No one today can deny that capitalism is in crisis. It is apparent not only in the sphere of economic and international relations, but also in the very relationship between humanity and nature itself. More and more working people, particularly young people, no longer see a future for themselves under the current status quo. The search for alternatives has naturally summoned up the old quest for socialism and communism once again. But the meaning of these terms has always been a political battlefield and it remains so today.
From Utopian to Scientific Socialism
In the early nineteenth century, when capitalism was still in its infancy and before the working class was yet a force to be reckoned with, utopian socialism constituted an ideological challenge to the already dominant liberal and conservative ideas of the time. The likes of Robert Owen, Henri de Saint-Simon, and Charles Fourier exemplified this current. In reaction to the horrors of industrialisation, they devised alternative ways of organising society through cooperatives, communes, credit unions, mutual aid, etc. By doing so they hoped to show the superiority of socialist principles in the here and now, and convince the ruling classes to adopt the same practices. Not being based on the actions of the working class but on the ideal of making life better for humanity as a whole, such reformist experiments proved to be short-lived – either collapsing due to internal pressures, or being simply reabsorbed by the capitalist order. The early message here was that you cannot build anything substantial or different as long as capitalism’s basic laws still apply.
While Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels appreciated the various criticisms that the original utopian socialists directed at existing society, they sought to give socialism a much firmer basis. Having come to terms with their own idealist past, Marx and Engels realised that: “The [written] history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (Communist Manifesto, 1848). This was the basis of the materialist conception of history. After showing how the capitalist class, the bourgeoisie, had risen to overthrow the feudal order, they concluded that the abolition of the capitalist mode of production in its turn would have to be carried out by a particular class: the proletariat. Uniquely placed without any vested interest in capitalist society, the proletariat lives by selling its labour-power for wages which by no means correspond to the new value acquired by the capitalist. This very exploitation is the source of all capitalist profit. Socialism was to no longer be the domain of religious sectarian fantasies or individual blueprints for a future society and how to get there, but the knowledge-based, conscious expression of a proletarian movement as yet not fully mature. In order to distinguish themselves from their contemporaries, Marx and Engels used the terms communism, or scientific socialism. They dedicated their lives to explaining what capitalism is and how it functions in order to make the proletariat conscious of the conditions of its own emancipation. As such, their declarations regarding what socialism would actually look like were mostly of limited and negative character: a global association of free and equal producers, where free development of each is the condition for the free development of all, where national borders, the state, the wages system, private property and class divisions have been abolished; a society whose maxim is “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”.
What they also made clear in the Communist Manifesto was that this could only come about via “the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions”. In 1848 the working class, the proletariat, was not yet numerous enough, nor organised enough, to do this. However, in the two decades that followed, the scientific socialist outlook found its confirmation in the development of a modern industrial proletariat. This announced its historic mission in the Paris Commune of 1871. Although lasting only 72 days, and confined to a single city, it was the first proletarian (although not yet strictly “socialist”) attempt to “storm heaven”. It confirmed the revolutionary idea that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” (The Civil War in France, 1871). The state had to be smashed as part of the revolutionary movement towards the creation of a communist society.1
Marx and Engels may have provided the working class with a withering critique of the capitalist system but they knew that this was not enough. If the ruling ideas in every epoch were those of the ruling class then the working class could only overturn this when their own experience of exploitation led them to come together to fight politically for a new world. This is why they made major contributions to the Communist League, the First International, and what would later become the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). Marx’s famous words that “the emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class themselves” was not, as is sometimes asserted, an affirmation that workers don’t need political organisation – these words are in the draft rules (1867) of the First International after all. It is a straightforward statement that the working class has to have its own political body outside of any influence of capitalist factions. The First International, riven by disputes between followers of Marx and Bakunin, collapsed. In its place socialist organisations claiming adherence to Marxism now appeared on a country by country basis. In 1889 they came together in a Second International. The proletarian movement was now creating mass parties and trade unions of its own through which hundreds of thousands of workers would be schooled in the materialist conception of history, in the study of economics, politics and even literature, art, philosophy and so forth.
The Ambiguous Path of Social Democracy
It looked as though a revolutionary political movement based on materialist thinking was now encompassing the mass of the working class. Not all was as it seemed however. Unbeknown to many at the time, Marx and Engels were kept in the dark and their views were even censored by the German party leadership2 , but they expressed their frustrations and criticisms mostly in private letters and unpublished manuscripts. The Anti-Socialist Laws in Germany after 1878 provided an excuse for the reformist wing of the movement to start revising the socialist programme to fit within the confines of the law. The likes of Eduard Bernstein went as far as to deny the need for a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism altogether, arguing that workers were now becoming citizens, that there was no inherent tendency to economic crisis, and that capitalism would simply evolve towards socialism. The role of the party would be to work towards political democracy, while the trade unions and cooperatives work towards economic democracy.
This kind of revisionism was challenged by the revolutionary wing of the Second International, represented most famously by Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg. They argued that the conquest of political power by the working class was a prerequisite for socialist transformation. That seeking to end capitalism purely through social reforms was not a slower, more peaceful road to the same goal, but the abandonment of that goal.3 And when voices within social democracy began to abandon internationalist principles, by making excuses for colonialism, or arguing that one imperialist bloc was “more progressive” than another, Lenin and Luxemburg reiterated that the main enemy — the bourgeoisie — is at home. They defended the resolutions of the congresses of the Second International which bound social democracy to oppose war through class struggle.
By 1914 imperialist tensions, economic pressures, and working class militancy created a situation where world war became the preferred option for the ruling classes. This was to be the ultimate test for social democracy – which it failed miserably. The SPD, the biggest and most influential party of the Second International, voted war credits to the Kaiser and the trade unions agreed not to strike against the war effort. The revolutionary wing of the movement began to regroup, but it was only thanks to the 1917 revolution in Russia, which first brought down the Tsar, then handed power to the workers’ councils (soviets), that a Third International was finally founded. The Bolsheviks were one of the few social democratic parties which stuck to their internationalist principles and played an indispensable role in that revolution. Ever since the Russian workers had discovered the idea of soviets in 1905, they had promoted them as the working class alternative to the fake democracy of capitalist parliaments. In the first six months after the October Revolution they thus expanded the numbers of soviets, brought in the working class principle that elected delegates could be recalled at any time, and encouraged workers’ control of production. It became a model for revolutionaries across the world to follow.
The Legacy of the USSR
The Russian Revolution helped put an end to the First World War and, through its example, it unleashed a revolutionary wave across the world. Workers’ councils and communist parties sprang up to unite, organise and lead the struggle. In countries like Germany, Hungary and Finland workers attempted to take power directly but were violently suppressed. Soviet Russia itself was hit hard by the economic crisis it inherited from capitalism before being dragged into a brutal civil war fuelled and financed by international capital. The Bolsheviks won but it was a Pyrrhic victory. The need to fight a war in time of economic crisis led to the abandonment of the militia system of the armed workers’ councils in favour of a Red Army and a secret police, the Cheka, outside soviet (and indeed Party) control. Soviets ceased to be elected and often were replaced by their executive committees. By 1921 the revolution had arrived at an impasse as a one party state gradually emerged out of the hopes of 1917-18. Despite the existence of various oppositions both inside and outside the Communist Party, further degeneration was now on the agenda. By the time Soviet Russia was christened the USSR, early revolutionary dreams were already being shattered. The defence of the USSR was now being promoted as the raison d’être for the Third International.
If social democracy had already before the war began to transform the meaning of “socialism” to be synonymous with a capitalist welfare state, then by the 1930s the USSR bound the idea of “communism” to the Gulag. It did not matter that the German Revolution was violently crushed principally by an SPD which still could claim, in sociological but not political terms, to be a “workers’ party”, or that long time revolutionaries were eliminated one by one during Stalin’s purges. As if to add insult to injury, fascism emerged in defence of the capitalist order under the guise of "national socialism". It was the midnight of the century, crowned by the mass industrialised slaughter of the Second World War. What had emerged from the Russian revolutions was not “socialism” in the sense understood by Marx and Engels as a community of “freely associated producers”. The statist tendencies already intrinsic to every country in the imperialist epoch, which opened at the end of the nineteenth century, now adopted a new more centralised form. The armed might of the state became indispensable to the survival of the system; mass parties and trade unions were utilised to more effectively either mobilise or discipline the class behind the national state. In the Stalinist variant none of the categories of capitalism were eradicated. Wage labour continued though the boss was now the state, not some private individual. What remained the same was the capitalist productionist goal of increased profits and growth based on the continued appropriation of the unpaid labour of the working class. It was not socialism or communism but Stalin baptised it as “actually existing socialism” — a step on the road to communism.
This lie was useful to the USSR as the post-war boom unfolded. After 1945 the world was divided into “capitalist” (i.e. US) and “communist” (i.e. USSR) spheres of influence. The USSR was now at the head of the second most powerful imperialist bloc. Its alternative vision of capitalist development, premised on rapid industrialisation and near-total state ownership, served as an inspiration for the bourgeoisie of various regimes, particularly on the capitalist periphery. Of these, China and Cuba are most notable here for not only outliving the USSR itself but also keeping alive the illusion that it is possible to have “socialism in one country”. Apart from the very few who continued to swim against the current, preserving the historical programme of working class self-emancipation in prisons and in exile in the 1930s and 1940s, among them our ancestors in the Communist Left, the twentieth century largely succeeded in extinguishing the vision of socialism and communism as a global cooperative commonwealth without states, the wages system, private property or class divisions.
We Are All Socialists… Again
Although capitalism’s post-war boom had ended in the early 1970s4 , the collapse of the Stalinist USSR in 1991 gave rise to the notion that there was now no alternative to capitalism as epitomised by the United States. The financial crash of 2008 was a turning point. It put to bed all narratives about the “end of history” and the final victory of capitalism. It made talking about capitalism and potential alternatives to it acceptable again. The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated the crisis of this fragile debt-ridden system. It required a swift response from capitalist states the world over, not unlike during times of war: trillions were pumped into the markets, certain sectors were nationalised, workers were furloughed, and borders were closed. The threat of environmental collapse on the horizon, now looming more than ever, only adds further anxiety regarding the future. No surprise then that more and more have embraced “socialism” as the answer. But, as we have seen from the above, it is not the first time in history that “we are all socialists now”. And just as before, the meaning of this socialism is often reduced to state control, trade unionism, workers’ self-management, and “anti-imperialist” support for various regimes deemed less powerful in the global pecking order.
On one hand, there is the stamp that utopian socialism left. Today, building the new world in the shell of the old still remains the guiding motive of so-called prefigurative politics. Whether it is small social centres and squats, cooperatives, or larger “autonomous” communities (Zapatistas, Rojava, etc.), left liberalism and certain forms of anarchism spread the illusion that the world can be gradually transformed by oppressed minorities carving out their own niche within the system, without getting rid of either the wages system or the capitalist state.
Then there is the revival of Stalinism driven by generations born well after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Whether it serves as an infantile caricature of radicalism aimed at upsetting liberal sensitivities, or a more serious defence of the military and industrial “achievements” of “actually existing socialism” does not matter here. The end result is propaganda for regimes which have not only crushed more than one working class movement throughout history, but have also been based on the continuing exploitation of labour.
Even social democracy has not died of shame. Despite its hideous past in assisting in the massacre of revolutionary workers, it still has its “pragmatic” followers who continue to be drawn by the quest to manage decrepit, increasingly inequitable capitalism a little more humanely for workers. They have in fact largely abandoned the working class (workers don’t vote enough) to seek an electoral base in identity politics, without much success, it has to be said. However despite the recent failures of left wing parties old and new, the more desperate leftists are taking consolation that the current crisis has at least proven the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders right about public spending.
Trotskyism, which in theory poses as an alternative to both social democracy and Stalinism, has ironically rather served to legitimise both, through its recruitment strategies, entryism, and defence of various states, be they “anti-imperialist”, “deformed” or “degenerated”. In fact, Trotsky always retained the view that statification of the means of production, even under Stalin, was a progressive measure towards socialism (hence his critical support for the USSR in the Second World War). The only thing wrong with it was the personnel managing it. As Commissar for War, Trotsky more than any other Bolshevik promoted the creation of a state based on a standing army which replaced the militias – the armed wing of a genuine workers’ movement. And his continual search for a mass movement led him back to the social democrats in his famous “French turn” in the 1930s which started the whole dishonest entryism of Trotskyism into social democratic organisations.
Outside the realm of organised leftism – the various left liberal, social democratic, Trotskyist, Stalinist and Maoist groups still in existence today – there now exists a more numerous virtual sphere which reproduces ideas haphazardly borrowed from a wide variety of academics, alternative media and internet personalities. It would be a waste of time to closely analyse here the likes of Richard Wolff, Michael Parenti, Jacobin, Novara Media or random YouTubers. Suffice it to say, for the most part, they represent nothing new but simply recycled and rebranded ideas from the past. And the crisis of capitalism provides a lucrative field for these quick-fix solutions. Vote for this party, join this organisation, sign this petition, buy this product, donate to this cause, etc.
The Working Class is the Key
In this context, it can feel like the Communist Left is just another option on the marketplace of ideas. But we do not promise anything, except what the working class can consolidate through its own struggle against capitalism and its appendices. What all these currents of leftism have in common is that they announce themselves as realistic and pragmatic. They are alternatives within the present state of things, reactions against the financialised and speculative capitalism of today which largely question its effects, not its basic causes or modus operandi.
We are under no illusion that through debate with the left of capital we can convince its followers to join our ranks en masse. Nor would we necessarily want that. The key here is the revival of class struggle, by which we mean wage workers organising collective resistance on their own account. It is too early to say whether we are witnessing the beginnings of such a revival now. Generally in the old capitalist heartlands we have a working class still unable to free itself of the trade union straitjacket, which cannot even offer us all a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work, but at best some of us a “less worse” short-term settlement. Meanwhile in the capitalist periphery we are seeing mass struggles of a largely spontaneous nature, which while explosive and sometimes able to bring down governments, have not yet found a way to begin to pose an alternative to capitalism. The main exception here is possibly Iran, where following years of strikes and protests, workers have now created their own “coordinating councils”, the first step towards truly taking the struggle into their own hands. Whether or not Iran proves to be the trigger for a more class-conscious “anti-capitalist” movement, the fact remains that for any movement to act as a beacon for the rest of the world it must take a political leap forward, not just in essential organising form (as the soviets in Russia did in 1905) but in its wider political objectives (albeit not immediately attainable and even though voiced by only a minority). Without such a challenge to the existing order the communist programme will remain relegated to the zone of “interesting ideas”, still dominated by the illusion that state control is a step to communism.
The ideas we defend, that continuous red thread of lessons gained from struggles of the past two centuries, have to be up to the task to serve the movements of the future. An important part of that process remains collective discussion at an international level to which we invite all our readers. Without an understanding of what it is we are fighting against, and what it is we are fighting for, there can be no coherent collective action.
Some Further Reading:
- 1See: Vive La Commune
- 2There are many examples. The last was in 1895 when Engels having been asked to write a new introduction for a German version of The Class Struggle in France, complained to Paul Lafargue:
"…Liebknecht has just played me a nice trick. He has taken from my Introduction to Marx’s articles on France of 1848-50 everything that would serve him to support the tactics of peace at any price and of opposition to force and violence, which it has pleased him for some time now to preach, especially at present when coercive laws are being prepared in Berlin. But I am preaching these tactics only for the Germany of today … and [they] may become inapplicable tomorrow." (Marx-Engels Selected Correspondence, op. cit. p.461, emphasis in original)
For a longer account see Chapter 4 of our pamphlet Class Consciousness and Revolutionary Organisation (see the further reading list above)
- 3At this point in the struggle against Bernstein, they were supported by Kautsky, then considered the “Pope of Marxism” but Kautsky’s actual position was that the victory of socialism was “inevitable” so that all workers needed to do was to struggle for reforms (the minimum programme) until the time when capitalism collapsed. Not surprisingly Bernstein and Kautsky would unite in the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany during the First World War. They did not consider imperialism to be a new stage of capitalism and advocated pacifism in the war, until things “returned to normal”.
- 4We have written about this in numerous articles but most recently in https://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2021-08-15/1971-2021-50-years-since-the-usa-reneged-on-bretton-woods and https://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2021-09-13/the-end-of-bretton-woods-a-contemporary-analysis