Wednesday 29th October / Thursday 25th December, 2008

A month ago I wrote:

As someone who has had "scientist" in my job title, I feel duty bound to question the assumptions behind the following: today I came across a recent government-approved estimate of the funds needed to achieve the next milestone in child poverty reduction. It was £4 billion. Now, pick some recent headline figure about the money that "we" need to inject into the finance industry to save "ourselves". How many multiples of £4 billion do you get to?

And now sales of Marx's capital are soaring, and the mainstream press taking his ideas more seriously than I for one can remember (also here). One of the important points to (re-)make in this context is that the association between socialists and the repressive regimes of the USSR and China is spurious.

According to their original definitions:

Socialism is about all the working people taking over all the factories, offices, farms, trains, trucks, and other means of producing things and then running them democratically to meet the needs of all. To achieve socialism we have to tell rich people: "get a job like the rest of us; you can have all the rights that everyone else has, but you can't make money just by having money any more, and you can't control big things on your own".

Communism is what happens when all the rich people have become working people like everyone else and don't have to be told any more.

These definitions probably don't fit with what you've heard before (and maybe we need new terms?). Isn't socialism about forcing everyone to be the same, or spying on your neighbour? Isn't communism what they have in China? What's so great about those ideas? Nothing great at all — but they're also nothing to do with the original meaning of the words. Why did this happen?

In 1917 the Russian revolution created a fragile and delicate flower of democracy in a single large but economically backward country. By the end of the 1920s this flower had been crushed under the boots of invading armies from all the major powers of the world (and the chance of other flowers taking root elsewhere had failed, for example in Germany and the UK in the abortive 1919 uprisings). Something survived in Russia after the 1920s (under Stalin's leadership), but it had become an oppressive self-serving state that created a type of monopoly capitalism, not anything remotely socialist (still less communist). In effect the Russian state (and later the USSR states) turned into large monopoly corporations that themselves were subject to the pressures of competition that the world system imposes. These "state capitalisms" eventually proved unable to compete as effectively as non-state corporations, leading to their dissolution in the late 1980s / early 1990s.

One of the revolutionaries of 1917 who became a leading opponent of Stalin's nightmare was Leon Trotsky, who spent the last decade of his life in exile and who was eventually murdered by an icepick-wielding agent of his old country. Fast forward 50 years or so, to when I first became politically aware and active, and Trotskyism had become the position that neither Washington (seat of the most powerful private capitalist country in the world) nor Moscow (supposed root of all things communist) offered any real democracy or any sustainable model for the future of humanity living on a finite planet with limited and fragile natural resources. Both types of capitalism were based on the exploitation of wage labour for the purposes of extracting profit and were locked into permanent competitive growth as a prerequisite for corporate or (in the East) state survival. The latter largely failed to survive and the Russian leopard swapped its communist spots for a shiney set of capitalist marketing brochures in 1990 and the subsequent decade.

The point? We need this type of history lesson to validate the project of another type of economic organisation because the lessons of Russia have been buried very deeply. The orthodoxy is that Lenin led inevitably to Stalin and the gulags, but knowledge of Trotsky and Trotskyism allows us to see the brief flower of 1917 for what it was: a magnificent experiment in real democracy that still signals the possibility of a better world.


comments powered by Disqus
comments powered by Disqus