This week the Tories are having their conference. These representatives of British capitalism are devoid of ideas to fix their broken system or any sort of programme to improve the lives of ordinary people.
All across the world workers and young people are questioning the way things are run and looking for an alternative. Here's an article from Megaphone, the magazine of Socialist Students that looks at the ideas of Marx and others and asks. What is Communism?
“Communism is back baby!”. That’s according to Owen Jones. And he is right; for many young people communism is no longer a dirty word. This is despite Fukuyama’s 1992 pronouncement that “what we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
This famous statement was made amid the collapse of the Soviet Union and other Stalinist states that marked the end of the Cold War. The legacy of these regimes – which represented not the genuine “communism” envisaged by Marx, Engels or the leaders of the Russian revolution, but a grotesque distortion of their ideas – cast a shadow over this word.
Nonetheless, the experience of the past 26 years has starkly revealed the falsehood of Fukyama’s assessment. Capitalism is a system in crisis. It offers a future of austerity, climate change, poverty and war. No wonder thousands of young people, in particular, are taking a fresh look at ideas that offer an alternative.
For instance, the journalist Ash Sarkar, in a recent, fiery interview with Piers Morgan, proudly asserted “I’m literally a communist”. She later reiterated and expanded on this in an interview with Teen Vogue, who ran an article earlier in the year entitled “Who Is Karl Marx: Meet the Anti-Capitalist Scholar”
In her interview, talking about wealth inequality, Ash Sarkar suggested that “...there are different ways of distributing that more equitably. That’s possible under social democracy through taxation or universal basic income. It’s possible under socialism. But communism is the only thing which says all things should be brought into the hands of commons to benefit all people. In the past, you’d call that communism. I think in the future, we’ll have to call that common sense.”
This is happening during a period where a majority of British and American young people, across several polls, have indicated a preference for a socialist society over a capitalist one and the youth support for self-described socialists Sanders and Corbyn greatly outstripping those of their opponents.
Socialism, Communism and the ideas of Marx, Engels and their torch bearers are being discussed (and attacked) in the mainstream, and are striking a chord with young people around the world.
Even Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney, whilst talking about automation and new technology has warned that “Marx and Engels may again become relevant” and “If you substitute platforms for textile mills, machine learning for steam engines, Twitter for the telegraph, you have exactly the same dynamics as existed 150 years ago – when Karl Marx was scribbling the Communist Manifesto”. The capitalists are scared.
So what is communism?
Marx and Engels, in publishing the Communist Manifesto of 1848, laid the central ground work for the ideas as we understand them today. These theories where built on by Lenin, Trotsky and others, who put the ideas of Marx and Engels into practice in the Russian Revolution of 1917, where capitalism broke at its weakest link, when the Russian capitalist and feudal elite were removed from power by a socialist revolution led by the working class. Tragically, left isolated by the defeats of similar movements in other countries, this historic revolutionary victory was ultimately betrayed by Stalin and his bureaucracy.
Communism as a theory can be boiled down to the idea of a societal system in which there is common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange - a stateless society run democratically, in which the needs of all of its citizens are met.
Marx popularised the slogan “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” to describe the function of this highest stage of socialist society.
What is capitalism?
Under Capitalism, the vast majority of society’s wealth and resources is concentrated in the hands of a tiny few. This doesn’t happen because rich individuals are especially clever, hardworking or brilliant, but because of the way the way society is organised.
Under capitalism, goods and services are produced by millions of workers all over the world, working together and cooperating. It is workers who turn the world’s natural resources into things people can use - workers who transport and distribute goods, and who provide society’s services. The problem is that there is private ownership over the means of producing that wealth.
So rather than workers creating what’s necessary to meet the needs and desires of the majority, production is instead organised for profit. Profit comes from not paying workers the full value of what they produce in wages. Marx termed this exploitation. Profit is the driving force behind capitalist production – concerns like solving world hunger or tackling climate change must all be relegated to its demands.
A socialist society would mean democratic workers’ control over the means of production, distribution and exchange. That would require bringing the major monopolies that currently dominate the economy – and by extension the lives of millions – into public ownership. On this basis, it would be possible for working class people to democratically plan the economy in order to meet the needs of everyone, without destroying the planet.
Socialism and communism
Marx argued that socialism would only be the first stage of building a new world. A socialist society would still need a state, but instead of acting in the interests of a small minority – the capitalist class – a democratic workers’ state would act in the interests of the majority. As society developed, with science and technology created by capitalism harnessed to meet the needs of humanity, what Marx described as a society of ‘superabundance’ could develop, and the state would wither away.
A communist society would be a stateless, moneyless, classless society where workers control not only the means of production, but also its output.
Both of these systems have workers’ control and the aim of a healthy, happy and productive society free from exploitation at the heart of them, and the theory states that the success of the democratic workers’ state in gaining control over the means of production will eventually lead to the withering away of the need for the state itself.
How can it be achieved?
When talking about socialism and communism it’s important to remember that these things will not develop naturally under the capitalist system. It is only by the working class taking the place of the ruling class in owning the means of production that this societal change can be achieved.
There are some who argue that this could happen through reform – a bit-by-bit chipping away at the system from the inside until, one day, there is socialism. Tony Benn, for instance, maintained that “Every generation must fight the same battles again and again. There’s no final victory and there’s no final defeat”.
However, as Rosa Luxemburg, a leader of the 1918 German revolution, explained in her pamphlet Reform or Revolution: without the ownership of the means of production itself, any reforms won from the capitalists can and will be clawed back over time.
That’s not to say that socialists don’t fight for reforms and improvements. In fact, socialists are the hardest fighters for every gain that working class and young people can make. We understand that it is through struggling for improvements in wages, living standards, services and so-on, workers gain confidence in their collective strength – in their ability to change and run society.
But we also understand that to make reforms permanent, it’s necessary to fundamentally change the way society is organised.
Decades of neo-liberal capitalism have shown that pay rises, better conditions, the NHS and welfare state can and will be reversed if the capitalists can get away with it. This lays bare the reality that without a mass struggle against capitalism and to transform society along socialist lines, neither socialism nor communism can be achieved.
Change the world
Because Communism is in the media again, and socialism is back on people’s lips and, importantly, among young people is consistently the preferred system for society, now is an excellent time to get involved in the fight to change society. As Karl Marx famously wrote:
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways, the point, however, is to change it”.