Democracy vs. Communism -- why are they incompatible?


I wasn’t sure whether to post this here or in GD, but as it’s essentially a factual question I have, I figured I’d start it here. If the powers that be feel it would be more appropriate elsewhere, I of course will bow to their superior wisdom.


I am neither a political philosopher nor an economist and have been wondering lately about the Cold War-era assumption that democracy and communism are incompatible. It seems to me that democracy is a political system and true communism (and I’m thinking along the lines of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”) an economic one, so shouldn’t in theory be possible to have a communist democracy? If so, what would such a thing be like? If not, why not? Is it because communism requires a centrally-planned economy and a political system involving the kind of large-scale turnover in elected representatives that democracy entails would preclude the kind of long-term and all-inclusive planning required?

I fear these may be terribly ignorant questions to be posing, but I thought where better to pose them than at a place dedicated to fighting ignorance (even ignorance as apparently hopeless as mine)!

You are right that communism is an economic system whereas democracy is a political one. The problem that arises is that because communism requires centralized control of all resources, it inevitably leads to a totalitarian political system. Democracy is generally selfish; you can’t claim ownership of all property and begin distributing it willy-nilly when everyone is fighting in the legislatures and the courts to protect their own stuff.

What intrigues me about this is that I can see how in actuality the centrally-planned economic system has always seemed to require a totalitarian political system in order to function. And on the strength of that real-world experience, I’m willing to grant that even in theory communism cannot work without totalitarianism, although I still wish I knew enough to conduct a thought-experiment, envisioning a communist democracy. I keep wondering if it is only some sort of debased communism that leads to totalitarianism in the real world.

Does capitalism similarly require democracy in order to work? Can democracy be said in any sense to require capitalism?

No capitalism does not require democracy. There have been, and still are, numerous capitalist dictatorships.

The incompatibility between communism and democracy lies with the “from each according to his ability” clause. Most people could agree on receiving the rewards of a communist society, but it would be difficult to convince people to put in the work when what they received was disconnected from what they invested. So inevitably, coercion is required to make sure everyone is working up to their full potential.

Small-scale democratic communism has been tried in various communes. It’s not the sort of thing that attracts large numbers of people, in fact I would think that it becomes unwieldy and essentially impossible on a large scale. A few communes lasted quite a while, most fell prey to human nature and disbanded.

The early Christian communities were communist. Read Acts of the Apostles. Everything belonged to the group as a whole, and the leaders made sure that stuff was distributed as needed.

The problem, as Gary T suspects, is that this kind of community becomes unweildy on a large-scale. The people living in such a community must all be willing to contribute. Once you get to a national level (or even to the level of a large town), you start to get a lot of deadbeats who don’t want to pull their weight.

It is easy to be truly communist when you know everybody face-to-face, but if you’re in Kamchatka, why should you care if people in Leningrad say they need your wood more than you do? Indeed, how do you know they’re even telling the truth? Who are these Russians to come all the way east and tell you to live in a work camp “for the common good” while they sit around in their fancy cities? Screw them. You’ll take care of your own family.


All hail the Great Soviet Society! All hail the Workers’ Paradise!

About the question of whether capitalism requires democracy - capitalism requires economic freedom. Really, capitalism is economic freedom. And freedom doesn’t require democracy - too much democracy is detrimental to it, because the people without the wealth will vote to grab that wealth for themselves. It requires a government that guarantees freedom, and a measure of democracy is practically a decent way to get that.

Very interesting and helpful posts! Thank you all for your contributions.