What is communism and how do we get there?

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Presentation to the ICC Public Forums, Winter 2006

What is communism and how do we get there?

Communism is not a ‘nice idea’; it’s a material necessity. Not a nice idea? Actually, for most of the past century we have been told that it’s a very bad idea, because it means a totalitarian state, poverty wages, superpower politics, labour camps, etc. But despite the vast lie that communism=Stalinism, the idea still persisted that Stalinism wasn’t really communism at all, certainly not the communism envisaged by Marx. But there’s another line of defence: what happened in Russia proves it’s no more than a ‘nice idea’, unworkable in practice because of human nature or the complexities of the modern world. In fact, the very attempt to put it into practice is bound to end in something horrible. So better put up with what we’ve got…

Our point of departure – that of Marxism – is that communism isn’t a ‘nice idea’ because it’s not some scheme invented by well-meaning reformers, but corresponds to a necessity and a possibility provided by the dynamic of history. It’s a necessity because the present organisation of human society – capitalism – has reached a point where it is the system that can’t work for humanity. It has developed man’s powers of production to an unprecedented degree, but in such a manner that these very powers are turning against mankind and threatening to overwhelm him. This is evident when we look at the way technology and science are being used not to free mankind from useless toil and satisfy the basic material needs of the human species, but to create vast arsenals of extermination, to despoil the natural environment, and to serve the needs of a tiny exploiting minority. The very continuation of capitalism, in fact, has become a danger to humanity’s survival, whether through war, ecological collapse, or a combination of both. So getting rid of the present system is not just a nice idea, it’s a historic necessity that is imposed on mankind. It’s possible because the system has set in motion forces that can overcome it: the productive capacity to create abundance and thus end exploitation, and a social class which has a material interest in making a revolution against capitalism, in abolishing capitalist social relations. But note that necessity does not equal inevitability: communism is possible, but so too is the other alternative: the collapse into total barbarism.

When we answer the question ‘what is communism’, it is often necessary to begin with negatives. Certainly by saying ‘it’s not the USSR, China or Cuba’. But more generally by showing what features of the present system have to be got rid of. We could, for example, say:

a) Communism is a society without classes. It’s a basic axiom of the dominant ideology that society always has one bunch of people at the top and the rest at the bottom, with a few in the middle. In other words, that class divisions have always existed and will always exist. In fact, class society is quite a recent invention historically speaking. For tens of thousands of years human beings lived in a ‘primitive’ form of communism, also imposed by necessity. Class divisions emerged over a long period but finally gave rise to the first ‘civilisations’. So communism does set itself a pretty ambitious task is saying it’s going to get rid of thousands of years of class exploitation, which took various forms before capitalism arrived on the scene (despotism, slavery, serfdom…). But at the same time the existence of primitive communism disproves the argument that there’s something ‘natural’ about class divisions. They arose at a certain stage of history because of the old egalitarian social relations became a barrier to the development of the productive forces; but the present social relations have themselves become a barrier to further progress; what is now needed is to get rid of class divisions and private property and create a true community, where all wealth is controlled by the community for its own needs, not for the needs of a privileged minority;

b) Because it’s a society without classes, it’s a society without a state. The state has not been there for all time but arose as society split into contending classes, with the function of preserving social cohesion in the interests of the dominant class. Get rid of class divisions and you get rid of the state. This is already an answer to all those who argue that the more the state controls the economy, the closer we get to socialism or communism;

c) Communism is a society without money. In other words: unlike in capitalism where everything is produced for sale and to make a profit, in communism the motive of production is to meet human needs. Money will become unnecessary because production and consumption are no longer mediated by exchange. Again, this is possible because it has finally become feasible to produce enough for everybody’s needs, so goods can be freely distributed, even if, as with the problem of the state, this can’t be solved overnight. And it’s a necessity because producing for profit is the source of all the contradictions of the capitalist economy – the tendency towards the fall in the rate of profit and the crisis of overproduction. These contradictions once spurred capitalism to become a world wide system, and in this sense laid the foundations for communism, but at a certain point they became the source of growing catastrophes which demand a fundamental reorganisation of the whole system of production;

d) Communism is also a society without national frontiers. Capitalism developed the nation state as its ‘highest’ form of unity, but again, the very form of the nation state has become a fundamental obstacle, a danger for humanity, because capitalist competition has essentially become economic and military warfare between armed powers for the control of the globe. But despite this ‘war of each against all’, the system still functions as whole and it is impossible to escape its laws inside one region or country. The revolution has to be worldwide, and the new social organisation has to use all the earth’s resources in common. This is evident, for example, when it comes to dealing with the ecological crisis.

These are all negative definitions. Which doesn’t mean that communism is just negation. Marxists have always avoided ‘recipes’ but from the young Marx onwards there have been attempts to describe in positive terms what communism, especially in its more advanced phases, will be like: labour as a source of pleasure not torture; the fusion of work, science and art; man’s harmony with nature ‘without and within’ and thus the overcoming of the conflict between consciousness and instinct…. 

For us, these attempts by Marxists to describe the distant communist future are not ‘utopian’ because they are based on real human capacities: as Trotsky put it, the average human being will one day be as creative as Goethe or Shakespeare, but Goethe and Shakespeare are also only human, products of real human life. But they are also not utopian because communism is, as Marx put it, is “the real movement that abolishes the present state of affairs”. In one sense, this movement is the movement of all the exploited and oppressed classes in history, but more specifically, it is the movement of the proletariat, the working class. From the beginning Marx based his understanding of communism on the recognition that there was a class in society whose struggle had an implicitly communist dynamic - a class which could only emancipate itself by emancipating the whole of society from thousands of years of exploitation.

The proletarian struggle contains a dynamic towards communism because this is a class that can only defend itself in an associated manner, through the widest possible solidarity – and the society of the future is a society founded on solidarity. It contains a dynamic towards communism because communism is the first society in history where mankind will have a conscious mastery of its own productive powers – and the class struggle of the proletariat cannot advance without becoming increasingly conscious of its methods and its goals. From the beginning therefore, these fundamental needs of the class movement, the need for solidarity and the need to become conscious of its goals, gave rise to organised forms – trade unions, mutual aid societies, cooperatives on the one hand; and political organisations or parties on the other. Constantly subject to the pressure of the dominant class and its ideology, these forms often disappeared or were captured by the enemy class, but the class struggle constantly gave rise to new forms more suited to its own evolution.

Thus, as capitalism reached the end of its ascendant course, as it entered its epoch of decline, the proletarian movement was no longer simply confronted with the need to define and defend itself within the existing order, but to turn defence into attack and mount a challenge to the very foundations of that order. Marx had deduced that the class struggle would lead to revolution from the first defensive skirmishes of proletarians hardly evolved from their artisan roots. But even in his lifetime the capacity of the working class to storm the heavens was demonstrated in practice by the Paris Commune, the first “workingman’s government”, the first indication of the capacity of the working class to overturn the existing state power and set up its own form of power. The capacity of the proletariat to organise itself as a force antagonistic to capital was further demonstrated by the mass strikes in Russia in 1905, and on an even higher level by the revolutionary wave that arose in response to the First World War, the highest point of all being the seizure of power by the soviets or workers’ councils in Russia. The workers’ councils, as Lenin observed, were the finally discovered form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. A form which allowed the whole working class to regroup, to control its struggles through mass assemblies and revocable delegates, to fuse the economic and the political dimension of the struggle, to arm itself and destroy the bourgeois state. A form, finally, which allowed the consciousness of the working class to progress by leaps and bounds, influenced decisively by the intervention of the most advanced fraction of the class, the communist party.

The revolutionary wave that followed the war was defeated. In Russia, where the working class for the first time took power at the level of an entire country, the revolution was strangled by isolation and the very instruments that had served it at one stage turned against it at another. But from this tragic experience, vital lessons were learned, in particular: the necessity for the workers’ councils to maintain their autonomy from all other political institutions that may arise after the destruction of the old apparatus of power; the impossibility of the communist party taking on tasks that belong to the class as a whole, above all the exercising of political power; the understanding that the nationalisation of the economy does not mean a break with capitalist social relations.

Despite the historic defeat suffered by the working class at that time, despite all the horrors that followed in its wake - Stalinist and Nazi terror, a second imperialist world war – we do not therefore conclude that the communist revolution is an impossible dream, but remain determined to preserve and develop these lessons so that they can feed into the revolution of the future. WR, 23/11/06.