Revisiting the communist idea
Following the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution Dr David Bates asks if communism is still a viable political theory .
100 years on from the Bolshevik Revolution, it is time to look again at the idea of communism. I would suggest two ways in which we should to this.
First, we need to understand why the communist project after 1917 failed. To do this we will need to assess the internal and external factors in which the project was embedded, and how an idea informed by the work of Marx became the ‘actually existing socialism’ of the Stalinist Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe.
Second, and importantly, we need to rethink communism as an emancipatory idea. It is lazy thinking to make an unproblematic connection between Marx’s writings and the tragedy of the Soviet Union and its satellite states. Empirically, of course, Marx died in 1883, 34 years before the Bolshevik revolution. He was aware of the political conditions in Russia in his lifetime, but was at best ambiguous about the revolutionary prospects there.
To rethink communism – we need to return to Marx, while unambiguously rejecting the deviations of Stalinism. Put another way, to be a communist necessitates that one is an anti-Stalinist; to this extent, we must purge our readings of Marx’s texts from all Stalinist contaminations.
Such a return to Marx will for many be surprising. Surprising in that Marx said little about communism. As someone firmly embedded in his times, he did not think it a good idea to speculate about the precise shape of future society. Marx and Engels, it is true, did set out some communist demands in the Communist Manifesto – but these demands were concrete, context specific. As a young man, Marx it is true, engaged in philosophical speculation about communism. For example, in 1844, he wrote:
“Communism… is the genuine resolution of the antagonism between human and nature… freedom and necessity, individual and species. It is the riddle of history solved and knows itself as the solution.”
Communism would be the first time in human history when human beings gained full control over their productive capacities. But more than this, as communism was a society without private property, society would cease to be organized on the basis of lies reproduced in the interests of those with the power and money. It would be a society of truth and transparency. Hardly principles in line with the realities of Stalinism!
Later in his life – in 1875 – Marx was to formulate what to many looked like a moral principle of communism, a society in which goods were to be distributed not on the basis of strength and power, but rather according to need. Again, not really an ethic taken seriously in the Soviet Union – in which some animals became ‘more equal’ than others!
All of what Marx said here about communism is better understood not as a blueprint for a future society, but rather as useful principles for critical engagement. To this extent, we can rethink these principles in a contemporary context.
First, we live in different times to Marx; in a world of technological possibilities which Marx could not have anticipated, but would have most definitely embraced. The growth of cyber-technology has opened up the possibility for the production of a new common space beyond the market, a space in which ideas and solutions can be shared for the common good – a space of ‘cyber-communism’.
Second, in a world of ‘post-truth’ politics in which those with arbitrary power describe their lies as ‘alternative facts’, has the ideal of a society where we throw off ideological manipulation ever been more prescient?
Third, we live in times of extreme global inequality. We have the runaway wealth of the ‘haves’, and further immiserating of the ‘have nots’. The accumulation of the wealthiest one percent far exceeds their needs, whilst the poorest 1 per cent starve. Has there ever been a more appropriate moment to revisit the ethical principle ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their need’?
Dr David Bates is Director of Politics and International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University. He is Co-Convenor of the UK Political Studies Association (PSA) Marxism Specialist Group.
The Politics and International Relations programme in association with PSA Marxism Specialist Group will host a workshop on the implications of the October Revolution on 21 November, 1-pm, Canterbury Christ Church University, Canterbury Campus. For more details, contact firstname.lastname@example.org