Confusions with Communism
In light of some recent reception to things that I have posted on my social media — whether in my own personal writing, or from other content that I repost, I get the sense that some (or maybe many) people might not have a great understanding of what I mean when I talk about socialism, capitalism, exploitation, and other related concepts. I thought I would take the time to outline my understanding of these concepts to hopefully give others some greater context as to my personal perspective. Others reading this may have a better grasp of these subjects than I do, but I will hopefully do my best to provide a generalized overview here.
I think that many people wrongly assume that what I mean when I talk about socialism (or communism) is synonymous with cold-war era Soviet socialism, which might scare some people — and I understand that fear. However, I wish that people could recognize that Soviet socialism was an authoritarian/totalitarian, centrally-planned dictatorship, and was a betrayal of the genuine values of a true socialist society as intended by Marx, Engels, and others. I think we need to be cognizant of the harm that was caused by the Soviet Union, just as much as I am critical of the harm caused by Western or American imperialism. However, we also need to understand that we — citizens of western capitalist democracies — have been bombarded with anti-communist propaganda for nearly 100 years, and I think this unconsciously shapes much of contemporary western society’s fear of that those terms (communism and socialism) — rather than the values that those systems represent.
Paraphrasing the revolutionary activist Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael): “You never judge a system by its adherents. You judge it by its principles. If we were to judge Christianity by Christians, it would have fallen with Judas. You don’t judge Christianity by Christians. You don’t judge socialism by socialists (e.g., the fall of the USSR). You judge socialism by its principles irrespective of those who call themselves socialists.”
When I talk about socialism, all I am referring to is a socioeconomic system where the means of production in our society are owned collectively, in contrast to capitalism — which is a system where individuals or corporations own the means of production (or capital), while others do not. The means of production is the wealth, real estate, technology, or intellectual property required for production, and is collectively referred to as capital (wealth intended to create new wealth). The dynamic of ownership under capitalism creates a relationship where some people (known as the working class) — those who don’t own capital — are forced into selling their labour in return for a wage to those who own capital (capitalists). Capitalists then receive a disproportionate share of the wealth produced by the labour of workers as a result of the profit margin, because workers are never compensated fairly for their labour. A larger share of the produced wealth remains in the pockets of those who already own capital.
This is what I mean when I talk about exploitation. Exploitation doesn’t necessarily mean unsafe working conditions or sweatshop labour, it just means that under capitalism, workers will never reap the real fruits of their labour. This creates a system where the more we work, the more profits grow, and the more wealth accumulates in the hands of the few. Workers get poorer (relative to the total wealth available) with every hour we work. It creates a system where we become dependent on wage labour to support ourselves, while a small portion of our society continues to get wealthier at our expense.
We have two options, either everyone gets to own, or only some people get to own, and right now we live in a society where only a very small proportion of humanity owns the majority of all the wealth. Recent findings show that 85% of the world’s wealth is currently held by 10% of the population, which means that the vast majority of the world (90%) is left fighting over 15% of the total wealth available — one of the largest income disparities in recorded human history.
Since the majority of capital is controlled by a select few, these entities then have a disproportionate influence on what we produce as a society. Workers do not get to choose how we use our wealth and technology, capitalists get to. And since the goal of capitalism is to produce ever increasing profits, this creates a situation where workers are coerced into producing whatever capitalists believe will be profitable. Our society is directed by capitalists in a manner that seeks to increase their wealth, rather than using our resources to alleviate wider human suffering.
We could use technology to make our lives easier, but we don’t. We still have to work the same 40 (or more) hours per week, regardless of how efficiently our new technologies allow us to get the job done. The profit motive is the reason we only look at our environment as resources for extraction (i.e., forestry, mining etc.) or as a sink for pollution (i.e., emissions from burning fossil fuels), which means that capitalism is the root cause of both the climate crisis and biodiversity loss currently wreaking havoc across the globe.
I think that some people consider my criticisms of capitalism to be hypocritical because I have benefited from capitalism myself, but I think that this argument only helps to highlight my critique. Just because I have had the privilege — as an able bodied, white, settler male, living in a western capitalist democracy — to enjoy the benefits of capitalism, that doesn’t mean that everyone across the world has had that same luxury. Many people suffer substantially more than I do at the hands of the free market and wage labour. All I am doing is arguing for a system where everyone gets a fair share of the wealth that we collectively produce as a society.
Just because someone benefits from a system that’s been forced onto them (i.e., all of us who are born under capitalism), that doesn’t mean that better alternatives don’t exist. The benefits of capitalism doesn’t preclude the option for other ways of being. Just as we have benefitted immensely from the burning of fossil fuels, that doesn’t mean that greener alternatives wouldn’t be better for the planet. Or, let’s say someone is raised in an abusive household, but the parents still help to keep the child alive and sheltered, that doesn’t mean that the child needs to be grateful towards their abusers. A homeless person doesn’t have to love capitalism because the clothing he wears to keep himself warm was produced for profits. And just because I have benefited from capitalism in some way (in many ways), doesn’t mean that it’s the best and the only way we could structure our society.
I am an anti-capitalist because I believe that the values of socialism could create a more equitable, caring, and sustainable future for our planet. I try not to antagonize those people who may still believe in capitalism, because it’s the system we were raised within. I recognize that it will be difficult and take time to unlearn those patterns of thought. My issues with capitalism are with its values — individualism, private ownership, accumulation, competition, and exploitation. I am a socialist because I value collectivism, equality, sustainability and empathy, not because I’m trying to repeat the crimes of Stalinism. Some people may prefer a society that’s grounded in capitalist values, but I am prepared to fight for a fairer and more caring alternative. I believe that the future of our survival on this planet depends on it.