By communism here we mean a system in which the principle of:
From each according to their ability, to each according to their need
Is implemented as the sole principle of economic distribution.
There has never been a a advanced communist society- only societies that aspire to communism in the long run. Money still existed in the Soviet Union, China and Cuba. The state paid some people more than others, and not on the basis of their extra need. It is not clear that there has ever existed a advanced society that even had the capacity to build communism.
There are I think two main objections to the possibility of a technologically advanced communist society, viz:
- The incentive problem
- The calculation problem
The incentive problem is the problem of making sure the work gets done, especially boring, dangerous and stressful work. If everyone gets paid on the basis of need rather than effort, why would anyone want to do these kinds of work?
The calculation problem is more technical, you can read about it here.
These are tricky problems. One way to respond to these difficulties is to give up on communism- for years I did just that, in favour of social democracy or democratic socialism. Another response comes, ironically, from a libertarian I knew in University.
I was putting to this libertarian the technical problems with anarcho-capitalism. These include the provision of public goods and management of externalities. I argued that these problems showed anarcho-capitalism was either impossible or undesirable. His response to this was twofold:
- A) Anarcho-capitalism is a regulatory ideal- an organising concept for political action. Something can serve as such an ideal even if we don’t yet know if it is possible.
- B) The world we live in would have been unimaginable through most of history. To foreclose on the possibilities of the future would be foolish. Tremendous changes in technology and social institutions await.
Although I’m certainly no anarcho-capitalist, I think this is not a bad defence of aspiring to anarcho-capitalism, despite the technical difficulties.
These days, this is how I feel about communism. There are forces that push in the direction of communism. Communism is a good regulatory ideal for those forces. It unifies the most radical progressive tendencies in society. Will it ever happen? Predicting the direction of social and technical advances in advance is impossible so it would be foolish to rule it out. Insomuch as it centres human needs in the productive and distributive process it is a good aspiration.
Note: Consider especially advances in AI and transhuman enhancement.
We need to be exact about what is being proposed here. I’m not arguing “No one can prove communism is impossible, hence we should believe that it is possible.” That would be to substitute faith for reason. Instead, the idea is that “We don’t know whether communism will ever be possible but it may well be. Moreover there are reasons to think it is desirable, and we can take steps to try and approximate it better in the present, so it is right to aspire to it.”
The danger of an aspiration like communism is that it can overwhelm more specific social plans for the coming decades. So long we avoid this danger, we should happily regard ourselves as communists.
I wanted to talk about another issue which is quite logically distinct, but which I regard as emotionally linked: reform vs revolution. What I say here will not be new to anyone who has thought about this for a few years, but I remember that there was a time that I didn’t understand it, so maybe it will be helpful for some.
There is no absolute divide between revolutionary and reformist strategies. There are only degrees.
The most obvious reason this is true is that winning reforms can increase revolutionary morale and organisation. Conversely, the threat of revolution can win reforms.
The deeper, often missed point is that winning elections can create legitimacy for an anti-capitalist movement. If the deep state then responds through a coup, a revolution can happen in the defence of an elected government- revealing and hopefully defeating the true nature of the repressive apparatus(1). If successful, such a revolution can then dismantle the existing capitalist state. For this reason, revolution and electoral victory shouldn’t be counter-posed strategically, at least not in an absolute sense.
Engels describes how revolution can be a defensive option, once the state represses legal methods:
“[…] Be that as it may, for the time being it is not we who are being destroyed by legality. It is working so well for us that we would be mad to spurn it as long as the situation lasts. It remains to be seen whether it will be the bourgeois and their government who will be the first to turn their back on the law in order to crush us by violence. That is what we shall be waiting for. You shoot first, messieurs les bourgeois.
No doubt they will be the first ones to fire. One fine day the German bourgeois and their government, tired of standing with their arms folded, witnessing the ever increasing advances of socialism, will resort to illegality and violence.”