Plato’s Theory of Communism



Plato’s theory of communism is just opposite to Marxian theory of communism that seeks to eventually establish a classless and hence stateless society, as according to it the state is instrument of the domination in the hands of ruling classes. Plato’s theory of communism that is used as one of instruments of consolidation of the hierarchically ‘well ordered’ state through perpetuating class-division and class-domination, the other instrument being the education. Plato’ Republic seeks to establish justice, i.e. the ideal state where the philosophers, selflessly, rule over the masses involved in the material production of the society, with the help of the armed auxiliaries. Plato’s theory of communism is based on his belief of corrupting influences of family and property over people holding the public offices that remains a historic fact and continuing norm. It is aimed at freeing the ruling classes, i.e. the philosophers and the warriors from the institutions of family and property. The vast producing masses are kept out of the realm of communism that applies to only ruling classes – the philosophers and the warriors. The longings for family and property make the rulers self-seeking, indulgent, greedy and hence corrupt that is a diversion from and impediment to appropriate performance of their duty to rule not in their own but in public interest.

Intellectuals react to and reflect upon their own time and space, i.e. their surroundings and conditions. They do not create justices/injustices, they only analyze; critique; explain; justify or challenge and provide alternative to the already existing conditions. The war torn Athens in Plato’s time was in miserable conditions, the polis (city-state) to which Plato belonged, was divided into two cities, the city of the rich and the city of the poor and the rich could influence the politics through money power and the rich could influence the politics through money power. Sophists, “the roving universities” were professional teacher and would teach the children for a fee that only rich could afford. There were no public educational institutions. The main subjects taught were eloquence and oratory and the demagogues were influence the public opinion. Corruption was quite rampant as is clear from the fact that Plato and other pupils of Socrates had bribed the civil and jail officials to facilitate his escape from the jail but Socrates had refused to. The status of women was miserable as in any patriarchal society. They were forced by the custom to be consumed in domestic chorus and child rearing.  Plato recognized the potential talent of women that was being wasted in marriage and the girls were married off in childhood itself as was the case prevalent in India till few decades and child marriage still prevails in many regions and communities. They were deprived of their public presence and were merely instruments of sexual satisfaction of husbands and looking after kitchen and children. Hence his theory of communism seeks to abolish the institutions of property and family among the ruling classes to keep them incorruptible and dedicated to governance.

The Communism of Property 

The gist of Plato’s communism is deprivation of all the members of the ruling classes, the guardians and soldiers from having any private property including private house, land or gold and silver (wealth). Their survival needs shall be taken care by the commodities collected from the producing classes in the form of taxes. They shall live in the state managed barracks and eat in the common mess.  Plato’s communism is ascetic and aristocratic simultaneously. As has been already mentioned, the communism applies for only ruling classes and not for producing masses. The private ownership of property by ruling classes is to be replaced by their collective ownership of property and collective domination over the producing masses under the direction of philosopher king with the coercive apparatus of the armed auxiliaries.  The ruling classes are forced to leave the longing for gold and silver and also of private wives in the larger interest of the state. According to him those classes which have the qualities of gold and silver within, need not external silver or gold. They are the servants of the people and not the masters, a contradiction in terms. This duality of theory and practice continues in modern democracies as the ruling parties and leaders despite their all kinds of uses and misuses of power claim to be servants of the people. They shall be paid no salary or allowances, their essential needs shall be taken by the state. The longing for property corrupts the rulers and makes them greedy and selfish that would lead to instability of the state. Also involvement of rulers into economic activities shall be a deviation from their role and commitment to the justice, i.e. to serve the people by way of maintaining the class-divided social order. Also, in his opinion, family and property were the chief sources of disunity and social tension.

Plato’s arguments in defense of abolition of the institution of property among the ruling classes are not economic in terms of the nature of ownership of means of production and exchange, but moral, political and psychological. According to his basic assumptions of human nature and the principle of functional specialization, he opines on the moral grounds that everyone must accomplish one’s nature of achieving the requisite end by transcending self-interest. Contrary to the Sophist view that one exists and acts in the self-interest, Plato hold that individuals do not exist and act as individuals in the self-interest but exist as parts of collectivity (state) and must subordinate the self-interest to the collective. As the theory of communism is a corollary of the theory of justice of which the non-interference is one of the specific features, Philosophers and soldiers must not interfere in the economic activities, the prerogative of the ruled classes – the producing classes. Therefore it is imperative on the classes of philosophers that they selflessly devote themselves to their duties of ruling.

The philosophers and warriors are the embodiments of the cardinal virtues, wisdom and courage respectively; therefore they must save themselves from getting trapped into lowly faculty – the apatite, the desires and passions are whose mean attributes. Appetite would blunt their reason or spirit and disturb the balanced equilibrium of the relationship between individual and the collectivity that would be detrimental to justice. Moreover the rulers are endowed with the inner qualities of gold and silver respectively and must not long for the external gold and silver. Plato during his visit to Egypt was impressed by his observation that the clergymen living ascetic life were the revered rulers. In India the supposedly ascetic priests enjoyed superior status in deciding the socio-political code of conduct. Hence he finds the discipline of communism essential for proper just conduct of rulers. He is pragmatic in concluding that combination of political and economic power in the same hands is a deadly combination, destined to lead to corruption, dissention and hence instability of state. Philosophically, people equipped with specific virtues of wisdom and courage must emancipate themselves from worldly longings and lead exemplary disciplined lives of the principles of communism. Plato’s primary purpose of abolition of private property among the ruling classes is political, i.e. stability of his Ideal state. The communism applies only to the ruling classes, a miniscule minority of the population. Plato’s belief that wealth has a corrupting influence on politics hence the rulers must be deprived of it, to the extent that the words ‘mine’ and ‘yours’ disappear from their vocabulary.

Communism of Wives

“…if the difference consists only in women bearing and men begetting children, this does not amount to a proof that a woman differs from men in respect of the sort of education she should receive; and we shall therefore continue to maintain that our guardians [and] their wives ought to have the same pursuits.” [Ebenstein] In the book V of Republic, Socrates first convincingly proves the equality of women with men after considering all the possible objections and arguments and arrives at the conclusion of the need of abolition of family. This was a revolutionary novel idea to his time where women were married in childhood and confined in to four walls of family and domestic chorus all their life. On the question of women striping off in front men exercising with them, Socrates, though stops short of absolute equality on the ground of perceived weakness of the physical strength, yet placed in its historical context, it is an insignificant. “The wives of our guardians, then, must strip for exercise, since they will be clothed with virtue and they must take their share in war and in other social duties of guardianship. They are to have no other occupation; and in these duties, the lighter part must fall on the women because of the weakness of their sex. ………”. Plato in a way pleads for women’s emancipation from patriarchal family on the ground of their equality with men in all aspects if given the same conditions of bringing up, education and opportunities. Therefore confining women into domestic chorus was wasting half of the potential social talent. “So far then in regulating the positions of women, we may claim to have come safely through one hazardous proposition that male and female guardians shall have all occupations in common. The consistency of the argument is an assurance that the plan is good and also feasible. …. .” And henceforth he moves to argue the indispensable need to abolish the institution of family itself for the ruling classes. His student, Aristotle, was furious over his giving away the “historic victory” of mankind in “enslaving women”, while declaring, “Dear is Plato, but dearer ids the truth”.

The nomenclature, ‘communism of wives’ does not suite the content that is not about arrangement of ‘wives’ among the ‘husbands’ but abolition of the institution of family itself for the Guardians. There is no privacy and no scope of individual men and women forming any regular or permanent bond. Plato argues the abolition of family on two counts. First argument Family, according to him is linked with property and is equally distractive and corrupting as property. The rulers must not waste time and energy in familial responsibility but devote themselves in the invention of the truth, i.e. in the comprehension of the Idea of Good. Before coming to his idea of the regulated sexual intercourse and unique eugenics, let us quickly glance through Plato’s arguments against the family of guardians, apart from wastage of female social potentialities.

  • The emotive and impulsive attachment to the family fetters the absolute devotion to the state and concern for their offspring causes selfish tendencies detrimental to social unity and harmony.
  • Family education is limited and inappropriate to instill the sense of absolute commitment to the state in future guardians.
  • Family is hurdle for women’s equal education and function as guardians and hence an obstruction in their emancipation.
  • Abolition of the institutions of marriage and family is essential for the moral development of guardians. Due to marriage men and women carelessly indulge into sexual intercourse, whenever they wish to instead of controlled and disciplined sex to produce worthy children.
  • The maintenance of family needs wealth implying that the involvements of the guardians in economic activities interfering into the realm of economic producers deviating from their political duties in violation of the principle of justice.

After critiquing the family, Plato proposes his new scheme, “…. A law that follows from that principle (male and female guardians having all occupations in common) and all that has gone before , namely that, of these guardians, no one man and one woman have to set up house together privately: wives have to be held in common by all; so too are the children. No parent is to know his own child or any child his parent.” All the children are brothers and sisters and all adults are their mothers and fathers. Aristotle had pejoratively comments that he would happier to have even one distant cousin than hundreds of brothers and sisters. Plato recommends discipline of asceticism not celibacy. The Ideal state would need future guardians. Plato recommends a state regulated sexual association of men and women on festive occasions for procreation and not for pleasure. “The worthy men and women, who have special accomplishments in the service of state must be coupled together more often for superior offspring’s.  Plato’s this scheme is based on his genetic misconception, “bad crow lays bad eggs”. “….. . If we have to keep our folk at the highest pitch of excellence, there should be as much union of the best of both the sexes and as few of the inferior as possible and the offspring of the better unions should be kept (as guardians). And no one else but Rulers must know how all this is being effected; otherwise out herd of guardians may become rebellious.” Rest will be “thrust out among the artisans and farmers”. The paring is done at festive occasions with all the enthusing activities of poetry and songs (befitting the occasion) and of course prayers and sacrifices. For the best unions the Ruler should intelligently maneuver the draw of lots. “They would have to invent some ingenious system of drawing lots, so that at each pairing off the inferior would blame his luck not the Rulers.” Plato undermines the emotive and impulsive aspects of human personality and subordinates them to rational aspects and considers sex not as a human need but only a instrument to produce future guardians. Let us conclude this discussion before going into their merits and demerits with a long quotation from the Republic (book V):

“As soon as children are born, they will be taken by officers appointed for the purpose, who may be men or women or both, because offices are to be shared by both the sexes. The children of the better parents they take to crèche to be reared in the care of nurses living apart in certain quarter of the city. The children of inferior parents and any children of the rest that are defective are hidden away in some appropriate manner that must be kept secret.” It is to be noted that infanticide of defective children was practiced at Sparta. What a unique eugenic theory and family planning scheme! “They must be if the breed of our guardians is to be kept pure”

In lieu of a conclusion

Ernest Barker calls Platonic communism as half communism. “It affects less than half of the persons and less than half of the goods of the society to which it belongs.” Barker’s quantification is very generous it does not apply to even hundredth of the population. Moreover, slavery, the specific feature of the Greek glory is completely missing from the discourse. Either slavery is abolished in his Ideal State or Plato finds slavery so insignificant and taken for granted, in that was not worth reckoning. In case of the first probability, he never tells about how was it abolished and nothing happens on its own, according to the Newton’s law. His theory applies to only a parasitic (non-producers), miniscule minority of rulers, who rule over the vast majority of economic producers and traders, who in the then contemporary Athens were free and equal citizens with the right to participate in legal and juridical deliberations. If the Ideal State was to be established in the then Athens, it would have involved de-enfranchisement of the entire free male population and disbanding the families of the first band of rulers. When he talks of the unity and the purity of the state he simply means the unity of the ruling classes so that the philosopher kings could consolidate their rule over the producing masses with the help of the armed auxiliary. If the property and family are the corrupting influence and vices for the ruling classes, why not free the entire population of these vices?

Plato’s concept of sexuality not as a normal human attribute and need but simply as a tool of procreation of future rulers, whereas the toiling masses are left without education and subordinated to be fooled by myths  and illustrations, like the myth of metals. There is no scheme of upward mobility of the lower classes, though there is scope for downward mobility, as we have seen above that offspring of inferior couples and those born by unauthorized coupling are secretly thrust over the producing community, if not abandoned or buried in some remote corner. After through education and elimination tests, by way of meritocracy, Plato talks about taking to state crèche and state nursery only the legitimate children born out of state sponsored and manipulated temporary marriages. The Republic is silent about the education of the children of producing masses, condemned to remain deprived of Platonic scheme of education and the Ideal State practically turn out to be an aristocracy without private families and property, living in a commune unified domination  over, and extract surplus from the economic classes, the producers and the traders. Plato’s idea of abolishing the institution of family would have been a welcome gesture had it not been qualified by so many regulations restrictions and manipulations over sexual intercourse between garrisoned elite men and women, not for mutual feelings, pleasure and passions, is dehumanizing and mechanizing the emotive humane sensibilities under his superstitious genetic assumption, “bad crow”. His eugenics and family planning proposals are unique but cruel to physically handicapped and illegal children. Also he has no scheme for abolition of family, as an idealist he begins from scratch and in theoretically constructing the Ideal, i.e. from the perspective of the circumstances of his own choice and not in the given circumstances, transmitted from the past. Out of ignorance of genetic and biological laws, he links the restrained and regulated sexuality with one’s moral development that is not product of the biological accident of birth. His student and first critic criticizes the common ownership of property and abolition of family, for wrong reasons, there is scope here to go into details here. The family is certainly a conservative institution that breeds unfreedoms and inequalities but abrupt abolition of family would not be readily accepted and would lead to socio-economic anarchy. To abolish the family, a particular form and level of consciousness in needed. The first step towards it would be democratizing the family by rejecting the patriarchal social values and sense of possessiveness. This would be possible only in a classless society of human emancipation and not in a hierarchical society of class consolidation.

Though he allows theoretical equality to men but contradicts himself by his so many remarks in Republic and elsewhere. For instance, “I am fortunate to be born as a free man not a slave; a man and not a woman….” Apart from his acknowledgement that women are physically weaker (Rep.  V, 170), at places he brackets them with the duffers and slaves (IX 341). He advises the superior men not only against following the example of rascals and criminals but also not that of women (II, 96-97). The sinner men of this life are born as women in the other. (V, 195-96). Everything said and done, despite his regressive notions of transcendence of soul, paradoxes in his views on women and restricting this equality only to the ruling class women, given his historical context, Plato’s views on women’s equality are quite radical, as a text can be better understood by placing it into the appropriate context.


Comparison with modern Communism – the Marxian Communism

Comparison between two diverse things belonging to different time and space separated by over 2,000 years is not only inconvenient but also irrelevant. Plato was writing in a time and space characterized by slavery in democratic Athens aimed at creation of ‘meritocracy’ based classes and at replacing the democratic governance with an Ideal State ruled by the wise (and only few are endowed with the ability to it) with the help of its armed auxiliaries. The aim of his communism was to consolidate the class rule by keeping the members of the ruling class united by freeing/depriving them of the private family and property that has been discussed above. Marx was writing in the time and space characterized by industrial capitalism and wage slavery, aimed at eventually ending the class differences completely leading to a classless society, based on the basic principle of equality of human dignity, which shall make the state unnecessary and shall wither away. In the stateless society, the management of the people shall be replaced by management of things. The communism of Plato is means to consolidate the hierarchical social ordering, in Marxian communism; there is no hierarchy except the hierarchy of knowledge, the technical hierarchy based on functional specialization, for coordinating the collective labour processes. Karl Popper wrote Open Society and its Enemies (Vol. 1, The Spell of Plato & Vol.2, The Spell of Marx) in 1945, in the aftermath of the 2nd World War and emergence of the USSR as world power representing an alternative model of economic development and governance to capitalism. It is to be noted that that in 1945 there was no danger of Plato’s Totalitarian Communism of Plato’s Ideal State ruled by the Philosopher but the danger of the Marxian Communism ruled by the proletariat themselves through their collective organization into a communist party. After the Bolshevik revolution, The Ten Days That Shook The World (John Reed) and foundation of the Third International – The Communist International (Comintern), most of the capitalist countries had Communist Parties with substantial influence among workers, teachers and students. It is also to be noted that when the capitalist world was reeling under the great depression, USSR beginning from the scratch under the state controlled planned development not only remained unaffected but also emerged as a big economic and military power. Hence the threat of the communist danger, Popper thought, could be combated by vilifying its ideological basis the – Marxism – by describing it as Totalitarian. For doing so, he invents the historical links of totalitarian philosophies from Plato to Marx via Rousseau.

Perceived Similarities

However let us quickly look into the similarities and differences pointed out by those who have compared the two.

  • Both give priority to the state over individual but we know that Marxian communism is a stateless society; the state of dictatorship of proletariat is only a transitional phase, the state of political emancipation, on the way to communism, the state of human emancipation.
  • Both consider individual interest to be safest in the collective social interest.  But social interest for Plato is the interest of the ruling classes to which it exclusively applies and the social interest for Marx is the interest of the vast producing masses.
  • Some point out that both recommend the abolition of the private property as source of vices. This is a mistaken analogy. Plato recommends abolition of private party among the rulers enable their united control over the producing masses. Marxian communism seeks to end the ownership and the control of the ruling classes over the means of production and overall economic activities and transfer it the producers, the working class.
  • Another point of similarity is state controlled education but Plato’s educational process is a regimented one aimed at training the ruling classes while under the state of proletarian dictatorship, there would uniform and compulsory school education for all and higher education according to one’s aptitude and choice.
  • Another point of similarity is suggested creation of society free from exploitation, tension and conflict that would be based on the principles of fraternity, solidarity and harmony. But here again as Plato’s communism is applicable to only ruling classes and Marx’s universally.
  • Both emphasize the unity but Plato’s unity is hierarchical, whereas Marxism emphasizes the unity of working classes to end the ruling class hegemony.

These are few untenable points of similarity, while differences are basic and fundamental, let us quickly overview them too.


A. Historically, as pointed out above both ate historically placed at different time-spaces. Plato’s theory is based on logical explanation of history and Marx’s on the economic in terms of dominant modes of production. Plato’s theory is meant for 4th century BC small city states and Marx’s communism is an alternative to capitalism that has a global character and hence the communism to is global, that is why Marx called for the unity of the workers of the world.

B. Philosophically, Plato’s theory is based on spiritual idealist principles consequent to his basic assumptions about eternity, transcendence and the trilogy of the soul, whereas Marx’s is based on the principles of dialectical materialism linked with historical materialism that could be empirically verified. Plato locates the reality in the invisible Idea of Good and Marx in the visible matter. For Plato, the visible world is a shadow of world of ideas, the Real Reality existing beyond the time and space, the progenitor of the world of objects. That is to say Plato accords primacy to ideas over object but according to Marxism, historically objects have existed without ideas and historically ideas have emanated from the object. Hence primacy lies with the object, which in a dialectic unity with its idea forms the totality of the reality. According to Plato, truth and moralities are eternal and objective but Marxism does not recognize any final truth, the concept of which varies according to time and space. The moral values are created and perpetuated in the class interest of the ruling classes. Both believe in dialectics and dialectical composition of nature and theuniverse but Marx’s reference point is not Platonic but Hegelian dialectics, which he put upside down, as it stands on the head. Platonic dialectics aims at invention of truth the one in many; the permanent in the changing world and the comprehension of the “Idea of Good” that cannot be defined but only contemplated. Marxian dialectics aims at the comprehension and interpretation of the contradictions of the system and the dynamics of the quantitative evolutionary and qualitative revolutionary changes. Plato believes in the eternity of the reality, Marx, like Heraclitus, believes in the eternity of the change; and historically proves that continuous, evolutionary, quantitative changes, in course of time mature into revolutionary qualitative changes, leading to overall transformation of economic, political and intellectual structures. There is no scope here to go into the details of the dialectical materialism, which says that anything that exists is destined to perish and capitalism is no excsption. End of Plato’s philosophy is justice that means a well ordered class society and that of Marx’s science is annihilation of the classes, as there cannot be justice in a class society based on the perpetuation of class exploitation. Plato contemplates the rule of philosopher king and Marx termed philosophy as ideology and reserves more respectable term science for his critique of the political economy.

 Politically, Plato’s communism is for the purity of ruling classes to competently maintain the well-ordered class rule whereas Marxian communism for the establishment of the dictatorship of proletariat through sustained class struggle and eventually for a classless, stateless society.

Economically, Plato deprives the ruling classes from property to uncorrupted efficient class rule over the producing classes, Marxism seeks to abolish the private ownership of the means of production and replace it with the collective ownership of the producers, themselves.

Plato’s society is a class society with ruling classes practicing communism of property and wives, Marxian communism is a classless society in which men and women live as equal comrades.

Thus we can conclude the theories of communism of Plato cannot be compared as both of them not only belong to two distant time and spaces but also have contrasting prmises, one is idealist and other propounded the theory of historical materialism.

Ish Mishra, Associate Professor, Dept. of Political Science, Hindu College, University of Delhi. He blogs at Radical where this article first appeared. 

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