Like many others I delighted to see Ash Sarkar‘s comeback to Piers Morgan last week regarding the Trump visit to the UK. Let’s have it again …
Aside from a good laugh at seeing Morgan - a serial pretender to the art of journalism - being challenged on his own programme, it made me think about what Communism means in the twenty-first century, especially in light of researching my great-grandfather, a German communist that fled Nazi Germany in 1933, and whether this is a term we can - or even should - reclaim in the identity politics of 2018 Britain.
Communism and Socialism
Politically I am left. I believe in equality and fairness and that the interests of people must outweigh the interests of business. I believe that you cannot have wealth without poverty. I believe as a society we have more to offer if we focus on what unites us rather than what divides us. I also believe that this must extend beyond national boundaries. I believe that the state has a duty to care for the poorest and weakest members of our society, that education and healthcare (both the NHS and community health - mental and physical) are fundamental priorities and that these are best served under some kind of centralised authority (‘the state’).
This puts me squarely in the camp of socialism. But I have a problem with this being labelled as Communism, really for two reasons: the first, historical and secondly, the roots, aspirations and requirements of Communism itself.
I am a proud socialist - this is a badge that I will openly wear and a label I will regularly use to describe myself with. What is surprising is how many people challenge this and especially how many people misunderstand this.
Socialism is regularly conflated with Communism. I once had someone challenge me on my political beliefs quoting Orwell had been against socialism (citing Animal Farm). The truth is that there has been a long history in Britain and the US of demonising the Left and an outcome of this is the two being tarred with the same brush.
This has undoubtedly fuelled by fears of Russia during the Cold War (and before; Churchill had resisted British involvement in the Spanish Civil War fearing the growth of Communism more than the galvanising of fascism). Socialism has become a word associated with authoritarianism and the unbridled control of unions over the progress of commerce. It runs counter to the aspirations of our political and economic models of the past fifty years, from Keynes to Neo-liberalism.
The New Labour of 1997 was as much about a shift towards the centre from an economic perspective (for Labour) as it was a shift towards a different, personality-driven politics. The systematic weakening of traditional industries and economies within Britain since the 1970s with a shift towards “free markets” has undermined the communities and organisations that had upheld traditional socialism within the UK. If you throw in the ‘property as asset’ model then it is no surprise that we have a society that finds socialism challenging because it forces us to have a very uncomfortable conversation about property and private ownership.
The Communist Manifesto
This, along with workers rights, was what drove Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to draft the Communist Manifesto in 1848 (heavily influenced by workers revolts across Europe at that time). For Marx and Engels Communism was ultimately about the control of power relations. With the Industrial Revolutions power relations had become largely controlled by the Bourgeoise; those who owned the means of production. Workers (industrial and agricultural) were a resource to be exploited in the pursuit of profit and wealth. To address this problem the Manifesto really sought two core means to challenge the status quo: armed uprising - “the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions” - and the abolition of private ownership.
Marx and Engels rightly felt that the status quo could not be overturned by political means (rather than violent means) because the political system was inherently biased towards the upper and middle classes. How could the proletariat have a say when they didn’t have a voice?
“The executive of the Modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”
The Communist Manifesto, 1848
With this in mind power had to be taken. Furthermore it is worth mentioning that Marx and Engels did not - per se - have a problem with industrialisation (and the resulting urbanisation as populations aggregated into industrialised areas). These had been core to driving forward much social reform, especially around healthcare and sanitation. However, the problem for them centred around the control of production and this is where armed uprising and discussions over private property become linked.
“You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition for whose existence is the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society.”
The Communist Manifesto, 1848
For the Neo-Liberalism of the last forty years (in the UK at least but also the US) we have had an economics and a politics underpinned by the myth of self-improvement and this has gone hand-in-hand with the explosion of private ownership. On the one hand this could be read as addressing Marx and Engel’s above concern. Access to private property is possible for large parts of the population in a way that was simply not possible before.
However this has also caused immeasurable societal damage. Private property is now a commodity and again, largely benefitting those who control the means of production (those building, selling and renting property) as well as the financial systems that keep the wheels in motion. With the crash in 2007 the banks were too big to fail. We were so invested in our property that it was inconceivable that house prices would crash. I’ve written before about the unsustainable rise of house prices in proportion to household income and it is a point worth labouring here (no pun intended).
Communism and Neo-liberalism
What this means is that socialism has become an uncomfortable conversation in our current economic and political climate. A focus on private ownership along with low taxation (another defining feature of Neo-Liberalism) has placed the emphasis on economic success or failure on the individual and not society. The austerity campaign of the Conservative party - first in coalition and subsequently - was to address the increasing debts of the centralised societal system of the New Labour government. But austerity was only necessary because it was seen as essential to maintain the existing economic model, namely to maintain free markets whilst keeping taxes low.
Taxation is where things get a bit problematic for Communism. Karl hated the idea of taxation:
From today, therefore, taxes are abolished! It is high treason to pay taxes. Refusal to pay taxes is the primary duty of the citizen!
Karl Marx, 1848
Taxation - for Marx - was seen as a way of perpetuating the existing social hegemony. And this is possibly where Communism and socialism chiefly differ. Communism abolishes taxation because it envisages society and politics as an inter-connected organism. There is no need for the state to tax its citizens because the state is already controlling the means of production through which salaries are delivered. It also seeks to remove social hierarchy because without social hierarchy we avoid the inherent problems of wealth, poverty and status as well as the issues discussed regarding private ownership. However, the view of society as organism still requires people to govern it and herein lies the unachievable paradox of Communism: an inevitable imbalance in power relations that has led to authoritarianism, totalitarianism and - in some instances - dictatorship.
Communism, Dogmatism and choice
For Communism to function it must be ideologically driven and for that to happen it requires a system that is driven by dogma. And dogmatism demands the abolition of free will. And that is what equality - and socialism - is all about: the ability to choose. More so, socialism demands that we are all afforded the best opportunities possible to make our choices - and yes, for some that will include the freedom not to.
Socialism for me is about recognising that social hierarchy exists. It recognises that there will be a degree of economic disparity in society. But that this needs to be tempered; that the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in society is too great. That the economic models we currently occupy force poverty on the global markets we participate in (at home and abroad). That the value judgements we employ must be more than economically determined. Socialism is not about the abolition of capital but it is fundamentally about its constraint.
I don’t want to live in a world which celebrates being a self-made billionaire. I want to abolish the myth of ‘self-improvement’ (largely because it perpetuates and reinforces the hegemonic structures in place). I want a politics that encourages people to see taxation as a social benefit, not as a penalty.
I am a socialist you idiot!
So this is where my problems with Communism lies. The rally call of Marx and Engels was a historically situated manifesto that sought to challenge a set of preexisting social and economic problems. That these challenges have been tainted massively by subsequent misinterpretation and abuse (chiefly in Russia but also China and Vietnam and to a lesser extent the DDR) forces us to reconsider not only the aspirations of Communism but also the very use of the word itself. I wholly support much of what Marx and Engels wrote. Many of the core problems that Communism sought to address - inequality, human rights, colonialism, the balance of power relations - remain.
But for me their words and calls to action where situated within a world that was far different to our own. Their aspirations remain as valid today as they did 170 years ago. But the battlefield has changed and for this we need a new language and a wholly new set of calls to action. For me that requires reclaiming socialism for ourselves, breaking free from Communism and the loaded assumptions that are used to tar both with the same brush. For me this requires a fundamental reimagining of politics. But that is a post for another day …
Excellent blog post. The Piers Morgan clip made me laugh, demonstrating (through him) the level of what he thinks is debate, sorry Piers but that is not debate that is just bullying. I think you nicely articulate the differences between socialism amd communism and why the current Neo-liberal system is failing the majority.