Having criticized the authoritarian communist states that arose in the 20th century, in particular the Bolsheviks in Russia for crushing worker power, and having also explored the basic tenets of anarchism (and how it is the father of the blasphemous bastard child that is anarcho-capitalism/libertarianism), I wanted to devote some time to musing over the merits of communism and anarchism relative to socialism.
While all anti-capitalist, these ideologies are not the same and should not be confused. I therefore include basic outlines (leaving out many different subtypes of each) before considering their relative advantages and downsides. I attempt to present each in their most ethical, idealized form (most free, most democratic, and so forth). Criticisms of ideologies should not be mistaken as disrespect for my Marxist comrades who think differently.
Communism destroys capitalism from the top-down. The government, as an instrument of the people, owns all workplaces and organizes the economy and the workers according to a central plan that meets citizen needs. Under this system, competition can be wholly and more easily eliminated, making the enormous pressure to put profits over people a thing of the past. Wasteful and redundant production goes away with it, meaning more workers and resources for more important tasks that build a better society (for example, no more energy and billions spent on advertising, instead diverted to education). Further, the national wealth can be easily divided up among the people, public sector salaries enriching all.
However, communism entails enormous challenges. It surely requires giving up the full freedom to choose your line of work – if your community or national plan only allows for a certain number of bookstores or bookstore workers, there may not be room for you. You would be rejected upon applying with the local or national government to open a new bookstore (as you would surely have to do for a plan, and thus communism, to function) or upon applying for a job at an established bookstore. Under communism, workers are supposed to “own” their workplaces because they “own” the State, but this is a rather indirect form of control that leaves some people wanting. You may have options regarding the work you do, but you will have to sacrifice your interests for the sake of the plan.
Of course, as long as you don’t find yourself under authoritarian communism, you would help decide the plan, at the ballot box. But how much would you help? That raises a second challenge: can communism function without representative government (or a worse concentration of power)? A common notion is that the workers, the people, would elect members of their worker councils to participate in the design and execution of the national plan (or elect representatives from their geographic community, as is done in politics today). So if you worked in auto manufacturing while waiting for a bookstore job to open up, you would run or elect someone for the honor and task of representing the American Auto Workers Council on the National Planning Committee. The representatives, using a broad array of data on what goods and services are need where, and what resources and workers will be needed to create and distribute, would craft a central plan for a certain number of years.
Can this enormous power be socialized further? We understand the risks of representative governance – concentrated power is more easily influenced and corrupted, and doesn’t give people a direct say over their destinies. Even with the disappearance of capitalist businesses, a small group of decision-makers would still face enormous pressures from countless localities, people, and organizations. We could see to it that the people have a direct up or down vote on the plan after the representatives craft it (or other checks and balances). But eliminating a representative structure entirely seems impossible. Imagine the daunting task of voting on how much corn the U.S. should grow in a given three-year period. On how many more workers are needed to produce a higher number of epipens. On how many homes should be built in a city on the other side of the country. (It very much seems that you must make this vote on national matters, rather than simply voting on what your local community needs. If each municipality democratically decided what they needed, these decisions would have to be reconciled at the national level, as there may not be the resources to do everything every community decides to do. Like the would-be bookstore worker, some communities will not get what they wanted, making the vote a sham. And, naturally, trying “communism” at local levels, where communities can only use the workers and resources within their communities, leaves massive inequities between regions. It might be possible to instead divide up the national wealth to each region somewhat according to its need and then let each decide how to use its allotted funds, but how much each city or town should get would also be impossible to sensibly sort out using direct democracy.)
Organizing an economy is a monumental task requiring mountains of accurate, up-to-date data. How difficult for an elected body of experts – a full-time job with a high risk of costly mistakes and turmoil. Can workers devote the time and study to make educated decisions on what to produce, their quantities, prices, and required manpower and resources, for an entire country? Would not voting itself, on thousands or hundreds of thousands of economic details, take days, weeks, or months? And if the people cannot be expected to plan the economy via direct vote, how can they be expected to make an informed up-down vote on a plan formulated by others? There seems to be no escaping representative government with communism. These challenges suggest this system may not be preferable.
Anarchism does away with capitalism from the bottom-up. Workplaces would be owned and run by workers, would federate to coordinate activities rather than compete, and local communities would make all decisions democratically. The State, as a hierarchical structure like capitalism, would be abolished. In this way, people would be free as possible from compulsion, authority, and concentration of power, enjoying individual freedoms as long as they do not hurt others. You’d have equal power to make decisions that affect you, joining in your local citizen assembly and worker council. Anarchism harkens back to the era of “primitive communism” we explored elsewhere.
Anarchists have differing views on whether capitalism can be dismantled after the State. Does the State have a vital role to play in capitalism’s eradication? Anarchist H.G. Wells, among others, thought only socialism could make anarchism possible:
Socialism is the preparation for that higher Anarchism; painfully, laboriously we mean to destroy false ideas of property and self, eliminate unjust laws and poisonous and hateful suggestions and prejudices, create a system of social right-dealing and a tradition of right-feeling and action. Socialism is the schoolroom of true and noble Anarchism, wherein by training and restraint we shall make free men.
The challenge with anarchism is that, like “local communism,” it leaves communities to fend for themselves, meaning poorer peoples beside richer ones. Unless, of course, communities worked together, sharing workers and resources, in a movement toward the integration of larger and larger units and the necessary joint administration (however democratic), weakening local control and journeying down the path toward what are essentially nations. Further, if you avoided that, while a spirit of human oneness could indeed rise with the disappearance of nations, one wonders what is to stop factionalism based on community identity. Is pride and loyalty to a neighborhood, town, or city not predictable? One worries about true global solidarity. In the same vein, individual anarchist communities seem vulnerable to rivalry and conflict, especially if they differ in wealth, habitability, and so on. It all sounds a bit like the city-states of ancient Greece, albeit less capitalistic and more democratic. At the least, such a world seems more prone to conflict than one with a single government spanning all continents and meeting the needs of all people. Some form of State may be preferred for its ability to protect people.
Skeptics of anarchism may also see that statement as the answer to the question of crime, which, while being greatly reduced, is not likely to disappear entirely with the abolition of poverty (think of crimes of passion over infidelity, for instance). Yet anarchists typically despise the police – the personification of force, authority, and State violence. Can the police be made a thing of the past?
Socialist George Orwell wrote, “I worked out an anarchistic theory that all government is evil, that the punishment always does more harm than the crime and the people can be trusted to behave decently if you will only let them alone.” But he concluded, “It is always necessary to protect peaceful people from violence. In any state of society where crime can be profitable you have got to have a harsh criminal law and administer it ruthlessly.”
Here Orwell lacks nuance and vision – of community policing, proportionate punishment, restorative justice, rehabilitation, and so on – which do not require a State; they can be done on an intimate, local level. Skeptics can rest easy on this point. The relevant task of anarchism (and socialism or communism) is to build a more humane, peaceful, fair criminal justice system that does not morph into what came before.
Then there’s socialism. “I should tie myself to no particular system of society other than that of socialism,” as Nelson Mandela would say. Socialism also eliminates capitalism from the bottom-up. As under anarchism, workers collectively own their workplaces, making decisions democratically and equitably sharing the profits of their labor, and such worker cooperatives can federate with each other to reduce competition and coordinate their creations and service. The State exists to serve various needs of the people, such as guaranteed healthcare and employment, and is in fact under the people’s direct democratic control (this was explored in detail in What is Socialism?). The problems with anarchism and communism can be avoided. Socialism is the human future.
 New Worlds for Old, H.G. Wells
 The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell
 1964 court speech, Nelson Mandela. http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/12/nelson-mandela-epitaph-own-words-rivonia/