What is Communism?

Franz Wilhelm Seiwert, Solidarität, 1922.


This is the third essay in the Meaning of Marxism series. The entire series can be found here.

In, “What is Marxism?,” I argue that to be a Marxist but not a communist is to be a useless academic, while to be a communist but not a Marxist makes no sense. This is because the problems a communist would face in their political practice are problems best posed by Marxist theory, and Marxism provides the tools to properly present and solve these problems. Regardless, I think it’s important to define communism in the same way that I defined Marxism in order to articulate the relation between the two.  

There are multiple problems with defining communism. One is that the ‘founders’ of Marxism, Marx and Engels, and even other canonical figures like Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, Gramsci, etc., did not completely articulate a ‘theory’ of communism. There is no ‘classic’ text that we can point new readers to for a concrete definition of communism, a vision of what it would look like, and how it would work.1 Even Marx’s Communist Manifesto, which is the text that is associated with communism, does not really provide a concrete theory, but rather an introduction to the Marxist view of history and the necessity of communist revolution. This can be frustrating for those being introduced to communist theory for the first time. Anyone who has grown up in a Western country was taught that communism is evil and unrealistic, and that any country who tried to implement it was doomed from the start because of this ‘original sin’. So when a budding radical begins to emerge from behind the veil of capitalist indoctrination, they naturally want to learn about alternatives in the forms of socialism and communism.2 The problem is that, without texts that articulate what communism actually is, along with deconstructing bourgeois myths, it may be difficult for some to overcome the anti-communist propaganda. 

The other problem is that most Marxists find it pointless to draw up a blueprint for communism. Since communism is purely theoretical, as there are no communist societies in existence, communists focus on the struggle rather than on drawing up a blueprint. The second problem also explains the first. There are no classic texts that define communism since most of the major Marxist theorists were all focused on the class struggle of their time. While Marxists have produced seas of literature devoted to the critique of capitalism, to particular class struggles and their histories, and to theories of how to overthrow capitalism, there aren’t many texts themselves on the alternative of communism.3 

So what is communism? 

Communism is a political ideology that calls for the abolition of private property, classes, the state and repressive state apparatus, and the division of manual and intellectual labor. Communism also asserts that a revolutionary process, beginning with seizing political power from the ruling class, will be necessary to realize these demands. 

Private Property

The call for the abolition of private property is central to communism, and goes all the way back to the Manifesto. Under capitalism, private property is primarily owned by one class of people, the bourgeoisie, and it mainly consists of factories, land, and housing. Alain Badiou, the famous, contemporary Marxist philosopher, says that it is not necessary for life to be organized around private property and profit.4 Profits under capitalism are dependent on the exploitation of the working class by business owners, and private property is the legal relation that legitimizes exploitation. For example, a landlord owns a building and rents space in it out to others, usually working class people, that need a space to live in. The landlord charges more for rent in each given space so that the total rent is greater than the cost of the mortgage (if they are still paying one). The relationship between the landlord and tenant is parasitic and exploitative because the former is exploiting the needs of the latter for financial gain. But, this is a legal relation; it is legal for people to buy commodities they do not need, and then sell the commodity for a profit (and homes under capitalism are commodities). Communists assert that housing should not be privately owned by landlords who overcharge their tenants, and that landlords and private property are not necessary. Individuals should not have to pay another person to live in their home, and individuals should have no right to own basic needs like housing. 

Communism entails a transition away from a system of private property. But, as Marx says, 

“we by no means intend to abolish this personal appropriation of the products of labour, an appropriation that is made for the maintenance and reproduction of human life… All that we want to do away with is the miserable character of this appropriation, under which the labourer lives merely to increase capital, and is allowed to live only insofar as the interest of the ruling class requires it.” 5

In other words, individuals ought to be able to own anything they need6, and every individual needs a home, clothes, technology, and so on. No one needs to be a landlord or a business owner to survive, since both are contingent on exploiting others. 

Classes

Private property can only exist in a mode of production with classes. I defined the Marxist conception of ‘classes’ in the previous piece, but to reiterate, classes are defined by the relationship to the means of production. The two primary classes of capitalism are the proletariat and bourgeoisie, and the former sells their capacity to work (labor-power) to the latter, who do not work and own the means of production, in exchange for a wage. Another example of classes in a mode of production is landlords and peasants under feudal social formations. In this relation, the former owns the land that the latter works on, and the peasants are required to pay rent to the landlord in exchange for cultivating the land. Another class relation occurs under slavery, where slaves are owned by another person. In this relation, the slaves are forced to perform any labor demanded by the owner, and they only receive means of subsistence in return. All of these class relations are exploitative, even if the mechanisms of exploitation vary. It is obviously better to be a worker than a slave.  

Communism asserts that the existence of classes is not necessary. This is because the exploited classes are those who perform the labor, while the exploiting class merely appropriates the products of labor and dictates the labor process. Exploitation is also unethical, but I will expand more on that in a different section. Communism asserts that people should be empowered to make decisions, or participate in decision making processes, about things that affect their lives. For example, let’s say Cam works at a cafe. Under capitalism, Cam merely makes drinks, and he has no control over their prices, what is on the menu, how to make drinks, and the general policies of the store. Since Cam is reduced to a cog in the machine, he feels uninspired and exploited at his job. Why would anyone be motivated to do anything if they have no say in the labor process? A communist society would give Cam a say in the labor process along with his co-workers. Another example is the difference between intellectual labor in the context of school and independent study. When I read and study on my own, it is enjoyable because I have control over the labor process. I control what I read and the pace at which I read. In school, I have no say in what I read and I am forced to meet certain deadlines.7

The State

If there are multiple classes in a society, which possess an antagonistic relationship, then it follows that there will necessarily be class conflict in the form of poor working conditions, abuse of authority, riots against the rulers, and so on. The state intervenes to keep these conflicts within the bounds of order, whether by creating laws that prevent workers from organizing and striking, or by creating laws against overly oppressive working conditions. The state may restrict the degree to which the bourgeoisie exploits the proletariat, but exploitation itself is legal according to the state. As Althusser says, the state is a ‘repressive machine’ that intervenes on behalf of the dominant class to ensure domination over the exploited class.8 The state may intervene sometimes to give the workers better conditions, but, in the last instance, the dominant tendency is bourgeois domination.

The state is not, as generally conceived, an immutable feature of human societies throughout history. Rather, the state only emerges historically alongside the development of private property and classes, and is a repressive apparatus. For Engels, the characteristics of the state are: 1) A demarcated territory that binds the citizens within as ‘one’. Whereas before societies were built on the bonds of families and tribes, the state binds people together based on territory. 2) Armed forces, the police and military, that protect the laws and territory of the state. 3) An administrative apparatus, the government, which issues and collects taxes that fund the activities of the state.9 Engels says that the state, 

“is a product of society at a particular stage of development; it is the admission that this society has involved itself in insoluble self-contradiction and is cleft into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to exorcise. But in order that these antagonisms, classes with conflicting economic interests, shall not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, a power, apparently standing above society, has become necessary to moderate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of “order”; and this power, arisen out of society, but placing itself above it and increasingly alienating itself from it, is the state.”10

There are some problems with the ‘classical’ theory of the state as espoused by Marx, Engels, and Lenin.11 One problem is that the state, in practice, is not directly governed by the bourgeoisie. Or in other words, billionaires like Jeff Bezos do not directly legislate or enforce laws. While if workers at Amazon ever went on strike, the state would certainly intervene on Jeff Bezos behalf, this would happen independently of him. The various members of the ruling class are not politically and ideologically unified. Donald Trump, a bourgeois business owner, felt compelled to directly intervene politically because he felt the state was not doing a good job. Another problem is that, in most cases, the state does not need to directly intervene with violence to defend the interests of the bourgeoisie. While there are occasions where this happens, mainly to break up a strike or a riot, more often than not, people voluntarily participate in their subjection to the state. People go to work and obey laws everyday without even thinking about it. It’s an unconscious process.  

The first problem is important because it demonstrates that the state itself is a contradictory entity, and this is important strategically for communists. There are divisions within the state, and these divisions can handbrake the overall functioning of the state. It is virtually impossible for the Democrats and Republicans to articulate a longer term vision for the country, since the moment one side achieves power, they will realistically lose it again within four years. Due to the accelerating nature of capitalist crises (environmental, financial, and public health), an impotent state will translate into a failure to solve these crises. Although historically, the various factions within the US state have united at the important moments to manoeuvre out of crises. Furthermore, the two sides are still united on issues regarding imperialist practices, and each has no problem bombing or sanctioning countries in the Global South. These divisions in the ruling class are non-antagonistic, in the sense that Democrats and Republicans differences on how to run the state do not actually affect the reality that both accept the necessity of the capitalist state. The two can peacefully coexist, without one side needing to fully eliminate the other. The goal for communists is to make them seem antagonistic, and revolutionary struggle will necessarily involve this kind of political maneuvering. Understanding the state as a contradictory whole will help in that regard. 

Althusser tries to solve the second problem, that the state usually does not need to resort to violence, through the concepts of ideology and ideological state apparatuses. Why is it that people go to work everyday without questioning why they need to go to work? Why someone like Jeff Bezos sits on billions while they have little? Or if they already know why, that we live in a class system where the individual needs to work in order to survive, and that they are exploited at work, then why don’t they do anything about it? All of these questions revolve around ideology. The basic premise is that, for workers to show up everyday and do their job, they need to be reproduced outside of work. This involves eating, drinking, relaxing, having a home, being entertained, having personal interests/hobbies, having relationships with friends and family, and so on. All of these are essential for an individual to be physically and mentally healthy. If workers came in malnourished and depressed, although in many cases they are, they would not do a very good job. An important component of reproduction is ideology, which can be loosely defined as the stories individuals tell themselves, or others, about x (oneself, the world, a country). For example, some individuals tell themselves that their life serves a higher purpose (religion), and this helps them push through day-to-day existence. But where do these ideas come from? Where do the means of reproduction come from? Through what means is an individual entertained? The answer is the ideological state apparatuses (ISAs). Althusser says,

“An Ideological State Apparatus is a system of defined institutions, organizations, and the corresponding practices. Realized in the institutions, organizations, and practices of this system is all or part (generally speaking, a typical combination of certain elements) of the State Ideology. The ideology realized in an ISA ensures its systemic unity on the basis of an ‘anchoring’ in material functions specific to each ISA.”12

The ISAs includes religious institutions, the media, the press, the family, the school system, and cultural institutions (whether sport, film, or art). 

For example, when I get home from work, I can flip on the baseball game to unwind. But when I turn on the game, I am flooded with patriotic images on the broadcast, whether through the national anthem at the beginning of a game, a nightly ceremony where a team celebrates a military member, or an army commercial. Althusser ties the ideological state apparatuses into the overall state itself. Of course, many of these institutions in the US are not actually a part of the state, or state-owned. The company that broadcasts the ball-game, and the companies that buy ads for commercials, are private. Althusser counters that, even though many of these institutions are private, they are still owned by other members of the bourgeoisie, and push the same ideological positions as the state. Regardless, Althusser’s contribution helps solve the second problem. In everyday life, the ISAs reproduce the workers and the social formation, and earn their consent. When there is resistance and rebellion, the repressive core of the state intervenes. 

To conclude, the state forms an inseparable relationship with private property and classes. If communists want to abolish both private property and classes, then the abolition of the state logically follows. This is why Badiou says that the existence of the state and the repressive apparatus are not necessary.13 When Marxists, and anarchists, call for the abolition of the state, we do not mean that society should also be abolished, as the state is not equivalent to society. Under a communist society, it would still be necessary to have administrative systems and ways of organizing decision making. Furthermore, the abolition of the state also entails the abolition of the repressive apparatus (police, prisons, courts). Carceral systems of justice, which are dominant in capitalist social formations, do not actually solve problems, but merely reproduce violence. A communist society would seek to remove the conditions that create interpersonal violence and harm, and develop new mechanisms of justice that do not rely on punitive methods.14

The Division of Manual and Intellectual Labor

Divisions of labor are intrinsic to class societies, since each class necessarily has a different relationship to the means of production. In capitalist societies, there is usually a division between manual and intellectual labor, where those who make decisions, the bosses, perform intellectual labor, while the workers are merely manual laborers. To return to the example of Cam in the cafe, he performs manual labor as he is supposed to only make the drinks. He is discouraged from higher levels of decision making, and is supposed to bring any larger problem with a customer to his manager, who is ‘more equipped’ to solve the problem. Cam and the other baristas are reduced to mindless cogs, machines that pump out lattes and cappuccinos. The manager, on the other hand, performs the intellectual labor in the total labor process of the store. While they may sometimes make drinks and serve customers, they primarily sit in the office and handle general operations like scheduling, ordering supplies, finances, and so on. As I already argued, this division is not necessary as the workers are also capable of performing the intellectual labor. 

The division of labor isn’t new. As Marx demonstrates in The German Ideology, and as Engels demonstrates in the Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, divisions of labor within a society date back to primitive societies. There have been divisions of labor between men and women, and between masters and slaves. There have also been more general divisions of labor within a society, like the division between town and country and between manufacture and commerce, although Marx attributes each of these as being extensions of the division between manual and intellectual labor.15 Marx’s argument is that division of labor becomes increasingly more complex over time, and that the advent of industrial capitalism has accelerated the level of complexity in the labor process. The fact that production now occurs on a global level, which necessitates elaborate supply chains that span continents, is proof. 

The division between manual and intellectual labor is intertwined with class formation. The problem is that this division of labor will necessarily carry into a socialist society even after a revolution, since every revolutionary society necessarily inherits the contradictions from the previous regime. Since the division of labor is intertwined with class formation, then maintaining the division of labor post-revolution will prevent the revolutionary society from completely abolishing classes. Marx, in the “Critique of the Gotha Programme,” says, 

“In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” 16

When Marx refers to the ‘higher phase’ of communist society, he’s referring to the period that would follow after the period of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is the immediate revolutionary society following the seizure of state power.17 Still, he lists the abolition of the division between manual and intellectual labor as one of the primary conditions for the development of a communist mode of production. This is because, if not dealt with, the division of labor will persist and will leave open the possibility of bourgeois restoration. 

The division of manual and intellectual labor is obviously not so easy to abolish. In the USSR, the division of labor persisted in the form of a managerial, administrative class in the government (intellectual), while the workers (manual) weren’t really involved in planning. Whether this is the same thing as relations of production in a capitalist mode of production is another question.18

In his analysis of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Jean Daubier argues the rise of a privileged elite in socialist societies, mainly the USSR, is the result of a failure to abolish the division of labor. The more this hierarchy, where intellectual labor is seen as more valuable than manual labor, persists, the more inequality will develop, which Daubier says happened in the USSR (especially after WWII).19 Mao, trying to learn the lessons from the failures of the USSR, thought it was necessary to accelerate the process of abolishing the division of labor. Daubier says that the Cultural Revolution sought to overhaul the practice of teaching by removing the hierarchy of manual and intellectual labor. Their goal was the creation of the intellectual worker, where a person is capable of both manual and intellectual labor. Even in the arts, the Cultural Revolution sought to eliminate the residue of bourgeois theories and practice, and create art that was connected to the people. Daubier says, “at the heart of the Cultural Revolution was the relationship between those in power and the people.” 20

Daubier also argues that the university is a prime site of the division of labor. A socialist society still needs universities to train people in the sciences and technology, but unless the university is dramatically overhauled, they will reproduce the division of labor. This is the, “opposition between the bearers of knowledge on the one hand and the mass of workers, deprived of science, on the other.”21 Furthermore, Daubier argues that, by force of habit, it is likely that the lionization of intellectual labor will remain in a socialist social formation, and a division between an elite class of scientists, technicians, and administrators will form at one pole while the workers will remain at the other. The same thing will happen in the cultural sphere, as in capitalist and feudal societies, only the privileged have access to culture and the time and energy to produce their own cultural products and art. Even if an artist comes from the people, their work will only be able to be received by the bourgeois either because they can afford it or because they have the training required to understand it. Daubier argues that, “socialist regimes therefore inherit a considerable number of intellectuals who have acquired under the former system a culture founded ultimately on a notion of class superiority.” 22 Even if one accepts the revolution, this elitist psychology will still be embedded in the individual, and they may continue to express values that are in opposition to revolutionary socialism. There is a very real chance that the intellectual and artist class becomes a privileged group under socialism. However, the heaviest contradiction from this division of labor may arise between those who govern and those who are governed. Again, this division of labor also has historical roots, where an administrative class emerged that was divorced from the rest of the workers and eventually began to assume a notion of superiority. 

To truly revolutionize a society’s mode of production from capitalism to communism, the division of labor needs to be abolished. Like the abolition of private property, classes, and the state, this process will be gradual and not immediate. Paraphrasing Lenin, the transition from capitalism to communism will encompass an entire historical epoch.23 Communism entails a complete revolution in the mode of production, and it is not enough to merely revolutionize distribution. Retaining the structure of capitalist production, which entails this division of manual and intellectual labor, and only revolutionizing distribution, by ensuring that every person receives food, shelter, and other needs, is not enough. It’s obviously a step in the right direction, but as the history of the USSR shows, a welfare style of socialism fails to fulfill people. Histories of the USSR detail that people grew unappreciative of social welfare, and began to romanticize the west.24 Rightly or wrongly, this is a real problem, which I believe stems from the fact that workers in the USSR didn’t have much of a say in the labor process at their ‘jobs’ or within other practices in the social formation. Marx’s theory of alienation entails that people find fulfillment in labor processes, and as I already mentioned, having a say makes a huge difference in one’s investment in a process. Whether that’s in productive labor that is necessary for the social formation (working in industry, agriculture, transportation), or in one’s own personal hobbies like baking, gardening, or playing a sport. 

To only revolutionize distribution, which is still a positive step in comparison to capitalist distribution, while retaining the division of manual and intellectual labor, is economism. If we view communism as a mode of production that will necessarily emerge because of the laws of history, then we’ll be in for a rude awakening. Even if we accept that the tendencies inherent in capitalist production create the opportunity for communism, the process of socialist construction will have to consciously develop the conditions for communism.25

Revolution

To summarize, communism is a political ideology that calls for the abolition of private property, social classes, states, and the division of labor. Communism, as an ethics, is a negation of the existing, bourgeois ways of administering society. The abolition of the pillars of bourgeois society would liberate humanity from domination via one’s employer, the state, landlords, and the forces of oppression and exploitation that currently exist. However, communism is pointless if it cannot be realized. So the question becomes: how might communism be possible? What are the necessary conditions for communism to exist? 

For communism to be possible, there needs to be a revolution in the mode of production and throughout a social formation. For communists to carry out an all encompassing revolution, we need to have the power to do so. Right now, this kind of power resides in the capitalist state and its institutions. It exists in the form of the repressive state apparatus, and in the various ideological state apparatuses. The power of the capitalist class is exercised in these institutions — they have the power to create laws and enforce them, to quell any rebellion, and to spread their ideas as far and wide as possible, both in the media and in the school system. To reiterate, the capitalist class is not a completely unified entity. There are various political factions via the Democrats and Republicans, and sub-divisions within each, as well as contradictions between some politicians and business people. The general point is that, regardless of their political and ideological differences on how to run capitalist society, they are unified on the point that capitalist society is necessary and have no desire to change the fundamental structure. Some profit greatly in this structure, and some enjoy the power they’ve achieved within this structure, although it’s usually a case of both. Communists diverge in that we want to smash this structure. 

In order to smash this structure and build communism, we need the power to do so. And since the ruling class will not gleefully hand this power over to us, we need to rip it out of their hands. There are many ways to do so. One is through insurrection, where the revolutionaries attempt to seize important sites of capitalist and bourgeois power, like police stations, courthouses, city halls, and sites of commerce. Another method is through the general strike, where workers throughout society would collectively withhold their labor. This has a double effect of hurting capitalist profits, while also preventing society from accessing products or services. If urban transportation workers go on strike, for example, who will drive the buses and trains? This would throw society into disarray. As Dauve says, “[the] general strike, mass disorder and rioting break the normal flow of social reproduction.”26 Seizing state power would have to be carried out by sending shockwaves into the system, and the insurrection and the general strike are the two most powerful methods. 

Communism is an Ethics

Up to this point, I have focused on the negative aspects of communism. Or in other words, communism as an ideology that stands in opposition to bourgeois society and the capitalist mode of production, and seeks to abolish the mechanisms and relations that are intrinsic to it. However, most communists aren’t merely driven by negativity. Most people are communists because they want to live a life that is not structured by exploitation and oppression. Communists desire true liberation, not bourgeois liberation, which is defined by achieving ‘rights’, but liberation from all exploitative and oppressive forces, and the power to have actual control over one’s life. 

In our efforts to defend the scientific status of Marxism, Marxists downplay the ethical status of communism. But Marxism and communism are distinct; we can uphold Marxism as a science while acknowledging that communism is not. Communists desire a society that is devoid of oppression and exploitation, that abolishes the mechanisms which make exploitation and oppression possible, and that allows individuals a say in the processes that shape their lives. This vision clearly presupposes certain ethical principles, which are:

  1. People are relatively equal to one another, and therefore, no person should be able to exploit or oppress another. 
  2. Exploitation is immoral, and by extension, a mode of production dependent on exploitation is immoral.
  3. If a society is organized around exploitation and oppression, then those who are exploited and oppressed have the right to overthrow the oppressors. It is right to rebel.

It’s important to insist on the principle of relative equality, which is different from absolute equality. Absolute equality is flawed because all human beings are not the same. Some people are big, some people are small; some people are strong, some people are not; some people are able bodied, some people are disabled; some people have children they need to care for, and some people are independent. The principle of equality cannot account for all of these differences, and to base a new mode of production on this principle would be faulty because it neglects the individual’s particular needs in the sphere of reproduction. Rather, the principle of relative equality between people simply states that no one has the right to exploit or oppress others. So in a communist society, where exploitation and oppression would not exist, this principle would be realized. 

The last principle, the right to rebel, is crucial. While revolution is necessary from a tactical standpoint, since in order to achieve communism a revolution will be necessary, it is also justified. As Badiou says, “Marxism, prior to being the full-fledged science of social formation, is the distillate of what rebellion demands: that one consider it right, that reason be rendered to it. Marxism is both a taking sides and the systematization of a partisan experience.”27 We would not be communists if we did not believe that a revolution was both necessary and justified. Revolutionary violence is not preferred, and if society could be revolutionized without any violence, then that would be ideal.

The working class, both in the US and abroad, is confronted with the inherent violence of the capitalist system every day: homelessness, poor living conditions, violence against women and non-men, the police abusing and murdering people, and the millions of people who are subjected to carceral punishment. Violence is already imposed onto us by the class struggle. With this context in mind, the full meaning of Marx’s statement on revolutionary violence comes to the fore. “We have no compassion and we ask no compassion from you. When our turn comes, we shall not make excuses for the terror.”28 Communists are not blood-thirsty sociopaths looking for revenge, but when revolutionary violence takes away the power from the ruling class, we will not be sorry.

Communism and Marxism

The concept of communism both emerges out of Marxism and is legitimized by it. Or in other words, communism is only intelligible as an actual historical possibility in the framework of Marxism, and Marxism itself demonstrates that communism is on the historical horizon. For Marxists, communism emerges out of the contradictions of capitalism. If capitalism cannot sustainably produce, if it requires exploitation and oppression (violence) to reproduce itself, then a communist mode of production will take the technology and productive forces produced by capitalism and appropriate them in a humane way. Communism will abolish private property, which means individuals cannot profit from the actions of many, and will provide a system where those who do the work, and who already are doing the work, have control over their own labor process. Furthermore, to build a completely new type of society requires an understanding of social formations in general. For a social formation to function, it needs to be able to both produce and reproduce its own existence. There needs to be a system for producing the things a society needs, like food, shelter, technology, and so on. There also needs to be systems for reproducing society through education, child care, healthcare, cultural activities, and even entertainment. As Marx says, “Every child knows a nation which ceased to work, I will not say for a year, but even for a few weeks, would perish.”29 This point is important in distinguishing the Marxist conception of communism from other utopian forms, where no one would work or have any obligations. To conceptualize how communism would work, we need to start from the premises of Marxism.30 

The second point is that theorizing about how to achieve communism also requires Marxism. As I argue in the other article, if you’re a communist, you have to think about how your politics might be achieved. And if you’re a communist, you believe in the possibility and necessity of a revolutionary transformation of society. Once you start thinking tactically about overthrowing capitalism, you will come across the question of how a revolution would happen, and every revolution presupposes an agent. One would then have to analyze their own society to determine the potential revolutionary forces. By asking ourselves these questions, we are already approaching the Marxist terrain. Of course, a theoretical terrain is not just defined by the questions it asks, but also by its answers and its methods of answering questions. The argument I make in the Negation article is that Marxism provides a scientific foundation on which to conduct revolutionary politics, since a Marxist analysis provides knowledge of the classes within the social formation, and which class or classes have revolutionary potential. Even though this thesis, that the agent of revolutionary politics is a specific class, has been challenged within the Marxist terrain, the history of class struggle shows that without the revolutionary activity of the class that is antagonistic to the dominant mode of production, a revolution cannot succeed.

When individuals reject Marxism but embrace communism, they are probably rejecting the form of Marxism that, since it identifies itself as a science, becomes an appeal to authority and becomes a substitute for actual theoretical practice and problem solving. Or in a word, dogmatism. But dogmatism is not unique to Marxism, and to reject a methodology or theoretical terrain because of its worst adherents is no different than someone claiming that white supremacy is intrinsic to Christianity or terrorism to Islam. Moufawad-Paul even argues that dogmatism is a natural/normal development within all sciences.31 There will always be people who misunderstand ideas and belief systems, and the legitimacy of an idea is dependent on the idea itself and not on the people who believe in it. Marxism should be rejected not because of individual Marxists one finds annoying, but only if one actually disagrees with the premises of Marxism itself. 

Does Communism Already Exist?

Before moving into the conclusion, I want to explore what it means for communism to exist in the present. In April 1980, Althusser conducted an interview with Italian Radio Television (RAI), where he discussed a wide variety of topics, including communism. At one point in the interview, Althusser says, 

“Communism is a mode of production where there are no economic relationships of exploitation nor any political relationships of domination. Neither are there ideological relationships of intimidation or pressure, nor of ideological enslavement. And here among us these relationships do not exist… There are islands of communism everywhere across the world, for example: the church, certain trade unions, also in certain cells/units of the Communist Party. At my Communist Party we have a cell/unit which is communist; it means that communism has been realized… Look at how football is played, what happens… It is not about market relationships, it is not about political domination, it is not about ideological intimidation. There are people from [different] teams that oppose each other, they respect the rules, that is, they respect each other. Communism is the respect for humankind.” 32

This statement was perplexing to me, since the notion that communism is already realized in certain institutions and practices, especially soccer, seems naive. It should also be noted that Althusser struggled with mental illness throughout his life, and this interview was conducted during a period of mental instability. It is not an accurate reflection of his overall body of work. 

However, this notion that communism already exists, or can exist under capitalism, is something that deserves more attention. Generally, Marxists conceptualize a social formation as having one mode of production. The United States, Great Britain, France, Canada, Japan, and so on, are all capitalist. Many countries in Europe throughout the middle of the last millenia were feudal. Althusser, in On the Reproduction of Capitalism, a work of his that should be taken seriously, argues against this notion. He says: 

“Every concrete social formation is based on a dominant mode of production. The immediate implication is that, in every social formation, there exists more than one mode of production: at least two and often many more. One of the modes of production in this set is described as dominant, the others as dominated. The dominated modes are those surviving from the old social formation’s past or the one that may be emerging in its present. The plurality of modes of production in every social formation and the current dominance of one mode of production over those that are disappearing or coming into being make it possible to account for the contradictory complexity of the empirical facts observable in every concrete social formation, but also for the contradictory tendencies that clash within it and find expression as its history (the observable real transformations in the economy, politics and ideology).” 33

In a footnote of this passage, Althusser says that Lenin, in the late 19th century, observed four modes of production in the USSR. So in the United States, the dominant mode of production is capitalism, and then there could be other modes of production that are dominated. One example could be the development of co-ops or worker-owned businesses, which can be considered an example of a socialist mode of production. However, these businesses are still subjected to the dominant mode of production, capitalism. Another example is the US prior to the Civil War, where there were two modes of production competing against each other: industrial capitalism and chattel slavery. This contradiction was antagonistic, as the US could not develop with two competing modes of production, and one had to win out. There could not be a federal government that asserted the equality of all, while there also existed a class of slaves. 

Within this framework, communism could theoretically exist under capitalism. The communist mode of production would require no exploitative or oppressive relations of production, and production would not be governed by the law of value. We would not be living in a communist social formation, but communism could still exist. 

This would lend credence to the theory of communisation, a theory of revolutionary politics which seeks to develop communism in the present. One theorist of communisation, Gilles Dauve, says, 

“The idea of communisation as a revolution that creates communism – and not the preconditions of communism – appears more clearly when capitalism rules over everything, extensively in terms of space (the much talked-about globalisation), and intensively in terms of its penetration into everyday life and behaviour. This helps us grasp revolution as a process that from its very beginning would start to undo what it wants to get rid of, and at the same time from its early days start to create new ways of life (the completion of which would of course last a while).” 34 

In classical Marxist theory, it is argued that a communist revolution cannot immediately establish communism because it is impossible to revolutionize an entire mode of production and society almost immediately. Most revolutions have, historically, emerged out of a protracted period of violent struggle, which makes an immediate transformation of society even more unlikely. Instead, the goal is to begin the process of developing the conditions for communism by socializing production, distributing in a more equal way, and in some cases, developing the productive forces and technology. Many revolutions have unfolded in non-industrial societies, so often their immediate goal is to begin the process of industrialization. Dauve agrees that communism cannot be immediately established, but argues that actively developing communist practices should be centered both before and during a revolution. He says, “the communising process has to start as soon as possible. The closer to Day One the transformation begins and the deeper it goes from the beginning, the greater the likelihood of its success.”35 This process entails the abolition of capitalist production and its mechanisms;

“Money, wage-labour, companies as separate units and value accumulation centres, work-time cut off from the rest of our time, profit-oriented production, obsolescence-induced consumption, agencies acting as mediators in social life and conflicts, speeded-up maximum circulation of everything and everyone… each of these moments, acts and places has to be transformed into cooperative, moneyless, profitless and non-statist relationships, and not just managed by a collective or converted into public ownership.” 36

The critique of historical communist revolutions is that they conceived communism in the future tense, and not in the present tense, and this was a reason for their failure to establish communism.37 

Although I do not find parts of communisation very convincing, it does have parallels with Maoism and the Cultural Revolution which are worth exploring. In the 16 Points Document, which can be considered a manifesto of the Cultural Revolution, it says, 

“At present, our objective is to struggle against and overthrow those persons in authority who are taking the capitalist road, to criticize and repudiate the reactionary bourgeois academic “authorities” and the ideology of the bourgeoisie and all other exploiting classes and to transform education, literature and art and all other parts of the superstructure not in correspondence with the socialist economic base, so as to facilitate the consolidation and development of the socialist system.” 38 

In the Vulgarizations piece, I argued that an economistic view of revolution entails that, if the base is revolutionized, then so will the superstructure. In the case of revolutionary China, before the Cultural Revolution, they were attempting to develop the productive forces and transform the relations of production away from their, pre-revolutionary, feudal form. However, Mao was worried that the persistence of reactionary ideas, customs, habits, and social relations would hang like a dark cloud over the attempt at socialist construction. The degeneration of the USSR, and the development of revisionism within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), further worried Mao. This is the context in which the Cultural Revolution unfolds. The Cultural Revolution, as a concept39, signifies the necessity of proactively revolutionizing social relations and practices during the revolution. They will not, in contrast to an economistic Marxism, spontaneously transform in accordance with changes in the base. The concept of Cultural Revolution and communisation both recognize the necessity of proactively developing communist practices and relations, rather than waiting for them to be realized. 

Problems of Communism

So far, the focus has mostly been on articulating communism as a concept. Abolishing private property, classes, the division of manual and intellectual labor, the state, and the repressive apparatus would fundamentally alter the structure of contemporary life. Abolition is one thing, and this process would take generations to unfold, but building a new structure is another. Communists will have to develop new ways to organize life around politics, education, healthcare, and production in general, developing new forms of justice, new labor processes, new forms of entertainment, and so on. It’s almost impossible to think about this, as the process of revolutionizing society will be specific to the social formation. As I mentioned in the introduction, communism is not a blueprint that we draw up and then hope to be realized. If communist societies are to be developed at all, they will be drawn up in response to specific relations, structures, and problems. For example, if communism were to be developed on the West Coast of the United States, they would have to determine how to deal with the massive fires that are being produced by climate change. That’s a problem that wouldn’t exist in other areas. 

There is also the problem of land itself. In a settler colony in the United States, or Canada and Australia, land ought to be restored to the groups it was stolen from. Radical indigenous organizations, like Red Nation, demand that the treaties signed by the US in regards to indigenous land be honored. There is also the problem of slavery and its legacy, which still structures the United States today through the prison-industrial complex. Communism would entail dismantling the repressive state apparatus as it currently exists, but then there are still questions of reparations and land for black people due to the legacy of slavery and segregation. Black communists, like Harry Haywood, have historically argued for the right of self-determination for colonized nations. Communism will require building solidarity, and that will require honoring their demands of the groups that have been most harmed by the structures of white supremacy and patriarchy. The onus to change is on those who are part of the oppressor groups, and so white people will have to root out racist ideas and habits, men will have to root out misogynistic ideas and habits, and new social structures and practices will have to be constructed in a way that foreclose any possibility of oppression and exploitation. 

There are many contradictions between social groups that have developed in the course of capitalism’s development. Contradictions between settlers and natives, between white and black people, between men and women, between a heteronormative culture and the queer community, and so on and so forth. Communists ought to view contradictions in a positive way, as tensions that are capable of healing, and not in the negative sense of bourgeois philosophy where a contradiction is synonymous with irrationality, something that can’t be solved. The problem that communists are faced with is that we inherit centuries of oppression and harm between social groups, which are built into the fabric of contemporary social structures, and abolishing these structures entails establishing new social relations and practices. Yet at the same time, communism entails developing a society that is not founded on divisions between people over nationality, race, and culture.40 So communism will have to address the trauma of the past, while attempting to transcend it over time. Of course, this problem is much more complex than the scope of this piece, and as a white man, I’m not the most equipped to provide solutions to this problem. But, this is a problem that must be posed in developing communism. 

This problem is specific to the imperialist countries and settler colonies, but there are other problems that are more general to communism: How can the state be abolished? What mechanisms and structures would replace the state? How will the revolution deal with those who seek to sabotage it? How will the division of labor be abolished? Who, or what, will be the agent of the process of developing communism? 

The problem with the state is of its ‘withering’ away, or its lack thereof in the revolutions of the past century. In The State and Revolution, Lenin argues that constructing a state will be necessary for the revolution to defend itself.41 If a state is necessary to mediate between classes, then after a revolution, the classes will still exist. The seizure of state power does not automatically transform the mode of production with it. The fallen bourgeoisie or ruling class, as history proves, will seek to regain their lost power by any means necessary: civil war (Russia), collaborating with foreign armies (Russia + Paris Commune), a full-fledged imperialist invasion (every 20th century revolution in the Global South), or indirect means of developing propaganda against the revolution to delegitimize it. So the state, for Lenin, is necessary to defend against reactionary attempts to destabilize socialist construction. The problem is that the state in all of these revolutions has never been abolished. The reason is obvious, that none of these revolutions have been able to survive due to the nature of the capitalist world system. They are all stuck in the period of ‘war communism’, where the immediate priority is survival. However, the USSR and China both developed to a point of stability from external threats, and yet the state persisted. Neither developed communism, and instead both developed more of a social-democratic welfare state, although the USSR did not develop a billionaire capitalist class like China. While investigating how exactly to conceptualize the USSR and China lies beyond the scope of this piece42, their histories pose the problem of whether communism can actually be developed within the capitalist world system. 

Another problem is the agent of the process of developing communism. Marx says that under communism, the individual producer would generally receive back what they have given to society, which is their individual quantum of labor. He elaborates: 

“The social working day consists of the sum of the individual hours of work; the individual labor time of the individual producer is the part of the social working day contributed by him, his share in it. He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such-and-such an amount of labor (after deducting his labor for the common funds); and with this certificate, he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labor cost. The same amount of labor which he has given to society in one form, he receives back in another.” 43

The implication in this passage is that ‘society’ would be the agent of developing communism. ‘Society’ would determine what labor needs to be done, assign people to do labor, keep track of how much labor they contribute, ensure individuals’ needs are being met, and so on. When communists, in general, envision communism, ‘society’ does a lot of heavy lifting. I am guilty of this tendency as well. The assumption is that ‘society’ is equivalent to the leadership within the communist society. But on what basis is this leadership determined? Is this leadership to be organized in a state-like formation? Or will this leadership be purely administrative? Does developing a leadership bloc under communism run the risk of those with that power to envision themselves as being distinct from or above society? All of these questions can really only be answered within particular contexts, and through the process of actually developing communism. 

 I acknowledge that this piece is abstract, and that a person skeptical of communism might not be sold on whether it is realistic. I would question whether other forms of radical politics are more realistically achievable than communism, and any form of politics that does not seek to radically alter society will be useless in the face of the accelerating crises of our time. As I’ve made clear throughout this series, the whole purpose of being a communist or a Marxist is to intervene in class struggle. But, we also need to develop a longer term vision, and to do so, we need to start imagining how we will build communism. If we achieved state power tomorrow, what would we do? What would be our first steps? These are questions that communists should be posing to themselves, with the acknowledgement that we can’t actually build a blueprint for a communist society. 

Notes

  1. There are obviously texts that touch upon communism, like Engels’ “Principles of Communism”, Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Programme, and Lenin in The State and Revolution.
  2. I’ve had many conversations with people curious about communism that turn into them probing me for my views on the USSR, whether there would be ‘freedom’ under communism, and so on. 
  3. I don’t believe that a four hundred page book is necessary to articulate a theory of communism. 
  4. Alain Badiou, “The Four Principles of Marxism,” https://positionspolitics.org/the-four-principles-of-marxism/.
  5. Karl Marx, “The Communist Manifesto,” 1848, accessed from https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/.
  6. Marx, in Capital (Chapter 10), argues that needs are defined based on what is necessary to reproduce the worker’s labor power. This is both determined by physical limits, if an individual doesn’t eat enough food they will be malnourished, but also by moral considerations. If a society is advanced enough to grant individuals a lot of leisure time, then leisure time becomes a ‘need’. 
  7. I’m not arguing against the necessity of education in general by any means, and I am merely pointing out that people are more motivated when they have a say in the processes that make up their daily life. The problem with education in capitalist social formations is that it is result-oriented (teacher’s jobs are dependent on students’ performances, which is quantified in grades), the content of education is determined by capitalist ideology, and it relies on a banking method of education. Communism would entail revolutionizing education at all levels. 
  8. Louis Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism, trans. G.M. Goshgarian (London: Verso, 2014), 70.
  9. Friedrich Engels, Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/origin_family.pdf, 92-93. 
  10. Engels, Origins of the Family, 92.
  11. Asad Haider expands on these in “What is Political Power?” 
  12. Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism, 77.
  13. Badiou, “Four Principles of Marxism.”
  14. Transformative justice is one option.
  15. Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1974), 68-69.
  16. Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Programme,” 1875, accessed from https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/Marx_Critque_of_the_Gotha_Programme.pdf, 10. 
  17. There is a distinction between the high and low periods of communism, which Lenin expands on in The State and Revolution. The lower stage refers to socialism, while the latter is communism proper. Socialism would be the transitory society that retains elements of the previous social formation, while establishing the conditions for communism. Marx says, “Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”
  18. I would argue not because the administrative class doesn’t profit from production. It’s obviously not communism but it isn’t capitalism either. 
  19. Jean Daubier, The Cultural Revolution (New York: Random House, 1974), 9.
  20. Daubier, The Cultural Revolution, 9. 
  21. Ibid, 5.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Vladimir Lenin, The State and Revolution, (1917), https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/staterev/ch05.htm
  24. Chapter 4 of Parenti’s Blackshirts and Reds details this. 
  25. I make this argument in, “The Vulgarizations of Marxism,” where I argue that the lessons gleaned from historical attempts to build socialism disprove any notion that Marxism is necessarily economic determinist. 
  26. Gilles Dauve, “Communisation,” 2011, accessed from https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/gilles-dauve-communisation.
  27. Badiou, Alain, and Alberto Toscano, “An Essential Philosophical Thesis: “It Is Right to Rebel against the Reactionaries”,” positions: east asia cultures critique 13, no. 3 (2005): 669-677.
  28. Karl Marx, “Suppression of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung,” Neue Rheinische Zeitung, no. 301, accessed from https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1849/05/19c.htm.
  29. Karl Marx, “Marx to Kugelman in Hanover,” July 11, 1868, accessed from https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1868/letters/68_07_11-abs.htm.
  30. I articulate the premises of Marxism in the Negation piece. 
  31. Josh Moufawad-Paul, Continuity and Rupture, (Zero Books, 2016), 61.
  32. Louis Althusser, 2017, “The Crisis of Marxism: An interview with Louis Althusser,” Verso, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3312-the-crisis-of-marxism-an-interview-with-louis-althusser.
  33. Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism, 19-20. 
  34. Dauve, “Communisation.”
  35. Ibid.
  36. Ibid.
  37. For what it’s worth, I don’t find this argument very convincing.
  38. “Decision of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party Concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” Peking Review, August 12, 1966, https://www.marxists.org/subject/china/peking-review/1966/PR1966-33g.htm
  39. It’s important to distinguish the difference between the Cultural Revolution as a historical event and as a concept. 
  40. Badiou, “Four Principles of Marxism.”
  41. Lenin, The State and Revolution.
  42. My general position is that communists should defend the legacy of revolutionary attempts from anti-communist propaganda, while being honest about the limits of these attempts.
  43.  Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Programme,” 9.

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