Tuesday, September 18, 2012

"Communism" and "socialism"

Yesterday, a friend asked, "isn't socialism just a moderate form of communism?" This question brings up two issues.

The first is that the argument from moderation is a bit lazy. It is true that a lot of times, moderation is better than extremism. But it's not always true. Barry Goldwater was kind of an asshole, and but I think he was right when he said that (to paraphrase a little) extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue. If we accept the political equality of democracy as one extreme, and the absolute tyranny of a single individual as the other extreme, is the moderation of of submission to an oligarchy therefore superior? If slavery is one extreme, and liberty another, where's the moderate position? A little slavery? Just that "X is moderate relative to Y and Z" is not by itself a sufficient argument for X.

The second issue is that the history of the distinction between "socialism" and "communism" is complicated. We can divide the ideological history of modern communism and socialism broadly into four periods:
  1. Utopian socialism (pre-Marx)
  2. Marxian communism
  3. Early revolutionary communism (pre-1917)
  4. Communism of the parties

Marx and Engels both criticized utopian socialism. One important difference between utopian socialism and Marxian communism is that the former typically is philosophically idealistic (the material realization of an independently-existing ideal form) and the latter is materialistic (development by the interaction of fully physical elements). Engels draws the distinction at length in Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, 1892.

In Marx and Engels, or at least the translations I've read, socialism is either identically synonymous with communism, or socialism refers to an "early" stage of communism, when we still have to have social institutions to manage production; communism refers to a later stage, when the means of production have become sufficiently advanced that people can just work at whatever pleases them, without having to worry about the social utility of their labor. Lenin usually follows the latter distinction.

In the early revolutionary phase, when actual communists were trying to gain state power, a sharp distinction developed: between communists and "democratic socialists." The fundamental character of the latter was a desire to preserve and work within the bourgeois representative "democratic" (i.e. republican) system. Marx touches on the distinction in Critique of the Gotha Programme, but Lenin has the most thorough treatment in What is to Be Done? and The State and Revolution.

Finally, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Chinese Communist Party came to define (or legitimatize the de facto definition) of communism as rule by the meritocratic national Communist Party, hence the modern term "Communism of the Parties."

The distinction between communism and socialism is therefore kind of equivocal. If you look at the distinction drawn in the revolutionary phase, "socialism" means the preservation of representative democracy, and "communism" means the rejection of representative republicanism as fundamentally bourgeois, in favor of some other unspecified system. On the other hand, one might use a distinction based on Communism of the Parties, where "communism" means rule by the national Communist Party, and "socialism" means rejection of party rule in favor of some other alternative.

I personally reject both bourgeois republicanism and meritocratic rule of the Party, in favor more directly and thoroughly democratic political systems, such as the systems briefly implemented by the Paris Commune, of which Marx wrote approvingly in The Civil War in France. If people want to call themselves "socialists," and they mean a rejection of both rule of the party and bourgeois republicanism, then I'll call them comrades without quibbling over labels.


  1. I literally just published a post entitled "Revolution or Reform?" and then saw your post on my feed. Coincidence? Probably.

    Anyway, I think the problem with anti-capitalists in general is that we tend to focus too much on semantics. We squabble over definitions and terminology, as well as ideology and philosophy, all the while failing to unify to fight against the wicked monstrosity that is capitalism.

    As a side-note, I find it interesting that Communism in its purest sense is really an idealistic philosophy. While socialism in its various forms have been (somewhat) successful in many nations, Communism as described by Marx and Engles have yet to be made manifest. I think that Communism represents the idealism in all of us -- that yearning desire for the collective cooperation amongst all men and women to strive for the betterment of the world. Alas, I do not think humanity has yet evolved to the point where it can truly live in a stateless, classless society. We're still too apish. 

    Finally, it is a damn shame that certain nations have come to represent Communism under such false pretenses. "Communism of the parties," as you mentioned, really goes against the idea of Communism. 

    Do you think that Communism as defined and imagined by Marx and Engels is truly possible, or do you think we can only go as far as being a socialist society?

    1. An interesting comment; I will have to respond at length when I have more time. The short answer to your final question is yes and no. Marx and Engels were men of a particular historical period; their precise definition and imagination can at best be an optimal solution to the political, economic, and social problems of the mid-19th century. Things are different today, and we require different solutions. On the other hand, I think that, yes, it is practical and feasible to build a society that is true to the spirit (vaguely defined) of Marx and Engels' vision.

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