When describing our political positions, Socialist Workers Party members and other international socialists often use the term ‘revolutionary socialist’. It is a useful term as it distinguishes us from left-reformists. By why is ‘communism’ so avoided? Why are we not a more openly ‘communist party’? We agree with Lenin’s understanding of the state, and so socialism is not an end goal for us, but a transitional period: “So long as the state exists there is no freedom. When there is freedom, there will be no state.”
Richard Seymour, in a TV interview on his book Unhitched, said that he calls himself a revolutionary socialist only to disassociate himself from the negative aspects and failures of the Soviet Union. I am a bit more optimistic: eventually, as more people accept that there is alternative to capitalism’s inevitable exploitation and crises, it will become more and more necessary to talk about communism and reclaim the word. So why wait?
One of the many groups that set up a stall outside Marxism 2013 was the Communist Party of Great Britain, from whom I got some great badges. I explained to them this problem and told them that I admired them for using the word openly. On the argument that it is so strongly tied to Stalinism, one member said, “So is socialism. So is Marxism. But we can’t explain what we’re about without them.”
Another group I talked to and took some material from was the International Bolshevik Tendency, often known as ‘orthodox Trotskyists’ for their theory of the USSR as a workers degenerated state, as opposed to the theory of State Capitalism. They describe themselves as Marxists and I asked an IBT activist whether or not his organisation is Marxist-Leninist. He said no, as this term is used mainly by Stalinists. Later in the conversation we talked positively about the application of Lenin’s theories. Like the majority of the SWP, here was a Marxist and a Leninist who couldn’t call himself a Marxist-Leninist! If the experience of Stalinism has proven one thing, and maybe it has only proven one thing, it’s how easy it is to change the meaning or connotation of a word, so I suggest comrades start saying ‘communist’ in more of their political arguments.
The Principles of Communism was written the year before the much more widely disseminated Manifesto of the Communist Party in conditions that would be hard to recognise today, lacking much of the terminology that Marxist theory now takes for granted. So why is it still of any usefulness or interest?
Engels answers 25 questions, starting with “What is communism?” and ending with a description of communists’ perspectives on other political parties.
After defining communism as simply, “the doctrine of the conditions of the liberation of the proletariat”, Engels explains what it means to be a proletarian and how the proletariat originated. He argues that this class is the child of the industrial revolution of the last half of the eighteenth century. The orthodoxy now is that this revolution was hugely beneficial for all involved. Engels instead says that the development of capitalist technology, with all its liberating potential, renders the workers’ means of production useless (the example of the loom is given). This gave rise to a much more unequal and polarised society, in which the class of “big capitalists” owns the vast majority of the means for subsistence and production, for example factories.
Based on a talk that I gave to the Kent Socialist Workers Party group. To many people these ideas will be obvious, but sometimes it helps to be reminded of the obvious. References are at the bottom.
There are three main tasks that face a revolutionary socialist party. The first is the SWP’s role, or any socialist party’s role, as an antifascist opposition; second is the importance of education on socialism: this topic is the majority of this article; third is the importance of internationalism and of relating individual struggles, as explained by Duncan Hallas.
At the recent Party Council of the SWP (June 2nd), Weyman Bennett (UAF) made a point about the role of socialists in fighting the far right. Recent experience has shown that social-democracy (that is, introducing socialist politics through reformist methods) in Europe, for example in Sweden, Denmark, and arguably the area controlled by our own Green Party, has shown no opposition to austerity. Many problems and kinds of unrest caused by capitalism make the rise of fascism all the easier. Trotsky in his last article (August 1940), Bonapartism, Fascism, and War gives many examples of these problems but there are three that are most relatable to our current situation: “the gravest crisis of capitalist society; growing confusion and indifference; the growth of hostility to the proletariat”.
I could give specific examples, but they are fairly self-explanatory. The polling strength of the racist Swedish Democrats is the result of scapegoating inequality and other social ills on immigrants. It is quite clear that if the periodical and inevitable crises of capitalism can lead to the popularity of fascist and right-wing populist ideas, a dedicated anti-capitalist party will also be the most effective antifascist party. Left-reformists themselves have a lot to answer for in the rise of the far right. The Labour party has taken a typically conservative stance on immigration, while Ed Milliband expresses his respect for UKIP. All this serves to normalise anti-immigrant hatred.
Response to Tom Streithorst’s ‘Marginal Marx’, a book review of Karl Marx: a nineteenth century life.
Leftists everywhere must have enjoyed the moment yesterday when they realised it was the 195th birthday of Karl Marx. It’s a meaningless anniversary of course, but this kind of thing serves as a reminder for how relevant and applicable some aged political theory can be. I was rudely interrupted from this line of thought when I stumbled across a piece by a five-year-old journalist who has never read anything by Karl Marx and who dismisses supporters of the labour theory of value as ‘tedious’.
Streithorst points out that Marx’s philosophy is indebted to Hegel, Ricardo, Adam Smith, and others. This is no secret and Marxists, as far as I’ve seen, have no illusions about this. The mistake is in saying that the labour theory of value was already outdated by the time Capital was being written. If this was about the Ricardist model then there might have been a fraction of a point. But Marx brought his own substantial changes to the theory, most notably the concept of abstract social labour. The theory of value and surplus value explains how uncompensated labour allows a section of society to become a ruling class and alleviate itself from the burden of its own necessary labour. This was true in different ways in feudal society, plantation slavery, 19th century capitalism, and remains an injustice and the backbone of capitalism today.
This figure is a decent illustration of the extent of inequality in the US, and reminds us that capitalism has become something beyond what Marx could have imagined. I found this image on the Facebook page ‘The Other 98%’ which is the kind of baffling liberal group that will happily expose capitalism but still show support for Obama. As we know, liberalism is characterised by a “reform, not revolution” mentality, as well as thinking that cooperation with the ruling class is possible so I worry that that people seeing this image are not thinking, wow, we need to reorganise society from top to bottom. Instead, they just want to rely on the wealthiest to be more generous.
The main problem with this is that altruism can only be a short-term solution. It isn’t a system change that offers security for future generations. Once a rich person throws money at some problem, like homelessness, what are we left with? Some people now have a better quality of life but in the same situation that caused their poverty in the first place. Nothing has changed.
Or maybe something has changed, for the worse. At the heart of trade unionism is the idea that workers need to organise and demand or force their government/bosses to give them their comfortable working conditions and other basic human rights. Achievements such as the 8-hour day are achievements of the exploited and overworked. Now more than ever, with the ‘business ethics’ of Starbucks, books like Philanthro-Capitalism, and billionaire philanthropists like Bill Gates and George Soros, the extremely wealthy want to take even pride away from the poorest. It’s a cruel trick: the minority who have most of the money, possessions, fame, and luxury, also want the reputation as the ones struggling against oppression. Charity will always only lift some out of poverty and disease, though. Socialism is needed for a system that makes these problems impossible in the first place. But altruism will cure just enough illnesses and lift just enough people above the poverty line that it will slow down discontent and anti-capitalist reaction. So really, by taking the advice from this statistic too literally, one would be supporting and dragging out inequality.