24 July 2018

Communism literally always ends in failure


Socialists usually despise marketing, which they see as hoodwinking people into buying tripe they neither need nor truly want. And yet – nobody does it better than them.

Who would have thought that it would be so easy to not just rehabilitate communism, but to actively rebrand it as hip, cool and edgy?

It was not planned. Earlier this month on Good Morning Britain, Novara Media’s Ash Sarkar yelled “I’m a communist, you idiot! […] I’m literally a communist!” at host Piers Morgan. The clip went viral. A couple of hours later, Sarkar had become a minor national celebrity. As she puts it: “Before, I’d maybe get recognised a couple of times per week; now it’s most places I go. […] But everyone’s unerringly lovely and just wants to chat about politics.”

Following in her wake, her Novara colleague Aaron Bastani has also been touring the studios, explaining how communism had never really been tried, and how ridiculous it was to associate it with real-world approximations such as… well, all of them.

T-shirts with the slogan “I’m literally a communist” have gone on sale. “Communism is now all the rage!”, a triumphant Owen Jones declared on his Guardian video channel. And he is right.

Sarkar and her fellow Corbynistas have found, or rather, stumbled across, a way to Make Communism Cool Again. Fair play to them. But given that we won’t be able to eat coolness after the revolution: have they also found a way to make it work?

The answer, as you may have guessed, is no. There is remarkably little substance behind the hype.

Sarkar’s unlikely rise has not appeared out of nowhere. As I have argued before on CapX, there is a whole genre of articles telling us to stop worrying about the past failures of socialism/communism, and to get excited about its future potential instead.

(A note on the terminology: in Marxist theory, “communism” is simply the final stage of socialism, i.e. a stateless, classless, moneyless utopia. “Socialism”, meanwhile, is the transition period after the revolution, during which the state, wage labour and monetary exchange will still be necessary. Thus, socialism and communist are not distinct ideologies. In Marxist theory, they are just different stages of the same process.)

The authors of pieces arguing that it’ll be different this time are always very keen to distance themselves from previous versions of socialism, yet none of them can tell us what exactly they would do differently next time.

Rather than providing at least a rough outline of how “their” version of socialism would work, the authors escape into abstraction, and just restate the original aspirations of socialism.

This is pointless. We know what the original aspirations were: a classless society, democratic control over economic life, workers’ self-emancipation and so on.

But the point is that socialism has never remotely turned out that way – not because it has not been “properly tried”, but because nobody has ever come up with a mechanism via which millions of people can “democratically” plan “their” economy.

The hype around Ash Sarkar fits perfectly into this genre. In Sarkar’s definition: “Communism is a belief in the power of people to organise their lives as individuals, their social lives, their political and their economic lives, without being managed by a state, and private property is a barrier to the distribution of those resources that we need to not just survive but thrive.”

Sarkar claims that previous incarnations of communism represent just “one specific form of communism”. She does not want to replicate that, but “couple it with a politics of liberation, […] the liberation of human potential from the oppressive forces of state management”.

These are nice soundbites. But this is pretty much exactly what the people who were involved in any of the earlier socialist projects would also have said. No socialist revolutionary ever said that they wanted the state to manage people’s lives. They all talked about the independent self-organisation and self-emancipation of the working masses.

Those aspirations do not make Sarkar’s version of socialism any different from earlier versions. Those have always been the aspirations of socialism.

Take the following quote from a famous socialist, critiquing authoritarian tendencies in the nascent Soviet Union:

There are two methods: the method of coercion (the military method), and the method of persuasion (the trade-union method). […]

The mistake Trotsky makes is that he underrates the difference between the army and the working class, he puts the trade unions on a par with the military organizations, and tries […] to transfer military methods from the army into […] the working class. […]

Soviet power […] can be directed only through the medium of the working class and with the forces of the working class. […] Obviously, it is impossible to do this by coercive methods […] [I]t is inconceivable that either the consciousness of the masses […] can be developed by coercive methods.

Obviously, only […] proletarian democracy […], only methods of persuasion, can make it possible to unite the working class, to stimulate its independent activity.

That was Stalin.

Speaking of Stalin, in a podcast with Ash Sarkar, her ally Owen Jones talks about why he thinks earlier socialist projects went wrong. Listening to Jones, one gets the impression that it was all just the fault of one man: Stalin.

Stalin did not just singlehandedly “corrupt” the Russian Revolution (the standard Trotskyite account). He then also used his influence over the Communist International to “corrupt” socialist parties and movements all over the world. In Owen Jones’s account, Stalin had a reverse Midas Touch, the power to corrupt any movement he ever came into contact with, no matter how indirectly. Apparently, this “Stalin Touch” still worked decades after Uncle Joe’s death, and in countries over which the Soviet Union never wielded much influence.

This borders on superstition. Since WW2, there have been more than two dozen attempts to build a socialist society. Those socialist countries that were outside of the Warsaw Pact were only loosely aligned with the Soviet Union, and some of them were actively hostile to it. But even the Warsaw Pact countries were not “run” from Moscow.

Of course, Moscow imposed certain policy constraints upon them (and enforced them with Soviet tanks, if necessary) where it saw its own geopolitical interests at stake. But Moscow did not tell East Berlin how to draft a Five-Year Plan, and Moscow did not tell Warsaw how to run a state-owned enterprise. In terms of their economic and social policies, these were all socialist experiments in their own right, not replicas of the Soviet model.

It was not, as Ash Sarkar claims, just one specific form of socialism that turned authoritarian and dysfunctional. It was more than two dozen separate experiments, which differed radically in their starting conditions and their interpretations of Marx’s teachings. Yet wherever they started from, and however they went about it, after a while, they all ended up with a number of striking similarities. Even Venezuela, the Corbynistas’ erstwhile utopia, has begun to look suspiciously like earlier failed utopias.

If you believe that was all just a coincidence, or the corrupting influence of just one man who died 65 years ago, you will literally believe anything. Communism may have become trendy again. But unfortunately, trendy nonsense is still nonsense.

Kristian Niemietz is Head of Health and Welfare at the IEA.