events, but as eruptions at weak points, or superexploited areas, of the global capitalist system. Vladimir Lenin's Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) includes analysis of this sort. In somewhat similar vein, Leon Trotsky's theory of combined and uneven development looks at capitalism as developing at different rates in different countries, and with various mixtures of archaic forms in each. Such a textured approach can attempt to explain how the internal particularities and international settings of some countries have made them especially propitious for socialist transformation. Encyclopedia Brittanica says that Mao Zedong `replaced the Marxist concept of a proletarian “class” of industrial wage labourers exploited by the capitalist ruling class with the idea of a proletarian “nation” of agricultural peasants exploited by capitalist countries such as the United States. Mao envisioned the proletarian countries encircling the capitalist countries and waging wars of national liberation to cut off foreign sources of cheap labour and raw materials, thereby depriving the capitalist countries of the ever-expanding revenues that are the lifeblood of their economies.'
Karl believed that communism can only exist after the productive forces have become developed to a stupendous degree, so that there is so much material wealth and abundance that all people will be relieved of the shackles of economic necessity, allowing for distribution based on need and social relations based on freely associated individuals. As Cyril Smith explains in the following passage, Karl Marx's commmunist theory sought to point the way out of our present, relatively limited condition – in which we are dictated to by the forces of nature and of market economics – and toward a freer existence:
What Karl aimed at was, simultaneously, a science that comprehended humyn development, an understanding of how that development had become imprisoned within social forms that denied humanity, and a knowledge of the way that humanity was to liberate itself from that prison. Indeed, only through the struggle for liberation could we understand what humanity was. In essence, it was that “ensemble of social relations” , which made possible free, collective, self-creation. He showed how modern social relations fragmented society and formed a barrier to our potential for freedom, while, at the same time, providing the conditions for freedom to be actualised. — Cyril Smith
Communism not only creates an abundance of consumer goods to satisfy everybody’s needs; it is also a society that moulds people, developing all their diverse creative powers. Wo/man is not just a consumer striving to grab and utilise as many goods as possible; genuine needs are arising in her, first and foremost the need for a creative, transformative activity. At present, the real material and technical foundation for effecting the change in the character of labour is automation of production. Labour bears no attraction for people in a class antagonistic society; it merely spoils their lives. Under communism, the aim of which is to make a creator out of every person, people's activities are spontaneous and voluntary. Each member of communist society, liberated from tedious, monotonous labour in the sphere of material production proper, will enjoy an opportunity to develop all her abilities harmoniously. The change in the character of labour means that people cease to be partial producers of a commodity and enter into new relationships with one another. Karl characterised communism as production of the form of intercourse itself.
The two stages in detail
The Bolshevik theorist Nikolai Bukharin, writing in 1933, gives a fairly standard description of the two stages, socialism and full communism:
The first phase of communism, which still bears the "birth marks" of the old society, is characterised by: (a) an incomplete development of productive forces; (b) the non-destruction as yet of the division between physical and mental labour; (c) distribution, not according to need but according to labour (which is inevitable at the given stage of development of productive forces); (d) the preservation of the relics of bourgeois law (an equal share of the product for an equal quantity of labour when there is inequality of ability and strength is an expression of inequality); (e) relics of hierarchy, subjection, the state. The higher phase of communist society which arises historically on the basis of the further growth of productive forces, goes outsid these limits.
In the higher phase of communist society, after the tyrannical; subordination of individuals, according to the division of labour, and and thereby also the distinction between mental and physical labour, has disappeared, after labour has become not merely a means to live but is in itself the first necessity of living, after the forces of production have also increased and all the springs of co-operative wealth are flowing more freely together with the all-round development of the individual, then and then only can the narrow bourgeois horizon of rights be left far behind and society will inscribe on its banner - "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."
The higher phase of communism is thus characterised by: (a) an exceptionally large development of the forces of production; (b) a vital and creative, absolutely free form of labour; (c) the destruction of the division of labour, i.e. of the eternal, "professions" and in particular of the opposition between mental, and physical labour; (d) the disappearance of all relics of class; division, of "servile hierarchy" (Marx), of subjection; (e) distribution according to needs as every kind of deficiency in products so far as needs are concerned passes away; (f) the destruction, (dying away) of the last relics of law and the state.
New issues, new realities shape contemporary communist visions:
[Communism will entail] the destruction of urbanization and the formation of a multitude of communities distributed over the earth. This implies the suppression of monoculture, another form of division of labor, and a complete transformation of the transportation system: transportation will diminish considerably. Only a communal (communitarian) mode of life can allow the human being to rule his reproduction, to limit the (at present mad) growth of population without resorting to despicable practices (such as destroying men and women). – Jacques Camatte, 1973
Distribution in the communist system
This section contains material adapted from Nikolai Bukharin and Evgenii Preobrazhensky's The ABC of Communism (1920).
The communist method of production presupposes that production is not for the market, but for use. Under communism, it is no longer the individual manufacturer or the individual peasant who produces; the work of production is effected by the gigantic cooperative as a whole. In consequence of this change, we no longer have commodities, but only products. These products are not exchanged one for another; they are neither bought nor sold. They are simply stored in the communal warehouses, and are subsequently delivered to those who need them. In such conditions, money will no longer be required. 'How can that be?' some of you will ask. 'In that case one person will get too much and another too little. What sense is there in such a method of distribution?' The answer is as follows. At first, doubtless, and perhaps for twenty or thirty years, it will be necessary to have various regulations. Maybe certain products will only be supplied to those persons who have a special entry in their work-book or on their work-card. Subsequently, when communist society has been consolidated and fully developed, no such regulations will be needed. There will be an ample quantity of all products, our present wounds will long since have been healed, and everyone will be able to get just as much as he needs. 'But will not people find it to their interest to take more than they need?' Certainly not. Today, for example, no one thinks it worth while when he wants one seat in a tram, to take three tickets and keep two places empty. It will be just the same in the case of all products. A person will take from the communal storehouse precisely as much as he needs, no more. No one will have any interest in taking more than he wants in order to sell the surplus to others, since all these others can satisfy their needs whenever they please. Money will then have no value. Our meaning is that at the outset, in the first days of communist society, products will probably be distributed in accordance with the amount of work done by the applicant; at a later stage, however, they will simply be supplied according to the needs of the comrades.
It has often been contended that in the future society everyone will have the right to the full product of his labour. 'What you have made by your labour, that you will receive.' This is false. It would never be possible to realize it fully. Why not? For this reason, that if everyone were to receive the full product of his labour, there would never be any possibility of developing, expanding, and improving production. Part of the work done must always be devoted to the development and improvement of production. If we had to consume and to use up everything we have produced, then we could never produce machines, for these cannot be eaten or worn. But it is obvious that the bettering of life will go hand in hand with the extension and improvement of machinery. It is plain that more and more machines must continually be produced. Now this implies that part of the labour which has been incorporated in the machines will not be returned to the person who has done the work. It implies that no one can ever receive the full product of his labour. But nothing of the kind is necessary. With the aid of good machinery, production will be so arranged that all needs will be satisfied.
To sum up, at the outset products will be distributed in proportion to the work done (which does not mean that the worker will receive 'the full product of his labour'); subsequently, products will be distributed according to need, for there will be an abundance of everything.
Twin Oaks is a communistic society of about 70 people imbedded in the United States of America. It is located in the countryside 30 miles from Richmond, Virginia. Founded in the early 1960s, its ongoing success stands as a rebuttal to the bourgeois notion that communistic relations are impractical or unrealisable. On Twin Oaks there is no money. Members are required to work about 40 hours a week at a task of their own choosing. Overall coordination is done by a rotating three wo/man administrative team elected by the members. The small founding group was heavily influenced by behavioral scientist B.F. Skinner's Walden Two. In the late 1960s, there was a large influx of hippies. It is now a diverse community. They do their own construction and grow much of their own food. Some cash income is obtained from hammock-making and other snall enterprises which sell into the surrounding economy. They have attractive buildings and eat well. It is a calm, happy, ethical place.
While obviously not fully communist in the Marxian sense, it is a concrete and inspiring demonstration of the potentialities.
Left Anarchism, which is the dominant strain of anarchism today, advocates a stateless, propertyless society very similar to Karl Marx's full communism. Their difference with Marx is that they abhor the idea of the transitional, socialist, `dictatorship of the proletariat' stage, in which there is still a state. They fear that any state will tend to be self-interested and self-perpetuating, and so advocate an immediate transformation to free, stateless, propertyless existence by commencing to `build the new society within the shell of the old'. Council Communists, Left Communists, and Libertarian communists have a similar orientation. There is a wide range of theories among them in regards to how to build the types of institutions that would replace the various economic engines (such as food distribution, education, and hospitals) as they exist under capitalist systems—or even whether to do so at all.
Anarcho-communistic societies have actually existed briefly in modern times. The best known examples are the anarchist territories during the Spanish Revolution and the Free Territory during the Russian Revolution. Starting in 1936, during the Spanish Revolution and Civil War, anarchist communism existed in most of Aragon and parts of the Levante and Andalusia, as well as in the stronghold of Catalonia before being brutally crushed by their combined opponents: the authoritarian regime that won the war, Hitler, Mussolini, Spanish Communist Party repression (backed by the USSR) and economic and armaments blockade by the capitalist countries. During the Russian Revolution, anarchists such as Nestor Makhno worked to create and defend—through the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine—anarchist communism in the Free Territory of the Ukraine from 1919 before being conquered by the Bolsheviks in 1921.
Cyril Smith believes that toward the end of his career, Marx came to envisage the rule of proletariat as operating through local communes, not through a centralised state power. `This conception, reinforced by the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871, was essential to his notion of communism as the self-movement of the proletariat.' Smith cites Marx's Notes on Bakunin’s State and Anarchy (1875), and The Late Marx and the Russian Road, edited by Shanin.
Communism in opposition
In the post-WWII era, some Western European Communist parties were quite popular. In 1946 the Communist Parties of France and Italy claimed 850,000 and 2,300,000 members, polled 26 and 19 percent of the popular vote respectively, and dominated the trade-union movements of their countries. If one counts the Nenni socialists, who were the Communists' close allies, the Italian radical left polled 40 percent. The People of Greece probably would have chosen a Communist government if not for U.S. intervention. The main purpose of the United States' Marshall Plan was to buy off Western European populations so they would reject communism.
Communism in government circa 2014
President Dimitris Christofias of Cyprus is a member of the Progressive Party of Working People. The South African Communist Party is a partner in the African National Congress-led government. In India, communists lead the governments of three states, with a combined population of more than 115 million. In Nepal, communists hold a majority in the parliament. The Communist Party of Brazil is a part of the parliamentary coalition led by the ruling democratic socialist Workers' Party and is represented in the executive cabinet of Dilma Rousseff.
Among the works below, the most complete exposition of what a Marxist communist society would look like is Nikolai Bukharin and Evgenii Preobrazhensky's ABC of Communism, chapter 3. The clear and interesting article by Ernest Mandel is my favourite.
- Cyril Smith, `The Communist Manifesat After 150 Years https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/smith-cyril/works/articles/cyril_02.htm
- Eduard Bernstein, 1895. Cromwell and Communism. marxists.org
- Ernest Mandel, 2003. `Communism', International Viewpoint , December 13.
- Jacqes Camatte, 1973 `The Wandering of Humanity', Invariance Année 6, Série II No. 3, 1973. Translated from the French by Freddy Perlman in Black & Red (Detroit, USA: 1975). Public domain and free from marxists.org
- Marxist Internet Archive. `Communism' marxists.org
- Nikolai Bukharin and Evgenii Preobrazhensky, 1920. The ABC of Communism marxists.org
- Nikolai Bukharin and Others, 1933. Marx's Teaching and its Historical Importance Chapter 4. marxists.org
- Peter Rachleff, 1976. Marxism and Council Communism, Chapter 8: `Council Communist Theory' marxists.org
- Principles of Communism, Frederick Engels, 1847, Section 18. "Finally, when all capital, all production, all exchange have been brought together in the hands of the nation, private property will disappear of its own accord, money will become superfluous, and production will so expand and man so change that society will be able to slough off whatever of its old economic habits may remain."
- The ABC of Communism, Nikoli Bukharin and Evgenii Preobrazhensky, 1920, Section 20.
- Ernest Mandel, `Communism', International Viewpoint, Dec 2003
- `The first Christians practiced a simple kind of communism—as described in Acts 4:32–37, for example—both as a form of solidarity and as a way of renouncing worldly possessions.' (Encyclopedia Britannica, `Communism [theory]'.)
- Communist Manifesto, `Proletarians and Communists'
- Bukharin and Preobrazhensky thought the change in people's attitudes would take two or three generations. (ABC of Communism, Chap. 3, § 21.)
- Encyclopedia Britannica, `Communism'
- Brittanica, `Communism'
- Britannica, `Communism'; Eduard Bernstein, Cromwell and Communism
- Mandel, `Communism', International Viewpoint
- `A second and closely related change appears in Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), in which he implied that communist revolution would not begin in advanced capitalist countries such as Germany and Britain because workers there were imbued with reform-minded “trade-union consciousness” instead of revolutionary class consciousness. This, he argued, was because the most direct and brutal exploitation of workers had shifted to the colonies of imperialist nations such as Britain. The capitalists reaped “superprofits” from the cheap raw materials and labour available in these colonies and were thus able to “bribe” workers at home with slightly higher wages, a shorter workweek, and other reforms. So, contrary to Marx’s expectations, communist revolution would begin in economically backward countries such as Russia and in the oppressed and exploited colonial countries of the capitalist periphery (later to be called the Third World).' -- Encyclopedia Britannica, `Communism'
- Brittanica, `Communism'
- Britannica, "Communism"
- "Chapter 7. The Twentieth Congress and Its Consequences" Georg Lukács Democratisation Today and Tomorrow: Part II. The Pure Alternative: Stalinism or Socialist Democracy 1968
- Bakunin in Statism and Anarchy (1874) expressed doubt that a dictatorship of the proletariat would simply wither away as prescribed by Marx.
- Wikipedia, `Communism', accessed Winter 2014
- Bernard Morris, The International Movement encyclopedia.com
- Wikipedia, accessed Winter 2014