In the short preamble to The Communist Manifesto, one of history’s most widely read texts, you can tell that the authors have had it, right up to their beards. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were clearly sick of explaining that communism was not a synonym for evil or naivety, but a historical stage vital to the flourishing of all. In 1848, they demanded an immediate end to fearful European talk about the “specter” of communism. But, more than a century and a half later, the jittery gossip about communism continues.
Marx may have been one of the world’s most influential thinkers. His work, however, is now barely taught in the West. We might have scant knowledge of Marx these days, but we do retain enormous confidence that his ideas crumbled into dust along with the Berlin Wall.
Well. They didn’t. That wall never contained communism. And, heck, communism contains some ideas that are still very appealing, especially in times such as now when an economic downturn has been felt by so many.
Communism is a system of social organization that has never been truly tried and, these days, never truly explained. Yet it inspires fear in some, derision in others, and an almost universal unconcern for what it is actually intended to convey.
You could read Marx for yourself, of course, and find that his communism is not made from dreary monsters but instead complex reasoning toward a future social evolution. Many of its features may even be acceptable to your conservative aunt, if only she read him, too. But, given that a) Marx is tough, and b) you’re pretty busy making profit for capitalists all day, let’s have a précis.
There have been many significant socialist and communist thinkers, but the fact they largely call themselves Marxist is a tip-off that this guy’s writing—particularly the three volumes of Capital—is foundational. But, you’re busy, and Capital is very long and bound to put you to sleep sometime in Volume 2.
As people who need Marx but have little time to read Marx, we’ll make this quick. Let’s try some subheadings before we transform the world.
What’s the difference between communism, socialism, and liberalism?
First up, you need to suffer one of those tedious passages where we define some terms. Here we go: Socialism and communism and liberalism are not interchangeable words. Just because members of the alt-right hurl these terms from a patchwork Make-America-Great-Again tote bag of insults (which also may include “feminazi,” “social-justice warrior,” and “snowflake”), they have distinct meanings. Although they may see being a “liberal” as identical to being a communist, these are very different categories of thought.
The liberal, whether of a progressive or conservative sort, believes that social problems largely derive from poor individual morals. US presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, for example, said our moral intolerance of minorities is the great problem with America; US president Donald Trump said our moral privileging of minorities is the great problem with America.
The communist cannot agree with either proposition. The communist does agree that oppression of minorities is a true problem—vehemently, in fact—but they do not see people’s bad morals as the origin of this. Instead, this oppression is the result of what is called our “mode of production,” which is the way we organize our means for survival. Currently, that system is capitalism. Communism is the critique and the antidote to capitalism, with all its problems, including those of social and cultural division.
A liberal believes that capitalism can be humanized. They use a phrase like “crony capitalism” to suggest that capitalism is only bad when bad people are capitalists. A socialist is skeptical about this. A communist doesn’t believe it at all. In other words, liberals think a few bad apples spoil the supply. A communist thinks that the crate itself is rotten.
A communist is a socialist, but a socialist is not necessarily a communist. A communist believes that socialism is a historical phase that precedes communism and follows capitalism. Socialism is that system where the state is the full or partial owner of all property. Communism is the collective ownership of all property. A socialist might be happy with just moving things around a bit and, say, making sure that investment banks who have behaved reprehensibly aren’t always the first beneficiaries of government welfare.
A communist wants more. A communist seeks the abolition of property, whether held by the state or private firms and citizens; they want all of us to own everything equally and become our own dictators. A communist seeks conditions to end the state entirely and have all human society collectively managed.
The road to communism
To make his argument that the mode of production is the starting point for many of our ideas and life experiences, Marx goes back in time. “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” Marx famously wrote. That is to say, the labor of many has ensured the comfort of a few ever since the Neolithic Revolution. This is our struggle.
In a slave economy, most of us are slaves. In a feudal economy, most of us are serfs. In a capitalist economy, we become the servants of a small class of capitalists.
In a slave mode of production, the slave gives all their labor—or what Marx calls “surplus”—to the slave owner. Under feudalism, the serf gave roughly 50% of their surplus to the lord. Under capitalism today, we give a lot of our surplus to our bosses. You may earn your pay in two or three hours, and the rest of your labor is turned to profit by the firm for which you work. If a business fails to make a profit—which it derives from the surplus provided by the worker—it will not be a business for very long.
The progressive liberal believes that if we encourage business owners to be better people, this exploitation will not occur. But the communist believes that the exploitation is inevitable.
You might think the individual will is more powerful than the mode of production that contains it. To this, a communist, particularly one in a bad mood, might counter you with a picture of a Congolese child mining for the rare elements used inside our smartphones. No amount of assertiveness training is going to help that kid succeed. Our mode of production plays a very significant role in the development of that child: Capitalism needs that cheap labor to function. For a communist, the true face of capitalism is this young miner. If we want virtue, it does not, per the liberal belief, “all start with me.” It starts with the mode of production.
A big secret is that Marx was actually quite impressed by capitalism, our current mode of production in this stage of history. As much as he urged the workers of the world to seize their machinery and claim the products and tools of their labor as collective property—he praised capitalism. He saw the abundance it could create and he predicted a time when machines would do much of the boring work and innovation would solve many human problems.
The communist believes that capitalism produces regular crises, and that over time, there is tendency of the rate of profit to fall. in the Marxist view, capitalism is going to run its course as the current mode of production, so we’d better have some communism ready to step in. Because, goodness knows, we certainly get some poor solutions to times of capitalist crisis.
What communism may look like
Consider this your trigger warning for disappointment: There is no blueprint for communism. If we hold with Marx’s view of history as a matter of interplay between what he calls the base (the mode of production) and the superstructure (the law, the culture, the apparatuses of the state, our morals, and, basically, everything else in human society), then we can’t predict with real accuracy where we are being led by the next stage. But we can talk a little about how we might get there.
No transition in the mode of production has ever been smooth, nor has it been particularly quick. The transition in Europe from feudalism to capitalism took even longer than the director’s cut of Titanic. It had its own vanguard: Intellectuals like John Locke, Adam Smith, and David Ricardo provided instructions for the leaders of the modern state and its partner economy. It’s useful to note that all these stars of classical economics had died before Marx even learned to read. Yet, theirs are the thoughts on which the poorly functioning neoliberal policy of the present still rests. Theirs are the thoughts on which many lives are ended early or lived in blank servitude.
This is not to say that the seizing of power by socialists eager for the communist stage of history is going to be a picnic. Things started well at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, but they didn’t continue in this strategic, bloodless mode. A future transfer could be peaceful—even the result of democratic elections—allowing for the possibility in the West of a truly democratic election free from intervention by the capitalist class.
Capitalism had many false starts, and now, in the view of a commie such as myself, it is enduring a very real end. Voters are rejecting its prescriptions in different ways, expressing their frustration by electing authoritarians who promise a fictional version of the past or, as in Spain, Greece, and Scotland, socialists and communists who hint at an unseen future. Just this past week, Jean-Luc Melenchon, a man informed by Marx, won close to 20% of votes in the first round of the French presidential election.
We don’t know what that communist future will look like. We know that our age of automation has created the possibility of free time. We know that we have collectively created the means to sustain all on this planet. But, we also know that we have built this abundance at the cost of environmental devastation. Both climate change and the irrevocable fact of nuclear weapons reduce the original communist hope for collective management of everything; these totalizing threats demands a certain level of totalitarian management. It is my view that an honest communist can now no longer say that the state can be done away with entirely—these true threats require a handful of true bureaucrats to manage them.
But, there is no need for the nation-state to sustain our life, any more than there is a need for profit. A good, productive life for all demands a new and collective mode of production. Or, at the very least, it demands a little of our curiosity. If you no longer believe economists who tell us the “GDP is up!” even as our incomes decline, perhaps you can give some of your leisure time to confront the specter of communism.