posted by David Adams on Mon 16th Aug 2004 17:44 UTC

"Section 2"
Open source fanatics are communists. Just as in public discourse, all topics of disagreement seem to eventually degrade into someone calling someone else a Nazi, disparagement of the free software movement seems to be inescapably drawn to a comparison with communism.

The quote I highlighted earlier doesn't explicitly call open source proponents communists, as such statements often do, but it does ascribe a foolish, perhaps inadvertent, anti-capitalist, anti-progress bent to open source philosophy. Now, to be fair, some open source proponents are anti-capitalist. Many are socialists at heart, and some may even be bona-fide communists. But even though extremists on both sides of the issue might stress (for positive or negative purposes) that open source software supports an anti-capitalist agenda, carefully considered evidence just doesn't support the claim, and the non-extremists that make up the majority should reject that characterization vigorously.

Let's dwell for a moment on the "communistic" aspect of the free software ideology. Again, I will not deny that some proponents of free software do, in fact, share some ideological common ground with Communist thinkers. For the sake of clarity, let's leave the failed experiment of Soviet "Communism" out of this for a moment and focus on the theoretical (and apparently impractical) ideas proposed by Marx and other early 20th century philosophers.

So the radical fringe of the free software movement, Richard Stallman being the most prominent, can somewhat fairly be compared with the Communists of the 1930s

According to my understanding, the essence of philosophical Communism is that modern history is defined by lopsided power relationships, with a large poor class oppressed by a rich ruling class, and these groups are in struggle. Communism claims that society is evolving, with some kind of historical inevitability, toward the common person having more freedom and power. In this view, capitalism was an incremental improvement over Feudalism, allowing some of the oppressed to rise up and become oppressors themselves, but it will give way to Socialism and eventually Socialism will give way to Communism in some sort of inevitable progression. Control of the working class by a moneyed elite will be supplanted by a benevolent caretaker state that will enforce equality and grant power and freedom to the common people, and eventually those people will be able to administer to themselves, the state will cease to be necessary, and everyone will receive according to their need. All work will be done for the good of the community through an enlightened volunteer effort. Thus the continual class struggle will end in a kind of worker's utopia. It all sounds pretty unlikely to our modern, jaded sensibilities, but back in the 1930's I guess it sounded like it was worth a shot, since the transition to Capitalism had brought about terrible suffering in much of the world.

What really happened, of course, when this philosophy was put into practice was that the state that was empowered to administer this glorious change found it difficult to enforce these ideals on the common people it was supposed to help. So it established an authoritarian machine to force the ideals on them "for their own good." That machine almost instantaneously became corrupt because of humanity's love of power, and the state that was supposed to wither away only became stronger and more authoritarian until it collapsed under its own weight.

The more radical elements of the open source software "movement" share an important element of this philosophy: utopianism and a belief in people's willingness to volunteer their labors for the common good. And like the early Communists, these people may have initially been driven by a naive view of human nature. The truth is, well-educated software engineers with good earning potential aren't going to dedicate hours upon hours of time for some idealistic pipe-dream. Just as the people in the "worker's paradise" of Communism turned out to not be so interested in "volunteering" their toil in the factories and mines so that a bunch of freeloading intellectuals in the cities can receive food and housing "according to their needs" while they compose sonnets about the valiant struggles of the working class.

If the nascent free software movement had turned out to be all about a utopian vision of sharing and pretty flowers, it would have gone nowhere. Unlike communism, free software was not about a life-controlling government, and Richard Stallman was never appointed dictator, so nobody could ever be forced to take part. Why did people do it, then?

Table of contents
  1. "Section 1"
  2. "Section 2"
  3. "Section 3"
  4. "Section 4"
  5. "Section 5"
  6. "Section 6"
  7. "Section 7"
  8. "Section 8"
  9. "Section 9"
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