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.

6 Ways to Subtly Distort the Meaning of the Socialist Drive for Equality

Everyone knows that socialists think ‘equality’ is quite a good thing (although some consider such talk too fluffy and just speak of ‘abolishing classes’, but whatever). And the ideal of equality has become a widely used motif in all sorts of areas of politics. But often the way that it gets expressed, especially by liberals and social-democrats, makes it appear quite different to how actual socialism would mean it. Which, since many people’s impressions of socialism are drawn largely from such things, can then cause confusion.

So! What are the Top 6 Ways to subtly distort the meaning of ‘equality’? Read on to find out!

1) Focusing primarily on personal consumption, and not on control of production. If people own the means of production together, and control them democratically, at least a rough equality of consumption flows naturally; if ownership of the means of production remains in minority hands (private business or the state), then inequality of consumption will be stark, regardless of how many new initiatives and reforms are introduced to reduce it. More to the point, even if it were possible, being handed an equal slice of wealth by a power over which you have no control (the state or the market) is still alienating and disempowering.

2) Presenting only claims of need, not of right. The people with 50 times someone else’s wealth are not 50 times as worthy – often they are less worthy. Everything around us has been produced by thousands of people’s efforts, living and dead, and splitting it into the rightful property of various individuals would be impossible, and even then would not look much like the actual distribution. People deserve equal shares not because they need them (though that’s not irrelevant) but because they have as much right to it as anyone else.

3) Implying, by accepting any comparability with private charity, that a rich person who lets some of their wealth go to others is displaying generosity beyond the call of duty, rather than returning some of what they have usurped.

4) Talking as if equality was primarily for the benefit of ‘the poor’, some fraction of the population who are worse off than ‘the average’. The majority of the population are dispossessed by capitalism and would benefit from equality.

5) Calling for ‘redistribution’: if you need to redistribute, your original distribution was badly off, and will probably override whatever efforts at re-distribution you tack on. If the distribution is broken, then change that primary distribution, so that the basic workings of the economy produce equality.

6) Implying that equality is something to be produced by a body standing outside the rest of society and independent of the ‘normal’ economy – a body thus separating itself from society being pretty close to a state already, whatever its other traits.

Obviously these aren’t entirely separate – each one connects with the others. But I thought it might be worthwhile separating them out.

Taxation and its Discontents: are taxes theft?

A lot of placarrds at the Tea Party protests expressed a sense of ownership, a feeling that something was being taken away from people, with the key form of this taking being taxation. This is hardly a fringe position – claims that (over-) taxation is theft are relatively common fare. Perhaps relatedly, there is a broader sense of robbery – that the country itself is being stolen?

To what extent might leftist observers agree with or sympathise with this sort of thing?

To start with I think it’s important to distinguish ‘simple claims’ and ‘exclusive claims’. To have a simple ownership claim on something is to have a right to control and enjoyment of it, but a right which must be balanced against the like rights of others. An exclusive claim overrules all others (or permits them only as very secondary qualifications), and so if I have an exclusive claim on something, that excludes anyone else doing so.

Property as it exists in our society is, with some qualifications, an exclusive claim – moreover, an exclusive claim that persists unchanged over time, and encompasses rights of use, exclusion of others, enjoyment of further products, and crucially tradeability to any other person. Its justifications, however, are usually valid if under stood as arguing for simple claims.

For instance, the fact of having expended effort and time to create something certainly gives you a claim to it, in that to be entirely deprived of it would not just be unpleasant but unfair. But that need not imply that other simple claims on it, such as from those who contributed to allowing you to make it, or from those who need it, are necessarily ruled out; nor need it imply that your claim on it fully possesses all the components of a property right, or that it bears any strong relation to the particular property-rights respected by our legal system.

By distinguishing the two, we can grant what is intuitive in various property-justifying arguments, while still denying their conclusion, and supporting communism. This, in essence, is what is wrong with rights-based capitalist arguments.

With that in mind, let us look back at opposition to taxes.

The average person in a capitalist-and-statist society is greatly impoverished relative to what they would have if either a) society’s wealth were divided into equal-sized chunks and each person given exclusive claim to one chunk, or b) society’s wealth were partly thus chunked but, wherever convenient, made collective property in such a way as to maximise people’s ability to use and enjoy it. So overall, most people are alienated from social wealth.

Now we might think that people have roughly equal simple-claims on the accumulated social wealth – although over particular things one person might have stronger claims than another, overall the differences even out. But do they?

The short answer is ‘yes’; the long answer makes reference to the interdependence of different branches of both waged and unwaged labour, the role of socialisation in making labour possible, the amount which was produced by past generations, whose members are now all dead, natural human equality, and of course the falseness of all arguments for the existing distribution. But I won’t go into that. The point is that there is a systematic dispossession of most people.

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“Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?”

Robert Nozick wrote, a while back, an article with this title. It’s an odd piece, and its essential answer to the titular question is, I think,something like this:

“Intellectuals – those whose job is to move words around a lot, whether academics, media-types, novelists, etc. – are usually people who did relatively well in school and relatively less well in wider society. This makes them resent market-society for frustrating the expectations they had built up; they want to make all of society like a school, where professor Lenin gives out gold stars not to the industrialists and bankers but to the best intellectuals.”

The primary problem with this piece is, of course, that it poses a question and then studiously ignores the most obvious possible answer. The most obvious answer to ‘why do intellectuals oppose capitalism?’ is ‘because capitalism is intellectually bankrupt’.

That’s not necessarily to attribute to intellectuals a superior ability to ‘see the truth’ of matters. It might alternatively be a matter of how that ‘truth’ is expressed. Loads of people, after all, are pissed off with how society works, frustrated, angry, insubordinate.

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Why Do We Have Property Rights? Why Has Capitalism Been So Successful?

Via. Chris at Stumbling and Mumbling I came across a series of interlinked posts discussing property rights and their justifications or lack thereof (which I think were sparked by Chris’ posts about copyright).

Now I won’t rehearse everything I’ve argued on this subject, but I will offer a few observations.

Ian B., a commenter at Tim Worstall’s blog, claims the following:

“Animals (indluding humans) tend towards asserting property rights. My cat believes she owns the garden, and forcibly ejects other cats from it. It’s just something animals do…You’re free to choose which sort of society you want but, like my cat, I will personally prefer the property rights one.”

What’s interesting about this is it’s actually pretty much my view – and in sharp conflict with the way that both right-libertarians and many socialists talk.

For the latter, the key issue for understanding property is work, creation of goods. There are then different arguments about whether entrepreneurs or inheritors or capitalists ‘have the right’ to their wealth, or whether in fact the workers who collectively produce that wealth ‘have the right’ to it.

But what both myself and Ian suggest is that while these reflections may be true or false, they have nothing to do with the reality of property rights. That reality is instead a descendent of the territorial instinct – that is, of animals competing for power.

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Socialism, Labour-Notes, and Black Markets: does private currency lead to private capital?

Floating around in socialist headspace there is sometimes the idea of what I’ll call here ‘labour notes’, a form of currency for a society that was socialist but not fully communist (or at least not yet – sometimes this is seen as a ‘transitional stage’ as culture adapts away from capitalist habits of thought).

The essential idea is that if it turns out that material incentives continue to be useful and necessary, then people could be ‘paid wages’ by the commue (whether local, national, whatever) for doing useful work, which they could then spend on buying certain priced goods. Not all work need by paid, and not all goods need be priced – this system could take up a high or a low percentage of the economy, and presumably that percentage would be changed over time as non-material incentives became more effective (e.g. work was re-organised to be more rewarding, or whatever).

The idea is that this isn’t money, i.e. can’t function as capital, because it can’t be used to gain ownership of means of production, i.e. can’t be invested. It just goes to the individual from the commune for work, and then goes back to the community for consumption goods – and the commune need not keep a ‘stock’ of it at all. Indeed, it might even be given a ‘negative interest rate’ so that over a certain period of time it ‘evaporates’ and ceases to be valid.

Now I’m not particularly keen to endorse or recommend such a scheme over proper communism (where goods are generally just freely available, or in some cases rationed with equal rations – i.e. ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’). But I do think it’s useful to have as a possibility, especially for arguing with people who are convinced of human depravity.

In a recent comment, though, SnowdropExplodes says

“Honestly, I don’t know how you could stop it from circulating and becoming capital. Even if the currency itself is not transferable from one person to another then the goods for which it can be exchanged, are. From there, it is only a short step to a black market economy using a currency of its own devising, for the trade of commodities obtained using the official currency. At that point, official currency will be redeemed not for goods with use-value to the person who earned the points, but for trade-value in the black market system.

A further problem is that it clearly opens up the door to corruption if one person obtains a large amount of this official currency, and uses it to bribe others by obtaining for them goods that those others do not have the currency to buy themselves; this could in turn potentially lead to individuals obtaining control over means of production through bribery.”

This is a common question that I think is provoked by what I’ll call ‘labour-note socialism’ – is it stable? Would it morph back into capitalism? I think that it would be stable, and that black markets wouldn’t morph it into anything, so I wanted to talk a bit about why.

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Socialism, Capitalism, Risk, and Innovation

One of the themes that comes up often in debates between socialists and capitalists is the idea of ‘punishing success’.

‘When someone, a genius, a person of distinctive intelligence, comes up with a brilliant idea that makes huge savings and improves people’s lives, and in consequence becomes very rich, why do socialists want to punish them, by depriving them of their rewards? Such people are doing great services for humanity – why does socialism hate them?’

To this the simple response is that there are two personalities here: the big capitalist, who has skillfully accumulated a lot of capital, or otherwise come by it, and the innovator, someone who performs or has performed a particular productive sort of intellectual labour. Sometimes the two overlap – often they don’t. Socialists are hostile to the former, but not the latter.

Indeed, the argument is perhaps analogous to something like following, from a defender of an Classical (i.e. not racialised) form of slavery:

‘When a slave of distinctive intelligence, a genius, comes up with a brilliant idea that makes huge savings and improves people’s lives, and in consequence gains their freedom and enough money to buy themselves many slaves, why do anti-slavery advocates want to punish them, by depriving them of their rewards? Such people are doing great services for humanity – why does anti-slavery hate them?’

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Short-Circuiting the Revolution, Part 2 – why have we failed?

Every socialist and their dog has a pet exaplanation of what has held back the success of socialism. Into that mix I want to throw a couple of further thoughts.

The first is quite simple, namely that in some sense the development of revolutionary socialist beliefs and organisations between, let’s say, 1830 and 1930 was not actually for any reasons to do with socialist revolution, but a by-product of the recentness of capitalist revolution. Revolution – both immediate, sudden political conflict, and also the radical re-structuring of society over time – was in the air. Anything seemed possible. The old class system no longer appeared natural and inevitable, because in so many places it was fading away – but the new class system had not yet acquired the weight of tradition.

In the 20th century, though, it came to appear natural and inevitable. The transitional period, when changes were so great that no further change seemed impossible, passed and we settled back into a state of relative tunnel vision, with alternatives appearing increasingly implausible.

This is quite a simple explanation and I think it has a lot of validity. But obviously it leaves something out – there really were large groups of people believing in revolution, so what exactly went wrong? Perhaps the conditions weren’t yet ripe – but what, more exactly, does this mean? What was the effective variable?

So the second idea I want to suggest is what I talked about in yesterday’s post: the incentive which class struggle gives the proletariat to revolt, which is in general a question of power, may take the particular form of a desire for domination. This has the unfortunate consequence that the latent pressure for change cannot be satisfied by socialism, because of its non-hierarchical nature (even a traditionally-conceived, non-single-party, “workers’ state” is radically non-hierarchical and egalitarian by comparison with any model of capitalist political and industrial relations).

So what I want to do in this post is talk a bit more about this proposed explanation (quite likely not the complete one) and link it to the sad history of socialist defeat. Tomorrow I will try to ask what the cause of this problem might be and what might correct it.

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What’s So Good About Equality?

An interesting part of Honderich’s attack on Conservatism is the discussion he includes of ‘the left’, in particular of the idea of ‘equality’. He rehearses a series of conservative arguments against ‘equality’, and rejects them, but then finishes with an argument often urged which he thinks it quite correct, what he calls the ‘mere relativities’ argument.

The complaint is that any principle along the lines of ‘people should have lives which are, as far as possible, equal in the satisfaction of their basic desires and needs’ fetishises a certain relative standard, fetishises people’s incomes being similar to other people’s incomes, independently of them being high or low. This seems a bit strange – why should this relative standard be so important?

What’s worse, it seems to generate absurdities. Firstly, it means that if everyone is equally well-off, and we have the option of making some people a bit better off, we have a good reason not to do so (to preserve equality), which seems perverse. Moreover, it means that if some people are badly off and others well off, but that the only way to make them equal would be to make them all even worse off than the badly off, then we should do so – we should make everybody worse off for the sake of equality.

As Honderich presents it, this is a formulation of ‘equality’ that has sometimes been put forward by socialists and liberals, and very often attacked by conservatives, but which is actually very clearly alien to the practice of the socialist and liberal traditions. As he says, nobody has ever seriously suggested taking measures to lower the life expectancy of the wealthy in order to bring it into equality with that of the poorest.

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For/Against the Division of Labour

I thought, in light of the recent post on ‘abolishing lawyers’, i.e. dissolving the division between those who understand and can use the law and those who can’t, that it might be worthwhile to throw out a few remarks on ‘division of labour’, something which often gets both praised highly and vigorously condemned.

Now I can’t speak for anyone else, but to my mind the issue seems relatively simple, once you distinguish two sorts of division of labour, what we might roughly call division of what is ‘naturally united’ (which I think those on the left have tended to be critical of), and division of what isn’t (which is less bad and very useful), where the ‘natural unity’ in question is the human person.

So compare the division of labour in the making of, say, a computer, and the division of, say, political labour. In making a computer you can divide the tasks of designing the casing, acquiring the materials for it, making it, designing the electronic components, acquiring the materials for them, making them, programming the programs, recruiting the tiny gnomes who live inside it and move the bytes from one spot to another, finding tiny hats for them to wear, etc. (my understanding of computers is not too advanced).

The point is, these different functions are all basically the same sort of thing ‘from a human point of view’. The human animal in each case finds out that following a certain sequence of actions produces useful results, and applies itself to following those actions diligently. There’s no big difference in this sense between them – and precisely insofar as the overall task and the component tasks are similar in this sense, we can divide them among different people without making much of a change in what sort of work each of those persons is doing.

By contrast, in the ‘division of political labour’, where you have, e.g., some people with the job of commanding and others with the job of obeying, some people with the job of taking an overall view of society’s common interests and some people with the job of just minding their own business, some people with the job of drawing up plans for others to follow and some with the job of following those plans – here matters are quite different. These ‘jobs’ are very different ‘from a human point of view’: they’re different sorts of actions, they deploy different kinds of instincts, different kinds of relationships to others, different ways of relating to the world.

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