Thursday, November 3, 2011

A debate on communism

I had a debate with a friend on facebook last weekend that I thought was worth posting some reflections on, as a similar topic has come up in my blog comments section recently - at least in the context of openly calling oneself a communist. To me, this particular debate seems to be over what communism actually means, and on separating the history of what has been called communism from what communism actually is or can be. I have heard many of these argument many times, so I wanted to focus on these a little bit.

For obvious reasons, I cannot post all 39 comments, but I hope to get the point of the argument across as best I can.

The original status update was
Why is it that when I talk to a person who associates themselves with the right I get called a communist? And when I talk to a person who associates themselves with left I get called a libertarian? Come on now. I am better morally than either of the two possibilities that have been presented. Communism leads to totalitarianism. Libertarianism is absolutely oppressive. Fuck both of them, I want a new ideal to strive for.

My response;
communism does not necessarily lead to totalitarianism... that is just how it has played out on certain occasions.

So he said;
at risk of sounding like a neoliberal--which is not what I'm promoting at all--communism is absolute tyranny over individual. It requires that your needs be the same as everybody else, it requires a homogeneity of thought that impinges the creative process. There is nothing desirable about the equality that the communist promotes. I would prefer a principle which limits oppression over the individual, rather than increases it.

I have heard this argument many times. That communism cannot account for individual differences, which I think is absurd. How does capitalism account for individual differences? By upholding sexist, racist, heterosexism, ageist and ableist hierarchies?

And how would communism create any kind of homogeneity of thought impinging on the creative process when so many Marxist work is based on the creative capacities of the people or on reaching our full human potential? To me, capitalism (and any form of organizing with differential power relations) requires a homogeneity of thought... as Marx says "the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch ruling ideas". If workers didn't uphold the ideas of the ruling class, they would revolt.

I was on my cell phone at this time and had limited ability to respond, but I wrote;

it is a misconception that communism would require homogeneity. Look at the famous quote "from each according to ability to each according to need". Difference is accounted for. Your argument is like saying you don't like cats because they're yellow. It makes no sense! Don't confuse Stalinist Russia with communism.

So ,he was offended by the cat comment... which, in retrospect, was kind of rude, but I thought it made a certain point. In his next response, he argues that communism requires giving absolute power to a small group who are supposed to act in the best interest of the people, and then says

Dismantle the power of the few and you have yourself a properly functioning democracy. Which is way better than communism for sure.

ummm... that's what the communism I imagine would look like... a "properly functioning democracy," not hoping a few people will act in everyone's best interest. So I said

Its not communism if a small group has power. Communism only exists if wealth and power are held by everyone. As soon as the heirarchies between powerful and powerless (or less powerful) begin to develop, you have something else entirely being called communism.

Still not accepting the difference between communism and what has been passed off as communism on specific occasions, he used Russia as The Historical Example of why communism is inherently wrong using Nietzche's will-to-power to back up his point.

These "historical" arguments using one specific example of communism not working to show why communism will never work might be the thing that annoys me most about arguments on whether or not it is feasible. And I responded by saying

You are looking at history selectively. Some communist states did not turn totalitarian- some were overtaken by capitalism through war others fell apart for other reasons (our "civalization" being forced on to them for example), some near-communist societies do exist (zapatistas). I will accept that honest attempts at communism haven't worked out, and that some attempts were not actually attempting communism, but I don't think that (or nietzche) proves definitively that communism is impossible.

I could keep going and show the rest of the arguments here, which continued to bring up Nietzche, but I don't think it is relevant to my post (or in the interest of keeping people reading my blog when the posts are too long).

I think the main point of this post is that several of these arguments play out all the time and I am tired of them because they don't make sense.

1. Stalinist Russia was not a communist state. It's demise does not prove communism to be impossible.

2. Different ideas are not only possible, but encouraged, in a communist state. Communism does not require everyone to do the same thing, think the same thing, have the same needs, or go back to a technology free society where nobody gets anything that we might consider a luxury (another common assumption).

3. Communism does not give power to a few people to make decisions for everyone. Communism would require full democratic participation.

I could really dissect the debate and come up with dozens of misconceptions that tend to play out on a regular basis, but, I am going to stop with these three for now. Feel free to add your own in the comments section if there is a common argument that you find particularly annoying.

I think these misconceptions are part of why so many people who I might consider to be communists do not embrace the term "communism." And, if we don't start using the word more often, how are we going to change these misconceptions?

Edited to add: A friend pointed out that this is somewhat simplistic, and I thought I should acknowledge that they are correct... I could turn this into three (or more) separate posts and make it far more nuanced and whatnot, and I might someday do that, but for now, this piece that does oversimplify some things will have to do!


  1. Argh: the communist argument! These days I usually only have these with people who are predisposed to liberalism and social democracy (I try not to argue with reactionaries anymore because there's generally no point in trying to change the minds of fascists), and have discovered that, to my surprise, every day people in poor neighbourhoods are actually *not* hostile to communism...

    I used to always get pushed into the corner of defending some sort of "pure" communist ideal from actually existing socialisms but, in the past four or five years, have decided this is arguing according to terms imposed on us. Most people who say things about these regimes being "totalitarian" and "repressive" have never critically studied the history of these historical moments and are just repeating idiotic cold war propaganda... It's much more productive to argue about the successes of these moments than play by the anti-communist terms and reject them as total "failures."

    Yes they were ultimately failures because they aren't around anymore (Russia free-marketized totally, China is state capitalist, etc.), but that still does not mean these weren't the greatest moments of human freedom the world has seen: first places where women had equal rights, access to birth control, for example, first place [Soviet Union] where same sex relationships were legal [then removed when it degenerated, but still we're talking about decades and decades ahead of everything else], not to mention so many other social/economic egalitarian programs that made the capitalist world look utterly backwards.

    While so much anti-communist propaganda was going on about the "totalitarianism" and "the party in control" (which is the root of the person's arguments, and based on so many half-truths), there is the fact that people of colour from the US were writing about their experiences visiting Russia and then China and how these were the first places where they ever felt like "humans" because of the lack of insane racism... And even when Soviet Russia degenerated, at least before perestroika there was the fact that everyone was guaranteed food, shelter, and education: rights that were lost, and resulted in way more actual deaths than were caused by Stalinist purges, when the Eastern Bloc was broken up.

    In any case, as much as I do think it is important to acknowledge the failures of actually existing communism, I think it is also important to point out that the person's anti-communist arguments are incorrect in that they have no understanding of the actual failures and, instead, simply embrace an anti-communist ideology that is historically wrong. It is important to defend the accomplishments of these world historical events, while recognizing the failures but understanding the actual reasons for these failures, and reject the simplistic liberal discourse of "totalitarianism."

  2. Thank you for this comment! I have only heard these points a few times. I think Oprah did a really positive peice on communism in Cuba once too, about access to health care and whatnot.

    It would be really interesting to see what would have come from that beginning that you describe had it been allowed to further develop without what became a totalitarian regime.

  3. Yes yes yes!
    I have had people bring up Harrison Bergeron as a counter-argument to communism, and I'm like, what? Do you know what satire is? Have you even read that thing? Do you know what communism means?
    It is about giving everybody the freedom to do what s/he dreams about doing - which is only possible if we start out on equal ground and don't have to work our asses off in three minimum wage jobs to survive while other people are born drinking shampain and flying in private jets. (To be a little bit polemic here.)
    It is about satisfying the needs of everyone by work of everybody.
    It is not prioritizing the luxuries of a selected few over the lifes of a huge, disempowered group.
    Occupy Wallstreet is communist.

    But I have to say, in America that cold-war indoctrinated hate of communism (despite the fact that there never was a communist country, only socialist ones that failed bitterly because of the leaders bigotry and avant-garde thoughts that sadly went against what the masses wanted - i.e. "we know what is good for you" - "but we can tell you: food would be good for us!") still persists and gives a lot of power to everybody who wants to critize a legislation that would give a little more freedom to normal people. Only cry "Communism!" and everybody will hate the idea instantly.
    Sorry, rant over ;)

  4. I just found this blog through the whole Globe and Mail article outrage. I'm not the one to usually argue on the internet as it pretty much is the same thing as running into a wall.
    Yet, so many BS has been said over here that I could hardly resist.

    So JMP, you're willing to give Stalinist USSR credit for birth control, sexual equality, and a couple of (rather pointless when thousands of people are being starved to death or deported) other things, but you dismiss the planned starvations, the death row quotas, the gulag, the torture, the constant spying and blaming, the racism (against Germans, Poles, Lettons, Lithuanians, Finns, Uzbeks, the list goes on...), etc. That's a whole new level of objectivity outta here.

    I'm kinda too tired to correct all your ridiculous propaganda, but let's just say:
    - there weren't food for everyone in USSR. Whether under Stalin's rule or under Gorbatchev.
    - Stalin's purge caused much more death than the fall of the eastern bloc, no matter how much you try to wrap up the numbers, or to compare apples to oranges
    - USSR was ruled by uneducated, ruthless, paranoid, hypocritical, self-centered murderers who barely had the intellectual capabilities to understand Marx' writings.
    - For all its progressive laws, USSR still granted less value to human life than the worst capitalistic dictatorship, with the III Reich being the only exception (though Hitler would probably be mad if we were to qualify his regime as capitalistic).
    - While officially rejected by the regime, racism was running rampant, among the leaders, the institutions and the people of USSR. Which is why, despite all the imagery of these diverse people applauding Stalin, USSR was built through the domination of the Russian ethnicity over the others (despite the fact many leaders were Caucasians or Jews).

    Those are facts. Which doesn't mean that the 1917 Revolution wasn't great (though probably not as great as the 1789 one), or that the Soviet Union didn't bring hope to millions of people throughout the world, and even still does to this day. I won't argue with that.

    But if you think that the USSR was a great place to live in because same-sex marriage was allowed or because everyone had a job, I suggest you stop reading books written by idealistic french writers or wave the soviet constitution around as a holy relic, and actually learn what life was like there.

    I'm a revolutionnary, but I'm not fooling myself into thinking that any revolutionnary ideology, be it communism or another, no matter how progressive, could change anything without being oppressive and totalitarian. Maybe not as much as the ex-communist states, where the oppression turned into a self-fuelled, insane genocide, but still: You can't change the world without making people who disagree with you "disappear". At least real communists have the guts to admit it.

    The sad part is that you probably consider yourself as a progressive avant-garde, while my anarchist friends would label you as reactionnaries. Oh well, it's about time the far left creates another utopia to fight for, because all this is pretty lame.

  5. I think your facebook friend's update was excellent and here is my long winded defence of it:

    For one there is no logic to your point:

    I have heard this argument many times. That communism cannot account for individual differences, which I think is absurd. How does capitalism account for individual differences?

    Your question about Capitalism is not an argument against the point about communism.

    Just because Cuba can boast a great health care system is not enough to say communism as a governing model is a positive force or a good idea. Obviously all the people in prison and who have been tortured and killed for speaking out in favour of democracy wouldn't think so.

    Also, just because you like the theoretical idea of communism you can't go around dismissing the whole history of real-life communist states as "the historical argument" because they don't live up to your theoretical idea of how it might work in some parallel world that doesn't exist. You would be better off really understanding what these words define and compare them and any new words that crop up, or better yet that you invent, to how you would like the world to work.

    For example one of the commenters said: "Do you know what communism means?
    It is about giving everybody the freedom to do what s/he dreams about doing...etc" hmmm... no that's not what communism is!!! Communism in theory and practice came out of specific time in history (that is not now) when industrialization was dehumanizing the world of work and when labour practices were waaaaaaaaay worse than they are now (in the western world anyway).

    I think it's great that so many people want a more egalitarian just society but what ever it's going to be it's not going to be communism. It'll be something new and hopefully it will take into consideration the reality of people and their egos, their desire for power and control at least over their own lives but also over others, their desires to dream, their ability to learn and above all the limitations of the real world to satisfy the dreams of everyone.

    I would start with democracy, make civility, compassion and justice ideas that we strive for through public debate and the education system and realize we have to come up with better management structures for our resources than capitalism but unless people truly understand how political economics work that's never going to happen.

    But it won't be called communism though, because communism's one big gaping failure was that it didn't account for individuality of people's dreams and desires and all their differences and all the different groups they form and identify with that have nothing to do with economics. Communism was always about what "Society" or "The Proletariat" would do as though so many people could identify as one. What ever system we have the only kind that people will submit to (rather than have imposed upon them) is one that will give them some freedom to dream and make mistakes and even fail as long as it's their own choice.

    And you will scream with frustration that Communism requires Democracy! And I will say again just because someone makes up a list of great ideas that include both the abolition of private property AND the fact that the society will be democratic does not mean that it is possible for these two things to ever co-exist in real life with real people. (cue history)

    O.k. and the other reason Communism will never take off as an idea is that nobody really wants to be a "Proletariat". People would rather be Citizens, Democrats, Republicans or Taxpayers.

    Personally I'd be classified as a social democrat with anarcho-syndicalist tendencies. And I would say that the Occupy movement was more anarcho-syndicalist than communist.

  6. Anonymous: ridiculous propaganda? Interesting how you've just cited the common sense interpretation of the Soviet Union with the typical ideological sources produced during the cold war. Obviously I am not a fan of Stalinism, and I'm actually less of a fan of Khruschev, but some of us spend a lot of academic time investigating the debates around the Soviet Union and know that, once you start involving yourself in these debates, that the things you cited are contentious even amongst conservative anti-communist Sovietologists.

    You claim the USSR was actually more inhumane than the worst capitalist dictatorship… seriously? And you have the nerve to say that a critical interrogation of cold war propaganda is "ridiculous"? I am not an apologist of the degeneration of the USSR but there is no way I would make such a brain-washed and uncritical statement: without investigation, no right to speak - maybe you should study critical assessments of cold war propaganda rather than simply accepting capitalist governmental textbooks as the eternal Truth. And then to call yourself a "revolutionary" when your supposedly critical position emerges from counter-revolutionary ideology: sadly, before I started studying the debates around revolutionary history, I used to think the same. Then I realized that this default acceptance of bourgeois analyses of "totalitarianism" was precisely the "ridiculous propaganda" you complain about.

  7. What neither Anonymous nor Kristin seem to understand is that this isn't about Stalinist communism, it is about Marxist communism, and it is a fact that there never was a truly communist country.
    Like I already wrote - the UdSSR failed because it was ruled by bigoted tyrants. That doesn't mean that communism itself is wrong.

  8. "But if you think that the USSR was a great place to live in because same-sex marriage was allowed"

    -In the USSR, homosexuality was punished with a prison sentence. Only in 1993 was the same-sex sexual relations (mind you, not marriage, just sex) legalized in Russia.

  9. Marxism is an understanding of history and economics that is about 80 percent factual and accurate that has stood the test of time. The struggle to create a classless society where exploitation and the resulting alienation truly ends is a noble goal people will work towards until it is achieved, its not the Soviet Union or any particular country. Marxist though assaults the notion that private property and capitalism are our natural state. The root word of Communism is community