Is Communism ‘‘Just an Idea’’?
Cedric Beidatsch

Alittle booK with the title The Idea of Communism, written by Tariq Ali and published in 2010, is interesting for more than one reason. An academic conference on this very topic was held in London at about the time the book came out, and Verso have been publishing a series of books in the last two years devoted to discussing communism.

'The Idea of Communism'. Is that what communism is—an idea? Or is it —or at least should one think of it as being—something grander? Karl Marx was in no doubt. Communism he once wrote, is the solution to the riddle of history, and furthermore knows itself to be the solution. Now that is a pretty grand concept, well above anything like a mere 'idea'.

Not that Marx was 100% right in this, by any means. And as so often with what Marx wrote, there is both argument and rhetoric entwined in his words. After all everything he wrote, even the most 'scientific' of his works, were written as acts of combat, and point scoring, telling blows, stinging attacks and the weaponry of rhetoric are always there, on the surface.

Tariq Ali starts off by tracing the history of this 'idea of communism' from the time of the French revolution, and reminds readers that by the 1830s, before young Karl had even left school, there were groups and circles committed to communism among workers, not intellectuals. Well, Ali is reminding his readers here of an important fact, that communism in modern Europe originates precisely among the industrial working class, as a genuine political goal of working people. Indeed he points out that the grandmother of all communist parties, the famous League of Communists for which Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto in 1848, was actually founded in 1830 by German tradesmen working in Paris, as the League of the Despised, later becoming the League of the Just before renaming itself the Communist League.

Ali's point here, in part, is that the famous opening lines of the Communist Manifesto, "A spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of Communism" is more than just rhetoric. It was also literally true. The European upper and middle classes were already worried about communism among the workers. Indeed in France in that very year of 1848, there was something awfully close to a communist revolution in June; and behind the agitation of universal voting rights and annual parliaments with salaries to compensate worker parliamentarians in the British Peoples' Charter, the authorities and respectable society saw the two great fears of the propertied: expropriation of property (real) and a commonality of women (utter fantasy).

The European upper and middle classes had been worried about the spread of communism for quite some time. The savagery with which the striking weavers of Lyons were put down in 1834, when special trains from the French countryside brought peasant volunteers into Lyons so they could join in the fun of shooting down workers, was motivated precisely by this fear that demands for wages and conditions by workers were a front for a communist takeover. Indeed the first the German public ever heard about communism in their own language was in a book on communist movements and sects, published in the early 1840s and written by a Prussian aristocrat and state official, who had spent time in France, a certain Lorenz Freiherr von Stein. Ali does well to recount this history because people have become used to seeing communism as being an idea of the intellectuals, a fad that university students eventually grow out of, and forgetting its real working class lineage.

But once 1848, the Manifesto and Marx & Engels, Partner in Revolution, entered the picture, Ali's story of the idea of communism becomes the story of Marxism. And inevitably this leads him to what the bulk of the book is devoted to, an analysis of the 64 pound elephant which sits in every room in which communism is discussed. The elephant being the awful actual history of every political regime and state that called itself communist in the twentieth century.

Ali's analysis of 'what went wrong' is the fairly standard Trotsky derived argument about the degeneration of the workers state as a consequence of the civil war, the physical loss of the Russian working class and party cadres in the fighting, the filling up of the party and the ranks of the working class with barely educated peasants, the reversion to bureaucratic rather than democratic methods, all of this wrapped up around the figure of Stalin the arch bureaucrat.

Now all of this is an extremely logical way to treat the history of the idea of communism. And that is precisely the problem. To follow this logical path is to not even acknowledge other parts of the story, nor even to ask other questions. And the problem starts in this very concept that communism is an 'idea'; a mental construct and that people who call themselves communists are engaged in trying to realise that idea.

If one studies the entire sweep of the human story, from the time anatomically modern humans appeared around 60,000 years ago, one has to acknowledge that communism has been the dominant form of social organisation for most of that time. Hunter gatherer ancestors maintained this way of life until around 10,000 years ago, and many continued to maintain it after that and some still do right now. Hunter gatherer bands were and are communist; they have no accumulations of private wealth producing property, hence no inheritances and hence no hereditary class systems. Sure, some individuals will be prominent, influential, accorded status or deference, based on age or experience, or personality or achievements, but there are no classes. There is generally no selfishness and individualism as people understand it. Decisions are taken collectively and generally by consensus, people practise collaboration, co-operation, mutual aid, collective effort. And don't believe for a moment that these were (and are) materially, nutritionally or culturally deprived societies, or lived in want and hardship. That is simply not true. Socio-biologists and evolutionary psychologists like to take the model of modern day selfish, aggressive, grasping Anglo-American man (and it is a masculinist image) and project it back into prehistory. It is interesting that nowadays most of those arguments are conducted at the level of the behaviours that genes supposedly select for, rather than on actual archaeological or anthropological evidence, because the latter just does not support them. There are two key points. Firstly for the greatest time span of human history people lived in a stage of communism, and this stage produced a good and rich life full of leisure, creativity and cultural fulfilment for humans (and incidentally probably the healthiest lifestyle ever too), and in chronological terms has to be seen as the most successful social structure. And secondly, turning the socio-biologist arguments back on themselves, it is far more likely that over the long span of human history, genes have selected for those behaviours that one might describe as communist. The strongest argument for communism is not that it may be a beautiful or inspiring idea, but that it may be hard wired.

But going beyond this admittedly reconstructed model of prehistory, one can find living communist traditions even in post Neolithic agricultural communities, at least at the level of village society, even when some form of tribute taking thug class imposed itself over the top. At the micro level, most tributary, feudal, aristocratic empires, whatever one calls them, continued to function in a collaborative, communal and egalitarian fashion. This is the background to the unfortunately not so well known writings of old Charlie Marx on Russia, where he was quite excited at the possibility that Russia could bypass capitalism all together and advance to communism based on the traditional peasant commune. This form of agrarian peasant communism formed the basic social organisation of many African cultivating villages, as well as in the broad sweep of peasant cultures in east Asia. Again to leave them out of the story is to seriously distort the story of communism into a Eurocentric story, exported to the vast mass of humanity. One reason why communist parties and movements had more success in so called Third World countries than elsewhere, was because this tradition of peasant communism was still alive and well in the twentieth century.

And then even within the European tradition there are noticeable gaps in the standard story that Ali narrates in his book. Communist stories are already present in the early mythologies of the cultural traditions that were eventually woven into western culture. They are there in the myth of the Golden Age, documented in ancient Greek poetry in the works of Hesiod in the eighth century BCE. The description of Eden in Jewish stories that became the Old Testament of the Christian Bible are communistic; indeed the so-called fall of humanity is described as necessitating work to "earn thy bread in the sweat of thine brow"—i.e. a life of endless labour; surely an excellent description of the change from the leisure of hunting and gathering to the hard labour of farming. And the real reason the city of Sodom was destroyed—"for they were rich and would not share with the poor". Elements of a tradition of redistributive economic organisation survived in the law texts of the early Jewish polity—Mosaic law made provision for a Jubilee every 50 years when all debts were cancelled, people released from bondage and the economic clock restarted as it were. Then the Jewish tradition did not descend from heaven, but sprang from Mesopotamia, and that the Bible stories have their ancestral versions in the myths recorded in cuneiform literature dating back to around 3000 BCE. Here one already finds mythic tales of communist past of egalitarianism and co-operation. Powerful evidence this; right at the start of a social system of organised states involving class distinctions and inheritable accumulated wealth, people imagined (or remembered?) a different past. Communism is not a modern "idea"; it has been there since the beginning of recorded history.

In terms of continuity, Ali has also left out a great deal. The foundation teachings of communism can be found in the gospels, in various recorded accounts of oral traditions of the sayings of Reb Yeshua ben Yussuf. (One may know him by the Latin version of his name—Jesus). But more potently an account survived (in the book known as The Acts of the Apostles) of the organisation of the community of believers that was in Jerusalem after Reb Yeshua's state sanctioned murder. A total community of property, in which at least one member was put to death for holding back personal wealth. And it was these stories that inspired a millennia of writings, movements and sects all condemned as heretical by the established church. From the pseudo Letter of Clement in the eighth century, through the movements that continuously appeared and reappeared (one of which beacme acceptable—the Franciscans who nevertheless came within a whisker of violent repression until a way was found to incorporate them within the church) to the incredible outburst of apocalyptic writings in fifteenth century Germany, which prophesy class war, the destruction of wealth and the advent of a kingdom of equality; communism was equally a spectre that haunted medieval popes and monarchs.

And if they had been haunted, the emerging capitalist class and its friends the princes were thoroughly spooked by communism during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. At precisely the time in which capitalism was being constructed in Europe in an era of turmoil, turbulence and violence, when it came into the world in one of Marx's equally factual and equally rhetorical phrases "dripping from head to toe in blood and gore", a remarkable series of communist movements, equally hostile to both the old feudal and the developing capitalist orders appeared. Among them was the great German uprising of peasants and the lower orders from the towns in 1524-25. Known (inaccurately) to posterity as the Great Peasants War, the popular armies actually inscribed "For Common Property" on their banners and marched to do battle with the feudal armies of heavy cavalry and artillery. The repression was immense; somewhere in the order of 100,000 ordinary working people were killed in the summer of 1525. Every cross roads, every town gate in southern and central Europe was decorated with gallows or with men left to die of exposure with their limbs smashed by hammers while tied to wheels. The other great communist movement which inherited the traditions of medieval heresy was of course the Anabaptists, who—constantly expelled, and constantly persecuted—tried over and over again to establish their own communal settlements, organising their lives collectively and generally responding (with one notable exception at Muenster in 1531) in a non-violent manner. Their descendants survive today as the Amish in the United States, still egalitarian and collective, but no longer holding property in common. Communism reappeared in England in 1649 in the movement of the Diggers, with the remarkable Gerard Winstanley as the spokesperson. In Winstanley's writings one gets the first theoretical writings on communist society and also on environmentalism. Winstanley was at great pains to point out how private landowners destroyed the fertility of the soil by overcropping to maximise their returns, and how under a communist collective soil fertility would be improved by manuring through the regular sequence of fallowing common lands so that all would have enough to eat. Two centuries before Marx developed his theory of the metabolic rift between city and country, it was therein embryo in Winstanley.

Communism survived the repressions of the early modern period.
And then even after the advent of modern communism, by equating it with the story of Marxism as a political movement, Ali has left out another important tale, that of anarchism. The expulsion of anarchism from the ranks of communism—a legacy of Marx himself in the First International—is an immense tragedy. The European anarchist tradition provides people with an alternative view of communism which not only offsets the view derived from the terrible history of twentieth century communist states, but also provides a very telling critique of the history. In this tradition, the problem is not in the deformation of a workers state, but in the very existence of the state. Anarchist critics would point out that the repression and control of the immediate organs of workers and peoples power—the local and factory committees known as Soviets, was in train long before the civil war ended and was an early indication of the Bolshevik intent to maintain an organised and dominant state structure, rather than moving towards a democratic transformation of state functions into functions of everyday life. And anarchist critics would show how this tragedy was to be repeated in Catalonia between 1936 and 1938. The story of communism cannot be complete without the incorporation of the story of anarchism. But not only in its critiques. For above all else, anarchists showed themselves to be the real heirs of the long European antinomian communist tradition in the way they organised. Not for them political parties, but communal organisations, workers syndicates, circles in which the boundaries of political and social existence were blurred and eliminated. Anarchists historically also displayed remarkable transformations in their personal lives—indeed especially in southern Europe, something like a post 'conversion experience' behaviour could be observed. The reason was that, like their millennia old predecessors, communism for the anarchists (no matter what they called it) was about practices. About what people did and how they lived their lives. Now this is not to fall into some attempt to resurrect the Utopian communism so castigated by Marx (but interestingly, less so by Engels), but to stress that communism is more than an idea, more than a political choice, but way of living—or at least trying to live—and organise with others. Perhaps the real tragedy of communism in the twentieth century was that so many people thought it was an idea only and could continue living and practising their lives in the same way that denizens of capitalist society did. The failure was not the idea, but the failure to implement practices, to even understand the necessity of practices.

In his novel The Comedians set in the Haiti of Papa Doc Duvalier in the 1960s, Graham Greene puts the following words into the mouth of the most sympathetic character in the book, a communist doctor : "But communism, my friend, is more than Marxism... there is a mystique as well as a politique". Exactly. A Mystique. Ali and most other writers on this topic actually miss the mystique. Communism is an age old concept, and that it has always marched in lockstep with the advance of social systems based on private wealth, class rule, inequality and state violence. Communism is not a new idea, but an ancient tradition of critique, rejection and resistance to class rule. It has existed as a permanent negation of systems of privilege, injustice and inequality; a constant call to return to human social roots of co-operation, collaboration, solidarity, to what Marx described a sour 'species–being'. By leaving out this story, the universality and antiquity —and hence the real legitimacy—of communism is forgotten.

Reducing communism to an idea is to make it mechanical, abstract, an exercise in theory? It ignores the vital component of practices, and it has led rapidly to anti-human behaviour. The long history of communism is the history of a struggle and effort to be human in the face of inhuman structures and powers.

Vol. 45, No. 12, Sep 30 -Oct 6 2012

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