Cooking the Books: Literal Communism

In December History Workshop published an article ‘“Communism”: An Intellectual Genealogy’ by Seamus Flaherty, arising out of an exchange earlier in the year on Good Morning Britain in which an invitee had said she was ‘literally a communist’ by which she meant she stood for common ownership.

Flaherty explained the origins of the words ‘communism’ and ‘socialism’ and their use by Marx and Engels:

‘The word “communism” was born in 1840. It was coined by leaders of the secret societies which grew up in Paris under the July Monarchy of Louis Philippe (1830-1848). It was preceded by the word “socialism” – first used in an Owenite periodical in 1827 (…). Because of its militant, revolutionary connotations, the word was adopted by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who set out their own communist programme in their manifesto of 1848. By the 1880s however, Engels had ceased to use the term, opting instead for “socialism” in describing the new model of society he envisioned.’

He went on:

‘The revolutionary meaning belonging to the word in the middle decades of the nineteenth century applied only in Continental Europe. In Britain and America self-described communists were peaceful and often religious, preoccupied with the formation of intentional communities, rather than the conquest of state power. In fact, between 1880 and 1918, the word communism was almost entirely expunged of its revolutionary content, meaning simply a community of property.’

This is not entirely true. In 1894 the Marxist William Morris wrote one article entitled ‘How I became a Socialist’ and another ‘Why I am a Communist’, neatly illustrating that for him as for Marx and Engels the two words were just alternative ways of describing future post-capitalist society.

The opening paragraph of the second does, however, bear out Flaherty’s contention to some extent (note Morris’s criticism of setting up ‘intentional communities’):

‘Objection has been made to the use of the word “Communism” to express fully-developed Socialism, on the ground that it has been used for the Community-Building, which played so great a part in some of the phases of Utopian Socialism, and is still heard of from time to time nowadays. Of Communism in this sense I am not writing now; it may merely be said in passing that such experiments are of their nature non-progressive; at their best they are but another form of the Mediæval monastery, withdrawals from the Society of the day, really implying hopelessness of a general change …’ (

The real confusion started in 1917 when Lenin introduced a hitherto unknown distinction in Marxism between ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’, the former with its retention of the state and the wages system being what up till then Marxists had identified as ‘state capitalism’ while the latter corresponded to what had been meant by ‘socialism’, i.e., a classless, stateless, moneyless, wageless society. The following year Lenin’s section of the Russian Social Democratic Party changed its name to Communist Party, a name adopted by parties elsewhere that supported the Bolshevik regime.

The Russian rulers never actually called their regime ‘communism’. Even Stalin claimed only to have established ‘socialism’ (state capitalism). But this did not prevent the supporters of capitalism pointing to Russia as an example of communism in order to discredit the idea of socialism/communism as a better society than capitalism. The good news is that this doesn’t seem to be working that well any longer with people on TV breakfast shows saying that they are communist and not meaning that they want to go back to the USSR.