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Communism is Marxism is Communism

Maybe I'm missing something, but I have found myself somewhat befuddled by the discourse that complains about marxism's "appropriation" of communism.  Apparently, some people are annoyed that the term communism has been used as synonymous with marxism because they believe it is a concept that is larger than marxism, and that marxists have unfairly "colonized" it for their own and nefarious purposes.  Thus we have anarcho-communists complaining about the supposed appropriation of the name "communism" and the demand for some sort of recognition that this name is older and broader than marxism and should not be espoused as especial to marxist ideology.

I am pretty sure that this complaint about the appropriation of the word "communism" is new.  A decade and a half ago, when I was a proud anarchist, I was generally under the impression that communism referred to a marxist ideology––specifically a marxist-leninist ideology––and was, in my anarchist imagination, a "failed" anti-capitalism.  I was not offended that marxists had appropriated the word "communism" because I never thought of it as belonging properly to anarchism.  Obviously I understood that some anarchists used the term "anarcho-communism" but I felt this was simply because they based their anarchism upon certain marxist analyses of history and the economy.  Furthermore, I also understood that even some marxists were uncomfortable with the word "communism" because, despite Marx and Engels' Manifesto, it was a word that had become overcoded by those communist movements that had failed.  In any case, at least in the anarchist scene with which I was familiar, there was no complaint that the word "communist" was synonymous with "marxist"––we used it to mean the same thing, after all, and proudly saw ourselves as the anti-capitalist trajectory that was other than communist.


Considering that this complaint about the supposed marxist appropriation of communism seems to have been made in the past two years, I would like to blame Alain Badiou and his Communist Hypothesis for making it into a [non-]issue.  After all, he seems to claim that there is an idea of communism that can be located in the dim past, almost like a Platonic idea, and I suppose this is tantalizing for those anti-capitalists who like Badiou but also love their anarchism.  The problem, however, is that Badiou has projected a modern concept unto the past where even the same name did not always exist.  The supposed communists of the times where there was no capitalism did not generally use the name "communism"; when they did––if they did––it meant something entirely different than even what anarcho-communists would want it to mean.  Here we find a transhistorical explanation of a concept that, true to Badiou's neo-Platonism, is somewhat anti-materialist.  (At the same time, however, I would be remiss if I did not mention that I enjoyed Badiou's riposte to Negri: when Negri mocked him for being a communist who wasn't a marxist, he responded [and rightly so] that it was better than being a marxist who wasn't a communist!)  The confusion surrounding the name and concept of communism has been entirely muddled by Badiou's intervention; I am quite certain that it has to do with the recent muddled complaints about the word's appropriation.

Whatever the case, Jean-Luc Nancy did manage to trace the origin of the word "communism" to the 11th Century, thus demonstrating that its name was older than the concept defined by Marx and Engels.  In Communism, the Word, Nancy claims that it was defined in the 14th Century as meaning "people having in common a property belonging to the category of main morte––that is, not being submitted to the law of heritage."  But in the 11th century it simply had to do with vague notions of "communal movements" and "communal law".  Here we find a name that shares something of the modern meaning but that is still the detritus of a past epoch: to have property in common, to reject "the law of heritage", to be nothing more than a communal movement with a communal law is a vague concept.  A community of monks, as Nancy points out, is also a moment of this named "communism"––none of this really has anything to do, regardless of a vague connection, with anti-capitalism.

Words can easily be traced into the deep past and accrue various meanings; there is an important distinction to be made between names and concepts and in my discipline, philosophy, entire libraries are filled with books dedicated to making such distinctions.  Simply because a name is shared does not mean the concept is shared; conflating the two categories leads to sloppy definitions.  Take, for example, the word hegemony: the name is shared by Gramsci and the Ancient Greeks, but the definitive concept, respectively, is not identical.  Whereas the term hegemony for the Greeks, based on the root hegemon, should grammatically mean the system presided over by a given ruler [a hegemon], for Gramsci it meant the way in which a ruling class operationalized its ruling ideas––there is something similar in the conceptualization of the names and yet this similarity is primarily in the name and not the concept.

The same problem exists for the word "communism" with its root communitas that would eventually appear in numerous Latin-derived languages.  And at the end of the 19th Century, when radical movements were attempting to define themselves according to commonly understood words, it is understandable that some words would appear as identical as previous words that were similarly derived, but for different reasons, from the same etymological root.  But the fact of the matter is that, in the anti-capitalist milieu, the first ideological movement that chose the word communism, in order to draw a distinction between itself and a general socialism, was the movement headed by Marx and Engels.  They did not use this word because of its prior definitions, also derived from the root of communitas, in previous centuries where capitalism had not yet fully emerged; they simply chose this word because no other anti-capitalist movement in the 18th Century was using it.

Crudely put, Marx and Engels wanted to ism the notion of the commune––they cared little about the previous attempts to do so because those attempts had nothing to do with their concrete circumstances––and thus produced a concept that, unlike the past and untheorized variants, would have a modern and world historical resonance.  (It is worth noting, here, that the aforelinked Nancy article is a typical exercise in language idealism for failing to recognize this fact: it conflates name and concept and, in doing so, pretends as if every concept possesses an etymological destiny and, in this destiny, must remain identical simply because of the use of the same word.  The semantic games he plays in this article with ism and the etymological roots of the word should be evidence of a nebulous eclecticism that is unwilling to think through anything beyond the appearance of a given concept.)  To claim that the definition provided by Marx and Engels is some sort of appropriation of a general concept is disingenuous because this is the origin of the modern concept.

Communism as a modern concept, then, first appears in the formation of the Communist League whose manifesto was written by Marx and Engels.  Communism as a concept is irrevocably marxist and was understood as thus by every anti-capitalist who rejected the analysis of this manifesto.  Indeed, debates within the First International were understood as debates between the communists and the anarchists, the former being treated as synonymous with marxists due to the Communist League.  At that time the word communist, which was the first modern and fully conceptualized articulation of the word, was understood as a name belonging to marxism.  Tracing its origin back to its etymological roots and pre-capitalist usages tells us nothing about its emergence as a concept, only that it was previously used as a semi-concept––a name with a vague definition.

Concepts that are worth understanding as concepts should not possess some esoteric meaning that can never be grasped.  Concepts must possess a moment of coherence, where definitions are concrete, otherwise they are meaningless: concepts that slip through every usage of a common name, that are nothing but etymological games, are not concepts but meaningless words.  If something can mean anything then it also means nothing as a concept.  Definitions matter.  Most importantly, they matter because they are historical.

What does the name "communism" mean historically?  It does not mean whatever we would like it to mean, it does not mean the 14th or 11th century vague definitions, and it does not mean anarchism or some other nebulous anti-capitalism.  It means the operationalization of marxist ideology and it has been historically understood as such––not because marxists have appropriated it but because the word was defined as a modern concept by Marx and Engels and that, following this definition, it was operationalized in marxist revolutions.  The capitalist camp during the cold war understood that communism meant marxism; it understood its enemy.  Similarly, anti-capitalists understood capitalism as meaning something specific and not according to some crude etymological destiny where the original definition "of or pertaining to a head" was taken as the basis of the ism.

To claim that the term "communism" has been annexed by marxists, then, is little more than an act of bad faith on the part of people who want to now use the word simply because it has been repopularized by chic philosophers.  If the word was annexed then all modern concepts have been similarly annexed and appropriated––must we seek some etymological purity in every word and concept?  No: if we speak of communism now then we are speaking of a modern concept that was initially defined by Marx and Engels and the movement they represented.  Until very recently all anti-capitalists, even anarcho-communists, understood this definition as a fact.  So to those who claim that marxists have "appropriated" the word communism we should reply: stop trying to appropriate our name and pretend that we did not originate it as a concept––find another term to colonize.


  1. I'm all for fighting the implication that Marxists "appropriated" the term communism, if that is in fact historically inaccurate. But let's suppose you're right and Marxists are the original communists. It doesn't follow that all communists must be Marxist. There are elements to being a Marxist that go beyond simply endorsing communism (for instance, agreeing with his critique of capitalism, and historical materialism). The idea of communism, originated by Marx, does not therefore belong to Marx. Others can be inspired by this idea without necessarily agreeing with other important aspects of Marxism. Is it possible to be an evolutionist and have significant disagreements with the specifics of what Darwin wrote? I don't know how a modern evolutionary biologist would view Darwin's writings, but I believe this is at least hypothetically possible - Darwinism and belief in evolution are not necessarily synonymous. Now you may argue that these non-Marxist communists are committing a grave error by not being Marxist, but to say they are not even communist (as you appear to be saying) strikes me as semantic nitpicking as well as logically incorrect.

    1. I agree that marxism does not belong to Marx and stands above him––I have argued this elsewhere. What I am arguing against is the recent tendency to claim that Marxism appropriated "communism" because it is a tradition that is larger than him. My argument here is that the communism that was theorized in the Manifesto as a concept is *the* origin of the modern concept, not idealist notions projected backwards on history. I think it is important to understand definitions rather than to make them mean anything we want them to mean simply because we want to use a word. So I would say that people that do not place themselves in the theoretical tradition of historical materialism originating from Marx and Engels (which is of course a very broad tradition with innumerable tendencies) are inaccurately using the concept as it emerged, as a theoretical concept, with Marx and Engels. Obviously they can choose to change its meaning and invent their own definitions, but to complain that Marxists have somehow stolen this word is ahistorical.

    2. It looks like we are in agreement regarding the ahistorical claim that Marxists stole the word communism.

      I can see that the concept of communism depends to some extent on the Marxist theoretical tradition, since without an understanding of how capitalism is exploitative, you could not conceive of an alternative system which is not exploitative. But I don't think communism requires complete agreement with everything in the Marxist tradition. For example, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall - is it necessary to agree with that prediction in order to conceive of communism?

      I just think that there are two separate issues here: first, the historical argument about who originally came up with the concept of communism. And second, whether the concepts of Marxism and communism must necessarily go hand in hand.

    3. I agree that fidelity to "communism" does not require an agreement with everything Marx said. My point here is simply that Marx and Engels did not colonize a concept but, in fact, originated this concept––and that this concept, precisely because of what it means, is a living concept that is constantly in development. Now it might very well be that some people may reject an aspect of Marx's thought, i.e. the rate of profit to fall, without actually breaking from the theoretical roots of this tradition––indeed, there have been some historical materialist attempts at rejecting this thesis (as with that recent article written by the MR group)––and I wouldn't say that such an analysis disqualifies one from being either a communist or even a marxist.

      My argument is not about who originally came up with the concept, but where the concept originated as a scientific concept and that "communism", once it appeared as a concept, was never something that Marx and Engels "appropriated" or "annexed" or stole from other "communists"––such a claim has only appeared recently and attempts to deny the historical meaning of the word. Yes, this historical meaning is in itself embattled, but the useful embattlement of this meaning has not, until recently, pretended that "communism" was something that existed prior to Marx and Engels as a concept and was essentially something larger and more significant than the conceptualization they produced.

      I think that a marxism that stands over and above Marx necessarily goes hand in hand with the concept of communism, but I don't think that every single concept that has appeared in this terrain must be accepted in order for someone to adopt this conceptualization of communism. After all, historical materialism is a method that can possibly call some of Marx's concepts into question. So no, this has nothing do with requiring "complete agreement with everything in the Marxist tradition"––there were a lot of dead-ends in this tradition, a lot of theory that should not be accepted and needs to be critiqued, and if one was to embrace every single aspect of something as complex as the Marxist tradition they might even be incoherent.

    4. I have to lean towards Roberthuygens in this. I think that Communism and Marxism are able to be separated, and that one is not necessarily the other. There are a great many Marxists who are not communists. Most every academic Marxist is not a communist, because they tend to oppose or at least be uninvolved in organizing, heap crap on communist struggles, and tend to support social democratic parties (yourself excluded of course!) However shitty these people are, they are still Marxists because they still analyse events using a Marxist analysis and agree with the philosophy of Marxism. We may say they are bad Marxists, that their analysis is wrong, etc, but it is very difficult to say they are not Marxists.

      Marxism as a philosophy can be adopted by anyone who agrees with historical/dialectal materialism and class struggle. However, Communism, which relies on some aspects of these theories but yet does not force the individual to take them on and make them a part of their own identity is somehow different. Communism is more about an aim and active political objective then it is about the philosophical meaning behind that. Thus I think it is possible for someone to be religious and still be a communist, whereas it would be impossible to be religious and a Marxist (maybe not depending on how one conceives of god/s).

      A Communist could be a Marxist who takes their philosophical believes into active struggle for the Communist future, or it could be someone who agrees with the aims of Communism and fights for it no less than anyone else, but without necessarily taking on major aspects of Marxism. As long as the aim is establishing a communist society, it is difficult to say that the Marxist could be the only communist, especially since many Marxists do not struggle for communism, but only use Marxism as an analytical tool. In the past this was true, especially in the Russian Revolution. Many people who joined the Bolsheviks would have been religious people unable to adopt major tenants of Marxist philosophy, but willing to die for the communist cause. Some of these people surely played an active role in the party. The same goes for those who are not well read in Marxism. They cannot be Marxists because they do not fully understand Marxist theory, but exploitation and creating a society free of exploitation are concepts that can be explained in about 2 minutes and anyone can understand, without knowing or agreeing with historical materialism.

    5. I think it is fair to say that we can separate them now, and there are good reasons to do so, but I do not think you can say that communism as it is now understood emerged as a theoretical concept until after Marx and Engels. The practical comments you've made about who has joined communist movements are another point altogether––not one I would disagree with, nor one that is not interlinked with this point, but one that is something of a different concern.

      My point in this grumpity post was mainly to complain about how there has recently been some attempt to claim "communism" by people who think it should be disassociated with its history and who argue (look at the comment below, for example) that it was already in existence as a concept, and not just a name, prior to Marx and Engels.

    6. So agreeing with everything Marx said is not necessary to be a Marxist or a communist. One can even disagree with a significant part of his theory, such as the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, and still be a Marxist. But what if you disagree with historical materialism itself? Then you cannot be said to be a Marxist, correct? (I don't yet have a full understanding of historical materialism) But couldn't you still be a communist? Like Adam said, in the Russian revolution there were many willing to die for the communist cause who may not have had much understanding of Marx. You can understand you're being exploited, and have a desire for and understanding of a system in which you are not exploited (communism). But that in itself doesn't make you a Marxist. You would be a non-Marxist communist.

    7. I think the problem you're having is looking at things on the level of the name rather than on the concept and my point is about the concept. Communism emerged as a concept *as* Marxism. Yes, one can apply the name in other ways and names often have been filled up with other concepts, but to pretend that the name did not receive its full conceptual meaning and is primarily interconnected with historical materialism (and to go further and claim that marxism simply *appropriated* the name) is the problem that I was addressing.

      Historically the importance of the conceptual definition of the name has been very important. To simply recognize one's exploitation and want to change the system does not mean communism, even if we understand the name based on its crudest definition (i.e. a classless society) because one can also have this realization and end up being a reformist. Indeed, historically people who attempted to define communism outside of the core of the science of historical materialism have been referred to as revisionists because they were revising and walking away from communism.

      Indeed there were many who were willing to die for communism without fully understanding marxism, and there are also those with an advanced consciousness that do not understand marxist theory (and inversely those who understand it and are revisionists) but this has to do with the subjective instance. Despite any ignorance of marxist theory on the part of people who fought for communism, what they were fighting for was the communism that is defined as I have defined it. So what I am arguing for is the importance of definitions. After all, one can declare fidelity to a scientific worldview and reject creationism in favour of evolution without having studied evolutionary theory.

  2. Marx and Engels didn't mark some kind of transcendental historical break--they drew from their context and from ideas before them. It's basically arbitrary to assign them the honor of having invented communism and leave out, say, Weitling, who called himself a communist well before the League you mention. Those two particular rock stars are associated with communism today not because of what they did then so much as because of what has happened since (e.g., various nation states adopting them as godlike figures)... but by that same tack, other ancestors can be discovered by new movements. Marxism itself, as a concept, was not--as you must know!--contemporary with the writing of the texts that comprise its holy writ.

    And, if you're saying the earlier attempts to theorize communism had little to do with Marx's concrete circumstances, that goes double for comparing our present conditions to Marx's. Whatever communism was is not nearly as important as what it could be in the future. So if Marxists like you get left behind in the inevitable and long overdue conceptual evolution, it's for the best for everyone. Probably even you.

    1. You really didn't read my post, did you? The term communism did not mean the same thing as did when it was applied by Marx and Engels. And if you do not think there was an historical break with the concept of communism under Marxism, since what Marx and Engels initiated was something that actually was a concept rather than some nebulous naming, then you're ignoring history. Your claim that nation states adopted them as "godlike" figures wreaks of anti-communist cold war propaganda.

      Furthermore, I have never said anywhere that being a marxist means utter fidelity to everything Marx said––in fact I have written against this dogmatic understanding of marxism elsewhere. Yes there is a conceptual evolution, like there is with any science, but it moves according to world historical revolutions and a pattern of theoretical rupture-continuity. So your claim that there has not been an evolution in marxist thought is not only its own form of dogmatism, but is some attempt to deny world historical revolutions and the PWs that are springing up at the peripheries that could care less for your view on things which belongs in the 1960s. This is why I am a maoist, and this is why I believe that revolutionary theory has developed according to conceptual breaks at key points in its history while still remaining true to the basis of the science.

  3. I've been meaning to reply to this, but I kept forgetting. First I'd like to say that this was an excellent article, and the message is one that really needed to be said. I wanted to shed some light on what I think are the origins of this phenomenon of anarchists appropriating the term "communism." While you are certainly correct that Alain Badiou is not always very marxist in his approach, I don't really think The Communist Hypothesis can be blamed for anarchist appropriation. While Badiou does put forth what he calls "the eternal idea of communism", I'm not sure that really means what it would seem to mean. A large part of The Communist Hypothesis is devoted to the Paris Commune, which Badiou sees as an event that is so unprecedented that can only be understood by its own logic. He links this to modern communist politics, particularly to the GPCR. This confused me at first, because it seems to fly in the face of "the eternal idea of communism." If the Paris Commune represents a break with the logic of the past and the birthplace of a new revolutionary politics (communism), it's hard to see how such an idea could be seen as eternal. I'm not a philosopher so I don't really have an answer for that, and I trust that you probably have a much better grasp of Badiou's philosophy.

    Anyway, I think that this new wave of anarchists calling themselves communists comes not from Badiou, but from the insurrectionary anarchist tradition. I mean, I just don't see anarchists reading much Badiou. He is thoroughly anti-democracy, and The Communist Hypothesis primarily about subject matter that only a communist will appreciate (May 1968, the Paris Commune, and the GPCR). I see the culprit as insurrectionary anarchism, and more specifically the text "The Coming Insurrection." I don't know if you have read it (you can find at, but unfortunately I have. It's a dreadfully tiring read, but the thing that interested me the most was how the authors constantly use the term "communism." They use it in an entirely non-marxist way that is completely divorced from reality and historic revolutionary traditions. This text is really influential to modern insurrectionary anarchism, which is basically the bastard child of Kropotkin and postmodernism. Insurrectionary anarchists are the ones using the term "communism" in a non-marxist way, as opposed to the traditional individualist anarchist to whom the idea of communism is an anathema. It's an interesting and unfortunate development. Lucky for us insurrectionary anarchism is such a fucking joke that I doubt it withstand the test of time for much longer. .

    1. You are correct that Badiou sees the Paris Commune as an event that represents a break from the past, but this has to do with his theory of *the event* (first conceptualized in Being and Event) and does not at all undermine his claim, according to his own ontology at least, of an eternal idea of communism. Badiou, for all his strengths/uses, is also a proud neo-Platonist.

      Yeah, I was thinking about the Invisible Committee and their book (or, prior to that, the Tikkun Group that became the Invisible Committee) after I wrote this piece. Funny thing is, I was critiquing them (and groups like them) in something else I was writing at the time and probably should have drawn the connection––I forgot about the part(s) where they openly claim the word communism but do so in a way that wants to divorce it from historical communist revolutions.

    2. Interesting. I figured there was a lot drawn from Badiou's previous philosophical works in The Communist Hypothesis, so I sort of just read-without-fully-comprehending those parts. I was mainly interested in his dissection of the GPCR and May 1968, which I think are quite good. His analysis of the Paris Commune was interesting, but I was kind of bothered by it at the same time. I mean, he claims that the leninist model of the party state failed and that the Paris Commune holds some sort of significance as an alternative. Ironically, one of the primary reasons for the failure of the Commune was its lack of the kind of organization that the leninist model provides. It's sort of small potatoes though, because I ultimately agree that the leninist model of the party state isn't enough. I just find find the solution in Maoism, which I guess Badiou does too but in a weird, kind of backward way.

  4. Found this quote by Engels:

    "Communism among the French and Germans, Chartism among the English, now no longer appeared as something accidental which could just as well not have occurred. These movements now presented themselves as a movement of the modern oppressed class, the proletariat, as the more or less developed forms of its historically necessary struggle against the ruling class, the bourgeoisie; as forms of the class struggle, but distinguished from all earlier class struggles by this one thing, that the present-day oppressed class the proletariat, cannot achieve its emancipation without at the same time emancipating society as a whole from division into classes and, therefore, from class struggles. And Communism now no longer meant the concoction, by means of the imagination, of an ideal society as perfect as possible, but insight into the nature, the conditions and the consequent general aims of the struggle waged by the proletariat."
    Engels, On the History of the Communist League (1885)

    I feel it is completely relevant, so sorry for necro-commenting.

    1. Funny enough, I was actually looking for this quote when I wrote this piece but I couldn't remember its phrasing precisely or what piece it was located in… Thanks for hunting it down!


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