Monday, March 28, 2005

The Intelligent Blogger’s Guide to Communism and Socialism

I'm posting this on my blog and this one in the interests of education.

By the title of this piece, I don't mean to say that anyone who takes issue with it is not 'intelligent'. Rather, it's a reference to the old George Bernard Shaw book The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism.

For about a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, no one mentioned Communism at all. It looked like neo-liberal economics had won us the Cold War and would provide us with unlimited prosperity forever. In recent days, however it has become common for even middle-of-the-road economists and business-review writers to insert an awkward hymn to free enterprise in their articles, even when discussing less-than-momentous issues such as the local sales tax or whether the minimum wage should be $6 or $7. Some of those economists are simply paranoid. Others are scared.

Yet scared of what? Left unsaid in all this is a coherent conception of what communism is, both as a system of organizing labor and a philosophy. Instead, communism is simply the great evil Other, the thing our Enemies believed in, but we, as good Americans, did not. Fascism is much the same; people know fascism is bad, but they don’t exactly know what it is or why it lead to such terrible things. But that’s an issue for another day.

So what is communism?

Most people would respond that it can be summed up in the phrase ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Marx was fond of that expression, but he also said “If communism can be defined in a single sentence, it is: the abolition of private property, or capital”. All means of production which were once privately owned would revert to public – not State – ownership. Education, transport, and communication would be free. All industry would also be organized into co-operative ventures known as syndicates where the factories, the workshops, the farms, etc.- would be placed under the democratic control of those who worked them. Smaller items such as clothes, furniture, jewelry and so on would be counted as personal,not private property, and would in any case lose their rarity, and thus their value. Once all this was achieved, the state would be irrelevant, and simply wither away as people ceased to support or take notice of it.

To give you an idea of what that would be like, think of the National Mall in Washington DC. All the museums and monuments are free of charge. Why? Because they belong to the American people; to all of us. It is this kind of spirit that communism tries to spread in all parts of society.

Various sub-divisions of the Marxist branch of political thought include:

Communism – Officially expresses contempt for representative government (though they often run for office anyway), seeking instead to establish the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, where the working class would take total control, and what is to be done with the old order is not quite clear. In my opinion, the weakest and most easily abused part of Marx’s thesis.

(Democratic) Socialism – Attempts for a peaceful and democratic shift away from capitalism, while slowly re-organizing society along the way. It can be encapsulated in old Clause IV of the British Labour Party Constitution, which states that its goal is “To secure for the workers by hand and by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.”

Democratic Socialism is often but inaccurately used interchangeably with Social Democracy, aka Welfare Statism, though social democracy always seeks to leave the capitalist system running for the time being, but takes a large proportion of the income generated and redistributes it in the form of public services (health care, free education, unemployment insurance, trade union rights, etc.) from the top down, instead of the bottom up, which is the usual way. Social democracy operates on the idea that there are enough resources in the world, even under capitalism, to keep everyone in at least modest comfort and security

I personally am not a communist; I’d define myself as a social democrat who thinks syndicalism is worth a try. Even so, these are important concepts to understand.

These three schools of political thought rarely see eye to eye, and so one is sometimes faced with the spectacle (In Italy and France especially) of the Communists and Socialists achieving large majorities in parliament but being unable to form any kind of working coalition.

What constitutes any one of these parties varies widely from place to place, and to declare ‘communism’ a defunct and dangerous ideology because of the actions of the Communist party in this or that country is somewhat akin to denouncing democracy because you disapprove of the American Democratic Party.

The biggest objection to this system is the one raised by Churchill, who said that ‘No socialist system can be established without a political police; some form of Gestapo.’. To many, the whole system just seems too forced. In a free-market society, surely there is less coercion? It depends on what counts as ‘coercion’; if you include farmers being forced off their land, tenants kicked out of their homes, people left to waste away from starvation or lack of medical care, and soldiers sent to fight unnecessary wars, then there’s still plenty of coercion to be found in capitalistic societies. The most common form of exploitation – one so pervasive we barely even notice it anymore - involves Marx’s theory of ‘surplus labor value’, the idea that workers work harder and produce more but don’t get richer because their bosses steal the profit. This one is rather hard to deny, as it is the idea on which all modern commerce is based.

If you’re going to bring up a ‘Gestapo’, think for a moment about the function of the police force and the prisons. They say that possession is 9/10 of the law; probably that’s an understatement. How many are in prison because they didn’t respect private property? Drug use (government monopoly on a substance), armed robbery, theft, extortion, embezzlement… Under a socialist system, there can’t be theft on a massive scale if everything is cooperatively owned, nor on a small scale if commodities are provided to whoever wants them.

Yet what of the sociopaths; the child molesters, the rapist, the murderers? A good question, and most socialist thinkers admit that some form of containment and rehabilitation apparatus would need to be kept in place even in the most equal society. Still, emptying 90% of the prisons would be a marked improvement.

Under any form of government, of course, people are going to be forced to do things they don’t want to do, but how often and to what degree can vary widely.

So, how have these principles worked in the real world?

Attempts at state communism:

Russia – Originally, the Russian Revolution was founded on a system of soviets, or councils, composed of workers, peasants, soldiers, and scholars holding control at all levels (local, regional, industrial etc.). Lenin made the system meaningless by forbidding non-Bolsheviks from taking part in the soviets, and Stalin went even further in his program of mass collectivization and state control. Most workers and farmers, however, were committed to the idea of worker control and resisted, leading to mass starvation and the purging of dissidents. After WWII, the Soviet Union extended its influence across eastern Europe, forcing all local economies to serve the needs of Russia. A planned economy was far too clumsy to deal with such a large region and such diverse issues, and the whole system fell apart in 1989.

China – Under the control of the right-wing Kumintang rents had gone up, the Japanese had ravaged the country with impunity, and disorder reigned in the countryside. The Chinese Communists promised to put in end to that, and to deal with the crippling poverty so endemic in China. In the beginning, they did. The first 5-year plan was a great success, but Mao embarked on a number of ill-conceived programs such as the Great Leap Forward, which forced millions of farmers to do industrial work in which they had no skill or training. In 1966, Mao found his influence slipping and launched a ‘Cultural Revolution’ to root out ’imperialist influence’ and dissent. Exactly how many died and were imprisoned is unknown, but it undoubtedly runs into the millions. In 1976 Deng Xiaoping took control and began a program of encouraging foreign investment and economic development Now, China is what could better be called ‘state capitalism’, with millions of people forced to work in slave-labor conditions to work in factories and assemble goods for China’s mammoth manufacturing sector. The CCP refers to this as a ‘socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics’, whatever the hell that means.

North Korea – I’d hesitate to call this ‘communist’ in any sense of the word, as no aspects of the philosophy are recognizably present. I think N. Korea should be filed under ‘Psychotic Dictatorship.’

Attempts at social democracy:

Britain – After World War II, the returning soldiers decided that they’d had enough of war, unemployment, and poverty. Public planning and enforced egalitarianism had kept Britain going through the war, and now it would sustain them in peace also. Clement Attlee was swept into power and immediately went about forming a ‘mixed’ economy where state-owned businesses and public services existed along with private enterprise. Quoting Blake, he declared “I shall not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.” It was an act of renewal that re-built the country from the bottom up.

The United States – During the Great Depression, president Roosevelt pushed through a series of redistributive programs, most notable Social Security, which was instrumental in saving millions of the elderly and infirm from poverty. After WWII, the GI bill assured American servicemen of a college education, laying the groundwork for the rise of the American middle class. During the 60’s, Lyndon Johnson attempted to revive the Reconstruction through a program of civil rights and expanded social programs, including Medicaid and Head Start. Lately, all of the above programs have come under attack on the basis that they value the welfare of poor Americans over America’s corporate interests.

Sweden – The Welfare State to the max. Fee education, free health care, old-age pensions, and far more. Sweden has one of the highest taxation rates in the world, but also the highest standard of living. Nu, so who said there wouldn’t be trade-offs?

Attempts at ‘real’ socialism:

Israel – When Israel was founded in 1948 by an alliance of socialists and liberals, one of the most striking features of the new nation was the preponderance of kibbutzim, cooperative agricultural/manufacturing communities where ‘Israeli’ culture was stressed over Judaism, and children lived separately from their parents. During the 1970s, unfortunately, someone had the bright idea to try and standardize the kibbutzim, ruining their independent character and leading to a dramatic decline in kibbutz populations.

Spain – At the beginning of the 1930s Spain was under the control of an alliance of Anarchists, Socialists, communist, and middle-class liberals united against the military mutiny led by Francisco Franco. Of these groups, it was at first the Socialists and the Anarcho-syndicalists who had the greatest influence, and George Orwell describes the society they were building in his book Homage to Catalonia:

[W]hen one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle… Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said 'Senior' or 'Don' or even 'Usted'; everyone called everyone else 'Comrade' and 'Thou', and said 'Salud!' instead of 'Buenos dias'. Tipping was forbidden by law; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy. There were no private motor-cars, they had all been commandeered, and all the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black… And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no 'well-dressed' people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls, or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.

Alas, the Soviet Union had decided that, if there was going to be a Communist revolution in Spain, they wanted to control it. So, they gave military aid to the Spanish Communist party (the P.S.U.C.) in return for suppressing the Anarchists and Socialists. With the Communists fighting their allies and the bourgeoisie collaborating with Franco, the internal strife was sufficient to give the Spanish Fascists and their Nazi backers the upper hand. Democracy didn’t return to Spain until 1975, after Franco’s death.

Paris – The Paris Commune, which ruled Paris under a system of participatory democracy for the brief period from the end of March 1871 to the end of May of the same year, was Marx’s ideal. During its short reign, rents were reduced, the death penalty abolished, work hours limited, conscription was ended, established widow’s pensions, separated Church from State and granted more equal legal status to women. It was all too good to last, and almost immediately after it was founded the Paris Commune was attacked by French troops fighting on behalf of their Prussian rulers. Yet the Commune lives with us today in its song the Internationale, the anthem of socialist parties every

Arise, you workers from your slumbers
Arise, you wretches of the earth.
For reason in revolt now thunders
And a better world’s in birth.
Away with all your superstitions
Servile masses no more in thrall
We'll change henceforth the old tradition
We have been naught, we shall be all.

So comrades, come rally
For this is the time and place
The Internationale
Unites the human race.

No more deluded by reaction
On tyrants only we'll make war
The soldiers too will take strike action
They'll break ranks and fight no more
And if those cannibals keep trying
To sacrifice us to their pride
They soon shall hear the bullets flying
To the generals on our own side.


No savior from on high delivers
No faith have we in prince or peer
Our own right hand the chains must shiver
Chains of hatred, greed and fear. When we fight, provoked by their aggression
Let us be inspired by life and love
For though they offer us concessions
Change will not come from above.


Capitalism is the best system for generating wealth. But it’s not a system that, unmoderated, human beings can live in. Even in its less radical manifestations, the principles of socialist thought are responsible for most of good one finds in society. The goal of socialism should never be anything other than to free everyone from hunger, poverty, infirmity, and alienation. Libertarian capitalists claim that a generous spirit of Christian giving is all that is sufficient to care for the downtrodden of society. Laying aside the Marxist character of many Christian texts (though I suppose one might refer to the Christian character of Marxism) charity is not systematic, and its chief concern is not to improve the welfare of the suffering but to assuage the conscience of the philanthropist.

If that is your primary concern, it is impossible to see the United States after the New Deal, Britain after the introduction of the Welfare State, Israel after the founding of the secular Marxist nation (and even China, Russia, Vietnam and Cuba in the brief years right after their respective revolutions) without being overwhelmed by the fact that this is better. People had decided that they didn’t want to be governed by a gang of criminals and gamblers anymore; they simply want to live their lives without interference, which is what 99% of them would be doing anyway if the State hadn’t come along and interposed its own will. Since then, of course, there has been decay and strife, yet it is hard to find someone who wants to entirely go back to things the way they used to be.

Needless to say, this represents a very biased and simplified view of what are incredibly complicated issues. Feel free to use the links below for more information:

The Communist Manifesto
Communism on Wikipedia
The Socialist Internationale
The Principles of Communism

And for the opposition:

Crimes of Communism
The Museum of Communism


A Wiser Man Than I said...

This was a very interesting post. You were very thorough and your history is accurate, as far as I can tell.

Of course, there are points I wish to address.

You use flaws with the U.S. system to show how capitalism has failed. For instance: "It depends on what counts as ‘coercion’ ... soldiers sent to fight unnecessary wars, then there’s still plenty of coercion to be found in capitalistic societies. "

If coercion is abiding by a contract then yes, a soldier would be "coerced" into fighting a war. Which makes me wonder how this would change in a socialist or communist society.

Just a thought, but it seems to me that it will always be difficult to get people to take a bullet unless they're nuts about their country, which is irrespective of a certain system (but not their view of said system).

Next, you bring up FDR and LBJs use of social programs and their alleged success. Then you say: "Lately, all of the above programs have come under attack on the basis that they value the welfare of poor Americans over America’s corporate interests."

Funny, I thought that they were under attack for a different reason altogether. It makes sense to me, that if I work hard, I should get to keep that money, rather than be coerced to give it to a teenage mother. Since it's my money, I always thought it should be my choice as to who I should have to give it to.

Furthermore, if you give people handouts, they will be less likely to work. This socialist mentality only works as long as you can sucker people into actually working for their money. It's not a matter of corporate interests, but simple justice.

"Capitalism is the best system for generating wealth." It's good we agree there.

"But it’s not a system that, unmoderated, human beings can live in." Yes, unfettered freedom is downright intolerable. Yes I realize that humans can be oppressed by more than governent. Still, I can think of untold Russian peasants who could have lived--and I use the term quite literally--just fine in a capitalist society.

Libertarian Capitalism is quite cold, but it is the only form of government that takes into account human nature. If you wish people to live well, you must provide an incentive for them to do so. Socialism provides no such incentive. It ignores human nature and just hopes that we will all work for the common good.

This has proven a colossal failure everywhere it has been tried, and even moderate successed like Sweden hardly hold up against such wonderous experiments as Russia and China.

Can't let history stand in the way though.

By the way, how do you hope to create this utopia. As it is, it seems we're marching toward socialism slowly anyway, so your side is winning. Still, I don't see how we can ever implement a perfect society.

I'm just fine with the next best thing: good old laissez-faire capitalism.

Noel Chrotsky said...

The previous commenter obviously didn't read your article too well - conflating Swedish social democracy with the 'communism' of China or the former USSR.

I think you mentioned this: Sweden has the highest standard of living in the world - yet we're supposed to believe that this 'socialism' is a colossal failure? What a joke.

Let me also remind that socialism is 'every man according to his work' i.e. more work, more reward and vice-versa. Welfare is not socialism; it is social justice for those suffering the failures of capitalism. Those who sing odes to unrestrained capitalism never understand this. Reward without work is profit under capitalist exploitation and is the economic system libertarians support. Ever heard of 'corporate welfare', i.e. state subsidies to private industry? While most libertarians say they disapprove of them, they still want the state to legislate and enforce their desired economic system - capitalism is always supported by a state, you just can't get around the fact.

Capitalism does not consider human nature. No one likes to be exploited, no one likes an plutocratic elite dictating how they should live. Humans have a conscience that deplores injustice, both economic and social. People want an equal say in how their community or state is run (democracy). People want to receive all the fruits of their labour, not have it stolen by capitalists. People want to be free. While people can be selfish, they also know the common good is usually good for them too. The common good is more often good for everyone, but sometimes elites may have to give up a few privileges, hence their opposition to the common good.