Communism, that specter used in the US to demonize anything left of fascism. That’s nonsense, of course, but real communism is indeed not that pretty.
You can’t understand communism without first dealing with Marxism.
Way back in the 19th century, a German (nope, not a Russian) called Karl Marx developed a theory about how society worked. The basis of this theory was that all societal changes were the result of struggles between social classes. A society has a production that drives it and regulations that determine how that production works. Those regulations lead to social classes. Instabilities in this system lead to class conflicts, which then result in a new system.
In Marx’s view, society was on a path that had started with tribal societies and had progressed to nineteenth century capitalism, through such conflicts. Capitalist bourgeoisie was exploiting the masses of workers (the proletariat) more and more. This would inevitably lead to a revolution. The proletariat would rise up and then create a society where they owned the means of production instead of the bourgeoisie. People would work to their abilities and consume what they needed.
This societal growth is — according to Marx — inevitable.
You can agree or disagree with this. However, communism is definitely not what Marx thought up.
Marx’s theories gained traction during the beginning of the twentieth century, and that came to a head in Russia. First, Russia had a revolution to a sort-of democratic society in 1905. This led to the formation of the Duma (yes, that still exists) and a constitution. However, the Tsar remained in power. Then World War I happened and things did not go well for Russia. A new revolution followed in 1917, and the revolutionaries killed the Tsar. This set the stage for the Marxist utopia. Sort of.
What happened, though, was not the proletariat workers rising up against their oppressors. A small group of people — led by Vladimir Lenin — seized power, claiming to represent the proletariat. They would bring about the Marxist utopia by force, ‘for the people’. Lenin and his party set up a system where the state owned everything, and they owned the state. Of course, this is not quite what Karl Marx had in mind.
It got worse, because when Lenin died, Joseph Stalin took over. Stalin was the inspiration for Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984, and he was a dictator. Like Orwell wrote about communism in Animal Farm: all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.
Communism (which has several flavors like Leninism, Stalinism, and the Chinese versions like Maoism) is basically just a form of autocratic rule over the poor masses, because a small group of people ‘know best’. It should be noted here that I oversimplified a bit: Lenin represented a single faction in the communist revolution. But that really doesn’t change the outcome.
Socialism is actually older than Marxism. Karl Marx expanded on the socialist basis of others. Marx expanded it, then reasoned it was inevitable that society would evolve to a utopia.
Socialism simply says that society as a whole should own the means of production. Marxism builds on that idea, but communism clearly does not. In communism, a small group of people is in charge. Ostensibly, those people are elected democratically, but neither communist Russia nor communist China ever held truly free elections. If the only choice is a choice of a single communist party, then it’s not free.
Secondly, communism makes everything state-owned. Socialism says ‘the people’ own the means of production and the democratically elected government distributes the produced wealth. A somewhat subtle difference, but significant.
Why I don’t like it
One can argue about the effectiveness of Communist Russia and the People’s Republic of China, but that’s rather pointless. One existed for decades, the other is still around. I’m not a fan of either, but it is a form of government that’s reasonably sustainable. That doesn’t say it’s a good idea, just that it works good enough not to fall apart.
I think the philosophy itself is flawed. The basic idea that people will work according to their abilities and be rewarded according to their needs is just bad. The problem, in my opinion, is that this creates unfairness. Imagine you work twice as hard as a colleague, but your boss pays you the same. Not very motivating, is it? Our sense of fairness is hard-wired into our brains, meaning we can’t turn it off. Marxism and communism in general, and communism especially, have unfairness baked in. So that’s a fundamental problem.
Even less extreme socialists have a distrust of wealth. This is not wrong, the 1% of wealthiest people in the world have a sickening portion of the wealth of the world. However, that does not mean that all differences in wealth are undeserved and should be corrected. Like I said in my post about libertarianism, I don’t hold with this idea, even though the reverse is not true either: not all differences in wealth are the result of hard work, either.
I’m a centrist, baby
I’ve been called left-wing, even a lefty fascist (which would technically make me a Stalinist, I think). But that’s really not the case. I believe in the middle ground between libertarianism and socialism:
We should have a democratic government whose goal is to ensure all citizens have equal chances in life.
I’ve spoken before about Thomas Piketty, a french economist specialized in wealth inequality. He posits that you can gain exponentially more money from capital (wealth) than from labor (income). To me that translates to a path that is neither ‘left’, nor ‘right’. The government should curb the monetary gain from capital, while it supports the monetary gain from income. And in a way that ensures people receive equal income for equal work. Basically, it should make sure everybody has an equal chance at success in life.
It also highlights the problem with the ‘left’ and ‘right’ spectrum. It’s a flawed way of looking at politics. Autocratic vs. democratic is a whole different thing than capitalism vs. communism, but we put those on the same spectrum. You can argue the semantics, but that really doesn’t solve this problem in labeling our political parties. But I’m drifting off topic.
I don’t like communism, and I hope this has shown why. I think it’s also sad that we live in a time where reasonably centrist views are considered ‘leftist’, while inequality-breeding capitalism is considered the norm.
It will be interesting to see where the world goes in the next decade as the Covid crisis abates and the climate crisis comes into full swing. Hopefully a more ‘left’ revival, so we end up somewhere in the center.