“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.”
— Acts 4:32
A communist society would be a community where all members agree on two basic rules: first, anybody able to work would voluntarily do its best to produce goods and services for the community and second, all members of the society would adopt a frugal lifestyle, consuming only what they really need. In such a society, private property — of the means of production and even of everything else — is pointless and you therefore don’t need markets or money. But the most important feature of communism, the key aspect that distinguish it from socialism is that such a society would be based on voluntarism. Communism is a stateless society where social cooperation is neither driven by individual interests nor by state coercion but by a common will to contribute to the well-being of the overall community.
To be sure, the Soviet Union has never, at any point of its history, been a communist society. It was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, a system that was entirely based on state coercion. In the original Marxist project, socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat was the intermediate phase between capitalism and communism. Communism was the final destination — at least officially — and socialism was the way to get there. But as a matter of fact, former USSR just like all the attempts to build a communist society remained stuck in the inferior phase of the process: brutal, totalitarian, socialist regimes. Rewording Trotsky’s famous analogy, the chrysalis never turned into a butterfly.
But does that really mean that communism, as they say, has never been tried? Certainly not: communism or, at least, some form of communism have been tried since the early childhood of human societies, it still exists today and, as far as I know, it seems to be working fairly well… but only on small scale. One of the very best example I could come up with are hutterite colonies. Save for the religious aspect (I know, I know…), these people live under communism or, at least, something very close to communism. They own virtually everything in common, they only use money to trade with the outside — capitalist — world and community management is ensured by three elected leaders. And guess what? Some of these communities in North America have worked that way for more than a century and they are flourishing!
So what’s happening there? Why don’t we have any example of workable, large-scale communist societies while smaller communities seems to live and flourish that way?
Well, here is what I think: when you build a communist society, you have to find a way to coordinate everybody’s efforts without using individual incentives and with a minimum of coercion. That is, you must define common objectives — should we make pencils or not? — and make sure nobody will try to free-ride the rest of the community — working less than they could or consuming more than they need. Well this is far from being easy and I think that the most efficient way to achieve this — and maybe the only way — is to make sure that everybody in the community knows everybody. That is, a workable communist society should be based on a close-knit network of personal relationships.
The thing is there is a hard limit to the size of such communities. It’s called Dunbar’s number.
The number is named after Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist, who once had the strange idea to compare primate brain size (e.g. the relative neocortex size) with average social group size and found a surprisingly robust correlation. When Dunbar extrapolated that relationship to homo sapiens, he found that the upper bound of a human group in which stable inter-personal relationships might be maintained should be close to 150. It’s a biological limit.
One way to restate Dunbar’s founding is to say that above 150 people, the coordination of a human group may not rely on personal relationships: you need to find more scalable solutions. While the British anthropologist focused on the role of language — which reduces the amount of work necessary for social grooming — to explain the gigantic size of modern days human societies, I think there is a much more straightforward explanation: we have created social organizations that simply do not rely on inter-personal relationships. There are basically two models: the coercive system (socialism) where coordination is enforced by a central body (the Gosplan) and the free market where coordination relies on the price system.
The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that’s the trick: communism is possible and may even be a highly functional system but only for small communities. As far as I know, every single communist experiment that involved more than 150 people — such as the Owenite communities — failed miserably (despites Owen’s efforts, the New Harmony experiment only lasted two years). It just cannot work because the “New Man” needed to achieve communism must not only forget his bourgeois reflexes: he also must increase his neocortical processing capacity.
Now you might wonder how Hutterites managed to maintain their social organization while their population was growing. Well that simple: whenever a colony reaches around 150 people, it splits and forms two sister colonies.