Communism II : love it or leave it

The communism you know and love.

In an earlier post I argued that we should retire the word communism from its appropriation by Karl Marx for the bogus slogan “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. This is fundamentally self-contradictory and does not describe even an imaginary system of economic organisation. So what shall we use the powerful word for?

You could say: communism is what the proto-Church of Acts 2 and (radical) communes have done from time to time, the pooling of all assets within a group for internal administrative reallocation. Fair enough. But that is something pretty unimportant, small-scale, and usually short-lived; an interesting cultural sideshow like polyandry. Further, such schemes don’t really represent a fundamentally distinct category of organisation. They reflect a command method of allocation – socialism – applying an allocation criterion of complete priority to consumption welfare – radical benevolence. We can have socialism without benevolence and benevolence without socialism. For my money, we should reserve the word for a genuine third way to capitalism and socialism.


There is one, and it’s the ancestral one of primates: gift exchange. By this I mean the provision of goods and services to others on the basis of an informal, uncoerced, non-contractual expectation of reciprocal non-monetary reward, immediate or delayed. The paradigm for humans is sex, since we don’t have coats thick enough to need daily bug removal. There is an awful lot of this back-scratching around, though it is definitionally excluded from national income measures.

A reckless table below the fold.


You don’t like my linguistic revisionism? Forget the terminology and admit there’s something interesting about the last column. It’s quite wrong of modern economics not to take the non-traded sector seriously enough simply because it’s hard to measure. Information is the fastest growing part of the economy, even measured through the Vaseline smear of GDP; and because information such as music has zero marginal cost of reproduction, communism has a comparative advantage. But will it take over?

Not very likely. The three sectors are highly interdependent. The communist parts of the information society for instance rely on the socialist sector for education and the capitalist sector for infrastructure. The converse also holds. Large capitalist firms are internally socialist: resources and tasks are allocated by command within GE just as they are in the Pentagon. But command and hierarchy never work ideally, and effective bureaucracies oil the machine with informal networks of gift exchange. The ancestral communist mode of production survives within both capitalism and socialism like mitochondria within an eukaryotic cell. The mitochondria have a long-term billet, but can no longer survive independently like their bacterial ancestors. I don’t predict the withering away of the state or of the market: but they will become rather less important in the overall scheme of things.

[Update, May 2012: more on this in  a new post, with an important correction on gift exchange.]


Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web