Economic Update: What is Communism?

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This program covers the origins, evolution, and current significance of "communism." After a brief history of communism as a utopian ideal of community, we treat Marx's presentation in the Communist Manifesto, and then communism's subordination to "socialism" to World War 1. That War changed everything. It split socialists everywhere into a Socialist Party and a Communist Party with key differences but also commonalities. When most European communist parties collapsed, socialism once again became the only major systemic left position. Yet the utopian longings expressed by communism left many on the left dissatisfied with modern socialisms. They searched for a possible solution, a new kind of communism located in workplaces organized as democratic, worker co-op. 

Transcript has been edited for clarity

Welcome friends to another edition of Economic Update, a weekly program devoted to the economic dimensions of our lives. I'm your host Richard Wolff. Today's program is going to be partly something I've wanted to do for a long time, partly something that is coming back into the public awareness, and finally something that many of you have asked me to do. I'm going to try to give you an overview of what the word, the concept, and the social movement called communism is all about. And it may be different - probably will be - from what you might have thought that word means.

So let's begin at the very beginning. What is communism? Mostly, for most of human history that this word and this idea have circulated, I think it's fair to say it has been a utopian dream, an ideal, a notion that the human community (and notice please the same root: commune/community/communism) could function in a mutually respectful, mutually honest, mutually nurturing way as an idealized community. In which, everybody contributed with what they knew best, loved to do, felt passionate about and where everyone received from the community both physical and material but also spiritual benefits, consumables, means of both a physical and mental life. Communism was a generic idea that this sort of community would be valuable in terms of where you live, valuable in terms of where you work, and valuable as a way to link up with other people, no matter what the particular activities you engaged in. Which is why communistic communities in this sense have long existed for thousands of years.

I'm going to give you just a few examples. I remember once traveling through France and noticing as I entered a village that it used to be called, and many of them still are called, communes. That's partly a description of their setup as a community, but partly a harking back to a notion of this mutually supportive ideal, this utopian ideal. You might also be struck to learn that in many religions there are specific rules and commitments to that kind of interaction that you could call communism. People interested in communism have noticed that, for example, medieval Catholic monks, orders of nuns, and all kinds of spiritually engaged people organized their communities where they lived and where they worked in this mutually supportive way.

Perhaps the most famous document about it is called, fittingly, The Communist Manifesto, written and published in 1848, that's a little over 150 years ago by [Karl] Marx and [Friedrich] Engels. It talked a lot about what was wrong with society at that time, which they identified with capitalism. And what it was that they as critics of capitalism pointed to as an alternative (that others who are either critics or victims of capitalism would be well advised to think about and to pursue...) And their idea was quite simple: that this is something that has been around, and will come back over and over again. Indeed they opened The Communist Manifesto with that famous line about communism is like a ghost haunting modern society. With the image constantly of how things could be different and how things could be better. I'm going to end today's program, as I'll show you, by suggesting to you that worker cooperatives in the workplace are an attempt to bring that ghost right back to life right now. Okay, even after The Communist Manifesto in the middle of the 19th century, for the rest of that century what we had was a slow growth of those ideas but not mostly under the word communism. That word faded and was replaced by the term socialism. Socialism became the great alternative to capitalism across the second half of the 19th century around Europe, here in the United States, and pretty much globally as it spread. But it was always the notion of something fundamentally different from capitalism in ways that ought to make it more attractive, at least in the minds of those who were so persuaded.

World War One changed everything. Indeed, the 50 years up to and into World War One were years of growing, horrible conflict. Most of that conflict was between European countries and the colonies that they either already had from an earlier time or acquired in the 18th and 19th century. The Russians competed against the British to shape colonies, the French against the Germans, the Belgians against the Americans. There are endless wars, small and large, throughout what we now call Asia, Africa, Latin America and so on. And then it all came to a head when the final war (World War One thought to be final at the time because it was the worst war human society had ever seen) killed 20 million people - half military, half civilian. But it came after colonial wars that killed many millions more, including here in the United States. For the 18th and 19th century were literally continuous warfare between the Europeans, who arrived here, and the native people, who were systematically destroyed. Anything as cataclysmic as a world war, let alone one that comes after wars that killed many millions more, shook everything. Modern society has never overcome the scars of World War One.

And one of the things that happened was to shake socialism. It had grown dramatically from the middle of the 19th century up until World War One. But World War One split modern socialism into two groups. One group ended up keeping the name: 'we are critics of capitalism, we want to do better, and we call ourselves socialists.' But another group was critical of this first group. And they said you're not doing enough, you're not going far enough, you haven't come up with a really worked out answer, we're determined to go further. And we're going to call ourselves something else. We're going to call ourselves communists. That's when the term takes on a whole new meaning. Because what happened in almost all of the countries where there was a socialist party was that that party split into a socialist party and into a new communist party. And all the socialists had to pick sides. Which way are you gonna go? With the socialists or with the communists?

One of the key issues, not the only one, but one of the key issues had to do with World War One. The socialists were those who decided they had to go with their own country, they had to go to war (World War One,) fight the war as German socialists or British socialists or American socialists. And that would put them against, of course, socialists in other countries, who were soldiers or affected civilians. But others said 'no this is not a war that we as socialists should fight, because it's a war that's the product of capitalism, it's a war among countries dominated by capitalists, it's the fruit of their endless quest to make money by controlling all the rest of the planet in the colonial territories they ward over for much of the 19th century, we don't want to be part of it.' And the interesting thing was those who refused to be partisan in the war included both the head of the socialist party in the United States Eugene Victor Debs and the head of the equivalent party in Russia Lenin. Both of them said this is not our war, we are not going to fight in it, and urged Russians not to take up arms against working-class people in other countries, as Mr Debs did. Lenin was exiled, Debs was jailed for taking such a position. But it began to make very clear what some of the differences were between socialists and communists.

Then there was the revolution in Russia. Where, under the leadership of the same Lenin, for the first time socialists came to power. And the question was what were they? Which kind of socialist? But Lenin, by having taken his position against the war, could not and would not go back to the old socialism. So they became the Communist Party. And they took over Russia (the government,) they won the civil war there, they solidified the revolution, they became the power in Russia for the next 70 years. And in every other country, including the United States, communist parties split off from the socialist party. Now they were all beholden to Marx's ideas, among many. They were all beholden to a critique and rejection of capitalism. But they went in different directions to articulate that, to make it clear, and to define not only what they meant vis-a-vis capitalism but why and how they differed one from the other

But a couple of key points need to be made, as we come to the end of the first half of today's program. None of these organizations ever believed, or ever said that they had established communism. The socialists never said that and the communists never said that. What distinguished them was what they proposed to do, on their way to a future idealized utopian thing that they would sometimes call communism. But the notion that what failed in the Soviet Union was communism is a notion no communist party official ever articulated. That's not what they thought they were doing. They were transitional, they were on their way to communism, but they weren't there yet, not by a long shot. Therefore what failed, if we get to that point in our thinking, whatever failed in the Soviet Union (or for that matter in China, Cuba, North Korea, North Vietnam, and so on) today was socialism. Because that's what all of the socialists and communists ever claimed they had achieved.

We've come to the end of the first part of today's show. For those of you who may not know, Economic Update is produced by Democracy at Work, that is celebrating 10 years of producing this kind of content focused on presenting a critical system analysis, so we might one day find ourselves living in a more democratic and equitable world. For instance, my latest book The Sickness Is The System: When Capitalism Fails To Save Us From Pandemics Or Itself. You can find it, along with other content we produce, on our website democracyatwork.info. There you can also follow us on social media, join our mailing list and, of course, support our work in a variety of ways. Please stay with us, we'll be right back with the second half of 'communism.'

Welcome back friends to the second half of today's Economic Update. In our analysis of communism we left off in the aftermath of World War One, when the socialist parties around the world, which had become strong by then, split between a socialist party, which was probably the larger, and a communist party (that's the people who split off.) And this happened, as I said, in almost every country where there had been a socialist party. And for most of the rest of the 20th century until the last decade of the 20th century there was a bitter ongoing struggle between the socialist party and the communist party. And I want to stress what the differences were. The socialists came to believe that what they were about was mobilizing voters, above all else, in alliance with trade unions to exert political power, either by becoming the government or shaping government policy to make the mass of people better off. They championed public housing, public transport, subsidized medical care, and a whole host of things that have become common parts of many countries in which socialists achieved these kinds of things. They did not challenge private enterprise, private capitalism, employer/employee structure of enterprises, they left that in private capitalist hands. With some few exceptions, but not many, that socialism consisted of government regulation, government oversight. In a sense, and this phrase was common, socialism is sort of like capitalism except it has a human face, it takes care of people in a way that capitalism, as left to itself to the pure private market, never would.

And how is this different from communism? Communism believed that that was not going far enough, that the condition of workers was never good enough. And even if it was it only was so because the private capitalists tolerated it. And when they wouldn't anymore whatever had been given to the workers would be taken back. They would look at the last 50 years of the United States as the undoing of the New Deal. Socialists helped get that in the 1930s. But because of the power of the private sector they left standing it was all taken back ever since. So the argument of the communists was: the government has to go further. Not merely regulate, but literally take over, own and operate the industries, the agriculture, to make sure that what was done was done for the benefit of this society as a whole and not primarily for the small group who live off profits. Because the socialists left the private capitalists in charge these societies were not torn apart the way the communist societies were, because there was so much resistance within the communist societies to the government taking it all over and running it. And that led to different levels of civil liberties, civil rights and so on. Which were then part of what the struggle between socialists and communists was all about. From time to time they set aside their differences and worked together. But in general they were competing for the same working class. In one case saying 'this is the way you should go if you're a socialist' and the communist saying 'no, this is the way you should go if you're a communist.' That's how it continued roughly from the end of World War 1 (1918/1919) until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.

With that the Communist Party of Russia and the communist parties in other parts of the world collapsed. They had tied their well-being to Russia. Russia was their leader. Russia/Soviet communism was what they talked about. This, by the way, USSR, just to remind you, all Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, they did not call themselves a communist society. As I said, they never did. Communism was where they were going. Communism was the name of their party, was not the name of the system they were still in. That was at best transitional toward but not itself a communist society. But with the end of the communist parties even pushing that we went back, as it were, to the pre-World War One world in which there were only socialists of one kind or another, and most of them believed that the government shouldn't do more than regulate capitalism, somehow getting the best of what that system had but forcing it to take care of people in a way that without government intervention would never have happened. In other words the state provides health care, free education, subsidized transport, subsidized housing, and all the rest.

But, you know, this accommodation to the collapse of the Soviet Union was never universal. That spirit that Marx wrote about, that ghost that haunts the modern world, this image of a communism really different from capitalism never went away. And in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union after 1989 all of the people who still believed in that, and there were millions of them, began a process of self-criticism. What had gone wrong? Why did the Soviet Union collapse? Why was it unable to survive? Let alone take us in a transitional way to this communism that people believed in and wanted? This community where we nurture and care for and develop one another? And they reached a conclusion: over the last 10 years/15 years that there was a crucial element missing in both what the socialist parties did and what the communist parties did. That if we corrected that, these folks said, we could resume the transition to a really different society that would embody what communism always meant for the centuries.

And here was the idea: neither the socialists in places like Scandinavia or Western Europe (the social democracies, all of that,) nor the communists understood that a problem was the way capitalism had organized work. They had organized it so that there were two groups: a very small group called employers/capitalists and a very large group called employees/workers. One of them was rich and powerful, and the other one wasn't. I won't have to spell it out because you already know. The small group of employers worked the economy so they would be rich and powerful, more so as time went on. In that way the few, the capitalists, resembled the few masters in slave systems, the few lords in feudal systems. Capitalism hadn't broken out of that small group dominating large groups in the economy. And because the socialists and the communists didn't change that - the socialists let the private capitalists run their businesses in the capitalist way, the Communist Party people in Russia, China, Cuba, North Korea, and so on, they did the same. They didn't let private capitalists run the business, they had state officials doing it. Again, a very small number of state officials making the decisions for the mass of the working class. One was private capitalism, one was state capitalism. But neither was anything like the communism that was in this kind of socialist's mind. Particularly after the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe fell apart, none of these people denied that there were all kinds of advantages to socialism. Government control of enterprise made wages higher, made working conditions better, did provide health care and transport, and made for a better life for people.

Nobody who paid attention denied that the Soviet Union in the 20th century and the People's Republic of China in the 21st century grew much faster, developed the standard of living of their people much faster than anything western capitalism/private capitalism had ever done. But they had not created communism, they had not gone beyond the bitterness, the inequality, the instability that were the reasons these people didn't want capitalism anymore.

So what was the thing that was missing? What was the explanation found by those socialists? Those members of communist parties who wanted to do what Marx had advised? Figure out what went wrong so you can build on that. And they did. And their answer was this: the organization of the workplace, the factory, the office, the store had never been transformed. Not by the socialists, not by the communists, not in Russia, not in Sweden, not in France, not in China, fill in the blank. They had left it, a small group of people, the owners of the enterprise, the boards of directors, whether there are private individuals or government officials, made all the decisions, imposed the rules, made off with most of the wealth that was being produced. Even if they shared some of it with the mass of people, it was still disproportionate. And therein lay the problem.

And here's now the irony. The ghost of communism, the ghost that haunted mid-19th century Europe, that Marx writes about in The Communist Manifesto, that ghost is still with us. Changed its outfit but still with us. And that ghost now says to all workers, whispering in their ears, 'you know the job you have could be different; the restaurant where you work, the factory where you work, the office, it could be a nurturing community, it could be run democratically, one person/one vote, where we all together discuss and decide what we're going to do as a workplace, how we're going to respond to the market, what role we're all going to have in the communities in which we live and work, and maybe, maybe, just maybe if we transform the workplace which the socialists and the communists never did we will be able to achieve what they set out as their goal but they never achieved either, which is the breakthrough to a new society.' It may not be enough to win the government in an election, it may not be enough to be the powerful union of workers in a workplace. If you cannot mobilize the people of a community to demand the transformation of the household, of the workplace into a democratic collection of individuals, caring for and acknowledging their dependence on one another you will not get to that lovely utopian image that communism always represented.

We are now far enough from the Cold War behind us. We are now smart enough to have understood that Russia versus the U.S was a struggle between state capitalism and private capitalism so that we can once again talk about socialism and communism in the honest way human beings can and should talk about the way they live and compare it to the way they imagine they might live. Out of that tension between what is and what could be, what you respect that what is never exhausts, all that could be. Out of that communism may very well surprise us by coming right back and being the active spirit that it was when Marx wrote about it in 1848.

I hope this discussion of communism has been of interest and has responded to the emails and other ways you've let me know you'd like a presentation on it. And as always, besides thanking you, I look forward to speaking with you again next week.

Transcript by Brendan Tait

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Showing 5 comments

  • Theo Chino
    commented 2022-09-10 13:21:32 -0400
    Dear Maria and Professor Wolff,

    As shown by European Socialists, consensus happens when each group recognizes who they are. It does help when 14 years old are tough on the history of the different political movements in public schools.

    Every European, whether they are Liberal, Nationalist, or Communist, knows the essential points of disagreement between our ideologies.

    No European with a GED would claim that the aim of Socialism is Communism. I hear that from right-wing republicans to dissuade American voters from considering voting left. By repeating it on your programs, you mischaracterize Socialism, and as its American Secretary, I can let it fly.

    I am a Socialist and the leader of a Socialist Mouvement; therefore, it is not my job to defraud the « wider circles » by creating an alternative narrative to push an ideology I do not subscribe to, Communism.

    It is true that in managing the City Affairs, Socialists and Communists have a similar pragmatic methodology, but we have a pretty different dogma.

    To build a viable left movement, each party needs to be true to its mission and not try to mix them up.

    Minimizing denunciation won’t be possible since Lenin and his Communist movement today have called us opportunists.


    I have reached out to the other groups. Since 2005, they have been violent and hypocritical in building the movement. 

    Social Democrats of America bylaws are an adaptation of the French Socialists party, which adapt perfectly to the American political system.

    If you want to discuss more details, you know where to reach me.

    You are welcome to join us at the Socialist’s preparatory meeting for the Democratic county committee organizing meeting. If you want the left to unite, this is the meeting where it can happen.


    Theo Chino
    Acting First National Secretary of the Social Democrats of America
  • Maria Carnemolla-Mania
    commented 2022-09-08 10:04:19 -0400
    Dear Theo China,

    Thank you for attention to and comment on one of our regular weekly programs on “Economic Update.” I understand your position on the profound differences between socialism and communism. In the interest of bringing wider circles of people into the debates among and between socialists and communists, I would ask and urge that we be open to them, minimize the denunciations, and focus on substantive points of disagreement to clarify the issues, truy to reach consensus if possible and otherwise sharpen and extend our understanding. That would help build the left movement and thus the diversity and experiences an enlarged movement would bring into the debates. For example, I too see big differences between them, but I suspect that I see such differences differently from how you do.

    Thanks again for your interest,

    Richard Wolff
  • Theo Chino
    commented 2022-09-08 08:00:16 -0400
    Addendum at minute 21: “In both what the socialist parties did and what the communist parties did that if we corrected that these folks said we could resume the transition to a different society that would embody what communism always meant for the centuries.”

    Socialism IS NOT a transition to Communism!
    1. Socialism predated Communism; therefore, how could it be a transitional phase?
    2. Socialism is the democratic alternative to Communism in that Socialism is Democratic and is attached to our Democratic institutions.

    It’s time Marxists come to grips that Socialists and Communists are not the same ideology.

    We, Socialists, reject Communism because we are attached to a democratic process, and we have no problems letting people reject Communism democratically at the ballot box.

    Communism has been a utopia rejected by the voters at the ballot box since its inception. The rejection occurred inside the Socialist party, which forced the 1920 split. Outside the party, Communism has only been imposed to the people by force.

    Socialism is one of the political doctrines that is sustainable democratically.

    Theo Chino
    Acting First National Secretary of the Social Democrats of America
  • Theo Chino
    commented 2022-09-07 12:17:00 -0400
    There is a fallacy at minute 5:43. Socialism did not replace Communism.

    Socialism is a dogma created by the members of a Socialist organization. The first Socialist congress took place in 1871 in Marseille, France.

    Marx, Lenin, and many others of Communist persuasion were members of the Socialist organization and tried to influence the Socialist party to go communist. The good communist ideas were incorporated, and the lousy communist ideas were not.

    Communism as an organized ideology took place in 1920 when Lenin and Trotsky saw the opportunity of the end of WWI to call for an international communist congress.

    It is well documented that the German Kaiser sent Lenin to Russia in 1917 so he could sign a peace treaty on the Western Front to shift its forces to the Eastern Front before the arrival of the American troops. https://www.dw.com/en/how-germany-got-the-russian-revolution-off-the-ground/a-41195312

    It is also well documented that the Socialists did not want anything to do with Communism, as shown in the exasperation that can be felt in Lenin’s own report: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1907/oct/20.htm

    When Trotsky sent the invitation in January 1919, the war had just finished three months before. The Communists saw an opportunity https://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/1st-congress/invitation.htm, but many European Socialists did not want anything to do with them.

    The 21 conditions for Admissions to the 3rd International were unacceptable to the Socialists. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twenty-one_Conditions.

    No! Socialism and Communism are not even close ideologically, and it would be time for Americans to understand that we, Socialists, fight the Communists and their twisted ideology.

    Theo Chino
    Acting First National Secretary of the Social Democrats of America
  • Luke Hunsberger
    commented 2022-09-05 11:58:32 -0400
    Please don’t ignore the mass murder and genocide of the stalinist version of socialism. Also, Lenin didn’t just win the revolution, along the way they slaughtered everyone in any towns they retreated from. Mass terror.

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