I am a communist because I believe that a communist society is possible, desirable, and probably essential if we want to carry on knocking about on this planet for much longer.
Of course, I get a lot of shit for this. Communists are misunderstood, because a lot of people believe that communists are violent and / or stupid, deluded, support mass murdering authoritarian governments, are lazy, and send people who disagree with them to gulags.
Some critics say that communists mean well, but the only possible outcome of communism is a brutal, mass-murdering Soviet Union / Stalinist type regime. That is because that is what happened once. Anything other than that, they insist, is “unrealistic”.
It’s always good to pull back and look at the basics. A communist society is…
“a socio-economic order structured upon the common ownership of the means of production and the absence of social classes, money, and the state” (Wikipedia).
So, a communist society would not have private property. And because of common ownership, we wouldn’t have a class system either.
In the current system, stuff made by labourers are taken away from them and sold on an open market to create profit for capitalists. This creates the strange situation where people often work producing shit that they can’t afford to buy.
That’s an irony. But here’s the contradiction.
Capitalists compete with each other to produce things that are cheaper and better. Because of this, to stay profitable, capitalists can “innovate”, and they can squeeze the labour force.
If they pay the labour force less, sack the shirkers and the troublemakers, or introduce technology that maximises a single labourer’s output, they get more profit.
Sounds great. The problem, however, is that squeezing the labour force, and making people unemployed also makes them poorer. And, here’s the contradiction. If everybody is skint, how are they going to buy anything?
One way capitalism has managed to creak on since the 1980s has been through globalization – what people also call “neoliberalism”. Among other things, what this was all about was “outsourcing” – moving labour overseas where labour can be more readily exploited.
Capitalists could get profits by exploiting asymmetries. Democratic nation-states, socialist or otherwise, were powerless to stop undemocratic multinational conglomerates from moving elsewhere if labour markets acted stubbornly and started demanding things like healthcare, education, and so on. Labour is always designed to be replaceable and transferable.
However, capitalists continued to compete with each other, and they all entered labour markets where they could pay less and less and less money to the actual person producing the product. At the same time, the affluent markets were less affluent because all of their jobs had been outsourced. This was dealt with in two ways. The “tertiary”, service-sector job, what I like to call the “bullshit” job, and the deregulation of debt.
Debt is, in essence, a way of kicking the can down the road. The market remains buoyant enough to keep capitalists in surplus, but that doesn’t solve the problem because all debt is, for the lender, a bet placed on whether the lender will pay the money (with interest) back at some point in the future.
The problem is when debt goes toxic. This is what happened in 2008. What lenders saw as a guaranteed future income became a trillion pound IOU note from a destitute tramp. Because of this sudden realisation, some major shit hit the fan, governments bailed out all of the banking institutions leveraged with all of this toxic debt, and poor people paid for it, usually with more debt.
Again, capitalism kicks the can down the road.
Unfortunately, there is no longer any realistic solution to the profitability problem. Innovations, like smart phones, might keep consumers buying new shit for a while. Increased rents might keep consumers giving their money to parasitic, non-productive landowners. More bullshit jobs might reduce unemployment. Etc. However, more consumption to prop up zombie markets does nothing to reduce debt.
The situation with debt is quite ridiculous. Undergraduates leave university with around £60,000 of debt. That debt becomes useless – the IOU mentioned earlier – when people either ignore it, organise against the collectors of it, or simply lack the economic resources to repay it.
The historical answer to the profitability crisis was war. War destroys capital, and temporarily increases the value of labour after everything has been blown up. This also increases the rate of profit for competing capitalists. That option, which led to the post-war boom in 1945, is no longer available to us, however, because such a war with today’s military technology, would probably destroy the planet.
Given all of this, the “unrealistic” ideas of communism suddenly seem like the only viable option. Common ownership of the means of production is the only conceivable way out of this impasse. What socialists, trade unionists, communists, anarchists, Trots, Leninists, and all the other “-ists” argue about is how the hell we do it.
Detractors of communism are quick to tell us all that it is impossible. This, assuming the critic has a basic understanding of the crisis, is not helpful.
In fact, the choice, beyond ignorance, is simple. Nihilism or communism.
Communism hasn’t always been a dirty word. One of the important things to learn about the Russian Revolution was that it was the first (and possibly the last) large-scale attempt to transition from capitalism to communism. It is therefore vitally important for communists to look at – because it not only tells us what communism was (in the imaginations of people at the time), but also tells us about what went wrong.
The avant-garde art of the 1920s in Russia tells us a great deal about how communism was seen by artists. Communism remained a subject open to discussion, interpretation and, more importantly, was an emblem of hope.
Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote a poem called Back Home in 1925. In it, he writes the following:
arrive at communism
from below –
by the low way of mines,
and pitchforks –
from poetry’s skies,
plunge into communism,
I feel no love.
What is striking about this passage is how different it is to standard interpretations of communism. It is not a drab, doctrinaire, uniform thing – what it came to represent later on. Communism, far from being the tool used by moustachioed generals to browbeat rhetoric into creative people’s heads, communism was something capable of containing irony, humour, and even love.
1920s communism is something that I would like to draw attention to, largely because it challenges the concepts that people have come to associate with communism. If it is grim, downtrodden, joyless and full of jargon, the chances are it isn’t doing communism correctly.
In addition, communism is not principally about moaning about rich people. While this is perfectly fine, communism understands that the capitalists suffer from capitalism too. So, the aim of a communist is to convince a capitalist that it is worth considering.
In the extract, communism is not seen as something that obsesses about class, privilege or revolutionary commitment. Being working class is no qualification. Nor is having read everything by Karl Marx, nor is being committed to any particular branch or offshoot of communism. What we share is a desire to create a classless, stateless society that would benefit everybody, including the capitalists themselves.
The crushing emptiness of the capitalist’s experience creates a situation where capitalists cannot trust anybody, and tend to scapegoat marginalised groups. Donald Trump is a prime example of this. He is a billionaire, yet he is an angry, bitter, tasteless, vapid and cultureless man. He lashes out like a child at anybody who he sees as an intellectual or material threat. His entire philosophy, along with his property empire, has been built on the backs of others, and his privileged status has been acquired by stabbing other capitalists in the back.
Mayakovsky invites us to sympathise with people like Donald Trump. After all, how can we hate a man who acts and behaves like Donald Trump? A man who has been conditioned to feeling nothing but contempt. A man without love.
The poem avoids all sentimental, romantic, or heroic embellishment. It does not describe the Proletarian’s approach to communism in any terms beyond the matter-of-fact. Communism is “arrived” at, via the “low way of mines, sickles, and pitchforks”, but it is not the only way to arrive at communism. He, instead, “plunge” into communism from “poetry’s skies.” Communism does not judge anybody.
Mayakovsky sees communism as neutral. It is an imagined space where human kindness, warmth, generosity and spirit can be expressed. Importantly, communism is not described as any one thing – it is merely referenced, and it left to us to imagine it.
Mayakovsky’s radically open vision of communism jars with how communism is commonly portrayed today. It is not some grey, miserable, dictatorial world full of tractors, ration cards, 4 hour queues and military parades. Mayakovsky sees communism as it is – a system that frees people. This is the communism I support. This is true communism. It is not a way for the working-classes to “get their own back” on rich Tories or businessmen or Presidents.
With brevity and grace, Mayakovsky confesses something that all capitalists, and those who remain on the fence with capitalism, should consider when they look at the world that they, that we, have created. He says, quite plainly: “without communism, I feel no love.”
Perhaps this is a key issue – although communists are always keen to talk economics and politics, what about love?
How have we come to live in a system where our love and empathy for other people has become a marketing tool. It is crushed, mutilated, deformed, manipulated and weaponised to create wealth for capitalists who cannot love. This exploitation, commodification of emotion is what normalizes the exploitation of innocents. And it is all done in such a way as to create the impression that it is all normal – we were born to do it, and anybody who doesn’t do it is a “loser” or a “dreamer”.
Even as it crumbles, we continue to accept capitalism as the only way of organising things. Why can’t we even imagine this alternative? And how has the aspiration to create a society that does not rely solely on exploitation, slavery, blackstabbing and competition become, in the eyes of many, “unrealistic” and “totalitarian”?
Answers on a postcard please.