1922 Encyclopædia Britannica/Communism

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COMMUNISM (see 6.791).—The term “communism” is used loosely to cover all forms and theories of social ownership of wealth, but has a more specific current meaning to denote the type of revolutionary socialism first expounded in The Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels (1847) and to-day held by the various communist parties that exist in most countries and are united in the Communist International. Communism is thus both an old term and an old theory; but the practice of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia (see Bolshevism) and the subsequent propaganda of the Communist International have given it a significance that is in many ways new.

It is important to distinguish at the outset the various senses in which “communism” is often used, in order to avoid the confusions that beset the term. The English writer, Sidney Webb, has distinguished five senses of communism:—(1) the communism of free use, or “all things in common,” as exemplified on a limited scale in public roads and bridges, and as aimed at on a general scale in religious or Utopian “communities” of all ages; (2) communism by rationing, or the equal distribution of some particular thing or things among the whole population; (3) communism in treatment, or the supply of some particular service, not equally, but according to need, as in the public provision of medical care or education; (4) communism in the sense of nationalization or municipalization; (5) the communism of The Communist Manifesto. To these should possibly be added the anarchistic communism of Kropotkin and his school, to which the name of “anarchism” was formerly given (see 1.914).

It is only the last of the five senses given above (the communism of The Communist Manifesto) which will be treated here, since the other senses either do not cover a specific political theory or else are coterminous with Socialism in general. It alone has a continuous history and a present significance.

Historical Development.—The conditions which gave rise to communism began with the industrial revolution. The social transformation produced by that event, the emergence of a new middle class and its rise to power, and the creation of a growing town population of wage-earners in large industry, led to numerous movements of unrest in the early 19th century and to all kinds of social theories and questionings. At this time the term socialism became applied to various types of theories of a benevolent or coöperative economic order. These theories, however, formulated mainly by individual thinkers in England and France, had no direct relation to the movement of the masses. The new feature introduced by communism was its direct correlation of social theory with the struggle of the working class. The necessity for this was making itself felt in various quarters; but its first clear expression was given to the world in what is still the classic statement of communism, The Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels, written in Nov. 1847. The year 1847 thus marks the starting-point of communism as a conscious force.

The Communist Manifesto.—The Communist Manifesto opens with the statement that the history of all hitherto existing human society has been the history of successive class struggles, which have on each occasion either resulted in the revolutionary transformation of society or in its collapse. From the slave systems of ancient civilization to the feudal system of mediaeval society, and from that in turn to the rule of capitalism or the bourgeoisie, there has been on each occasion a new class rising to power out of the conditions of the old society after a violent and revolutionary struggle with the preceding class. The rise to power of the bourgeoisie is described in rapid outline, its origin from the bosom of feudal society, its breaking of the bonds of feudalism and monarchy, its revolutionizing of the methods of industry, agriculture and communication, its establishment of modern industry with its accelerated and concentrated production, extended franchise, the national state and the international trade, and finally its subjugation of the whole world to its mode of production. “It has achieved greater miracles than the construction of Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts or Gothic cathedrals; it has carried out greater movements than the migration of peoples or the crusades. . . . Although it is scarcely a century since it became the dominating class, the bourgeoisie has created more powerful and more gigantic forces of production than all past generations put together.”

Yet to-day the bourgeoisie finds itself threatened in its turn by the new class of the proletariat or wage-earners which its own method of production has created. Like the systems which preceded it, capitalism has created the forces which, in the communist view, will lead to its overthrow: the proletariat, evergrowing in numbers and in the insistence of its demands, and an anarchical system of production leading to periodical crises, unemployment, gluts and overproduction in the midst of famine and misery, and (a modern communist would add) in its last phase the fierce struggles of imperialism and the havoc of world war. It is contended that these contradictions of capitalism[1] reveal that the forces of production have outstripped the existing conditions of social organization, and are producing goods faster than society can control the use of them under the existing laws of property. Social production has been established, but individual appropriation of the results still remain. The contradiction receives expression in the class struggle of the workers against the capitalists. The proletariat, being without property and living in a régime of increasing social production, can no longer fight for individual ownership, but only for the socially conducted utilization of the means of production belonging to the community and of the goods produced. Thus capitalism has created in the proletariat a social class which can only have as its object the abolition of the capitalist system of ownership and its replacement by the proletarian system of common ownership.

But there is this new feature in the struggle and future victory of the proletariat, that, whereas all previous class struggles have resulted simply in the rule of a new minority—the rise to power of a new separate stratum of society—the victory of the proletariat carries with it the emancipation of the whole of humanity, because there is no remaining class below them to be freed. The struggle of the working class is thus the struggle of the humanity of the future, and this is the secret of the class basis of all communist thinking.

It is with this struggle that the communists identify themselves, not as any special party, but simply as the champions of the interests of the working class. They believe that just as each succeeding class has won to power only after violent and revolutionary struggle with the preceding class, so the working class can never realize its aims save by the violent overthrow of the capitalist class and its whole system of power. “The communists disdain to reveal their aims and intentions. They declare openly that their ends can only be attained by the forcible overthrow of every obtaining order of society. Let the ruling classes tremble before a communist revolution; the workers have nothing to lose by it but their chains. They have the world to win. Workers of every land, unite!”

The Later Period of Marxism.—In The Communist Manifesto may thus be traced all the characteristic conceptions of Marx: the materialist conception of history (not to be confused with either materialism or economic determinism), the doctrine of the class struggle, and the theory of the revolutionary transference of power to the proletariat. At the same time the analysis of the role of capitalism, which was to be worked out later with a wealth of detail in the pages of Capital (1867), is already briefly indicated, and in a rapid forward glance the prospect is presented of a transition through the revolutionary rule of the proletariat to a classless society. It remained in his later work to give elaboration and precision to these original conceptions in the light of the experience of European history and the working-class struggle for the next generation. These writings have particular reference to two dominant events, the revolution of 1848 which led in Paris to the first distinct attempt of the working class to seize power in “the days of June,” with the consequent coalition of all the bourgeois forces into a single “Party of Order,” and the Commune of Paris in 1871 when for the first time the working class held power for six weeks. The later developments in Marx's historical and other writings are of especial interest for the new light they throw on the practical questions of the communist attitude to the State and the conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat (a phrase which did not take shape till after the writing of The Communist Manifesto, its first appearance in Marx's writings coming in 1850).

The modern State has already been described in The Communist Manifesto as the “executive committee for administering the affairs of the capitalist class as a whole.” The experience of the 19th-century revolutions appears to have convinced Marx that it was idle to expect any fundamental change so long as the apparatus of the existing State was left unaffected. Alike in writing of 1848 and of 1871 he stresses the necessity for destroying and shattering the existing machinery of the State. The one and only amendment of substance to The Communist Manifesto that he makes in his last preface to it before his death, written in 1872, is to declare that “One thing especially was proved by the commune, namely, that the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery and wield it for its own purposes.” But he demands not merely the destruction of the existing State, but its replacement by a new type of State, a Workers' State or the dictatorship of the proletariat as the transitional organ to carry through the change to communist society:—

“Between capitalist society and communist society there lies a period of revolutionary transformation from the former to the latter. A stage of political transition corresponds to this period, and

the State during this period can be no other than the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” (Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875.)

This new State will be based on the workers' organizations:—

“Against this new official Government,” Marx wrote, in describing the tactics for communists during a revolution in its first stages, “they must set up a revolutionary workers' government, either in the form of local committees, communal councils, or workers' clubs or committees, so that the democratic middle class government not only immediately loses its support among the working class, but from the commencement finds itself supervised and threatened by a jurisdiction behind which stands the entire mass of the working class.” (Address to the League of Communists, 1850.)

On the other hand the proletarian State is in its nature temporary, because, in proportion as it carries out its task of suppressing class distinctions it destroys its own class basis, and the State as a special organ of class power and coercion gives way to the machinery of a homogeneous communist society. It is only in this second phase of communism that freedom becomes realizable.

The First and Second Internationals.—While the main body of communist doctrine was thus receiving its completed form, the first attempts were being made at giving expression to communism in working-class organization. The First International (1864-73) was not a Marxian body; it was a coming together of various types of working-class organization and theory; but from the first Marx played a leading part in it, he drafted its principal declarations, and his ideas became more and more dominant within its ranks, until the controversy with the anarchist Bakunin led to its break-up. The First International was the battle-ground in which Marxism established its supremacy as the social philosophy of the working class. By the time of its demise in 1873 the seed of Marxian socialism had been sown in the working-class movements of Europe.

When the movement towards international working-class organization was resumed with the formation of the Second International in 1889, Marxian socialism was now assumed as the natural basis. Henceforward the class struggle and the transference of power to the proletariat were the statutory objects of international working-class organization. But meanwhile, beneath this apparently rapid victory of Marxism, a deep change in conditions had taken place. The movements that came together in the Second International were no longer the scattered sections of a handful of pioneers in working-class organization. They were powerful national organizations of the workers, numbering their adherents in millions. Thus the second stage had been reached of winning the masses to organization; but the work of training in the principles of the revolutionary struggle still remained. This was the task begun, but never fully achieved, by the Second International, as the war revealed. The peaceful conditions of the period led to hopes of peaceful progress and a gradual transition to socialism without the disastrous necessities of catastrophic change. It was not until the World War, with the collapse that it brought to the ideals of peaceful progress, that communism appeared once more in its full force and with all the revolutionary implications with which Marx had left it.

The War and Bolshevism.—The World War, then, is the starting-point of modern communism. The war forced to the forefront in an acute form the issues and divisions that had been latent in the socialist movement. It was no longer possible for the great national movements to maintain their dual allegiance, at once to the existing national State which they hoped some day to control, and to the international class war which they had still continued to proclaim in their resolutions. So there came the division of forces, the division of majority and minority which manifested itself in every belligerent country. The bulk of the official parties supported the war, and in consequence found themselves involved in closer and closer alliance with the Governments. Sections in each country, and in some cases (notably Italy and Russia) the majority, were in opposition.

This division, which began as a difference over the issue of war and peace, soon developed into a deeper opposition. It was not possible for one side to support the war without entering into closer and closer relations with the whole administration of the existing Governments; it was not possible for the other side to oppose the war without implying a denial of the whole conception of the existing national State. As the division developed, its revolutionary implication became more and more manifest; the Zimmerwaldian organization of anti-war socialists, which had been founded as a temporary substitute for the collapsed International at a conference at Zimmerwald in Switzerland in 1915, gradually evolved from an organ of international peace and working-class solidarity into an organ of international revolution and working-class struggle.

It was the Russian revolution that finally brought this new division to a head. The Russian revolution forced into the realm of actual decision the old controversies of class war or class peace, working-class government or democracy. The party which proclaimed its stand on the Marxian principles of class struggle and working-class government was the Russian Social Democratic party (Majority) or Bolsheviki. (From this title of Bolsheviki, meaning “Majority,” derived from their holding the majority at the Brussels-London Conference of the Russian Social Democratic party in 1903, has been formed the word “Bolshevism” as a current popular expression for communism and a loose journalistic term for all forms of extremism and violence.) Against the other socialist sections who maintained a coalition with the bourgeoisie, the Bolsheviki carried through the second revolution of Nov. 1917, and established a new form of government based on the Soviets or workers' councils. With this government they proclaimed the inauguration of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and maintained their power against a series of attacks from without and within. From thenceforward they became the natural leaders of the revolutionary working-class movement of the world. As the revolution spread to other countries, the division in the socialist world became more and more complete, and in 1919 the Third or Communist International was founded on the basis of the revolutionary working-class struggle. The old Marxian term communism was thus revived against the social democracy which Marx and Engels had always declared an unsuitable description for a movement which stood for the suppression both of the State and of democracy, and which the communists regarded as having been a cover for the betrayal of the socialist cause. At the Second Congress in 1920 a detailed statement of communist aims, policy and tactics was drawn up; and communism finally came into existence as a fully organized world force.

The Modern Communist Outlook.—The First Manifesto of the new Communist International describes the modern communist outlook. It sees in the ruin of the World War and the peace that succeeded it the fulfilment of the Marxian prediction of the catastrophic destiny of capitalism. Capitalism, it declares, torn by its own contradictions, has plunged into the agony of world war; but war has brought no solution to its problems, just as peace has brought no relief. Hardly has the last war ended before the next war is being prepared; imperialist rivalry continues with more intensity than ever; economic disorganization spreads apace. There is no way out save the complete ending of the system of imperial capitalism that compels these results, and its replacement by the world organization of production on the basis of the workers. “This is the epoch of the decomposition and break-up of the world capitalist system, which will mean the break-up of European culture in general if capitalism with its irreconcilable antagonism is not destroyed.” The war has brought the populations of the world face to face with the realities of capitalism: what was before the theory and speculation of a few has become the bitter experience of millions. “The contradictions of the capitalist system were converted by the war into degrading torments of hunger and cold, disease and savagery for all mankind.” They have seen the vanity of the hopes of peaceful progress in face of the iron onward sweep to destruction of the existing system. “The catastrophe of imperialist war has with one swoop swept away all the gains of experts and of Parliamentary struggles.” Not only the populations of Europe, but the colonial populations of Asia and Africa, have been dragged into the vortex, and are now finding their only chance of liberation in the international communist revolution. In the midst of this world upheaval there is need of a strong revolutionary power that can alone form the coherent force to carry through the necessary change and establish the new system. Reaction solves nothing, and half-measures are fatal. “Only the proletarian dictatorship, which recognizes neither inherited privilege nor rights of property, can shorten the period of the present crisis, and for this purpose will mobilize all materials and forces, introduce the universal duty to labour, establish the régime of industrial discipline, and in this way heal in the course of a few years the open wounds caused by the war and raise humanity to undreamt-of heights.” It is the conditions of society that are producing chaos and revolution; it is the object of the communists to end those conditions by giving conscious direction to the instinctive forces of revolt, instead of vainly seeking to stem them. No error, in fact, could be greater than to suppose that the communists are out to “make” a revolution in order to impose their system upon mankind. “The Communist parties, far from conjuring up civil war artificially, rather seek to shorten its duration.” In the communist conception the alternative to proletarian dictatorship is not peace. It is war and blockade, famine and disease, blind revolts and the break-up of civilization.

Communism and Democracy.—It is from this point of view that the controversy of communism and democracy should be approached if the communist position is to be understood. The communists do not reject the current conceptions of democracy because they believe in the superiority of the few, but because they believe that the phrases of democracy bear no relation to present realities. The divorce between the realities of power and the theory in modern democratic states has been noted by observers of all schools; it is the special point of the communist to insist that this divorce is not due to accidental and remediable causes, but is inherent in the nature of capitalist democracy. Democracy, in fact, is held to be unrealizable in capitalist society because of the fundamental helplessness of the propertyless man; the parliamentary forms only serve to veil the reality of the “bourgeois dictatorship” by an appearance of popular consent which is rendered unreal by the capitalist control of the social structure; and even this veil is cast aside in moments of any stress by the open assumption of emergency dictatorial powers. The plea that this situation may be remedied by education and propaganda is met by the reply that all the large-scale organs of education and propaganda are under capitalist control.

On the other hand communism, while rejecting current democracy, differs from syndicalism and other revolutionary philosophies which proclaim the right of the “militant minority” to endeavour to change society. The glorification of the minority and of the coup d'état really belongs to the Blanquist school, which was always vigorously opposed by Marxism. Marxism taught that the liberation of the workers could only be the act of the workers themselves, and that all the communists could do was to endeavour to guide the struggle of the workers into its realization in the dictatorship of the proletariat. In this way the Bolsheviki did not carry through their revolution of Nov. 1917 until they had gained the majority in the Soviets and the trade unions. Where the communists differ from other believers in the ultimate victory of the working class is that they do not believe that victory will be achieved until after a very much more severe struggle than is ordinarily contemplated. They believe that the ruling class will use every means, political, economic and military, to defend its privileges, and that the final decision will not be reached without open civil war. In support of this they quote evidence to show the readiness of the ruling class in many countries to fling constitutional considerations to the winds when their privileges are in danger. To mistake dislike of this prospect for evidence of its improbability they regard as a fatal policy, and they believe it necessary, therefore, to make preparations for the event, considering the best guarantee against the chaos of prolonged social disorder (otherwise inevitable in the period of capitalist dissolution) to be the existence of a powerful revolutionary party. It is this aspect of communism which has led to the current distinction between communism and other forms of socialism as a difference of method: but it will be seen that this difference of method arises from a far more fundamental divergence in outlook and philosophy. The methods of the communists are not comprehensible save in relation to the whole philosophy of The Communist Manifesto.

Communist Organization.—From the above considerations certain conclusions follow as to the rôle and character of the communist party in any country. The fully organized communist party, it is stated, is to be the “advance guard” of the working class, never regarding itself as separate from the working class, always working in and through existing working-class organizations on the plane of the struggle of the moment, but always coördinating and giving conscious direction to the different aspects of the working-class struggle with a view to the larger ultimate issue. For this purpose it must be based on the strictest internal discipline, and on severe conditions of membership; but this internal strictness of theory and discipline must be accompanied by an external policy of revolutionary opportunism which is in contrast with the usual “purism” of the revolutionary sect. This is the explanation of the alternate charges of “doctrinairism” and “opportunism” which are levelled by other socialists against the communist party. This discipline is ultimately international in character, because the struggle is regarded as international. To the communist the International is more than a coming-together of sympathetic parties in a common struggle: it is the union of different divisions in a single army, each with its own tactical problems, but all with a single ultimate directing centre. For this reason an absolute ultimate authority is vested in the International Executive, subject to the World Congress. This authority of the International is regarded as of particular importance, not only for the immediate struggle, but as the nucleus of future international authority in the World Soviet Republic.

Bibliography.—The classic statements of communism are contained in the writings of Marx and Engels: in particular, The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels (1848); The 18th Brumaire (1852); Capital (1867); The Civil War in France (1871) and the Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875) by Marx; and The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) by Engels. The Life and Teaching of Karl Marx by Max Beer (1918, English translation 1921), gives a valuable short summary of his theories. The controversial literature of Marxism is very extensive, and would need a special bibliography. The most important documents of modern communism are the writings of Lenin, especially The State and Revolution (1917) and Left Communism, an Infantile Disorder (1920); the writings of Trotsky, including The Russian Revolution to Brest Litovsk (1918); Bukharin's Programme of the World Revolution (1920), and other writings of the Russian leaders; and the publications of the Communist International, including the Congress Manifestoes (1919 and 1920), the Theses and Statutes of the Communist International (1920) and the monthly organ The Communist International. Presentations by English workers of communist theories may be found in R. W. Postgate, The Bolshevik Theory (1920) and E. and C. Paul, Creative Revolution (1920). For criticisms of communist theories see Karl Kautsky, The Dictatorship of the Proletariat (1919); J. R. Macdonald, Parliament and Revolution (1919), and Bertrand Russell, The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (1920).

(R. P. D.)

  1. To explain the “contradictions” of capitalism would demand an examination of Marxian economic theory for which there is here no room. It must suffice to say that Marx saw in the wage system a system by which monopoly in the means of production is used to compel those outside the monopoly (the proletariat) to sell their labour in return for subsistence and forego all rights to the actual value produced. The resulting surplus provides new capital for yet more production on the same system, but always with the need of finding new markets, since the workers themselves, only receiving in wages a portion of the value produced, can only buy back a portion of the value produced; with the result that, while the early stages of capitalism show rapid expansion and development, opening up the whole world and forcing every nation and race into the circle of its operations, the later stages show increasing crises of overproduction and rivalry in markets, tremendous concentration of financial power, and, in the last phase, the continually intensifying struggles of imperialism culminating in world war and world economic disorganization. In this progress capitalism by its own development has completely destroyed the basis of private property from which it began. Originating in private property and competition, it has eaten up the independent small proprietor and replaced him by tremendous combines, replaced competition by monopoly, reduced the masses of the population to the position of a proletariat which in a regime of private property is without private property, and finally reached a stage of production whose forces it is no longer able to control, any more than it can control the proletarian masses who now begin to rise against its domination. Thus all is ready for its dissolution and for the replacement of its worn-out basis of private property by the new basis of social ownership in accordance with the new mode of production and through the agency of the new class, the proletariat, which has no knowledge of private property. (For a different view of the capitalistic system, see Capitalism.)