Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Look! Some Anarchists Aren't Morons...

What is communism?
What's in a word
by Paul Bowman - Red and Black Revolution

What is communism? Well according to the Concise Oxford dictionary, communism is

"1 a political theory derived from Marx, advocating class war and leading to a society in which all property is publicly owned and each person is paid and works according to his or her needs and abilities. 2 (usu. Communism) a the communistic form of society established in the USSR and elsewhere."

If that was correct then this would be a very short article. However, as so often, the Concise Oxford is wrong again. In fact the terms socialism and communism appear in England around the 1820s as terms adopted by members of the cooperative movement who were sick of hearing their politics referred to as "Owenism". Originally the two terms were undifferentiated but by the 1840s communism was used by revolutionaries to differentiate themselves from reformists such as J.S.Mill who had adopted socialism to cover an indigestible mess of reformisms.

By the 1870s the terms had moved from differentiating means to distinguishing ends. The proper Oxford English Dictionary notes in its sources:

"Forster Diary 11 May in T. W. Reid Life (1888) .... I learn that the great distinction between communism and socialism is that the latter believes in payment according to work done and the former does not".

It is this meaning of communism as opposed to socialism that evolved in the late nineteenth century that this article discusses. Of course its not that important to get hung up on a name, for many people the Concise definition of communism being something to do with Marx and the USSR is the one they know. For us the name of the post-capitalist society we aim to help construct is a detail, what matters is the content of the ideas. Nonetheless for the purposes of this article we need to choose a name so we stick with the historical one.


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