Communism is quite possibly the most vilified political ideology in existence. Its core principles, influential figures, important literary works — everything is ignored or skipped over or misrepresented in the worst ways possible. In schools, we are taught that communism is slavery, drudgery, statism, authoritarianism. We are taught, if the theoretical principles of communism are gone over at all, that they are impossible and idealistic. They propagate the same stock phrases and lines that supposedly ‘refute’ communism, the same lines that go on to be regurgitated time after time by people who fancy themselves knowledgeable on the topic; people who went over the subject in a two-day unit in their freshmen history class and fell prey to those one-liners we’re all so familiar with. Among these are such gems as “It looks good on paper”, “But what about human nature?”, and “Where is the incentive when doctors are paid the same as janitors?”
I probably don’t have to tell most readers here this, but these arguments arise from a fundamental and complete ignorance of communism. All of it — from human nature to the notion of “payment” — is a confused mess that nonetheless circulates in capitalist society as a legitimate response to communism.
It is not. I hope to clarify why.
First, as I said above, is that communism is fundamentally misrepresented in all aspects in modern education, so the arguments that stem from that education should not be taken as well constructed or very meaningful in the slightest. The faulty argument lies on the faulty basis; in this case the faulty basis is that everything taught about communism is expected and thought to be true. Let’s explore that.
So what is communism taught to be? Definitions vary a great deal. In some cases, it actually is taught that the core principles of communism emphasize stateless, classless, and moneyless society, but that such values fail to apply in reality, a notion for which some of the stock arguments rise to support, e.g., the human nature argument. In other cases, the basic principles are not gone over at all, and communism is characterized as state control over the means of production, equal ‘pay’ for all, complete disassociation from not only private but also personal property (a distinction that is never gone over), and centralized power in a state regime. In these cases, states like the USSR or PRC are taken to be communist, and little care is taken to make any distinction at all between that and anything Karl Marx or others ever wrote about. In either case, there is a distinct lack of background provided for the students being fed this information. Marx is very likely not read, the history of socialism not covered, basic definitional problems not even resolved, and yet this goes on impassively. So why should we take anything that comes out of such brief and confused understandings with anything more than a grain of salt?
And yet arguments do arise from these brief and confused understandings, and inevitably make their way to the communists. “Communism is impossible”, the layman says, “Human nature doesn’t allow for it! How do you expect people to work when they all get paid the same? Communism stifles individuality!” These arguments, faulty as they are, are the most widespread and the most dangerous. What purpose do they serve in the first place? To maintain the interests of the bourgeoisie, and to have ready a scapegoat if necessary. In essence, “Kill them, not us!”
All of this is a product of purposeful bourgeois dissemination of anti-communist ideals in all walks of life in modern society. Do not take these criticisms as arising naturally; no, there is a definite presence of anti-communism plaguing society, as has been the case ever since communism was realized to be a potential threat to civil complacency by the bourgeoisie. Like any ideology which threatens or speaks out against them, any dissent at all, communism needed to be silenced. It needed to be made the enemy before they were by it. And it was. The red scares, propaganda in the workplace, anti-unionism, and, as was gone over above and most importantly, propaganda and misrepresentation in the education system. In this way is any real dissent silenced, and communists laughed at by the very people they exist in the name of. Communists are made scapegoats by the bourgeoisie.
Anti-communism is the product of bourgeois insurance policy.
But since that doesn’t seem likely to change soon — and indeed, probably requires a great social change preconditional of actual revolution to expose that — we may as well address the arguments themselves. Most obvious and most problematic, I think, is the human nature argument. This one is used to decry communism as idealistic on the premise that an intrinsic “human nature” is in conflict with the ideals it promotes, namely the call for a classless, stateless and moneyless society. This notion of human nature is carried in a few ways. Humans are selfish because they naturally and animalistically think about themselves first. Humans are selfish because there is no incentive not to be in most situations. Selfishness has been so ingrained into society that you can not extract it now. There is only so wide a circle of people in society that one individual human can care about; anything beyond that number and other people become faces, numbers. Not other individuals to care about.
No, I say. You’re wrong. On the notion of a “selfish gene”, or that humans are naturally selfish by evolutionary instinct, I have this to say: Humans are not products of pure instinct. We clearly don’t live in an environment where “self preservation” as it’s practiced by other animals is necessary, and we know it. It’s this free agency, this independence from instinct that allows us to make so many different choices, in this case the choice to not exploit on the basis of “Hm, well, evolution says I should. Guess I have no choice in the matter!”
No, believe it or not, we have the ability to make our own choices independent from what the “evolutionary” or “natural” choice would be. We don’t live in “natural” society. That whole argument is an appeal to nature and should be discarded for that reason. But we’ll continue, with an example I’ve actually saved from a discussion with somebody using this argument.
He started with an example scenario.
Sally was unlucky because I managed to collect all the berries. I could give some to her but I’m hungry so I’ll just eat all of them myself.
The person with the berries will come to the selfish conclusion if he’s A) been conditioned to react that way, generally by society or other environmental factors, in which case Sally too would probably do the same were she the one with the berries, or B) came to that conclusion independently as you say, in which case I still have plenty of reason to believe he’s not in the majority. The point is, I’m not trying to make some static, definitive overarching absolute here, I’m drawing generalizations, and that generalization is this: that humans as a whole derive their attitudes and behaviors from their environment, not some static deterministic force outside of their environment. Generally, humans do what other humans do, believe as they’re taught to believe, hold values as others around them do. If that is indeed the case, which I think history can sufficiently make clear, we know humans are not innately selfish, but only in response to the material conditions around them. In a society which does not necessitate selfishness, the general attitude will be one of non-selfishness, and the ones who “independently” arrive at selfishness few and far between. In a society like ours, it’s easier to point and say “Look, humans are inherently selfish!” because this specific system happens to capitalize on greed (pun intended; hint: it’s capitalism that makes people greedy, not “nature”).
In that discussion I mentioned that conditioning plays an important role in determining how decisions like that will be made. It does, and that is where I am going with this. To historical materialism. Historical materialism, or the materialist conception of history, was Karl Marx’s method, whether or not he used the term himself, of approaching historical change and development in societies as it relates to society’s mode of production, or how humans produce and reproduce their means of existence. An intrinsic part of the materialist conception of history relates to the human nature argument — historical materialism says that “human nature” (Marx does not use this term, but it will work for our purposes here) changes as material conditions change. What this means is that in societies with different modes of production, with different abundances and scarcities of resources, people will adopt different values and society will collectively reflect this as a result.
To use an example, let’s take the change from feudalism to capitalism. This change was the result of a certain point of productive development being reached, a point from which the inevitability of a new system was made apparent. As the development of the mode of production sped along, the first machines began to be invented. These machines were purchased and put to use in buildings which became factories, and to operate these machines were made necessary workers — what became known as industrial workers — who had to be drafted from the serfs and peasants of the countryside, and would eventually evolve into the proletariat. This is no longer feudalism! The old relations of production, between serf and lord, artisan and nobleman, have vanished. Been made obsolete by the development of productive forces. And so, accordingly, society and “human nature” changed with it. We entered into a new phase of development, with new productive forces and new relations of productions. All of society changes from a change in material conditions. All of society is dependent on material conditions, not an absolute nature.
In a nutshell, people aren’t born holding opinions and beliefs, they adopt them based on their experiences and environment. People aren’t born capitalist, they adopt it, and that goes for the opposite as well; if you don’t expose people to capitalist values or expose them to opposite values (i.e., cooperation, altruism) they won’t naturally revert back to capitalism anyway. The fact that such a change in consciousness has not yet occurred on a mass scale is not proof that it won’t and can’t and that capitalism is therefore the pinnacle of productive development.
This relates to socialism in realizing the historical inevitability of a change to it come the final stage of development in capitalism; the stage of development which will force a change to a new mode of production, i.e., socialism. Socialism, at least, is the next logical step in the process of the development of productive forces. Capitalism has already produced world surplus of nearly any material we could want, and certainly any we practically need. Capitalism, however, does not and can not supply such surplus to those who need it. It, by its own inner contradictions, builds surplus but does not distribute it. It is the contradiction of overproduction. It has happened before — it happened even in Marx’s time — and it will happen again. At some point, this contradiction and others will collide irreparably and a new mode of production will have to be established. Capitalism is not sustainable.
Socialism does not even claim to be the final step in the process of the development of productive forces. Perhaps it is not — we can not say, just like nobody could have predicted capitalism in the early days of the ancient mode of production. But it does claim to be the logical next step, and it is, because socialism provides a solution to the contradictions capitalism perpetuates. Capitalism creates surplus — socialism distributes it. Capitalism perpetuates class warfare — socialism resolves it. Capitalism seeks an ever expanding market — socialism realizes that there is an end point. Socialism resolves the collective crises of capitalism by removing capitalism itself and putting itself in its place. It is how history works. Capitalism is no exception to that rule.
So there’s that argument. It may have been overly long and repetitive, but if I succeeded in conveying just how much that needs to be stressed, I’ll consider that a success. It is the answer, in large part, to the human nature question. But what of some of the other parts of it? Yes, there are other parts to the larger argument that may not be addressed by the materialist conception of history. One such was, for instance, the claim that past a certain number of people, individuals can not be made to care about anybody else. That there are only so many faces one can remember before the rest, i.e., the majority of society, become just numbers and statistics.
To that I would say: What is your point? Why do you bring this up? Doubtless because you take socialist society to necessarily call for complete goodwill from everybody towards everybody. But realistically, what would be the point in calling for that? That is yet another misconception about socialism that has no basis in actual fact. No, I don’t think literally every person in society can be made to care about every other person in society. But whoever said they had to? Certainly not the socialists. That truly is idealistic. It is not what we advocate, nor does it have anything to do inherently with the things socialism concerns itself with; economics and society.
There are a few other one-liners thrown against communists. “Where is the incentive when doctors get payed the same as janitors?!” This one takes a far simpler explanation. Whoever said everybody gets paid the same under socialism, or that anybody gets paid at all under communism? Under socialism, there is a common adage that goes “To each according to his contribution”. That is, consider that a doctor might contribute more to society than a janitor. They perform more socially useful work, and probably more technically advanced work, so they get more in return (the question of “payment” in socialism differs, however, from labour vouchers to gift economy and more). However, that extra pay is stacked on top of a “flat base”; the janitor, too, needs a house, and a car, and basic necessities like food. The doctor just gets all of that plus, perhaps, a few luxuries.
Under communism, there is simply no payment, and society rests on the adage of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. This is based on the idea that under communist society there will have been a great relief from scarcity, and every person’s individual needs can be attended to by that material surplus. People will take what they need, and give back to society in the form of voluntary labour. If that sounds Utopian, consider this: people do not just not work. Have you ever spent a week sitting around, doing nothing productive? A month? Maybe I can’t speak for everybody, but for most of us, not doing anything productive eventually translates into not being satisfied with oneself. The /r/socialism FAQ puts it well:
Look back in history. All of the Paleolithic and a good bit of the neolithic era communities are run off a system very similar to socialism. Why did people work? Well, what else would they do? Honestly, have you ever tried to do absolutely nothing for a long amount of time? Even in a capitalist society that encourages people to make the most money with the least amount of effort I find it really hard not to do something productive with my time. But that’s just it, humans are wired to do something. We strive to solve problems and better ourselves . Even without the incentive of higher pay, most doctors would still practice (maybe not as many hours), architects would still make building, I would still study History. The combination of a strive to create with the general mindset of helping the community that helps you, like a debt that is constantly being paid back to the society that keeps you alive, would insure productivity. In Marxism, there’s a term called, “The Base and the Superstructure,” meaning the Base (economic means of production and distribution) affect the Superstructure (Culture, way of thought, interaction and relationship with each other and the economy). Under a capitalist system where humans are forced into a rat race, we do whatever it takes to make money; while under a socialist system, profit isn’t the main incentive, you receive from society based on if you give or not. People under a socialist system would work cooperatively, and in turn, act more responsibly (cooperatively). Innovation is a drive that can’t be weighed down by money, people can build/achieve whatever they want if they have the support from others. This is why Socialism is not just an economic system, but a socio-economic system.
That, too, should address the question of how to deal with “slackers” and the common insinuation that socialism will breed laziness. But also, I would mention, the goal is not that people will work the same amount as they have to under capitalism because they want to; such a relief from scarcity as communism will bring will also result in people having to work less. The aim is to get 0 hours of socially necessary labour in by the end of the week and instead have people work, when they do, solely because they want to.
One other argument I’ve heard before is an attack on the aim of communists to eliminate private property. This attack generally rests on a lack of recognition of the distinction between private and personal property. Private property refers to the means of production, or any property with productive potential, e.g., factories, farms, machines, whereas personal property refers to what most people generally think of as private property, e.g., your house, your car, your washing machine. Communists do not seek to abolish the latter. It can not be put to use in the exploitation of others, as private ownership over the means of production can. When communists say they want to abolish private property, they refer to abolishing the order of private ownership over the means of production, instead opting for ownership by the workers over the workplace.
I think we have covered most of the stock arguments against communism. I’ll end with a basic definition and a short description of what that means to dispel any of the stock phrases we may have missed, as most do rely on misconceptions and faulty definitions of communism. The Wikipedia definition says “In political and social sciences, communism (from Latin communis – common, universal) is a social, political, and economic ideology and movement whose ultimate goal is the establishment of the communist society, which is a socioeconomic order structured upon the common ownership of the means of production and the absence of social classes, money, and the state.”
So, in short, communism aims for the establishment of a classless, moneyless and stateless society based upon the means of production held in common.
Class is one of the core focuses of communism, Marxism in particular, and is seen as the guiding force of history in the form of class struggle, or conflict between the establishment of interests between people of different social classes. Communism aims to resolve class struggle by eliminating class divide; to do so it sees the elimination of capitalism as paramount, since capitalism fundamentally perpetuates class divide. This brings us to stateless.
“Government” and “state” are taken, in a Marxist sense, to be tools of class rule. They exist to protect property relations under capitalism, which is why they wither away in the progression to communism, where these property rights are actively done away with. Statelessness is not absence of authority, it’s absence of class oppression and property rights, as classes are done away with and all the things that go with that.
“Moneyless” comes from the recognition of money as an instrument and representation of class oppression. Money serves its purpose in capitalist society as the means of subsistence for the lower classes (arriving from unequal compensation for the labour performed in exchange for it) and as Capital for the ruling classes. Come the abolition of private property money loses its value and ceases to serve a purpose.
Thus is communism not defined by state control over industry, nor is it characterized by “big government” at all, nor is it based on oppression and subjugation and slavery and totalitarianism. It is a society of free association, of self-ownership and entitlement to the fruits of one’s labour. It is a society devoid of the class divide omnipresent in every society hitherto existing. It is also a movement representative of the struggle of the proletariat under currently existing society.
In short, the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things. In all these movements, they bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time. Finally, they labour everywhere for the union and agreement of the democratic parties of all countries.
The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.