I can still recall some of the first things I learned about "Communism" in elementary school. According to what we were taught, "Communism" was supposed to be a system which did not reward hard work. We discussed the parable of the ant and the grasshopper, where we were encouraged to conclude that the upshot of the story was that the productive should flourish and the lazy should perish. Since capitalism allegedly exemplified this moral principle of just reward for hard work—never mind that this is totally false—we were supposed to prefer it to "Communist" systems that rewarded the lazy and stultified the diligent.
A close corollary of this teaching was that socialism is little more than a "politics of envy". That is, since socialism is the institutionalization of the principle that the lazy shall be rewarded and the productive shall be punished, it follows that the main motivation to adopt socialist politics must be envy. The poor, the oppressed, the exploited masses of workers are just jealous of what their allegedly hard-working wealthy counterparts have amassed. Everyone wants the same thing, the story goes, and that thing is rather simple: maximum consumption. The only difference, then, between workers and the ruling classes is that the former is denied high levels of consumption whereas the latter is not. Socialists and defenders of capitalism therefore agree that the basic goal of society—whether its socialist or capitalist—should be maximum production and endless consumption for its own sake. Socialism appears here as little more than a leveling down maneuver that aims to realize a certain patterned distribution of material goods. Equality—or, more specifically, possessive equality—appears to reign supreme.
But what has this to do with genuine socialism as Marx himself described it? Nothing whatsoever. In fact, this picture is precisely what Marx excoriated as "crude communism".
Now, to be fair, this image of socialism as conforming to the basic goals of capitalist society, as aiming at consumption and possession, does describe the basic contours of the Stalinist system rather well. But that is no stain on the socialist ideal—it is simply one further reason to think that those state capitalist regimes had nothing to do with socialism properly understood.
Marx weighs in against "crude communism" in many different places, among them in the Manifesto, the Critique of the Gotha Program and in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. Let's examine what he says about "crude communism" in the latter text:
"[In crude communism] the domination of material property looms so large that it aims to destroy everything which is incapable of being possessed by everyone as private property. It wishes to eliminated talent, etc. by force. Immediate physical possession seems to it the unique goal of life and existence. The role of worker is not abolished but is extended to all men. The relation of private property remains the relation of the community to the world of things. Finally, this tendency to oppose general private property to private property is expressed in animal form; marriage (which is incontestably a form of exclusive private property) is contrasted with the "community of women", in which women become communal and common property. One may say that this idea of the community of women is the open secret of this entirely crude and unreflective communism. Just as women are to pass from marriage to universal prostitution, so the whole world of wealth is to pass to the relation of universal prostitution with the community. This communism, which negates the personality of man in every sphere, is only the logical expression of private property, which is this negation. Universal envy setting itself up as a power is only a camouflaged form of cupidity which reestablishes itself and satisfies itself in a different way. The thoughts of every individual private property are at least directed against any wealthier private property, in the form of envy and the desire to reduce everything to a common level; so that this envy and leveling in fact constitute the essence of competition. Crude communism is only the culmination of such envy and leveling-down on the basis of a preconceived minimum. How little this abolition of private property represents a genuine appropriation is shown by the abstract negation of the whole world of culture and civilization, and the regression to the unnatural simplicity of the poor and wantless individual who has not only not surpassed private property but has not yet even attained it. The community is only a community of work and of equality of wages paid out by the communal capital, by the community as universal capitalist. The two sides of the relation are raised to a supposed universality; labor as a condition in which everyone is placed, and capital as the acknowledged universality and power of the community."This critique of "crude communism" is as much a searing indictment of contemporary capitalism as it is an indictment of the state capitalism of the Stalinist regimes. Let's take a close look at specific passages to get clearer on what Marx's socialism is and is not.
First, Marx is not arguing for a leveled, conformist society in which personality and individuality are obliterated. Neither does he stand for a society in which people are not able to develop their talents, cultivate their natural powers, and develop their full potential; on the contrary, the basic aim of a socialist society would be to fully realize these goals. For Marx, it is a profound problem with capitalist societies that "immediate physical possession seems to it the unique goal of life and existence." That is, rather than placing human development at the center, capitalism privileges having and possessing capital at the forefront. Profit trumps human flourishing whenever the two come into conflict (which is often) in capitalism. But Marx's argument against crude communism here is that it doesn't depart from the basic aim of capitalist societies. It merely reproduces them in a slightly different form.
What's more, Marx argues that in "crude communism", "the role of worker is not abolished but is extended to all men. The relation of private property remains the relation of the community to the world of things." There are two deep insights here. First, Marx didn't think that socialism had to do with increasing workers' standard of living, winning better working conditions, shorter work hours, etc. Of course, Marx was for all of these reforms, but he didn't think that they were enough. For Marx, socialism is about full working class self-emancipation—which is equivalent to the worker's self-abolition of her status as worker. That means abolishing the division labor characteristic of capitalism—especially the sharp division between mental and physical labor—and fundamentally restructuring the organization of socially necessary labor. A socialist society, for Marx, is precisely not one in which workers are simply treated better by the bosses than they are in capitalist societies. On the contrary, a socialist society is one in which there are no bosses, no workers as such, indeed no classes at all. No group would enjoy exclusive ownership and control of the social means of production and no group would be dispossessed from it. No propertied group would be in a position to rule over those without property. In short, socialism would not mean leveling-down all to the status and social position of the worker in capitalist societies. It would be a qualitative break from the present in which human development and genuine individuality were possible for all.
The second deep insight is that crude communism preserves the possessive, reifying tendency of capitalism. In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels complain that capitalism has torn asunder traditional (i.e. feudal) social relations, norms, practices and rituals with the result that the fundamental bond between individuals consists of little more than cold cash transactions. The point isn't that we should be nostalgic for feudal social formations; the argument is that capitalism tends to colonize human relations, leisure, recreation, even family and "private" life. These spheres come to be ruled by the basic coordinates of capitalist property relations, with money as the mediator and accumulation of profit as the basic aim. To be sure, the colonization and commodification of these domains isn't total or all-encompassing. But one only needs to think of the ways in which Christmas has been packaged, commodified and transformed into a orgy of consumption to see that Marx was on to something here.
Neither is genuine socialism (or genuine communism—I draw no principled distinction here) about "abstractly negating" (a Hegelian concept) all culture and "civilization". On the contrary, it would represent a "determinate negation" within the history of culture and civilization, a dialectical maneuver that takes stock of what is good and true in the present while negating what is false in the act of going beyond it. It would draw on the promise of the elements of existing progressive culture as leverage to forge something new.
This brings us to envy. Envy usually has the form of resenting someone for having something (a good, a status, an ability, an office, etc.) that you wish you had. It is not to be confused with wishing that you had your needs met—envy is about resenting a particular person (or group of persons) who have something you lack but wish you had. Thus, it's often enough, as far as the envious impulse is concerned, that that person is cut down to your level. This kind of sentiment surely simmers underneath those workers who resent other workers for having better pensions or wages. On the other hand, to envy a capitalist, from the perspective of a worker, would be basically to wish you were in their shoes. But the goal of collective working-class liberation is incompatible with the individualist urge to leave the class to join the small clique of rulers. Envy, then, is certainly not a revolutionary impulse. It does not brush against the grain of exploitation and oppression. Nor is it like the sort of righteous anger that we feel toward oppressors of all kinds. Envy is a self-regarding, possessive impulse that is based on avarice. It is a police concept—something that is essential if one wishes to artificially ensure that everyone is off in their own respective corner consuming equal amounts of stuff.
But socialism is not in the first instance about ensuring that everyone earns exactly the same income or possesses exactly the same amount of stuff. Negatively, socialism is a society in which there are no social relations of domination: no exploitation, no oppression, no high and mightiness, no bowing and scraping. Positively, socialism is a free community of equals, or, if you like, freely associated producers who, through organization and democratic self-governance, put human development first. Socialism is about making the flourishing of all human beings the basic priority of social production—not private profit.
This is all a way of saying that envy has no basic place in the argument for socialism. We shouldn't want to be socialists because we're jealous of the nice cars and mansions that the ruling class lavish themselves with. We should be socialists because we cannot tolerate a system in which a small class dominates, oppresses and exploits the majority—all for the sake of the endless accumulation of capital. Envy presupposes the competitive, possessive mindset we are encouraged to adopt in capitalism. Thus, it has no legitimate place in a socialist society.