Friday, January 02, 2009

Communism in a nutshell

What is communism? Yoo's complaint has some merit: communists all too often preach to the choir and do not sufficiently explain communism and socialism to the audience not intimately familiar with the literature.

I myself am still a beginner, so take my interpretation with a grain of salt.

Communism is a political philosophy and, like all political philosophies, it evolves and is the subject of internal controversy and contention. Today's communism differs from Marx's communism, and the communism of someone in the CPUSA differs from the communism of someone in the RCP. In a similar sense, today's evolutionary biology differs from Darwin's, and Richard Dawkins' evolutionary biology differs from Stephen Jay Gould's.

Furthermore, there are two kinds of communism: idealistic communism, and "transitional socialism*". Idealistic communism is the goal; transitional socialism is the means to move towards that goal from our present capitalist/imperialist conditions.

*There is controversy within the community whether communism and socialism should be exact synonyms or whether socialism specifically denotes the transition between capitalism and communism. There's support for both views going back to Marx; my usage of socialism to denote specifically a transitional political and economic structure has enough support in the current literature that it is not at all idiosyncratic.

The goal of idealistic communism is uncomplicated: A society without any relations of exploitation: economic, political, social and psychological. A society without any relations of exploitation would not have classes, nor would it have a state in the modern understanding of the term: class distinctions reflect relations of exploitation, and the modern state exists to enforce and maintain class distinctions.

Marx understood — and every other communist in the world understands — that one cannot simply wave a magic wand and declare "no more exploitation": There must be a transition from our current capitalist relations of economic exploitation (and the political, social and psychological relations of exploitation that "sit on top" of economic exploitation).

When communists say, "True communism has never been tried," they mean that no society has achieved anything even close to an ideal communist society. When anti-communists say, "Communism has failed," they mean exactly the same thing. The difference is not in the evidence but in the interpretation of and conclusions drawn from the evidence. Briefly, anti-communists say communism fell; communists say that it was pushed.

What specifically do communists mean by "relations of exploitation"? Fundamentally they mean that under capitalism, labor power is a commodity, an item of exchange that obeys the law of supply and demand, where the price (exchange value) tends towards the cost. Since the use-value of labor power exceeds its cost, the surplus value of labor power tends to go to the owners of capital who employ labor power to produce physical commodities such as boots or DVD players. Labor power is thus exploited by owners of capital.

Labor power can be a commodity only when capital is not a commodity. An item of exchange can be exempted from the law of supply and demand only by the exercise of state power. It is trivially obvious from recent events that financial capital, the ownership of money, is presently exempted from the law of supply and demand by the US government's power to tax and create debt.

Likewise, labor power will not be a commodity only when (financial) capital is a commodity. It requires state power to exempt labor from the law of supply and demand. Since everyone owns his or her own labor power, an economic society where labor power is not a commodity is inherently more democratic than a society where only a privileged few can own capital. Therefore it should become increasingly unnecessary for state power to exempt labor power from commodity relations. The state, Marx conjectures, will "wither away" as an instrument for maintaining exploitative class distinctions.

The socialist transition from capitalism to idealistic communism therefore entails the state somehow exempt labor power from commodity relations. This goal requires that capital cannot be privately owned (unless it's "privately" owned by everyone). Historically, this exemption has been implemented by direct government ownership of capital. What's been missing historically is true democratic control of the state. Anti-communists typically consider this lack to be inherent to communism and socialism; modern communists typically consider this lack to be due to contingent historical factors that have nothing to do with the core ideology of communism. The communist interpretation is strongly supported by much of Mao Zedong's — uncontroversially part of the core canon of communist literature — post-revolutionary work, especially regarding the Cultural Revolution.

True democratic control of the state, though, is difficult to implement. The United States — indeed no Western so-called "democracy" — is not a true democracy: there are enormous social, psychological and legal/political obstacles to the people themselves actually making the day-to-day decisions that affect their own lives. These obstacles exist to privilege (in the literal sense of "private law") the owners of capital and exempt capital from commodity relations. The two-party system, the role of money in elections, the disconnection of the people from their "elected" representatives, all reinforce the de facto "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie." Indeed capitalism is specifically protected by the Fifth Amendment: economic power cannot be taken away by the people in the same sense that official political power can be taken away by the people.

The people have been indoctrinated for hundreds of years in the moral and ideological justification of capitalism, and indoctrinated for thousands — or tens of thousands — of years in the slave morality of religion. Simply handing the people direct political power would result in at best the election of a new ruling class; at worst it could result in chaos and sectarian warfare. (Anyone who thinks this fear is peculiar to communism really should understand the history of American democracy and the explicit concern of the founders to prevent "mob rule" and privilege the "best" (i.e. richest) citizens.)

It is not known that socialism really can transition to idealistic communism. It might be the case that humanity is doomed to some sort of relations of exploitation. But it is equally unknown that socialism cannot transition to communism. Furthermore, it is equally unknown that historical attempts to transition from capitalism to communism (in late 19th and early 20th century Europe) or from feudalism to communism (in the USSR and PRC or even Cuba and other "third-world" socialist countries) were doomed to failure: it is impossible to eliminate the implacable and absolute hostility of the Western capitalist countries towards the socialist countries as the primary cause of these failures. We will never know, for example, what might have happened in the USSR had they not been reasonably and justifiably afraid of conventional invasion by Germany and nuclear war by the United States.

Communists do not lightly advocate turning all our economic and political structures, socially evolved over thousands of years, upside down. It is, however, becoming increasingly clear that capitalism is failing, failing catastrophically, and failing precisely when it is unopposed and unchallenged by serious external or internal socialist pressures.

17 comments:

  1. I am pretty new to the idea of shirking off capitalism in favour of an alternative system. I have to admit that the notion simply didn't occur to me or at least I didn't consider it realistic. I must hold my hand up here and admit that I may have been suckered by the unrelenting propoganda on the topic.

    While I absolutely agree that capitalism is essentially an exploitation system and a fairly extreme one at that, I would like to see something on the practicality of how a communist or socialist system might operate, day to day. How are busniesses started or who starts them? What is the motivation of those starting the business? How is it's business conducted in the market place - who sets the price of what is produced? Who 'owns' the business? Who makes high level descisions about the business?, and so on. I don't like to guess to often at what people might have meant but this has been a source of frustration for me. I think maybe this is what Yoo might have been after aswell. The theory sounds great but how would it be imagined to be in practice?

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  2. Sorry about the double post.

    I think most unintiated people have been previously convinced that communism is impractical, almost a default position in the west. Almost anyone (honest) would agree that the theory of communism sounds fairer...in theory. The big stumbling block is practiciality. Can it actually work? Is it even remotely possible that such a system could function?

    The burning question for me is:

    How would it work?

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  3. In very broad terms, socialism and communism would work by state ownership of capital and true, literal democratic control of the state.

    In detailed terms, who knows? It took a hundred years or more for capitalism -- through the intermediary stage of mercantilism --- to get off the ground and develop its specific social and political structures.

    If communism really is better in theory than capitalism, shouldn't we at least give it a try somewhere without subjecting a socialist state to the enormous pressure of economic, conventional and nuclear warfare?

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  4. And if we're going to give it a try somewhere, why not give it a try in the United States, the place best suited -- at least according to Marx's theory -- to the efficient evolution of capitalism to socialism and then to communism?

    We have a relatively well-educated population, institutions with passing resemblance to democracy, sufficient food, housing, etc. such that temporary problems and mistakes would not lead to immediate famine.

    Furthermore, we do not presently have any problem producing enough to satisfy the needs and moderate wants of the population, even if we were to let 1/3 of the population have a complete free ride; 1/3 or more of the population already are engaged in fundamentally unproductive "labor".

    Capitalism in the US is in crisis for precisely the reason that Marx identified: overproduction.

    Our present problem is not in the production of stuff, but in its allocation. Socialism addresses the problem of allocation directly.

    Communists tend to highlight the horrors and crimes of the current capitalist system precisely because there is nothing standing between us and socialism besides the desire for absolute power by the very tip of the capitalist ruling class.

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  5. I have issue with a few things

    When anti-communists say, "Communism has failed," they mean exactly the same thing.


    That's not exactly true. Many anti-communists mean that the ideal Communist society was indeed the USSR etc and that proves that Communism is not ideal at all.


    Since everyone owns his or her own labor power, an economic society where labor power is not a commodity is inherently more democratic than a society where only a privileged few can own capital.


    I'm not certain I follow this train of thought. A capitalist would claim that anyone can own capital and that communism explicitly enforces that people do not have absolute (negative) freedom with their labour (ie, I can't hire my labour to a capitalist)

    Therefore it should become increasingly unnecessary for state power to exempt labor power from commodity relations. The state, Marx conjectures, will "wither away" as an instrument for maintaining exploitative class distinctions.

    I can't see how that follows from the preceding sentence. If the state is necessary to exempt labour from commodity relation at the start, then why is it not necessary for it to remain in the long run? In any case, I think you're got the role of the socialist state wrong. AFAIK its purpose is not to prevent the commodization of labour power but rather to secure the proletariat against a counter-revolution. It withers away once such a fear is slowly removed once the post-revolutionary period stabilizes

    The communist interpretation is strongly supported by much of Mao Zedong's — uncontroversially part of the core canon of communist literature —

    This is not uncontroversial at all. Marxists.org for example has removed Mao as a representative of Marxism after a heated internal discussion of the volunteers behind it.


    In very broad terms, socialism and communism would work by state ownership of capital and true, literal democratic control of the state.


    This is a very controversial statement right there. By state I take that you mean a totally different thing than the modern definition of the word which is easy to create unnecessary confusion. Especially considering that Communism is supposed to be stateless.

    By "state control" you probably mean "public control"(?)

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  6. Hello: Wow your education and knowledge of Socialist Philosophy is perfect. Where did you study marxist philosophy? At a college, online university? Or self disciplined reading? Keep posting your good essays.

    I would like to know if i could post your articles in my blogger http://capitalism-is-making-americans-poorer.blogspot.com/

    take care

    Marxist-Socialist

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  7. I agree with the celtic chimp. There is so much to learn about other forms of government that are never truly discussed by Americans.

    We should not threaten fledgling forms of government abroad, not only to promote self-determination for the people, but for the entirely non-altruistic purpose of letting the the experiment run its course.

    I know that if I ever bring up Socialism or Communism in polite company, it is usually met with knee-jerk scorn and derision, followed immediately by an off-hand dismissal. I've never understood why it can't even be discussed. What makes people so afraid to even talk about it?

    I'm not advocating anything, except open and honest discussion. In my experience, people will even dismiss both the idea of Socialism and Communism off hand as impossible, evil, or romantic while at the same time admitting they don't truly understand it.

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  8. Many anti-communists mean that the ideal Communist society was indeed the USSR etc and that proves that Communism is not ideal at all.

    Yes, well, I'm trying to be charitable and focus on ideas with some sort of merit. The idea that the USSR is the ideal communist society is so stupid it doesn't deserve a substantive rebuttal.

    Keep in mind too that I'm trying to just hit the high points in this essay; there's a lot of underlying complexity I'm handwaving over.

    A capitalist would claim that anyone can own capital...

    There's a difference between the claim that anyone can own capital and the observation that everyone does in fact have labor power.

    If the state is necessary to exempt labour from commodity relation at the start, then why is it not necessary for it to remain in the long run?

    Once ownership of capital is completely socialized, there's no need of a state in the sense of an institution to maintain class privilege. There will still be the need of a minimal state to prevent outliers from gaming the system.

    This is not uncontroversial at all. Marxists.org for example has removed Mao as a representative of Marxism after a heated internal discussion of the volunteers behind it.

    I stand corrected. Seems like a stupid idea to me. Mao was no saint, but he had some good ideas.

    This is a very controversial statement right there. By state I take that you mean a totally different thing than the modern definition of the word which is easy to create unnecessary confusion. Especially considering that Communism is supposed to be stateless.

    By "state control" you probably mean "public control"(?)


    Yes. I stand corrected.

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  9. Wow your education and knowledge of Socialist Philosophy is perfect.

    Hardly. But thanks.

    Where did you study marxist philosophy?

    Some I've read, some I've worked out from first principles.

    I would like to know if i could post your articles in my blogger...

    You may. All my work is licensed for free redistribution, with proper attribution, linkage and credit.

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  10. What makes people so afraid to even talk about [communism]?

    A century of propaganda and violent hostility and outright criminalization. Try to discuss atheism in a fundamentalist church and you'll get the same reaction.

    Even today in the United States there are legal restrictions on advocating and promoting communism. For example, those applying for immigration or naturalization must affirm they are not members of or affiliated with any communist party or organization.

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  11. communists all too often preach to the choir and do not sufficiently explain communism and socialism to the audience not intimately familiar with the literature.

    When your audience is profoundly conservative one has two choices. He can either preach to the choir (talk to a tiny group of the same like-minded malcontents) or he can simply try and chip through the false consciousness that permeates advanced industrial society.

    We enjoy a scenario today in which the working people are something of an aristocracy of its own. They imagine themselves inherently better than working people of other countries, and better than working people who immigrate from other countries. They might even be a new class which Marx never predicted.

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  12. When your audience is profoundly conservative one has two choices. He can either preach to the choir (talk to a tiny group of the same like-minded malcontents) or he can simply try and chip through the false consciousness that permeates advanced industrial society.

    Indeed. It's a minor vice, and one I've noticed in the atheist community as well, for much the same reason.

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  13. Once ownership of capital is completely socialized, there's no need of a state in the sense of an institution to maintain class privilege

    Ok I'm a bit confused. In what form does the socialist state maintain class privilege? After a revolution, as long as private property is abolished, the state is not needed to enforce the socialization of capital. Do you mean that the state is needed until private property is abolished?

    There will still be the need of a minimal state to prevent outliers from gaming the system.


    You mean other countries? If we are in that situation then we still have socialism, not Communism, and we're talking still about the need of the dictatorship of the proletariat to suppress counter-revolutionary movements.
    Communism can only be realized when the state is not needed at all, which I am guessing can only happen if there is an international revolution.


    I stand corrected. Seems like a stupid idea to me. Mao was no saint, but he had some good ideas.

    A few good ideas, unfortunately, do not a Marxist make. I do not know much about his legacy however so I can't decide in either way. I'm certain that the archives of the MIA will have the arguments for this decision.

    I can look for it if you wish.

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  14. The Barefoot Bum: hi !!

    Hey my friend, i think you are forgetting something really strong that blocks Socialism from happening like you just said in USSR. You are forgetting the US right-wing corporate elite wealthy class. You are forgetting that the right-wing oligarchic, wealthy millionaire and billionaire class of this country is what controls the US ideology, and it is the capitalist ideology which suits their interests. So if USA becomes socialist, the right-wing rich class of USA would try by any means to prevent it, or if USA becomes socialist economy at least for some time, the right-wing rich class would try to overthrow it and topple it. Joseph Stalin wrote about it in his thesis "The Foundations of Leninism"

    .

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  15. i have a question about the US-Constitution: Why do the US-Constitution always talks about "In times of wars". I mean was the US constitution written by imperialists who had wars in their minds already? Because in the video "Secret Mysteries of America's Beginnings" it talks about Sir. Francis Bacon's dream of USA as The New Atlantis. Remember that there lots of dubious things about US foundation. and in another part it says: "nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." <--Evo Morales and Chavez would get depressed with the US constitution


    .

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  16. My main difficulty with understanding how Communism works is pretty much the same as Celtic Chimp's - I have trouble conceptualizing how it would work in practical reality.

    For me, what works best is detailed examples with real numbers plugged in. For maximum benefit, it would be great to have parallel examples under both communism as reality versus capatilism as reality to compare and contrast them. And it would be nice if they included multiple examples across a spectrum of professions, instead of the usual widget example. A good cross-section I think would include the widget factory and individual artistic craftsman, but also it would be nice to see how, say, an advertising firm would operate, and a law firm (or solo practitioner of the law), a salesman, a movie studio, an engineering/design firm, a computer software firm, and so on. Included within those examples it would be nice to see how variation in skill and experience is handled as well. I know that is an awful lot to ask for, but it would be very helpful for me to understand how it all would work and maybe someone out there already has made such examples - does anyone here know?

    It would be fascinating to run a controlled experiment with both systems and see what happens.

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  17. communism, socialism, humanism, atheism... really all just ways for people that hate God to try get him out of the picture. funny thing is you claim to not believe in God yet you harbor such a fierce hatred for him. how could you hate someone that you know doesn't exist? i would venture to say that you know in your heart he exists and even if you were standing face to face with him you would spit on him. but why?

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