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.

Forks, Coffee and Communism

Some thoughts on communism, sparked by buying coffee. I’m not an expert on the food and/or beverages industries, so I may have missed something important, but even if so the discussion will hopefully be suggestive of thoughts.

The various establishments that give freshly-prepard food (and hot drinks etc.) to people, who then take it away and eat it, do so by putting it into a container, of styrofoam or cardboard or foil, that cannot be effectively washed and re-used and thus gets thrown away. And end up somewhere like the Great Pacific Trash Continent (or whatever it’s called).

An individual or family who ate all of their food from containers which they then destroyed would surely be considered wasteful. Why does such waste happen with these food-giving-away establishments?

What would happen if they gave away food in re-usable containers, with metal forks, ceramic mugs, plastic tubs, etc? The immediate answer is, they would spend far more money on giving away these endless ‘proper’ implements, and their customers would swiftly acquire a needless glut of the same, and no doubt would simply throw them away. This would be an even more wasteful situation!

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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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The Ethics of Rebellion and Moderation: Values for Revolutionaries?

One of the ideas in yesterday’s post was the distinction between doing the sociology that supports political agitations towards socialism, and creating the ‘ideology’ (or perhaps, the ‘mythology’) that would preside over such a society, the values that it would understand itself in terms of.

I’ve recently been reading a very interesting book – Albert Camus’ ‘The Rebel’ (subtitled ‘an essay on man in revolt’), and I think one of its major goals is, in a certain sense, to lay out what is essentially an ‘ideology’ in that sense – what I will call ‘the ideology of rebellion and moderation’. So I thought I’d devote a post to talking about it, because I like it.

A few words about what I mean by ‘ideology’. I don’t mean a set of detailed political principles or analyses, but something like an overall view of the world, of how to act, of what has value. In that sense, we might say, modern ideology contains such ideas as ‘freedom’, ‘progress’ and ‘reason’ – which can be appropriated and used in very different ways by different particular movements (though not in absolutely any way). Religions often provide similarly ‘ideological’ terms (‘faith’, ‘sin’), which are also very flexible in practice. Ideology in this sense is generally something that links together how people understand 1) their own personal lives and actions, 2) their society and its politics, and 3) the universe and human history as a whole. It’s probably closer to an ethical code than a theory of any kind. To a certain extent it will always be a tissue of obviousness, truisms, and cliches.

Critics of ideology might describe it as the lies that a society tells itself, and they’re right in that ideology is generally 1) not strictly true – though also not strictly false, nor strictly arbitrary, and 2) useful to established interests (because if it wasn’t, they’d get it changed). But on the other hand, it seems clear to me that it’s not something that can be dispensed with, and the ideology of a supposedly ‘non-ideological’, ‘scientific’ movement (turns disapproving eye on USSR) is liable to just be bad, veiled, ideology.

So – what is the ideology of rebellion and moderation? It says

-that the experience of rebellion, an ‘essential dimension of human nature’, is the best revelation of human dignity – of ‘that part of man that must always be defended’,

-that this dignity is something shared by all humans,

-that the fact that we share our rebellion, that we defy the same fate and the same order and the same unjust world, reminds us of our community with each other.

– and that to stay true to itself, this value that rebellion reveals must be understood as ‘moderation’.

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Discussing Future Societies

So yesterday’s post somewhat bemoaned the widespread reluctance of socialists to talk positively about socialism, and explained part of why I thought it was a bad thing. But obviously it would be one-sided to not discuss some of the good reasons for this phenomenon.

1) It’s really hard. More moderate political positions can easily describe what they’re after because it’s so much closer to what exists – and even the extreme right have a slightly easier time in that they can happily declare an intention to force society into a certain mould. Bot socialists have to describe something which is both a very radical change, and also supposedly freedom-maximising, with hyper-democracy and so forth. So it’s quite likely that any substantive description will be very hard to give.

But that seems like a fairly weak reason to avoid the whole endeavour. “If something’s hard to do, it’s not worth doing” is a maxim of Homer Simpson, not of the world-historic vanguard of the proletariat. But a more developed version of this argument says

2) We’ll be wrong most of the time, and

3) It will lead to a lot of time wasted in pointless arguments – ten people will have ten visions, of which 9 will be wrong, and they will take so long debating which one is right that nothing will get done.

I think this argument rests on the assumption that talking positively about socialism means talking about what socialism will definitely be like, or even about what it must be like.

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