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I've often heard the following two points of view:

  • Communism is a failed philosophy, and it has always failed (e.g. USSR, China, Cuba etc...). Therefore it's simply wrong.

  • Communism has never been applied correctly, but that's for historical reasons and not intrinsic to communism. Therefore it's basically misunderstood.

Are there examples of societies adopting Communism (or Marxism) and thriving without degenerating in dictatorial Soviet-style societies?

As a side note: are there good treaties on the subject which are not partisan but strive to give an objective overview of the matter?

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    I belive Israeli Kibbutzes are organized around Communist ideals. – Amy Blankenship Dec 24 '12 at 19:50
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    It's relevant that those who claim communism hasn't been applied correctly never are able to explain how to apply it correctly. – Lennart Regebro Jan 7 '13 at 12:35
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    You mention China in your list of failed Communist governments... I'm not sure if that's anywhere near accurate. – Jeremy Holovacs Apr 23 '13 at 20:40
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    Aren't all political philosophies ultimately failed? All governments come and go eventually. :) – user1530 Apr 24 '13 at 23:23
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    @JeremyHolovacs - it is accurate if you consider China two separate countries, one before Dang Xiaopin (sp?) and one post-, the former being de-factor Marxist, the latter steadily moving towards less-Marxism despite keeping the name and some/many trappings. USSR nearly almost ended up same way, during N.E.P. – user4012 Jun 30 '15 at 0:19
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Both of your bullet points are correct, and both are wrong.

  • Yes, communism was actually successfully applied. The caveats are that it was only successful under the following limitations:

    1. in an extremely small scale (either geographically - think a single village - e.g. Kibbutzes in Israel are, for all intents and purposes, an example of Communism in action; or professionally - think FOSS and/or FSF as contained systems). Some less "standard" examples would be theology-based communes, from early Christians to late new-age hippies.

    2. in an society which is a part of a larger society - by which I mean that said communist small scale implementation has access to larger demographics (allowing them to draw in fresh members who aren't yet disenchanted with the idea/practice AND to outplace those in the community who are disenchanted; as well as shed excess children so you don't have to grow significantly if your birth/survival rate exceeds 2.1).

    3. In an open economic system. For example, Kibbutzes or hippie communies in California don't need to spend money on R&D in agriculture, or defense, or large scale law enforcement (again, you may have the luxury to exclude 1-3% of psychopaths/sociopaths from a small community, and not worry about said excluded psychopaths attacking you for your communal material possessions from outside since they are dealt with by outside society), or on disaster preparedness, or on medical R&D, or pretty much any other economic overhead of modern civilization.

    4. Possessed economy and quality of life above subsistence-level farming, and did not depend on unusually rich natural resources.

      For example, presumably, you could have a communist community in an area with unlimited energy-rich wild life and vegetation, warm, stable climate and natural places to live such as caves. Basically, where you don't actually need industry or production to live reasonably well).

  • No, there was never a successful attempt to implement communism on large scale (a country with 10+ million population, modern infrastructure, and not dependent in large part on external aid in variety of forms).

    Every time it was attempted, it failed to get to the communist stage, because communism as an idea is very attractive in theory yet in practice incompatible with actual human nature. The main problems of communism without an accompanying authoritarian political regime include:

    • Lack of incentives.

    • Human greed. We evolved this way, so no amount of education will drive it out.

      • In general, Maslow's hierarchy of needs leads to inherent inequalities because their satisfaction isn't always possible without conflict. Yes you can give everyone shelter, presumably. But not everyone gets a "dacha" on a warm seashore or a wonderful lakeside - some people get to either "compete" for those scarce resources (bye-bye communism), OR live worse quality of life.
    • The fact that a fraction of society are always sociopaths/psychopaths; and many of them are smart enough to be able to channel their character "legally", within the system (or around it without being caught).

    • Lack of competitiveness related to other states around you. The only way you can not lag long term and be a communist regime is to not have a competing free system with higher productivity driven by better incentive structures. The only way you can avoid a lot of your own high producers draining to a more competitive system is by threat of force. Welcome to dictatorship (anytime you prevent your citizens who wish to leave for greener pastures from doing so by threat of force, you are a closer to authorian than free state).

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    Mao allowed for each farmer to keep 2 of its pigs for themselves... He noted that the Family pigs were always much fatter and healthier than the government pigs. – SoylentGray Dec 25 '12 at 4:36
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    The advantage of small-scale communities may be that those who disagree with the system can leave it, so those who stay are more or less volunteers. (More or less = some people might prefer to leave, but do not want to be separated from their families who prefer to stay. But that would happen with any system.) On a state scale, people who don't like the system, are usually forced to stay. If they try to leave, they are killed. And if they succeed to leave anyway, their families are punished. -- It is easier to keep the system humane if only the volunteers are there. – Viliam Búr Jan 7 '13 at 13:38
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    @gerrit - none of the democratic societies I'm aware of use force to prevent people from leaving, which was the context I was discussing the use of force for. – user4012 Jan 7 '13 at 14:47
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    Caveat: these small communities are not sustainable. The Israeli government one in a while forces the banks to write off the kibbutzes' debts. – Lev Jan 12 '13 at 6:18
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    +1 for the first half, -1 for the second half: Lack of incentives: A lot of recent psycological research shows that monetary incentives can actually destroy intrinsic motivation. Greed: If one assumes greed is a univeral human trait, isn't especially a society based on private property a bad idea? Lack of competitiveness: Measuring physical wealth with monetary means can be treacherous: A thriving 'communist' country would have an abyssimal GDP. Also higher productivity is not always better, there is a limit - just imagine everyone would work twice the hours! – jdm Apr 22 '13 at 16:57
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+100

tl;dr: If non-dictatorial communist societies existed, then not for long. But what is communist anyway?

There's a lot of confusion concerning the term communism. There have been many movements that called themselves communist, and more often than not they have denounced each other as wrong or traitors. Let's try to get a definition from the horse's mouth:

Communism is for us not a state of affairs 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. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.
-- Karl Marx, The German Ideology (1845)

Marx puts the emphasis on the movement here, instead of dreaming up an abstract utopia. He denounces the idea of saying the world has to be such-and-such, and then implementing it. In fact, he went on to say "je ne suis pas Marxiste" - I am not a Marxist.

Still, we are interested in societies that have claimed to be communist, or Marxist, etc.. I like the following definition, with which Marx and many Commies hopefully would have agreed:

A communist society is one where the means of production are collectively owned.

I'll assume that at least on paper there is some kind of democracy, otherwise the whole phrase 'collectively owned' is silly. That means you and I can - in principle - decide what to produce though some kind of democratic progress, rather than leaving that to the market.

There have been several societies I would call communist in the past. Most were either in a religious context, or rather short lived. A few that come to mind:

  • Early christian communites. People shared their wealth and put their possessions together, in expectation of the end times. It's a bit hard though to define what 'means of production' means in this context, as this was in pre-modern times. Also, I can't vouch for how democratic things were.
  • Kibbutzim. In Zionism, prior to the founding of the state Israel, there was much discussion about what character the new jewish state should have. Secular vs. religious, socialist vs. capitalist, etc.. In the end, one settled on a capitalist state modeled after modern western countries. Many of those who had preferred a more communist direction went on and founded Kibbuzim to live their ideas.
  • The early workers' soviets (= councils) in Russia. These were quickly deprived of their power by Stalin and the Bolchewists.
  • The Paris Commune, which was tending between social democracy and more radical communism. I can't say in which direction it would have developed hadn't it been beaten down after a few weeks.
  • Anarchism during the spanish civil war, particularly around Barcelona. Sadly and ironically, the actual communists (Stalin) did not support the elected Spanish republic against the fascists (Franco and Hitler), but fought against them as well.

Ok, but what about the big communist or socialist states (USSR, China, ...)?

Going back to the quotable guy with the beard. He begins the Kapital with:

The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as "an immense accumulation of commodities," its unit being a single commodity.
-- Karl Marx, Das Kapital (1867)

So, it's the mark of a capitalist society that things are produced not just in any random fashion, but as commodities. That means they are made primarily to be sold on some kind of market. The laborers who produce them get paid a wage, with which they can buy those commodities.

The funny thing is that - according to that definition - most large scale communist societies were actually badly run capitalist societies! Badly run in the sense that instead of competition, you had one big monopoly, which was identical with the state. It has been pointed out many times that this is a bad idea:

But when economic power is centralized as an instrument of political power it creates a degree of dependence scarcely distinguishable from slavery. It has been well said that, in a country where the sole employer is the state, opposition means death by slow starvation.
-- Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (1944, freely quoting Leo Trotzki)

So, summarizing I'd say two your two bullet points:

  • Communism in the vein of the Soviet Union is certainly a failed idea. Communism in general however is too broad a term to prove 'failed' or 'neccessarily leading to dictatorship'.
  • The idea that communism is an ideal that 'just has to be applied correctly' would have Marx rotating in his grave. If you just have an abstact idea, instead of a solid analysis of the society you criticize, you might just end up making the same mistakes. In fact, I believe this is one reason why the USSR turned out to be as terrible as it was.
  • I have some minor quibbles, but all in all, a good answer! +1 – user4012 Apr 23 '13 at 1:12
  • @DVK Thanks. Yeah, I think it's too long and in some points too vague, but I didn't want to write a whole book. If I got some of the historical facts wrong please feel free to correct me. – jdm Apr 23 '13 at 6:51
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    was re-reading this, and one quibble is the false dichotomy of "some kind of democratic progress, rather than leaving that to the market". There's nothing as democratic as the free market process (if you wish to state that how much money you have affects market, you also have to remember that how much demagoguery talent you possess affects democratic voting. Not everyone is equally gifted at convincing others to their point of view. For that matter, not everyone is born large and threatening, which also is ALWAYS a factor in direct democracy, no matter how much it's ignored in theory) – user4012 Jun 18 '13 at 16:33
  • I would add the Incan empire as a communist state. – Joze Apr 22 '15 at 12:20
  • @Joze - if you have references to support that, it'd make a good answer. – user4012 Mar 2 '16 at 16:16
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Note No country has ever claimed to be communist. They've claimed to be Socialist. Communism is a classless, stateless society.

Some ones that may have become democratic socialist societies had they survived are Anarchist Catalonia, the Paris Commune, and the Bavarian Soviet Republic. All of these were destroyed by outside forces before we could see how they would have developed.

Communism has also existed on extremely small scales. Most tribal societies operate on communistic principles, because they are the most efficient economy for a small group. Some societies, like the Kibbutz are also communist.

I'm not sure if there are more socialist states that weren't dictatorships. If you know of any more, please comment.

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    Is there any reason to assume that Paris Commune would have survived with no slide to dictatorship any better than French Revolution did? – user4012 Jun 30 '15 at 0:22
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The democratic election of Communist Salvador Allende in Chile in 1970 represented an "experiment" in democratic Communism.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salvador_Allende

It didn't last very long, until a violent overthrow by a military coup in 1973. Allende's government and society was never truly "Communist," but just "socialist" enough to inflame his enemies.

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    I downvote this. What was so "democratic" in Chile when Allende came to power? Chile is example of Socialists coming to power peacefully is a bourgeois undemocratic country due to "system fault" at preventing them from doing so. Their coming to power was just a bug in the system, and the system was reloaded with greater checks against a repetition. Argualbly the Bolshevicks came to power in 1917 in Russia more democratically. – Anixx May 1 '13 at 3:00
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    This is also worth a downvote as it uses "communism" in a facile way, when it would have to discuss the meaning of communism as used in this answer to answer the question. – Samuel Russell May 2 '13 at 0:58
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Communism is a failed philosophy, and it has always failed (e.g. USSR, China, Cuba etc...). Therefore it's simply wrong.

Communism, philosophically, is what comes after Capitalism if one is going along with Marxs thesis on the law of motion for economies; he gave no time-table, nor no indication of what this future form of the economy would be like - it could be sometime in the middle of this century, or it could be a millenia away; in his thesis, it is almost tautologically true; until then Marx expected Capitalism to succeed as a global force - this was an earlier observation of Hegel that foresaw that 'trade' would become 'world-historical' in its European form.

What is taken for Communism is a political form - State Capitalism, and needs to be understood geopolitically. Political communism failed due to the policy of encirclement by the Western powers, a war of attrition fought through proxy wars - otherwise known as the Cold War - a hot war between the two main powers would have been simply too dangerous given the preponderance of nuclear weapon technology on both sides. It 'failed' not essentially because it was 'wrong' but essentially because of this war of attrition. The cold war was not called a war for nothing.

Communism has never been applied correctly, but that's for historical reasons and not intrinsic to communism. Therefore it's basically misunderstood.

See the first point above.

  • I thought that according to Marx, Fascism comes after Capitalism fails and Socialism is the step before the Communist, state free "utopia". If I remember correctly, as it's been 30 years now since I studied Marx, and the other Socialist philosophers Hegel, Engel, etc – Aporter Jan 6 at 10:38
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Apart from the Paris Commune and kibbutzes, you can regard the Rojava Regional Government as an example. It is built based on the Marxist-Leninist ideology, and specifically Abdullah Ocalan's interpretation of it. Ocalan was the founder of Kurdish Worker's Party (PKK, which is still active in Southeastern Turkey and Norther Iraq's Sinjar area), and the spiritual leader of the Rojava Government. Similar to kibbutzes, the Rojava advocates a "Democratic Confederalism" governing ideology.

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    Could you please clarify what details make Ocalan's "Democratic Confederalism" - and especially Rojava implementation - be "communist" as opposed to socialist as most other marxist states were; and what make Rojava non-dictatorial? I'm not too familiar with it and I don't suppose most people are. – user4012 Sep 1 '16 at 23:13
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If you are interested in the question about personal dictatorship, arguably there was no personal dictatorship in the USSR after Stalin dead.

But the communist revolutionaries themselves described their state as "dictatorship of proletariat" which they considered the highest form of democracy. They also considered the Western bourgeois democracies to be dictatorships of the bourgeoisie.

The USSR officially remained dictatorship of proletariat (Preamble of the Constitution of 1924 and Article 2 of the constitution of 1936) until 1977.

In the constitution of 1977 it was declared that the state was not dictatorship of proletariat any more because there was no bourgeoisie remaining and became the state of the whole people.

So the USSR was not self-declared dictatorship after 1977.

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    why is the downvote? – Anixx Apr 25 '13 at 15:49
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    It could legitimately have been downvoted as it doesn't answer the question? You've given an example of A when the question requests non-A instances. You'd need to give a demonstration that all cases are A for this to be an answer? – Samuel Russell May 2 '13 at 0:56
  • Your answers seem to be downvoted, regardless of their content. – drake Aug 6 '15 at 15:42
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TL;DR Yes, see "primitive communism".

There is no NPOV answer to your questions, it all depends on your definitions and judgment of evidence. My answer is an attempt to explain things according to the point of view of Marx & Engels.

Full disclosure: I consider myself a communist.

According to Marx, the answer to the question is Yes.

To be communist, a society MUST be non-dictatorial - as dictatorship necessarily requires a state to control the means of production. If you do not have a means of coercion to control the means of production (army, police, etc.) - then you do not have a state.

"When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organize itself as a class; if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class. In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.", Communist Manifesto, Chapter 2

Therefore it is a logical impossibility that there should be communist society that is dictatorial. Rather, the question is then: Has there ever been a communist society? If there has not been, then the answer to your question is No, otherwise Yes.

Communist societies have existed before the state ever existed, in the form that Marx refers to as "primitive communism"

Adding to the requirement of a stateless and classless society - in order to have communism, you must also abolish value itself. In Marxist theory, value is not the same as prince, and value is not the same as exchange value or use value. In Marx terms, value is the 'socially necessary abstract labor' embodied in a commodity. A commodity is any good or service produced by human labor and offered as a product for general sale on the market. To abolish value, you must abolish commodities and therefore markets.

@DVK is mostly incorrect, but @jvm is incorrect in other aspects too:

@jvm: Marx was certainly a Marxist, but said he was not as a way of saying, "if this is Marxism, then I'm not a Marxist" against the French communists & Paul Lafargue. Discussion on: I'm not a Marxist

Now to the few examples pointed out: Early christian communites, Kibbutzim, early workers' soviets (= councils) in Russia, The Paris Commune, Anarchism during the spanish civil war, particularly around Barcelona.

In none of these examples can we reasonably expect that the market or state was abolished as these societies either operated within a bigger picture where it was not abolished. In early Soviet Russia just after the revolution the market was certainly not dissolved. The Paris Commune was attacked and had armed forces. If you trade with places where the market still exists then commodities still exist. Anarchism during the Spanish Civil War was during a civil war - therefore they were fighting to uphold a means of production - therefore not communism.

The claim that @DVK makes that communism would somehow be an impossibility due to genes and how we evolved, i.e: "greed is in human nature" would require some scientific claims in the field of neuroscience and evolutionary biology. When it comes to biology, we are as genetically close to the violent chimpanzees as to the sharing bonobos that are the only other species except for us that uses sex for pleasure. One thing is for certain: cooperation is what made us the #1 apex predator species of the world. One human vs. one tiger is one well fed tiger. A few humans with tools against a tiger is a dead tiger.

One needs to remember that Capitalism had centuries to mature into the state it is in now - it had bloody revolutions, dictatorships, etc. One can't expect that the communist movement needs to honor "three strikes & you are out".

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    Sorry, but -1 for "primitive communism". If you look at unbiased anthropological research, you find out that most primitive cultures were as far from classless, peaceful, egalitarian society as possible. The level of conflict was far in excess of modern states (socialist or capitalist). Voltair's "noble savages" idea sounds attractive but doesn't match reality. – user4012 Mar 2 '16 at 16:09
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    I have to downvote this because it's a no-true-scotsman fallacy. – Sklivvz Sep 1 '16 at 20:58
  • @Sklivvz Except, I do define objective (whatever that means) rules... Value and the state (at a minimum: armies and police force) must be abolished by definition. I'm not the one re-defining communism, others are... If you want to claim "no-true-scotsman fallacy", point out specifically why... Still, I don't have to prove a negative, it is your task to provide evidence that the assertion "The USSR, [insert other state] was a communist society/state" holds. Since I'm not altering the definition of "communism" as we go to fit my needs, it is not a fallacy. – Centril Sep 2 '16 at 0:11
  • @Sklivvz Also; see: Equivocation, Hasty generalization (Wikipedia). Also: quora.com/Whats-wrong-right-about-the-no-true-Scotsman-fallacy/… – Centril Sep 2 '16 at 0:16
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    Maybe you should reread my question, I present both cases. I just don't think that your answer addresses it appropriately. – Sklivvz Sep 2 '16 at 6:30

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