Socialism and Communism

Socialism and communism involve public ownership of major industries, so that the government controls most economic activity.

They are political systems with a largely planned economy (3.3.6), the antithesis of free-market capitalism.  The theory is that the State is working on behalf of the population, to deliver what people want and need as efficiently as possible, but it is difficult for a socialist State to know what people want.  It is less nimble than the operation of supply and demand (3.3.2).

There is less choice for the individual if the State is choosing on behalf of the population as a whole.  It is imposing the ‘general will’ upon everyone else, as described by Rousseau in his book The Social Contract, in the last paragraph of chapter 7:

“In order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body.  This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free; for this is the condition which, by giving each citizen to his country, secures him against all personal dependence.  In this lies the key to the working of the political machine; this alone legitimises civil undertakings, which, without it, would be absurd, tyrannical, and liable to the most frightful abuses.”

His argument is that the citizens would be ‘free’ because they are in control of their own governance, so enforcement of the ‘social compact” can be seen as a protection of that ‘freedom’.  ‘Freedom’, in this sense of the word, is not the same concept as ‘liberty’ as conceived by individualists and described in the previous section (6.2.2).

In its most extreme form – communism as described by Marx and Engels – the State is authoritarian.  The Manifesto of the Communist Party, by Marx and Engels, proposed the “Abolition of private property” (in Para. 12 of Part II) and, at the end of Part II, proposed a major role for the State:

“5.  Centralisation of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.

6.  Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.

7.  Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.”

It is a collectivist Utopia, requiring people to give their best efforts without any property rights.  This was unrealistic.  Much more wealth is created when people have the incentive of being rewarded for effort in a system of private ownership (3.2.1).  China’s embrace of what has been called ‘State capitalism’ has been successful in creating wealth; it no longer espouses pure communism.

The communist ideal was that the State would eventually “wither away”, as in Lenin’s book The State and Revolution:

“The first act by which the state really comes forward as the representative of the whole of society — the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society — is also its last independent act as a state.  State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies down of itself.  The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production.  The state is not ‘abolished’.  It withers away.” (chap. 1, sect. 4)

This concept fails to take into account the need for organisation of a planned economy.  Someone must take complex decisions and there is always someone who wants to be the leader.  No national implementation of communism has ever gone beyond the point of requiring a central administration: an all-powerful party oligarchy emerges.

Friedrich Hayek in The Road to Serfdom, pointed out that the government control required by socialism and communism can easily mutate into an oppressive dystopia – as in this quotation:

 “Once you admit that the individual is merely a means to serve the ends of the higher entity called society or the nation, most of those features of totalitarian regimes which horrify us follow of necessity. From the collectivist standpoint intolerance and brutal suppression of dissent, the complete disregard of the life and happiness of the individual, are essential and unavoidable consequences of this basic premise”. (p. 153)

Government oppression in the name of collectivism has emerged on several occasions, most egregiously in Stalin’s Russia and Pol Pot’s Cambodia.  Surveillance and a ‘Police State’ are not isolated malpractices by a few misguided leaders, but can be seen as almost inevitable consequences of the enforcement of communism.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6232.htm.