What is communism?

A while back I sparked a bit of controversy by using the word "communist" freely. Part of the official speech policy of the US is that only Stalin is a communist. Even other people that call themselves communists are mistaken, see e.g. Mao. Also, no one is a socialist besides Marx and maybe Lenin.

For example, if I were to point out that Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a socialist (because he’s the leader of the Socialist Party in France), and point out that was running the IMF quite without incident, and then draw the conclusion that the IMF is (or at least was) socialist, my inference would be considered absurd.

For that matter, the policies of France’s Socialist Party aren’t markedly different from the policies of the Democratic Party in the US. At this point, you’re required to turn off your brain.

Similarly, if you note that Bernie Sanders calls himself a socialist and note that he votes indistinguishably from many Democrats and draw the inference that there may be some socialist influence the Democratic Party, you’re crazy.

You’re not allowed to call Obama a communist, but in his memoirs we note that:

Young Obama identified with the extreme Left under his very first mentor, to whom he refers in Dreams merely as "Frank," to avoid dealing with the fact that Frank Marshall Davis was an unrepentant Communist

(Wikipedia calls him a "labor movement activist" which is Wikipedia-speak for "unrepentant Communist").

Logic has clearly broken down. Are these terms useless? Should they be retired? If everyone is a socialist is no one a socialist?

In the comments to my previous post, TGGP wrote:

Communism involves state ownership of the means of production, Nazis had no problem with redistributive taxation.

That’s the classic definition, but you’ll note immediately that it says nothing.

The "state" is not a thing in any meaningful sense. I work for the government, is "the government" the state? I spend all my working hours arguing about policy with other parts of the government. Sometimes various parts of the government actively work against each other. How could the government own anything?

Someone at some point must exert control – a vague, ill-defined entity cannot occupy this role no matter how convenient it is – and this person is the owner. Perhaps under communism this person exercises sovereignty over a territory, but the sovereign being the owner of enterprises within his domain is much older than "communism".

So what are we left with?

I’m not sure. I have no desire to attract additional readers by using appropriate terminology. So, setting aside the bullshit and the speech codes, what the heck is a commie?

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61 Responses to What is communism?

  1. teageegeepea says:

    “Even other people that call themselves communists are mistaken, see e.g. Mao”
    I’ve never heard anyone say that.

    “For that matter, the policies of France’s Socialist Party aren’t markedly different from the policies of the Democratic Party in the US”
    Usually I hear people saying that the Democratic Party would be considered center-right by European standards. Although by some criteria the U.S status quo is more “socially liberal”.

    “Similarly, if you note that Bernie Sanders calls himself a socialist and note that he votes indistinguishably from many Democrats and draw the inference that there may be some socialist influence the Democratic Party, you’re crazy.”
    I think you looked at Sanders on vote-view he would be at an extreme end, like Ron Paul. And there is socialist influence, there are groups like the Democratic Socialists of America. Though I would expect most would deny being communists.

    “and then draw the conclusion that the IMF is (or at least was) socialist”
    It was certainly the creation of post-war Keynesians, but I think you’d be inferring too much by virtue of DSK’s tenure. Like the Federal Reserve it has a Board of Governors (and disagreement within that board is a big topic of current discussion on monetary blogs, though it is still a “thing in a meaningful sense”) and managing director is a rotating position. His political party is a social democratic one and a member of the Socialist International while the U.S Democrats are more associated with the Alliance of Democrats. My link on the Nazis actually discusses the nature of social democracy as distinct from other strains of socialism and its similarity to fascism (I don’t intend to discuss here whether fascism is socialism), from a sympathetic viewpoint.

    • Foseti says:

      Fine. So are you suggesting that no one who is currently alive and in America is a communist or socialist?

      • teageegeepea says:

        I forget if he calls himself a communist, but Robert Lindsay (who is on my blogroll) would qualify. Bill Ayers calls himself both a communist and an anarchist, although he also claims (now) to reject Lenin. Bob Avakian is a Maoist and of course also a communist. Given the dominance of Stalinism within the communist movement it shouldn’t be surprising that commie numbers have dropped with the discrediting of the Soviet Union and the de facto abandonment of communism by oriental countries (North Korea, and Nepal recently, excepted). Anarchism and environmentalism are more popular now on the far left, and those folks would also qualify as socialist. I don’t know if A.N.S.W.E.R is officially communist as is generally suggested, but it is supposed to have been founded by the Workers World Party, which is communist.

      • Foseti says:

        My wife had a few professors in law school who referred to themselves as communists. They all voted for Obama, I’m sure.

    • sconzey says:

      ““Even other people that call themselves communists are mistaken, see e.g. Mao”
      I’ve never heard anyone say that.”

      I have 😛

      She asserted communist = soviet. As mao != soviet, mao != communist

      • teageegeepea says:

        I had a Government teacher in high school who told us that Pol Pot was on the right edge of the political spectrum and the class (or at least the kids who pay attention) all laughed at her. I think she might have put Castro there too.

  2. teageegeepea says:

    My comment is in moderation.

  3. Alrenous says:

    Ultimately it’s impossible to properly define a commie because their own philosophy is comically self-contradictory.
    It’s probably best just to make your own definition and run with it.

  4. How about:

    “Liberal Communist” – (aka “Social Democrat”, “Democratic Socialist”, “Progressive”, “Euro-Socialist”, “Democrat”) – someone who believes that society should be collectively guided/regulated/managed/controlled by a cadre of intellectuals, with some sort of nominal stamp of legitimacy from the people, for the purpose of creating more equality and fewer restraints.

    “Stalinist Communist” – (aka Stalinist, Marxist-Leninist, Bolshevist, Maoist) – believers in having a central authority manage society, and use whatever means necessary to reorganize society in a more utopian manner.

    The basic difference is that Stalinism is far more repressive. It’s a police state, there is no free speech, far less personal liberty.

    It’s an open question whether the difference between Progressivism and Stalinism is one of kind, or one degree.

    The other difference is that Stalinism/Maoism turned out to essentially be fascist. The dream of the revolutionaries was that no one would rule, but in reality it turned into a hierarchical bureaucracy with a dictator on top.

    It’s the combination of the repressiveness and the fascism that make progressives/”liberal communists” try and disassociate themselves from Stalinism.

    In reality, though, “true communism” is much closer to Euro-Socialism. So it seems reasonable to describe Euro-socialism as communist. The problem, though, is its an unfair label. Under modern usage, using the label “communism” associates one with extremely repressive tyranny. It’s like calling a believe in HBD a “scientific racist”. The label is technically mostly accurate, but the label brings in an association with repugnant bigotry that most HBD believers do not deserve.

    • Foseti says:

      Frankly, I don’t really object to being called a scientific racist. Racism has become effectively synonymous with non-NAM.

      I like the other terms you have come up with.

  5. This whole debate is always going to be plagued unless we get beyond the fact that in political definitions, for some dumb reason people insist on seeing in binary.

    Nobody ‘is socialist’. It’s not an on-off switch. It’s not a virus you have or don’t have. It’s not like being pregnant. Conversely, everybody (virtually) has some degree of socialism to their political philosophy. Even me, and you.

    Once you take the obvious step of allowing for a continuum, the confusion (and denials) melt away. Fine, the (D)s are only 80% socialist, vs 90% for the Frenchies. Or whatever. Good point, (D)s. Etc.

    What is socialism? That ‘means of production’ definition is just antiquated. It seems to have been written at a time when it was assumed the economy would be like 19th century factory economies forever. What the heck is a ‘mean of production’ nowadays? Anything and everything. Your brain is a ‘mean of production’.

    Replace this stupid ‘means of production’ phrase with just ‘property’: socialism is ‘common ownership/disposal of property‘. Now you have both a working definition of socialism and a useful metric allowing for distinctions and comparisons: the more one wants property to be owned collectively, the more socialist they are. (D)s are 80% socialist vs 40% for the (R)s – or whatever.

    As for ‘communism’, I think the distinction between communism and socialism is unimportant other than in historical discussions of rival factions in certain 20th century political conflicts. Generally, they can and should be used interchangeably.

    • Rob says:

      I think this approach is promising, but perhaps incomplete. There have been many movements urging community ownership or property, and they cannot all be termed “communist” without robbing the term of any meaning. The crucial distinction between communism and other collective ideas, IMO, should hinge on the following qualifiers:

      1. Communism includes a sophisticated, though not necessarily correct, analysis of history and economics, which suggests that its ideas will inevitably triumph.

      2. Communism believes that capitalism is a necessary, but transitional phase of development, and that capitalism cannot help but destroy itself.

      3. Communism is egalitarian and universalist.

      The second qualifier distinguishes social democracy from communism, as Social Democrats are fine with some aspects of the “free” market. They believe that it is necessary to fund re-distributive policies.

      The third qualifier distinguishes fascism from communism, as fascism is nationalistic and hierarchical.

      I don’t know enough about the contents of the communist analysis of history and economics to determine whether the ideas of communism are important elements of other 20th century political movements – I suspect there is considerable overlap, but I’m not positive. I welcome corrections or comments.

    • Re: 1) That is true of e.g. Marx’s communism but doesn’t work for others. You end up having to argue with self-declared communists (i.e. Chinese ones) that they’re wrong about what they are. The ‘inevitability’ thing is possibly better described as ‘messianic communism’, or something. But I don’t know why that’s important to single out as a special category (other than, again, for reasons of historical interest).

      2) is I think Marx/Engels’ explanation/prophecy of how communism will happen. But, it’s not a property of communism itself. You can’t define ‘communism’ in terms that self-reference how communism will be obtained. Let’s say I was a communist who *didn’t* agree that capitalism would be a transitional stage getting to communism. Oops, then I can’t be a communist….huh?

      3) it may be egalitarian and universalist, but why is that an important property of its definition for conversing about it? Actually, I don’t think it’s all egalitarian and universalist anyway. Except in some rhetoric. But not in practice.

      You go on to try to distinguish communism from Social Democracy by saying ‘Social Democrats are fine with some aspects of the “free” market’. This is, likewise, needless binaryism. EVERYONE, even the most hard-core communist, is ‘fine with’ SOME aspects of the free market. (A communist is probably ok with me trading a candy bar in my pocket for my friend’s box of orange juice at lunchtime…)

      So again it’s just a matter of degree. i.e., how communist you are. A better way to phrase what you just said is that Social Democrats are less communist than true-believer USSR party communists. That would also turn it into an uninteresting statement however, and reveal how trivial are the distinctions that people try to make. (So as to try to rhetorically distance their beloved ideology from hated ‘communism’, of course.)

  6. Vladimir M. says:

    I already answered this question in the Eisenhower thread. The universally accepted meaning of “communist” is that it refers to organizations and ideologies that share common descent from Lenin and Leninism. This meaning has been standard, stable, and precise for many decades, at least since the 1920s.

    You may or may not like this convention, but that really is the only way to use “communist” without being grossly misunderstood, unless you intend to footnote your every use of the term with long and complicated explanations for why you prefer your non-standard meaning.

    Once you accept that the standard meaning is based on historical common descent (i.e. phylogeny), the confusion disappears, and there are very few questionable borderline cases.

    • So Marx and Engels, who wrote ‘The Communist Manifesto’ before Lenin was born, cannot have been ‘communists’. Neither can anyone who was in the Communist League and/or went around calling themselves communists circa 1848. Because after all none of them can possibly have ‘descended’ from Lenin and Leninism.

      Fascinating. No, no confusion possible at all under such a convention.

      • Vladimir M. says:

        Well, clearly, this definition doesn’t apply before Lenin. For people and organizations before him, the term has much less of a precise meaning, which could be debated endlessly without a satisfactory conclusion, simply because there is no standard and universally accepted definition.

        However, this whole discussion has arisen in the context of post-1917 history. In this context, the common usage is precise and universal enough, and it’s clearly based on Leninist phylogeny.

      • “Well, clearly, this definition doesn’t apply before Lenin.”

        Why and how should we embrace let alone use a definition of a political ideology which “doesn’t apply” before Lenin was born? The ideology itself was in existence and had adherents before Lenin was born, and this is a matter of historical record.

        “For people and organizations before him, the term has much less of a precise meaning, which could be debated endlessly”

        This is true of all political definitions – none have ‘precise’ meanings, and all could be debated endlessly. But most people are able to deal with that, unless the definition under consideration is ‘communism’. Then it MUST be ‘precise’ and binary for some reason. Why is that?

    • K(yle) says:

      Then how does this definition deal with Mao or even Stalin not being “true communists”?

      • Vladimir M. says:

        The only people insisting on this are other communists who claim the true mantle for themselves. You certainly won’t raise any eyebrows in the mainstream, even strongly left-liberal/Universalist mainstream, by calling Mao, Stalin, or any other direct or indirect ideological or organizational descendant of Lenin “communist.”

        (Of course, anyone who comments here would be likely to mention them in a context that triggers the anti-anti-communist reflex, but that’s a different story.)

  7. Vladimir M. says:

    Also, your claim that “the official speech policy of the US is that only Stalin is a communist” is not true. On this issue, there really is no “official speech policy,” but only a standard meaning — which identifies communism with Leninism and its offshoots, not Stalinism. You certainly won’t run afoul of any speech policy if you use the term “communists” for Trotsky, Tito, or anyone else who broke with Stalin while still claiming to represent Lenin’s true legacy.

    • This is sort of like the difference between two similar wines, or two offshoots of Lutheranism. The difference between ‘Leninism’ and ‘Stalinism’ is of interest primarily to specialists, which (in this case) is to say, to historians. Or communists.

      A lay person looking at either will not see more than a dime’s worth of difference. The idea of the ‘Leninist’ vs ‘Stalinist’ factions of communism having some sort of gigantic gulf between them will fade as time passes, and become increasingly bizarre and incomprehensible to future generations. Kind of like the difference between ‘fascism’ and communism (another factional split), come to think of it.

      • Vladimir M. says:

        You are misunderstanding my comment. My point was not at all about differences between Lenin and Stalin in terms of ideology, politics, etc., but purely about their places in the phylogenetic tree.

        If you look at the different branches of 20th century communism with Lenin at its root, the two major branches after Lenin’s death are Stalinism and Trotskyism. Stalinism subsequently splits into a number of different branches, either lead by people who broke up with him during his lifetime (e.g. Tito) or by his heirs who got into quarrels between each other (most notably Khrushchev vs. Mao). Of course, there have also been innumerable other splits, as well as less relevant minor branches that split off at various points. There is also no clear correlation between the position of people, movements, and regimes in this tree and their level of extremism — some of them moderated significantly relative to their progenitors (e.g. Tito), whereas others went even more extreme (e.g. Maoism and especially its later Cambodian offshoot).

        What I’m saying is simply that the standard, universally accepted meaning of the term “communist,” in the context of 20th century history, applies to this whole tree with Lenin at its root and pretty much nothing else. (I suppose we could quibble about Luxemburgism and some other minor corner cases, but these are hardly relevant in the big picture.) Thus Foseti’s comment that officially “only Stalin is a communist” is inaccurate, since everyone agrees about the “communist” label both for non-Stalinist branches of Leninism contemporary with Stalin (e.g. Trotskyism) and for subsequent offshoots of Stalinism that went in different directions.

      • teageegeepea says:

        James Scott discussed a couple non-Leninist communists in “Seeing Like a State”. One of them I would still classify as a Bolshevik and not much of a non-Leninist though.

      • “their places in the phylogenetic tree.”

        It seems like you are talking about and interested in placing communism on some sort of ‘phylogenetic tree’. I am not sure why. Communism is a political ideology. The relevant thing for me, when discussing and considering communism, is: what do its adherents want? What do they want to do? What do they want to implement?

        These are the things that matter. I couldn’t care less about their ‘phylogeny’. If person A wants to do X and person B also wants to do X, what exactly does it matter to anything if one ‘descends from Lenin’ and the other doesn’t? But, I guess it all depends on why you’re interested in communism as such. Like I said, there can be valid and interesting reasons to discuss these issues if one is studying history. I just don’t understand how it’s relevant to modern-day politics.

  8. james wilson says:

    The Pilgrims were the first communalist society–in America at any rate–an unfortunate state that lasted one winter. Enforced communitarianism would be communism.

    A voluntary socialist society becomes Tocqueville’s soft despotism. Involuntary socialism is communism; communist having guns and the willingness to use them.

    The socialist is a jack communist without a gun who resorts to other methods of coercion. He gave up the beard and hat for a tie and spectacles.

    A proper Marxist is a self-hating Jew.

    A liberal is like a woman in the first tri-mester, still normal to appearances, but evolving predictably. Unfortunately, he never delivers.

    • teageegeepea says:

      Kevin Carson says the standard story about the Pilgrims is wrong. I think he calls himself a socialist, but he’s also a fan of Rothbard and views himself as a true advocate of “free markets”. He just thinks that a legitimately free market would not look very Randian.

  9. What distinguishes these philosophies is not the level of economic, social, cultural, political or administrative control, which can vary widely between regimes or over time within one regime. The distinguishing feature is the attitude toward the traditional culture.

    Fascism respects, and even sentimentalizes the traditional culture. Communism is utterly hostlie toward it, wants to uproot it and exterminate it. Less virulent forms of leftism tolerate some aspects of traditional culture, like the small freehold farmer and folk music and folk traditions, but not religion or large landowners.

    Our own system pretended to be friendly to traditional culture from the 30’s to the 50’s, then turned nakedly and aggressively hostile to it.

  10. Tschafer says:

    I’m with Vladimir on this one. It’s actually pretty clear who is or is not a “Communist”, and I personally don’t see any controversy here at all. It seems like we have an effort here to re-define the word “communist” so that it can be applied to people who manifestly are not commies by any previously accepted definition of the word. Re-defining words to mean what you want them to mean is a Leftist game, and I refuse to play.

    Now who might be a “communist sympathizer” or a “leftist”… that’s another question.

    • Foseti says:

      If any word has been redefined by leftists more than the word “communism” I’d like to know what it is.

      • teageegeepea says:

        Can you give actual examples of leftists using the word in very non-standard senses or very differently over, say, the 20th century? It’s a big world so I wouldn’t be surprised if some people have abused language, but I can’t recall much redefinition. There’s stuff about “true communism”, but that’s about ideals vs reality rather than a definitional matter.

      • teageegeepea:

        “Can you give actual examples of leftists using the word in very non-standard senses or very differently over, say, the 20th century?”

        I’d say it’s more that they’ve redefined the word by their *non* usage of it, and refusal to use it or allow it to be used, in cases where it plainly applies.

        It’s like if I never used ‘blue’ to describe the sky, and cried bloody murder anytime someone else tried to, then it’s fair to say I’ve redefined ‘blue’, even if I myself am not using it.

      • teageegeepea says:

        Objecting to certain uses of the word could also qualify as using the word. Like Vladimir below, I want to hear some actual examples.

        And if Foseti wants a word more abused, I would suggest “constitutional”. And of course the actual text of the constitution has been thoroughly abused as part of that process.

  11. josh says:

    First of all, changing retiring the word socialist because everyone is a socialist is a disgustingly Orwellian phenomenon.

    Second of all, everyone today is a socialist (well, almost everyone). Everyone today is a socialist because the socialists have spent a century purging the world of all non-socialist branches of thought.

    How did they do this? Well the Rockefeller General Education Fund was pretty damn important. The Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations provided a full two thirds of ALL COLLEGE AND UNIVERSITY INCOME in the first third of the century. They created the American Historical Association, American Psycological Assoc, the American Economic Assoc., the Social Science Research Council, the American Council of Learned Societies, and gave conditional grants dependent on hiring from these orgs. If you get a little happy with Wiki, you will realize that all of these orgs were run by and filled with people who would have called themselves socialists before 1920, and communists after. This should not surprise us considering that Frederick T. Gates, the man who ran the general education fund was a CHRISTIAN SOCIALIST, and BELLAMYITE NATIONALIST. In other words, non-socialist thought was defunded and eventually all the old profs. died or retired. Our entire system of political thought evolved from what came out of this filter.

    Should I point out that the exact same organization funded the World Council of Churches? Funded only churches that pushed the Social Gospel/Ecumenical/Christian Socialist POV, placing political socialism above personal salvation. Should I point out that these same organizations even funded the Catholic Interracial Council to break up Catholic and ethnic solideratiy, and to push Catholicism in an Ecumenical direction (Socialist party member, WWI State dept, and editor of the Nation, Paul Blanshard’s “American Freedom and Catholic Power” demonstrates the mindset).

    Do I need to mention that these same orgs, the foundations, the CFR, and the various “learned society” members made up the entirety of FDR’s “brain trust”, and continue today to self select all of the most important positions in the Executive branch to this day.

    Or that OWI coordinated the press, provided protection for press connected to the CFR, and attacked the unconnected “yellow” press.

    I won’t even get into the connections between these orgs and the Soviet Union, but Jeebus, of course everyone is a socialist. Duh. Don’t Republicans believe America is one big Brook Farm, but only disagree on the best way to “grow OUR economy” and “create jobs”. The difference between a “free-market” conservative and a “liberal” is purely a difference in means, not a difference in opinion about the ends of government, and in practice not even a meaningful one, considering that politicians have very little political power. Both of these perspective, even at their extremes, are consistant with the perspective of the singular industrial army with its expert managers working for the good of the whole.

    • Vladimir says:

      Josh,

      Do you have any reading recommendations about the history of these foundatons? I’ve read “Foundations” by Rene Wormser (the chief council of the Reece Commitee), which is fascinating enough, but it’s mostly concerned with their post-WW2 workings, not their earlier history.

      • josh says:

        Rockefeller medecine men has a good early history, but I got bored when it moved into its main thesis. The Rockefeller file was interesting if less reliable. Turning of the tides was written before the Reece investigation and issome fantastic Bircher type stuff. I have some more on my kindle which is not on me right now.

  12. Leonard says:

    Personally, I use the definition of a socialist as “one advocating the state ownership of property”. So yes, we are all socialist now except anarchists. Still, we can usefully distinguish between three groupings of political players:
    (1) those who want more things socialized (i.e. in the USA, Democrats and points left)
    (2) those who want to keep the current level of state ownership as it is, more or less (i.e. Republicans)
    (3) those that want more private ownership (i.e. libertarians, reactionaries)
    Of those, only the first group should be labeled “socialist” without explanation. Of the others we might say “Republicans are socialists in that they defend social security”, or the like.

    As for “communist”, I agree with Vladimir and Tschafer. Since one of its definitions (advocating “communal” ownership) is either too hazy to be useful, or else, essentially the same thing as “socialist”, I feel it is up for grabs. So I am happy to use it as it is generally used by the mainstream, namely: the name for the line of socialist ideology and praxis that starts with Marx/Engels and goes through Lenin. Specifically it is socialism implemented within single-party democracy supposedly for “the people”. Thus, Lenin, Stalin, Mao are communists. The Eurosocialists, who got their socialism from us and not Russia, are not communists.

  13. Vladimir M. says:

    The main problem with the socialist designation, in my opinion, is that it’s hopelessly antiquated with respect to the modus operandi of the modern left.

    The mainstream Universalist left has long ago given up on old style socialism that aims to nationalize the industry. As their only major compromise with reality in recent history, some time after the Anglo-Soviet split they managed to understand the economic arguments against out-and-out socialism well enough, and agreed to a sort of perpetual NEP. However, around the same time, they realized that the most efficient way to achieve their social re-engineering aims is to incentivize private businesses to enforce them.

    This has been achieved by regulations and tort law, and it has indeed worked like magic. For example, just make sufficiently un-PC people look like a risk for discrimination lawsuits, and you don’t need any state-appointed ideological commissars — each company will rush to institute their own, and such people will find themselves unemployable by sheer market forces.

    Moreover, these regulations and tort precedents have been made complicated, unrealistic, and contradictory enough that they’re impossible to comply with, and any company can be found guilty, or at least forced to spend inordinate resources defending itself. This now incentivises proactive measures by companies to prove that their compliance is eager and not just forced and reluctant, in the hope of getting away more cheaply when trouble occurs. At the end, instead of the reactonary force depicted in leftist propaganda fantasies, the big business ends up as the very vanguard of progressivist social change.

    There are of course other ways in which the modern progressive managerial state exerts control over the economy, including various more old-fashooned ways. There have also always been issues on which the interests of businesses, both individual and collective, are identical with the progressivist goals. However, this particular phenomenon is truly unique in its effectiveness, and makes all previos historical regimes’ attempts to get business on their side by carrot and stick look crude and inept in comparison. I don’t think our present political vocabulary has anything even close to a precise term for it.

    The motto of modern progressivism should really be “why nationalize when you can incentivize.”

    • Foseti says:

      Great points, but I still think it’s important to understand the evolution of this group over time.

    • When and where the state ‘incentivizes’ the use of nominally private property for its own ends, by these or whatever other methods, it is fair to say the state controls or at least exerts some degree of control over that property. Thus, this situation you (accurately) describe falls well within the definition of socialism I gave above, which is: ‘common ownership/disposal of property’ (emph added). Hence, all you’ve really described is that we are pretty socialist, which we already knew. The method of socialist implementation you’ve identified is obviously new and interesting (closely corresponding to the flavor of socialism that used to be called ‘fascism’), but that’s beside the point to a discussing of who is more or less socialist than whom.

      I’m sure you are right that all the taxonomies and flavors of (and methods of implementing) socialism are highly complicated and difficult to unravel, but I’m not sure why anyone would want to other than as a hobby. The important axis remains the ‘how much do you want property to be collectively controlled’ axis. The more, the more socialist you are. This is a clean and easy to understand definition, and I’m not sure why it would be resisted exactly.

  14. Vladimir M. says:

    Also, to be precise, in Marxist parlance, communism doesn’t mean state ownership of industry, but a vaguely defined utopia that is supposed to follow the withering away of the state. In contrast, socialism means the transitional stage during which the state runs everything under the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

    Socialism is thus a very vague and context-dependent term. It can mean revolutionary socialism as a part of the Marxist utopian project. (“Marxist” here of course effectively means “Leninist,” Lenin being the one who breathed a new life into the full-blown Marxist utopian vision after the original predictions of Marx were falsified, and his other followers started moderating.) However, it can also mean a huge spectrum of more or less extreme progressivist ideologies and parties. Unlike the standard “communist” designation, for which Lenin is clearly the fountain from which everything relevant sprang, among socialists, even just the self-declared ones, the lineages and influences are far more complicated and difficult to disentangle, and their ideologies are also far more fluid, shifting, and opportunistic.

  15. Handle says:

    Maybe the best way to define it is by contrasting the opposite. In the Law, a common intellectually exploratory question to 1L’s is to try and define legal “Reasonableness” in their own words without looking it up. This is especially important because it appears in the actual law all the time, for example, in jury instructions, “beyond a reasonable doubt” and despite the fact that it is also a technical term of art.

    The way one usually makes progress is by trying to define “Unreasonable”, which I think you’ll agree is must easier. You could say it is when one takes a fixed and dogmatic position and will not change it regardless of the strength of the evidence and logical argument which can be brought against it. A true prejudice. Reasonableness is not just the opposite of that, but perhaps a spectrum, with the further distance from “Unreasonable” being increasingly Reasonable.

    With Communism one could ask the same type of question (with the specific context of the particular time-period), “Who are or were the Anti-Communists?” Who were trying to do everything in their power to oppose Communists and their agenda? (You could, of course, ask the same question about Capitalism and Free Enterprise). The distance of any particular individual from those folks is a good first approximation of his degree of “Communism” or at least his tolerance of, or sympathy of other “Communists”.

    Of course, it also sometimes helps to take the most brazen people at their word, and to ask to what degree the self-avowed true-believer Communists criticized or extolled any particular individual. The ideas of people they hated and attacked the most probably form a good “pole”, the distance from which is a decent measurement of one’s degree of Communism.

    One final thing – it’s important to penetrate the nominal and formal idealizations of how a society is supposed to work in theory and look at the details to see what resources are really effectively owned and controlled by “the government” and for which only the day-to-day management is outsourced to ostensibly “private” parties. You could try to give purportedly economically independent enterprises a “GSE score” of between 0 and 100, and create an aggregate weighted index for each country. I’d like to see those time-series charts, but I’d guess the numbers are almost always much higher than whatever ism name the country likes to call itself.

    • Foseti says:

      Ahh . . . this is the real question: “Who are or were the Anti-Communists?”

      You go on:

      “The distance of any particular individual from those folks is a good first approximation of his degree of ‘Communism’ or at least his tolerance of, or sympathy of other ‘Communists’.”

      If you follow this line (which I like) you end up finding lots of Commies. All of polite society was anti-anti-Communist.

      • Handle says:

        My general hunch is that the US-Soviet split began in earnest around 1959 – with Eisenhower reluctantly but gradually getting with the program as cooperation and relations with a globally-ambitious Krushchev deteriorated, and JFK being the genuine anti-Soviet Cold-Warrior. It’s clear they didn’t like each other at all. Did Eisenhower have any Russophile Marxist defectors like Oswald volunteering to try and gun him down?

        The whole Cuban situation at the time is probably a good opportunity to study the administrations and contrast the personalities, and the Paris and Vienna Summits as well. Castro actually came to the states in 1959 hoping for loans and other help, and it seems odd to me that he was of the opinion that there was a good chance he would get it. He ended up getting it from the Soviets instead.

        The Birchers claimed he was “handed off” to the Reds on purpose. The LA Times reported that Eisenhower said, in an April 26, 1963 press conference, “It would have taken a genius or prophet to know that Castro was a Communist when he took control of Cuba.” Which seems to me to be an absurd statement.

  16. Deogolwulf says:

    “Communism involves state ownership of the means of production.” Such ownership may be thought necessary by some communists (e.g., Marxist-Leninists) as a transitional stage towards the communistic ideal, but it does not constitute the aim or the realisation of the ideal itself. (If we mistook state-ownership of the means of production as a necessary condition of communism, then we should have to believe that Marxism in general is not communistic in ideal but only perhaps by means employed. But that would be getting into a muddle.) Communism has nothing essentially to do with the state-ownership of the means of production, and has to do with the common ownership thereof only as a necessary consequence of its essence. For, essentially, communism is any doctrine which aims at a community of equally-free persons, from which it follows that there can be no authorities, ranks, classes, or personal differences in power or wealth (or in fact of any kind), and hence a classless and stateless condition wherein everything is held equally in common. (That it is nonsense — and deadly to boot — is besides the point.) If this understanding of what communism is makes some liberals, democratists, and new libertarians wonder about themselves — these who speak carelessly of equal freedom for all, and who demand that everyone might do as he please (“so long as it harms none”) without the interference of authorities —, then all the better: they may begin to recognise their ideological kinship to those old libertarians otherwise known as communists. And, if like the clever communists, they begin to understand what equal freedom for all entails, then they will be confronted with a stark choice: embrace the entailment and make it explicit in their political ideal, and thereby become communists, or react at the foulness and irrationality of the thing, and thereby become . . . it is too much to hope — authoritarian hierarchists, i.e., actual right-wingers.

  17. josh says:

    Hey. What gives?

  18. Matt says:

    “Ownership” implies a number of things. Your “someone must assert control” is one of them…so we ask, “who makes the decisions?”. Under socialism, and in America, the answer for any enterprise large enough to be of any meaningful interest to the state is “the state”. (“The state” in this case is a linguistic proxy for “the geometric union of whatever competing factions within the various applicable government agencies win more of the turf wars over the question than they lose”. This is not a static entity, as you know, but it nevertheless demonstrably exists.)

    One might also ask “who benefits most directly, if those decisions turn out to be profitable ones?”. It is here where we run into problems, because under socialism, the answer to this question is also “the state”. But in America, when an enterprise is successful, the state takes only a partial share of the profits. That share is too large, of course, but it is nevertheless far below the 100% that would define us as being truly socialist.

    There’s a word for this kind of hybrid system, halfway between socialism and capitalism, where all the meaningful business decisions are made by the state, most of the risk is assumed by taxpayers, but after-tax profits are still considered the rightful property of private “owners”. We can call it “crony capitalism” if we must, because in truth that’s not a terrible metaphor, but there already exists a word for precisely that arrangement.

    It starts, as I’m sure Our Host knows, with an “F”, and these days it’s most often used (ironically by those who practice it) as an epithet to hurl against political enemies.

  19. teageegeepea says:

    I’ve earlier talked about how people living in actual communist societies know damn well that there is a difference between that and first world democracies, mixed economies at all. Here Karl Smith is making an argument against complaints of “socialism” in America, but his tactic of saying “what socialism feels like” can be used to say that socialism exists together with non-socialism. It goes well with Nick Rowe’s bit on how Cuba is just about the only place where price is below marginal cost, and monopolistic competition means the opposite with a surplus on sale everywhere else.

  20. Vladimir says:

    Foseti:

    If any word has been redefined by leftists more than the word “communism” I’d like to know what it is.

    But what concrete examples of this redefinition can you point out? What are the examples of any relevant people from the 1920s on that have ever used the “communist” label with a different meaning from the one I describe? It could be that I’m missing some obvious answers, but I really can’t think of any.

  21. Vladimir says:

    Sonic,

    It seems like you are talking about and interested in placing communism on some sort of ‘phylogenetic tree’. I am not sure why. Communism is a political ideology. The relevant thing for me, when discussing and considering communism, is: what do its adherents want? What do they want to do? What do they want to implement?

    I am not promoting some peculiar definition of communism, but only noting what the standard, universally accepted, and uncontroversial definition has been ever since Bolsheviks took power in Russia.

    And there are in fact good reasons for this standard usage. Before Lenin, there had been huge numbers of different ideologies and movements that fell under the communist label. These ranged from grand ideologues with plans for the whole world to groups of people who really didn’t want anything more than to organize their little commune in the middle of nowhere and forget about the rest of the world. Marxism was only one such ideology, which was completely bankrupt by the late 19th century — Marx’s empirical predictions about the future had been falsified, and the prominent Marxists were starting to converge with mainstream politics, seeing no prospect in revolutionary agitation.

    In this situation, it was Lenin who gave a new life to Marxism as a revolutionary ideology, providing a convenient rationalization for the failure of its empirical predictions, as well as a viable program for taking and maintaining power by conspiratorial and violent means. This had an immense impact on the 20th century, and the whole phylogenetic tree of movements and ideologies that sprang from his innovations, both theoretical and organizational, certainly deserves a separate name. This name ended up being “communism” — a term that has a vague and indeterminate meaning before Lenin, and a very precise meaning after that. (Again, note that I’m describing the established standard usage here, not my own proposal!)

    Now of course, it is a crucial and very complicated question what other strands of leftism have developed in the meantime, what influence they’ve had overall, and also how exactly they’ve interacted and, at some times, cooperated and cross-pollinated with various strands of Leninist communism. However, since the whole phylogenetic tree rooted at Lenin has certainly existed as a phenomenon worthy of a separate name, and there indeed exists a standard name for it, I really don’t see what can be gained by insisting on a broader definition of the term.

    • I am not sure I agree that it is such ‘established standard usage’ to insist that only communist-type-believers who are direct ‘phylogenetic’ descendents of Lenin are communist. I have certainly never heard that stated explicitly by anyone before you in this thread. There have been lots of (self-described) ‘communist’ movements in the world, since Lenin, who know jack-diddly-squat about Lenin and only have a tangential connection to him.

      However, let’s say you’re right about ‘established standard usage’. As Foseti has pointed out, e.s.u. – whatever it is – contains an implicit speech code that tends to deny lots of people/groups/ideas are ‘communist’ whose ideas are not easily distinguishable from communism. This is all that I am pointing out. In short, if you’re right about e.s.u., it is inconsistent (and more like a tribal label than a political label). You may think that’s ok, I don’t, as I tend to think political labels should coherently apply to like ideas. best

      • Vladimir says:

        Sonic,

        Can you think of any relevant counterexamples for my claims about the standard usage?

        Moreover, Leninism does have its peculiar characteristics that other major strands of leftism don’t have. Here I primarily mean the strategy of taking power by conspiracy and violence and maintaining it by straight-out terror and violent suppression of all opposition. Since “communism” came to mean Leninism, saying that someone is a communist means that he supports this conspiratorial and violent strategy — and almost without exception, this is true for Leninists but not for other leftists, who operate with quite different political strategies.

        So if you want to extend the standard meaning of “communism,” you have to remove these implications of conspiracy, violence, and terror that the word presently has. I see no good reason for it even if it could be done.

  22. Vladimir says:

    Sonic,

    I’m sure you are right that all the taxonomies and flavors of (and methods of implementing) socialism are highly complicated and difficult to unravel, but I’m not sure why anyone would want to other than as a hobby. The important axis remains the ‘how much do you want property to be collectively controlled’ axis. The more, the more socialist you are. This is a clean and easy to understand definition, and I’m not sure why it would be resisted exactly.

    Because you gain no real understanding with such a definition. If you want to understand the regime you live under, you must recognize its differences as well as similarities with other historical regimes. This is true whether you want to understand it out of sheer intellectual curiosity, or to figure out how to navigate it best for your own good, or maybe even to try and find some hope for how it might eventually be overcome. You simply have to start grappling with the taxonomies, flavors, and, most important of all, different methods of implementing control over all aspects of life.

    Of course, how we’ll decide to define “socialism” is ultimately not important by itself. The problem is that thinking about the present regime in terms of “socialism” tends to make you focus on its old-fashioned socialist activities, i.e. wealth redistribution and outright taking control over business. And while these issues are by no means unimportant, they’re still, in my opinion, secondary relative to its novel, sophisticated, and frightfully effective mechanisms of social control and re-engineering, such as the one I described in my above comment. Understanding these accurately demands difficult and novel thinking, and dragging in the issue of whether it counts as “socialism” is unlikely to bring any enlightenment.

    • “Because you gain no real understanding with such a definition. If you want to understand the regime you live under, you must recognize its differences as well as similarities with other historical regimes.”

      But your approach does not address differences or similarities based on the actual content of the ideas and goals – only based on ‘phylogenetic taxonomy’. So you gain understanding of the *history*, perhaps, but your definition leaves one unable to notice that person A who is a ‘communist’ (by your definition) wants to do the same exact things as person B who is ‘not a communist’ (by your definition).

      A political definition would group like ideas, well, together. I am boggled as to why you think this hinders rather than aids understanding. It does depend on what you’re interested in debating/learning however. Your definition only makes sense if all one cares about is historical roots of a person’s ideas.

      That is not all I care about in politics. In fact, it’s almost beside the point in politics.

      “You simply have to start grappling with the taxonomies, flavors,”

      I’m all for grappling with taxonomies and flavors within a (coherent) political group, but step 1 should be to identify the main commonality of that group along its major axis. Your definition leaves one unable to do that, making distinctions between ideas/believers where no distinctions actually exist in the actual ideas. Do you at least see what I am saying and where we disagree.

      “The problem is that thinking about the present regime in terms of “socialism” tends to make you focus on its old-fashioned socialist activities, i.e. wealth redistribution and outright taking control over business. And while these issues are by no means unimportant, they’re still, in my opinion, secondary relative to its novel, sophisticated, and frightfully effective mechanisms of social control and re-engineering, ”

      As I say, my definitiion encompasses both the old-fashioned methods and the novel ones you’ve pointed out, because it is based on effects and ends, not means.

      “dragging in the issue of whether it counts as “socialism” is unlikely to bring any enlightenment.”

      It’s more enlightening than refusing to see what it has in common with socialism, which is: plenty. best

      • Vladimir says:

        Sonic,

        But your approach does not address differences or similarities based on the actual content of the ideas and goals – only based on ‘phylogenetic taxonomy’.

        But historical taxonomy does clarify the content of ideas too. Lenin came up with a concrete and viable leftist program for taking and maintaining power by conspiracy, violence, and terror, and it is not only common descent, but also reliance on some variant of this strategy that is common (and peculiar) to his ideological descendants. Having a separate word for this particular sort of leftism makes your considerations of ideas and goals only more accurate than if you insist on dumping all leftists under the same labels — especially when such more precise terminology already exists.

  23. Leonard says:

    while these issues are by no means unimportant, they’re still, in my opinion, secondary relative to its novel, sophisticated, and frightfully effective mechanisms of social control and re-engineering, such as the one I described in my above comment.

    I agree with Sonic that “state ownership” is a much broader thing than titular ownership. So I object to, i.e. Griggs vs Duke Power not only because it was decided wrongly based on non-facts, but because it (partly) socialized all of American big business.

    I don’t think that state regulation and state-mandated social controls as a form of socialism is a hard thing to see or a hard point to make. You see normal Americans throwing the epithet “socialism” at all sorts of Democratic policy. They already get it.

    Second point is, although I agree with you that perhaps a different label might help differentiate between “old” socialism and the new, sophisticated “socialism” — we do not have that label for that new stuff. As such, the debate here is between using “socialism” for the new stuff — which at leasts fits with the state-centeredness of the term and arguably “ownership”, as per my above. Or we can use “communism”, with all of its popular allusion to Soviet Russia, which totally does not fit. We do not have any third word. (“Liberalism”, maybe, but that word is even more overloaded than “communism”.)

    • Leonard says:

      Hmm that last was supposed to be replying to Sonic at 5:10 am. Is threading broken?

    • Vladimir says:

      Leonard,

      You see normal Americans throwing the epithet “socialism” at all sorts of Democratic policy. They already get it.

      Trouble is, they don’t get it — and it is their failure to understand the peculiar ways in which the present system works, ways without any close precedent in what is commonly understood as “socialism,” that makes their politics hopelessly misguided and ineffective.

  24. Leonard says:

    Vladimir, they get some of it. Not all, we agree. But really, I think they — where “they” is only a minority, but still enough people to be a mass market — they are further along than you think. I mean, nationalizing the factories is classical socialism. We don’t do that. Nationalizing retirement funding is socialism by my lights, and I think it counts as one of your novel, sophisticated means of social control. And many of “them” get that, too.

    Where you might have problems is things that are even further from direct state control, i.e., state-enforced “diversity”. (I think some of “them” might call that “socialism” too, but fewer.) I don’t see this as a huge problem. I think the degree of badness of the various things under discussion here is pretty well correlated to how much people think of them as socialism. I am much more opposed to nationalizing industry, than retirement, than “diversity”.

    I think we may disagree about what makes politics ineffective. The problem is democracy — as a form of socialism, it is inherently socialistic; and so it must ever produce socialism. In my view, “diversity” and the other forms of subtle social control that progressives evolve are just symptoms.

    If we can convince people to oppose democracy as socialism, we win. If not, we lose, regardless of whether the masses have figured out that any particular policy is “socialism”.

  25. […] Part II, Hate“, “What Makes America Great, and Where is It?”Foseti – “What is Communism?“, “Gentrification and Flash Mobs”John Derbyshire – “Nothing to […]

  26. Robin Morrison says:

    Communism is an untried ideology. Surely it was impossible to violently overthrow the last remaining agrarian feudalism and then implant successfully an ideology based on ‘all men are brothers’ and idealized sharing and cooperation.

    It simply never happened. We do not know what it is other than a few basic ideals. It is a grand and noble dream and deserves better than the sneers it gets because realpolitik us usual filled the vacuum created between the revolution’s accomplishment and the wild, wonderfully stimulating but mostly useless head-scratching and debating that followed.

    Communism has lofty ideals, far loftier than what we call democracy, and that is its weakness. To quote G.K. Chesterton (paraphrase alert): “The average American is alright. It is the ideal American that is the problem.”

    But, since democracy doesn’t aim as high as communism (which aims for actual egalitarian justice being the bedrock of social governance), democracy comes out smelling relatively like a rose.

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