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Please Stop Talking About "True Communism"

If you're one of those marxists who defends communism by arguing that the "true communism" promised by Marx and Engels has never yet existed, then please stop.  This is not a very good argument for communism because this is precisely what liberals argue in order to claim "communism is good in theory and bad in practice."  Indeed, they use the fact that "true communism" has never existed as proof that it cannot exist because it is little more than a utopian doctrine.  ("That Marx meant well," the liberal anti-communist will argue, chortling slyly, "It's just too bad he was proved wrong by those horrible communist revolutions of the twentieth century!")  Thus, if you're making some sort of idealist argument about true communism––as if communism is a Platonic form in which the material world has not yet learned to participate––then all you're doing is telling the liberal anti-communist that s/he's correct.

Utopian Marx: "Where is my true communism? Peace out."

One of the key contributions made by Marx and Engels was not a theory of "pure communism" but the theory of revolutionary science.  Utopian fleshed-out descriptions of some "true communism" are hard to find in the work of Marx and Engels; when they spoke of communism they were intentionally vague, indicating only that it was a classless society where humanity had passed from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.  They did not precisely think it was inevitable since it needed to be actively established through revolution, a messy business that could always fail, and that this was necessary for human progress.

What they did speak more about, however, was establishing socialism, the so-called dictatorship of the proletariat, which could possibly be the motor that would allow for the liquidation of class divisions.  They also spoke quite a lot about making concrete analyses of concrete situations, scientifically assessing historical junctures, the fact that every generation can only solve the problems it encounters… they had little patience for utopian pronouncements about communism.  Indeed, because they were historical materialists and not utopian idealists their argument regarding communism was only about its necessity based on a scientific assessment of capitalism and the historical motion that produced capitalism.

All of this is to say, if you think of yourself as a marxist and are still talking about how the true beauty of communism has never been realized (and are perhaps saying this as a response to some criticism about actually existing communist regimes so as to "save communism" from their supposedly bad legacy) you might be a liberal.  At the very least you're some sort of utopian idealist who isn't doing the hard work of historical materialism.  Or maybe you're a lazy reader of Marx who thinks that Capital was really about describing the "perfect" communist system––which is to say, you haven't read Capital and you might even, to trick people into thinking you've read it, refer to this book by its German title so as to sound knowledgeable.

"Ah yes, but have you read Das Kapital where Marx describes his theory of communism?"

Whatever the case: please stop using this argument to "defend" communism––it isn't helping.  You're just making the liberal anti-communists happy by making their arguments for them and calling it communist.  After you make these arguments, they can go home and chuckle to themselves at how obviously out to lunch those whacky communists are because they keep talking about some utopian communism and calling it "scientific" when they can't seem to understand the empirical method.  Even worse: when you make this argument in front of people who might otherwise be open to politicization––and who know viscerally that capitalism needs to go––you end up offering them little more than quasi-religious mystification.

Look: Marx would in some ways agree that "true communism" has never existed because he believed that communism was classless and thus lacked a state, which can only exist in class-based societies.  Thus, it is quite true that communism has not actually existed because communist governments, by virtue of being governments, have presided over states.  But this is a rather banal point because, really, even Lenin and Mao would agree with you here; both of them understood that they were building socialism, the dictatorship of the proletariat, that might possibly birth communism when the class struggle under socialism was won.  Marx and Engels also spoke of this socialist transition––it was towards this transition, though in a more nebulous manner than the actually existing socialisms of the twentieth century, that their manifesto was aimed.

All of this is to say that communists need to stop talking about the failure of "communist states" to be "truly communist" because these states were only ever trying to build communism through the period of socialism––a historical necessity that could always lead to failure because it is still a period of class struggle.  They need to stop denouncing these actually existing socialisms as failing to be "properly communist" because concrete struggle in the concrete world is not a dinner party or an abstract philosophical argument; it is a messy business about overthrowing the ruling class and building a classless society.  And a classless society, as all of these revolutionary communists understood, is not something that will emerge one beautiful day when we all learn to be utopians and participate in the ideal form of Communism.  This is a process that is fraught with confusion, struggle, setbacks, and failures from which we need to learn.

We will learn nothing about getting closer to our "true communism" if we keep speaking of this communism as if it is divorced from time and space.  If Marx and Engels' key contribution was their scientific method, then we need to use it honestly engage with the world historical revolutions that produced examples of actually existing socialism––communist movements devoted to building communism––and, rather than disavow them, celebrate their history-shaking successes while at the same time scientifically critiquing and learning from their actual failures.  When we denounce these moments because they were not "true communism" we denounce a revolutionary understanding of communism because we are saying that every actual attempt to build communism was garbage because it wasn't pure.  History, however, is not abstractly pure because it is made by (just as it makes) humans producing and struggling in given socio-historical contexts and human production/struggle is not the same as a concise and abstract mathematical equation.  To be sure, there are universal insights about the motion of human history; the particular articulations of these universals, however, are always messy.

This "true communism" business needs to stop.  The fact that I can look "communism" up in a bourgeois highschool textbook [as I did the other day] and read, amidst claims about totalitarianism and anti-democracy, that "no true communist system has ever existed" means that I should not have to hear the same anti-communist bullshit reproduced by self-proclaimed communists whose understanding of history is the same as a highschool textbook that hasn't changed its position since the beginning of the cold war.  (As an aside: it was also funny that a highschool teacher argued the same thing about communism to one of my comrades a couple days before we found the textbook he was using to teach his students.  Yet again: the educators need to be educated.)  So stop making the arguments your liberal contemporaries are making, fellow communists, stop fetishizing a true communism and instead follow the lead of Marx and Engels and critically engage with the world historical communist movements.  Maybe then we can stop confusing people who might be interested in communism in the first place.

[If this entry made you as happy as the absolute level of nicotine contained in a pack of cigarettes, please consider contributing at least a tenth of the price of said pack to the maintenance of MLM Mayhem.]


  1. Funny - your critique, (intentionally?) evokes Marx and Engels polemics in German Ideology around "True Socialism"....

    1. Of course intentionally. Actually I was thinking of citing some sections but I wrote this when I wasn't at home, and thus didn't have access to my books. The plan was to look up some quotations and add them when I got home before posting but I kind of forgot.

  2. As A Marxist, I question you on what this "True Communism" actually is. To me, Communism is the envision of a stateless, classless and moneyless society, in which all the problems of Capitalism are solved. Socialism being the building of that.

    I'm sort of checking if I fall under the "ultra left" version of Marxism, which, as this article tells, is just Liberal nonsense.

    It would probably be safer to say that I like all Marxian theories (Leninism, Stalinism, Trotskism, Maoism...etc), and believe each country needs a different route to Socialism.

    1. You're correct about true communism being stateless and classless (and thus moneyless) but this is a side point to what I'm saying. Marx and Engels only indicated statelessness and classnessness (which I actually do mention in this article) but did not spend a long period of time explaining what this meant, by-blow by by-blow, as a fully functioning mode of production.

      My argument is that people who say that actually existing socialisms were "bad" because they weren't "true communism" are utopian and that Marx and Engels themselves would also make the same charge. They did this with St. Max in *German Ideology" and had nothing but scorn for people who complained about the messiness that was necessary to build communism (an always fraught process) because simply assuming it would be a "true communism" immediately is utterly unscientific.

      So yes, you're correct that communism is supposed to be stateless and classless, but since you also say that socialism is about building that then you are not the type of person I'm targeting in this article. Indeed, I was very clear that I was targeting the kind of person who doesn't understand the socialist stage and who denounces actually existing socialism because they were "not true communism" and thus arm liberal discourse.

  3. First of all i'll say from the get go that i have NOT in fact read 'Capital' in its entirety. Maybe someday I will, but so far not. If those "communists" need to stop calling socailist states as "failed experiments in communism" then people need to stop calling them "communism". You said that even Mao would be aware that he is not building a stateless society, when was the last time you heard someone refer to China or Russia as "socialist"? I mean sure china is even called a "socialist republic" but you go and ask an average person chances are it will be classified as "communist".

    Yes true communism never existed, not that it cannot, primarily because people misunderstand its nature. How many people or "states" have actually tried to get there? Is that what the chinese were aiming for when Mao took power or it got turned into a socialist state? I haven't read the capital as i said, but from what i understand the very idea of where socialism would end up is flawed. First off the end result of the exercise (a classless, stateless society) cannot exist when anything externel to it does have class and is anything less than what it itself is. Just as much as the retaliations in the mid-east were inevitable considering american culture and its influence and the importance we give to our "democracy" and 'capitalist system'. This is not even getting into the historical socio-cultural differences between the heavily americanised international society today and those of the states marx wrote about. In the end, I dont think communism will ever work, as long as people fail to adopt Marx's ideals to recent times. I don't need to go through with you, I'm sure, the issues with the the so called "socialist transition" and the problems with the "dictatorship of the proletariat" and the countless studies done that talk about why such a thing invariably fails and never actually turns into "communism".

    I call myself a communist because I believe in the ideals of a classless, stateless society, and I think marx was stupid or kidding himself to imagine we could ever get there via some kinda of "dictatorship of the proletariat", but that is an argument for another day I suppose. I will however continue to classify say "China" as "not truly communism", but only as long as anyone insists on classifying it as "Communism", don't kid yourselfs children; 'communism' has not existed in any form since the stone age, probably not even within a family setting. IT requires a kind of mindset that is simply too far from what we are today with our heavily consumerist society. We also probably could use it, since our heavily consumerist society is going through some issues that are directly relating to its nature as "consumerist", and we are seeing the kind of things marx talked about as being negative side effects. Marx's theory of how to get there has major issues, especially due to globalisation and the social changes it brings about, not to mention the differences in how "Class" works today than it did years ago.

    But in the end, I believe (or must) that it can be achieved, sure its idealist I'm perfectly aware of it, but someone has to dream.

    1. Look, what I'm saying is this: people who try to *defend* communism by saying, in response to attacks on actually existing socialisms that they "were not true communism" are shooting themselves in the foot. First of all they're just agreeing with anti-communists; secondly, they aren't doing the historical materialist job of actually investigating those societies and learning how they were trying to build communism.

      The Russian Revolution made some steps in building communism but failed because it encountered questions it could not solve. The Chinese Revolution, because it learned from the Russian Revolution, got closer but also failed for the same reason. The point being: socialism is a class struggle to bring about communism and is always a period that can fail or get closer to success. I don't think Marx was stupid to think that a dictatorship of the proletariat was a necessity; he was actually scientific in this regard because, let's be clear, capitalism was built through a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie––and the mercantile period was a period of back and forth between the capitalist class and the feudal classes for a very long period of time.

      *If* a classless society can ever be built, *then* (as history as shown us) there needs to be a period where classes are liquidated. The bourgeoisie does not just disappear because of a good argument. Maybe it won't disappear, but it definitely won't disappear unless it is placed under command and a period of revolutionary transition emerges. The Russian Revolution *was* a success but then it was also a failure. The Chinese Revolution was an even greater success, but then a greater failure. Historical materialism as a method teaches us that we need to learn from history, and that we can't pretend these successes and failures do not exist, so if we want to achieve a classless society we have to build it and not imagine that it will come into being just because of the power of our thoughts. It's not idealist to want this society; it's idealist to imagine it can be built without a revolutionary movement that learns from what the two world historical revolutions of the twentieth century have established… And if we are materialists and revolutionaries than we need to accept that praxis, most importantly actual revolutions, teach us something about the development of revolutionary theory. Otherwise we're just thrashing about like children who dogmatically imagine we can channel some sort of magical communism that has no understanding of the successes and failures of the past: we should endorse what worked and try to figure out what failed. The dialectic of *continuity-rupture* is essential in this regard.

    2. "Look, what I'm saying is this: people who try to *defend* communism by saying, in response to attacks on actually existing socialisms that they "were not true communism" are shooting themselves in the foot. First of all they're just agreeing with anti-communists; secondly, they aren't doing the historical materialist job of actually investigating those societies and learning how they were trying to build communism"

      While I agree with the latter here, how exactly is this "just agreeing with anti-communists"? We are always confronted with the past being referred to as communism, what response would you offer to these people?

    3. It's agreeing with anti-communists because the anti-communist narrative regarding the two world historical socialist revolutions is that they proved that communism was a "failure" because they couldn't achieve "true communism".

      Generally, most people who want to dismiss actually existing socialist revolutions out of hand because of their failures are not people that you are going to win over to a movement immediately, in fact they might be people who have no interest in being involved in a socialist movement because of their class commitments. There is no point in trying to win over people who are committed anti-communists, especially if they occupy privileged class positions. You begin by winning over the advanced, those who are interested in an anti-capitalist politics from the get-go. In many cases you will discover (as I have) that these people aren't, on the whole, invested in cold war ideology or the belief that socialism, because it failed, is a terrible, terrible thing. In other cases you discover that they're willing to listen to arguments, even interested in them, and in those cases you can you have a serious discussion about the successes and failures of past socialisms.


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