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If this is too broad please leave suggestions and I'll try to narrow it down.

Although I don't always agree, I feel like I can follow the arguments for and from most facets of the political spectrum from the social democrats to the neocons. Outside of that spectrum band [center +/- 2 SD] that I can actually wrap my brain around, only one group seems to consistently draw intelligent, thoughtful, well-meaning people: communists.

Yet whenever I read people advocating communism it always centers around two things:

  1. Appeal to moral intuitions that I don't share.
  2. Appeal to Marx.

Marx was a brilliant visionary in his day, but that was ~150 years ago. I suspect that economists have built on his work since then but these days I only ever seem to hear about the Keynesians and the Austrians, not the Marxists.

What I'm not interested in

I often when asking questions along these lines I get a litany of grievances against capitalism, but that doesn't actually address the question: it doesn't really matter how bad capitalism is if the alternatives are worse. I'm also tend to get a lot of anti-US stuff. But capitalism exists on a spectrum from Finland to Singapore, I'm not sure focusing on the US is helping things.

What I am interested in

A lot of people (not just me) seem unable to understand the appeal of communism in a post-Soviet world, but again so many intelligent and thoughtful people have rallied to the red banner over time and even today that I suspect that we're all missing something. So how do modern communists address the following points:

  1. Labor theory of value seems to be empirically inferior to demand pricing.
  2. Communist countries seem to tend towards totalitarianism more than their capitalist counterparts.
  3. Communist countries seem to have worse environmental records than their capitalist counterparts.
  4. Communist countries seem to have lower standards of living in general than their capitalist counterparts.

These seem to me like pretty basic criticisms that any serious proponent of communism would have to address and has probably responded to a million times and has good answers to.

How do modern, serious communists respond to these criticisms? Would prefer links to credible sources.

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    You'll probably get higher quality answers if you omit the flamebait about "ignorant college kids" and focus on the essentials instead. – Björn Lindqvist Mar 24 at 20:42
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    There are entire papers just about the labor theory of value, so this is too broad IMO. At the very least you could cut down everything before "what I am interested in." FIY: how is anyone supposed to know which "moral intuitions [you] don't share"? – Fizz Mar 24 at 21:50
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    I vote down this question because the scope need to be narrowed down a lot else it will be vote close. – mootmoot Mar 25 at 8:37
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    You'd probably get less argument and more actual answers if you left out the part about Marx being a brilliant visionary. – jamesqf Mar 25 at 18:12
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Sam I am Mar 28 at 16:41
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Marx was a brilliant visionary in his day, but that was ~150 years ago.

That is very missing the point of Marx. He is the philosopher of the Industrial Era. Technology has dramatically altered our society, including how we earn a living. And it's reasonable to say that technology held that role fairly unchanged even up to 1981.

(Why 1981? I'm taking the IBM PC as the start of the Computer Era, in which technology suddenly becomes even more interwoven with society)

Specifically, technology changed the economy by the concept of factories. Capital became a second factor in the economy, augmenting human labour. It's no coincidence at all that Marx' Magnum Opus is called Das Kapital. This was of course a profound shift; for thousands of years the size of an economy was directly tied to its workforce.

What makes communism (as a theory) then relevant today? It's undeniable that capital is still a chief factor in the economy today. That's not just the case in factories. Entertainment is broadcast worldwide using satellites. Health care uses chemistry to create medicines and physics to make diagnosis. Even the quacks selling snake oil are using the Internet for that nowadays.

It's probably on its last legs, though. As I said, Marx is the philosopher of the Industrial Age, and we're moving to the Computer Age. The fundamental change is that factories need humans to operate the machines. In the Computer Era, machines operate themselves. Capital made humans more efficient by giving them machines, computers make humans redundant.

Is this a problem for modern communism? Far from it. Modern communism does not depend on just Marx. The balance between human labour and capital may have altered in nature, but it is becoming only more contentious.

As Fizz correctly summarizes in a comment, it's a common view that communism has never been tried seriously. Marx was the philosopher of the Industrial Age, and assumed a workers revolt in an industrialized country. None of the so-called communist countries were industrial at the moment when the communist factions seized power. Crucially, both Russia and China were peasant societies actively threatened by industrialized rivals. Many modern communists do propose the introduction of communism in industrial or even post-industrial countries. The whole "by revolt" part is a bit more troublesome, though. It can be argued that modern democracy has given every adult a vote, eliminating the historical need for revolution which has given communism a bad rap.

  • @DmitryRubanovich: Entirely true. But the argument that Marx made was that the industrial revolution was a necessary precondition to create the environment in which communism could take root. Only that would create a proletariat and a bourgeoisie. Hence, modern-day communists can easily dismiss the failures of communism in China and Russia as not just predictable but even predicted. – MSalters Mar 25 at 9:28
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    @DmitryRubanovich: No, the whole "Communism can also happen in agricultural societies" is classical Leninism, definitely not Marxism. It's a post-hoc justification of the October Revolution. Of course, with the obvious failure of the Soviet Union, Leninism is dead and buried, but that need not hurt Communism in general. – MSalters Mar 25 at 13:16
  • @MSalters "Modern communism does not depend on just Marx" that's exactly the kind of thing I was looking for (your points about Marx as a philosopher are also well-taken). But who does it depend on? Who are the standard-bearers for intellectual Marxism today? – Jared Smith Mar 25 at 13:25
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    "The fundamental change is that factories need humans to operate the machines. In the Computer Era, machines operate themselves. Capital made humans more efficient by giving them machines, computers make humans redundant." In your opinion, what does this philosophy have to say about the humans who operate or program the computers? Software doesn't write itself (yet). – anaximander Mar 25 at 17:17
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    Re "He is the philosopher of the Industrial Era." Maybe to a certain sort of people, just as some people consider Freud to be the founder of psycholoy, despite the fact that time and experiment have shown most of his theories to be wrong. – jamesqf Mar 26 at 1:28
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I'm going to try to make an argument that a modern Marxist Communist could make.

Firstly, it is perfectly reasonable to argue that Marxist Communism has never been tried. Specifically, Marx considered Communism to be a stateless society "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need".

What has been tried is state socialism, the so-called "dictatorship of the proletariat". The distinction (to a Communist) is important as they aren't the same thing; Marx considered state socialism to be a pre-cursor to his conception of communism.

More specifically, Marx identified that societies evolved over time and he hypothesized that state socialism would necessarily evolve into communism.

Marx also identified as a scientist. This is important because, by the time Marx died, no society had instituted either state socialism or his conception of communism. As such, the experiment (what state socialism evolves into) had not been carried out.

Subsequently, the experiment has been carried out a number of times. It turns out that, rather than evolve into communism, state socialism appears to naturally evolve into totalitarian dictatorship. In other words, Marx was partly right (in terms of societal evolution) and partly wrong (in terms of actual outcome).

Unfortunately, at this point most Marxist intellectuals (pretty much since the Hungarian uprising) have gone one of two ways. Either became apologists for the extant regimes or became resigned to having got it wrong/been mislead. Eric Hobsbawm is a good example of the latter.

I believe there could be a third, more positive, way for Marxist Communists. The evidence strongly suggests that state socialism does not evolve into communism. But it doesn't follow that no society could evolve into communism. Similarly, there is strong evidence that societies both do evolve and have natural, evolutionary trajectories. So, it follows that a Communist could go looking for what that societal evolution should be. It's just unlikely to include state socialism in the mix.

If I was going to be controversial, I'd argue that this is a scientific Marxist position. As against the religious Marxist position that Marx couldn't have been wrong about anything. Unfortunately, the latter tend to be more common than the former in my experience but one can always hope.

  • I'm tossing you a +1 for the links, Eric Hobsbawm is exactly the kind of person I'm asking about. – Jared Smith Mar 25 at 16:12
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    @JaredSmith I thoroughly recommend reading Hobsbawm. His autobiography, Interesting Times, is a fascinating book. I agree that it's very difficult in hindsight to have perspective. But this book, written beautifully by someone clearly more intelligent and knowledgeable than me, allowed me to understand his journey. It didn't convert me to Communism, not that I think that that was its intent, but definitely made me more open-minded. – Alex Mar 25 at 16:45
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Speaking as a Conservative, I've also tried to have these arguments and read discussions by people who purport to support Communism. Here is basically what I've found:

The core change surrounding the growth of Communism in recent years is more or less tied to industrialization. In particular, automation. In the past, we needed humans to do jobs. There had to be a person standing at the cash register at the grocery store to take your money. There had to be a person on the assembly line to affix the door to the side of your car. There had to be a driver at the front of your taxi holding the wheel.

Today, these things are becoming less and less true. See, for example, automatic checkout at the grocery store, or specialized robots on assembly lines, or self-driving cars (well, that last one is still in QA, but they're certainly trying their best). Humans aren't needed to perform these jobs anymore. This causes a couple of changes:

1) Higher unemployment, especially of unskilled labourers. If your only employable skill is taking money at a cash register, and no store needs a person to take money at a cash register, then you're both unemployed and unemployable. In addition to this being just generally "bad" (from the point of view of those sympathetic to these people), it's especially worse because these people are the most vulnerable; these jobs tend to be low in reward, both ephemeral and physical, and thus given the choice between this sort of job and skilled labour, most would likely choose skilled labour. Thus, not only are these people unemployed, but they have a very hard time becoming employed, because they have a deficiency (perceived or actual) which prevents them from gaining the skills needed to perform "skilled" labour.

2) Higher production, despite increased unemployment. A factory which used to run on humans, and then fired all the humans and hired robots instead, still continues to run. The output of that factory has not changed, despite the fact that its workforce disappeared. Furthermore, robots do not need things like "sleep", "vacation days", "sick leave", "lunch time", and so on; this allows the factory to run longer and more efficiently than with humans. Not only has the factory decreased its cost, but it has also increased productivity, by firing its humans and hiring robots.

To recap, automation causes increased unemployment but also increased production. According to Communists I've heard and talked to, this means that (I am not saying this is true, but it is what they would quote to you) society would be able to support everyone based on the output of those who are "willing" to work in trades which require humans, plus the output of robots from trades which do not require humans.

What is interesting in the above statement is that word "willing". Communists presuppose that there exists a drive to work which is not limited to making money; a Communist would suppose that, for example, there are people who enjoy farming for the fun of farming, and even if they weren't paid to be farmers, then the rest of us wouldn't starve, because those people just like farming and could provide food for the rest of us. Again, this is what I've heard, not what I think.

Now, presupposing all of the above, Communism makes sense. Allow everyone to simply do what makes them happy. Some of those people will engage in trades which help support the rest of us, because that's honestly what they would like to do. Others may not, and that's ok too. Between those people who actually enjoy doing the things we need them to do (e.g. farming) and the robots doing work that robots can be specialized to do (e.g. manufacturing, low-skill jobs), everyone will get what they need. "From each according to their ability, to each according to their need".

Now, to address your points:

Labor theory of value seems to be empirically inferior to demand pricing.

Pricing and value mean nothing to Communists. If you can have everything you ever wanted without impacting anyone else's ability to also have everything they ever wanted, what's the point of pricing? Pricing is specifically a barrier intended to regulate what people can have, specifically because not everyone can have everything they want. But we presuppose above that everyone can get everything they want, so this point is moot.

(In this answer I equate "want" with "need", this is intentional)

Communist countries seem to tend towards totalitarianism more than their capitalist counterparts.

Not related to Communism. Communism is an economic structure, not a political one. "In theory" it is possible to have a benevolent communist regime; it just hasn't happened yet.

Communist countries seem to have worse environmental records than their capitalist counterparts.

See above. Deflection argument.

Communist countries seem to have lower standards of living in general than their capitalist counterparts.

Because there hasn't been a Communist country which has modern means of production. As noted in MSalters' answer, the first IBM personal computer came out in 1981. The Soviet Union fell in 1989. The technology available to the Soviets was not even close to what it is today. The only Communist experiment country which has existed and has potential reasonable access to modern automation technology is North Korea, and that country has a host of issues which has prevented it from getting those tools. Among them is likely (my supposition) that the government actively wants its citizens to keep their heads in other endeavours such as work so they spend less time thinking about how shitty their lives are and don't start a revolt.

Therefore, one could say that Communism was tried (and failed) in an era in which it was not practical. However, one might say, if it was tried again today, using modern technology and modern sensibilities, it might succeed.

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A lot of people (not just me) seem unable to understand the appeal of communism in a post-Soviet world, but again so many intelligent and thoughtful people have rallied to the red banner over time and even today that I suspect that we're all missing something.

You Are Missing That Communism Is Inherently Utopian

That is, the appeal is in the end state that it describes, the one where all of the social institutions that engage in "exploitation" have been overthrown and replaced with a new society where this "exploitation" no longer takes place.

Your four specific concerns are all apparent problems of existing communist regimes that can be excused away with some version of "we didn't do communism the right way yet." Communists may have more serious responses that are not varients on the tu quoque logical fallacy against capitalism, but the problems themselves do not matter greatly because they are questions of implementation that do not necessarily invalidate the desirability of the utopian goal of the whole process.

You say earlier in your post that most of the people you've talked to about communism who believe in it make appeals to moral premises you don't share. The moral premises are kind of the point of any given utopian belief system; the utopia is a thing to strive towards creating. Because you don't share those moral premises, your conversations aren't productive because you and your interlocutor are actually having two very different conversations. You are trying to have a conversation that is positive, that is, focused how things are, while most of the people you are talking to are trying to have conversations that are normative, e.g. about how things ought to be.

You are going to find it hard to have the conversation you think will be productive because you are talking about something the other side of the dialogue thinks has never been achieved, but is a thing to aspire to someday reaching.

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    I didn't miss it, and I understand the difference between the prescriptive and the descriptive. And if you'd asked me the question I just asked a couple of years ago, I'd have responded much like you have. But I have to ask myself which is more likely, that all of these intelligent thoughtful people are advocating tearing down various pillars of society with no plan for replacing them (N.B. according to Singer Marx himself was guilty of this) or that there's some piece of the puzzle I'm missing? I asked the question in the spirit of the latter being more likely. – Jared Smith Mar 25 at 16:28
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    @Jared Smith Then I would say that you are a charitable person towards people you have disagreements with. :) Though, it may not be entirely accurate to say they have "no plan", just that every plan tried before is not "the plan". – Joe Mar 25 at 16:41
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    @Jared Smith: The question is whether the advocates of Communism really are "intelligent thoughtful people", or whether they're either a) minimally-talented people convinced that the world doesn't properly appreciate them; or b) would-be Stalins hoping to take advantage of the first sort. – jamesqf Mar 25 at 18:18
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    @Jared Smith: Who is Isaac Schlueter? Never saw the name before, and the first couple of pages of Google hits on the name are for someone involved with node.js development. (NOT IMHO a recommendation for anything, let alone politics - but I admit I'm prejudiced :-)) – jamesqf Mar 26 at 1:34
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    @Jared Smith: My opinion has more to do with javascript in general, rather than any particular package manager or other piece of software - and I do recognize that it's a personal prejudice. But my point is that expertise in one field does not mean that a person's opinions in unrelated fields are automatically of some worth. I do know some successful developers who are absolute flaming nutcases outside their work - heck, some people might say I AM one :-) – jamesqf Mar 26 at 16:20
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With the caveat that I identify as a US Conservative, I have endeavored to become familiar with communism and socialism because I was also curious with its appeal to those who are now in their mid-twenties (I have children that age). I will try to explain what I found.

The Id, Ego and super-ego

Being against communism, I have been told that conservatism is selfish. Similar to the phase of life characterized by the Id. Communism is akin to the super-ego, where you think of more than yourself and attempt to do more to help those around you. It is your duty to be a part of the whole community in a selfless way. A person with his whole life in front of him will identify with being part of a bigger whole, contributing to the whole so that no one is left out.

Survival and tribalism

It is difficult living and this era to realize that most of human evolution and history occurred while humans lived in hunter-gatherer bands. And when I say most, I mean 99% of homo-sapient history. So the argument for communism is genetic which is why we are the dominant species today. The band needed everyone to contribute selflessly and sacrifice so that the band may survive and continue. Even today, it is instinctual to form bands, we have neighborhoods, gangs, social clubs, membership clubs, congregations, etc. Finally, technology has the ability to form the ultimate band of associating people who are not geographically near each other into a greater band. For example awareness of man-made climate change is nearly universal and strangers from different cultures will feel kinship with you and part of your community through the cell phone we all carry in our pocket. For example, If I say Green Living to a Norwegian, he will know exactly what I'm talking about probably without translation. Because of that awareness in that greater community, it is easy to accomplish goals such as Earth Hour, etc.

Economy

Right now there is more economic prosperity than at any other time in history. Without going too deep into the weeds with Marxism, one of the requirements for establishing socialism was the leveraging of the wealthy merchant class (people with wealth that were not nobles or aristocrats) to fund the change into socialism and provide the leadership of industries after the industries become publicly held. A personal example, At my current salary I can afford to spend $2000 every month on entertainment, family things, nice car, clothes etc. You can take that $2000 from me a month and I still would survive by being able to buy food, pay utilities and mortgage and get to work using public transport. That means I could afford myself and 2 other people in the Universal Basic Income scheme. I am below the median national salary level for my profession so it stands to reason that there are more people like me out there.

The population is more educated than ever

This subject was a surprise to me but in retrospect it seems obvious. This ingredient to socialism has only recently became possible through technology and social media. It is difficult to explain so to begin with something basic. I hope you are aware of the tinder app. In tinder, you can see romantic choices and very efficiently make judgements in seconds based on your own personal criteria. The hook is the safety in the knowledge that if you make the wrong choice or simply change your mind, there are more choices available. Now the contrast: in the past, if your family were farmers, you were also a farmer even if you had the mind to be an engineer. Currently over 70% of the population has college degrees. So this works from both sides, central planning can tinder the degreed population for needed positions and individuals can tinder the available requirements of the central planners. Tired of working at the People's Iron Works of Soviet Florida? you can tinder to the People's Fisheries of Central Planning in Minnesota

The social-contract

We have all heard in childhood that the government should exist by the permission of the governed. Republicanism and representative democracies often cause an elite class that are out of touch with those that are governed. With technology every voice can be heard and a direct democracy can be established. The first goal of this direct democracy is to establish a social contract, where everyone feels responsibility for the community and through that responsibility will make the best choices for that community.

Victimhood prevention

It is the responsibility of all people to be welcoming to everyone else. The community should be ever expanding and take pains to include all persons. John Lennon said it best in his song "Imagine". These goals will remove the possibility of becoming a victim

These are all the arguments I could think of for communism again, with the Caveat that I don't believe any of them and find, in my opinion, deadly flaws in all of them. But I do admit that they are certainly attractive and would implement them if I had a magic wand.

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    This answer does not seem to actually be about communism, or from the perspective of a communist proponent. – Jared Smith Mar 25 at 16:17

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