The Four Stages of Communism. Part 1. Historical antecedents

Edward Kanterian, University of Kent, 03. September 2021

Although communism is generally thought of as being a firmly modern theory it, in many ways, has its roots in ancient history. In this critical investigation of the origins and consequences of communist political doctrine, Dr Edward Kanterian of the University of Kent explores the historical evolution of modern-day communist theory.

Part 1 deals with the relationship between communism and the philosophers of antiquity, as well as the religious doctrine of the Middle Ages.

Part 2, to be published at a later date, will address the emergence of Marxism in the wake of the industrial revolution. Furthermore, it will expose not only the irreconcilability between utopian communist ideals and the catastrophic attempts to implement them, but also how the crimes against humanity committed by communist regimes in the twentieth century were a natural extension of communist doctrine.

I. The General Idea of Communism

Karl Marx, the nineteenth century philosopher and economist widely accredited as being the founding father of communism. Many of Marx’s teachings, however, predate him by centuries in many ways. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Communism is the idea that the abolition of private property, and its replacement with communally owned property, will bring human misery to an end. In particular, it will eradicate all societal ills, all forms of injustice, oppression and inequality. This is a broad definition, but as it stands, it combines three elements, a moral, an economic, and a political one. Each of these three elements has a negative and a positive aspect.

(a) The moral element is that while we humans, taken as social beings, are and have been unhappy or imperfect because alienated from our true selves (negative), it is possible for us to reach true happiness or perfection (positive). Our suffering can be brought to an end.

(b) The economic element is that while this suffering comes from the distinction between mine and thine, based on our drive to obtain and possess private goods to which others have no access (negative), once we do away with this distinction and put an end to our acquisitive drive, human suffering will end (positive). Our suffering can be brought to an end by a new economic setup.

(c) The political element, which is forward looking and prescriptive, is that collective and concerted action is called for to bring about this reform, and that while the initial stages of this reform will be revolutionary and destructive to current society, or involve effort and sacrifice for the individual (negative), the result will be fully redemptive, issuing in a new age of happiness or perfection (positive). Our suffering can be brought to an end by a new economic setup established through revolution.

This broad idea of communism appeared in various guises throughout history, both in Europe and beyond. Communism is not simply a historical episode, confined to the 19th and 20th century. The reason lies in the connection between the moral and the economic elements of communism.

The moral element is its most universal component. It is shared with many other ideologies, mythologies and religions. One would be hard pressed to find a traditional moral system which is not based on the assumption that something is not right with us human beings, and that, in one way or another, we need a path to salvation, perfection, happiness.

The economic element is more specific, but still widespread. It is simply based on the fact that unlike animals, humans have the ability to make ownership claims (whether as an individual or a collective), to organise themselves in societies encoding such claims in legal systems, to place a value on what they own versus what others own, to desire something they don’t own but would like to own, to therefore trade goods with one another to close such gaps, to develop markets and eventually currencies facilitating such trading, and also to enjoy the fruits of such trading – material wealth.

One attitude to this economic evolution is to accept it as a quasi-natural part of social human existence, and allow it to develop according to its own laws, if maybe not entirely untrammelled by regulatory intervention. But as it is easy to see, economic developments may, and often do, have detrimental outcomes. For one, they lead to asymmetries of wealth; indeed, the very notion of wealth seems to imply economic inequality.

And, second, wealth may also be detrimental to the wealthy themselves, leading to their moral decadence, infatuated as they become with the possession of worldly goods. Therefore, a totally different attitude is to focus on the negative outcomes of these economic developments, reject them, and then reject the societal structures and personal inclinations that have led to them. Specific communist proposals have especially differed in their political-prescriptive element.

Let us look at a few examples from the European tradition to see how these various elements, moral, economic and political, have combined with one another in the course of history. I will in fact argue that a certain pattern or dynamics of radicalisation can be observed. To demonstrate this, I will present and discuss a few thinkers from the ancient, the medieval and the modern world.

II. The First Stage: Communism in the Ancient World

One element of communism which is not essential to its idea, but very often accompanies it, is the myth of the Golden Age. Once upon a time, humans, or their more perfect ancestors, lived together in harmony, sharing all their possessions and the fruits of the Earth. Then greed appeared, and with it private property and human misery.

In Hesiod’s Works and Days (ca. 700 BC) we encounter a very early formulation of this history of decadence. In the beginning, the fruits of the Earth were abundantly available to everyone, and there were no social conflicts. But then the ‘lust for gain’ and for the property of others emerged, and so, according to Hesiod, we find ourselves in the wretched present, the ‘capitalist’ Iron Age. Still, Hesiod was not a communist, because he did not suggest we must return to the Golden Age; this is not in our power. His thought lacks the political element.

Plato and Aristotle, the two most notable philosophers of Ancient Greece. The former’s teachings bear several interesting resemblances to modern communist doctrine. Image source: Extract from The School of Athens by Raphael (Wikimedia Commons)

Other ancients harboured similar apolitical nostalgias for a long lost state of bliss. For example, in the Metamorphoses (8 AD), Ovid described the Golden Age of Saturn’s reign, when everything was in common possession, ‘like the sunshine and the breezes’, long before humans developed ‘the wicked lust for possession’.

Plato, however, did not eschew the political element. In the Republic he suggested that the guardians or rulers of the state must not have any property, but only share together the goods belonging to the polis. This will ensure their moral integrity. Note that this is communism at most for one social class, not the whole society.

But Plato sketched an argument for a more general form of communism as well. ‘Money and virtue’, he wrote, are ‘like two scales of a balance; as one goes up the other goes down’. If we want to build a state of virtuous citizens, money and presumably private property are to be avoided. ‘Friends have all things in common’, he stressed. However, in old age Plato seems to have become sceptical about whether such a communistic state can be realised. His version of communism was more of a vision than a worked out theory, an instrumental result of Plato’s main concern, virtue.

Something similar can be said of many other ancient communistic visionaries, especially in the Cynic, Sophist and Stoic traditions. Take the founder of the Stoic school, Zeno of Citium (d. 262 BC). He asks us to return to the purity of a bucolic life, ‘living neither in cities nor in towns’, a life without laws, courts, temples and money. All humans wear the same dress in this uniform and egalitarian society, ‘observing one manner of living and one kind of order, like a flock feeding together with equal right in one common pasture’. This sounds like a modern communist state such as Mao’s. But the crucial difference is that for ancients the focus was on individuals developing virtue as a precondition for entering a communistic state. Modern communists, by contrast, aim to build the communist state by educating everybody into communist citizens, if necessary by force.

It should be mentioned that Aristotle, Plato’s pupil, was among the first we know of who rejected (his teacher’s) communism quite explicitly. His arguments in The Politics are still powerful.

First, he argued, Plato’s two-class system of propertyless, but wise rulers, and propertied, but less wise citizens, would lead to social conflict. Since the rulers’ livelihood depends entirely on the citizens, this weakens the rulers’ position, making them liable to blackmail and corruption.

Second, a state based entirely on communal property forces everybody into a monolithic unity, making the state akin to an individual. But that is to abolish the state, since a state consists not just of many, but also of different kinds of individuals, with different inclinations.

Third, private property is a natural source of happiness; when enjoyed with measure, there is nothing reprehensible about it. And private property also allows a person to be charitable. It is only through ‘the use of articles of property’ that the virtue of liberality can be developed.

Fourth, humans are not scandalised just by the inequality of property; social conflict can also arise by the ‘inequality of distinctions’, i.e. by total egalitarianism, when ‘good and bad are held in equal esteem’.

Lastly, a system of private property is more efficient than a collectivist one, because each owner can look after his property, without the meddling of others.

Overall, for Aristotle, the abolition of private property is contrary to our nature, and a risky project, because we don’t know of any successful states with this economic order. This statement is true especially today, more than a century after the Bolshevik revolution and similar experiments.

Aristotle argued for a mixed system: ‘it is better for property to remain in private hands; but we should make the use of it communal’. What we need is ethical betterment, through education, not a politically imposed abolition of private property. He too quotes Plato’s ‘Friends have all things in common’, adding: ‘it is the personal virtue of individuals that ensures their common use’.

III. The Second Stage: Christian Communism and the Middle Ages

Aristotle’s balanced and pragmatic views were forgotten in the following centuries. (His writings became readily accessible, in Latin, only from the 12th century on.) Instead, through the rise of Christianity, the case for communism was bolstered again. In the New Testament, earthly possessions are viewed as a hindrance to spiritual salvation, and money is generally viewed with suspicion. According to the gospels, Jesus said that ‘it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God’.

He encouraged his disciples to go on their wanderings without money and provisions, and advised the rich to sell their possessions and give to the poor. The members of the early church at Jerusalem that emerged after his departure are said to have renounced their private possessions and share ‘all things in common’, distributing to each according to their needs.

But did Jesus preach that private property is intrinsically bad? This is less clear. He did not say that it is impossible for the rich to enter Heaven, nor that it is obligatory for them to renounce their private possessions. His point was about not losing track of what truly matters, one’s soul in its rapport with God. And this can be gravely distorted by greed for and ownership of earthly goods.

The Church Fathers maintained an ambivalent attitude towards private property. Some, like St. John Chrysostom (d. 407 AD), were more inclined to view private property as intrinsically unjust and evil. He reverted to the myth of the Golden Age: God has given the Earth to all humans for equal share; it is unjust to claim exclusive possession over some land; by division between mine and thine, ‘this frosty expression’, malice and war arise.

But other Church Fathers, like Clement of Alexandria (d. 215 AD), distinguished between property and use, and argued that property as such is neither good nor evil. Rather, the use of it can be good or bad, depending on what the owner does with his property. But that is a matter of human will and morality, which, again, is what requires our main attention.

At any rate, all Church Fathers, indeed all Christian thinkers up to the 13th century, maintained that the communal ownership of the Earth, as once found in the Golden Age (or the Garden of Eden), ought to be our true economic ideal, even though, as many of them were willing to concede, private property remains a reality for humans in their fallen state. This gives us communism as an utopian ideal and some form of capitalism as the current reality of the human condition.

There was, however, a more radical strand in Christianity as well, related to its otherworldly focus. This encouraged people to adopt an austere and ascetic form of life, first as hermits in the deserts of Syria and Egypt, later in a more organised form in the monasteries, and finally in the mendicant orders of the friars.

In addition, there appeared in the Middle ages, especially from the 12th century on, non-clerical and even anti-clerical popular movements, such as the Waldensians, Beguines, Cathars, Lollards, Hussites, etc. All these groups, whether inside or outside the Church, were aiming for a humble, devout life in the footsteps of Jesus and the Apostles, renouncing either private property, or, as in the case of the more radical Franciscans, any property whatsoever.

True Christian perfection, it was widely believed, was achieved through humility, abstinence and community of possessions. The Franciscans held a more extreme view, rejecting even the community of possessions. They assumed that neither in the Garden of Eden, nor in the apostolic community of Jesus there had existed anything other than the mere use of those goods which we need to stay alive, to which everybody is entitled, by natural right. Replacing property with poverty, they defined the latter as use without ownership.

They considered all forms of property a mark of sin, and pointed to the negative example of the monks, who had shared their possessions, but were still corrupted by them, especially as their monasteries acquired wealth and lands, sometimes in great quantities, as in the case of the Cistercians. Ironically, something similar happened to the mendicant orders as well, as they became very popular and eventually also wealthy.

The rejection of property possession as immoral long precedes Marxism, as evidenced by monks in the Middle Ages. Ironically, and perhaps mirroring what was to follow with the communist dictators of the twentieth century, many (such as the Cistercians, pictured above) nonetheless possessed a great deal of wealth and land. Image source: Jörg Breu the Elder, Bernhardsaltar, Szenen aus dem Leben des Hl. Bernhard (Wikimedia Commons)

Some clarifications are in place here. First, it should be noted that the Franciscan take on property cannot be described as communism in the sense of the definition given in section I, because that definition entails the existence of (common) property. However, we can introduce a distinction here, between communism of property and communism of use, and describe the Franciscans’ view as a communism of use – presumably the most radical form of communism that we can conceive of. This peculiar and almost eccentric position will re-emerge in none other than Marx himself, centuries later, as I will show.

Second, communism of use faces a number of legal and even conceptual problems. For example, as some of the friars’ opponents pointed out, it makes little sense to speak of a mere use of consumables. When I am given an apple to eat, I own it by using or consuming it, and vice versa. The friars tried to avoid this problem by getting the Papacy in the 13th century to become, purely formally, the owner of those goods the friars were entitled to use but not own. Not everybody was convinced by this legal fiction. What it shows, at any rate, is that communism of use, rejecting all property, has its clear limitations; it is only possible within the protective framework of an institution or agent that must in turn necessarily assume ownership, be it even as a legal fiction.

Therefore, third, Franciscan communism could only be attempted in smaller communities, not the whole of society, moreover in communities based on voluntary recruitment and devoted to the moral-spiritual development of their members. This is valid for the other communist experiments in the Christian tradition as well.

Fourth, as Aristotle’s account of property became better known, by the 13th century the pursuit of private property came to be increasingly viewed, even within the Church, as a natural trait of humans, no more to be condemned than the general fact of their sinfulness. The naturalness of private property started to be defended by many canonists and theologians, and especially by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae. He was canonised in the 14th century by Pope John XXII., who was not only opposed to communism, but even pronounced private property sacred, as, he argued, it had existed already in the Garden of Eden. This rejected not only the Franciscan position, but also the more vague communistic utopianism of the Church Fathers.

By institutionalising them, the Church took the sting out of radically communistic tendencies within its organisation. Anti-clerical communistic movements were less easy to pacify, especially those which began to preach and resort to violence. An example were the Taborites in the 15th century, a radical fringe of the Czech independence movement in Bohemia, which was shaped by Jan Hus (d. 1415), himself influenced by the radical English reformer John Wyclif (d. 1384). Inspired by Franciscan communism, Wyclif had attacked the Church, denouncing its excesses and worldliness, and calling for its expropriation through secular royal power (which was thus much strengthened). Hus in turn injected Wyclif’s views into the Czech national struggle, transforming them into powerful weapons of political-religious liberation, first of the Czech and later, he believed, of the entire Christendom.

His execution by the Church only made the Hussite movement more resolute, and led to the formation of the fanatical, millenarian and egalitarian Taborites. They saw Christianity engaged in a final struggle against the Antichrist, to whom belonged not only the established Church, but anybody opposed to them, the Taborites, who considered themselves to be without sin and elected by God. The sinners were the others. The kingdom of God was near, in which the original equality of all (saved) humans would be re-established, without any distinction of class, property or power. To this end, a final battle was necessary, and the forces of Good were entitled to exterminate the forces of Satan. ‘The just [...] will now rejoice, seeing vengeance and washing their hands in the blood of the sinners’, as one of these revolutionaries wrote.

We have here, in the Taborite ideology, all three elements of communism outlined at the beginning of this essay. It should be added, however, that the Taborites were a weak political force, and did not manage to transform society as they planned. They were in fact themselves exterminated, by more moderate Hussites and forces of the status quo.

Edward Kanterian is Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Kent. His research interests include metaphysics, the philosophy of logic and language, and modern philosophy.

Some recommended reading

Anne Applebaum, Gulag. A History, 2004

Isaiah Berlin, The Sense of Reality, 1996

David Burr, The Spiritual Franciscans. From Protest to Persecution in the Century after Saint Francis, 2001

Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millenium. Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, 1970

Stephane Courtois (ed.), The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, 1999

Doyne Dawson, Cities of God. Communist Utopias in Greek Thought, 1992

Friedrich Engels, Principles of Communism, 1847

Clarke Garrett, Respectable Folly. Millenarians and the French Revolution in France and England, 2019

Alexander Gray, The Socialist Tradition Moses to Lenin, 1946

Hans Kelsen, The Political Theory of Bolshevism. A Critical Analysis, 1949

Arthur Koestler, The Invisible Writing, 1954

Leszek Kołakowski, Is God Happy?, 2012

Leszek Kołakowski, Main Currents of Marxism, 2005

Arnold Künzli, Mein und Dein. Zur Ideengeschichte der Eigentumsfeindschaft, 1986

Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto, 1848

Richard Pipes, Communism: A History, 2003

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956, 2018

Brian Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights. Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law 1150-1625, 1997

Aleksander Wat, My Century, 1003

Nicolas Werth, Le cimetière d’espoir, 2019