What is Communism?

I’ve talked at length about the problems of Capitalism, but I’m sure you need to know about the solutions.  It is not enough to Simply point out problems, a person must have an answer to them or else not say anything at all.  Communists have the solution.  Karl Marx famously put it:

“Communism is the riddle of history solved. And it knows itself to be this solution.”

However, Communism likely conjures images in your mind of the Gulags and purges of Stalin’s Russia.  Or the famines of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward.”  Or even just a basic image of dictatorship and opposition to Democracy.  I will not waste any time defending nor denouncing the actions of past Communist countries, as such arguments only lead to absurdity due to the massive amounts of propaganda from both sides.  What I will say is: those specific things you fear are not Communism.  These things are neither goals of nor inevitable outcomes of Communism, because Communism is the goal.  These terrible things were done by people following certain ideas about how to achieve Communism.  None of whom achieved that final goal even by their own admission.

Whether or not those actions and ideas were a positive force is certainly debatable, and has been debated ad-nauseum.  The point I am making is: they are not the only Communist ideologies.  Their methods are not the only proposed methods for achieving Communism.  I will cover several proposed methods later, but we must begin with what Communism is now that we have established what is is not.

In the simplest terms possible, Communism is a society that has eliminated class (divisions of society.)  It is a society with no Ruling Class, no Working Class, no Governing Class, no Wealthy, no Poor, no Homeless, no Jobless.  There is some disagreement among the different sects of Communists as to how such a society would be structured to achieve this, but the basic goal, a classless society, remains the same for all Communists.

The other thing in which all Communists agree is that the first thing that must be done to achieve a classless society is to abolish private ownership over the means of production.  In other words: establish Socialism.  Because you will not ever have a classless society so long as the means of production is controlled in an entirely undemocratic way.  This is why all Communists are Socialists.  Private ownership of the means of production facilitates the existence of the most powerful existing class:  the Bourgeoisie.  It reduces the majority of the population into a powerless class: the Proletariat.  By democratizing control over the means of production, both of these classes are eliminated.  There is no longer Bourgeoisie or Proletariat, only one people.  But what then, you may be wondering, is the difference between Socialism and Communism?  If Socialism eliminates Capitalist class society, why have separate terms?  Some Communists argue that there is no difference, that Socialism is the name for the “lower phase of Communism” where private ownership over the means of production is still in the process of being eliminated.  There is some merit to that argument, but I have a different outlook.

The class system of Bourgeoisie and Proletariat is the most prominent and hardest felt class divide, but it is not the only one in existence.  It is, after all, only 200 or so years old.  Society was divided into other classes throughout history.  As Karl Marx famously stated in the Manifesto:

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

Many of these past class structures still exist, and unless opposed directly, they will continue even after the establishment of Socialism.  Indeed, it’s even possible that past class structures which have diminished, or disappeared altogether, could reassert themselves if we do not seek to create a classless Society.  If all we do is build Socialism, democratize the means of production, we will not ever achieve Communism.  For we will still be plagued by wealth inequality (even if we replace existing currency with “labor notes.” We saw this in the Soviet Union), we will perhaps see the re-emergence of religious class divides, and we will beyond a doubt still be divided by the Oldest and first class divide : the divide between the Governed and the Governors.

This is an issue which even Lenin and Engels discussed at length.  As Engels said in his book “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”:

“But in order that these antagonisms, these classes with conflicting economic interests, might not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it became necessary to have a power, seemingly standing above society, that would alleviate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order’; and this power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it, is the state.”

So long as the Government is held above the people, so long as it is constituted in such a way that it is a “State” as Engels and Lenin defined a State, then this class system still exists and Communism cannot be achieved.  And this is the ultimate difference between Socialism and Communism.  A simply Socialist system makes no attempt to eliminate Government as a State.  Under such a system, the people are alienated from the practice of governance and that is a social divide, a class system.  Although there is much argument in Communist circles about how to do it, all Communists seek to end this class system as well , we all seek to end Government as a State and instead make the people themselves the Government (I use “Government” as a kind of shorthand term for “the organization of society.” All society must be organized to avoid chaos.  No matter what that organization looks like, it is still a “Government” even if it is not a “State”)

What I hope I have been able to convey is that Communism is Democracy, but a true pursuit and fulfillment of the promise of Democracy.  Because Communists recognize that so long as a single aspect of society is undemocratic, then it corrupts the whole of society and none of it is Democratic.  And I mean society, not private life.  Communists have no intention of intruding on anyone’s lives in regards to things which have no effect on others.  Your home, your personal possessions, they belong to you and your family alone.  And your religion is your business, so long as you do not force it on others nor use it to bring harm on others.

Communism is “the end of history,” the final form of human society that so many have theorized for so long.  And it is the society that so many have strived to achieve for eons. From ancient Athens, to the Anabaptists of the late middle-ages, to the various Communist movements of the last 170 years.  Humankind has always sought to throw off the shackles of class society and instill true Democracy.  Communism is the Society that all common people want.  The difference between a Communist and the rest of the people is that when a Communist envisions this ideal society, they don’t dismiss it out-of-hand as an impossible fairy-tale.  Instead, the Communist looks at it as the solution to an equation, then seeks to find that equation.

But what is that equation? How can Communism be achieved?  That is truly where the division begins, not only between Communists and the rest of the people, but between Communists ourselves.  Truly we all want the same things, even Communists and the rest of the people.  But we have different theories about how to make them happen.  Let me explain in as concise a manner as possible what the most popular proposed methods are for achieving Communism.  The following posts will all be along this theme, briefly naming and explaining the most common Communist ideologies. 

Socialism

Before we even talk about Communist ideologies, we need to clear up the definition of Socialism, as it has been muddied in recent history.

Socialism is the parent of all Communist ideology.  It was born out of the fires of the many revolutions at the turn of the 19th century.  It has become an umbrella term, as it’s only emphasis is worker ownership and control over the “means of production” (the tools, workplaces, and resources needed to make things.)  Think of a worker’s Co-op. That is essentially what Socialism advocates, except on a national, and even global scale, where private ownership of such workplaces is abolished.

What the term refers to has been confused in recent years, as some people use it to refer to State-Socialism, which is a Socialist system where the state is used to protect common ownership of the means of production. Or even more recently it is confused with Social-Democracy, a Capitalist system with heavy State regulation of business and strong tax-funded social-welfare programs.  But neither of these uses for the term “Socialism” alone is correct.  Socialism only refers to the working class’s relationship to the Means of Production, not any specific system of Government, and it certainly does not simply mean tax-funded welfare systems or Government regulation; any system which still allows private ownership and control over the means of production is not a Socialist system.  Once again, it is Engels who says this so concisely.  From a letter he penned in 1881 to Eduard Bernstein:

“It is simply a falsification perpetrated by the Manchester Bourgeoisie in their own interests that they call ‘Socialism’ every interference by the state in free competition – protective tariffs, guilds, tobacco monopoly, nationalization of certain branches of industry, the Overseas Trade Society, and the royal porcelain factory.  We should criticize this but not believe it.  If we do the latter and develop a theory on the basis of this belief our theory will collapse together with its premises upon simple proof that this alleged socialism is nothing but, on the one hand, feudal reaction and, on the other, a pretext for squeezing out money, with the secondary object of turning as many proletarians as possible into civil servants and pensioners dependent upon the state, thus organizing alongside of the disciplined army of soldiers and civil servants, an army of workers as well. Compulsory voting brought about by superiors in the state apparatus instead of by factory overseers – a fine sort of Socialism! But that’s where people get if they believe the Bourgeoisie what it does not believe itself but only pretends to believe: that the state means socialism…”

This is why every Communist ideology falls under the umbrella of Socialism, as they all advocate some kind of system where those who work the means of production own and control it democratically, and no single person can claim ownership of it.  Because private ownership over the means of production creates a class system.  However, it is important to keep in mind that not all Socialists are Communists, because whether it is out of disbelief that a classless society is possible or lack of desire for it, there are many Socialists who do not seek to create a classless society.

Anarchism

Anarchism is one of the broadest Leftist ideologies, really an umbrella term for many Communist Ideologies.  It’s as old as Socialism, and developed out of the same conflicts in the early 19th century.
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon is widely regarded as the “father of Anarchism,” as he was the first public figure to declare himself an Anarchist, and is largely responsible for the ideology’s popularization.  He is arguably most famous for his assertion that “property is theft.”  Which summarizes his position that land can only belong to someone as long as that person themselves is able to use it.

Proudhon’s ideals were important in the formation of Anarchism.  However, over the last 200 so years, Anarchism has largely outgrown him through the influence of later writers like Peter Kropotkin and Murray Bookchin.
Modern Anarchism is best summed up through the meaning of its name: Anarchy means “without rulers.”  It’s based on the idea that society can, and should, function without unjust hierarchies.  Because of the common belief in the western world that a land without rulers is one of chaos and disorder, Anarchy has wrongfully become used as a synonym with chaos among non-leftists. But chaos is not the goal of Anarchism, as is testified by its symbol.  The “A” stands for Anarchy, and the “O” stands for Order. It symbolizes the Anarchist belief that order can only truly and permanently be achieved once rulers and Governments as States have been eliminated, and society governs itself through localized Direct-Democracy.  However, most Anarchists do recognize the need for temporary hierarchies and leadership positions for specific tasks.  Such as leading an army in a time of war, or managing a construction project or a research endeavor.  But they believe that these hierarchies must be temporary, have no authority outside their specific purpose, and always be answerable to the people as a whole who can remove the person in charge of the project if they fail in their duties.  Thus making these hierarchies “legitimate.”

The society that Anarchists seek to build is, essentially, Communist.  Which is why they were initially a part of the First International Communist Assembly, organized and led by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.  The difference between Anarchists and other Communists is not their goals, but how they believe those goals must be achieved.  I will expand on this point in the next two ideologies.

Anarcho-Communism

This is the most common anarchist ideology.  It has it’s roots in the French revolution, but developed out of the Anarchist section of the First International Communist Assembly.  It was arguably made most popular, and heavily influenced by Peter Kropotkin’s “The Conquest of Bread.”  In which Kropotkin describes how a fully Communist society may be achieved, and how it could work, as well as refuting arguments against Communism, such as the common belief that communism causes people to be lazy or kills creativity.  Kropotkin also diverged from many traditional Anarchists in his refutation of all forms of currency, even the “labor notes” favored by Bakunin.
Anarcho-Communists advocate for communism, just like Marxists, Leninists, Luxemburgists, and other Communists.  However, “AnComs” differ in their rejection of a Transitional-State all-together.  Anarcho-Communists believe that Communism can be achieved directly out of a revolution of the working class.  Like other forms of Anarchism, Anarcho-Communists not only reject the necessity of a Government as a State, they believe that these State-type-Governments actually perpetuate Capitalist systems, and cannot ever lead to Communism.  AnComs do not believe that any State-type-Government will ever, or can ever, “wither away.”  They believe that Government as a State must be deliberately dismantled by the working class instead, and immediately replaced by Governmental systems that are not, to paraphrase Friedrich Engels: “held above the people.”

Leninism (a.k.a Bolshevism, a.k.a Marxism-Leninism)

First, I must be honest about my bias. I am not an adherent of Leninism, and I am even opposed to many of the ideals advocated by Leninists.  So that is important to keep in mind as you read this description.  Although I have tried to give as unbiased a description of Leninism as I can.
Leninism is perhaps the most widespread Communist ideology in the world.  It is commonly referred to as “Marxism-Leninism” by it’s adherents, as they believe it is the continuation of Marxist thought.  It is also often referred to alongside Maoism, as Maoism was largely influenced by Lenin’s ideology, although they do differ in some key points.  Leninism was developed by Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik party and largely considered the founder of the Soviet Union.  It was the official ideology of the Soviet Union until it’s collapse in 1991.

The primary difference between Leninism and other communist ideologies is Leninism’s insistence on the “Vanguard Party.”  Leninists argue that the most class conscious individuals should lead the revolution against the ruling class, and build the transitional Socialist-State.  While most orthodox marxists have a far more vague definition of this transitional Socialist-State, Leninists interpret Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat” as building a more traditional State-structure, a Republican Democracy, but one that is occupied by members of the working class and defends against reactionary forces that could subvert the revolution and rebuild Capitalism.  Leninists believe that this is necessary, as they do not believe that Communism can be built directly out of the revolution, as Anarcho-Communists do, (although they would perhaps argue that the their “Worker’s State” is a continuation of the revolution) they instead believe that Communism must be built via a Transitional-State that “withers away” as it eliminates private ownership over the Means of Production.  They believe that rather than tear down every Capitalist system, the workers must instead “lay hold of the ready-made State” and replace the former Capitalist Class.

Luxemburgism/Council-Communism

These two Socialist schools are sometimes regarded by leftists as two different ideologies. However, Luxemburgism and Council-Communism advocate the same Governmental system, and both can even trace their origins back to the failed German Revolution of 1918.  Rosa Luxemburg’s “Spartacus League,” and the Trade-Unionists, which attempted that revolution sought to build a system where the Transitional State-Government is composed of worker’s councils from the various workplaces and trades.  They rejected the “Vanguardism” of Lenin in favor of a mass movement composed of revolutionary unions.  These unions would then become the governing councils in the Transitional-State.  Like a Leninist system, the State would be a Republican Democracy which would “wither away” as a State by eliminating private ownership over the means of production, giving way to Communism.

Syndicalism

Syndicalism didn’t have a single event or writer that developed it.  Rather it evolved naturally out of Anarcho-Communist ideology and agitation, particularly in the revolutionary communities of Spain and Italy in the early decades of the 20th century.  This system was used by revolutionary Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s.
Syndicalism is an Anarchist tendency, but it shares many similarities with Council-Communism. Namely its reliance on revolutionary workers unions which then operate as governing councils in the post-revolution Government.  However, Syndicalists reject the transitional State-Government.  Meaning that the Government they advocate is a confederation. (Forget the Confederate States of America in the American Civil War.  That wasn’t a true Confederation.  It was a traditional State-Government.) So communities, and even individuals, would have a great deal of freedom to “opt-out” of any decisions made by the Government. And this Government would have no monopoly on violence.  Essentially a syndicalist Government, like all Anarchist Governments, is more of an organizational medium than anything.  Enforcement of agreed upon laws and policy is left to the people of the communities themselves.

Communalism

I need to admit my bias once again, as this is the system which I myself advocate.  But once again, I will try to give as basic and objective of a description as possible.
Communalism is the newest of all Socialist Schools.  It was developed by the Anarchist thinker Murray Bookchin during the 1980’s and 1990’s.  Bookchin had become disillusioned by modern Anarchism.  He felt it had lost its Communist roots and had become corrupted by individualism and lifestylism.  He also sought to develop a system which could address the mistakes of past Socialist attempts, as well as address the sociological and ecological issues of modern cities.

Communalism is both a revolutionary method and a goal of revolution, much like Syndicalism.  However, it rejects creating a Government of worker’s councils, which Bookchin criticised as “Collective Capitalism.”  Instead, Communalism advocates placing political and economic power in the hands of the whole citizenry of each municipality, which they exercise through face-to-face assemblies where everyone in the community can voice their opinion, argue their case, and cast their vote.  The people of the municipalities collectively control the means of production within their municipality through their assemblies, and their appointed administrators.  These assemblies create laws and policies, which are then carried out by those administrators that the assemblies appoint for specific tasks.  These administrators do not make policy (outside of the votes they cast as citizens in the assemblies), and they can be recalled by the assemblies at any time.
However, Communalism is not a system that advocates parochial independence of communities, as individualist-anarchist schools often do.  The separate municipalities and cities all maintain interdependent relationships through a Confederation, much like Syndicalism.  This confederation allows communities to share resources, organize civil projects such as highways, and defend each other from both outside powers and any counter-revolutionary forces that may arise from within.  Communalism is built around the recognition that the needs of all communities can only be met through close ties of interdependence, because no single community is capable of providing for all the needs and wants of its citizens purely through its own resources and effort.  In order to continue a modern lifestyle, we must engage in mutual-aid on a large-scale between all  communities.  This is accomplished through the Confederation.
This same system is also used to overthrow the existing Capitalist system.  Communalism advocates building these assemblies and confederated networks now.  They then operate as both a revolutionary network to undermine and even directly confront the existing Capitalist powers, and a support network to allow communities to better address their needs.  This will have the effect of syphoning power from the Capitalist State.  Eventually, as Capitalism inevitably collapses and the State has become decrepit, the confederated assemblies will be able to give the final push needed to finally end Capitalism and Government as a State.  All the while having a system in place ready to take the place of the old Capitalist system.  This plays to the weaknesses of Capitalism, but ensures that no one is left to suffer as Capitalism collapses, nor leaves a power vacuum which would inevitably lead to civil war.

There is a multitude of other Communist ideologies out there, but these are the most common ones, and many of the other ideologies are actually variants of the ones I’ve described.  Anarcho-Communism itself seems to have so many sub-variants that new ones are imagined each day.  

I feel that every Communist ideology can be organized into two primary camps:  those who advocate for some form of Transitional-State system, and those who believe that Communism can be established directly out of a revolution.  Communalism occupies a third more recent category, which straddles this difference, finding a balance between them through a dialectical method of deduction and synthesis.  This is possible because, as I will argue:  the differences between the two camps are not so great that they cannot be reconciled.  In fact, I have found that the differences are primarily ones of rhetoric, not practice.  For the sake of brevity, from here on I will refer to the two camps as “Anarchists” or “Anarchism” for the camp that opposes the Transitional-State, and “Leninists” and “Leninism” for the camp that advocates the Transitional-State.  I fully am aware of and acknowledge that many of those who advocate a Transitional-State are not Leninists (a.k.a Bolsheviks), as I said:  I am using that term in this way simply for the sake of brevity, as Leninists are by-far the largest group in that camp.  I avoid calling the Leninist camp simply “Marxism,” as Marxism is a method of analyzing Capitalism, and conclusions about the need for Capitalism’s abolition.  Both Leninists and Anarchists rely on Marxism as a basis for their ideas. Remember, the Anarchism of today is not the Anarchism of Marx and Engel’s day.  It has moved well beyond Proudhon.