Socialism’s vision of the future

October 12, 2010

Shaun Harkin reviews Tariq Ali's short answer to the question: What is Communism?

THE IDEA of Communism by Tariq Ali is the first book in a five-part series edited by Ali that will examine "What Was Communism?" The aim of the series is to investigate why communism failed in the 20th century: What went wrong, was its collapse inevitable, what can we learn from it, and what parts of the experience should we rehabilitate?

This short, accessible book sets out to trace the origins of the Communist movement, the contributions of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels and the ideas they developed, the impact of the 1917 Russian Revolution, why Stalinism arose and how, the reasons for Stalinism's collapse, and, finally, why socialism is still the necessary alternative to a world wracked by capitalist crisis, war and oppression.

In his introduction, Ali sardonically writes:

Capitalism appears more like a nervous disease these days than a triumphal, overconfident system generating unchallengeable ideologies to buttress and further its victories--democratism, free-marketism, human rightsism--and to suggest to a passive world that the haves and the have-mores have defeated the have-nots and the never-will-haves forever. There is no reason to despair since the defeat of Communism has been beneficial for every individual regardless of his or her class position. Have-nots in the old sense, we are told, no longer exist. In the new world order, the many benefit from their own exploitation by the few.

Members of the Red Guard march under the banner of "Communism" following the 1917 Russian Revolution
Members of the Red Guard march under the banner of "Communism" following the 1917 Russian Revolution

Since the collapse of the USSR and the so-called "Communist" regimes of Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we have been told that "there is no alternative" to capitalism. In this narrative, capitalism is the culmination of history and the only available system for us to live under, so the only option for those interested in fighting for social justice is to accept the logic of capitalism--to accept that there will always be haves and have-nots, and limit the struggle to expanding democracy and reducing inequality within the system.

However, the last 20 years plus have witnessed a growing "democratic deficit" in the developed capitalist world, as politics become increasingly corporatized. More than $5 billion will be spent on the U.S. midterm elections alone--even though among ordinary people, there is greater and greater apathy toward mainstream political parties that pushed through neoliberal economic policies, then bank bail-outs and now austerity.

Inequality has grown in every walk of life--income, education, the environment, health care, leisure, child care, transportation and housing. The logic of triumphant unchallengeable capitalism led the U.S. into the war and occupation of Iraq starting in 2003, to impose neoliberal economics and democracy. The outcome has been greater suffering and death for the Iraqi people and a much more dangerous world.

WHILE CAPITALISM may have discredited itself, what the alternative should be is less obvious to most people. The mainstream press may occasionally credit Marx's economic insights into capitalism, but no one will address seriously the aim of his life's work--the self-emancipation of the working-class. This has been tried and failed, we are told.

Because of the lasting legacy of the failure of what was called "Communism" in Russia, the recovery of the real Marxist tradition requires a rediscovery of the premises on which it was initially founded, Ali writes:

The notion of "freedom" emerged as a response to slavery; the idea of "Communism" grew out of a need to challenge the wage-slavery of workers during industrial capitalism of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The processes were considered analogous. Whereas a slave was regarded as private property to be bought and sold in the marketplace, the worker or wage-slave was property-less, but enchained. The slave lived in shacks close to the fields and plantations, dependent on his or her owner for continued existence. The first industrial workers lived in semi-slums close to the factory or the mines where they were employed; in many cases, these were owned by their employers and tied to the job. Out of work, out of home.

The struggle against class oppression is a constant one in human history, from Spartacus in the ancient world to England's rebel peasants in 1381. However, the rise of industrial capitalism put the struggle on a new plane. The vast productive capacity of capitalism meant that scarcity could now be abolished. Marx and Engels put the vision of socialism on a scientific footing by insisting that the material basis now existed for a society based on collective democratic ownership.

However, the establishment of socialism would require a fundamental political and social struggle to undo thousands of years of class rule. In response to industrial capitalism, workers began to organize themselves into associations, attempting to forge unity to fight their employers for better conditions and pay.

The ideas of the new communist movement were articulated by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, published in 1848. Ali writes about the origins of the Manifesto:

The first systematic attempts to codify the ideas known as Communism were born together with the modern proletariat during the early years of the Industrial Revolution--the technological leap that transformed the West (and Japan). Its results were what we can, in retrospect, describe as the first wave of globalization. From its continental launching pad, western Europe went in search of new markets and, in the process, unleashed a set of colonial wars and occupations that laid the foundation of new empires.

While capitalism has today become a global system with a global market, in the 1840s, it was still in its infancy, primarily located in some parts of Europe. The birth of capitalism brought into being a new social class--the proletariat. Europe's new working classes owned nothing but their ability to work--they could only sell their labor to feed, clothe and house themselves and their families.

Previously, laborers had some control over their work. Now, they were "freed" from control over tools and land, and had to seek employment in workshops and factories, with no control over what was produced or how work was organized. However, the new factory system gave workers the ability to organize collectively--and as capitalism expanded so did the working class.

MARX DIDN'T develop his ideas in isolation--they went through a tremendous process of development. Initially, Marx was attracted to the ideas of the German philosopher Georg Hegel. Hegel's dialectical method of viewing all things in constant motion and conflict was visionary, but his politics and support for the Prussian state were reactionary and repulsive. Marx adapted Hegel's dialectical method to materialism and further based his theories on British political economy, revolutionary French "Enlightenment" thought and interaction with groups of revolutionary workers in Europe.

Ali captures the cornerstone of Marx's development:

It was not enough to say that humans were a product of their environment or that property was theft. What were the conditions that produced the ensemble of social relations that highlighted the difference between one class and another? Surely, Marx argued, it was this complex of contradictions that had to be analyzed in order to understand the world.

Marx and his co-thinkers were to spend their entire lives answering this question and, in the course of their researches, producing analyses of differing social formations since the beginning of written history. This history could only be understood as a clash between contending classes and economic interests.

Understanding history this way was later categorized as historical materialism and, in some ways, remains the most important contribution of Marx, Frederick Engels and the historians who followed their tracks. It transformed the way history was studied, and Feminist and Black Studies owe a great deal to this tradition.

The period from 1789 to 1848, when Marx was forming his ideas, has been called the epoch of the "dual revolution"--it combined the French "political" revolution of 1789 and the industrial revolution most evident in huge cities like Britain's Manchester.

Both contributed to the revolutionary wave that broke out across Europe in 1848, challenging the absolutist monarchies and aristocrats' control of land. The backdrop to these revolts was the great technological transformations, the continuing rise of capitalism, demands for "universal suffrage" and national freedom, and the reaction to urban and rural poverty. Nevertheless, in 1848, the social power of the working class in Europe was still quite weak.

Ali describes the impact of Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto in these circumstances:

Marx completed the final text, with some help from Citizen Engels, in the first weeks of February 1848. It was published a few days before the eruption of the 1848 revolutions, first in France and then spreading to the rest of the continent. Though the Manifesto played no part in the preparation of, nor had any impact on, these events, its influence began to grow. By the time of the Paris Commune of 1871, the message outlined in the text was well established. The famous opening sentences became prophetic for the century that lay ahead, except that the specter of Communism no longer haunted Europe alone, but the world.

The modern communist movement based on the organized collective power of the new working class was now born in both theory and practice. The ideas of the Manifesto spread impressively, making sense of the world in which workers found themselves, and pointing toward how they could liberate themselves from being mere appendages of factory machines and immiserated by capital to being fully freed human beings.

1871 WAS a watershed moment for the working-class movement. Parisian workers, abandoned by France's government after a losing war against Prussia, rose up to take control of their city rather than face occupation by the German military. Ali extensively quotes Marx's chief writings on the Paris Commune in the Civil War in France, where Marx drew some conclusions about what a workers' state could look like:

The Commune was formed of the municipal councilors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms. The majority of its members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not parliamentary, body, executive and legislative at the same time...From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workmen's wages.

Though the Paris Commune lasted only a brief period, a matter of months, this was the first glimpse of what workers' power--a society without bosses--could look like. Though brutally crushed, Marx championed and defended what the Commune had accomplished.

The political era that followed next involved the Great Power carve-up of the entire globe and a new imperial rivalry based on capitalist competition, the growth of powerful socialist parties and trade unions in Europe and the continued international expansion of the working class.

But the eruption of the First World War in 1914 coincided with a devastating blow to the socialist movement--socialist parties in Europe that had professed their opposition to militarism and commitment to international working-class solidarity against war sided with their own governments. Though Marxist in name, the parties of the Second International network of socialist organizations had become thoroughly reformist in practice.

However, out of the ruins of the Second International, a new revolutionary socialist movement was born. Russian workers, inspired by Marxism, ended Russia's involvement in the great slaughter of the First World War by toppling the rule of the Tsar and establishing a new state based on workers' councils.

"[T]he hopes aroused by the victory of the Russian Revolution in 1917 defy quantification," Ali writes. "They crossed national frontiers with ease and aroused the working class throughout Europe." He goes on to describe the difference between the worker-led revolution of 1917 and previous revolutions--such as the English Revolution led by Cromwell and the New Model Army in 1649 and the French Revolution led by Robespierre and the Jacobins in 1789:

After 1917, socialism appeared as a practical possibility to millions of people across the globe. Empires felt threatened. Capital trembled. Social democracy split into pro- and anti-revolutionary factions. The fall of Petrograd was, in other words, a universal event. The specter of which Marx and Engels had written in the Communist Manifesto had been brought to life. The rulers of Europe, who occupied large parts of three other continents, buried their complacency as their subjects became increasingly restive.

Crowned heads had, of course, been toppled before, but those responsible for these acts had been the unwitting agents of a historical progression. Cromwell believed he was guided by Providence, both when he was negotiating with Charles I and after the stubborn and manipulative monarch had turned down all overtures and offers of compromise, leaving only one solution open. Robespierre claimed to acting in the name of abstract principle.

Lenin was not merely the beneficiary of a different historical time, he was also the major leader of a political party that based itself on a new understanding of existing social forces. It was their materialist view of history that distinguished the Bolsheviks from all previous revolutionary organizations. They acted as the conscious agents of a rising social class and were determined (after considerable theoretical and political turmoil in the upper reaches of the party) to declare war on property and transform the entire social basis of the state.

Marx had argued that the working class was a "universal" class in the sense that it had the potential to liberate all of humanity. Previous revolutionary movements mobilized wide sections of society, but never aimed to create economic equality. Capitalism had created the basis for economic equality, and the working class could only liberate itself by collectively taking control over society. Thus, the revolution of the working class was the first in history that could act in the interests of the vast majority rather than a minority.

THE RUSSIAN Revolution inspired workers and the oppressed the world over. But it wasn't followed by similar revolutions anywhere else in Europe. Russian workers heroically defended the revolution from reaction inside Russian and from invasion by imperial armies, but the new workers' state was left isolated. Ali explains how this led to the conditions that allowed Stalinism to come to power:

Direct military intervention had failed to defeat the Red Army, but the Revolution was scarred by the experience: a debilitated economy, a war-weary population, the loss of a whole layer of the most politically conscious workers and mass famines were the inevitable outcomes. The economic blockade imposed by capital succeeded in quarantining the Revolution.

Stalinism was the outcome of these multifaceted processes. The preponderance of the peasantry; the weakness of the working class; the total lack of democratic traditions; the failure of the Revolution to spread to even one advanced country in the West; the deaths of Lenin and Sverdlov--all these factors were inextricably linked.

The result was a growing passivity and demoralization in the towns. The growing apparatuses of party and state absorbed many workers. In the conditions that existed at the time, this was an event of decisive importance: it led to a qualitative increase in the in the political and social weight of the functionaries. The rapid growth of material privileges that this layer enjoyed relative to the average working-class family was bound to have an effect inside the party and state in the conditions of scarcity.

In other words, Stalinism wasn't the direct outcome of trying to change society too much, too fast, as critics of Marxism claim. Nor can it be explained by some universal flaw in "human nature."

Nor should Lenin and the Bolsheviks be blamed for leading Russia out of the First World War and calling for international revolution. Ali challenges the idea that good revolutionaries at a certain point go bad when intoxicated with power. He writes:

It is often forgotten in the West and in restorationist Russia that the first victims of Stalinism were Communist revolutionaries who protested against bureaucratic travesties of the revolutionary process. In order to stabilize his regime, Stalin was to kill more Communists and socialists than his absolutist predecessor, the Tsar. The question "what is Stalinism?" was first asked in whispers by imprisoned veterans of the Revolution. The first political strike against Stalinism was undertaken by old Bolshevik prisoners in the Vorkuta prison camp.

After surviving the Second World War, the USSR emerged from the slaughter strengthened, with a new set of satellite regimes across about one-third of Europe. The grip of Stalinism on the world communist movement was tightened, and this would distort every struggle in the post-war decades--China, Cuba and Vietnam, to name a few.

Ali describes how Marxism was "mummified" in the hands of the Stalinists:

Stalinism was provided with a legitimacy it had hitherto established over the corpses of old Bolsheviks. In the postwar years, the Stalinist seal was observed on every level: state, economy, culture, Army and Church. Unable because of its peculiar position to develop its own ideology, Stalinism transformed Marxist theory into a set of pragmatic rules. History was systematically falsified and rewritten; natural sciences were obstructed and research suppressed; women's rights were severely curtailed; divorce legislation was designed to encourage "family life" and the right to an abortion was halted; homosexuality was regarded as a perversion, although it was not made illegal.

To understand how the Stalinist economies functioned, Ali argues that the analysis developed by the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in the 1930s remains unsurpassed. However, the understanding of the USSR among those who were inspired by Trotsky's resistance to Stalin diverged in important ways following Trotsky's death. Ali addresses some of the different approaches taken by Trotsky's followers, including the theories of Russia as a degenerated workers' state, as state capitalist and as bureaucratic collectivist, but more discussion is needed to understand the dynamics of the USSR economy.

The legacy of Stalinism has been a tremendous burden for the revolutionary socialist movement. Stalinism turned socialism upside down. Rather than a system based on democratic workers' control, the USSR and the "communist" regimes based on its model were politically monolithic, bureaucratic and commandist, with conflicts between bosses and workers, and cults of personality around the main leader.

Generations of workers in the East became completely embittered because of the experience of dictatorships ruling in the name of communism--while in the West, socialism and Marxism were discredited by Stalinism's militarism and lack of democracy, and the role that Communist Parties played in undercutting struggles to fit the needs of the USSR's foreign policy. Destroying the notion that Stalinism and the societies based on it have anything in common with the goal of Marxism is a huge task, but an important one.

Today, as capitalism's crisis grows deeper and resistance to the effects of the crisis continues to develop, the question of whether an alternative is possible has become increasingly urgent. Ali's book is an important step in fighting for a renewal of Marxism and communism that can free it from the grotesque distortions of Stalinism and its close cousin Maoism.

The struggle to redefine socialism as the politics and practice of workers' control of society from below and human liberation from war, oppression and exploitation is absolutely crucial--the arguments in The Idea of Communism are an important contribution to this fight.

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