Communism and democracy – a living legacy

Political actors must always reckon with natural limits, structural bias, institutional inertia, vested interests and the actions of their opponents, not to mention irreducible uncertainty about the future. Book review.

David Purdy
27 April 2018

Antonio Gramsci, painted portrait, 2015. Flickr/Thierry Ehrmann. Some rights reserved.Mike Makin-Waite seconded the motion to dissolve the Communist Party of Great Britain as a delegate to its final Congress in 1991. He was then active in the CPGB’s successor organisation, Democratic Left, and remains involved in networks concerned with the history of the left.

In this book, Communism and Democracy: History, Debates, Potentials (Lawrence and Wishart, 2017), he offers a fresh and unflinching overview of the history of communism from its roots in the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century to the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the USSR, the demise of the international communist movement and the emergence of a global capitalist system from which the “spectre” of communism has been banished.

His central concern is the troubled relationship between communism and democracy.

Those of us who still aspire to replace neo-liberal capitalism by a fairer, greener, happier, more democratic and less divided world cannot avoid looking backward if we are to move forward. For one thing, whenever even modest proposals are mooted to re-regulate markets, increase spending on public services or make the tax system less regressive, our opponents are quick to invoke the ghosts of Marx, Lenin and Stalin.

More importantly, as the author notes (p 4), the eclipse of communism has impoverished the western imagination, undermining belief in the very “possibility of ever shaping the world in line with the democratically agreed outcomes of reasoned consideration, with the aim of meeting human needs.”

30 years since the fall of the Berlin wall

Now, almost thirty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, is a good time to take stock of the strengths, achievements, illusions, follies and crimes of communism.

The financial crash of 2007-8 triggered a deep slump and decade-long slowdown from which the world has barely recovered and which has shaken public confidence in global capitalism and neo-liberal policies. Yet the left has made scant progress in articulating and winning support for a credible alternative.

On both sides of the Atlantic, populist leaders and movements have emerged to challenge political elites, but more from the illiberal, nationalist right than the liberal, cosmopolitan left, whose commitment to open borders holds little appeal for the victims of global economic restructuring. As yet, there is little sign of the intellectual renewal, political realignment and institutional reform that history suggests are the pre-requisites for resolving an organic crisis of capitalism.

Compare the past decade with the Great Depression of the 1930s. Ten years after the Wall Street crash of 1929, the world was at war for the second time in a generation. But ideas and plans for a managed and socialised form of capitalism had gained traction among the intelligentsia and were about to be put to the test in running a war economy.

Similarly, the formation of anti-fascist popular fronts in the late 1930s and of resistance movements during the war prefigured the national-popular governments that presided over progressive social settlements after the war.

The short communist century 1917-89

Given the appalling human rights record of the USSR and the quasi-military character of the Leninist vanguard party, one might suppose that a book about communism and democracy would be rather short.

But democracy is a complex, shifting and contested concept. According to classical Marxism, liberal or “bourgeois” democracy is an instrument of class rule that serves to protect private property and to preserve the capitalist system. To create a social democracy, capitalists and landlords would have to be expropriated. In countries with parliamentary systems and universal suffrage, it might be possible to achieve this goal with a sufficiently emphatic electoral mandate, though even in this case force might be needed to quell a “slaveholders’ revolt”. Elsewhere, the first priority of socialists was to establish democratic institutions.

Under the impact of the First World War and the Bolshevik revolution, the international socialist movement split into two hostile camps, henceforth known as social democrats and communists, the former committed to electoral-legislative politics within the framework of liberal democracy, the latter dedicated to defending the Soviet Union and promoting world revolution.

Yet while the two sides disagreed about the strategy for achieving socialism, both still aimed to break the power of the propertied classes by taking the principal means of production into public ownership. Once this was done and the government had decided on its policy priorities, a system of central planning would replace the “invisible” hand of the market as the primary mechanism of economic co-ordination, allocating resources among the various branches of production and distributing the social product among the members of society.

The advent of socialism, or “lower” stage of communism, would, it was believed, usher in a superior, more ample form of democracy, encompassing civil society as well as the state and putting the satisfaction of human needs above the pursuit of private profit.

Major advances were confidently expected to ensue: inequalities of income, wealth and status would decline; the periodic crises to which capitalism was incorrigibly prone would disappear; and rapid progress would be made towards the material abundance required to sustain the “higher” stage of communism.

En route, socialist citizens would acquire both the ability and the desire to participate in the management of productive units and community organisations, as well as enjoying social entitlements over and above the political rights and civil liberties that marked the limit of citizenship status in the “bourgeois” democracies, at any rate prior to the development of welfare states after 1945.

The promise of modernity

Makin-Waite describes this prospectus as “the promise of modernity”. In the first part of the book, he traces its genesis in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the second, he explains why the promise failed to materialise. At the heart of his account is the Soviet experience. Having seized power hoping to bring about a socialist revolution, the Bolsheviks found themselves driven, step-by-step, to launch an industrial revolution, with an authoritarian one-party state presiding over a bureaucratic command economy.

This is a familiar story. It is, nevertheless, worth retelling. The author’s decision to focus on the relationship between communism and democracy provides a strong narrative thread through the twists and turns of communist history, highlighting, in particular, the various periods and episodes when communists came to appreciate that liberal democracy is a historic achievement to be cherished, nurtured and defended: the pre-war popular fronts and wartime resistance movements; the Prague Spring of 1968 and the military coup against Chile’s Popular Unity government in 1973 – searing experiences both, which sparked the rise and shaped the politics of Eurocommunism in the 1970s; and Gorbachev’s efforts in the 1980s to bring the Cold War to an end while seeking to promote perestroika (reconstruction) and glasnost (openness) in the USSR.

Gramsci’s concept of hegemony – winning hearts and minds

Presiding over the argument is the stoical, yet resolute spirit of Antonio Gramsci, a founding member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), who briefly became its leader before being arrested and imprisoned by Mussolini.

Gramsci was primarily a theorist of defeat. In his Prison Notebooks, he sought to explain why the Russian revolution had not, as the Bolsheviks confidently anticipated at the time, sparked off similar revolutions in the West. How had the ruling classes in the heartlands of capitalism managed to see off the communist threat? Why was there such a contrast between the collapse of Tsarist autocracy and the resilience of “bourgeois” democracy?

In seeking answers to these questions, Gramsci was obliged to rethink Marxist theory and communist strategy. In particular, invoking the familiar distinction between the use of coercion and government by consent, he gave a whole new meaning to the concept of hegemony, the Greek word for leadership or supremacy.

His argument, in a nutshell, was that while the state’s legal monopoly of the means of violence is always a factor in any situation, by far the most effective and least risky way for rulers to secure the allegiance, or least compliance, of their subordinates is not to beat or cow them into submission, but to win their hearts and minds.

Thus, in the advanced capitalist democracies, winning and retaining power, whether to preserve the status quo or to pursue a radical alternative, depends primarily on providing the moral and intellectual leadership required to resolve, or at least cope with, society’s main problems.

Coping with a post-communist world

The third part of the book, “Routes for Radicals”, surveys the vestiges of the communist movement in China, North Korea, Cuba and South Africa, together with the various intellectual and political trends which have emerged since the 1990s and which retain some affinity, however loose, with the communist tradition.

These include efforts to combine perspectives and themes from Marxist and ecological thought into a new red-green synthesis; the renewal of the left in Latin America (which now seems to have stalled); the anti-globalisation and anti-austerity movements in Europe and North America; the work of the so-called “New Communists” such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek; the formation of new parties of the left such as Die Linke in Germany, Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain; and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and his followers in the British Labour Party.

The most intellectually innovative and impressive of these post-communist initiatives is the red-green dialogue, a serious attempt to rethink the relationship between capitalism, society and nature. It is, however, still a work in progress and has made little impact on organised politics.

The other developments surveyed offer little more than old ideas in new guises. The “New Communists”, for example, reject democratic norms and see contemporary struggles for emancipation as struggles against (liberal) democracy. Thus, Zizek (quoted on p 258) declares that, “… what today prevents radical questioning of capitalism is precisely the belief in democratic forms of struggle against capitalism.” It is unclear whether Zizek really means this or is simply being provocative. He claims to be an unreconstructed Leninist, but this may be a pose. Either way, his apparent disdain for representative government is shared by those advocates of direct democracy who repudiate the state-centred politics of the traditional left in favour of direct action in “local spaces.”

Of course, the “propaganda of the deed” is an old anarchist enthusiasm and can be a potent form of protest as long as it remains non-violent. But action on the “horizontal” plane of politics can never change the world unless it links up with action on the “vertical” plane as part of a hegemonic project aimed at transforming the state.

Irreducible uncertainty

Can the communist-shaped hole in our politics be filled by forming a new party or breathing fresh vigour and purpose into an old one? It depends what we hope and expect to achieve by such endeavours. There is no harm in dreaming of a post-capitalist world or in speculating about what it might look like. Dreaming revitalises the brain and utopian thought feeds into ongoing debate about what kind of life is best for humans and what kind of society would best sustain it.

But we should bear in mind that the word “utopia”, coined in 1516 by Sir Thomas More, is a play on the Greek words eu (good or well), ou (no or not) and topos (place). Thus, utopia is a good, but non-existent place. It lies outside time and space: “somewhere over the rainbow”, in the words of the song. Political projects, on the other hand, are time-bound and operate in a resistant medium. Political actors must always reckon with natural limits, structural bias, institutional inertia, vested interests and the actions of their opponents, not to mention irreducible uncertainty about the future.

The neo-liberal revolution and the demise of communism have, between them, driven the possibility of a post-capitalist world over the edge of political space into the realms of utopian space. But while neo-liberal ideas and policies have reached every corner of the world, their impact has not been uniform and there are still different types of capitalism in different countries: China is governed by a strong authoritarian state; Sweden remains a high-tax, high public spending state; Germany retains its social market economy; Britain’s capital city still hosts the world’s largest financial and trading hub; and so on.

Equally, just as globalisation has not eliminated institutional and cultural variety from the world, so there is no reason to suppose that the neo-liberal form of capitalism will be the last. There is every reason to do what we can to replace it by a better form, not just by working for regime change at the national level, but by heading off the current slide into international anarchy and rebuilding a rules-based global order.


New wine in old Communist bottles? Flickr/John W. Schulze. Some rights reserved.

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