In The Republic, Plato famously argued for a communism of the ruling class. An elite of guardians freed from the distractions of private property would govern with philosophical detachment. Aristotle thought the idea was unrealistic. Plato was no mere dreamer, however. More than anything, it was Roman Catholicism that kept civilisation going in Europe’s Dark Ages. The Church as a collectivity was stupendously rich but its clergy, in theory and quite often in practice, had no property to call their own. By the 11th century, monastic communities of poor monks were clearing the wastes, planting the land and revolutionising the raising of livestock. From communal institutions grew the first shoots of European capitalism.
Individualism is assumed to be the defining feature of modernity. The ‘communist’ element of contemporary life is much understated. Whether it be the academy, the old-school-tie network, senior partnerships in businesses and the law or professional bodies, the small-group communism of elite fellowship is quite usual. Insiders have wealth and status, to be sure, but they share as equals in the privileges, duties and common property of the group.
Elite communism of this sort is usually a conspiracy against the laity and the taxpayer, who are excluded from its benefits and expected to indemnify the losses. Sometimes, however, it is taken up idealistically, as a veritable model for society. The guild socialism of early 20th-century Britain, the proponents of