Toward an ecumenical communism
Professor Emeritus of Anthropology
California State University, Long Beach
An essay submitted to the Daniel Singer Millennium Prize Foundation
in exploration of the question, “What is the Soul of Socialism?”
The soul of communism, or socialism if you prefer, lies in the human demand for justice, justice both for ourselves and our loved ones, and for humanity as a whole.
Communism is therefore as old as injustice. In fact, it is older, for communism was the ancestral condition of our species. Prior to the rise of class rule, our ancestors lived in a communal social order characterized by liberty, equality, and community. Our human nature was formed within this communist social order. And our human nature cannot be fully realized except in the communist social order of the future.
It is only within the last five or ten thousand years that men began to construct elaborate systems of exploitation, violence, and thought control that form the basis of inequality and class rule. The rulers claim their rule is just. In fact it is unjust and is perceived as such by the people, giving rise to communism, the struggle against the injustice of class rule. It should not be surprising, therefore, that those in power hate and fear communism and instill the same fear and hatred in the rest of us. The term "communist" is used as an epithet to castigate anyone who opposes or criticizes the status quo, as if being a communist were somehow traitorous or perverse.
If we are serious about confronting the status quo and building a world of peace and justice, we must confront this irrational fear of communism and replace it with a rational understanding of communism and its development.
For the last century, communism has been associated with Marx, Lenin, and the Soviet Union. For many, even on the left, the Soviet Union discredits the very idea of communism and socialism. While I do not concur with this view, it does seem that the Leninist challenge to capitalism has run its course. For better or for worse, Leninism is no longer seen as a major political force in the twenty-first century.
But whatever else one may say about the Soviet Union and other societies guided by Marxism-Leninism, one must acknowledge that they represented the most sustained challenge to global capitalism in 500 years. To find a comparable challenge to the status quo, one would have to go back nearly two thousand years when, in the words of Engels,
a dangerous party of overthrow was likewise active in the Roman empire. It undermined religion and all the foundations of the state; it flatly denied that Caesar's will was the supreme law; it was without a fatherland, was international; it spread over all countries of the empire, from Gaul to Asia, and beyond the frontiers of the empire. It had long carried on seditious activities in secret, underground; for a considerable time, however, it had felt itself strong enough to come out into the open. This party of overthrow, which was known by the name of Christians, was also strongly represented in the army; whole legions were Christian.[]
These two challenges to the very existence of class rule are associated with two men: Marx and Jesus. Both were revolutionaries and both were communists.
With this background, let us look more closely at the history and future of communism. Three phases may be distinguished: 1. ancestral communism; 2. spiritual communism (of Jesus and others); and 3. scientific communism (of Marx and others). We will also consider what Marx and Engels had to say about the communism of the future.
We will then be in a better position to discuss the kind of communism needed for the present.
"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." Engels notes that this refers to written history and that the prehistory of our species was characterized by "primitive Communistic society.”[] The term “primitive” is misleading, however, for it conjures up negative images of a crude, rudimentary society. “Ancestral communism” is a more positive term, for it honors our earliest ancestors and their achievements.
More modern anthropological research, especially since WWII,
has given us a better understanding of prehistory and the achievements of our
Ancestral communism was not simply an undeveloped form of later, more complex societies. It is true, as Engels said, that there were “(no) soldiers, no gendarmes or police, no nobles, kings, regents, prefects, or judges, no prisons, or lawsuits.”[] But this is only part of it. Ancestral communism was a creative adaptation and a dynamic social order within which people lived rich, rewarding, and fully human lives. Society was organized on a fundamentally different basis than all historic and modern civilizations: not property but kinship. Kinship is not just biology, but rather a creative cultural invention developed in our distant past. Kinship formed the basis for the gentile organization (from gens, the ancient Roman clan) of the ancestral commune. This clan organization regulated all aspects of social life—marriage, domestic life, economic life, politics, law, and religion—and guaranteed everyone access to food, shelter, and productive resources.
Our ancestral mode of production, hunting and gathering, was ingenious, complex, and fully adequate to meet the needs of our ancestors. In fact, many modern anthropologists see hunting and gathering as the “original affluent society,” since people were able to meet their needs by working perhaps half as many hours as peasants or workers in systems of class rule.[]
It was not the case that hunting and gathering labor was unable to produce a surplus but rather that there were no mechanisms to coerce people into producing more than needed for themselves and their families. People had their problems—periodic hunger, disease, violence—but they did not have to support a parasitic ruling class.
What happened? How was the liberty, equality, and community of the ancestral commune replaced by the inequality, and injustice of civilization? The answer lies in the changed material conditions of life associated with plant and animal domestication.
For millions of years, from the origin of our species until about ten thousand years ago, our ancestors lived in a communal social order and supported themselves by hunting and gathering. They adapted to changing environments and spread throughout the world, from Africa to every continent except Antarctica. The entire period was characterized by progress in technology (stone tools, fire, the bow and arrow ) and society (language, kinship, and religion). The nomadic conditions of hunting and gathering, however, did not permit the accumulation of wealth.
With the development of horticulture, material conditions changed. Populations became larger, denser, and sedentary. The revolutionary feature of plant and animal domestication was that it formed the basis for a settled village-farming way of life. This permitted the accumulation of wealth. The possibility of accumulation stimulated what Marx called “the most violent, mean, and malignant passions of the human breast, the Furies of private interest.”[] The passions for wealth, for power, for privilege, in a word, human greed, which found little scope under the nomadic conditions of the hunting and gathering commune, found fertile soil in the settled conditions of horticultural society. Only then did men make another great discovery, that human beings could be domesticated and their labor extracted from them.[] All subsequent civilizations have been built upon this discovery. The ancestral commune was overthrown and the ancient gentile organization was replaced by the state. Society came to be organized on the basis of property, territoriality, and coercion. All subsequent history has been dominated by predatory ruling classes and their thirst for wealth and power.
But however much they may try, the ruling classes have never been able to fully domesticate human beings as mere instruments of production. Exploitation and oppression generate resistance. This is the basis of class struggle.
It did not happen at once, nor did it happen everywhere. In many cases the ancestral commune was able to survive the transition to horticulture. The Iroquois, considered by Morgan and Engels as the type example of ancestral communism, was a horticultural society. Many contemporary indigenous people continue resist the onslaught of civilization, preferring their ancestral communal communism. Nevertheless, it did happen in some cases, and when it did, it transformed the conditions of life for all humanity. The unleashing of the “Furies of private interest” was the force which tore asunder the ancestral commune and led to the emergence of class society and the state.[]
Although women played the key role in the development of plant domestication and thereby transformed the conditions of life of our species, it was men who developed the art of exploiting other humans and thereby initiated what Engels called “the world historical defeat of the female sex”[] All systems of class rule are also systems of patriarchy. Both men and women are exploited in patriarchal class rule, but women suffer special burdens. The first slaves were women, and Third World women continue to form the most exploited sector of the international working class. Men have always staffed the institutions of class rule and men have always been the primary beneficiaries of class rule. If some women benefit, it is because of their relationship to ruling class men.
Communism, then, was the original adaptation of our species, a society organized on the basis of kinship and cooperation rather than property and coercion. It was under the conditions of ancestral communism that we evolved as sharing and caring human beings. Class rule, which involves treating human beings as mere instruments of production, necessarily does violence to this human nature and therefore generates resistance. Just as the oppressors used religion to justify their rule, so the oppressed used religion to justify their resistance. At first, this resistance took the form of spiritual communism.
Jesus was not the first to seek a new principle for organizing human life to replace the injustice of class rule. Earlier efforts are documented in the Old Testament.
The Old Testament is usually viewed as the history of a people chosen by God to worship the one true God in a sea of idolatry. Recent scholarship suggests a quite different view.[] This new interpretation sees the ancient Israelites not as an already formed ethnic group wandering in the desert until it was somehow “chosen” by God, but rather as a class formed in conscious struggle against the dominant feudal order of the ancient Near East. As peasant revolutionaries sought new ways of organizing themselves within their liberated zones, they were joined by the veterans of the first great labor walkout in history, the Exodus. Judaism, with its unique stress on social justice, was born out of the fusion of these class struggles.
The preaching of the Prophets, however, was unable to prevent the re-emergence of an oppressing class, and Judaism itself was appropriated by the new rulers to legitimate their rule. This, together with the conquest of Israel by Roman imperialism, forms the background for the life and thought of Jesus.
One would not know simply from reading the Gospels that Jesus lived during one of the fiercest guerrilla wars in history.[] Jesus not only preached love and communism, he participated in the dual struggle against the Roman imperialists and their Jewish compradors. For this he was crucified, along with countless other “bandits,” the “communists” and “terrorists” of their day.
As the teachings of Jesus spread, communistic bands of Christians were formed throughout the Empire, to the point where they threatened the very basis of Roman rule and had to b repressed.
They were persecuted for the simple reason that they were advocating a new way of organizing society: communism. They did not call it communism, of course, but rather love. This was an attempt to create a new principle for organizing human society to supplement the kinship principle and replace the domination of property relations. When Jesus was preaching love, he was preaching communism, for we must treat those we love as equals.
But at a certain point the Roman rulers came to realize that they could appropriate Christianity, emasculate it, and use it for their own purposes. From that time to the present, established Christianity has joined the temporal rulers in the repression of communism. But as the Mexican liberation theologian, Jose Miranda, asks:
But what if, in the history of the West, it is Christianity that started communism? What if, from the first century to the nineteenth, groups of Christians were never lacking who, in spite of repression by the established powers and by the church, vigorously advocated communism, Bible in hand![]
The discussion here has focused on the Judeo-Christian tradition, but one can surely find many parallels in Asia. Buddhism for example, rejects worldly wealth and power and provides a path to salvation open to all, not just members of the hereditary Brahmin caste. The early Buddhist Sangha was a community not unlike those of the early Christians. Early Buddhism posed a threat to the Hindu caste system, and ultimately was forced out of India, but not before it began to be appropriated by ruling classes for their own purposes. As it spread to other countries, it played a role not unlike that of Christianity. The brutal theocracy of Tibet shows that Buddhism can be as effective as Christianity in oppressing the human soul.
Two thousand years of Christianity failed to bring communism back into the world. Humanity was not yet ready for this dramatic transformation.
The rise of capitalism generated the modern working class movement and with it, modern, scientific communism. Among the many thinkers who contributed to this development, Marx played a central role. Marx brought together elements from diverse sources and integrated the ago-old vision of communism into a scientific view of history and society. This Marxian synthesis has inspired revolutionaries for over a century.
During Marx’s lifetime, the idea of communism was pretty much confined to a few small sects in Europe. Within a few decades it had grown into a powerful movement which had effected significant reforms and which was contending for state power through electoral means.
But the revolutionary clarity of Marx's thought had become watered down. By the time of the first World War, socialist parties were urging workers to join their bourgeoisie in slaughtering workers of other countries. The old Marxism was unable to respond to the crisis of WWI.
Lenin transformed Marxism so that it once again became an instrument of revolutionary change. He did this by creatively applying Marxism to understanding the imperialism of the twentieth century.
Lenin also developed the vanguard party, the organizational form within which revolutionaries contended for state power throughout the twentieth century. Inspired by Lenin’s Communist International and what became known as Marxism-Leninism, one third of humanity became involved in the attempt to build socialism. Throughout the world, communists were playing leading roles in the struggle for peace and social justice.
During this period of struggle, mistakes were made and injustices committed. Many well meaning people turned from what they saw as the excesses of Communism and looked to other forms of activism, such as pacifism, feminism, and environmentalism.
Although these new forms of radical activism are often seen as rejections of Marxism, they might better be viewed as providing the material out of which Marxism may be re-thought and rejuvenated. This is an essential task if we are to remain true to the thought and vision of Marx, Engels, and Lenin.
We cannot abandon Marxism, nor can we abandon Leninism. To do so would be to shut ourselves off from a vital component of our revolutionary heritage. But neither can we cling dogmatically to a mechanistic interpretation of Marxism, Leninism, or anything else.
We shall return to this issue of what kind of communism is appropriate for the present after we examine the communism of the future.
Marx and Jesus agree that humanity is approaching a fundamental transformation, out of which will emerge a classless society, communism. Engels quotes the American anthropologist, Lewis Henry Morgan, on this transformation:
A mere property career is not the final destiny of mankind, if progress is to be the law of the future as it has been of the past. The time which has passed away since civilization began is but a fragment of the past duration of man's existence; and but a fragment of the ages yet to come. The dissolution of society bids fair to become the termination of a career of which property is the end and aim; because such a career contains the elements of self-destruction. Democracy in government, brotherhood in society, equality in rights and privileges, and universal education, foreshadow the next higher plane of society to which experience, intelligence and knowledge are steadily tending. It will be a revival, in a higher form, of the liberty, equality and fraternity of the ancient gentes [Engels’ italics].[]
While Jesus apparently saw this transformation occurring through the coming of the Messiah, or Christ, Morgan saw it in terms of the law of progress operating through experience, intelligence and knowledge.
Marx gave us a more concrete analysis, and a less sanitized one. For Marx, communism would emerge from the conscious class struggle of the working class. Capitalism and all earlier class societies have been built by privileged minorities to serve their interests. Communism will be built by the working class to serve its interest. The working class consists of the overwhelming majority defined by its lack of special privileges. When the working class becomes the ruling class, it will take possession of the earth and the machinery of production and abolish all special privileges, resulting in a classless society.
All of this cannot happen overnight. It took centuries the bourgeoisie to overthrow feudalism and establish capitalism. It will take a similar long, historical struggle to overthrow of capitalism and establish communism. Marx stressed that it would take decades or generations of “civil wars and international conflicts” before the working class gains the political maturity to rule as a class.[]
A perfect communist society will not emerge automatically after the overthrow of capitalism. It is utopianism to believe that people, having overthrown capitalism, will immediately begin to work for the good of society without any inequality or compulsion. Marx stressed that the first phase of communist society (called socialism by Lenin’s time) would continue to bear the birthmarks of the epoch of class rule. Various forms of inequality and coercion would continue for a long historical period. Only a higher phase of communist society be able embrace the principle (taken, as Miranda notes, almost word for word from the Bible), “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”[]
We can only speculate about the nature of this higher phase of communism. Engels’ remarks about the future of gender relations are equally true of the future social relations in general:
What we can now conjecture about the way in which sexual relations will be ordered after the impending overthrow of capitalist production is mainly of a negative character, limited for the most part to what will disappear. But what will there be new? That will be answered when a new generation has grown up: a generation of men who never in their lives have known what it is to buy a woman's surrender with money or any other social instrument of power; a generation of women who have never known what it is to give themselves to a man from any other considerations than real love, or to refuse to give themselves to their lover from fear of the economic consequences. When these people are in the world, they will care precious little what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion about the practice of each individual -- and that will be the end of it.[]
We will not live to see a perfect communism, but we can work to eliminate the worse abuses of the capitalist system and begin the transition to a peaceful, just, and sustainable society. We do not have to be communists to do this, but communists do have something very important to contribute to the movement. We now turn to this question.
We have looked at the communism of our ancestors and the communism to be enjoyed by our descendants. But what about us? What kind of communism is appropriate for the present?
This cannot be answered in the abstract . For Marx and Engels, communism was “not a stable state which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.”[] We must, therefore, relate our communism to the real movement of the twenty-first century.
The movement has changed since Marx and Engels wrote. No longer limited to a few urban centers in Europe, it has become truly global, from the tree-sitters in Humboldt County to the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil, from the Zapatistas in Mexico to the Communist Party of Nepal. This is the “real movement” to which we communists must relate. It is diverse, in terms of geography, goals, tactics, and group structure. Increasingly, it includes all oppressed people, not just workers and peasants, who are definitely oppressed, but also women (definitely oppressed), children (who are seeing their world destroyed), racial and ethnic minorities (in the imperialist nations and worldwide), indigenous peoples (whose worlds are being destroyed), and anyone who loves clean air and water, ancient forests, and a healthy planet. Increasingly, our movement includes virtually everyone whose narrow, short term, selfish interests have not blinded them to the evils of industrial capitalism.
This “real movement” had been developing for decades before it emerged onto the streets of Seattle as a major historical force less than a decade after the overthrow of the Soviet Union. After millions around the world demonstrated against U.S. imperialism’s drive to war, our movement was anointed “superpower” status by the New York Times.[]
This global movement seems to be growing quite well on its on, without any “vanguard” to lead it. Perhaps we communists should just wither away since so many even well-meaning people are put of by terms such as communism, socialism, and Marxism. But if people are afraid of this little word, communist, how can they change the world?
As communists, we Marxists have much to contribute to this movement. We have an understanding of the development of our species, where we have been and where we are going. We have an understanding of the class nature of society and how our human potential cannot be realized within the structure of existing property relations. Our active participation is crucial if our movement is to gain the class consciousness necessary to accomplish our goals.
At the same time, we recognize that the practice of this “real movement” of the oppressed has outrun our theory. How can we catch up?
We may compare our situation to that faced by Lenin in the early twentieth century. Just as Lenin could not simply repeat the slogans of Marx and Engels, so we cannot simply repeat the words of Lenin. But also, just as Lenin rooted his theory and practice in that of Marx, so we must root our theory and practice in that of Lenin as well as Marx. But this Leninism must be adapted to include the entire complex of issues addressed by our real movement, not only class but also gender, race and ethnicity, environment, spirituality, and Euro-centrism.
It is doubtful that we can come up with a simple formula to encompass this vast and diverse movement. Clearly, we Marxists have some things to learn. We must continue to seek the truth, however elusive it may be, but we can never presume to possess it. Others, just as intelligent and committed as we are, may see things differently. Such diversity of theory and interpretation is inevitable. We must learn to accept this and view diversity as an resource rather than as a threat.[] This is nothing less than the scientific method applied to radical politics.
In other words, to be truly scientific, communism must ecumenical and not only permit but embrace diversity.
Communism has evolved over time. For Jesus and the early Christians, everything was to be shared in common, even what we would consider personal possessions. From a purely spiritual standpoint, this may make sense, but from a practical standpoint it is unlikely to be attractive to most people. Marx gave us a more complex view of property. For scientific communism, it is private property in the means of production and the profit motive that must be abolished, for this is what enables the capitalists to exploit workers and what prevents them from meeting the needs of humanity. The earth and the machinery of production will be shared and used to meet the needs of humanity. Scientific communism does not abolish personal property in consumer goods, at least for the foreseeable future.[]
Our movement has raised additional areas of concern that communism must address. Modern feminism, along with the les, gay, bi, and trans movement, has posed gender issues more sharply than in Marx or Lenin’s times. Modern environmentalism has raised real concerns about the sustainability of our meat eating, fossil fuel burning way of life. Our ecumenical communism must be sensitive to all these concerns.
Communism involves more than simply changes in property relations. We cannot forget the spiritual dimension. Jesus tells us that the love of money is the root of all evil. Capitalism is the quintessence of this money-love, institutionalized as the central organizing feature of contemporary society. The overthrow of capitalism is the overthrow of money-love. Money-love must be conquered by species-love, the love of humanity and the earth which sustains all human life. Communism cannot be concerned solely with property relations but must extend to gender relations, our relationship to the earth, and to our children, our grandchildren, down to the seventh generation.
To return to our opening, the soul of communism, and socialism, is love for humanity.
Word count: 4991, including footnotes & title page
. Engels, Friedrich. 1895. "Introduction to 1895 Edition of Karl Marx, The Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850." Reprinted as "The Tactics of Social Democracy" in The Marx-Engels Reader, Robert C. Tucker, ed. New York: Norton. Pp. 556-573. Second Edition. 1978. Pp. 572-573.
. This is from a footnote by Engels in the English edition of 1888, as reprinted in Tucker, The Marx-Engels Reader, p. 473. For a discussion by a modern anthropologist, see Lee, Richard B. 1991. "Reflections on primitive communism." Pp. 252-268 in Hunters and Gatherers. Volume 1: History, evolution and Social Change, edited by T. Ingold, D. Riches, and J. Woodburn. Oxford: Berg..
. For fuller discussion, see Ruyle, Eugene E. 1988. "Anthropology for Marxists: Prehistoric Revolutions." Nature, Society, and Thought: A Journal of Dialectical and Historical Materialism 1:469-499.
. Engels, Frederick. 1884. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Reprinted, New York: International Publishers, 1972.. P. 159.
. Sahlins, Marshall. 1968. "Notes on the Original Affluent Society." Pp. 85-89 in Man the Hunter, edited by R. B. Lee and I. DeVore. Chicago: Aldine.
. Marx, Karl. 1867. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume 1: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production: Reprinted 1965, Moscow: Progress Publishers, p. 10
. Engels, Origin of the Family, p. 234
. This view represents a significant modification of the standard Marxist view of the development of the state. See Ruyle, Eugene E. 1975. "Mode of Production and Mode of Exploitation: The Mechanical and the Dialectical." Dialectical Anthropology 1:7-23.
. Engels, Origin of the Family, p. 120.
. What follows draws heavily from Shaull, Richard. 1984. Heralds of a New Reformation: The Poor of South and North America. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
. Harris, Marvin. 1974. Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture. New York: Vintage, pp. 153-177. See also Nolan, Albert. 1978. Jesus Before Christianity. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
. Miranda, Jose. 1981. Communism in the Bible. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, p. 2.
. Engels, Origin of the Family, p. 257
. Marx, Karl. 1852. "Revelations Concerning the Communist Trial in Cologne." Pp. 105 in The Socialist Revolution: Marx/Engels, edited by F. Teplov and V. Davydov. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
. Marx, Karl. 1875. Critique of the Gotha Program: Reprinted, pp. 525-541 in The Marx-Engels Reader, Robert C. Tucker, ed. New York: Norton. Second edition, 1978, p. 531..
. Engels, Origin of the Family, p. 145.
. Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. 1846. The German Ideology: Reprint, 1939. New York: International Publishers, p. 26.
. “The fracturing of the Western alliance over Iraq and the huge antiwar demonstrations around the world this weekend are reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion. … (An) exceptional phenomenon has appeared on the streets of world cities. It may not be as profound as the people's revolutions across Eastern Europe in 1989 or in Europe's class struggles of 1848, but politicians and leaders are unlikely to ignore it.” Patrick E. Tyler, “A New Power In the Streets.” New York Times, Feb. 17, 2003, p. 1.
. This wording is borrowed from Lisa Lubow in her presentation to the study session on “Culture and Consciousness: Contested Terrain,” organized by the Studies for Global Justice group in Los Angeles, February-June, 2004.
. This distinction was recently emphasized by the Japanese Communist Party, see Fuwa, Tetsuzo. 2003. "Report on Revision of Program of the Japanese Communist Party." Nature, Society, and Thought 16:320-359.