I have compiled these objections largely from my anecdotal conversations with various people.
Usually people who say that “communism doesn’t work” or “socialism doesn’t work” are referring to the Soviet bloc countries. However, those systems were not communist, even though they claimed to be. It’s very, very unfortunate that communism has been given such a bad reputation as a result of Soviet totalitarianism and its collapse. I’m not sure why people are so willing to believe these self-designations so easily: does anyone really believe that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) is democratic just because they say they are? Does anyone believe that China is communist just because they say they are?
A communist society is one where private property is abolished. But that was not true in the Soviet Union: private property was simply transferred into the hands of the state. Communism is also a classless society, but that was not the case in Soviet countries because there was an exploited working class and an authoritarian bureaucratic class ruling over them. Communism (in its “higher phase” anyway) is also supposed to be a system without money, where goods are distributed according to need. But money existed in the Soviet countries and people still had to pay to live. And according to both Marxists and anarchists, communism is supposed to be a system without a state. Yet the Soviet countries didn’t just fail to abolish the state, they in fact gave it the most power that a state has ever had! The economics of the Soviet bloc countries, Cuba, China and North Korea have practically nothing in common with communism except the words.
Soviet socialism is actually a kind of capitalism which we might call socialist state capitalism, a system where workers are exploited and employed directly by the state as a holder of capital. True communism is a system where workers and citizens themselves control the means of production and organise their own economic and productive activity directly for their own benefit - not under the orders of the state, not under the orders of owners and capitalists, and not for the sake of capital growth or profit. Labour is divided up according to people’s wishes and aptitudes, and goods and services are distributed directly to where they are needed.
One might argue that it is confusing for me to use the word communism when I know that it means something completely different from what most people mean by it. That’s perfectly reasonable and it is one reason why I have started to use the term “natural economy” to describe a genuinely communist system: see here and here.
Left-wing policies only make sense at all whilst capitalism still exists, and they only require money because money exists. However, anarchism and communism involve the complete abolition of capital, capitalism and money. Therefore, when considering communism, any objection along the lines of “there is not enough money” is irrelevant because in a communist system there is no such thing as money and the current criteria of economic viability do not apply. (See my article Nothing Costs Money.)
“We shouldn’t redistribute wealth to the poor because they have not worked for it”
“Rather than redistribute wealth to the poor, we should allow poor people to become rich [using right-wing policy / American Dream stuff]”
Communism is not about redistributing wealth to the poor. A communist society aims to provide for everybody’s needs and desires - no more and no less. In social democracy, wealth redistribution appears to be necessary because by default a capitalist society doesn’t distribute wealth to the right places. A communist society that is working properly has no need whatsoever to “redistribute” things, since this implies that they weren’t distributed to the right people in the first place, which implies that some technical error has been made. As I said above, money would no longer exist, so distributing things is the only task that we have to worry about in communism.
Rich and poor cease to have any meaning in a communist society. That doesn’t mean that everyone would live carbon copy lives, however. In a communist world, people will still pursue their individual goals and wishes. They will differ in how and where they want to live and they will express themselves materially and in culture-specific ways just as they do now. The precise economic activity of the society will depend on a complex interplay of individual and community needs, parameters and requirements: you won’t be able to get a product that costs the earth to make, but neither will you necessarily have to forego any extravagant individual wishes, like having your own piano or tools for geological research. The details of how this works depends on the economic system that’s being used. After all, communism is not a single system but rather a family of logically possible systems which are related mainly by their opposition to capital and property.
Some right-wing people are concerned that communism is all about handing people things on a silver platter that they haven’t worked for. The complaint seems quite nonsensical to me: surely if everyone is doing something they enjoy and is getting everything they need, questions like who deserves what and in what precise quantity they deserve it just get in the way and spoil everyone’s fun. Nevertheless, it’s a myth that communist societies provide people with things on a silver platter. In my conception of “distributed” communism (which I confusingly call anarcho-syndicalism), people might not be guaranteed anything at all, but rather have to co-operate with others in order to secure the things they need and want. In my understanding of “collectivist” communism (or libertarian municipalism), you would be guaranteed everything you need, but you would also be expected to contribute to their production, using whatever labour-sharing system the community has adopted. There’s no hard and fast rule here, because communism is still not a single system, but communists aren’t stupid, and we know that material things don’t fall from the sky on silver platters.
People from right-wing backgrounds, including those who may have grown up with the American Dream inculcated into them, sometimes make the objection that hard work and extra ‘effort’ ought to be rewarded as if it’s a moral imperative. Some socialists correctly point out that capitalism doesn’t actually do this anyway, which is the unspoken assumption behind this statement. Just think of the pay and wealth differences between a film star and a miner, or between a footballer and a nurse. Recognising this, socialists in anarcho-collectivism and parecon, for example, often seek to “fix” this problem and introduce “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work”. Lenin identified this as the key difference between socialism and communism, the latter being the ultimate aim, where the wage system is completely abolished.
From the anarcho-communist perspective, the impossibility of quantifying labour or effort means that rewards could never be systemically implemented. For communism in general, labour is not supposed to be an unpleasant slog or a kind of noble sacrifice that people have to be incentivised to endure - it’s meant to be a pleasant activity which is rewarding in itself for the person who enjoys doing it. Work has to become pleasant, which means good working conditions, copious leisure time and an absence of coercion. Any remaining ‘unpleasant’ tasks just need to be either eliminated or automated using technology, and if all else fails, they must be shared out among the community in equal measure or using some other system, like a rota or lot-drawing. If anybody acts heroically in a communist society, this can be heralded in other ways - having a celebration or giving a symbolic gift, for example - if that’s what the community wants to do.
“The left want us to live in shared poverty! The right wants to make people as rich as they want to be.”
“Communism would require a drastic reduction in our quality of life!”
This is also a myth. In fact, most communist thinkers were firm proponents of the use of industry and technology and their aim was to provide the highest quality of life possible for everyone on earth. Anarchists like Kropotkin were great believers in the scientific and rational application of technology to reduce human labour, increase people’s leisure time and make life more luxurious. Nowadays greater heed is paid to the ecological costs of technology and industry. But communism is at once the only system that can function sustainably within ecological parameters, and also the only system capable of reducing human labour and potentially ushering in an age of unprecedented leisure and luxury. Capitalism cannot do these things because of its growth imperative and because of its need to keep everything scarce and highly monetised.
(Also, the first statement is about left versus right, but my opinion is that anarchism/communism is not in fact left-wing.)
Communism can work on both small scales and large scales. As I say, it isn’t a single system. Eco-communalists believe that the level of ecological destruction that capitalism has wrought on the planet can only be counteracted by retreating to very low-impact small-scale community lifestyles. Anarcho-primitivists believe that even agriculture is too destructive and should be abandoned. But communism traditionally was always supposed to be global - “worldwide socialism or nothing”. And anarchists have always stressed the importance of global co-operation via confederalism, as in the expression “the commune of communes”.
Communism can be a technotopian wonderland if we want it to be, or it can be a small-is-beautiful tread-lightly affair - and most probably, it will be a bit of both, depending on people’s preferences in different communities.
Neoclassical economics propagates the myth that money and property are tools for managing the scarcity of labour and material resources, and many people come to the belief that if scarcity could be eliminated by finding sources of limitless energy or by using robots to do all the menial work, then (and only then) communism would be possible. The story about the “Tragedy of the Commons” is a restatement of this myth, the idea that if people had free access to everything then resources would get used up and abused.
This myth is quite insidious because it is actually the exact opposite of the truth: communism is in fact very good at managing scarcity whilst capitalism quite obviously isn’t.
Money and private property are not just abolished in communist systems, they are replaced by institutions that manage resources as a commons. In thousands of years of pre-capitalist societies, that is how humans have shared resources in their community: they safeguard the commons against abuse and overuse, and they share out the labour and the products of the labour according to rules that they establish themselves for everyone’s mutual benefit. Elinor Ostrom’s groundbreaking work on the commons goes into more detail about this.
People are very used to the idea that when you have a finite amount of money, you can manage it by making a budget. It should not be hard to imagine a similar process of budgeting that applies to actual physical quantities rather than money. I have compiled information about various feasible labour-sharing and output-sharing algorithms that communist societies might use, over here.
Meanwhile, money is actually extremely bad at managing resource scarcity, as demonstrated by the abhorrent chasm of inequality between the overconsuming North and the impoverished South, despite all of our “extremely advanced technology”. If you have a finite amount of resources the logical thing to do with them is to share them out equitably, not introduce a monetary system and auction them off to the highest bidder, which only rewards the most ruthless profiteers while condemning everyone else to poverty. The purpose of money is not to manage scarcity, which it is very bad at; its purpose is to exploit people, and it’s very good at that.
It depends concretely on which economic system is adopted. If the population is stable, then MRI scanner production doesn’t need to continue forever and can stop as soon as there are enough of them. So I can imagine that the federation would decide to produce a certain number of them and would probably set up a supra-regional project to co-ordinate this. A syndicate of engineers would design the scanners and work out what resources were required. This would probably be staffed voluntarily after an international call for participation. (More realistically, the designs would probably already exist.) Perhaps certain mining operations would be necessary to obtain the raw materials. It might turn out that nobody does mining jobs voluntarily. In that case, the syndicate would detail the total mining labour hours required and the participating communities who want MRI scanners would each adopt a share of the work. Alternatively they could draw lots to determine who has to use their mining resources. Then the community assemblies would take their labour quota and distribute it among their citizens according to their normal labour distribution code. Once the raw materials have been acquired, the manufacturing can commence. If the manufacturing tasks are deemed unpleasant for some reason (and I don’t know enough about MRI scanners to know this!), then they’d use a similar labour-sharing mechanism to organise the manufacturing. Otherwise the federation would set up a manufacturing syndicate and put out a call for contributors. If several syndicates are deemed desirable, then several different projects could be set up, each designed to provide MRI scanners in their region. The community federation would assign the recently mined resources to a newly-established MRI scanner branch of the producers’ federation, which would then assign the resources to each project. The producers would collaborate with each other on technical matters and share their expertise. Finally the community assemblies would pick up their finished MRI scanners and install them in the desired healthcare centres. That’s only a sketch of some of the possibilities and I feel that there are many others.
This is not a myth and I believe it is true. Many people are indeed too apathetic to bother with changing the world. But communism aims to provide people with a more luxurious and more comfortable lifestyle with much more leisure time - how can you be “too apathetic” to pursue such a goal? I suppose there is some kind of inertia associated with the status quo, so that even a very logical plan of action seems to be too much effort just because it requires a change of course, even if the effort required afterwards is much lower. One thing holding people back, of course, are the very myths I’m trying to dispel here. Too many people seem to think that capitalism is the only option - or the only option that allows them to have shiny toys. This is untrue.
Capitalism cannot last forever. It’s simply not possible. Therefore, people will eventually be forced to take action and change the economic system if they have any inclination to preserve the human species at all. The longer we delay, the harder it will be.
Anarchism isn’t anarchism if it’s forced on you. It has to be something you choose, and it requires people’s active participation in order to work effectively. My main reasons for opposing capitalism are because it is a dysfunctional system which is destroying the world. So an alternative economic system is necessary even if some people genuinely “like” capitalism.
The word “free” in the market sense doesn’t mean free in the sense of individual liberty: it refers to laissez-faire economic policy where market forces are not regulated, so that everything is subordinated to the unfettered accumulation of capital, a process which is always unequal in favour of those who already have capital. As such, the market is not a democracy because economic power is systemically unequal and accumulative, and even if you have economic power, your actions are dictated by market forces and the nature of capital itself, not by freedom of choice.
In another essay I explain that there is such a thing as “individualist communism”, an economic system where people are able to do whatever they like, but with the means of production held as commons rather than as private property. The open source and open content movements are realisations of this economic model which exist today. On the other hand, collectivist communism is a system where economic decision-making is more centralised in a communitarian institution, but this process can still be democratic and libertarian, as it is in many intentional communities and as it was in the rural communes of anarchist Spain and elsewhere. So communism is not necessarily authoritarian.
The abolition of private property is nowhere near as radical as it sounds - because private property for communists has a much narrower sense than it does in everyday language. Property is defined as something that someone owns and controls even though they are not using it, or are not the only ones using it. This covers things like absentee landlords, speculative purchases of land and buildings as well as businesses that are owned by non-workers or a minority. In communist language, the term “possession” refers to something that somebody uses and needs. If someone lives in a rented house, then we say it is their possession, but it is the property of someone else. With property abolished, possession is all that remains, meaning that you control the house you live in, nobody else. Similarly, if you work in a business but do not own it, it is the possession of the workers, but it is the property of a capitalist. In a communist society, workers control their own work, nobody else.
Most of the time, property and possession coincide. You own your wardrobe and it is also your possession, because you use it and you need it. These things are unaffected by the communist abolition of property. You will have your own clothes, toothbrush, house, car, chicken run, astronomical equipment - whatever you want to have. However, if you stop using a piece of land for an appreciable period of time, it is by definition no longer in your possession and can therefore be taken back by the community or someone who has need of it. Whoever uses something owns it. There’s nothing unnatural about this idea: it’s called “usufruct”, and it is one of the main ways that humans related to things in the many thousands of years that came before capitalism.
It might be argued that it is confusing to use the word property differently from how people normally use it. This is a valid criticism, and we could just as easily use the word property to refer to “possession” and use another term, such as “exploitative property” to refer to the kind of property that communists oppose.
This is a naïvely simplistic view of human nature, which is far more complex than this gross over-simplification suggests. Human behaviour is influenced by so many different factors and has so many complex subsystems that it is simply not possible to reduce all human behaviour to some simplistic concept like “selfishness”. All I can say is that communist and anarchist economic systems do not make unreasonable demands of human nature, and there is ample evidence from history and contemporary practice to support this (see below).
The standard answer is that there are two kinds of anarchism: the more popular social anarchism, which is considered to be left-wing, and then anarcho-individualism and anarcho-capitalism, which are usually considered right-wing. Some anarchists, mostly from the “individualist” and “mutualist” camps, are in favour of a market system for the economy. I personally believe that any market system is necessarily capitalist and necessarily exploitative, and therefore cannot be anarchist. This is a controversial view, however. Most anarchists, myself included, accept that anarcho-capitalism is a contradiction in terms. But I do not think that this comes down to a left-versus-right split. Rather I think that anarchism itself is neither left-wing nor right-wing when it refers simply to the idea of not having hierarchical power structures in society. As a family of economic systems, anarchism encompasses both left-wing solutions and right-wing ones, according to my conception of left as “community focused” and right as “individual focused”. When viewed in this way, left and right are no longer bitter opposites - rather, you expect to have a mixture of community and individual life in any healthy society and therefore probably a mix of left and right solutions. I have written two essays about this topic if you are still curious.
On the contrary, capitalism is naive and idealistic for thinking that eternal growth is possible on a finite planet and for believing that it’s the “end of history”. Capitalism is actually a very recent development in human history, and it’s an aberrant, transitory and pathologically destructive phase we’re going through, not the peak of culminated wisdom. Meanwhile, I do not believe that communism is utopia - it’s just a much better system and one that is practical and feasible as well as scientific and rational.
“What people want is just a fairer capitalism”
“Capitalism can be reformed into a green, sustainable and fair system”
I believe this is also a myth, although I don’t think it can be dispelled completely without looking at the concrete proposals about how to achieve this legendary ‘nice’ capitalism. However, going through all of these proposals is far beyond the scope of this text. Certainly it will take more than just well-meaning politicians, supposedly ethical producers and ‘responsible’ consumers to make a fair and sustainable system. So concrete policy proposals and reforms would definitely be needed, not just a ‘shift in cultural values’, because market forces are stacked against any and all attempts to make things fairer or sustainable, no matter how well-intentioned you are. But any ‘nicer’ version of capitalism is still not going to be very nice, because exploitation and alienation are hard-wired into the very nature of capital and private property, which goes as deep as the contradiction between use value and exchange value and therefore inextricably bound up with the commodity, with the very concept of exchange, and with the money form as a mediator of that exchange. (For a more detailed explanation, see Karl Marx.) You can’t reform exploitation out of the system without taking private property with it; you can’t remove capitalism’s growth imperative without extinguishing capital itself; and needless to say, you cannot get anywhere close to a ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ economy unless you remove that growth imperative.
Sure, the Golden Age of capitalism from the 50s to the 70s might not have been as bad as neo-liberalism today, but there are good reasons to believe that the Keynesian economic policies of that era simply wouldn’t work anymore, because of the uniqueness of the post-war situation. Even if it were possible, it was still a system of wage labour, exploitation, neo-colonialism and alienation which saw plenty of popular resistance for good reasons. And the political will to go back to Keynesianism is severely lacking. The so-called ‘Washington consensus’ on neo-liberalism really does look like a consensus. Not even the financial crisis of 2008 has convinced them that intervening in the market is a good idea, even though that’s exactly what they had to do to prevent total economic collapse. Neo-liberalist policy is still enforced by the unaccountable international cartel of the IMF, WTO and World Bank, who are beyond national sovereignty and therefore beyond the people’s control. If that weren’t bad enough, the globalised forces of capital in the form of multinational corporations are also far above the law, and they will always be quick to flee from any country that tries to implement ‘nice’ reforms, even if it leaves the country in poverty and debt. And even if we got past those hurdles, got past the hurdle of political will, got a ‘nice’ reformist party into power and had a good set of reformist policies that might actually work, there’s still the ever-present possibility that the United States and their allies will forcibly implement a regime change on them, flimsily justified by fabricated lies and propaganda, as they have done countless times before all over the world.
In fact, the idea of ‘nice capitalism’ is as mythical and legendary as utopia and unicorns, and the same arguments that are frequently levelled at communism could be thrown right back at it: if that’s what people want, why don’t we have it yet? If it’s so feasible, why haven’t political parties adopted it yet? How can you force your nice capitalism on us, when corporations have already expressed a clear preference for ‘nasty’ capitalism? And by the way, they tried nice capitalism back in the 50s and it collapsed - didn’t you know? Even the Soviet Union lasted longer than that!
If you’re reading this at a time when capitalism is not in crisis, then come back in a short while when there is one, because if there’s one thing certain about the otherwise unpredictable market economy it’s that there will always be another crisis. The business cycle of boom and bust is well known as the way that capitalism functions through dysfunction. The crisis of overproduction is also well documented. (Marx again has all the gritty details.)
Even when capitalism is “working properly”, even when there’s not a recession, this is a system where you have to pay to live, where workers have no voice in the work that they spend their lives doing, where poverty and hunger are systematically ignored, where power and wealth accumulate to those who already have them, and where every decision is subordinated to the economy’s insatiable compulsion to grow, forcing the conversion of every aspect of life into a monetised commodity. Marx describes capital as “dead labour”. Since the growth imperative is about converting the world into capital, it only takes a moment to realise that capitalism is the process by which the world is converted into death. When the system is not in crisis, it means that this process of destruction is succeeding. Why should we want capitalism to emerge from its crisis just so that it can continue to turn life into the dead shape called money? The more logical reaction to this situation is to take stock of what a crisis really is. Capitalism is a crisis. Capitalism itself is the disaster. Any reprieve that we have from it during a recession should be the starting point for hope, for transformation, not deluded pleas for our re-enslavement by the insatiable beast.
“Nobody can explain how communism would work in practice / in theory”
“You criticise capitalism a lot, but do you have any better ideas?!”
My opinion is that systemic change to the economic system is necessary, and there are five main alternative economic systems which I think are worth building and exploring: libertarian municipalism is a system based on democratic confederalist communalism; anarcho-syndicalism is based on self-managed workplaces which co-operate via an agro-industrial federation; the peer economy, or “commons-based peer production”, is based on collaboration between people with shared goals using commonly owned means of production; eco-communalism is based on small, green, self-sufficient communities; and the “resource-based economy” is a society that’s intentionally designed using the scientific method, employing clean high technology to automate production and distribution. Check the links for more details.
It’s a myth that anarchism is a society without rules. It’s a society without hierarchy. Rules in an anarchist society are agreed upon collectively or democratically or they are emergent through practice. Or perhaps there wouldn’t be any rules. It’s up to the people themselves to decide on how to organise their affairs, and if they want to do that by setting up a strict code of behaviour, then they can do so. If there were a code of practice, then this cannot be upheld by force or the threat of violence, as it is in today’s society, but communities would still be able to deal with rule-breakers in a way that the community found acceptable. In a society with minimal rule systems (which is what I personally favour) I imagine that a kind of “peer governance” would be used, where everybody essentially looks out for each other, and tries to give people the help and support that they need at the earliest signs of potentially destructive behaviour. In this way, the community can achieve balance before destructive behaviours have a chance to spiral into serious social issues or disasters. Communities would need to collaborate and citizens would need to peer-educate themselves about best practices, so that people know how to act when they see the signs of imbalance.
It’s worth remembering that the legal system and police force are recent inventions, which did not exist for tens of thousands of years of human history, yet earlier human societies were not necessarily dysfunctional, nor chaotic nor barbaric.
Some anarchists and technocrats believe that crime would pretty much cease to exist in a properly-organised society because the market economy conditions us to pathological behaviour. I agree that certain kinds of destructive behaviour would disappear or become much less frequent, but I think there would be some things left over that we’d just have to deal with in a sensible way. The threat of violence is not a sensible way to deal with destructive behaviours, given that violence is itself a destructive behaviour.
There are two usual responses to this myth. First, pointing out that genuine anarchist and communist societies have existed in the past, such as Anarchist Spain and the Free Ukraine, and partially also in the Zapatista movement in Mexico, the kibbutzim in Israel, in the Hungarian uprising, in the Paris Commune, in the English docker’s strike, in the Diggers movement of England and the Black Panthers of the USA. It’s also sometimes remarked that pre-capitalist societies were generally communist. It can be argued that hunter-gatherer societies were also communist and it’s often pointed out that most pre-industrial societies did not use money or barter as precursors to the market system, as many people mistakenly believe (see Graeber, 2011), but instead had economies based on reciprocity, redistribution and subsistence, including gift economies. Elinor Ostrom (1990) gives examples from all over the world about how land and resources were shared as commons by pre-capitalist communities, before they were forcibly enclosed in a private property regime.
The second response that some anarchists like to give is that anarchism exists as a tendency and a possibility in the world all around us and that it often realises itself during occupations, strikes and insurrections. This was Kropotkin’s stance in The Conquest of Bread, who saw the seeds of a new society in organisations like the English Lifeboat Association and the Zoological Society of London, and in other examples of voluntary association and self-organisation. Colin Ward makes a similar case in Anarchy in Action, using examples like the squatters’ movement and de-schooling. People also point to the open source and open content peer projects like Linux and Wikipedia, as well as intentional communities, trade unions and the co-operative movement as modern and extant examples of anarchist and/or communist principles at work.
It’s a myth that the situation is hopeless and that ordinary people are powerless. Once we get over this defeatist attitude, it becomes clear that there are plenty of movements all around the world which are working towards concrete, attainable solutions already. If you believe in revolutionary change, join an anarchist revolutionary union or other anarchist group, or a revolutionary political party. For a gradual shift, join the global commons movement, the Transition movement, the Zeitgeist movement, the co-operative movement or the demonetisation movement or get involved in the solidarity economy or open source / open content projects. See my dedicated article for more details and links.