What Is Communism? Part I — Guest Post by Ianto Watt

Editor’s note. A particularly apropos (leisurely paced, so relax) essay on the nature of Communism. Recall this is 2017, one hundred years after the successful revolutions in Russia.

Just what is this thing called Communism? Is it really what we think it is? For that matter, is there any agreement as to what we think it is? Has there been another word that has been used more often in the past two hundred years? I can’t think of one. Yet, I’ll bet if you were to ask a hundred people what it is (or was?), you’d get at least fifty different answers. Anything from perdition to paradise, with everything in between. And that’s a big part of the problem we have in our inability to deal with this Platypus of a word. Because, after all, if you can’t get a common definition of something, you can’t get a common answer to the question of ‘how do we deal with it?’

There does seem to be a lot of commonality to the many described facets of this thing. But because it’s so big, like the blind men and the elephant, there’s going to be a lot of variation in the answers. Yet all are actually describing different parts of the same thing. And since this thing we talk about so much has had such a huge impact on the world for at least two hundred years, I think we would be well served to examine it more in depth. And then, perhaps, we can begin to see just what it is we have really been describing. And then to understand what it isn’t.

Let’s number the leading descriptions, and see if we can find a way to link them together. Its promoters (primarily Western academics) call it an economic theory. Its operators call it a means of liberation for their peoples. Its subjects often call it enslavement, a prison, a Gulag. Its instigators (usually Germans) call it a means of revolution. Other Teutons call it Evolution. It’s economic opponents often called it expropriation, outright theft. Its economic promoters say it’s simply a means of Labor achieving equality with Capital. Its religious opponents called it Hell on Earth. But its ‘religious’ proponents would call it Divine Justice. Not that they believe in the divine. Unless you count man as divine. Which they do, of course. You see the problem? Obviously. And this is only a smattering of the breadth and depth of it.

I believe we can find a common understanding if we do one simple thing. All we have to do is to separate two words which, in the minds of many, opponents and proponents alike, seem to be synonyms. Yet I believe that the two are actually antonyms. The problem we have today in understanding them both is that we have conflated them and their true meanings. So the task we have is to see if there is an actual historical difference between them. Then, we might be able to converse with our neighbors about the historical actuality we have before us without falling into semantic confusion. Because, as you know, I believe semantics is everything. So then, let’s see what it is we’re really talking about as we attempt to talk to each other.

What are these two words I deny are synonyms? Well, Communism is one of them, obviously. But the other, viewed with suspicion and approval alike, is this; Bolshevism. I contend that in most every instance, speakers who use the first word are actually referring to the second. Whether they approve or disapprove of what they are describing, they’re actually talking about Bolshevism. Which, by the way, is also a misnomer, from the political perspective, as it simply means ‘the majority’. But let’s leave that aside for now, although it has further meaning, that meaning is apart from this conversation.

The problem, as I see it, is that very few people today are able to distinguish between these two words for one simple reason. They lack historic perspective. In other words, we are idiots, historically speaking. And why is that? It’s because most of us think these two items, Communism and Bolshevism, have a common history. But they do not. Most emphatically, they do not!

Even fairly educated people often see the rise of both as occurring in the mid 1800’s, with the coming of Karl Marx and the European revolutions of 1848. Yes, some actually can see it in the French Revolution of 1789. Or the Paris Commune of 1871. The rest of the masses think everything occurred in November of 1917. Or in Red October, if you’re still on the Old Calendar. But they miss the mark by 1500 years when they talk of Communism. And they are equally off the mark when describing Bolshevism.

Not only that, these same people confuse East and West when pointing to the true origins of these words, and what they mean. They all, almost to a man, would identify Bolshevism with the East, with Moscow. And that leads them, in their historic amnesia, to conclude that Communism too has an Eastern origin. Or at least a Central European one. Which, to a Londoner, would mean ‘eastern’. And truth be told, Bolshevism is actually an Eastern phenomenon. But like Communism, it too is much more ancient than generally thought. We’ll get to that. Right now, I’m more interested in what people think about Communism. Why is that? Because, Komrade, Communism is a Western invention.

The origins of Communism are far older and far more Western than most suppose. And the reason for that lies in the roots of the word itself. Semantics, again. Time for a drink! And a smoke. You do smoke, right? Just remember, God made tobacco. So it must be useful.

The root of Communism would be The Commune. Or The Commons as we say in the Benedictine West. Huh? Where is that? In Christendom, of course. You know, the place Benedict of Nursia built when Imperial Rome ran away from the Barbarians. The same place where Holy Rome had to take up the task of administering justice and dispensing mercy when Caesar fled to Byzantium. The same place where the monastery became the heart of civic life, replacing the Forum. Where The Family regained its rightful place, displacing The Force.

Yes, Benedictine Europe is where Communism began. And it is the only place Communism could actually work. The only place it could actually be productive. And the reason for this is because that Europe was based on the family. And the family is based on love. In the late 400’s, when the Empire’s grip was receding from Western Europe, there was very little love available. Why? Because the Emperor had stolen most of it. And by stealing (taxing) the family to near-death, he had rendered the Empire defenseless. After all, it is one thing to have money to pay the Legions. It is quite another to raise those Legions. And if nobody wanted to join (like the Patricians of Rome) and the Plebes couldn’t afford many (or any) children, then who would you get to defend your Empire? Right-O. You’ve got to hire your enemies. The Barbarians. The Auxiliaries. And you’d better meet the payroll, or heads will roll. Ask Alaric what happens when payday is late.

Anyway, as the Legions drew back towards the new center (Constantinople), this void drew in the Barbarians who were not on the Emperor’s payroll. Or was it the other way around? Well, maybe it’s both? In any event, the vacuum created when the Empire shifted allowed other powers to exercise theirs. And this was to the detriment of the civilized people of the Empire. And the chaos that ensued dissolved the cities, those anchors of civilization, as they were plundered in turn. Which is where Benedict stepped into the breach. He abandoned the wealth that was his (by birth) in his effort to re-establish the root of civilization, the family. And who was he emulating? Aeneas, of course.

What? What do I mean? Well, read The War at Troy by Quintus of Smyrna, and you’ll have a clue. If you knew why Aeneas was saved from death by Calchas, the pagan Greek Seer (his sworn enemy), you’d know why this is supremely important. So let’s review what Calchas said as he stopped his own men from slaying the one good man left in Troy. Never mind the first part of this prophecy, although that too is divinely sublime. Let’s look at the second part of the utterance of Calchas. Here is why he said Aeneas should be spared:

…And let us, in any case, keep our hands away from this man, because in preference to gold and all his other possessions, things that preserve a man when he goes as an exile to a foreign land, in preference to all of this, he has chosen his father and his son. A single night has revealed to us a son marvelously kind to his old father, a noble father marvelously kind to his son. (The War at Troy, Quintus of Smyrna, Combellack’s translation, p. 243.)

And there you have it. Benedict, like Aeneas, decided that he would rather fight to save his family instead of fighting to preserve to rotted Empire. And the gods were in awe of this. Or at the very least, they were forced to yield. Forced? By whom? Well, who’s got that kind of clout? How many guesses do you want?

The result, for Aeneas, was the founding of Rome. And what would become Holy Rome, as this foundation was based on The Family, and not The Force. Benedict did the same as Aeneas. But in his case, being celibate, he grew his family by adopting all the fatherless foundlings of the ebbing Empire. And he did it in the midst of the wilderness. Thus grew the new Rome, the Rome of Christendom that built and ruled Europe for a thousand years. Yes, this is the Europe tourist go to see. Nobody visits the Continent to marvel at the European Central Bank. Benedict’s monasteries became the nexus of the new cities of Europe, peopled by the refugees of both the Plebian orphans and the good Barbarians who despised their own people’s pagan ways.

What’s this got to do with Communism? Simply everything, Komrade. Because Communism is the approved operating system of The Family. Just ask Karl Marx: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs‘.

Or ask yourself this: what are the abilities of an infant? And are they vastly outweighed by that same infant’s needs? So here we have the only situation where the disparity between one persons’ work and another person’s need to benefit from the other’s work will be met with approval by all involved, and not jealousy or resentment. What father will give his child a stone when the child asks for bread? If the parents bring the child up rightly, then the child will become a productive adult, and the cycle will repeat itself. And the former child will repay the parent by taking care of them as they age. This system worked for over a thousand years. Forget ObamaCare. Forget Medicare. Forget the State. Only the Church has a moral imperative to treat it’s members as something more than cattle.

Communism is actually a description of how the family should operate. And that by extension, the Church, the Big Family, should (and actually does) operate on this same principle. And all at the local level. Who invented hospitals? Who created orphanages? Who built the universities? None of them were for-profit ventures in their origins. They were built for love, not money. But when you remove the parental love from the equation by substituting The Emperor for the role of The Father, you have removed the one element that will keep envy and jealousy from entering the community equation. We’ll examine this substitution shortly.

How does this small, nuclear example of the family grow to encompass society as a whole? The answer is so simple. It is the concept of The Commons. Eh? You know, the lands owned by the monasteries of Benedict and his men. The lands tamed of Barbarian ways by fierce warrior-monks who would lovingly kill outside malefactors who threatened their larger family. As any good father would. Now these monks never went anywhere, let alone looking for trouble. They didn’t have to. It always found them first. But they never ran from it either. Which is why we call these Priest-Monks by their deserved title of Father. Forget the Emperor. He wants you to fight to protect him. These men will fight to protect you. For free. Why? Because you are their sons and daughters.

(By the bye, I once was associated, loosely, with a bunch of poets. Not by choice, mind you. I was looking for recruits. But these fellows only wanted to talk about love. A passive love, one that never had to act, let alone with force. They said they would gladly die for their wives. Idiots, I said to them. A man must be willing to kill for his wife. Because if he dies for her, the killer gets his wife. Is that what you want, I asked? Is that what she wants? Idiots! Killing is love in action. Yes, we must love our enemies. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t kill them when they’re scaling the walls. Later we can have a Mass said for them. By the monks, of course.)

Anyway, these same Benedictine villages (and then cities) that grew up surrounding the protective aura of monasteries in the wilderness were totally dependent on the monastery. Why? Because if you were part of the community of belief, you were given the right to farm and graze the Commons owned (and cleared) by these same monks. The same monks that fed and protected you spiritually also saw that you were fed and protected physically. But you had to be a man about it. You had to farm this land yourself (along with your sons). And your faithful participation in this pact of love meant that your children would have the perpetual right to this same land, this same protection, this same participation in the Big Family of God.

When the marauders returned (as they always do), you had to help man the walls of the monastery where you and your family took shelter. You had to lay your life on the line to protect your family, and by extension, your community. Just like the Monks had done to begin with. And so it was. These same monks, who gave their own lives to tame the land and build the walls of protection and who made them available to all who shared their faith. Common faith, common land, common destiny. Communing together, in peace. Communism. And it worked, for over a thousand years. Until Henry (and his eastern imitator, Ivan III) destroyed the monasteries and stole their lands, and introduced the new paradigm; poverty for the masses. Welcome to today. Now you know why Donald won. The poor have revolted. But what is it they will embrace?


  1. Michael Dowd

    Thanks for the history lesson. We need to learn from it. The biggest thing to be learned is the need for dependence on God to make it all work. To not depend on God is to put your faith in the “system” and a god-like figure (Obama) to manage it. My guess is that after our present new dark age collapses we will get a chance to try the Benedictine formula again.

  2. Yawrate

    I had never thought of history that way but it’s obvious, isn’t it? It’s always been this way. Your clan, your tribe, your church, your family.

    This reminds me of the fraternal organizations of 19 and 20th centuries. You paid your dues, enjoyed meals and fellowship, and worked on communal projects. If you or yours got sick your fraternity covered the costs. If your home got blown down they would rebuild it with you. Group insurance.

  3. Exactly right. Families are extensions of individuals who voluntarily associate, and thus bind themselves by custom or law, depending. To put it another way, God -> Man -> Earth. Man -> Families -> villages -> societies -> nations. All of these things are corporations that are derived from, and are, extended individuals. Even governments are corporations.

    To put it another way, the needs of the one are neither outweighed by the needs of the few or the many nor do these outweigh the needs of the few or the many.

    Trade may use money, but money is not the only means by which trade occurs. Thus neither money or stuff are wealth, They are the products of wealth.

  4. Ken

    What is Communism?

    How about, for a contrasting the analysis to get the answer to with with an example, what is “football” (or in the U.S., “soccer”)?

    Professional leagues, adult leagues, and leagues in which school children play often have similar, but in ways subtle or profound, different rules (typically for safety). Depending on how nitpicky or addled one is, these reflect the same game, or, completely different games with a mere passing superficial resemblance. Regardless, to understand “what is football” (or “soccer”) one looks up the rules — or just the major rules may suffice — being applied by the players in a given game. Pretty much everybody comprehends this.

    Same goes for Communism — it is what a given group implementing it under that label makes it to be; there are variations and to attach the label in mainstream use, it will generally have at least some superficial similarity to the musings of Karl Marx.

    Determining what a form of governance is via some semantics-based mental concoction of tangential, metaphorical and sound-alike associations [completely divorced from how some particular authority is actually doing it] reflects something else entirely.

    Which brings us to:

    ‘The presence of odd speech patterns is an example. These individuals may verbally digress or become metaphorical in their expressions. According to the DSM-III, “Often, speech shows marked peculiarities; concepts may be expressed unclearly or oddly or words used deviantly, but never to the point of loosening of associations or incoherence (American Psychiatric Association, 1980, p. 312 – Schizotypal Personality Disorder).’

    For a more extreme version than seen here, one [just for fun & educational enlightenment] can look up
    kateofgaia (www.youtube.com/watch?v=KtvJRGYS684),
    Santos Bonacci (www.youtube.com/watch?v=dnxO1eU2PX8),
    or, for an actual weirdly-written legal complaint complaining about other’s writing, the David Myrland Grammar Lawsuit (www.scribd.com/doc/81500878/David-Myrland-Grammar-Lawsuit?secret_password=110jo39bhuk90rkzdor7) is worth a few moments,
    as is this explanation of semantics and how getting that right can save the world: “Quantum Language of Law by Judge :David-Wynn: Miller” – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ULL0TX_Kazo

    A few moments at any of the above ought to more than suffice. Those present the same cognitive pattern, if a bit more extreme but the same nevertheless, lately supported at this blog. I few moments should suffice; I wouldn’t recommend more.

    I would, however, STRONGLY recommend that everyone brush up on proper grammar at The Oatmeal, for example when & how to apply “who” vs “whom”: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/who_vs_whom (at the end of that are references to other very useful grammar guides: How to use an apostrophe, how to use a semicolon, when to use “i.e.”, 10 words you need to stop misspelling, and, for the philosophically/semantically minded, what it means when you say “literally”).

  5. Alright, never mind the incessant predicates, and the absurdity you “believe semantics is everything” while most people have little understanding of it, but communism?

    The monastic movement was, for the most part, a wonderful and vital lifeline for the common man right through the middle ages, through some very difficult periods. It was not “communistic,” per se, because that was not an impetus for the movement. It manifested itself as sort of a nice example of local communism, one could say, but more appropriate to today’s understanding, ‘cooperative’ would be a better word.

    When I was growing up, and to this day, you can go hang out at your local monastery, play basketball with the Brothers, go grab some apples from the orchard, maybe have lunch. Great memories! They’re still out there. They are just not engaged as much in modern commerce and education because the monastic life hasn’t really changed all that much over hundreds of years, and the costs of those things today is just absurd. Besides, what’s the point of being a monk if all you do is make computer chips, or handle hundreds of children everyday?

    We should learn a lot from the monastic movement, and it’s still thoroughly explored in all good secondary-through-college history curriculum. The impact of the movement on the very foundations of Western laws, rights, town and city functions and designs, agricultural practices and on and on is immeasurable. Modern Western democracies, even like our geographically new republic to some degree, are agglomerations of agglomerations of towns and villages and cities built around good transit, schools, hospitals, police, emergency volunteers, public-sphere business centers, endowments for the sciences and arts and letters, and nearby or passing natural resources. Socialism, in a cycle of being afforded by the capitalistic opportunities it creates, is what made all that. The monastic movement was an impetus for that.

    This ‘semantics is everything’ argument is frustrating. It’s a ridiculous thing to believe. It is parsing the parsing. Semantics are how “isms” take on all these crazy imagined forms, bogeymen and shadowy conspiracies, caricatures and over-simplifications. It’s how Republicans always give benign-sounding names to destructive legislation.

    Yes, “if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you’re not gonna make it with anyone anyhow,” to quote someone who I think rose above all that semantic nonsense rather well. Take the “ism” off and just deal with things as they are and life gets a lot easier, people get a lot more amenable, and you certainly don’t have to be Mao to expect good schools and healthcare, security and stability, in a modern Western society.


  6. Doug M

    Is communism an economic model? It fails to answer the “economic problem.” The central economic problem: our finite resources are insufficient to satisfy all of our wants and needs. How will scarce resources be allocated? What should be produced, how will it be produced, and how should these decisions be made. Communism completely bypasses the problem, everything will be shared. But how?

    A Communism isn’t even much of a political theory. The working classes must rebel against the social order and demand what they deserve. And then what? A new social order and new lower class, and a more cynical and isolated political class that knows that they are but a few short steps from the guillotine themselves. Better make sure that the lower classes never gets the opportunity to stage their own revolution.

    Communism is really a sociological theory. A study of history, politics, economics viewed though the lens of the class struggle.

  7. per

    A key point regarding communism (State ownership of the means of production), is the element of coercion, which is the State. The State spercedes and breaks the bonds of family, free town, and moanastic group.

    The family can also be considered a supremely capitalistic enterprise or unit. Sure, it provides some communal charity, but the payoff comes in strength multiplied infinitely. That’s no different than a major oil company spending billions on R&D that will pay back twenty or more years from now. Careful corrective actions take place along the way, as in families, to correct deficiencies.
    Capitalism requires that individuals and by extension their families own the fruits of their laborious, whether they work for a paycheck or something else of value. Communism takes the fruits and distributes them to non contributors and hangers on.


  8. per

    I see the grammar gremlins are still at work.

  9. oldavid

    I think, Lanto, that you missed the point here altogether. Maybe it’s because of your apparent sympathy with things “Eastern”.

    The Benedictine (Christian) view is that society exists for the good of the individuals that comprise it. We could get adversarial about how that was implemented then or now.

    But the Bolshevik, Marxist, Judaic view is that the individual exists for the “good” of the State… as in the ruling elite.

    There are many examples that could be cited that range from contraception to usury. I think you need a dose of Christian social philosophy so you don’t confuse convenience with purpose.

  10. That’s not how Bolsheviks, Marxists, or Jews would see it, oldavid. And monasticism is not even unique to Christianity. You need to put down the Christian philosophy once and a while a learn about others.


  11. oldavid

    That’s just not how Jews, Marxists and Bolsheviks SELL it, Jersey.

    Yes, I know full well that various kinds of monasticism preceded Christianity but they didn’t have the magnificence and benevolence of the Benedictine kind. More like the dreamy self-interest that Lanto has criticised previously as hallmarks of Eastern Orthodox “spirituality”.

    I do not intend to put aside Reason and Faith to embrace spurious facsimiles; even with your august recommendation.

  12. PC

    I came across your article the same day I began reading Rod Dreher’s book, The Benedict Option. Christians may yet have to form secluded communities to carry the light forward through this new age of darkness.

  13. gareth

    Well Ianto, I thought this was good and interesting (not having had same opinion of previous posts). I look forward to pt. 2.
    When (hopefully long hence) I get so decrepit that I can no longer fly/dive/travel and have time I shall study stuff like this 🙂
    Jersey, I disagree with you about the semantics – If we can’t agree what our words even mean how are we to make any sense at all ???
    Strike that – If we don’t share a common meaning for the words we use, we are likely to think that we know what the other is saying but might be horribly wrong e.g. beware of a German gift 😉

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