The article that follows is based on the presentations given to ICC public forums in London and Birmingham
The ICC has just published a new book. Communism, not a nice idea but a material necessity. It’s the first volume of a collection of articles that we started publishing as a series in the early 1990s.
Responding to the barrage on the ‘death of communism’
At that time, and for some time after, you couldn’t move without coming across another book, article or TV programme on the ‘death of communism’. As communists we had two important things to explain. Firstly there was the basic question: what sort of societies had existed in Russia and the rest of Eastern Europe. In the west they were called communist, in the east socialist, and most of the leftists said they were some variety of workers’ state. This was a fairly straightforward thing to explain. It was clear that the regimes in Eastern Europe were repressive and militarised – western propaganda not only said that all the time, it happened to be true. What the ICC and other groups of the communist left were able to show was that the ruling class in every country in the eastern bloc exploited the working class, based itself on the value created by the working class, that the states in the east were capitalist, were apparatuses used by a capitalist class, just as throughout the rest of the world. It was also necessary to show that these states were imperialist in their appetites, as was shown in the Second World War, in Korea and Vietnam where the USSR backed the regimes in the north, in the Warsaw pact interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, throughout the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere in the world. In the words of the old Solidarity group, the free world wasn’t free and the communist not communist.
That was the easy thing to show – but it still left something else to explain. If what existed in Eastern Europe wasn’t communism then what was communism? The basic refrain was that communism was a nice idea but it wouldn’t work in practice, it went against selfish human nature – Russia proved that. The series of articles on communism has tried to trace the history of the debates within the workers’ movement about the meaning of communism and the means to achieve it. The first volume is mainly devoted to the 19th century. A second volume will deal with the period from the mass strikes of 1905 to the end of the revolutionary wave after the First World War. A third volume is underway.
From primitive communism to class society
The first thing to recognise is that for most of human history - however far back you measure it - there has not been exploitation, there has not been class society. There have been small bands of hunter-gatherers without property and therefore no basis for the establishment of classes based on property. Not only that. If you look at humanity’s emergence from the animal world it was not based on being physically powerful or a natural predator – the earliest hominids were probably just scavengers. But how did they not only survive, but actually succeed so dramatically? It was as a social animal, working together, in hunting, foraging, exploring, in tool making, in the development of language and above all of consciousness. Emerging humanity was a social creature, absolutely dependent – in a life or death sense – on being able to rely on others, on maintaining relations of trust, of solidarity, of communication within small communities. By considering such questions, the book on communism touches on what it is to be human, anticipating a number of the themes currently being discussed in the ICC around the question of ethics (see the orientation text in International Reviews 127 and 128). In particular, the book devotes a lot of space to the problem of man’s alienation and thus to how alienation can be overcome in a truly human society.
The period before the emergence of inequality and exploitation is known as primitive communism by marxists, and its basic characteristics are recognised by all serious paleo-anthropologists. We don’t idolise this period, seeing clearly its limitations. We can also see the advances made with the development of agriculture, the beginnings of a social surplus and the gains – both material and theoretical – made in class societies – whether Asiatic, slave or feudal. Class society is, therefore – in terms of the history of humanity – relatively recent. If agriculture is only ten thousand years old, class society later and the first states not appearing until maybe five thousand years ago in Mesopotamia and then Egypt and China – it’s clear that a lot of the things we are told are innate in human nature are actually the product of particular phases of historic development. To this we can add that as far as we are aware from written history, there have also been those who imagined an end to class society, an end to the state, throughout much of the history of class society. However, typically this took religious forms, or was at the level of a dream with no real conception of how society could actually change.
It’s in the beginning of capitalist production and the emergence of the proletariat that we begin to see critiques which link the suffering within class society with the possibilities of a future classless society. In the peasant wars in Germany in the early 16th century, with Winstanley and the Diggers and similar groups in the English Revolution in the 17th century, with Babeuf and the Conspiracy of Equals in the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century, we see the beginnings of ideas that link social revolt with the possibilities of a new society not based on property.
But it’s with the increasing dominance of capitalist society in the 19th century that we see the contributions of those who – although described as ‘utopian’ – had insights which subsequent revolutionaries were able to build on. Saint-Simon saw the French Revolution as a war between classes. Fourier was a trenchant critic of bourgeois hypocrisy, who also described periods of historical development, and who saw a future society where labour had become passionate enjoyment. Robert Owen looked for an alternative to capitalist exploitation, and participated in the early attempts of the working class to organise itself. However, the one thing that these critics lacked was any sense of the significance of the working class and its struggles. This is where the contributions of Marx and Engels have their unique importance.
The emergence of marxist communism
The word socialism dates from the 1830s, communism from the early 1840s. The reason these terms emerged and became known rapidly in a number of languages was because there were people posing the possibility of a new society. What made Marx distinct in a milieu that was alive with various forms of social criticism? It’s certainly right to see French politics, German philosophy and English economics as important elements in the marxist theory of communist revolution. French politics, in terms of the view of society as made up of conflicting classes. German philosophy, in building on the method of Hegel. English economics, with some of the understanding of how the capitalist economy functions, in particular the central role of the working class in the creation of value. All these are important aspects in the development of marxism. But what’s most important is the link between the working class and the possibility of communism. Marx identified the working class as the only revolutionary class within capitalism, but it is also an exploited class. At the heart of the capitalist economy, the working class is the only class capable of overthrowing the exploiting bourgeoisie, but because it is an exploited class it has no new exploitative relations of production to introduce. A society created by the working class is going to be based on the relations of association, the links of solidarity that are intrinsic to the proletariat, a class whose only weapons are its consciousness and its self-organisation.
So although there were in the 19th century many socialist, communist, anarchist, mutualist, collectivist currents, it was only marxism that was really able to pose fundamental questions and also give coherent answers.
Lessons of the class struggle
In 1848 there were revolts across Europe. More radical or democratic factions came to power or at least influence. But instead of proving to be allies of the working class they turned out to be just another face of bourgeois order, intent on imposing order on the working class as soon as they became part of the state. This showed that the working class had to fight for its independence, to struggle for its own demands, developing its own political programme and organisations and never surrendering its weapons to capitalist governments. The basic question of class autonomy is relevant to the immediate defensive struggles of the working class as well as the historic struggle for communism.
With the defeat of the working class after 1848 Marx identified the importance of the material situation in which workers found themselves. If capitalism was still developing, growing, flourishing, then revolution was not on the agenda. Workers could expect decades of defeat. However, he anticipated the eventual permanent crisis of the capitalist system, and with that crisis the potentially revolutionary struggle of the working class. It’s only with the decadence of the capitalist mode of production that revolution becomes a real material possibility. In this context, the book looks at Marx’s differences with the anarchists and others, who saw revolution primarily a question of will, possible at any moment regardless of the objective conditions.
Another key area in which marxism made a vital contribution was in the study of capital. This might seem a very dry or obscure subject but it provides essential theoretical underpinnings in the struggle for communism. For a start, the understanding of the ascendance and decadence of past modes of production is easy to identify historically, but understanding capitalism’s development and the contradictions that it can’t overcome is vital if the working class is to be fully conscious of the system it has to destroy. But also in examining commodity production, and, in particular, understanding the labour theory of value, it’s possible to see both the nature of the current society and the potential and essential characteristics of a future society not based on exploitation, competition and the struggle of each against all.
But of all the events in the 19th century that helped in the development of the theory of the communist revolution the Paris Commune of 1871 was probably the most important. Precisely because of the way that the false view of communism identifies it with the power of the state, Marx’s understanding of what happened with the first workers’ government can’t be underestimated. Far from being a movement for state control Marx saw that workers couldn’t just take over the existing state but had to destroy it. Not only that, they had to organise to ensure their domination over society, to stop the organisation of counter-revolutionary forces, to establish, in the phrase most characteristic of marxism, the dictatorship of the proletariat. Marx and Engels also developed an understanding, taken up by others later, of the distinction between reform and revolution. They lived in a time when the bourgeoisie could concede lasting reforms, but Marx and Engels never lost sight of the nature of the state or the revolutionary goal.
The social democratic parties and the Second International contained many revolutionary currents and their contributions on the meaning of socialism, and in particular the views of militants like William Morris and August Bebel on general social questions such as the oppression of women, the environment and the transformation of work are examined in the book. But the tragedy of social democracy was that it increasingly fell under the influence of those who came to see reforms and a place in parliament as being just about the sum total of the socialist movement. All this is dealt with in the book.
This volume covers the period prior to the 1905 revolution in Russia. It shows theoretical developments in the 19th century, in the light of social change, in the light of the experience of the working class. It tries to get to the core of the marxist contribution to the workers’ movement.
It’s worth saying at this stage that there are of course other currents that have a different approach to the marxist contributions from the 19th century. The Bordigist groups of the Italian Left claim that marxism has been unvarying since the Communist Manifesto of 1848. They completely deny the profound developments made by the workers’ movement since and also the change in capitalism from a developing mode of production to a system in decay. As a footnote the Socialist Party of Great Britain claim to be a long-term thorough-going marxist current, but they deny point blank that the working class has to destroy the state and say the tools of capitalist oppression can be used by socialists
This book, like those we have published on the Italian, German-Dutch, Russian and British Communist Left, and like the two volumes to come, is a contribution to discussion within the workers’ movement, among those who want to participate in a class movement that can destroy capitalism. That discussion can take place in the pages of journals, in online forums, but also right here. Barrow 12/5/7