So You Call Yourself a Communist??

September 8, 2009 at 10:42 am (By Amba)

After all that’s been said and, especially, done, some actually do, as I’ve heard — with consternation — from both realpc and Ron.

They should be required to read this.


  1. Randy said,

    Those that ought to read it won’t, will deny it is accurate, or will contend that the Soviet Union was a bad example.

  2. Melinda said,

    My mother-in-law, who was one of the most liberal people I’ve ever met, said that communism won’t last because it kills incentive.

  3. Charlie (Colorado) said,

    Or read Jacques’ book.

    Or ask any Magyar about Kadar Janos.

  4. realpc said,

    There are many reasons why communism, or socialism, cannot work. Essentially, it tries to defy nature, so these artificial systems inevitably run down. However, we do have socialist elements in our capitalist systems. Some degree of socialist redistribution might be good, or at least necessary so that poor old disabled people aren’t starving in the streets.

    Our political debates are about how far we should go in either direction, towards socialism or capitalism, in various areas. Health care is the big debate right now.

    When people proudly call themselves communists they are probably using the word in a new way — to mean they want to move farther towards socialism, while still remaining basically capitalist. Because if you ask them any specifics it turns out they would like the right to start their own business, for example.

    So I guess it’s mostly terminology. Most liberal Americans don’t know that much about the communist revolutions, or the inability of socialist economics to actually function.

  5. realpc said,

    There are actually a lot of extreme leftists now days who have admitted that socialist economics is impossible. They have come up with what they believe is a better plan, called “participatory economics.” But it’s actually a completely insane idea. I think it would be even worse than communism. But at least they can acknowledge socialism does not work. Not even if your revolution is led by perfect people who all agree perfectly and do everything in the best possible way. Not even if there is no USA to compete with you and treat you badly. Under the most perfect ideal circumstances, an artificial planned economy does not function.

    If you want something to laugh at, read about parecon, the next brilliant revolutionary idea that cannot possibly work.

  6. El Pollo Real said,

    In the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, I was taught to believe individual pursuits are selfish and sacrificing for the collective good is noble.

    I knew some Soviet immigrants several years ago and they used to talk the same way. They said that the Soviet government inculcated a sense of “permanent guilt” amongst the citizenry. I found that interesting because permanent guilt so readily filled the role of original sin in the ersatz religion.

  7. Peter Hoh said,

    Where on the spectrum of capitalism and socialism can we find the system that approves the use of public money to build stadiums for privately held sports teams?

  8. El Pollo Real said,

    Peter, I could be wrong but I’d bet the Romans did that first.

  9. Maxwell said,

    Of course, there are plenty of communists still out there – hell, I used to date one. But the notion that they have any power right now, outside of the academy, is a fever dream. They are a fringe of generally well-meaning but utterly naive people.

  10. wj said,

    To add to real’s example of “communists” who want the right to start their own business, consider all the people screaming with outrage that the government might take over medical care . . . but get even more upset at the thought that anybody might touch Medicare.

    You could get the impression that an awful lot of people simply feel that words mean whatever they want them to mean just now — no on-going shared meanings allowed.

  11. Donna B. said,

    I think the people who are worried about health care reform screwing up Medicare worse than it already is have a legitimate reason to worry.

    Or rather, health care reform would screw it up quicker and worse than the “normal” course of events.

    It’s the people who are saying that Medicare recipients love their free health care that make me wonder. Who have they been talking to? The average Medicare recipient with part B, D, and a supplement pays a little over $2400/year in premiums. If they got roped into one of the Medicare HMO plans, they may pay less in premiums, but they’ve got co-pays and restricted choice of doctors that more than makes up the difference.


  12. Ennui said,

    I hope I’m not thread pooping but I wanted pick up on the discussion that Amba and realpc had in the parent thread.

    The basic idea of the American founders, as I see it anyway, was to assume that government naturally tends to become a self-serving organism, and to find ways of keeping it reigned in.

    This is, of course, absolutely correct. I would add that, during the founding era, the conviction that a) power tended to accumulate and b) the accumulation of power = tyranny … these notions were not understood as suppositions but as formal laws of man’s political nature. Take special note of proposition b). Let me pull a direct quote from the Federalist 47 in case it looks like I’m playing fast and loose:

    “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, selfappointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”

    The very definition of tyranny.

    Now, obviously, this was a break with the classical tradition. Throughout the history of political science tyranny had been understood, in broad strokes, as the use of power for one’s own good rather than for the common good (Plato famously has Socrates say that the tyrant does waking what other men do dreaming – remember that image). In classical political science it would be entirely possible for all power to be concentrated in the hands of one man; so long as he was just. I believe that the American founders only went half the way with the classical tradition. They agreed on the downside – that concentrated power released political forces that knew no restraints (the fevered tyrant dreams). They disagreed with Plato’s suggestion (if this is what he was suggesting) that anyone or any group could avoid loosing grip with reality when the reins of power were in their hands. But this was okay because they were designing a mechanism of government, not trying to create a just society. In this sense they were Machiavellians inasmuch as they were attempting to avoid the worst rather than pursue the best.

    Now to meander to a point that’s vaguely relevant to the discussion. Starting, in my limited knowledge, at least with John Dewey, power began to be thought of very differently. I was astonished when reading “The Public and It’s Problems” to encounter a systematic discussion of political power by an American political philosopher that showed no concern with the problem of power. It was all about “empowerment” (although I don’t recall if Dewey used the term). How is this possible, I thought? Not historically, but logically?

    I believe that the answer is as follows: the progressive tradition in America believes in something like a law of the conservation of political power. Political power can neither be created nor destroyed. It can only be distributed. Empowering disenfranchised groups simply redistributes power (defined as decision making) more widely throughout the population. To encourage more people to seek redress for their private conditions through political means is simply to equal the balance between them and the privileged who, silently and unobserved, benefit from the existing distribution of power, all the while cynically or stupidly attributing their (politically determined) good fortune to their own private efforts. No new force is introduced in this process and the only danger that such a redistribution of power presents is to those who’ve enjoyed the privileges of the existing order.

    The founders, on the other hand, did not believe in the conservation of political power. They viewed the body politic as something like a nuclear pile. Federalism, the separation of powers, enumerated powers, checks and balances, the Bill of Rights, specific prohibitions against titles of nobility, etc. are so many control rods in the pile. They were intended both to keep certain matters out of the public sphere and cripple and delay winds of popular fury and enthusiasm (see the Federalist 63 – if memory serves). When the control rods are removed, when every aspect of life becomes a public matter, new power is created in a self sustaining reaction – and tends to concentrate itself.* Picture a very concerned Enrico Fermi beneath Stagg Field. In the terms I’ve used, it is this reaction that gives actuality, in whatever individual or group has gotten power, to Plato’s fevered tyrant dreams. The sense that now anything is possible.

    Thus, my sense is that American progressives, whether they hail from Dewey or Marx or Marcuse or some more exotic source have an understanding of political power fundamentally at odds with the founders (and with most conservatives) in the sense that they don’t see it as a problem.** Whether the founders were right is a legitimate question, of course. But this is, for me, the key to the misunderstanding between the right and left over the last 40 years.

    *Yeah, my physics analogies don’t line up perfectly.
    ** But what about the power that conservatives conceded to Bush? In terms of the founders, the power to make war is dangerous. But necessary. Unlike, for instance, the power to insure the personal health of every citizen – and that’s not a jab, that’s a fact. There’s always the amendment process.

  13. amba12 said,

    Same misunderstanding that existed between the Soviet Union and the U.S. — between Marx and the Founding Fathers. I.e. whether human troubles arose out of circumstances, or whether troubling circumstances arose (and ever would) out of human nature.

  14. wj said,

    But what about the power that conservatives conceded to Bush? –Ennui

    A pretty good argument can be made that, whatever they called themselves, the folks concentrating power in the Presidency during the early part of this decade were not conservatives in any real sense. And, I suspect, were in many cases well aware that they were creating something new. Of course, the people embracing that concentration were mostly not aware of that. Just fearful and ignorant of history.

  15. PatHMV said,

    Peter, I agree that’s a pretty hideous misuse of taxpayer funds, though too many taxpayers seem to support it, out of a desire to “keep the team here!” Sadly, local and state governments of all political stripes seem to support such largess all too often.

    wj, there were a lot of conservatives complaining about the expansion of government during the Bush Administration, from Medicare Part D to No Child Left Behind (a Ted Kennedy project). I said many times at Stubborn Facts, Amba’s place, and elsewhere that President Bush really wasn’t very conservative. In many respects, I think those domestic policy inititiatives were the political price that conservatives had to pay for the war which many of us felt was vital for our long-term security.

    That said, most of the “concentration” of political power in the hands of the President was in the realm of foreign affairs, not domestic policy. It’s not inherently inconsistent to support broad Presidential and governmental powers in foreign affairs (including fighting terrorism), while opposing such expansive powers in domestic matters.

  16. wj said,

    Pat, certainly it’s not inconsistent to support a large amount of Presidential power in foreign affairs, but not in domestic policy. But whether it is conservative is a different question.

    And, as you say, President Bush was not very conservative in lots of ways. Not just in his administration’s efforts to increase Presidential power. You, and lots of other real conservatives, said so at the time. But the people supporting him across the board claimed to be conservatives — falsely, as I think we agree. I’m not talking here about those who viewed his unconservative actions as a price that had to be paid, but those who asserted that they were really conservative actions.

  17. Ennui said,

    That said, most of the “concentration” of political power in the hands of the President was in the realm of foreign affairs, not domestic policy. It’s not inherently inconsistent to support broad Presidential and governmental powers in foreign affairs (including fighting terrorism), while opposing such expansive powers in domestic matters.

    I agree, Pat. Especially since, and this is crucial, the Constitution makes the President Commander in Chief. It is a great shame that essential elements of the Constitution (Congress actually declaring war before we enter one, a respect for the enumerated powers, using the amendment process to change the Constitution, etc.) have become a joke over the last 40 or 50 years. The only real limits on power in this day and age are political – only the checks and balances and parts of the Bill of Rights remain (and only because they have constituencies).

    For instance, if a single payer government health plan were created today it would be constitutionally “justified” under the Commerce Clause and we’d all shrug and say “whatever.” This is, to me, a travesty, akin to pretending to believe that Snowball was always the enemy. It’s a bad, bad thing that the Constitution is treated this way (actually it’s not actually the Constitution that’s being treated this way, it’s us that’s being treated this way).

  18. PatHMV said,

    Agreed, Ennui. The one downside of Marbury v. Madison is that, eventually, Congress abdicated any responsibility itself for evaluating the Constitutionality of its own legislation. Institutionally, it considers that it can and should pass any legislation it can, to the full extent that the Supreme Court will let them get away with it.

  19. Ennui said,

    The doctrine of nullification? Anyone? Or is it still too soon.

  20. Charlie (Colorado) said,

    I knew some Soviet immigrants several years ago and they used to talk the same way. They said that the Soviet government inculcated a sense of “permanent guilt” amongst the citizenry. I found that interesting because permanent guilt so readily filled the role of original sin in the ersatz religion.

    Read — or re-read — Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged as a reaction to that kind of global guilt.

  21. realpc said,


    As far as I know, Ayan Rand stands for utter selfishness, which is understandably a big turn-off for progressives. I personally don’t like extremes because i believe in dynamic balance. Competition and cooperation have to balance each other. I didn’t read Ayan Rand’s philosophy books, but I doubt she emphasized the need for cooperation and compassion. The natural world includes love as well as violence, always in balance.

  22. Ennui said,

    To paraphrase Scalzi (IIRC), Ayn Rand’s philosophy is great, as long as you’re an Ayn Rand character.

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