Publié le 03/12/2021

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Communism is the belief that society should be organized without private property, all productive property beingheld communally, publicly or in common. A communist system is one based on a community of goods. It isgenerally presented as a positive alternative to competition, a system that is thought to divide people; communismis expected to draw people together and to create a community. In most cases the arguments for communismadvocate replacing competition with cooperation either for its own sake or to promote a goal such as equality, orto free specific groups of people to serve a higher ideal such as the state or God.The word communism appears to have first been used in the above sense in France in the 1840s to refer to the ideasof thinkers such as Françoise Émile Babeuf (1760-97) and Étienne Cabet (1788-1856), both of whom advocatedthe collectivization of all productive property. The concept is ancient, however. Early versions of a community ofgoods exist in myths that describe the earliest stages of human culture; it was a major issue in ancient Athens, akey component of monasticism and became the basis for much criticism of industrial capitalism.The word communism later became associated with the teachings of Karl Marx and his followers and cameto refer to an authoritarian political system combined with a centralized economic system run by the state. Thisform of communism has roots in the earlier idea because the ultimate goal of communism, as seen by Marx, was asociety in which goods are distributed to people on the basis of need. The older usage continues to exist in aworldwide communal movement and as a standard by which to criticize both capitalism and Marxian communism.The idea of communism as collectively owned property first appears in the Western tradition in classical Greece.Plato's Republic contains a notable early defence (see Plato §14). Prior to the invention of the word, majorcommunist theories can be found in some parts of the Christian Bible, in medieval monasticism and in ThomasMore's Utopia (1516). In all these cases the basis for collectively owned property is that members of society arefreed from the need to devote their time to earning a living or caring for private property so that they can devotethemselves to something more important such as the pursuit of knowledge, God or personal fulfilment. Theassumption is that the need to provide for oneself or one's family gets in the way of matters considered moreimportant. For example, Plato advocates abolishing the family in his Republic because he fears that family ties willboth distract the individual from higher things and tempt people to favour one group (family members) over others(non-family members). In monastic communism, which also abolishes the family, all property is owned by thecommunity and each individual member of the community owns nothing, not even their clothes. Everything isprovided by the community for each monk or nun; they are, thereby, freed from the burden of property to devotethemselves to God. In More's Utopia all houses and their furnishings are as near identical as possible and, sincelocation cannot be identical, people move from house to house in regular rotation.Later, secularized versions of communism stressed the equitable (not necessarily equal) distribution of, or at leastaccess to, resources, but the underlying principle is quite similar. Rather than freeing some or even all people in asociety to devote themselves to a higher cause, secular communism is designed to allow everyone to pursuepersonal fulfilment. It may best be characterized by a slogan adopted by Marx that appears to have been firstpublished on the title page of Cabet's Voyage en Icarie (1840): ‘From each according to his ability, to eachaccording to his need'. In other words, each person contributes to society to the best of their ability in the areas ofwork for which they are suited; in return, society provides their basic needs. The underlying assumption is that allhuman beings deserve to have their needs met simply because they are human beings; differential ability and talentdoes not make one person more deserving than another. A specific case is the assumption by most communisttheorists that there should be no difference in treatment of those who contribute to society through physical labourand those who contribute through mental labour. For example, in 1888 Edward Bellamy published LookingBackward, a utopian novel that became an instant bestseller and produced a worldwide movement. In it, Bellamyadvocated an absolutely equal income for all members of society that could then be used by each individual tomeet their own felt needs. An approach adopted by many intentional communities is for the group to makecollective or social decisions (either by consensus or by majority rule) about economic matters that affect thecommunity as a whole but to provide each individual member of the community with a discretionary income to useas they wish.Marx maintained major aspects of this approach in the stage of human development that he called ‘full' or ‘pure'communism or just communism. The non-alienated people of this future communism will create a world in whichincome will be distributed on the basis of need (see Alienation §§3-4; Marx, K. §4); since everyone will be aproductive labourer, there will no longer be any classes; and, because there will no longer be a need for politicalpower to enforce class dominance, the state will gradually disappear to be replaced with decentralized,non-political administrative agencies. Since everyone will work, there will be high productivity and, therefore,plenty for all. Given the changed social situation, people will begin to think differently and social distinctionsbetween occupations and between city and country will disappear. Thus, this form of communism is, in itsessentials, identical to the earliest communist tradition. At least one major twentieth-century Marxist theorist,Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) in Das Prinzip Hoffnung (The Principle of Hope) (1959) argued that this utopian goalshould be at the centre of Marxist theory.While Marxism and its version of communism predominantly took a different road, the more fundamental andhistorically earlier theory did not disappear. Non-Marxist forms of collective property have existed and beendefended as part of the communal movement best represented by the Israeli kibbutzim and the US communalmovement of the early nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, and by some forms of anarchism (see Anarchism§3). Communism as common property and as a vision of a better life for all is still a living tradition.The arguments against communism take a number of different forms. The simplest rely on assumptions abouthuman nature radically at variance with those of communism's proponents. The assumption is made, with littlereal evidence, that human beings are ‘naturally' competitive and that therefore communism cannot work (seeHuman nature §1). A more developed analysis argues that communism is necessarily economically inefficient andwill, therefore, be unable to provide as high a standard of living as a non-communist system. Some go so far as toargue that communism is impossible to sustain over long periods of time because its inefficiency is so great thatthe economic system must sooner or later collapse. Of course, economic efficiency is very low in the scale ofvalues held by most supporters of traditional communism. Proponents of communism generally take the positionthat economic efficiency symbolizes the competitive system that they oppose and stands in the way of thecooperative community they hope to achieve.Today, many believe that the time of communism has passed, largely because Marxist communism has beendiscredited in much of the world. But communism is not, and never has been, reducible to the Marxist version.Most fundamentally, it is the economic basis for dreams of complete human fulfilment, whether it is sought inmonastic orders, intentional communities or whole societies. That dream persists, and with it the ideals ofcommunism.


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