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Typically, socialism and communism are criticized from a right wing perspective but I was curious on some left-wing critiques of socialism/communism. One source I found states

Since the split of the communist parties from the socialist Second International to form the Marxist–Leninist Third International, social democrats have been critical of communism for its anti-liberal nature. Examples of left-wing critics of Marxist–Leninist states and parties are Friedrich Ebert, Boris Souvarine, George Orwell, Bayard Rustin, Irving Howe, and Max Shachtman. The American Federation of Labor has always been strongly anti-communist. The more leftist Congress of Industrial Organizations purged its Communists in 1947 and has been staunchly anti-communist ever since. In Britain, the Labour Party strenuously resisted Communist efforts to infiltrate its ranks and take control of locals in the 1930s. The Labour Party became anti-communist and Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee was a staunch supporter of NATO.

Socialism and communism are very broad ideologies and thus different political groups seem to interpret and practice it differently. What are the different kinds of left political ideology (based on communism and socialism) in vogue around the world and what are the major differences between them? (I'm interested to see criticisms of these two philosophies from a left-wing perspective).

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    A left-right dynamic is not a universal constant, and are dependent on a particular nation's history and political atmospheres. For example, there are politicians in the U.S. with a reputation for being on the far left, but in other nations, they would be a moderate leftist at best, and more likely a moderate-right leaning politician.
    – hszmv
    Jan 18, 2023 at 20:44
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    communism != socialism is the first thing that should be noted
    – Joe W
    Jan 18, 2023 at 21:23
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    You are basically asking "what are some differences between different kinds of left-wing/communist/socialist ideas?". Obviously the advocates of each of these kinds are going to criticize many of the other kinds. That is a very broad question and I am voting to close for "lack of details or clarity".
    – wonderbear
    Jan 18, 2023 at 21:53
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    @hszmv - That depends on the "other nation" and more importantly, on the particular political question. For instance, in the United States, opposition to hereditary monarchies is seen as common sense and even most of the right wing supports it; in Spain, on the other hand, only the most left-wing of the major parties (Podemos) would propose eliminating the monarchy. Similarly, in Peru, opposition to same-sex marriage is sufficiently normal that even a hard-left candidate who recently tried to rule by decree may support it, whereas in the USA, half the conservative Republican party is in favor.
    – Obie 2.0
    Jan 18, 2023 at 22:00
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    I can't imagine a modern developed nation that hasn't incorporated at least some aspects of socialism. Just one example: Privately owned and operated tollroads are a pain in the rear to use and oftentimes are not well maintained compared to public roadways. Roads owned by and maintained by government and made free for public use are an obvious win. That's socialism. Jan 19, 2023 at 8:25

6 Answers 6

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Funnily enough, Karl Marx actually critiqued his own work by saying that his warnings and predictions made in The Communist Manifesto may have been a bit dramatic and that he believed certain countries were capable of reforming the problems that would spark the Communist revolution out of existence. That said, Marx was a huge fanboy of the U.S. (Lincoln in particular) and lived most of his life in London.

In the works of economist Henry George, George promoted ecomomics systems that were pretty left of center while retaining capitalism tenates. Notably, his proposed land-taxes, rent capture, and right of way taxes are considered to be the only progressive tax system that does not hamper economic growth (George promoted the idea of taxing land ownership, and only the undeveloped price of the land. Any development on the land that improved the property surrounding it was not taxed, while improvents that lowered surronding property would increase taxes on that property for that use. A mine or a polluting factory, would be taxed at a higher rate for the lowered value of neighboring property, but because all property would be taxed based on the value, one could easily pay the property tax by building things on that property that would benefit a community. A department store would not lower the tax on the property, but since the store wasn't taxed, just the ground it was built on, the sales would easily offset the tax. The only way to lose was to not develop your land at all.

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    I'm not sure this even answers the question, but it's an interesting piece of trivia. :)
    – Rekesoft
    Jan 19, 2023 at 9:30
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    Can you cite some of these criticisms by Marx of his own work? Specifically the mention of countries reforming enough to avoid the communist revolution. It seems like it might be interesting reading. Jan 29, 2023 at 4:46
  • @Rekesoft: IMHO Georgism very much does count as a critique of communism, just not a "typical" or direct critique. It (purportedly) gives you 90% of the benefit of communism for 1% of the social upheaval. If that really works, then why bother with communism at all?
    – Kevin
    Apr 29, 2023 at 1:11
  • @DavidEugenePratt Das Capital would probably be a good place to look, though I have not read it personally, it was a synopsis.
    – hszmv
    May 1, 2023 at 11:34
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    @hszmv I appreciate the suggestion but I don't care enought to read through an entire work expecting to find some support for the opening statement in this answer. Even though I think there is merit to this answer I'm actually going to downvote it specifically because of the lack of citation but will remove the downvote if one is added; for all I know, without being a Marx expert, this may be entirely fabricated. Jun 27, 2023 at 16:19
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What are some criticisms of communism/socialism from a left wing perspective?

Communism and Socialism As the OP correctly notes, socialism and (to some extent) communism are very broad categories. The quote however refers specifically to Marxist version, which is what usually meant by "communism" (although Marx used terms communism and socialism interchangeably.)

How left is left? One also has to qualify What the left wing perspective means in this context. If we consider right and left as deviation from centrist position, determined according to some typical economic and social issues (there are variations form country to country and historically, but the bulk is more or less clear), then Marxism is a radical movement located somewhere on the extreme left margin, just like fascism is the marginal right-wing ideology. In this sense, "left wing perspective" might be still to the right from the Marxists. In this sense the criticism is mainly directed at the anti-liberal nature of Marxism.

Are Marxists part of a political spectrum? Finally, right and left are parts of the political spectrum, of which Marx and his followers never intended to be a part. From the Marxist point of view, liberal democracy is a system designed to perpetuate the dominance of the bourgoisie, and participating in its political life - via trade unions or labor parties - only means perpetuating this system. Revolution was the answer envisaged by Marx - that is destroying the existing economical, social and political order. It is true that some later communists tried to argue for a change from within, but these quickly stopped to refer to themselves as communists (these eventually formed various social democratic and socialist parties.)

Anarchists: communism is not classless Finally, as @TylerMc have correctly pointed in their answer, the ideology usually considered to be to the left from Marxism is anarchism. The anarchist critique is mostly directed at the inevitable emergence of the ruling class in the "classless" society proposed by Marx. Indeed, Marx advocated massive nationalization of the means of production and progressive taxation of whatever is left. This supposedly would be public property and revenue. This however means creation of a new ruling class - the managers of the nationalized industries, the officials handling tax collections and the government. One then add that these should be specially educated for these jobs, that is they would come not directly from proletariat or peasantry, but from the Party - that is the intellectuals trained in the communist philosophy. Although these people formally do not own any property, they become oppressors of the remaining population just like bourgoisie oppresses proletariat under capitalism, artistocracy oppresses peasantry under feodalism, masters oppress slaves in slavery, etc.

The history of the communist regimes in the XXth century has abundantly demonstrated the validity of this critique.

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Let me start by pointing out that the entire liberal project — going back to maybe the 16th century — was a revolutionary movement. The goal of liberalism is liberty: breaking the bonds of hierarchical power structures so that 'regular' people have the power to chart their own course in life (with and within reason). Protestants rebelled against the overweening authority of the Roman Church; classical Liberals pushed back against monarchical and aristocratic dominance; early socialists and Marxists opposed the fiscal stranglehold that industrial oligarchs held over the world; the feminist and civil rights movements fought against systematic cultural oppression by gender and race. Liberalism is (in practice) an ongoing and ever-recurring struggle for elbow-room by people and groups that feel oppressed.

All that being said, we run into a linguistics problem. Words like 'communism', 'socialism', 'capitalism' — and even base terms like 'rights' and 'liberties' — connect to ideals, but they can easily be used by people who don't care about the ideals at all. For instance, that's how we ended up with industrial oligarchs in the 18th and 19th centuries. People used the term 'Liberty' to secure their own wealth and power, then immediately turned around and used that wealth and power to deprive others. It's the all-too-human political saga where yesterday's liberator becomes today's oppressor, and today's oppressee becomes tomorrow's liberator.

When Leftists critique things like Soviet socialism or Chinese communism, it's over the fact that these systems — whatever their initial intentions may have been — failed to promote and secure the kinds of liberties that Marxist political theory idealizes. This is particularly true in the US and Britain, where Marxism never had a strong foothold and most Leftists fall into the social democrat or democratic socialist camps. In the Anglophone world, Leftists tend to want to 'evolve' into a better form, and are leery of the Marxist emphasis on class struggle and revolution.

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Well, when it comes to criticizing communism, there are market anarchists - a branch of anarchism that advocates a free-market economic system based on voluntary interactions without the involvement of the state - that would oppose communists since communists wish to remove market economics from society. The first modern anarchist PJ Proudhon invented anarcho-mutualism: a form of anarchism that endorses a society based on free markets and usufructs, i.e. occupation and use of property norms. As I have mentioned before, a society of over 114,000 people called FEJUVE that is still around today successfully practices anarcho-mutualism & shows how such a successful left-wing ideology can work without getting rid of market economies.

Similarly, you have the anarchists in Rojava - an anarchist society practicing the anarchist ideology of democratic confederalism that combines cooperative economics with market enterprise. Again, this is a left-wing ideology that questions the idea that removing market economics is necessary to create a free society.

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First of all the left-right political spectrum originates from the sitting order in the French national assembly after the revolution where the conservative monarchists grouped themselves on the right and the revolutionaries on the left.

And from there they are used to construct spectra based on contrastive pairs loosely based on that. Like conservative-progressive, national-international, elitist-egalitarian, individualism-collectivism, capitalism-socialism and so on as well as a variety of overtone windows for these spectra that relate to a certain location and era.

The most common and most descriptive contrastive pair or scale is that of social equality or social hierarchies. So proponents or advocates of social inequality would be on the right and proponents of social equality would be on the left.

Now with a Eurocentristic perspective the 18th and 19th century featured a lot of change. The old regime was a feudal caste system. With nobility, clergy and peasantry, that was very unequal and supported that inequality based on a religious narrative as well as a claim of "aristocracy" (rule of the best). And which drew it's wealth largely from the exploitation of it's peasantry as well as trade and warfare.

And then it became under attack from all angles. Science, philosophy and inter religious struggles undermined the cultural hegemony of the church and the religious narrative. Due to various factors some section of the peasant caste got into wealth outside of the feudal aristocratic system and thus was rich but powerless in the lowest class. Which lead to demands and ideas to restructure societies. Equal rights, limitations of aristocratic privilege through constitutions, social contracts, republics, democracies and so on.

And at least some of these movement couldn't be repressed by force anymore, leading to successful revolutions like in the U.S. or in France and the establishment of a republic.

Now based on their rhetoric and contrasted with conservative monarchists, these classical liberals were pretty left wing. As in consequence of their demand there would be a reduction of social hierarchies and social inequality. Like abolition of the feudal caste system, equal political rights, reduction of aristocratic privilege, broadened political participation and if you count their rhetoric "equality, liberty, brotherhood" "All men are created equal..." and whatnot, that gave rise to hopes and dreams of direct self-governance of the people by the people for the people.

In reality however they were still subjects of their time and their route to power was through unregulated economic growth, in opposition to the ruling class of the caste/state, demanding and defending individual rights and considering taxes as largely theft. So their democracies were often based on taxed income, so while featuring more representation it was still far away from universal suffrage. And that's not including slavery, colonialism, racism, sexism and the like which already put some major asterisks on the liberty and equality claims. The new representation mostly meant rich people. So in effect the hereditary monarchy with religious legitimization was replaced with a semi-hereditary plutocracy with ownership of the means of production (featuring both the land-based aristocracy and now the factory owners). So as their system still featured and defended a lot of social inequality leading to them taking up the right wing position in the absence of royalist conservatives or even uneasy alliances between these factions.

Now contrast to the hyperindividual unregulated capitalism which treated each individual as an island and any sort of government as a nuisance that should be reduced to a minimum, there also were factions that took a more wholistic view.

Like yes, you can see "the government" as the tyrannical force making demands and largely sustaining their own existence with that. But as a matter of fact it also fulfills certain roles and the more republican a system gets (the more it becomes a republic where politics is done by the people themselves) the more people have to fulfill these roles themselves or judge for themselves if they are necessary or not. So taxes move from "something that someone else steals from you and that is gone", to the approach of "people pooling some of their money to make an investment that exceeds the ability of any of the individual". So if the public infrastructure costs 1 trillion dollars that's more than almost any individual has in their bank account, but if everyone of the 300 million citizens gives $3330 you've got that covered and that's manageable and the benefits from that are more than worth it.

And the same concept is the source of the capitalists wealth as well, like if snatch a few dollars of every product one of your employees makes, a single person can make a lot of money. And because it takes no effort, but just to already be rich, it increases in effectiveness with property. Meaning at some point there's a direct or indirect redistribution or it approaches a plutocracy.

So there is a lot of power in societies, explicit (like groups, collectives, up to nation states or humanity as a whole) or implicit (like in companies, supply chains, trade networks). The question is: How to organize it. And there the "right wing" ideal is some sort of social hierarchy, monetary, hereditary, religious, sexist, racist, nationalist, militaristic... where one group makes the rules and the rest follows those rules or is penalized. While the "left wing" ideal is that people form a mutual collective of free and equal individuals that work cooperatively and decide for themselves what goals they're working towards in at best a direct discussion.

And the most obvious road block after the political caste system was the fact that those who own the relevant resources decide how they are used, either directly feudalism or indirectly via representative democracies that largely represent rich people and their interests or via extra-governmental concentrations of power.

So ideas of societies where people collectively own and work the means of production and decide things themselves on equal footing were called socialist/communist.

At least that was the ideal. As that was unattainable for several decades due to revolutions (even "liberal" ones) being crushed and sometimes even rolled back, democracies not really featuring broad representation of people and ideas and unregulated capitalism being in overdrive, so there were hundreds if not thousands of people who added their 2 cents on how that could look like, how to get there and whatnot.

From reform, to revolution, from more prioritized on the individual to more proritized on the collective. Like serious there are egoists who advocate for unions of egoists, because there's more to gain from that than selfcentered egoism, arguing it's more selfish to cooperate. The formation of political parties taking part in elections, the formation of unions and general strikes as a political mean, from demonstrations to tyrannicides, from anarchism to statism, from collective ownership, to no ownership, to private ownership with redistribution (thus indirect ownership by the people) and so on.

Like seriously if you're free to envision a utopia there were lots of people who had ideas about that. And no despite having ostensibly the same goal they did not agree on the means and priorities. Like the first international ended with Marx kicking out the anarchists cementing the claim of his group to the definition of "communism". The second apparently ended with WWI when it was split into pro-war-allied-socialist, pro-war-central-powers-socialists and "WTF! Since when are in support of workers shooting each other for imperialist goals"-socialists as well as a split between reformist social democrats and revolutionary socialists. And so on.

It's more like 2 leftists 3 opinions. Which is on the one hand actually good, because dissent and discussion are important but which also means that the most "successful" representative ended up being the Soviet union and the system that they exported to various other countries. Which deviated quite a lot from the ideal... So much so that they realized that themselves and went with a redefinition of "socialism" as a "transitional state" rather than "communism". And still, dictatorship, repression, imperialism, misinformation and general unreliability, state level terror, genocides, totalitarianism. There's a lot to criticize. Like Lenin already lost the initial election of the Soviet Union and as a result murdered a whole bunch of leftists as well.

Also faced with the prospect of successful working class revolutions many western countries often had to reform their system to decrease inequality and the threat of a revolution. And while not going for the socialist goal of collectivizing the means of production social democrats and unions have often decreased the gap between the rich and poor thus making the democracy actually more democratic than they used to be.

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I have seen left-wingers criticise Stalinist USSR for partial reversal to pragmatic nationalist policies:

  • Declaring "socialism in a single country" thus giving up on World Revolution
  • Restoring some of the pre-Soviet military attributes such as uniformed officers
  • Giving up on eradrication of Russian Orthdox Church and allowing some of churches to function
  • Pausing the policies which sought to fight the "Russian bigot, at his core scoundrel and rapist", i.e., the ordinary majority Soviet citizen.
  • Giving Russian culture some breathing room by accepting Russian classic writers and some Russian czars, whose image could be used in propaganda of strong state and military success

So when you see left-wingers condemning Stalin it may not be due to his GULAG, collectivization of peasants leading to famines, or purges of 1937: No, they may instead be concerned with Stalin's reversal of early Soviet policies, such as shooting priests on sight while preparing to dissolve Russia in a world of socialist republics.

These reversals were needed because, pragmatically, Stalin needed to win a world war against a powerful adversary and most of true Leninist left-wing policies were not conductive of that.

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    Russians were and still are, deeply religious people. Stalin's relaxing on the clergy was a practical decision... Russians would not accept Communism if they couldn't go to church.
    – hszmv
    Jan 18, 2023 at 21:12
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    Also, I'm not sure this would be a good answer to OP as "Stalin didn't go far enough" isn't a criticism of Marxist ideology, but rather a critic of Stalinism and it's implementation.
    – hszmv
    Jan 18, 2023 at 21:14
  • At the time there were no other communist/socialist countries in the world, so if you're not accepting USSR as an example what would you analyze? Time travel fanfics?
    – alamar
    Jan 18, 2023 at 21:15
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    That makes no sense. OP is looking for left wing opposition to Marxism ideology. Saying "It's not Marxism enough" is not opposition. It's radical acceptance. To satisfy the question, you have to provide examples of "I am ideologically opposed to Marxism, but ideologically in favor of [insert nebulously defined left wing ideologies that are not Communist/Marxist.]"
    – hszmv
    Jan 18, 2023 at 21:32
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    A lot of this is basically the Trotskyite criticisms of the Soviet Union. Which is certainly a valid answer to the question, but you need to be more specific than referring to unnamed left-wingers.
    – Stuart F
    Jan 19, 2023 at 11:17

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