The REDSTAR2000 Papers

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

Can We Ever Say How Communism Will "Work"? August 16, 2003 by RedStar2000

That awkward question!

Imagine a visionary merchant banker in 15th century Florence or Venice. He "knows" that his new capitalism is far superior to feudalism. He sees how rotten and destructive the feudal order around him really is.

But when some smart-ass aristocrat asks in a sneering tone "Well, how will your new capitalist system work?", what can he say?? Was there any way he could have predicted industrialization? Or the bourgeois revolutions?

The most he could do, I think, is vigorously assert the superiority of learning over ignorance, initiative over passivity, commerce over wealth in land and serfs.

It's kind of like that for us.


Revolutionary communists and anarchists are often taunted by both capitalists and reformists with the snide question: how does your system work, anyway?

The implications are many: we "don't understand human nature" or "incentives". Or we think people are capable of dramatic changes over a brief period of time, something contrary to (carefully selected) "history". Or we are simply "wishful dreamers" who "don't understand" even the rudiments of production and distribution.

Leninists, who often claim to share our ultimate goal, also jump into the fray...arguing that "many generations" will be required to "train people" in the habits of communism before they can be trusted with such liberties.

These are "awkward" questions for us; we are not "social engineers" by training or inclination. Living in class society, our first priority is to overthrow its totality and that's where our mental and physical resources tend to be concentrated.

We are not "constructive".

Making matters more difficult, of course, is predicting the level of development of the means of production and distribution at some indefinite point in the future when communist revolution takes place. Yet it is that level that determines what it is really possible to actually do.

An anarcho-communist in 1950 who attempted to construct a plausible "plan" of future society for the year 2000 would have been unaware of personal computers, the internet, cell phones, the explosion of information, globalization, nuclear energy as anything more than speculation, and likely a good deal else. Her "plan" would have become obsolete within a couple of decades.

This sort of thing is not a problem for reformists (whether they call themselves "socialists" or something else); at their most radical, they simply plan to remove the old capitalist class and otherwise leave things "about the same" as they are now or will be in the future.

Most Leninists are not terribly concerned either; they think their model--the USSR--will work "fine" with some "tweaking"...computerized central planning, more consumer goodies, stricter control of the "secret police", etc. They are probably right about that.

So why should anyone listen to us? Why should anyone take our expressed goal--a classless society--at all seriously? It's "vague" and "fuzzy", lacks coherent details, and is "counter-intuitive". It "sounds" attractive but, in the context of bourgeois society, looks more like "Heaven" than a real human society on earth. Considering that all of recorded history is a history of class societies, one can hardly fault the skeptics. It is "realistic common sense" to plan for modest and gradual "improvements" in things; even the Leninists, while paying lip-service to "revolution", actually "plan" to convince people to elect them to bourgeois parliaments where they too will introduce "socialism" in an "orderly" and "disciplined" fashion.

Thus I would contend that any "plan" for classless society must sound wildly "utopian" is "too different" from everything we "know" about daily life in class society and "think we know" about "human nature".

That doesn't mean, of course, that we should "ignore" the question or dismiss it as irrelevant. What it does mean is that any "plan" we might produce would, most likely, be obsolete as soon as it was written. Only in the period actually leading up to the revolution would a "plan" possibly make sense for that particular period in time, be relevant to the objective conditions of that period.

So if I or anyone says "this is how production will work" or "this is how consumer goods will be distributed" in classless society, we are really constrained by our ignorance of the future, and the "plan" may well turn out to be utterly meaningless.

And, of course, there are our personal limitations. I may have, as some have said, "an ego the size of Mount Everest"...yet even I recognize the inevitable limitations of a single mind at work; it is highly improbable that a single "genius" will come up with a "unified plan" that will resolve all difficulties.

The premise of real communist revolution involves the efforts of millions and tens of millions of people, who will bring their collective "wisdom" to bear on the details of communist society. There will be thousands and tens of thousands of "plans" and matters will be very disorganized for a number of years and perhaps even decades. There will be no powerful central authority to impose a particular plan over all of society; instead people will see what "works" and what is truly "impractical".

Initially, I expect communist society to be economically "simpler" than the old order...just getting the "basics" in good working order again will be a demanding task. But in a wider social sense, I expect a substantial increase in complexity as all of the old social institutions are dismantled or thoroughly reconstructed.

There will almost certainly be new kinds of economic networks...perhaps very different from anything that we are familiar with. We can call them "production for use" but how they will really work is difficult to anticipate. We know people won't "buy and sell" and we're pretty sure that they won't will they decide who gets what? And how will they decide who produces what and how much?

We can speculate within certain general constraints. Social decisions must be made by directly democratic methods as far as practical; by mandated and recallable delegates otherwise. People must have direct "hands-on" control of their working conditions and considerable voice in "what" they produce; certainly no one can be "commanded" to produce something they despise.

Whatever forms distribution might take, they must all conform to the dictate of free availability for use, probably on the basis of "first come, first served".

Yet, it must be admitted that saying these things is "not saying very much" in the eyes of capitalists, reformists, and most Leninists. They will continue to demand something from us as "proof" of our "seriousness" that we can't really deliver...a "plan" that would hypothetically "work" under the constraints of the present social order and all the social implications thereof. Our failure to suggest a form of "classless society" that could "work" within the assumptions of class society (capitalist or socialist) will "forever" be seen as "proof" of our "utopianism" and "irrelevance".

Perhaps that is a "disadvantage" that we'll just have to live with.
First posted at Che-Lives on July 25, 2003

As a matter of fact, there's almost nothing in the entire collected works of Marx and Engels about "how communism will work" except some very general remarks along the lines that I indicated in my original post.

Even your hero, Lenin, complained of this--saying that after the revolution "we didn't know what to one had studied that". Lenin himself, by the way, pretty much copied every scrap and fragment of Marx and Engels on communist society that he could locate when he wrote State and Revolution.

We could, if we wanted to and thought it would be useful, attempt to "plan the details" of a hypothetical communist society...but it would be an academic exercise since we have no way of knowing the actual conditions that will exist then--and it still wouldn't satisfy capitalists, reformists, and most Leninists because they would immediately respond: "people are not like that". And that is true; people in classless society are really different from people in class society.

Sometimes, I think that's what bothers them more than anything else.
First posted at Che-Lives on July 28, 2003


Based on the fact that the only thing in communism that we can possibly "forsee" is the revolution, how do we know Communism can ever be succesful? Especially when the conditions of it working are incredibly vague....

Of course, we can't.

All we can put forward with any conviction is general if we were saying "If communism works, these will be its main characteristics." That's what I tried to do in the "What is Communism?" thread.

Some have suggested that since the details of a future society are perforce impossible to foresee with any accuracy, that we simply shouldn't discuss it at all and concentrate on preparing for communist revolution.

I agree, but with one exception...there is no reason why we cannot make a "wish list". Another word for "wish list" is, of course, the minimum that we would find acceptable.

A "communist" society that was still racist would be unacceptable. A "communist" society that was still patriarchal would be unacceptable.

You see where I'm going with this? There is no reason not to demand everything that we want...and that list can be in as much detail as you wish.

When someone says to you "Oh, you can't ask for that now...wait until later, after the revolution, and we'll talk about it then...", look out! You're about to get screwed!

This kind of point is usually raised in the context of "appeals to unity for limited gains" but can include the revolution itself. The "rationale" is that "in order to maximize support for our 'main' purpose, we must be careful not to 'offend' some part of the population that would otherwise support us".

For example, we must "unite" with liberal capitalists in order to defeat fascism.

The consequence of accepting that rationale is the gradual erosion of our revolutionary ideas until they eventually become liberal bourgeois ideas. An idea that "stays inside your head" and is never communicated to others "for fear of offending them" and thereby "disrupting unity" is an idea that withers away.

The better and clearer idea we have of the characteristics of communist society--our "wish list"--the more likely we are to attain those goals provided we actually communicate the ideas to others.

The details of communist society are and must be speculative; the characteristics are principles that we disguise or "tone down" at our peril.
First posted at Che-Lives on July 28, 2003
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