Definitions are important. With agreement on definitions for ideas or phenomena comes the possibility for discussions about science, language, history, and politics—what’s succeeded, what’s failed, and therefore what can, should, or must be done differently. When parties cannot agree about definitions, or—worse—refuse to, for some reason—cooperation and progress become impossible.
The most egregious example of a refusal to agree on definitions arises in politics. The attribution of political labels like “left” and “right” to individuals, for example, is both so particular and also so general as to be almost devoid of meaning. Particular because “left” and “right” refers to a person’s relative political identity (Rush Limbaugh’s definition of “left” is different from Hillary Clinton’s definition of “left”), rather than a fixed description of political preferences. General in the sense that there is no actual linear political spectrum by which to contrast political ideas. Political theorists have advanced theories of politics and economics, but the visual charts and lines and spectrums are essentially just pedagogical conveniences—aids to assist in conceptualizing the idea that political identities are different.
A line with “conservative” and “fascism” on one side and “progressive” and “socialism” on the other doesn’t actually say anything important or fundamentally true about those political ideologies or their relationship to one another, save that they are different things that exist in a similar world. People can also use quadrangles to represent where one exists in a political ideology, based on issues. But if I happen to plot in the upper right-hand corner of a chart and someone else plots in the lower right-hand corner, does that say anything qualitative about our relationship, other than within the logic of the chart and its questions? Not really.
Further complicating the issue in our democratic nation is the unfortunate but understandable truism that candidates are incentivized to win the greatest number of votes during an election. And for those candidates with political ambitions who do not share political beliefs with a significant portion of their constituents (or with any of them), the most natural solutions are either to lie about one’s beliefs or to obscure or minimize differences between groups of similar people, while creating an “other” group that presents some existential threat. Some journalists also benefit from a similar arrangement, on similar terms. Simplified charts and lines and graphs facilitate this process by grouping people together or creating the illusion of enemies by placing them on different sides of bold lines.
And people tend to enjoy delineating the perceived boundaries of their identities. It can be very satisfying to invest twenty or thirty minutes in a well-constructed, thoughtful, procedurally valid set of questions that ends up telling you that you’re a “libertarian socialist,” or an “anarcho-fascist.” There’s a word for your set of beliefs, and you can put that into Google, find others who use your label, learn more about what makes it special (as well which other groups most threaten yours). That gets at deep-seated human fears and hopes. We’re tribal creatures, we like to know our tribe.
Given that definitional crisis—the fact that there are no convenient means by which to accurately measure similarities or differences objectively, and that some politicians and those working for them or in the media have a vested interest in obscuring where those differences exist and how they present—it’s not surprising that people argue so passionately and so frequently online and in person about politics, and about political issues that may or may not directly affect them.
The Dirty Word: Communism
This brings us to one of the most widely-abused and frequently-misused terms in the political landscape—communism. Other groups (Nazis) and ideas (white supremacy) attract more attention, but few suffer from as much mischaracterization as communists.
What is communism, though? Is it The USSR? Is it the ideology that, as Anne Applebaum (with whom I agree on a great many things related to Ukraine) said, “once sought to express all of history and all of contemporary politics through the lens of one giant conspiracy theory”? Is it the practical enemy of practical people, a thing you can or could have touched—like a gun, or like the building where the U.S. Congress meets in Washington, D.C.?
According to some, the last is exactly correct—communism exists when big government controls everything, and people can’t own private property, and industry doesn’t work properly so there’s never any goods, and people are lazy so there’s never enough food. It’s repression and bureaucracy and, as Applebaum writes, a “giant conspiracy theory,” in which capital and capitalism is responsible for all the world’s problems—“follow the money” taken to an absurd extreme.
This view of communism is the default in the U.S. and Western Europe, and is not difficult to find online. It is incorrect. Communism is none of those things. Communism isn’t even something that has ever generated adherents—there has never been a collection of communists, as such. I am as sure of this as I am the physical reality of the laptop on which I’m typing. This is because a communist state—one wherein people have no conception of wealth, ownership, or value as an abstract, and one where political decisions are made democratically rather than by elected officials—is either so unlikely and alien as to be impossible in the immediate future, or totally abstract, an ideal rather than a framework toward which to work as a society.
When people talk about communism, then, they’re not talking about a thing that happened. Nor are they talking about a group of people who did a thing, when they discuss communists. People use “communism” and its cognates interchangeably with socialism and totalitarianism, political ideologies that people used to label theories closer to communism. To be diligent and accurate with definitions, not only was communism never achieved, if one is being honest and diligent about using definitions, they have to admit that communism could almost certainly never occur within our lifetime, nor even that of our children.
Commenting on a useless Twitter thread recently, I encountered a man who mistook my meaning on the topic (as happens on social media). As his mistake seemed earnest—which is to say, there was a kind of sincerity behind his argument—I took the time to explain to him what I meant when I said that in communism’s ideology there’s no such thing as private property or money, so people wouldn’t share our concept of buying or owning. I told him that for this reason, history and philosophy instruct us quite clearly—without any shadow of a doubt—that communism has never existed on earth.
Somehow he took this to mean that I was implying that communism could exist. I was neither implying it nor saying it; my point had nothing to do with communism’s past, present, or future. I simply proposed an essential definition of communism as an economic theory, which is critical in establishing a common ground for inquiry and debate.
His position was that communism had in fact existed, in the USSR (the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), and that communism had failed because the USSR had failed.
Of course, he was wrong. Again, communism has never existed in practice anywhere on earth. This is communism: a society without social or economic class wherein people work according to their capability and are rewarded according to their needs, without any mechanisms for accumulating wealth (to say nothing of owning things that could then be passed on from generation to generation). People would have no conception of money, nor would they have any idea of private property because one would not receive more than one needs, nor would one want for things that are unnecessary. In addition, information and power would begin at the bottom and flows naturally toward the top of the social structure, rather than vice versa. Communism is anti-hierarchical—it is, in a word, commune-istic, or communal.
In reading this description of communism, if you do not recognize the USSR or any other place you’ve heard of outside of a science fiction, welcome to a very particular club of which I am also a member—the club of people who understand that the word “communism” is full of potential and meaning, but empty of almost any practical value, save as a signal shining in the distant future.
In spite of this, many well-educated, intelligent, well-read people insist that communism existed and failed. What I think they mean is that the USSR (a state that oversaw horrible atrocities and crimes against humanity such that by the time 1991 rolled around almost every human was ready to jump ship) aspired to communism, and that therefore communism is bad. It would follow that because the purges and forced relocation and ethnic cleansing and genocide were carried out in the name of revolution and the achieving of communism with enthusiasm and energy, communism requires those things, and to a certain extent that it is those things. Long lines, shoddy goods, Russian nationalism, gulags. The conclusion of this false syllogism is that communism is a failed ideology.
Communism was for a time the USSR’s goal, and the USSR itself was the mechanism by which various groups hoped to achieve communism. Vladimir Lenin and Leo Trotsky saw the USSR as being capable of generating a military force by which to compel Western nations to renounce capitalism. They were quite clear about the limitations of using a pre-capitalist, feudal society like that of 20th-century Russia’s to achieve a post-capitalist order like socialism. They saw Western Europe as the place where socialist states could, over generations, shepherd in a new post-capitalist era. Josef Stalin thought to skip over capitalism, and bring the SSRs directly to industrialized socialism, without external assistance. Leonid Brezhnev felt that communism was impossible, that the USSR had achieved a socialist utopia, as close to communism as people could get. The USSR was either a means to an end, or a pre-communist end unto itself—unsurprising, considering that everyone in the USSR had grown up using money, and owning private property or knowing people who did.
Whatever the arguments over what the USSR (the “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” after all) personified—socialism, totalitarianism, one-state democracy, authoritarianism—it is clear what it was not—communism. Repression of property owners occurred under the USSR, but property does not exist in communism, nor does private ownership, and the concepts of work and reward interact differently in communism than under different systems. The USSR was not communistic, and those people who belonged to the Communist Party (regardless of its name or what they called themselves) were not communists. They were something else, much in the way that a man who belonged to the Nazi Party but helped preserve Jewish people and did not believe there was anything special about the German folk (or any other folk) was in fact (regardless of what he or others said about him) something other than a Nazi.
A word about developing-world states that adopted some form of the Russian model of state socialism—each of them viewed revolution as a way to redistribute land from Western individuals and companies to native-born individuals and corporations. While this does not excuse the seizure of land and infliction of hardship, misery, or death on those individuals who possessed it, the colonial experience of native peoples is rarely described as positive or good, both by the native peoples in question themselves or by historians.
Most people who discuss “communism” fixate on historically irrelevant accounts of past events, or ignore them entirely. For whatever reason, it has become almost impossible to have an honest discussion about communism—what it is, who’d be a part of it, let alone whether it’s good or bad. There is a certain willingness to entertain Hitler’s idea about race, whiteness and identity than ways to redistribute power and influence so that more people can share in it—so that more people can enjoy those things that are preconditions for justice and equality.
Communism is Inevitable or it Isn’t
One of the preconditions to agreement that communism is a goal worth reaching to is to view communism as a result of an inevitable and logical progression of tendencies and conflicts arising under a capitalist system, as the end state of a linear evolution in human development. To not believe this is to misunderstand communism. This has nothing to do with whether one is or is not a communist; again, being a communist means having no conception of value or ownership, working according to one’s means and being rewarded according to one’s needs and participating in direct democracy.
The question of whether communism is good or bad is hypothetical and abstract, and is totally separate from whether or not it is feasible (or inevitable). But then why would people invest such energy and passion into arguing for its goodness or badness?
One reason behind opposition to or rejection of communism is confusion over its definition, an excellent example of which is here. Others might reject communism because while they understand the definition, they cannot see how it could be achieved or achievable. Those who reach that conclusion tend to be open-minded and scientific, and it can be useful to have conversations with them. Finally, there are those who are actively hostile to communism, usually for ideological reasons. Nazis, fascists, feudalists and certain types of anarchists and libertarians (definitions of which I will leave to the reader—for the purposes of this essay, suffice it to say that these ideologies are different from communism) all take issue with communism for various reasons. Within the context of capitalism, wealthy or greedy people tend to oppose a system that will disadvantage them. It can be dangerous to talk with such people about communism, because they understand definitions very well, and view people who are sympathetic toward hypothetical communists and hypothetical communism as existential threats.
This essay does not discuss the merits of communism, or its flaws, or whether it is a good thing or bad thing. The reader = will have developed his or her own ideas about whether communism is practical or achievable, and how to go about achieving that state—or if they have not, they should.