veryone knows Karl Marx is the godfather of communism. Works such as The Manifesto of the Communist Party and Das Kapital have been hugely influential in the modern political realm.
Plato, on the other hand, was a Greek philosopher who produced his works more than 2,000 years ago. Along with Socrates and Aristotle, he was a pioneer of western philosophy.
But are these two thinkers closely connected? Is Plato, perhaps, an early advocate of communism?
The abolition of private property is a core part of communism. Whenever you read any of Marx’s work, you’ll come across this idea sooner rather than later:
“Modern bourgeois private property … is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few …”
A similar concept is present in The Republic by Plato, but rather than applying the abolition of private property to all of society, Plato is more specific:
“… our Guardians shall have no private property beyond the barest essentials … none of them possess a dwelling-house or storehouse to which all have not the right of entry.”
In Plato’s ideal state, the Guardians would also be forbidden to handle silver or gold, for their primary interests should not be private enterprise but the good of the whole community.
Plato is talking exclusively about the Guardian class here, a group which is made up of Rulers and Auxiliaries, who govern and protect the city respectively. These rules do not apply to everyone.
The class structure
Workers in Plato’s ideal state are allowed to own land for developing their goods as long as individuals can’t become too wealthy or too poor:
“One produces luxury and idleness and a desire for novelty, the other meanness and bad workmanship and the desire for revolution as well.”
In this sense, Plato is allowing private ownership on the condition that it be regulated by the state. This, of course, is different from Marx who wants to dispense with private property in its entirety.
What’s more, Plato’s ideal society is split into three distinctive parts: Rulers, Auxiliaries, and Workers. There’s a clear structure here that does not resemble a classless, communist society, like the one described by Marx in The German Ideology:
“In a communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes …”
Indeed, Marx was deeply critical of specialization. His vision of communism dispensed with the division of labor, leaving individuals free to pursue any activity whenever they wanted.
Plato certainly isn’t a fan of private property, and that’s putting it mildly. Like Marx, he believes individual ownership promotes selfishness and greed. And though he believes the Workers — rather than the Rulers and the Auxiliaries — should have a limited amount of private property, he doesn’t want anyone to be too rich or too poor.
However, Plato’s society has a rigid, hierarchical structure, whilst Marx’s does not. This is a fundamental difference between these two visionary philosophers, and it is misleading, therefore, to describe Plato as a communist.
Rather, Plato was one of many thinkers who inspired Karl Marx’s work.
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