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Was the USSR Communist?

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Misunderstanding Communism
Soviet Union pavilion at New York World's Fair...

Overwhelmingly, most people’s understanding of what Communism is, comes from an extremely propagandistic presentation of the Soviet Union, generally by US right-wing sources. This would give you the idea that communism is supposed to be very authoritarian, rigidly collectivistic and anti-democratic.

This misconception is unfortunately so wide-spread that it’s not infrequent to be called a mass murderer wannabe for simply bringing it up and even though it is trivial to find out what Communism really is and how it works, this exasperatingly wrong view of it nevertheless persists in even otherwise brilliant minds.

So let me say this first: Whatever view you may have of the USSR (and there are quite a few supporters of Stalinism out there), it was not Communism.

Now, before you hasten to leave me a comment about Scotsmen and the like, it is important to know that the original thoughts of Marx and Engels were indeed the absolute opposite of Stalinism, Maoism etc. The fact that one can create a system and label it “Communism” does not make it so, anymore than North Korea is a “Democracy” or a “Republic”. Perhaps one can label it “Socialism” but this term is by itself ambiguous and does not necessarily equate to Marxism.

That is not to say that Russia did not really attempt Communism. It did, and it managed to achieve socialism for a very short while immediately after the revolution. But this newly-fledged socialism was defeated in the most humilating way. Not only did the counter-revolution won over the communists but it kept the name and the symbols to the overjoy of the capitalist of the rest of the world. Russian communism ceased to exist as soon as Stalin came to power.

But if USSR was not Communism what was it? Well, by the way it actually worked, the most fitting description for it is State Capitalism. Simply, the state took on the role of the ultimate Capitalist and set about exploiting the workers. Some of the practices it had, like the suppression of individuality, the strict hierarchical spread of power and the like, are identical to the ones within a common Capitalist corporation anyway. Others, like it’s inability to work efficiently or its large bureaucracy are problems that any sufficiently large corporation has as well. There hasn’t been a corporation of the sheer size of the Soviet Union of course so a direct comparison is impossible, but looking at the dinosauric movements of some of the biggest ones certainly points to that direction.

Another common opinion on this Communism = USSR misunderstanding is the claim that Communism has proven to be a failure. This attempts to show that the path Russia took in the early 20th century is the only possible result any attempt for Communism can achieve and thus it is not worth struggling towards it. But this is not simply wrong, it is intellectually dishonest. This assumes that the very unique situation Russia had to struggle is the common situation any communist revolution will have to face which is simply absurd.

Not only was the situation unique but their attempt was doomed from the start. The reason for this is that Communism requires Capitalism to exist before it can take over. It needs the hugely increased level of production achieved with it and the exploitation of the workers is what creates the revolutionary force. Russia attempted to jump directly from Feudalism (with a small growing capitalist class) to Communism while skipping the phase in between and ended up dislocating itself1. This is also the case with China as well. An agrarian society simply cannot support Communism, especially not when opposed from the rest of the world.

To extrapolate from these example to anything that may happen during our age is simply disingenuous. Not only do we have the production required to not suffer the same fate but we have many tools in our disposal that the Revolutionaries of last century couldn’t even dream of. The instant, international information exchange we can achieve now can easily be the most important.

It is simply practically impossible at this point for any attempt at communism to take even a similar path to the one of USSR and if it is achieved, it will look nothing like it.

Further Reading

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  1. This is not the only reason by far, but it is outside the scope of this article to go into much depth with this. If you’re interested more on the subject, read this very important book []

Communism is not a religion

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series Misunderstanding Communism

One argument that I tend not to hear very often but occasionally stumble onto, is the accusation that Communism or Marxism is akin to a religion, that is, something based on faith.

The reason this is used strikes me more like a way to hit a soft spot on an Atheist or skeptic, rather than an attempt at true argumentation. Indeed, such a claim does not tackle any of the core tenets of Communism such as the labour theory of value, the explanation of capitalist shortcomings etc, but rather takes a generic shallow look at the history of attempted Communism and draws conclusions from that.

So let’s see what the arguments might be.

It is not based on science

Communism as any other socioeconomic system is not based on the scientific method. The scientific method requires an observation to happen before it can create a theory but you cannot observe a system that does not exist yet.

Capitalism is not based on the scientific method either. It did not come about because some scientists sat down and observed the current feudal system and found out that capitalism is a more optimal choice. No. It first came about and then the pseudo-science of economics set out to find out the rules that control it.

If anything else, Marxism is a absolutely materialistic philosophy and considers that only science can discover the truth about the world. In this regard, it is diametrically opposed to any other religion.

It is based on faith

As a completely faithless person, such an accusation seems absurd to me. For something to be based on faith, it needs to be believed regardless of conflicting evidence. But no such evidence exist against Communism.

This is doubtly untrue since things based on faith tend to be hammered onto the minds of children in order to stick. The enemy of faith is reason. Certainly it is possible that someone is brainwashed as a child to be a Communist, but such a person would be a very poor example of one as for Communism to work, it requires conscious, skeptical, critical and active people who can take action into their own hands and be willing to cooperate with others democratically. A passive, brainwashed follower might be fitting for a Stalinist regime but can never be considered a Communist unless he starts accepting the theory based on reason instead of faith.

Personally, I was always very critical of Communism for the same reason everyone else in the world is. Misunderstanding of what it really is. I only started accepting it once I dug a bit deeper and started criticizing my own preconceptions.

It is evangelising

This is the accusation that, like any religion, Communism requires people to spread the knowledge of it to others before they can accept it.

Like any idea before it, there is no way to spread it except through discussion with people who know about it. The idea of Capitalism, markets and merchants did not spread itself. Humanity did not begin with a part of it being merchants or capitalists. These classes of people were created when someone thought of the concept and then started spreading it to others, thought words and actions.

If this is a definition of a religion, then any idea is a religion.

It has a holy book, prophets and apostles.

This is absolutely untrue by the common definition of those terms. The Communist Manifesto is simply the expression of the part of an idea and as such it is subject to improvement as any other idea. It is not a dogma. The people who accepted Communism and spreaded the word can no more be called Prophets than Adam Smith who spread the idea of Capitalism. Nor can leaders who accept one idea over another make that idea a religion.

Finally

It is very easy to stretch the meaning of words in order to make a term less positive to the people who might embrace it. But this is a dishonest tactic. If one wishes to tackle Communism, the best way to do so is through rational dialogue on the actual points it proposes. Like any philosophy and idea, there will certainly be people who are dogmatic about it, but that does not describe the philosophy as a whole.

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Does communism stiffle individualism?

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Misunderstanding Communism
Peasants having lunch in a commune.

The most scary concept for anyone who considers communism seems to be the idea that it requires the total submission of the individual will for the good of the country, the state or the party. This misconception is happily perpetuated by the capitalist propaganda machine who gives you such great images as people having to wear the same clothes, sing the same songs and share the same toothbrush.

Indeed such a thought is terrifying enough that it’s enough for the propaganda machine to label anything it does not wish to happen as communism and start rolling out those images to scare the public to the path they want, as is what happened with the first attempt of US for universal healthcare when Hillary was pushing for it.

But not only is Communism not against the individual but it is the only real celebration of individualism possible and It aims to achieve this through positive freedom. Under communism people are supposed to have the liberty and the capability to do whatever they wish, as long as this does not inhibit the liberty and capability of others to do the same.

Now I can just imagine the anarcho-capitalists (or “libertarians” as the US Americans like to call them) jumping up to cry foul. They consider that true freedom is when one has just the liberty to do something, as long as they do not infringe on the liberty of others. But this is simply the illusion of freedom. Are you free when you can wear any type of cloth you like but you can’t afford anything more than plain brown?

No. Negative freedom is simply the freedom for some to reduce the freedom of others through non-violent means.

Think of the freedom Communism provides as the freedom which exists between a couple. Both have a voluntary relationship within which they agree to limit their freedom in order so that one is not degraded for the benefit of the negative freedom of the other.  Thus, while they both have the freedom to wear whatever clothes they want, have their own possessions and totally different taste, they do not have the freedom to avoid doing their share of the chores, for then, the burden falls on the other and the relationship is strained. But no one would ever consider such a limitation as an affront to liberty.

And this is the kind of limitation Communism demands. It requires that people voluntary do their part of societal “chores” simply so that all the burden does not fall to the few unlucky. It requires that people do not take actions which reduce the freedom of everyone else. It only demands that people be equal, not identical.

Other than that, it is of no consequence how each person chooses to live his own life. It is exactly because under communism you do not have to limit yourself in any way in order to survive that people are truly free. Aren’t you jealous of all those small startup companies whos employees get to work whenever and however they want? Imagine that not only every job was like that, but you also had the freedom to do exactly the kind of work you want, without worrying if it’s economically feasible.

Having said all that, it is worth pointing out that there is a system that does restrict your freedom. This system not only requires that you do a kind of work that you do not like in order to survive, but it frequently requires you to conform to the wishes of the company to a large degree. From the demand for a suit&tie, to personal styling to outright uniforms. This is not only demanded in work but can even start as early as school years. Not only that, but it breeds a uniform culture where every artist ends up sounding the same and the only new things to wear are what others tell you in the form of trends.

This system is, of course Capitalism. The system where true freedom is reserved only for the rich.

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Communism is not statist

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Misunderstanding Communism
The triumph of bureaucracy.

Whenever most people think of Communism, they assume a big fucking government which is responsible for the central planning and the running of the society as a whole as the benevolent rulers think best. This preconception once again generally comes from the way Socialist regimes of the 20th century have ended up running their shows and as I pointed out in the first part of this series, they do not represent communism.

Indeed a statist Communism is an oxymoron for, by definition, Communism is stateless. There is not central planning commitee, no benevolent leader-for-life, no bureaucracy.

In the original ideas of Karl Marx, Communism was always supposed to be the end result when the state had finally withered away. The only situation where state exists is under socialism which is the stepping stone to Communism. But the state of Socialism is not in any form the state which you are aware now or the one of Stalinist Russia either. Is is a completely new beast.

The state of Socialism is based on the working class and the point of it, as opposed to the current example of state, is to protect the rights of the majority against the assault of the minority.

It is not based on location, it is based on profession.

The elected repressentatives do not simply come from a general location and thus put forward the requests of the workers, farmers, capitalists etc as the current system is. Instead they are the repressentatives of the workers. One for the car workers, one for the computer techs, one for the scientists and the like. As such these repressentatives not only put forward the requests of a group of people who have a very close interest in their actions but they are themselves part of those people.

The current crop of politicians who generally end up being either progeny from rich families or people from professions which make a lot of money (ie lawyers), thus they have no interest or knowledge of the working class situations. If they look elitist, foreign and untouchable, it’s because they are. They have nothing in common with the lower class so how do you expect them to know what is good for you or others like you?

Unlike them, socialist delegates should know exactly what the people they represent want and if they do not, then they cannot hide behind excuses. Everyone of their group will understand their language and failings and they will be recalled and replaced.

It is not supposed to be untouchable

The most important thing that changes in the socialist state is that elections do not happen only infrequently, making it difficult for people to decide if their chosen representatives did their job or not. The members of the state are supposed to be subject to, if not instant, at the least very quick recalls when they do not represent their people anymore.

The state machine is not for the protection of the state

Currently the police and the army are not there to protect the citizens. They are there in order to stop the majority of citizens from fighting with the capitalists. When the poor and homeless rise up and demand to occupy the empty buildings of the rich, it is against them that the army will turn.

In the socialist state there is no army and police force as a separate force from the workers. This is simply part of a societal “chore” that the members of the working class must do in order to protect themselves from outside forces or from people who would destroy them in order to take power. Thus these forces are constantly changing and their members mingle with the working class, insuring that they will be protected from propaganda and not turn against their own people.

The withering of the state

All of these characteristics of the state above, are not about Communism. They are about socialism. This state is not there to control the people but to protect them from those who would use force or intrigue to dismantile the new system. Once this danger has gone away, this state has no reason to exist anymore. There is no need for many people to do the “army chore” when there is no external country ready to invade and enforce capitalism on them, and thus slowly there will be less and less people doing it until the army slowly withers away. Similarly there will be no reason for police or any other state instrument.

Only once the state has withered away can a society be said to be in Communism.

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But won’t communism lead to stagnation?

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Misunderstanding Communism
Aparent Stagnation

Communism is frequently accused of having a system which promotes laziness and drudgery. They posit that this happens because as in the system everyone is equal and the incentive of people to compete with their fellow man is not there, nobody feels the need to innovate, be creative or productive. And since the state will reward everyone the same no matter what they do, as in a prisoner’s dillema, people will prefer to “defect” from work.

This problem did seem realistic to me when I knew little about it and before I actually gave more thought to it. How indeed do you make people work if they are not going to be rewarded for their trouble anymore than their lazy ass neighbour who sits and watches television all day?

The answer to this problem lies in understanding that reward does not drop down from the non-existent state but that simply the reward of each worker comes from the work they do. One of the core tenets of communism is that the total value of labour, which includes the surplus value which currently goes to the non-working capitalist, belongs to the worker who produces it.

Lets say that I work in a factory making cars with a thousand other people and we make a 1000 cars, each of us ends up owning one. Once I have a car, either I can keep working in the same factory (say because I like the work or because I do not care to learn anything else) or I can move to another job, say making computers.

But what about the people who don’t want to work in the car factory. Don’t they get a car? Of course they do. It’s very easy for a car factory to give one car to each of its workers and after that, the rest of the cars can be given for free for anyone who requests one. And why not? After all, while working at the car factory, I got to eat food for free from the bakers, got the raw material for free from the steel and plastic workers,  got to enjoy culture for free from the artists etc1.

As such, the incentive of people to be productive lies in the fact that they will get to own the result of their increased productivity. Not only that, but people have a large incentive to be more productive because that way they get to work less hours.

If you think that this is an unrealistic scenario and that this can never work you might be benefit from looking at the free software movement.
Why does a Free Software programmer help coding a program when he’s not getting paid for it? Very often it’s because he needs it to do something he can’t at the moment. But why do it for free instead of selling his labour to the highest bidder? It’s because he knows that he will get to reap the results of his labour. Not only that but once more programmers join, he will get to reap the results of their labour as well, while all of them get to work less hours individually.
Furthermore, the Free software programmer knows that there are other free software programmers out there who do the same thing as he, but in their own projects. He gets to reap the results of their labour and they do the same. Similar to my previous example of cars for food, raw materials and art.

But the free software movement is comprised from generally middle class people who can afford to do it as a hobby, generally middle class people or students. Most cannot concentrate their full potential on it because they must put a good part of it on their normal work or school. Imagine what they would do if they could work totally free without worrying about survival. Imagine what any other worker could do if he had the freedom these renegade programmers do.

‘But what about innovation?’ I hear you ask. What’s the point of someone inventing new gadgets, systems or whatnot? I already mentioned that people have an incentive to be more productive as in that way they will get to work less hours. Well, this is what machines do isn’t it? They make people more productive. The workers have thus an incentive to create new and better machinery in order to reduce the time they have to spend working.

Medicine? Art? As is obvious from even our current culture, people who are inclined to those paths generally provide their own incentive. An artist keeps creating despite the fact that in our capitalist culture he cannot make any money of it. If anything, under Communism instead of the pop-culture we have to endure because it’s the only thing that can bring a profit, artists can follow their own muse and create the new and interesting things they should. Instead of medicine and science being driven by profit, with all the known problems of that, it will be driven by need and creativity. A future Tesla will not have to die poor and starving because his exciting new science could not find sponsors or he did not understand economics, but rather will have the necessities he needs to focus on his work as much as he needs.

Of course, it is conceivable that social parasites will manage to find a way to survive within communism. Perhaps they will prefer to hide how little they work, or they will group together and avoid working, I don’t know. The thing is that it’s much more difficult to hide from the people you have to work with who know they will have to pick up the slack. Where in a capitalist corporation the parasite can simply suck up to the boss and get off lightly, in Communism, there is no boss to speak of and the other workers will quickly put them in their place when they discover them, or at worst, ostracise them.

But lets take the worst case scenario, that somehow these parasites manage to survive and hide within a communist system. What is the difference from our current system? Under capitalism we have parasites who not only don’t need hide but are actually the ones who wield all the power. They’re called Capitalists. The rich do not need to work, their money works for them. All they need to do is sit around all day and give orders to the ones who are not as rich as they. The life of the rich is one who does not contribute anything to society and gets to reap all the benefits. And the worst part is that the overwhelming percentage of them do not even need to work to reach that level. They simply are born into wealth.

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  1. This does not happen through state allocation but rather through classic supply & demand. I will attempt to tackle this in another post []

Does Communism need a State?

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Misunderstanding Communism
Moscow State University
Image by Eldar via Flickr

The Barefoot Bum takes a look at the concept of the State under Communism and discovers that there will be a need to retain some form of a state instrument, in order to both maintain balance so as to avoid negative effects from failed Prisoners Dilemma outcomes and also to have a central planning in order to provide long-term planning and guide complex manufacturing.

The later part of the argument, the need to have a central planning which allows complex processes to be guided has also been brought up by others, such as my recent argument with BadTux. In his case he brought it as an argument against central planning however.

The argument of the Barefoot Bum is based on the premise that very complex and long term plans are impossible to be achieved by a federated solution as these individuals and groups would be unable to plan beyond their short term interests and they would furthermore have an incentive to take actions which would be harming in the long-term, once their careers of lives have expired.

This however implies that a central planning comitee or a state would be able to foresee and plan such long term effects. I do not believe this is the case. If the individuals (who have the best knowledge about their sector) taking these actions are unable to foresee their results, then it’s unlikely that external viewers would. If they can foresee their results to have a long-term harming effect, then it means that others in their sector would be able to see that as well and raise the signs of alarm, and lacking the “greed” motive (which is impossible to retain under Communism), individuals would not have the incentive to turn a blind eye to such actions.

I believe that such planning, if possible to be achieved through a state, is possible to be achieved without a state as well, through federated methods. There is not reason why these experts need to monopolize the use of force and give the orders to the syndics. All of these can just as well be achieved by the syndics retaining their own experts or leader who also provide some valuable service to the manufacturing process. Those people can then simply get together when the need arises to arrange the long-term path they should take.

As to the argument of increased complexity, well there is nothing inherently impossible in it. When we have a very complex manufacturing process, requiring the cooperation of dozens of thousands of people (such as the creation of a computer) then the individual syndics of workers are perfectly capable of arranging it themselves. All they need to do is send committees (and now with the internet, even that is not necessary) to the syndic of the factory which produces the item they require and simply convince them that there is a benefit in providing these items to them, on a higher priority than others who request them. The committee of the receiving syndic would then allocate the items depending on the perceived need and benefits, through a democratic process.

Such was the case for example during the Russian Revolution, when the production of energy fell suddenly wholly to the hands of the Soviets which then managed to arrange the receiving of raw materials and maintenance items through the use of such committees to the Soviets of the Coal producing plant etc.

But there is also a large negative inherent in the use of a state apparatus. The people running central committees and the like, by the nature of their work would be separated from the workforce and thus be away form the needs of the proletariat. Furthermore they would be able to wield power and it is widely known that power corrupts. People in these positions would have an incentive to fortify their position and also to expand their power. This is the biggest failing of a state apparatus, the tendency to become entrenched and corrupted.

Marx I believe recognised this and this is why he gave the socialist state the very explicit task of simply protecting the proletariat from a counter-revolution. As this threat went away, the role of the state diminishes until it is not required anymore when the society has stabilized. The withering of the state. By giving the state extra legitimate duties, you are giving it a reason to continue its existence and a ledge from which to expand its power (“If as a state we’re necessary now to manage the complex long-term planning, in the future, where the planning is even more complex, we are needed even more. So give us some more power”)

If indeed long-term complex planning cannot be achieved without a state by a newly born communist society, then I would be in favour of removing the state and getting back to a less technological world in the short term. As long as the living humans were able to secure food and shelter, things which require only the lowest technology, then we could start from the basics and then work out the system from which to produce the more advanced items. The knowledge to do so would still be there and we would simply have to innovate in the field of communist logistics. Among thousands of brilliant minds searching for a workable solution to this problem, I’m certain there wouldn’t be too long until the system required was discovered.

A small step back would certainly be a small price to pay to guarantee that the basis of a classless society is preserved. And I even doubt that such a step back would even be necessary.

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