Following Ash Sarkar’s recent “I’m literally a communist” moment on Good Morning Britain, there’s been a lot of fairly messy attempts by media names to explain what communism is — hopefully the following will help them out (apologies for the elderly Drake meme).
From Matthew Parris suggesting “communism means State control of the means of production, distribution and exchange, it means no private property, it’s perfectly clear” to Suzanne Moore’s odd suggestion that “the really great stuff being discussed by young leftists is not communism, it is anarcho-syndicalism – participatory local democracy” there is clearly an educational deficit at the heart of media punditry.
Because pundits have short attention spans the list below isn’t intended as a comprehensive or nuanced rundown, think of them more as flash card notes.
Amazingly, every part of what Parris said was wrong. In defence of the Cambridge and Yale scholar, former MP and senior political journalist of 30 years’ standing, perhaps he’s just ignorant of his subject matter. The key problem is actually in his last line “it’s perfectly clear.” This literally could not be further off the mark. In reality there are two working definitions of communism, one being the popularly-understood summary he repeated (the result of decades of deliberate mislabeling), the other being used by actual communists and most good dictionaries.
In this second definition, we find that communism means public, communal control of the means of production and distribution (exchange largely being eliminated through the core concept of “from each according to ability, to each according to need”) and owning stuff is absolutely fine, no-one’s getting carte blanche to commandeer your favourite jumper.
The italics are quite important, because the use of the State to achieve this is not required. The communist society is one in which we, as communities, decide how the resources and machinery of producing our collective wealth is used. We decide what the factory makes, how much we want, if we fancy doing big projects like say, a space programme or converting our homes to solar, rather than leaving it to the “will of the market” (ie. whatever makes profit regardless of need or long-term consequences), the whims of Jeff Bezos, or the decisions of distant national institutions.
Is again, much more complicated than the definitions pundits tend to work with, but broadly Karl Marx’s ideas about capturing State power to enforce working-class control over the means of production on the way to achieving communism is the point Matthew Parris is starting from.1
Marxism is not the same thing as communism however, more some key ideas and an approach towards achieving it, and even when he was first talking about his concepts there were numerous dissenting opinions from other communists, which led to major splits within the broader movement, most famously from the First and Second Internationals.
Also known as Marxist-Leninism, Bolshevism and most confusingly, Communism (note the capital C, I’ll get back to this in a moment), this is where we get to what’s really meant by Mr Parris, Suzanne Moore and every loudmouth under the sun who thinks communism = gulags and mass murder.
Lenin had a very specific, brutal interpretation of Marx in which he substituted the needs of his Communist Party for those of the working classes. For him, capturing the State was the means of achieving communism, and once he had, it became the ends for maintaining “Communism” (which was not, as explained above, in fact communism at all but just State power).
The USSR’s “Communism” was not just rejected by capitalism but by many communists, from the anarcho-communists such as Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman to Rudolf Rocker and the anarcho-syndicalist IWMA, to the council communists and libertarian socialists such as Maurice Brinton. Quite a lot of Russian anarcho-communists died at Bolshevik hands. Unfortunately, due to the habit of the USSR (China, North Korea
, etc) of calling their national command economies Communist (capitalise that C!), and the enthusiastic acceptance of this by capitalists everywhere, we ended up with a wacky linguistic compromise throughout the Cold War where communists would regularly berate Communists for their many outrages against human life and decency.
“Aha!” I hear some of you cry, “this is an oxymoron!” Well you’re an oxymoron. Because anarcho-communism has been around for nearly as long as Marxism. And the important thing here is that the main difference between the two is in the means to the end (remember, full communism does not involve State control, I can’t believe you forgot that already, it’s been like six paragraphs mate, get it together).
Marx, on the one hand, believed that working-class capture of the institutions of the State — a dictatorship of the proletariat — would clear the way towards implementing the structures required for communism proper. His direct opponent Bakunin (a collectivist, which kind of pre-empted anarcho-communism as an idea) made the extremely good point that capturing State power merely changes who rips off the workers, rather than abolishing the process of ripping them off altogether. Anarcho-communism therefore suggests a direct path, in which the State is abolished by the revolution, rather than the revolution taking place in an effort to capture the State so it can then eventually abolish … er … itself.
This is a strategy to implement (usually communism but also potentially other social forms) by organising labour unions and community organisations along the lines of the society desired and using them as tools to end capitalism via general strike, armed rebellion and suchlike. Think of it as building the new world inside the old and then busting free like the Alien out of Kane’s rib cage. Or something more wholesome I guess. A version of this approach can be seen in the collectives which sprang up in the Spanish Revolution.
While participatory democracy can be part of how anarcho-syndicalist groups operate, they are not one and the same concept and you don’t have to be either a communist or an anarchist to do it. Which Suzanne Moore, as a former Marxism Today writer, should probably know. I guess it was just hard to get the staff back then.
I think that’s enough droning on, but in sum, bear all this in mind for future Newsnight “analysis”.
~ Robbie Tomminson
1. Though Parris’s active sneering over the last few decades has mainly been aimed at Russia, China, Cuba etc, which were of course Leninist, Maoist and Castroleum in their early stages and now are mostly just bizarre hybrids of State diktat and neoliberalism (eg. China is quite happy to have free trade zones throughout the country).↩