So, What Actually Is Communism Then?
Since it's in the media, we took a look at what it actually is.
Photo by Flikr user Marco Gomes (CC BY 2.0)
Communism is back, baby! It's good again!
A couple of weeks ago, Ash Sarkar – Senior Editor at Novara Media – yelled, "I'm a communist, you idiot!" at Piers Morgan in a sort of exasperated despair. The clip of her doing so went viral, she was interviewed by Teen Vogue, and now – for perhaps the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall – the mainstream media is interested in what communism is again.
Or are they? Because actually, I've been following this debate a bit, and I'm not convinced the UK media is emotionally ready to have a serious discussion of the merits or demerits of Communism in the 21st century. Almost every think-piece about this follows the same thread: Sarkar, it is acknowledged, is good on TV, and when she talks about communism, she makes it sound kind of appealing. But this is dangerous. Because in fact communism is a misguided, murderous ideology, which was responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century: the gulags, the Cultural Revolution, the Holodomor. And so reviving communism would be a terrible mistake. We've done it, we tried it, it failed, move on.
On the one hand, there is a perfectly valid point here. Stalin's Russia and Mao's China were often nightmarishly brutal regimes – I'm not one of those left-wingers who's willing to callously downplay that fact, or to offset it against whatever else they achieved. People really did suffer under these regimes, they really did have their lives destroyed.
But also – forgive my cynicism – I’m not entirely convinced that any of the right-wing commentators criticising communism are really motivated by a concern for the suffering of human individuals.
If they were, then surely any of their arguments against communism would work equally well or better against capitalism as well? Capitalism has been responsible for things like the international slave trade and World War I, and created the conditions in which Nazism could emerge. Capitalism has destroyed whole cultures and civilisations; it has spread killer diseases, profited from child labour. Today, capitalism is drowning refugees in the Mediterranean, separating children from their parents at the Mexican-American border. It prevents people from accessing basic services such as healthcare, puts lead in the drinking water, sells guns that are used to shoot up schools. Perhaps most urgently, capitalism is choking the planet, causing the climate to change in ways that could lead to the end of all life on Earth.
If communism has been tried and failed, then capitalism is still being tried, and failing, and everything is terrible, and the planet is dying.
But has communism actually been tried? Granted, there have been regimes that call themselves "communist". But just look at Sarkar's definition: "A belief in the power of people to organise their lives as individuals... without being managed by a state." Does that sound much like the Soviet Union to you?
If you read The Communist Manifesto – which, by the way, you should – you'll see that Marx and Engels actually define Communism as follows: "The theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property."
What this is often taken to mean is: the nasty Communists want to take your stuff. Your favourite "I'm literally a communist" T-shirt? Well, you can't wear it any more, except on Tuesdays, because it's now The Party's T-shirt, and they've drawn up a rota for its use, which is dominated by the leading cadres.
But Marx and Engels, not being your younger siblings, have absolutely no interest in taking your T-shirt. Your T-shirt is yours – a personal possession, something you have a private use-right over. But this does not make it "property" as Marx and Engels conceive of it. "Private property" here means the privately owned "means of production": the factories, land and raw materials with which we produce the things we need in order to survive. (Actually, under capitalism, you probably don't technically "own" a lot of your possessions either. Companies like Apple or Amazon effectively retain ownership over the digital media they sell you – you just license it. This has led to such grimly ironic situations as Kindle deleting copies of 1984 from people's readers.)
Under capitalism, the means of production are owned by a class of people – the bourgeois class – who use them to turn a profit. As Marx identifies in Capital, the only way the bourgeoisie can really do this is by paying another class – workers – less than the real value of the labour they have expended, and pocket the difference. In a very reductive example: you work at a bar on minimum wage. A pint costs a fiver. You serve 25 pints in an hour. Your boss pays for the (admittedly big) overheads, gives you a shiny £7.83 and takes the rest of the £125 handed over by boozing punters as your feet callus and your patience snaps.
Over time, the theory goes, the workers will realise at least two things. Firstly, that the system is rigged against them; secondly, that the system is wholly reliant on their co-operation. The workers will therefore decide they ought to stop co-operating with it, and – through a revolution – establish a society with a communist model of economic organisation in its place.
In such a society, the workers – not private individuals – would collectively own the means of production. Commodities would be produced, food will be grown, etc, not to turn a profit, but rather to serve the general interests of society.
Often this is thought to require some sort of central planning authority run by dour men with dodgy moustaches in synthetic suits, but Marx and Engels themselves believed that in a fully-realised communist society, the state – which has at any rate been invented to enforce bourgeois property rights – would simply "wither away".
Of course, in practice, none of this happened, at least not how Marx predicted it would: where communist regimes were established, they turned into monstrous totalitarian states (in one explanation, that’s because they happened in countries that didn't yet have fully-developed capitalist economies). So what could possibly be the relevance of communism today?
In the current context, people who call themselves communists while being in the Labour party tend to make the case for incremental advances in social democracy, with the possibility of something more radical hinted-at in the future. Perhaps the Corbyn movement will stand a better chance of mitigating capitalism's worst effects if it's got communists to stop moderates from completely selling out, and perhaps we can think of something more radical than that.
But the truth is, communism is not just "a bit like social democracy, but more left". Properly speaking, communism holds that our problems – as individuals, as a society, as a species – will only be solved with a radically different model of how property works, of how labour works, of how the economy should be organised. And this is the real relevance of communism today: at times it can seem like the only ideological position which is willing to think about the problems we are currently facing with the seriousness they demand. As to how we ought to implement it – that remains to be seen. But the urgency of problems such as climate change suggests we ought to try to find a way sooner rather than later. I'll see you in hell or communism.