Communism and Community

Is there a link between the meanings of ‘communism’ and ‘community’? My interest here is partly etymological, partly analysis of concepts, and partly pragmatic clarification of how words might best be used. I know this whole area is a quagmire, but then quagmires are often very interesting areas for a wildlife enthusiast.

Anyway, I think there is a link, but it’s indirect. The more direct links are between ‘communism’ and two other words, ‘commune’ and ‘common’.

If we confine our attention to the economic ‘nuts and bolts’ of what these words mean, these links become quite simple. A commune is a group of people who ‘hold things in common’, or who have ‘common property’, or ‘common ownership’. Communism is the belief that all things should be owned in common (or, ambiguously, the form of society in which they are). Thus communism is also the belief that society should be organised as either a single commune or a network of communes. A nice, tight triangle of perspicuous definitional links.

‘Community’ is left outside of this triangle because it has no definite economic meaning. But of course it too is closely connected with these terms, because they all have a robust penumbra of non-economic meanings, connotations, and associations.

One thread to pick out would be: what is ‘common’ among people is what they share or have ‘together’. Members of a community are people who ‘live together’, so that their ‘living’ is somehow ‘shared’ or ‘common’. But ‘live’ here is shorthand for something much broader than ‘be alive in a place’, as we see when we consider that two opposing armies might ‘be alive together’ on a battlefield without ‘living together’, even if their campaign lasts for months.

What is the relevant sense of ‘living together’? I could go into a long analysis of how different people have used the word ‘community’, since I was recently working on the topic, but instead I’ll just report the conclusion I came to: the core meaning of ‘community’ in this sense is a group of people who 1) benefit each other in various ways, and 2) value each in some non-instrumental fashion.

That ‘valuing’ could involve spontaneous feelings of affection, or it might involve shared dedication to a cause or ideal or activity, or it might involve formulating and following a set of rules which are meant to promote everybody’s welfare.

That’s the core meaning – there are other derived meanings, that somehow relate to the core one. But if that’s the sense of ‘living’ which is ‘shared’ and hence ‘common’ in a ‘community’, what does that have to do with ‘communism’?

That becomes clearer if we consider that the market is to a great extent a paradigm non-community. That claim needs certain qualifications, but the basic point is simple: in a market, people will often benefit each other but not because they mean to, or because they care. It is a characteristically self-interested way of securing co-operation.

That doesn’t automatically mean it’s bad, though it might establish a suspicion that it’s likely to have a number of quite pernicious outcomes. Communists think that suspicion turns out to be amply justified. They think that, as it turns out, the only way to secure optimal, or even acceptable, outcomes for everyone is if that goal is incorporated directly into the way the economy is run: that’s at least part of what is meant by ‘rational planning’.

If I’m right about the core meaning of ‘community’, then it follows that communism stands for the control of the economy by ‘minimally communal institutions’, i.e. those run on the basis of explicitly seeking everyone’s good. So that gives us a link between ‘community’ and ‘communism’.

(Note that the way I’m using these words, ‘communism’ is by definition anti-market, whereas ‘socialism’ need not be, as long as capital is owned collectively)

What about ‘commune’? This word can have different sorts of meaning; above I said that in an economic sense it means people with common property. But contrasted with ‘community’, its major connotation is intention – a commune is a group who ‘live together’ (a ‘community’) by choice, as part of a deliberate plan. This implies that they had some reason for such a choice, but that reason might be many things – a desire for closeness, a desire for fairness, a desire for freedom, or a desire for discipline.

In this sense, ‘commune’ again links together ‘community’ with ‘communism’, but in two ways. Firstly, ‘communism’ as a term emerged (according to my somewhat shallow research) in the context of many attempts to establish new utopian communes, such as Robert Owen’s “New Harmony”. So communes like that might be models of, or means of developing, communism.

But there’s also been a strain of criticism of such communal experiments, expressed here by Kropotkin. And, after all, much of the motive for founding one is disagreement with present society, so why would you still want to if you had succeeded in reforming society? So maybe communism shouldn’t be burdened by too close a connection with such communes.

An alternative semantic link is that both movements share the goal of creating deliberate, intentional, ‘communal’ institutions – but that in the one case this may be global, or otherwise filled with many more people than the average hippy camp. That is, communism need not be interested in ‘tight-knit’ communities, but just in having co-ordinating economic institutions which are ‘communal’ (in the sense of organising and expressing collective concern for each individual’s good) and not just accepting or strengthening existing communities.

This distinction might be phrased in terms of ‘communal self-awareness’ (individuals feeling strongly identified with and involved in a concrete network of people) and ‘self-aware community’ (groups ruling themselves deliberately and directly for their collective benefit). One need not imply the other, at least not directly.

In this respect, the ‘commune’ to look to would be the ‘Paris Commune’ of 1871, which is clearly not a ‘small, tight-knit community’, given how big Paris was even then – my superficial researches suggest that just the executions that followed its defeat involved many times the total population of New Harmony.

So in summary: a collection of semantic links connect ‘communism’, ‘community’, ‘commune’, and ‘common’, generally involving the idea of ‘sharing’ something, either economically or in a more robust sense of sharing (either directly or via. institutions) a concern for each others good.

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7 Responses to Communism and Community

  1. Cory Lewis says:

    I’m curious why ‘community’ needs to have a non-instrumental dimension. I have some pretty vague intuitions – a sort of positive glow that comes along with the word – but I’m wondering if you have something more substantial. It seems pretty crucial to your distinction between markets and communities.

    • lukeroelofs says:

      Well, ultimately I have nothing more substantial than assembled intuitions and observations about usage. But here’s a few:

      When people live in some mutually beneficial way but display no apparent interest in each other’s welfare, we tend to say there’s no sense of community, or that it’s not a real community. Conversely, we speak of ‘strong communities’ or ‘strengthening community’ when people seem to display such interest to a greater extent.

      The very talk of ‘strength’ is a clue. When we talk about ‘the strength of society’ it sounds like we’re talking about military or economy power; but the ‘strength’ of a community seems to have more in common, semantically, with the ‘strength’ of a friendship or other relationship.

      Consider also the derived use of the term in many moral philosophy discourses, where people will ask us to ‘expand our moral community’ to include, say, animals, meaning by this that we should treat them with concern and respect – i.e. enjoining us to act in the way that is constitutive of a community (if my definition was correct).

      Then there’s the way we talk of a ‘sense of community’. Generally, it seems to me, we mean pretty similar things by ‘a strong community’ and ‘a strong sense of community’ – it’s not like one is merely a representation or perception of the other (a visitor who is struck by how much people look after each might claim to have noticed a strong sense of community, but not to have felt a strong sense of society). This makes sense if what ‘community’ means is partly about people feeling a certain attitude.

      Finally, consider the sad fate of the word ‘anti-social’, which tried to have the strong emotional or value-laden significance of ‘community’ but with a word based on ‘society’. Outside of academic contexts, this word is usually misused to mean, not harmful and inconsiderate of others, but ‘unsociable’.

  2. kenny alvarado says:

    do you believe that jesus chirst is the purest form of communism?

    acts 2: 44-47
    All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

    this sounds like communsim to me

    • JesusisLORD says:

      Have you read the circumstances in the Word of God? The giving was voluntary and not mandatory. The followers of The LORD Jesus Christ loved Him and His followers. Communism is forced and atheistic.

  3. Quasi Caustic says:

    Communism: Feeding 5K people with your disciples fish and bread after they told you that the masses were tired and hungry and to send them away to get their own food and rest… Twice.

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