The current crisis of capitalism has found the majority of the the Left offering neo-Keynesian ‘solutions’ which go no further than attempts to reinvigorate a system that is long past its sell-by date. However, those who try to promote a vision of a new social order to replace capitalism have to confront arguments that ‘There is No Alternative’ – arguments tacitly accepted by most of the Left, whose socialism remains as distant a prospect as the realisation of ‘Clause 4’ did for old Labour.
The RCN, in contrast, argues that the current crisis of capitalism means that the Left has to provide a real, viable alternative. Unless we do this, all those struggles, which inevitably occur in response to current ruling class attacks, will be self-limiting in their objectives. They will be either defeated or recuperated unless the exploited and oppressed believe that there is really an alternative way of organising society. The RCN thinks that it is time to retrieve that alternative – communism – and make it relevant once more to today’s world.
The RCN made its initial appeal for such a debate in Beyond Neo-Keynesian Props for Capital to the Abolition of Wage Slavery, by Allan Armstrong. This article first appeared in the commune (http://thecommune.co.uk/2009/08/30/beyond-props-for-capital/#more-3305). This was written in 2009 in response to the developing capitalist crisis heralded by the Credit Crunch. It contributed to the jointly sponsored first Global Commune event, held in Edinburgh in January 2011 (Report of the First Global Commune Day).
The RCN intends to publish a pamphlet on ‘What Do We Mean By Communism?. The three articles below represent work-in-progress. Others interested in this debate are welcome to contribute.
Is Communism Possible?
Communism and Human Nature
One of the more common arguments put up in relation to the question ‘Is communism possible?, goes like this: ‘Communism is great in theory but it won’t work in practice’.
The claim is made that ‘human nature’ is such that the altruism and cooperation required would not be forthcoming. In reality, altruism and cooperation are the underlying characteristics of human behaviour. It appears not to be the case because, ironically, of the perverse and parasitic nature of the very capitalism which claims, for all its faults, to truly embody the essence human nature. It is capitalism that forces competition in place of cooperation. It is capitalism that maintains patriarchy in society, that imposes working practices that are damaging to the development of healthy relationships within families, gives us the ‘rat race’ and the worship of money.
In contrast, it is communistic/cooperative relationships that have always been there in human societies that make living worthwhile. Capitalism is a parasitic economic system that sucks the life force out of us. It is the degree to which we behave in a communistic/cooperative fashion that determines the degree to which we can be human beings.
Let us look at an example from the ‘heart of the capitalist beast’, the USA. There is a huge gap (as in most countries) between the demand for organs for transplant and their supply. The capitalist ‘solution’ is to increase the price paid to donors until the supply matches demand. Two problems arise. First, those who cannot afford the price die and this is the majority of the population. Second, the majority of voters and, indeed, of capitalists themselves, are opposed on moral grounds to the sale of organs.
Yet hundreds of life-saving organ transplants are carried out every year in the USA. In 2011 an amazing chainReport in The Independent, 23 Feb 2012 involving 60 people allowed 30 lives to be saved through the altruistic donating of kidneys from 30 healthy, living people. Even more amazingly, none of these kidneys were given to a direct relative! It started with a single decision of one man to donate one of his kidneys to an unknown recipient. The recipients’ niece then felt moved to donate one of hers’ in return. Subsequently, 28 more people, wives, husbands, sisters, brothers, cousins, mothers-in-law, ex-boyfriends, friends, out of gratitude and altruism, donated a kidney to a complete stranger. The kidneys were given as a gift of life, not a commodity to be sold at a profit. This is communistic living in action in the here and now. Communism is not a future utopia, it is what sustains us today and helps us survive the distorting, parasitic economic system called capitalism. There are many examples of these human and humanising chains in other spheres of activity where no money exchanges hands, and no exploitation occurs. People with skills and trades cooperate in building each other’s houses and carrying out repairs.
In many early European settlements in the USA the people cooperated in building a schoolhouse and feeding and clothing the teacher. We forget that before capitalism, before feudalism and slavery, and in those parts of the world where these perversions (exploitative forms of social organization) never occurred, communistic/cooperative life styles were the public lifestyles. In most parts of the world today these communistic/cooperative lifestyles have been made invisible. They go under the name of the blood transfusion service, lifeboat and mountain rescue teams, good neighbour schemes, some charity work, and a host of other names that deny their essence.
The reality is that communism as a way of life is very much in existence in the here and now – if it were not for this reality, unfettered capitalism would have surely destroyed us by now. The real question is for how much longer can the underlying and latent communistic strands in our society withstand the destructive force of the capitalist economy?
We are trapped in a mind set schooled into us since birth. The Incas ripped the hearts out of children in a mistaken belief that only this would guarantee the rising of the sun. The children, their parents, the wider family, and society, had no answer to what the priests said so submitted themselves to the sacrifice. Today, we allow the heart to be ripped out of our society in the false belief that we need to ensure that profits will rise again (i.e. there will be another economic revival) because the politicians tells us so and we don’t recognise any alternative.
Communism and Abundance
In arguing for communism, one question we often face is, ‘What would a communist society look like?’ One of the many aspects we may consider when answering this question is that of Abundance. We focus on Abundance because, ultimately, if the material basis is not secured there is no sustainable society.
The basis of all societies is their ability to meet the material needs for food and shelter. Through the division of labour the earliest societies were able to build up surpluses which, today under capitalism, along with most of the land are in the control of and are the property of, a ruling class. Under their direction this surplus takes the form of huge military stockpiles, luxury cars, boats, planes and clothing, an ‘entertainment industry’ and the concomitant commoditisation of everything. The utilisation and distribution of resources to meet basic human need does not happen. When we say that communism offers the opportunity to achieve abundance, the common perception will be much distorted for the term will be understood through the refracting prism of capitalist experience and ideology. It will be taken to mean ‘as much as you want of everything you want’.
One reaction to this is Green fascism where, in response to environmental degradation, ‘environmental protection’ legitimises the strict control of human activity and levels of consumption through legal and fiscal controls. While under capitalist production these controls are necessary, perversely, under capitalism it will be those most in need who suffer the effects of any rationing. As capitalism continues on with its destructive pursuit of profit, this will lead to further environmental degradation and pollution. Corporations pass on their pollution costs to others – the polluter doesn’t pay.
Furthermore many Greens focus on the issue of overpopulation with their solution resolving down to the control of women’s fertility and their wider lives. Our view is, on the contrary, the issue of population can only be addressed when women have economic security and control of their fertility. Greens will increasingly be forced to choose between the socialist road or the fascist road. Those who see humanity at the heart of our environment will choose the former.
Before continuing with the environment and abundance, we should reflect on another dimension to the issue of abundance. Abundance could be understood both as a negative and a positive. It is the absence of poverty [having sufficient food, heating, housing, etc.] and this could define its material dimension. But abundance implies a more positive presence -‘quality of life’ and emotional security. It is here that communism might begin to differentiate itself. For quality of life we might address those aspects of the human experience more usually monopolised by religion – an understanding of ourselves individually and socially, a knowledge of ourselves biologically, emotionally and psychologically – for us the ‘spiritual’ dimension to human experience is a very human quality rather than something bestowed upon us by a deity. For us it captures the material fact that we are part of nature. It incorporates the feeling of connection to other humans and the natural world so very much denied and degraded in the atomised ‘society’ of capitalism. Do we, as communists, feel embarrassed talking about ‘these human experiences’?
Anthropological studies suggest that under conditions of abundance much of human endeavour involves communicating with others and celebrating life. Capitalism involves the whittling away of holidays and popular celebrations.
A hugely important dimension to this is human social relationships, how they are distorted under capitalism and how these relationships can be repaired and developed. Perhaps one of the more subversive activities we can advocate in the here and now is to consciously change the way we relate to each other as friends, as families and as work colleagues and for socialists to commit to actually acting in a genuinely comradely manner.
We can act like Communists now. Once everyone does this in a conscious, organised way we will be at or near a communist form of society. However, there are non-material barriers to this and this is where the insights of psychology/psychotherapy have to be integrated into our understanding and practice despite this being anathema to many on the Left. Such a conscious change would also have to include the lessons to be learned from feminism e.g. that the personal is political and that we can learn to act in an emotionally intelligent manner. We could travel even further leftfield here and talk about ‘Love’ meaning wanting to share in another’s growth, to promote their wellbeing alongside and as part of your own. Importantly, Love can be thought of as action orientated i.e. it’s what we do more than what we feel, although ideally the two should be in harmony. This aspect of abundance – an abundance of quality in human relationships – should be one of our most powerful rallying cries.
Again, it is a demand we should make in the here and now and, in fact, is an ever present, communistic/cooperative approach to life that even David Cameron supports (if only he recognised it!). We should celebrate the example of David Cameron’s attitude to his disabled son. Mr Cameron, quite rightly wanted the best that society could provide so that his son could have the best quality of life possible. In this he acted like a Communist. If we all insisted on this in an organised militant fashion capitalism would crumble overnight. If Mr Cameron had insisted that his son was not economically viable or belonged to some undesirable sub class of humanity then he would have been acting as a true representative of inhuman Capital. This example also serves to illustrate the way that the capitalism/communism struggle is not only external but goes on within ourselves. Capitalism colonises our emotions and shapes our desires. It runs right through us and so does the negation of this – as Cameron’s feelings about his son demonstrate.
Through being more in contact with who and what we actually are, the issues of ‘What is abundance and how can our environment support it?’ begin to resolve themselves. Abundance for a 12 old girl, brought up in a capitalist society, is usually about having the latest mobile phone and clothes, and all the TV, MTV, make-up and chicken burgers you want. Abundance is defined for her by the very TV shows and magazines she ‘wants’ more of and her ‘want’ is fuelled by the ads in them.
People who have attained a level of ‘at-one-ness’ or contentment seem to be free[er] from the compulsion to consume, to surround themselves with ‘things’.
This has nothing to do with vows of poverty. A real understanding of communism requires an emotional maturity toward material possessions. Capitalism beguiles us with its ‘Mountains of Things’ (from the album ‘Tracy Chapman’). Real communism is about providing a secure material base (enough) so that we can focus on individual and collective human development, self expression etc. It’s not about having and possessing. Who really needs 3 houses, 10 TVs and 4 cars? It’s about freedom from material scarcity, freedom from fear and the freedom to be and become.
Eric Fromm points to this distinction between “To Have or to Be” in his book of that name. Abundance can be seen as freedom – freedom from cravings that can never be satisfied, freedom from spending enormous amounts of our time earning money to satisfy these cravings. Watch the Channel 4 documentaryAlone in the Wild, Ch 4, 2009 about Ed Wardle who spent 50 days in the wilds of Alaska living off the land with no human contact. It was an experiment to see how long he could last. At 50 days, through lack of food and lack of human contact, he radioed to be rescued and cried at his ‘failure’. Next day, he looked around the hotel room, at the TV, electric kettle, telephone, the chair saying, ‘There is nothing I want here at all’. He began smiling. He had realised he hadn’t failed; he had learned something enormously important about himself and what his human ‘needs’ were.
Abundance is fundamentally an issue of ownership of time, literally, the time of our life. With time we can reconstruct ourselves, and our society. We have time to talk in social gatherings about what we need, about what we really want and whether the things we want are really worth the price in terms of time, in terms of the environment.
So, Communism involves rebalancing our relationship with the natural world. We are part of nature, we have co-evolved with planet earth, it is our natural home. One of the crimes of capitalism is to rip us out of this ‘natural’ relationship and alienate us from our ‘true’ selves (our ‘species being’ as Marx called it).
Because of our social intelligence and technical skills, nature provides for us humans an environment of superabundance but we need to (re) learn how to work with the grain of nature in order to allow this superabundance to be permanently sustainable.
For example this requires organic farming methods and the creation of good quality furnished homes made from renewable/sustainable materials wood, bricks, earth, straw and natural stone. We can also use plastics/alloys but this needs to be done in an extremely thought out, measured way.
What Communism won’t solve
We also need to be clear that Communism is not a magic wand. Some existential issues are not solvable e.g. mortality, relationship breakdown, damaging accidents, the ultimate meaning of existence.
We referred earlier to those aspects of the human experience more usually monopolised by religion – an understanding of ourselves individually and socially, a knowledge of ourselves biologically, emotionally and psychologically – for us the ‘spiritual’ dimension to human experience is a very human quality rather than something bestowed upon us by a deity.
Communism and ownership of time would allow us to address these issues and learn how to manage their effects. It is likely that this would lead to the developments of new social practices, (forms of rituals and celebrations) that help us negotiate these areas of life.
When we look at human history what do we find? Lo and behold we discover that such rituals were the central heart beat of pre-class societies even one step away from absolute poverty and insecurity, never mind material abundance.
It could be useful, then, to explore the content of the anti-capitalist uprisings led by indigenous peoples in Central and South America. Surely we have much to learn from these struggles and their 500 years of resistance.
It seems clear from the above that touching on any one aspect of what we think communism has to offer by way of abundance for human kind quickly leads on to a consideration of many others. Abundance in terms of material comfort tempered by a greater self knowledge (i.e., knowing what we need rather than being driven by what we have been made to feel we want) and by greater knowledge of what the environment can support. Abundance in terms of unstructured time to create the society we want. Abundance in terms of emotional/psychological well being.
So, in response to the question, ‘What would a communist society look like?’, we can say, ‘Imagine you had the time to spend bringing up your kids to be emotionally and psychologically saner and happier, the time to get in touch with yourself in order to find out what ‘things’ you really wanted, the time to think about agreeing and planning what and how much should be grown and manufactured to meet these needs, to think about the bigger questions in life and how our feelings can be given social expression.’
In presenting a vision of Communism through the prism of Abundance, perhaps we can rehabilitate the tarnished image of the hammer and sickle, the union of workers and peasants, by placing them in the hands of lovers strolling in the company of friends and family carrying musical instruments on their way to a gig.
Allan Armstrong, Bob Goupillot, Iain Robertson, 15th April 2012
Thoughts on the Transition from Capitalism to a Communist Society
In its essence, communist consciousness places the priority on the welfare of the entire society over that of any one segment. Furthermore, in making choices that shape society, communist consciousness takes a long-term perspective, not an immediate, short-term one. Of course, capitalist society is premised on the antithesis of this approach. Each individual seeks to get the most for her/himself, and to do so as rapidly as possible. In addition, capitalism encourages those in privileged segments of society seek to extract the most out those who are in less privileged segments. The result of this ethic of individualistic competition has been catastrophic.
Of course, we seek to build class consciousness, that is a working class that sees itself as distinct from and in opposition to the capitalist class, and that comes to see itself as an alternative ruling class replacing the current one. Still, for a working class revolution to lead to a future classless society, class consciousness must lead to a communist consciousness that encompasses a broader vision. Once in power, the working class will have to use the resources available at that time to optimize the long-run welfare of all, acting to benefit people across national boundaries and across generations.
This means ending patriarchy and gender inequalities, and providing for the full and equal participation of women. It means ending ethnic and religious discrimination, or that based on sexual orientation. It means funding the economic development of the entire world, since a socialist society can not move toward communism when huge income inequalities continue to exist around the world. It means diverting resources to creating sustainable sources of energy so that global warming can be reversed and nuclear power rapidly phased out. It means properly funding the income of those retired from the output of those who currently work. It means guaranteeing an adequate income to those who are unable to work. It means treating animals with respect, while ensuring that all species on the planet should be preserved.
We can see a spark of communist consciousness in the willingness of individuals to help other individuals in distress, but a much broader vision needs to be formed as we move toward communism. Even the current acts of sympathy are tainted by charity, that those who give are doing a favor to those who receive. A communist consciousness understands that the world is a seamless whole, and that all of us can only flourish in a new society that fully values everyone.
Communism should be viewed as a dynamic transformation, ever changing and ever evolving. Communism is not a fixed goal that once reached means that the social system has reached a static end. Instead, we should view the entire process, from the moment of a successful revolution to the creation of a communist society, as a developing process with distinct, and yet fluidly bounded, phases. Certain goals of a communist society can be fully reached, but others will be goals to be approached, probably to be supplemented by new ones beyond our current imagination.
Each phase has to be consistent with the ones that are to follow. There is nothing inevitable about this process. It is one that can be easily derailed. Thus it is critical that every decision be made in the context of its impact on the future. The earlier phases of the transformation have to be prefigurative, that is features of the earlier phases need to be not only consistent with the future communist society but foreshadow them.
Marx broke down the future society into two periods, socialism and communism. In a socialist society, the working class has become the ruling class. The state continues to exist, while withering away, and the scarcity of goods prevails, thus requiring some link between participation in the workforce and income levels. Socialism is to be followed by communism, a society in which social classes no longer exist, where goods are available to all who need them, and where the state has disappeared. Marx only presented an outline of the evolution of a future society. His two step perspective seems like a reasonable starting point, as long we keep in mind that these are guideposts, that there is no sharp break between the two phases, and that a communist society is constantly evolving, as is a socialist society.
History shows us there is a distinct third period. Initially, when the revolution first succeeds in displacing the capitalist class, there is a period of transition and consolidation. Perhaps we should call this first phase Socialism in Consolidation. This first phase, where a socialist society finds itself threatened by hostile outside powers, where the revolution is still being spread to other countries, and where capitalist forces are still entrenched within aspects of the old society, presents a series of distinct problems and challenges that differ from the two later phases. Again, the decisions made here need to be consistent with, and, indeed, prefigure, the salient features of later phases.
Andrew Kliman (http://thecommune.co.uk/2010/01/08/alternatives-to-capitalism-what-happens-after-the-revolution/) makes a good point in his article on communism in suggesting that this first phase raises the issue of what principles represent the minimum for any type of future society. He proposes that everyone in the workforce on a full-time basis should receive the same pay. This seems to me a valid point but it only begins to address this crucial set of issues.
In thinking of the RCN pamphlet on communism I think we need to focus on the first, consolidation phase of a future society, how we envision it functioning, and how it can sustain itself while moving forward to communism within a hostile global context. All too often, successful revolutions have been followed by a period in which a new elite consolidates power, limits the democratic process, and creates the groundwork for a new privileged class. Of course, we can only place our analysis of the consolidation phase in a prefigurative perspective if we have an idea of the final goal, so I am not suggesting that we ignore the basic guideposts to a fully consolidated socialist society and to a communist society.
This is a lot to cover in one brief pamphlet, but perhaps my comments will facilitate a productive discussion within the RCN.
Eric Chester, 19th May 2012
Why We Need A Truly Human And Democratic Communism
How many people today, even on what remains of the Left, publicly and confidently declare their support for ‘Communism’? Take just three British organisations, which claim to be key parts of the revolutionary Left – the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Party and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. Nowhere in their What We Stand For columns is there any mention of communism. If these comrades are communists they are ‘closet communists’. Looking tentatively out from their closets, with doors slightly ajar, they might whisper to those within hearing distance, that ‘Communism’ is nothing to get het-up about really. ‘Communism’ can be safely relegated to a distant future. The real task is “to build socialism”. If they make any reference at all to communism, it is confined to in-house events or theoretical journals and has about as much purchase on their everyday politics as ‘Clause 4 Socialism’ had for the reformist Left who led the old British Labour Party. If Marx hadn’t called himself a communist for most of his life and hadn’t entitled his best-known work, The Communist Manifesto, most of the British revolutionary Left would probably prefer to jettison the term altogether.
1. Communism – an outdated and nostalgic label or a fully human, democratic society
Mention of the word ‘Communism’ conjures up visions of tyrants such as Stalin, Ceausescu, Kim Il Sung and Pol Pot, or grey bureaucrats like Brezhnev, Honecker and Husak. Indeed so discredited has the Communist label become, particularly amongst young people, that even when they clash violently with the representatives of global capitalism’s New World Order, whether in Athens or London, they call their protest ‘anti-capitalist’ not communist.
The experience or knowledge of ‘official’ Communism is now the biggest material factor preventing the recreation of a new human emancipatory alternative to imperialism’s New World Order today. Struggles, continue, like the Arab uprising, on an epic and heroic scale. However, in the absence of any popular vision of an alternative human emancipatory society, most current struggles set themselves self-limiting objectives, which make them easier to defeat, contain or marginalise. Therefore, although new forms of struggle emerge, the lack of a clear political alternative still leaves them trapped within limits set by bureaucratised trade unions and political parties, clinging on to varying versions of social democracy and nationalism. This is despite the fact that the material, economic, basis for communism is already with us.
Therefore, if we are to proudly proclaim ourselves as communists, it is vital that we outline a genuine new human emancipatory communism, which takes full stock of the failings of both ‘official’ and ‘dissident Communism’, and which can persuasively show that human liberation can still be achieved. This means a break with both reformist and ‘revolutionary’ social democracy, i.e. social democracy calling itself Communism. The main purpose of this article will be to show that a genuine new communism, based on real trends in capitalist society, can form an operational politics.
2. Marx and the abolition of wage slavery versus ‘Revolutionary’ social democracy and the continuation of the wages system
Re-examining Marx’s understanding of a fully developed communist society, we can see that it is based on a human emancipatory vision:-
- “From each according to their ability; to each according to their needs.” – That is giving and sharing.
- “Where the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” – That the ends and the means involve the fullest personal development for each individual.
If we then look at the key political-economic transformation which Marx felt was necessary to bring about communism, we will find that it is the ending of wage slavery. In Marx’s major critique of capitalist political economy, Capital, he railed against those on the Left who confined their demand to, “A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work”. He also opposed the slogan, “We demand the full product of our labour”. Marx wanted communists to inscribe on their banner, “The abolition of the wages system”. Yet very few of today’s socialists try to highlight the domination of wage slavery under capitalism. The battles for the emancipation of chattel slaves and women are seen as great past and present human struggles. But the continued extension of wage slavery throughout the world (often alongside other more brutal forms of bondage such as enforced child labour) hardly concerns the Left. Yet, even many on the Right instinctively rebel against the condition of wage slavery, hoping to be independent owners or at least join capitalism’s ‘house slaves’ as managers.
Yet, when we examine the society that ‘revolutionary’ social democrats want to build immediately after their Revolution, it is most peculiar. The wages system is to be retained under socialism. This is a bit like the black slaves of pre-Civil War USA rising up against their slave masters – but once they have expelled them, not proceeding to abolish slavery! Instead, slavery would remain, but the slaves would elect and emancipate a select few of their number to manage the affairs of the plantation. The job of this new management would be to organise the slaves with a view to increasing production, promising a much fairer distribution of the resulting produce afterwards!
We can see that Marx offers us a much more profound criticism of capitalism than the majority of today’s revolutionary Left. Furthermore, with its emphasis on wage slavery, Marx’s view of communism has the potential to unite the vast majority of humankind, whether struggling under wage slavery’s yoke, still trying to resist its imposition or forming drop-out, non-waged ‘maroon’ enclaves, beyond its reach. Marx gave various names to the new social order he was struggling to give voice to – ‘revolutionary democracy’ and ‘humanism’, but his settled label was ‘communism’. However, Marx had to warn against other ‘communisms’ – particularly ‘vulgar Communism’. ‘Vulgar Communism’ expressed the hatred many felt at the growing inequalities and injustices associated with the early days of industrial capitalism at the beginning of the nineteenth century. However, it took the form of an angry levelling down of the new capitalist order, rather than creating a new emancipatory higher level of society.
Therefore ‘anti-capitalism’ is not enough. Revolutions can lead to an immediate feeling of intense liberation, but they are usually followed by much longer periods of defence, setbacks and painful reconstruction. The twentieth century was the ‘Century of Revolutions’, but it eventually produced so little for humanity at such a high cost, it is not surprising that many are very cautious, despite the growing barbarism of ‘The New World Order’. Therefore, it is vital that we outline a genuine democratic communism rooted in today’s realities and we show how this could be achieved.
3. The decline of Marx’s genuine communism and the rise of orthodox Marxism and ‘official Communism’
During Marx’s lifetime, communist politics had the support of a wider spectrum of opinion than was to be the case later. Marx himself never claimed to be the sole advocate of a patented ‘Communist’ model. Indeed this was the very opposite of his aim, which was to give voice to the aspirations of workers and others for an emancipatory alternative struggling both within and against capitalism. Furthermore there were other contemporaries of Marx, such as Dietzgen, who theoretically contributed to this wider communism. Communism wasn’t Marxism.
The Second International was formed at a time of worker militancy in 1889, but this did not lead to a new wave of communist revolution. Indeed it was the Second International, which helped to massively shift the terms of the debate. Instead of advocating the abolition of wage slavery, it helped promote the idea of the ‘noble’ wage worker, and the acceptance of the condition of wage slavery, but on better terms. Trade unions would improve wages. Social Democratic politicians would tax the capitalist owners, to ameliorate their employees’ conditions, and provide workers with a social wage too. This is analogous to prisoners earning the right to decorate their own cells rather than destroy the jail and live in freedom.
The term ‘communism’ itself was relegated by the Second International as a new Social Democracy made increasing accommodation with a renewed capitalism – the monopoly imperialist capitalism identified by Lenin.
After the defeat of the International Revolutionary Wave of 1916-21, which gave birth to the Communist Third International, Marx’s genuine communist legacy became almost completely marginalised and lost. Ironically though, this occurred at the same time that the Communist Party leaderships in a whole number of countries, beginning with the USSR, but later followed by Yugoslavia, Albania, North Korea, China and Cuba amongst others, promoted an almost complete identity of ‘Communism’ with Marx. ‘Communism’ became an ideology associated with a ‘great individual’ (and of course the self-chosen successor/s); a notion that the ideologues of ‘western capitalism’ were equally keen to promote!
Marx, however, saw communist organisation as completely subordinate to a real revolutionary movement of wage slaves seeking to live an authentic life and to abolish their slavery. ‘Official Communism’ and its ‘dissident’ emulators elevated first ‘The Party’ and, then the Party-state, to the prime mover of further social development, through an increasing number of ‘necessary’ political and economic stages. ‘Orthodox Marxism’ trampled over the genuine communism originally promoted by Marx.
The abolition of wage slavery, which formed the core of the genuine communist project, was relegated to an increasingly distant utopian ‘Communist’ future. In the meantime a new middle class was to be in control. ‘The Party’ was to fuse with the state to provide this class with the political power the traditional capitalists enjoyed through private ownership and control of capital.
4. Wage slavery and the living creative pole of capital
Wage slavery is enshrined in the labour contract, under the cover of which the capitalists legally ‘steal’ the products of our labour power. However, the surplus value created by our labour power (over and above what we are paid for by the boss) is transferred to these products. So, the capitalist owners or controllers can then appropriate this surplus value, ‘contained’ in the products we make, when they sell them as commodities on the market. Because the eventual realisation of surplus value takes place at some distance from its creation in the workplace, appearing ‘magically’ in the accounts at company HQ, the value we create through our labour power doesn’t immediately appear to us – it is hidden. Furthermore, our own labour power is bought and sold on the labour market, like any other commodity. As long as our labour power ends up producing their capital, we remain wage slaves.
But Marx clearly understood that wage slaves aren’t merely victims. We also represent the creative pole of the capitalist relationship. Yet the essence of this relationship appears to be reversed, making the capitalist owners and controllers seem to be the initiators of all production and distribution. This has helped to imbue them with ‘legitimate’ political power too. However we, as workers, create all new value and wealth. We create both ourselves as living labour and capital as dead labour. We produce not only all our means of subsistence and the luxuries of the capitalist class, but the capital – the factories, offices, machinery, technology, raw materials and commodities – through which they try to control us, but never completely succeed. It is literally a constant life and death struggle between living and dead labour.
We perform a wide variety of very different concrete labouring activities such as mining or building, assembly or office work, nursing or cleaning, word processing or image creation, etc. However, these different concrete labour activities have to be reduced to a common abstract labour standard, which can be expressed in a common monetary form. This enables the capitalists to convert surplus value into profits in the sphere of capitalist circulation, with its banks, stock and commodity exchanges, etc, through the competition of the market. It also enables them to compare relative rates of profit, so that they can direct their investments to the most profitable sectors of business. In order to maximise their profits they need to push our wages down to their socially necessary minimum. They attempt to increase the hours we work or intensify the labour we do. To help them achieve this they closely monitor and measure our work, and threaten us with disciplinary action or the sack. They take our real lives and offer us merely money in exchange.
Labour time is the measure of our labour transferred to products to create new value. However, since our own labour power is also a commodity, then its cost is also determined by the labour time necessary for its production through training, feeding, clothing, sheltering and providing the domestic and social life necessary to raise more workers for the future.
Marx identified simple and complex labour. Simple labour is unskilled, involving relatively little labour time in its production, hence it usually receives low wages. Complex labour is skilled labour created through greater inputs of training and education, thus involving more labour time in its production. Much of this is provided by family, friends, workmates, or by the wider public through taxation. Yet capitalism frequently allows individuals to privately appropriate the benefits of this wider social contribution in the form of higher pay. This helps to explain pay differentials.
Although labour time determines value under capitalism, this is not achieved in a planned way, but through the market. As a result there is an irrational core to all this. Goods and services are usually produced before the need for them has been socially determined. It is only if these goods and services are sold that their need has been proved by capitalist criteria. However, to achieve this state of affairs there may have been periods of massive overproduction, with goods unsold and factories on short-time working or closed down. This leads to reduced wages or redundancies. On other occasions there are chronic shortages, leading to overtime working, speed-ups and increased industrial accidents. These are only the direct human consequences. Yet all this is rational by capitalist criteria. Society does continue to reproduce itself, and material wealth has been greatly increased (even though access to this has been very unequal). Yet this is a by-product of the central drive to create profits and many people and environments have been exploited, degraded and devastated in the process.
Furthermore, capitalists are continually trying to lower their costs, so skilled labour is under constant attack, through the application of new technology. Although new technology may lead to new more advanced skills for a few, for the majority it is a de-skilling process. This is because capitalists only introduce technology in the first place to lower their costs and increase their direct control of the production process. During the nineteenth century, when workers first successfully struggled to shorten the working day, capitalists responded with the introduction of machinery to intensify labour. They reduced their workers to ‘hands’, mere appendages to a machine. Discipline was imposed by the regular working of the machine and by the supervision of the chargehand. Today, call centres have become the modern sweatshops, with discipline imposed jointly by embedded computer programmes and by floor managers. It is the capitalist owners and controllers who mainly gain from the benefits of technological ‘progress’, since it is they who appropriate our dead labour to invest and create further rounds of surplus labour.
Even though workers collectively produce all the new wealth in society (the sum total of goods and services), once we leave our workplaces, the only access we have to this is by spending the money we have earned. Therefore, the only relationship we have with the other producers of wealth we mutually depend upon is a monetary connection through the market. This wealth this only available to us in the form of commodities. It is the capitalist owners and controllers who interpret our needs and promote particular commodities often with a built-in obsolescence or a ‘dependency hook’ e.g. cigarettes and coffee. Under capitalism vast amounts of labour time are employed in the promotion and advertising of particular products and in the media cultivation of certain ‘fashionable’ lifestyles. Thus £millions were spent producing and promoting the blue ‘Smartie’, involving many undoubtedly skilled people on a project of zero social worth.
This all adds up to what Marx called commodity fetishism. Relationships between people take the form of relationships between commodities or things. This becomes particularly marked, when very immediate human needs – housing, health and education provision, or even intimate sexual relations – are handed over to ‘the market’. But commodity fetishism is merely part of a much wider condition of alienation, which stems from the contradictions and conflicts in the capitalist production process, at the heart of which is the condition of wage slavery. And such a condition can only be maintained by an oppressive state. Therefore, fetishism involves the giving up of our real individual and collective power (as to gods and idols) to the modern deities of money, the market and the state.
Communism, though, is already latent within capitalism. It is the product of the constant struggle between the capitalist and working class. The core of this conflict is a ‘battle of needs’ focusing on socially necessary labour time. The need for the capitalists to make profits means they define this socially necessary labour time as the minimum necessary to produce and reproduce the workforce they require. For us, socially necessary labour time is a much wider concept. It means maximising our consumption of humanly valuable goods and services and living a more human life with greater time for social, cultural and recreational activity. It also means trying to get beyond the alienation we feel under wage slavery.
5. Communism, the end of wage slavery and the transformation of socially necessary labour time
Thus, Marx rooted the conditions for the achievement of communism in the ending of wage slavery, alongside changes in human consciousness, not in the building of an increasing number of ‘necessary’ political and economic stages. In the orthodox Marxist schema the central emancipatory drive becomes lost and the emphasis is placed initially on achieving a separate political power before further building up the national and world economy using the most advanced capitalist technologies. In Marx’s emancipatory vision of communism, technology is a subordinate element. The communist revolution is neither essentially economic nor technological, but political and social. During the first phase of communism we would still have to make use of capitalism’s inherited technologies. But part of the communist revolution will be ‘take these technologies apart’ and reassemble them so they are consistent with truly human productive activity and to create new technologies more adequate to the purposes of human liberation. Technologies that will be sustainable, ecologically sound and alive with human creativity.
Marx saw the voluntary cooperative and consciously planned efforts of freely associated labour as communism’s primary basis for providing a qualitative step beyond capitalism. He certainly understood this as leading to a quantitative increase in the material wealth necessary to lead a truly human life and this will still remain the case whilst poverty persists. But an increasingly important contribution to developing communism, resulting from freely associated labour, is the ability to incorporate non-economic, social, cultural and human ‘spiritual’ elements into the production of human wealth, leading also to a transformed understanding of human needs, no longer based on a capitalist ‘shop-till-you-drop’ philosophy.
Under the first phase of communism, socially necessary labour time continues but is transformed. Socially necessary labour time becomes defined on the basis of human needs, whilst the planning of production and distribution is done directly on the basis of labour hours. We still need an effective form of accountancy, since the allocation of scarce skilled labour and resources needs to be taken into account. At the same time, other factors, such as enhancing human development and environmental sustainability need to become central features of the accounting process.
Each person would receive a certificate showing the hours of work they have completed. This enables them to withdraw goods and services from the ‘communal store’. To achieve this, each individual’s actual hours of work; the average social hours of labour time embodied in each product; the average social labour time used in each arena of production, and the total social labour time used by society, all have to be calculated.
There wouldn’t be a 1:1 relationship between individual labour time performed and individual consumption. There needs to be deductions for simple reproduction of the continued production process and for the general ‘costs’ of administration. These are intrinsic to the production process itself and can also be calculated in labour hours. The importance of meeting wider social needs would also be met through deductions prior to individual consumption. e.g. for education, healthcare, provision for children, the elderly, sick, etc, and for emergency contingencies. There would also be deductions for new production projects. The proportion of goods and services which are provided for on the direct basis of human need (water, heating, transport, etc) increases as their abundance or ease of access develops, although they are still accounted for by labour hour calculations. One part of the effective transition to the upper phase of communism, is where distribution is solely on the basis of need and no longer on the basis of labour hours worked. However, the conditions for the upper phase of communism must directly develop from the lower phase.
Yet distribution in the lower phase of communism on the basis of hours worked is still radically egalitarian. Such distribution also undermines the inherited class-bound notions of superiority still embodied in the social democratic would-be administrators’ vision of a planned society, with its continuing large differentials inherited from capitalism. The benefits arising from the application of particular forms of skilled labour would be socially distributed, rather than privately appropriated as at present. Other forms of recognition, rather than monetary award, could be developed for the socially recognised contributions made by particular individuals.
Crucially, in the lower phase of communism, there is no necessity for the intervention of a centralised administration of ‘socialist’ planners to allocate consumption items according to some ‘socialist’ wages, taxation and pricing policy. Therefore, the significance of planning production and distribution on the basis of the measurement of labour hours is also political for it underlines workers’ real, rather than the nominal control of production and distribution, which occurs when these functions are separated.
6. Communism and overcoming the division between political and economic
Marx outlined the necessary ‘economic’ condition for the first phase of communism. If workers are to retain real power, then wage slavery must be abolished. This means that, as already shown, production and distribution must be based on the calculation of labour hours. However, this condition can only be met if it is married to a second ‘political’ condition – the replacement of the old capitalist state machinery and parliament by the commune model – with linked workers’ councils backed by the power of armed workers’ militias. That is a thorough going, consistent and militant democracy.
In uniting the ‘economic’ and ‘political’ conditions in this manner, the first phase of communism also overcomes the political and economic division promoted by capitalism. It strips away the mask disguising the real source of capitalist ‘political’ power – their continued ‘economic’ extraction of surplus labour. Traditional capitalist owners don’t need to take direct ‘private’ control of the capitalist state, precisely because their real political power ultimately stems from their private ownership and control of capitalist property. This is guaranteed a continued legal contractual existence, whatever parliamentary, fascist or military government is in office. This is why traditional social democrats e.g. the Labour Party, could take political office, but they could not take real political and economic control, whilst such a division remained in place.
Therefore, if workers fail to abolish wage slavery and plan production and distribution directly on the basis of meeting human needs, then even a new commune state can’t prevent the re-emergence of full capitalist control. Marx already realised that, what later became the ‘official’ and ‘dissident Communist’ ‘Marxist orthodoxy’ – the wages system under workers’ control – could no more open up the road to human emancipation than capitalist parliamentary democracy under workers’ control, that earlier contribution of ‘orthodox Marxism’ by pre-1917 ‘revolutionary’ Social Democracy. Herein lies the connection between reformist and ‘revolutionary’ social democracy. Neither sees the immediate abolition of wage slavery as necessary to the first phase of any emancipatory transition.
Capitalism is pregnant with the communist alternative based on our collective struggle against the alienating condition of wage slavery. But both reformist and ‘revolutionary’ social democracy insert their new and ‘necessary’ political and economic stages – either a majority socialist government or a ‘workers’ state’. So instead of moving to the first phase of communism, clearly outlined by Marx in The Critique of the Gotha Programme, we are offered instead a ‘transition to socialism’, where our social democrats want to continue with the wages system. Reformist ‘social democrats’ see their transition taking place under the parliamentary direction of the commanding heights of the economy. ‘Revolutionary ‘social democrats’ see their transition through the Party-state direction of ‘The Plan’. In this manner any genuine transition to communism is stillborn. Attempts to implement the ‘transition to socialism’, in the last ‘Century of Revolutions’, proved to be rather roundabout ways to introduce the transition to capitalism. As some Eastern European wags used to put it, “Socialism is the longest road to capitalism!” A failure to realise this can only lead to growing irrelevance as resistance to imperialism’s ‘New World Order’ grows, or to repeating the same old mistakes. Hence the forms of struggle we adopt and the organisations we create need to be in harmony with our goals, distant and near and humanise, rather than dehumanise the participants.
Marx had anticipated the roots of the failure of ‘official’ and ‘dissident’ Communism. He saw that workers can not hold on to their political control under the first phase of communism if they still remain wage slaves. For the maintenance of the wages system under workers’ control only elevates workers to politically favoured ‘house slave’ status, whilst the real control lies with the ‘socialist’ administrators implementing ‘The Plan’. In the absence of the objective accounting system outlined by Marx and later developed by othersSee The Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution by Jan Appel, through calculations based on labour times, the ‘socialist’ administrators have to resort instead to arbitrary criteria or cost calculations based on the capitalist model. Their ‘Plan’ usually however provides special rewards for selected people in ‘The Party’!
Such a ‘socialist’ administration would displace remaining workers’ control and extend its power over every aspect of the economy and society. It would increasingly see itself as the representative of the ‘general interest’, whilst seeing workers’ councils as merely representing local and special interests. Therefore, these workers’ councils would need to be marginalised or suppressed whenever they came into conflict with ‘The Plan’ and ‘The Party’. Even, if workers were initially consulted over ‘The Plan’, through their workers’ councils, this would not give workers real control, which would remain elsewhere. It is only if workers have direct collective control in each workplace over the labour hours they dispose of, that they have the equivalent power capitalists enjoy through direct private ownership.
7. ‘Orthodox Marxism’ and the suppression of the full legacy of the Paris Commune
Marx learned from the experience of the Paris Commune of 1870 the necessity for communists not just to take over the capitalist state, but to smash it. However, Marx was not reverting to the older ‘vulgar Communism’ with its attempts to tear down and level (an anger which could be well understood after the brutality of the suppression of the Paris Commune). He pointed instead to the Commune as the model for a new workers’ semi-state to offer a real alternative to replace the pre-existing capitalist state. It was still a state because it needed to retain the power to repress the remaining capitalist opposition by means of armed workers’ militias. To this extent it still had dictatorial aspects. However, it was now the majority who were to rule through their communes not the minority, as in all previous class states. In other words the majority democratic dictatorship of the proletariat was to replace the minority parliamentary/ one-party/ military dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.
From 1917 this much became the ‘orthodox Marxism’ of a wide range of ‘official’ and ‘dissident Communist’ organisations. This is largely due to Lenin’s most famous work, State and Revolution, written between the 1917 February and October Russian Revolutions. This did much to revive this lost legacy of Marx. Now, whilst it may be ‘orthodox Marxism’ today, with the admittedly much smaller band of ‘post-official Communists’, this certainly was not the case in 1917. The year before, Lenin himself had accused fellow Bolshevik, Bukharin, of an anarchist deviation for suggesting the need to smash the capitalist state. The reason for this was that Lenin was still trying to unlearn much of the previous ‘orthodox Marxism’ he had absorbed from such ‘revolutionary’ Social Democratic theoreticians as Kautsky of the SPD in Germany and Plekhanov of the RSDLP in Russia.
The pre-1917 ‘orthodox Marxism’, which prevailed in the Second International, claimed workers could exercise real political control by means of capitalist parliamentary democracy under workers’ control expressed through Social Democratic parties holding office. In countries where parliamentary democracies were absent or weak, then Social Democrats could seek to establish temporary revolutionary dictatorships, but the aim was that these should give way to parliamentary democracy whenever possible. But in 1917, after the February Revolution in the Russian Empire, Lenin witnessed the reappearance of the workers’ councils or soviets, which had first formed in the failed 1905 Russian Revolution. He suddenly saw the significance of Marx’s commune model and quoted extensively from Marx’s The Civil War in France in his State and Revolution.
But, as we have seen, Marx went further still in outlining the conditions for the implementation of a genuine communism in The Critique of the Gotha Programme. Yet Marx’s second condition for the setting up of the first phase of communism – the production and distribution of goods and services on the basis of labour time – is as alien to today’s ‘official’ and ‘dissident’ Communists, as Marx’s first condition – the smashing of the capitalist state and its replacement by the Commune semi-state – was to Second International Social Democracy, even its self-declared revolutionary wing.
When the rising International Revolutionary Wave began in 1916 (Lenin dated it with the Easter Rising in Dublin) millions of workers, already thrown into the maelstrom of the First World War, felt the need to reject the whole Second International legacy, including its ‘revolutionary’ leaders, such as Kautsky and Plekhanov. When a new Third International was formed in 1919, after the Russian Revolution, it once more returned to Marx’s name for his new social emancipatory order – communism.
However, even Lenin didn’t fully appreciate the significance of Marx’s second condition for the first phase of communism, although he referred to Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme in his State and Revolution. Lenin states, “Accounting and control – that is what is mainly needed for the ’smooth working’, for the proper functioning of the first phase of communist society”. This is very close, but instead of firmly adopting Marx’s ground for “accounting and control” – the planning of production and distribution on the basis of labour time, Lenin retreats to the older ‘revolutionary’ Social Democratic view. He still substantially shared the view that socialism (the first phase of communism) was the culmination of the ‘objective’ concentration and centralisation undertaken by monopoly capitalism.
This view looked to the state to continue the centralising process until production was fully nationalised and hence ripe for socialisation. Lenin took the logic of Social Democratic, ‘orthodox Marxism’ one step further. He argued that “German imperialism, which has made the greatest advance… in big industrial organisations within the framework of capitalism, has independently given proof of its economic progressiveness by being the first to introduce labour conscription”! Lenin extended this “progressive” capitalist legacy to his view of communism, where he declared, “All citizens are transformed into hired employees of the state, which consists of armed workers… The whole society will have become a single office and a single factory, with equality of labour and pay.” Thus we see that Lenin ends up advocating a kind of ‘vulgar Communism’ or ‘barracks socialism’. ‘Revolutionary’ social democracy views the economic organisation and technology bequeathed by capitalism as progressive. It does not see the need to abolish wage slavery or to question its technology but to make it fairer and more efficient – to put the wages system under what it terms workers’ control, which experience has shown us inevitably turns out to be control by the Party-state.
Thus, if we look at Lenin’s quotes, we can see how close they come to anticipating the society that eventually triumphed under Stalin. The supervision of armed workers soon gave way to the supervision of unarmed workers by ‘socialist’ administrators, backed by the army, the regular and secret police, as well as ‘The Party’ placemen at every level. Needless to say equality of labour and pay were never implemented! But certainly Stalinist USSR came close to being a society organised as one big “office” and “factory”.
Although the imperialist interventions from 1918 failed to overthrow the infant USSR, the military, diplomatic and economic pressures produced, in effect, ‘a counter-revolution from within the revolution’. With the crushing of Kronstadt in 1921, workers lost all remaining direct power over the state and workplace and the promotion, not the abolition, of waged labour became a central aim of the New Economic Policy, introduced after the victory of the Party-state.
8. ‘Dissident Communism’ fails to get to the roots of the degeneration of the Revolution
Trotsky and Trotskyism have tried to present themselves as a coherent alternative to the degeneration of ‘official’ Communism. Yet Trotsky himself was a pace-setter of the earlier phase of ‘the counter-revolution within the revolution’. He openly supported the militarisation of labour in 1920, and he helped to suppress the Kronstadt Rising in 1921, at a time when the political role of Stalin was less central. However, the political degeneration of the USSR became so rapid after this that Trotsky increasingly found himself in opposition to the emerging majority of the Party-state bureaucracy led by Stalin. Trotsky moved from being an ‘official Communist’ to becoming a ‘dissident communist’.
Yet defence of the Party-state still remained the key for Trotsky. Hence Trotsky called for ‘political revolution’ not ‘social revolution’ in the USSR after Stalin consolidated his power. Trotsky opposed Stalin’s attempt to build socialism as an autarky with minimal trade with the outside world. He argued that the USSR needed to be able to draw on the resources of imperialism, either by revolutionary appropriation through the overthrow of capitalist powers or, where this could not be achieved, through state controlled international trade.
The Trotskyist dispute with ‘official’ Communism has no genuine communist grounding to it, since neither variant of ‘revolutionary’ social democracy upheld the need to end the wages system as the central part of the revolutionary transition. Trotsky paid little heed to the continuation and extension of waged labour, as such, under the New Economic Plan, nor under Stalin’s Five Year Plan after 1928 (with its massive growth in labour camp slavery too).
Trotskyists, appalled by the consequences of what they termed ‘Stalinism’, (overlooking Trotsky’s own earlier direct role in the degeneration of the Revolution) lay the blame on Stalin’s attempt to build socialism in one country. As a result some Trotskyists have, in effect, retreated to a neo-Kautskyist view. Kautsky, the leading theoretician of pre-World War One ‘revolutionary’ Social Democracy, had argued that the major imperialist powers would increasingly be able to plan the division of the world between them, rendering imperialist wars more and more unlikely. This was his theory of ultra-imperialism. This led Kautsky to a position of passivity in the face of the First World War. Whilst the newly emerging communists organised amongst those workers and armed forces who felt the necessity to challenge the war mongers with increasingly revolutionary action, Kautsky looked to the logic of imperialist development itself to bring about the end of war, helped by Social Democrat-organised pacifist moral pressure upon the war-making governments!
Echoing Kautsky’s theory of ultra-imperialism, some today now look to the long march of global capitalism to create a global working class, which can ultimately unite in a near simultaneous world-wide revolution. This ‘Big Bang Theory of Socialism’ overlooks the fact that it is precisely in resisting the policies of imperialism with its ‘New World Order’, that any real communist organisation can be built. The neo-Kautskyite theory places its adherents in the camp of the apologists for the New World Order, undermining those workers, peasants and tribal peoples resisting such ‘progress’ in the here and now. In essence, the neo-Kautskyist view is a lefter version of that held by today’s ‘social market’ democrats such as Tony Blair! They argue that, such is the power of ‘globalisation’ and the world market, there is very little a national government can do except meekly bow to the dictates of multinational capital, hoping its citizens will benefit from any ‘trickle-down’ benefits and that governments can make the workings of the ‘free’ market a little more humane. Meanwhile, today’s neo-Kautskyites say we have to wait for the international ‘big bang’ revolution. Therefore, scrape the surface of their much vaunted alternatives – Stalin’s ‘socialism in one country’ and Trotsky’s ‘international socialism’ – and it can soon be seen that what is really immediately on offer is national capitalism. ‘Socialism in one country’ and ‘international socialism’ both mean capitalism in every country!
Now, whilst such a passive, and in effect, anti-revolutionary views carry some weight today, when the working class is still being politically atomised under the current Capitalist Offensive, a ‘revolutionary’ social democratic alternative still lingers on in the wings, sometimes drawing some sustenance from the post-1917 Revolution. These have included Die Linke in Germany, the New Anti-Capitalist Party in France, and the United Left Alliance in Ireland. Since the ideological crisis of neo-liberalism, following the 2008 Credit Crunch, these organizations have promoted a mixture of neo-Keynesian and other, more comprehensive national statist reforms, particularly nationalisation.
Despite the historic divisions between Stalin and Trotsky, they both shared the view that it is nationalised property relations which form the basis of socialism and it is the Party-state which is the prime agent in building socialism. This is why Trotskyists continually found themselves politically disarmed by Stalin’s actions. In 1928, Stalin abandoned the New Economic Policy, with its strong dependence on peasant-based agricultural development, which Trotsky believed would eventually subordinate the USSR to imperialism. In its place Stalin forced through his First Five Year Plan with extensive nationalisation. This ‘revolution-from above’, was supported by the majority of Trotsky’s followers, along with many other previous ‘dissidents’. However, Trotsky himself maintained that Stalin, now attempting only ‘to build socialism in one country’, could not spread this new revolution. Indeed he went on to claim that the Stalinist regime would either succumb to full-blown imperialism or to political revolution in the forthcoming Second World War. Thus, when Stalin’s Red Army seized and held on to eastern Europe and Manchuria in 1945, once again many Trotskyists found themselves confused. The majority gave various degrees of political support for Stalin’s advances.
Stalin had never abandoned an intention to internationalise his ‘revolution-from-above’. It was just that, as the victor in the intra-Party struggle after Lenin’s death, and hence the holder of state power, he was more conservative about any unnecessarily ‘adventurist’ international actions which could jeopardise his control. When, as after the Second World War, the balance of forces was overwhelmingly in his favour, he went on to internationalise his ‘revolution-from-above’.
Therefore the anti-Kautskyist wing of Trotskyism saw its ‘permanent revolution’ being implemented, albeit rather slowly and mainly under the hegemony of the USSR. Yet for them every hesitant new ‘workers’ state’ still marked a stage on the long march to ‘international socialism’. This wing of Trotskyism could also raise criticisms and try to distance itself from the ‘stalinist’ excesses, but when push came to shove, they remained ‘official Communism’s loyal opposition. Trotskyists had long ceased to define workers’ states as states directly controlled by workers. Instead, these states got their essential character by virtue of having large-scale nationalised property. On this basis a huge Trotskyist in-house debate developed over the ‘degenerate’, ‘deformed’ or ‘deflected’ nature of such ‘workers’ states as those found in the USSR, Yugoslavia, eastern Europe, China, Cuba, Kampuchea, Afghanistan and even Burma! This debate has been about as politically productive as that of the medieval scholastics – ‘How many angels can dance on the end of a pin’.
Today’s remaining Trotskyists claim to follow in a more democratic tradition than that of the old ‘official Communism’. Given the profoundly undemocratic practices of most of the Trotskyist Left in the UK – the blatant thuggery of the old Socialist Labour League/WRP springs to mind – this is an extremely questionable point. To any genuine communist, ‘official’ and ‘dissident Communists’ seem to come from the same political stable, with their common emphasis on ‘The Party’ or Party-state.
Now, when in opposition, Trotsky did begin to raise the demand for more democratic freedoms. He called for the revival of the soviets he had helped to suppress, but these were to be promoted top-down by ‘The Party’. But ‘official Communist’ states have shown their ability to involve the population in mass mobilisations in various forms of popular assemblies, in for example, China and Cuba, another factor that has disorientated many Trotskyists. Yet Trotsky, himself, still remained very cautious about promoting working class organisation, which might have asserted its political independence of the Party-state. This, of course would also have been anathema to any ‘official Communists’ holding state power.
9. Challenging the arguments of ‘revolutionary’ social democracy
The essential point, shared by ‘official’ and ‘dissident Communists’ alike, has been their political/economic stageist view of Communism, and their invention of a new ‘transition to socialism’. This is why the hoary old story pedalled by today’s ‘revolutionary’ social democrats’ needs to be constantly challenged. They claim that any attempt to begin the abolition of the wages system, when workers have only seized power in one or a few countries, is doomed to fail. Yes, workers can have their workers’ councils, but they must confine their activities to helping to formulate The Plan for more efficient production and more equitable distribution, whilst they continue to earn their wages. Workers can’t be trusted to take full and direct responsibility for planning, production and distribution on the basis of labour hours until the World Workers’ Republic is achieved. They need to have all of the planet’s resources to achieve this.
Yet, imperialism isn’t going to like it, whatever form the ‘workers revolution’ takes, if it involves any serious challenges to their New World Order. Imperialist powers weren’t even happy with mildly reforming governments such as Mossadeq’s challenge to Anglo-Dutch Oil in Iran in 1953, Arbenz’s challenge to the United Fruit Company in Guatemala in 1954, Allende’s challenge to ITT in Chile in 1973. They were bloodily suppressed. Meanwhile, US imperialism is backing the repressive Colombian regime, and sponsoring coups in Honduras and Haiti, to provide military bases and encircle the new challenges to US corporate control of resources represented by the Chavez government in Venezuela, the Morales government in Bolivia, and that continued thorn in the flesh of US governments, Castro’s Cuba.
Whether any new post-revolutionary state maintains the wages system under workers’ control, as our ‘revolutionary social democrats’ want, or whether it moves directly to abolish wage slavery, as genuine communists want, it still faces the same difficulties, until the revolution spreads further. Both would initially command the same material resources within the same borders. However, the imperialists can exert more direct pressure upon a state, which has already largely separated itself from real workers’ democratic control, whilst a genuine workers’ council state in the process of abolishing wage slavery would be a much greater inspiration to workers worldwide when it comes to spreading the international revolution.
No doubt after a successful workers’ revolution the debate will rage as to how much emphasis is placed on spreading the revolution internationally or on how to consolidate what has already been achieved. The ‘Russian’ Revolution (the most advanced part of the wider International Revolutionary Wave of 1916-21) certainly faced such debates. One such debate occurred when German troops invaded the infant Soviet republic in 1918 – should the humiliating Brest Litovsk Treaty with Germany be signed, or should a revolutionary defencist war be continued. Even if some argue that Lenin and the Bolsheviks made the correct tactical decision in every such case, it must still be conceded that there were increasingly high political, economic and social costs involved with each political retreat, which together built up a cumulative legacy. This means that such actions don’t necessarily provide ideal models. Making a current virtue out of every past ‘necessity’ isn’t a good basis for developing a human emancipatory communism for a new millennium.
The Brest Litovsk Treaty, and the later introduction of the New Economic Policy, were both opposed from within the camp of the Third International by various Left communists (4). These communists came nearest to reclaiming Marx’s full communist legacy, during and soon after the International Revolutionary Wave of 1916-21. Some clearly understood that the development of world communism involved the deepening of the roots of working class power, through real workers’ democracy and the attempt to abolish wage slavery. They also understood the immediate need to spread the revolution internationally until, by triumphing over the whole globe, the second higher phase of communism could be achieved.
However, our aim should not be to try and elevate all their political positions to a new ‘orthodox Marxism’, since, just like everyone else struggling in difficult conditions, their politics were marked by contradictions too. However, we have the great benefit of hindsight and the dubious benefit of a further eighty years of capitalism to be able to draw conclusions for a more human communism.
At present, the need for a new genuine communism is only appreciated by a relatively small number and is under constant political attack from the ‘revolutionary realists’, who pitch their politics at the level imposed by ‘dead labour’ or capital, hoping vulture like to eventually inherit and feed off the carcass. As communists we should always be part of living labour’s challenge, looking deeper and further, knowing that communism is an ever-present spectre within capitalism. To Marx, communism was not an alternative religion to be preached by a new secular ministry in ‘The Party’. Marx’s view of political organisation was not ‘The Party’ organised by an ambitious new middle class armed with ‘The Plan’. It was a real movement of workers in struggle, the living, creative pole of capital, constantly seeking ways to break the chains of wage slavery.
Allan Armstrong, amended and updated by Bob Goupillot, 20th May 2012
2) See Left Communists and the Russian Revolution in Aufheben no 8
An earlier version of this article first appeared in two parts in issues nos. 4 (Autumn 2000) & 5 (Winter 2000-1) of Republican Communist, the predecessor to Emancipation & Liberation.
It is unusual in the UK to find Left organisations seriously addressing the issue of communism. It is usually thought that, if certain works of Marx are made available that is enough. The future realisation of a communist (a term more often ditched for socialist) society can safely be left to the unexplained ‘powers’ of transition. However, two Fourth Internationalist theorists, the late Ernest Mandel and Daniel Bensaid, did make a contribution to a wider debate on communism, so we are providing links to two of their articles.
Daniel Bensaid, The Powers of Communism
In addition, Andrew Kliman, who comes from the Marxist-Humanist tradition, has written a difficult (to those unfamiliar with Hegelian language) but very interesting article.
Andrew Kliman – Alternatives to capitalism – What happens after the revolution?
‘IS COMMUNISM POSSIBLE?’ – COMMENTS
The document contains lots of fascinating points; but I am uncertain – in a way that I shall explain – about what its purpose is. Its overall purpose is clear and (I agree) very much to the point: renewing debate about how communism may be visualised is a necessary step in giving the left renewed confidence and a sense of perspective. But its more specific purpose seems to pull in two direction:
− If the document tackles the question of whether communism is possible, one way of structuring it is to state, and reply to, various common anti-communist objections. And, to an extent, the document follows this course (Does communism run counter to human nature? No, it doesn’t. Does communism presuppose an unrealistic level of abundance? No: everything depends on how ‘abundance’ is conceived.) But, if the document is to be structured in this way, it is important that all anti-communist objections – or, at least, a good many frequent anti-communist objections – be addressed. To be sure the document as it stands is unfinished. But a listing of further possible objections is one way in which discussion of the document might be furthered. I return to this.
− If the document attempts to renew the left’s vision/perspective, one way of doing this would be to focus on the notion of ‘abundance’ and give this theme priority in all that is said. In fact, the document might be retitled ‘Communism and Abundance’ – a title which does justice what the document as it stands so far says. The polemical force of the document would then be that of recapturing an idea frequently used as a criticism of communism and deploying it in a radical way.
Of the two ways of reading and developing the document, the second strikes me as the most attractive. It does so for two reasons. One is that a piece structured around objections tends to have a “backward-looking” tone; a charismatic and confident tone can be difficult to achieve. The other is that I like very much the idea of developing (and, in developing, redefining) the notion of abundance: shifting it away from the idea of having “as much as you want of everything you want” (bottom of p. 2), that is, and taking it to mean (or, rather, include) sharing ‘in another’s growth’ (top of p. 4). Likewise I like the idea of seeing abundance as having ‘literally,the time of our life’ (top of p. 5). These formulations and lines of thought seem to me to go to the centre of “communism” and could be filled out to be the core of an inspiring pamphlet.
I’d like to say a little more about how these lines of thought regarding ‘abundance’ might be developed – and why I find them attractive. In the history of political theory one can, I think, find two contrasting ideas of liberty (or freedom): freedom can be seen (as it is seen by liberals) as “negative” freedom – which comes down to freedom which exists in spite of others. (One is free to the extent that other individuals do not trespass on ones patch.) Or freedom can be seen as existing through others or through interaction with others: this sort of freedom is commonly enjoyed through a good conversation, through meeting new people, through a love affair, etc., etc. Communism (as understood by Marx) involves – and maximises, makes central – freedom/liberty in the second of these meanings. The two meanings map (so I suggest) on to the document’s discussion of abundance: abundance understood in terms of having “as much as you want” (capitalist abundance) links together with freedom in spite of others, whereas abundance seen in terms of sharing ‘in another’s growth’ links together with freedom through.
I have another (related) reason for liking the discussion of abundance. The theme of sharing seems to me central to the notion of communism – not merely in general, but in a specific sense. In seventeenth-century political theory – in, for example, Grotius and Pufendorf and Locke – justifications of private property are frequently based on the circumstance (well, the alleged circumstance) that resources can, at bottom, be used only in an individual way. For an apple – say – to be enjoyed, it must be my apple. (The justification starts by looking at objects which are destroyed through consumption, and then attempts to generalise to wider and wider sorts of thing: from, say, to apples to livestock to land.) In order to rebut such pro-private-property arguments, the key thing to insist upon is, I think, the notion of shared use. What makes use shared (rather than merely individual) is, I propose, the notion of respecting others’ use of the same thing. It’s true enough that apples are, mostly, eaten by individuals: but, broadening the focus, orchards need to be used in an other-respecting way. In the words of the document, helping yourself to “as much as you want” – or, in the words of political theory, presupposing a ‘negative community of goods’ – despoils orchards and relates to others as though they didn’t exist. In E.P. Thompson’s phrase, an individualist use of resources (as distinct from a shared use of resources) overlooks the circumstance that, historically, ‘commoners [those using a commons]…were not without common-sense’ (Customs in Common, Penguin, p. 107).
So – many lines in the document resonate with my own lines of thinking. And I think that infusing the left with a sense of confidence and vision is not just a worthwhile but an essential aim! A pamphlet/document attempting to build confidence and vision is, I think, timely. When Costas Douzinas and Slavoj Zizak open their edited volume The Idea of Communism with the following declaration – ‘The long night of the left is drawing to a close. The defeat, denunciations and despair of the 1980s and 1990s, the triumphalist “end of history”, the unipolar world of American hegemony – all are fast becoming old news’ (Idea of Communism, Verso, p. vii) – they strike, it seems to me, exactly the right political note.
I end by returning to an objection which a pamphlet designed to rebut obections to communism might wish to address. In the wake of the Soviet Union’s demise, and in a world where neoliberalism has until recently been triumphant, the most frequently heard objection to communism is: communism doesn’t work, whereas a market-based economy does. Such an objection is, in effect, a polemical rehearsal of points regarding “socialist calculation” which were first stated by L. von Mises in the 1920s (see his Socialism [current edition Liberty Classics] chs. 5 and 6) and restated by Hayek (e.g. in his The Road to Serfdom of 1944, ch. IV). A sample quote from Mises gives the general idea: ‘Once society abandonds free pricing [i.e. market pricing] of producer goods rational production becomes impossible. Every step that leads away from private ownership of the means of production and the use of money is a step away from rational economic activity’ (Socialism p. 102). Should “socialism” therefore involve a market? Can socialism involve a market? As is well known, generations of communists/socialists have tied themselves in such knots.
I don’t attempt to supply an answer to Mises’ and Hayek’s line of argument here! My only point is that, if the pamphlet/document is to be structured as a series of objections to anti-communist arguments, the Mises/Hayek objection is one which might be addressed. BUT I do have a rather general suggestion about how a Mises-Hayek objection can be answered: the trick is not to let oneself become lost in minutia about how market socialism/co-operative socialism/etc. May be organised but to draw attention to the circumstance that pricing through markets is a drastically poor economic and social indicator. Nor only are millions upon millions left out of account, but where markets are in operation they may “go off the rails”. They may “go off the rails” by generating war and inequality and short-term/long-term blinkeredness. If they stay on the rails, relatively speaking or in however estranged a fashion, they do so because they are socially embedded (rather than market principles pulling society’s strings). In a word, Mises in effect argues that capitalism works, on the whole, whereas socialism doesn’t (and can’t). A response to Mises’ contentions – a response made with neoliberalism’s record in mind – is that capitalism’s claims to provide social order are a fake.
April 17th 2012