We are told we are free: but we don't feel free. A wobble on the stock market throws thousands of people out of work. CCTV cameras watch us everywhere we go. Advertisements keep telling us other people are happier, more successful, more fulfilled. The news keeps telling us we need to be scared. We get bullied, bossed around, talked down to, laid off: and we are told we are free.
The essence of the system we are living under is that a small ruling class owns the means of production—land, factories, mines, oilfields, railways, supermarkets, banks, newspapers, publishers, and so on. For millennia there was nothing of the sort: no-one owned the forests, the savannahs, and the seas from which people gathered what they needed to survive. Dim, half-forgotten memories of a 'golden age' before property are found in all the world's mythologies. In truth, however, the 'golden age' must have been grim: armed with only the most elementary technology, our ancestors were left with no margin above bare survival. It was the development of agriculture that first allowed a surplus to be produced. This gave rise to class society: most people were forced into the position of an exploited class, maintaining a ruling minority who claimed the surplus for themselves. A society divided into classes needed, for the first time, a repressive state to defend the ruling class's privileges. But this revolution also produced the first literate civilizations: first the city-states of ancient Iraq, then the ancient civilizations of the Nile, Indus, and Huanghe.
The latest form of class society is capitalism, distinguished by private ownership and free contract. It originated at the close of the Middle Ages—first in northern Italy, and then in England, the Netherlands, and elsewhere. In its early centuries capitalism unleashed colossal economic and social progress. Artists like Michelangelo and Shakespeare and thinkers like Machiavelli, Erasmus, and Galileo strove to express the new sense of human possibilities. A new ruling class, the bourgeoisie, rose up against the old aristocracies. Capitalism created the modern world; but, today, its progressive potential is visibly exhausted.
Many things that are technically possible and obviously desirable are blocked by capitalism. Enough food is produced that no-one in the world has to be hungry, and the ships and aircraft exist that could transport it wherever it is needed. But famines are still commonplace in the 'third world': the starving have no money, so no capitalist can make a profit by feeding them. Millions die from treatable diseases: the medicines are there, but they are only supplied when someone can make a profit. Hundreds of millions of people around the world are unemployed: their talents, energies, and skills are wasted, and the useful work they could do is left undone. Countless more have to earn a living doing work that is tedious, degrading, or anti-social. Capitalism has become a blatant obstacle to human progress.
In a society with no private property and no classes, a communist society, everyone would be free to contribute 'according to ability' and to take 'according to need'. Production would be for use, not for profit, and would be rationally planned by mutual agreement. Technology would be employed to reduce and eliminate mindless drudgery, allowing people to develop their creative potential to the full. With no class privilege to defend, the state would no longer be required. Communist society would be a free society, with no army, no police, no laws, and no coercion.
As an ideal and a hope, communism is as old as class society itself. But it is only relatively recently that it has become a practical question. Capitalism has created an economy where everything is interdependent and socialized: only control and profit remain private. And it has produced an enormous class of people who own no means of production, and whose work supports the whole of society. This class, the proletariat, has no separate class interest to defend: it can only liberate itself by abolishing private property outright. Of course, the capitalist class cannot be expected to sit back and watch as its privileges are dismantled. The revolutionary mass movement will have to form itself into a state of its own, to defend itself against capitalist resistance. But this state—which communists call the dictatorship of the proletariat—will be a temporary, transitional measure. As the former ruling class ceases to be a danger, people will get used to living and organizing themselves freely: there will no longer be a need for any state.
Revolutions against capitalism have already been attempted in several countries, notably in Russia in 1917 and China in 1949. The story of these revolutions and their aftermath is the great epic of the twentieth century, full of heroism and tragedy. Beginning in desperately underdeveloped countries, facing savage opposition from the imperialist world, workers and peasants struggled to establish a new society and pave the way to communism. They built industries from scratch and transformed illiterate peasant lands into modern, educated societies. In the end, they failed: the governments they had erected grew corrupt and autocratic, and the seeds of a new bourgeoisie were sown. The Soviet Union disintegrated into a string of separate capitalist states. China has kept some socialist imagery and rhetoric, but there too everything points to capitalist restoration.
It would be convenient for dogmatists if these processes had been neatly separate: first the successful development of the revolution, then a single identifiable betrayal, then degeneration leading to counter-revolution and collapse. But that is not how great historical events happen. The positive and the negative, the advance to true freedom and the drag back to oppression and exploitation, coincided and interpenetrated at every stage of the socialist countries' evolution. This complex historical experience provides a wealth of lessons for the communist and popular movement, and requires objective and clear-eyed study.
But the eclipse of socialism in Eastern Europe and elsewhere does not mean that capitalism is now here to stay. Two hundred years ago, it looked as though republicanism was finished: the French Republic had given way to Napoleon Bonaparte's short-lived empire, its satellite republics had been snuffed out, and its predecessors (like the English Republic of 1649–1660) were long gone. All these experiments had disappointed many of their supporters' hopes. Practically the only surviving republic anyone could point to was the United States—an obscure and anachronistic minor power in the Americas. But all the social causes that had led to the bourgeois revolutions were still present. And, two hundred years later, bourgeois republics are everywhere: Britain is one of only a handful of countries backward enough to resist the tide. The European monarchies that fought the French Revolution and resisted Napoleon (kings of Prussia, emperors of Austria, tsars of Russia) have vanished into history.
Today it is class society itself that is running into the sand. Capitalism has nothing left to offer us. The next wave of revolutions won't look exactly like the ones that happened in the twentieth century, and the forms of post-capitalist transition will vary; but capitalism's failure has never been more obvious. Communism is the future.