The REDSTAR2000 Papers

Listen to the worm of doubt, for it speaks truth. - Leftist Discussion

The Communal Polis - Identity and Organization in a Communist World October 27, 2004 by RedStar2000

This is a speculation: how communist society might be organized in a way to appeal to people's need for identity while both preserving the benefits of a "high-tech" society and the benefits of communism itself.


Man is an animal that lives in a polis -- Aristotle

The single greatest political innovation of the ancient Greeks was the establishment of the polis, or "city-state" -- Richard Hooker, 1996.

Try to imagine a communist "European Union" or a communist "North America"...what do you think it would look like?

Here are these enormous and sprawling remnants of empire, containing hundreds of millions of people...people of different languages, ethnic/cultural traditions, etc.

Is there any point to these enormous entities after class society has been overthrown?

Is there any point to the emotional identifications that people have established with them?

Are they useful for what we really want?

People do seem to have a marked tendency to emotionally identify with the geographical area where they live, with their own language, cultural/ethnic traditions, etc. I don't think it reasonable to expect that to change for a very long time...if ever.

Is there a form that would better serve our purposes than the old nation-states and empires?

I think there is...and I think the Greeks invented it 2,700 years ago: the polis.*

The traditional polis was basically a fortified city surrounded by enough agricultural land to feed itself (most of the time) and a reliable (and secure) water supply. It could (and often did) enter into alliances with other cities, but was jealous of its own autonomy. Its citizens emotionally identified with it, eagerly defended it in wartime, and often freely contributed to its welfare over and above the demands of taxation.

In Athens and some of the other cities, the institution of direct rule by the citizens in a popular assembly was invented.

As I envision it, a modern communal polis would resemble the ancient version in many respects...though, of course, on a considerably larger scale.

It would be a large city surrounded by sufficient farmland to meet most of its food requirements, would produce most of what it required in the way of technological goods, etc. It would, most likely, speak a common language and embrace a common culture...though it might remain ethnically mixed.

It would offer a source of identity "on a human scale".

It would cooperate with other such cities on projects of mutual advantage, obviously. But ultimate authority (insofar as that word would still mean something) would rest in the hands of its own popular assembly...that should consist of all citizens who wish to attend its daily meetings (supported by referendums as seen to be necessary).

There are "nations" that exist today that give us a glimpse of what such cities might look like in the future. Austria is really the "city-state of Vienna"; the Czech Republic is really the "city-state of Prague", etc. The non-aggressiveness of these small "nations" is encouraging.

Still, there is the risk that "good-natured rivalry" might spill over into "bad-natured war". The old Greek city-states quarreled nearly as often as they cooperated.

I find it difficult to imagine why one such communal polis would want to go to war with another -- though one must remember that two small central American countries fought a brief war in the last century over the outcome of a football game ("The Soccer War").

The problem of economic relations between such cities is a rather thorny one...early on, it might strongly resemble trade a lot more than we would be comfortable with. There would be no money...but it might look a lot like barter.

The communist position would be one of "generous tit-for-tat"...give the other city even more than they asked for. Let each city gradually develop the idea that "ours is the most generous and open-handed city of them all".

And things should go well.

*Note that this is one way in which communist societies might be organized. There are certain to be others.
First posted at Che-Lives on October 23, 2004


Would the "polis" of New York City give its goods to the "polis" of some little farming community just because it's nice, or would they really fear the 50-person volunteer militia?

The chances are that there wouldn't be any polis that was only a "little farming community" too would be part of a polis -- say St. Louis or Kansas City or even New York itself.

Remember, we're still talking about fairly substantial populations. The New York City polis might well consist of much of southern New York state, plus Connecticut, plus the northern half of New Jersey.

The idea is to arrange matters in such a way as to make each polis mostly self-sufficient.

This might mean in the long run the breaking down of the "huge" cities into more manageable, smaller cities. A polis of one or two million people would be a lot easier to work with than one of 15 or 20 million...and probably be a lot more pleasant to live and work in.


My main problem is that the Roman Empire was principally made up of "City States", and there would be nothing to prevent something like this occurring again...

I agree that this could turn out to be a significant risk. Rome was a "conquering" polis and its "civic ideology" was one that emphasized its "right" and "destiny" to rule all others.

Naturally, we would struggle vigorously against such a view if it began to emerge -- it would almost have to be mixed up with some sort of "racial"/cultural superiority complex.

I think all the other cities could nip the "empire-builders" in the bud -- particularly since we now know where such ideas lead.

But history is lamentably short on guarantees.
First posted at Che-Lives on October 23, 2004


What about the lack of a central public body to guarantee equality of standard of living and equality of the distribution of goods among all regions?

Well, what about it?

Is the price of "perfect equality" -- a central authority with a professional army, a prison system, etc. -- worth it?

Not to mention the economic costs of such a "central authority"...they will be the guys who get first crack at all the goodies, of course.

Your assumption is still fundamentally bourgeois: you think that unless a central authority is standing over people (with a gun!) to "make sure" that they don't grab more than their "share", that they'll do it!

In other words, people "are" incurably "greedy"...and every polis would be seen as a source of personal enrichment at the expense of poorer cities.

Perhaps that could happen; I honestly don't know.

But your "alternative" is grim beyond belief: only centralized armed force keeps people from grabbing everything they can...and probably from cannibalism as well.

If I had your unutterably bleak view of humanity, I would conclude that ruthless pursuit of self-interest would be the only rational strategy.


If a central public body can become corrupt with revisionism, why can't a local public body?

Well, it's closer and easier to see, for one thing.

Another factor is that its own corruption will not only be limited in scale and influence, but other cities will become alarmed and be in a position to take measures against the "degenerate" city.

Sure, it could happen. But the repercussions would be limited...and reversible.

When a "central authority" goes bad (and it seemingly always does), the outcome is catastrophic.
First posted at Che-Lives on October 24, 2004


What about natural disasters?

Obviously there would be some things that groups of cities would cooperate with each other...and one of those things might be a "mutual assistance pact" in the event of natural disasters.

If a hurricane struck the Miami Commune, then other Gulf Coast communes, having agreed in advance, would rush assistance to the stricken polis.

Indeed, cities in danger from hurricanes would probably sponsor collective efforts in advance of potential disaster -- such as contributing resources to keeping a weather satellite in a suitable orbit to give advance warnings.

There are some specific functions where cooperation between large numbers of cities would "make sense" inter-city rail system, for example. Cities that "signed up" would get rail service; cities that didn't, wouldn't.

Most, I think, would "sign up" for such useful services.

But the principle that I'm looking for here is not so much de-centralization as an abstract ideal, but the avoidance of any "political center of gravity" that "does everything". An arrogant and swollen bureaucracy that "knows better" than ordinary working people would, I think, turn into a new ruling class within a generation or two at most.

The communal polis is an idea to institutionalize the principle of local self-determination...there will and must be some exceptions to it, but each "exception" has to justify itself according to specific circumstances.
First posted at Che-Lives on November 12, 2004


If barter and trade DO exist in such a society, then what prospect or evidence do we have that such a practice would disappear after a while?

As I indicated, it is a thorny problem.

I think it would become a controversy. People would point out the contradiction: "we don't do this within the polis...why are we doing it with other communes?"

And they would raise exactly the point that you raised: "What's"

So I think it would be an ideological struggle...expanding the reach of communist relations versus keeping the old relations of exchange that were typical under capitalism and would, if continued, possibly result in the restoration of capitalism. (How? Imagine each polis starting to produce commodities for exchange rather than use...eventually they would become "corporations".)

Since all of the communes would be classless societies, one can presume a certain degree of "bias" in favor of communist relations between communes.

But it could get sticky.
First posted at AnotherWorldIsPossible on November 16, 2004


...certain polis' may end up being completely dependent, for example, on other polis' for resources they simply don't have or can't produce leading to exploitative trade relationships.

Yes, that could happen. However, one of the important capabilities/potentials of a technologically advanced society is the ability to substitute resources. There are many paths to providing a particular good/service and substitutes are common.

One could see the possibility of carrying independence "too far"...making inefficient choices "as a matter of principle". But if the people in one polis felt that another was "taking advantage of them", then resource substitutes would be the way to go.


Furthermore, in a modern post-industrial society I'm not sure every polis could ever be mostly self sufficient, mostly independent. Many cities simply don't have a very large manufacturing capacity, or nearly enough farmland relatively nearby to sustain a population of millions.

We don't live in a "post-industrial society"...the industry is on the other side of the planet and out of our view.

I think every polis will have to build up an industrial infrastructure or rehabilitate the one that is languishing...we cannot expect, as a communist society, to live off the industrial labor of the non-western world. There's no way to make that "fair" or "equitable".

As to farming with a "shortage" of land, there are two possible solutions and perhaps both will be used.

Most American cities are surrounded by sprawling suburbs that were (and still are being) constructed on perfectly good farmland. This suggests that the suburbs should be gradually dismantled while new housing is constructed in the city proper. Also, it should be noted that greenhouse farming is much more productive than ordinary outdoor farming. A polis short of "good land" could construct hundreds of such productive facilities. It might even prove to be fairly simple to automate them.


I just think there are too many problems with this one, in particular, to make it practicable.

You may be right. But then what are we to do with these sprawling "remnants of empire" that we will inherit from the old order? How are we to "run them" without sinking into the pit of a monstrously swollen bureaucracy?

Look at China.
First posted at AnotherWorldIsPossible on November 18, 2004


I am curious as to what you mean by "substitute resources" though.

Its meaning is the obvious one; if you don't have X (for any reason) then you substitute Y which will serve the same purpose, more or less.

In a high-tech society, many such substitutions are, in principle, possible. They don't exist now (for the most part) because cheaper alternatives are available.

But if there were important reasons to develop them, then they would work.


As for alternatives, I suppose I'd like to see a system similar to the one set up in the wake of Russia's October revolution, i.e. one in which the Soviets of workers did, in fact, hold supreme power. You seem to think the degeneration into bureaucratic, authoritarian tendencies is inevitable; I disagree and feel it was more a result of material conditions in Russia at the time than anything else.

It was Marx's insight that a workers' parliament should combine the functions of what we think of as legislative and executive. Think of what this would mean in a polis...and what it would mean for a huge and populated territory like the United States.

Secondly, think of the numbers of "workers' delegates" that would be involved. A polis might get by with a "soviet" of 500 members and be fairly representative; a similar degree of representation for the entire United States would require a "soviet" of 30,000 delegates or more. It would have to meet in a stadium.

Such a huge body would become ceremonial...and real power would drift to (or be grabbed by) subcommittees, special assistants, etc.

In short, it would become heavily bureaucratized.

I agree with you that material conditions ultimately determined the unhappy fates of Russia, China,

But I disagree with Max Weber and all his contemporary descendants that "modern society must have an elaborate bureaucracy".

No doubt it needs some...but as communists, I think we should be heavily biased against it from the beginning.

A polis could be bureaucratic, of course. But the bureaucracy would be small enough to directly struggle against and even remove entirely, if that were required.

A vast centralized bureaucracy, especially one with a professional army at its disposal, can only be overcome with a second revolution.

And those cannot be arranged "as needed".
First posted at AnotherWorldIsPossible on November 18, 2004
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