History and the Meaning of Communism

Two people might differ on the definition of ‘cat’, in that one might espouse the definition “quadripedal mammalian carnivore with a highly flexible spine and a shortened face”, while the other prefers “stealth-hunting mammal with retractable claws and a tapetum in the eye”.

But the difference would be more profound, and more conceptual, if one person suggested the first of these definitions, and the other suggested “descendent of the common ancestor of all living cats” (followed by pointing to some examples). Here the difference is not between two definitions, but between two ideas about what sort of definition is appropriate to this word – different sorts of rope for connecting letters with meaning.

And this gives rise to an interesting possibility – that one word might be defined in two ways (e.g. ‘cat’ might have both a phenetic definition, by its characteristics, and a cladistic definition, by its ancestry). But then what if the two don’t match up? Then fun and excitement! For those interested in concepts, at least…

What about political ‘isms’ – what about, in particular, the word ‘communism’? It seems to me that there are at least three different ways people have of approaching this definition, and  I’m interested in the possibility that these three might not all coincide.

The word ‘communism’ might be defined:

A) By ‘historical quotation’  – you see all those people and texts and parties loudly using words like ‘Kommunismus’ or ‘Comunismo’? Whatever it is they’re talking about, that’s what ‘communism’ means. For instance, if arguing over whether communism includes idea X, it would not be irrelevant to say “look here, idea X is explicitly endorsed in The Communist Manifesto.”

B) Theoretically – specify a certain principle and identify ‘communism’ as meaning that and everything that follows from it. For instance, one might specify the principle ‘collective ownership of all social wealth’; you might deduce that pervasive democracy is a logical precondition of this, and that freedom of expression is a logical precondition of democracy.

C) Most interestingly, in terms of ‘class role’. It seems to me that many writers (Marxists especially) use the idea that ‘communism’ is the ideology appropriate to the mature revolutionary movement of the proletariat almost as what fixes the meaning of ‘communism’. Or (to use the word to designate a possible state of society, rather than an ideology) there’s a habit of defining ‘communism’ as a classless society (and, at times, ‘socialism’ as a society in which the proletariat is the dominant class).

Now if these three approaches to definition were entirely unrelated, we would just have an ambiguous word, or rather three words spelt and pronounced the same (like with ‘stick’, a bit of a wood, ‘stick’, what glue does, and ‘stick’ it to the man).

But they’re meant to all define the same concept; hence they’re supposed to match up with each other. A certain historical collection of people and groups (A) are united (setting aside whichever ones you want to exclude from the club) by their espousal of certain ideas (B) and by their role as representative of a certain class movement (C).

Some opponents of communism would no doubt make a point of denying these connections – in particular, denying that either A or B link to C, denying that the wage-earning population have any natural connection to or interest in the ideas (B) that a certain tradition of people (A) have espoused. Alternatively, it might simply be denied that those ideas, as espoused by those people, have any prospect of revolutionising anything.

I disagree, as you might expect. I could go into why but I won’t.

Rather, I’m interested in the following possibility: that there might be a valid connection between A and B, and between B and C, but not between A and C.

That is, might it be that while ‘the communist tradition’ is indeed a good representative of ‘communist ideas’ (if we’re selective in the right way – excluding people like Stalin who are too obviously at odds with those ideas), and while these ideas are indeed those that naturally emerge out of and guide a ‘mature revolutionary proletariat’, no other connection exists between the communist tradition up ’til now, and that ‘mature revolutionary proletariat’ – because the latter has never actually appeared? (that’s not a diss or anything, ‘maturity’ here is meant in the sense of ‘historically undeveloped’)

This to me looks like a consistent position. I don’t know that it’s true, but it’s not obviously less plausible than the more traditional idea that all three of the definitions are tightly linked. Of course, it demands an explanation of what ‘the communist tradition’ was all about, why it existed the way it did and did what it did. And I can imagine some possible answers.

But for now I’ll leave it here: it seems to be consistent to accept both that (some significant core of) the historical communist movement was right in its ideas, and moreover that those ideas are, as it claimed, appropriate to a mature revolutionary proletariat, while also disputing the idea that proletarian revolution had anything to do with the successes and failures of that same movement.

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