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Socialism and communism


[Excerpt from a book.] The awesome power of business propaganda is revealed in the fact that most Americans scorn the idea of socialism, which is really just common sense. Essentially all it denotes is the ideal that working people should have control over their work, they shouldn’t have to rent themselves to multimillionaire bosses for eight or twelve hours a day in order to make more money for the boss. It is nothing but economic democracy, opposition to human exploitation; in this sense, even the mainstream American philosopher John Dewey was a socialist. As was Martin Luther King Jr., especially in his late years when he turned his attention to the economic oppression of both whites and blacks. The central intuition of socialism can be fleshed out in many ways, from anarchism of various kinds to democratic state ownership and operation of the means of production, but as long as the overriding principle is workers’ control of their economic life, it can be called socialism. Worker cooperatives, for instance, exemplify socialism on a small scale.

Communism is, if anything, an even more obvious moral principle than socialism, for it denotes the structuring of human relations according to the maxim “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” This is but a corollary of the Golden Rule, that you should treat people as you’d like to be treated. Our common humanity demands that when someone is in need, we help him or her. David Graeber observes in Debt: The First 5000 Years (2011) that “all of us act like communists a good deal of the time.” We use our abilities to help others; i.e., we share and we cooperate, among friends, family, coworkers, and strangers. The fabric of every society is woven by this “baseline communism,” as Graeber calls it. A communist society, though, would be one in which the dominant mode of production and distribution is communistic; and this, on a very large scale, may well not be feasible. Or maybe it will be sometime in the distant future. History is unpredictable: no one in the eighteenth century could have predicted modern capitalism, just as no one in the present can plan out in all its details a future communist, i.e. moral, society. A prerequisite for such a civilization is the withering away of money in its present form and of the capitalist profit motive (both of which are relatively recent historical arrivals and have been unknown to the vast majority of societies throughout history). Be that as it may, the question of whether large-scale socialism or communism is feasible is one thing; the question of whether they are the ideals toward which we must strive is quite another. It may be reasonable to deny the first proposition (although usually the grounds on which it is denied are absurd, referencing as they do “human nature” and demonstrating complete ignorance of anthropology), but it is decidedly unreasonable, or morally repugnant, to deny the second.

Since we live in a silly society, it is also necessary for me to make a few observations about the Soviet Union and other so-called “communist” or “socialist” countries. I remember that when I first started reading about Marxism, at 18, it seemed excruciatingly obvious to me that the USSR was neither Marxist nor socialist nor communist. And I was stunned that people could believe otherwise. Sure, it called itself socialist and communist, but it also called itself a democracy. Do we think, therefore, that it was a democracy, just because it called itself one? Of course not. So why do we think it was socialist just because it said it was? If anything, it was less socialist than the U.S., because at least in the latter labor unions were legal and workers were not all glorified slaves. The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 was, in a sense, Karl Marx’s triumph, his vindication over Stalin, who had perverted his doctrines and besmirched his name. What Stalinism really amounted to was a kind of state capitalist command economy.

I can't delve into the Soviet Union in depth now. But the reader can judge how closely it resembled communism as defined by Marx in this excerpt from The Critique of the Gotha Program (1875): “In a higher phase of communist society,[1] 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-round development of the individual, and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly—only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois ‘right’ be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banner: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” Surely this is sufficient to show that the Soviet Union was the very antithesis of communism.

[1] He distinguished between two phases.

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