Communism 101 - or - A summary of what I've learned about economics and politics during a year of directed reading and thinking, and half a lifetime of moving around in the world.
Chapter 1: Overview
The Importance of Labor
We can usefully study how human beings relate to each other overall by recognizing the fundamental role played by economics, the use of human time and effort — i.e. labor — to produce "value". We have to work to live; the Randians and Libertarians are correct at least that if we don't stay alive, as a species, as cultures and nations, and as individuals, there is no one around to have any values at all. Historically, the vast majority of individuals' time has been used to produce the material necessities for individual survival and reproduction; this observation is true not only of humans, but of all life forms: modern scientific ecology shares many substantial features with economics.
Labor and Social Relations
A unique feature of human beings is that we can think about economics, and, more importantly, use that thinking directly to change our economic behavior much more quickly — by many orders of magnitude — than the slow accretion of instinctive behavior afforded by genetic, biological evolution. Furthermore by evolutionary heritage we focus on cooperative economic strategies. (It makes little difference whether this focus is a deep result of biological evolution — i.e. if only a cooperative species can evolve sapience — or an accident of evolutionary history — the fundamental economic strategies would probably be very different had an historically solitary species like tigers, or an historically "subordinationist" species like ants or bees, evolved sapience. Regardless of the causal reasons, we are where are.)
So, as a species, we create social relations that directly affect our cooperative economic activity. We also create social relations that do not directly affect our economic activity.
Given the above, we can separate our analysis of human social relations into three broad domains: the means of production, the economic relations, and the political superstructure.
The means of production consists of the physical tools we use to create the material necessities of life, the physical environment, e.g. soil, water, and air, the plants and animals we use, our own physical bodies; and most importantly our objective knowledge about the world: the knowledge of how to make tools, when to plant, what to weed, when to reap, how to convert plants into food, etc.
The economic relations consists of social constructs that groups of people follow in order to cooperate economically in the production of "value", including ideas about ownership, inheritance, the "work ethic", and division of labor by sex and caste.
The political superstructure consists of the social constructs that do not directly affect economic behavior (although they usually indirectly affect economic behavior) including manners, some political/legal ideals, principles, structures and practices, etc.
These domains interact according to the principles of dialectical materialism. I do not fully understand dialectical materialism, and I am not yet convinced that any canonical communist writers fully understand dialectical materialism. However, some broad, basic principles seem comprehensible.
The materialist paradigm rejects the idea that there is some sort of transcendent ideal to which our economic and political social relations hew closer and closer to over time, by some sort of direct interaction between those ideals and human thought (Platonic dualism) or by some properties of the ideas themselves somehow independent of the material world of rocks and trees (Hegelian dialectical idealism*). Therefore everything that happens in the world of politics and economics must somehow happen because of inherent properties of physical, material reality.
*As best I understand Hegel, i.e. poorly
There are two views within materialism: mechanical materialism and "progressive" materialism. Mechanical materialism holds that nothing substantively changes: everything that happens has always happened and always will happen; only the superficial and irrelevant appearances change. "Progressive" materialism holds that things really do change and evolve in a substantive way. Dialectical materialism is — as best I understand it — a specific paradigm about how and why things change.
As applied to economics and politics, dialectical materialism — as best I understand it — holds that the most fundamental change comes from "contradictions" — i.e. conflicts and tensions that are not superficially reconcilable — between the fundamental domains of social behavior, most especially contradictions between the means of production and economic relations.