The Case for Communism

John Foster

(The Communist Review, London, Autumn 2001)

How should we put the case for communism? Today. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union. At a time when the working class movement is ideologically weaker than it has been for many years. And when many on the Left themselves are uncertain about the feasibility of either a planned economy or any alternative type of state power that could administer it. This article is written to start a discussion. It will attempt a case for Communism, but its main purpose is to identify those issues which require further debate.

Marx took it as self-evident that the primary case for communism is made by capitalism itself. Capitalism creates the material base: a system of production involving the large-scale concentration of capital, the complex interlocking of different processes across society and the continuing and dynamic transformation of the productive potential of labour. Capitalism creates the social means. It brings into being a labour force, concentrates it, compels it to organise to protect its conditions and makes collective action a social reality. Capitalism also provides the reasons. Capitalism exploits. It seeks to divide working people against each other. It demands that each unit of capital maximises its profit or dies. It has no way of ensuring that its productive power is put to social use -- or even fully used at all. Its competitive character, united with the power of the capitalist nation state, brings imperialism and war.

All this is as true in 2001 as it was in 1868. The concentration of capital is now on a colossal scale. Profits are still maintained by the coercion of unemployment. Imperialist powers are aggressively subordinating weaker nations in order to resolve their own economic crises. For most of the world's population poverty has worsened in the long-run. The past thirty years have seen growing levels of malnutrition and starvation -- and in the last five years living standards have fallen sharply in some East Asian and Latin American countries previously experiencing fast industrialisation. It is true that for a minority, those living in the advanced capitalist countries, material levels of consumption have risen. But so also has the intensity of their work and the inequality of income between rich and poor.

However, two of Marx's claims might well be queried. One concerns the working class. Critics would challenge the assumption that working people today have the organisational potential to pose a coherent opposition to capitalism as such. And this challenge is often linked to a second: the viability of any alternative. Maybe, they say, capitalism is wasteful and exploitative. Maybe it is socially divisive. But capitalism continues to transform society's productive potential and there is altogether no evidence that any alternative system could do as well. Why should workers risk everything for a system that would most probably leave them worse off?

In so far as the challenge on the working class is about its size, it can be answered fairly easily. Marx never defined the working class in terms of industrial or manual workers. This was a definition developed not by Marx but by Adam Smith and, as used by today's sociologists, is quite alien to Marx's concept of labour being a union of hand and brain. Marx deemed all those whose labour was exploited for profit to be members of the working class. They were so because they had a class interest to oppose capital and ultimately the state that defends it. On this basis the working class is bigger than it has ever been. Trade union density among white collar workers in Britain today is no less than that among "manual" workers

The challenge is more substantial when applied to the issue of organisation and political consciousness -- particularly when it comes to the political will to establish an alternative socialist social system. The political disintegration of the Soviet Union has been used very effectively by the enemies of socialism to query whether a non-capitalist society could ever be economically effective. Added to this, there are other questions that do not come from the enemies of socialism which are considerably more difficult. They concern the political and social organisation of socialist societies and their long-term viability.

Proponents of liberal democracy have frequently sought to characterise past socialist societies as systems of arbitrary rule enforced by unaccountable communist parties masquerading as the working class. Conversely, they argue that only a law-governed market-based system of individual ownership can sustain individual liberty. Once the state takes over from the market, once economic power becomes concentrated and is monopolised by an elite, arbitrary invasions of personal freedom are inevitable.

Forget the irony -- that this excellently describes capitalist liberal democracy as it exists today -- and there remain real issues to address. On too many occasions Communist Parties have lost their internal democracy and become dominated by personalised cliques. Even in those socialist societies where socialism had a mass base and institutions of mass democracy had been established, it often proved difficult to carry forward socialist consciousness to the next generation. In the Soviet Union where the survival of at least some forms of mass democracy proved surprisingly robust, Yuri Andropov spoke in the 1980s of the continuing consequences of the "alienation of labour". Individualism could regenerate itself under socialism. So could nationalism and racism. And socialism would regress. Ruling communist parties would increasingly seek to keep power out of unreliable hands and the excluded majority of workers would lose any conception of themselves as somehow being collectively "in power".1

Opponents of socialism have very successfully rolled together all these negative experiences into one monolithic "failure of communism". The social achievements of socialism are forgotten. The economic and political strength that defeated fascism is as if it never existed. In popular consciousness even the economic disasters resulting from the switch to a capitalist market system are often attributed to "communism" itself.

Ideologically it is almost as if Marx had never lived -- leaving the field open to the spiritual heirs of the utopians of the 19th century, Proudhon and Bakunin. Anti-capitalism is an inspiration to thousands of young people: they fling themselves as bravely against the police lines at Genoa or Seattle as those in Paris in 1848. But there is little or no awareness of how to bring wider social forces into play and a profound distrust of organisation or old political structures. The paralysis of direction is no less marked in the trade union movement. Opposition to privatisation and neo-liberal economics is combined with a general failure to pose any coherent socialist alternative.

This is why putting the case for communism is not some pious piece of antiquarianism but an urgent political need. Marx did indeed demonstrate how capitalism creates the historical conditions for socialism. Yet his primary preoccupation, and his own definition of his main contribution, was about how this change could be brought about. It was Marx who defined the need for a Communist Party, its relationship to the working class and other social forces and the way politically the transition to socialism should take place. In so far as it has been Communists who have been most associated with the practical attempts to build socialism, their successes and their failures, it must primarily be Communists who draw the lessons. Others on the Left -- most, it has to be said, more in the tradition of Proudhon and Bakunin -- will never do this. They prefer to dwell rhetorically to socialism's failure and simply ascribe it to Communist rule. The vital experience of the past century, of success as well as failure, will be lost -- which is precisely what our ruling class wants.

Let's start with Marx's own prescriptions for political action. Anyone looking at them for the first time will find them a strange combination of caution and radicalism, of insistence on mass involvement and requirements for discipline and control. Marx argued that Communists had to be totally realistic about stages of development. The working class would always need its own independent organisation as a class. But alliances were also essential. And they would have to be formed in line with the current balance of class forces. At particular stages these allies would include the peasantry and even sections of the capitalist class. Immediate political objectives would reflect the particular circumstances and usually run well short of socialism. Yet the transition to socialism itself demanded revolutionary change. The capitalist state had to be destroyed -- in the sense of a coherent structure of institutions that operated to meet the legal, social and economic needs of capitalism. And the working class had to constitute itself politically and organisationally in a way that governing institutions responded fully and entirely to the needs of socialist construction. In other words the working class had to become a ruling class -- with all the revolutionary transformation of consciousness that this required.

This change in consciousness was central to Marx's assumptions. A very significant part of the working population, probably a majority, had to go through a process of political mobilisation that both built on and transcended an existing sectional collectivism, overcame sexism, racism and narrow consumerism and created an understanding of what constituted its leading role. Only in this way could a mass base be created for a new working class state. Marx was entirely realistic about this process. It would inevitably be ragged and incomplete: the new society would bear all the birthmarks of the old. But unless a major part of the working class had themselves been involved in the revolutionary process, and had understood its significance as class struggle, there could be no firm basis for the new order.

But what new order? Again Marx was sharply realistic. He abhorred utopianism and all attempts to detail some ideal future. For he knew the future would not be ideal. Over a long historical epoch the priority had to be on developing society's material base --- overcoming the legacy of uneven development, environmental imbalance and stunted human potential.

In these circumstances there could be no naive egalitarianism. In creating the material basis for the new order remuneration had to be based on contribution -- minus what was needed for social investment. Marx poured scorn on utopian schemes for "exchanges of labour value" -- regardless of the social value of what was produced. In the preface to the first German edition of the Poverty of Philosophy, written a few months after Marx's death, Engels stressed Marx's belief in the essential role of competition to determine what commodities society actually needed.2

So, on the one hand, Marx emphasised mass involvement by the working class. But, on the other, it had to be an involvement that understood the need for investment, wage differentials, material incentives and the discipline of competition. Only when the long-term consequences of alienation had been overcome, when work had become the prime necessity of life and the material conditions of abundance created could remuneration be in terms of need and "the free development of each [be].. the condition for the free development of all". Only then. A difficult legacy indeed.

These prescriptions did not come out of thin air. For forty years Marx was centrally positioned in the working class politics of a rapidly industrialising Europe. He was involved in the democratic challenges of 1842 and 1848 and also, though less directly, in the first attempt to establish a form of working class state in the Paris Commune of 1871. When he drew conclusions, he sought to do so collectively -- though often with great difficulty -- through debate and discussion within organisations of communists and trade unionists.

This commitment to practice, to the testing and development of theory through collective action, has been the hallmark of Communist work ever since. It was what Marx saw as defining Communists and is as essential to the case for communism as the perspective for change itself. Here we will focus briefly on just two key issues: the relationship of the Communist Party to the working class and the role of class and party in socialist change.

Marx made the classic statement way back in 1848. "The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole". Communists "point out and bring to the fore the common interests of the entire proletariat"; they "always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole" in the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to go through. Their role is to represent "the line of march" for each particular national struggle at each particular time.

These words need clarifying. They were not meant to claim that Communists somehow knew it all simply by virtue of their name or because they called themselves Marxists. Nor did Marx, or Lenin after him, ever have any notion that the Communist Party should be an elite of intellectuals that brought Marxism to the working class from outside. Quite the contrary. The reason for a party was two-fold. While class understanding develops within the working class, and most readily within those sections of large scale employment most exposed to capitalist crisis, it will be an uneven and difficult process. The most knowledgeable, experienced and combative workers will suffer displacement and victimisation: defeat will often bring disillusion and passivity. Organisation limits this and enables knowledge and class experience to be carried forward.

Organisation was also critical for an even more important reason. A Marxist or scientific understanding of social change has to be both learnt and developed, and development requires testing in practice. Organisation is needed for democratic discussion, disciplined and collective implementation and as a forum for further reassessment. Marxism is not an intellectual instrument that can just be picked up and used. The strategy and tactics of any communist party have to be specific and concrete: matched to the historical circumstances of its working class. A communist party has therefore to be "of" its working class, because that class can alone replace capitalism, but organisationally distinct from the everyday organisations of working class struggle such as trade unions. Such mass organisations will inevitably encompass all levels of consciousness and will in any normal circumstances reflect many of the ideas of capitalist society in general. A communist party, on the other hand, will represent those who accept the need to work unitedly to replace capitalism as a system -- and continuously assess the lessons of that struggle.

Key to everything therefore is the relation between the Communist Party and the wider mass organisations. Today, it can be argued, there is a distinctive Communist style of work which results from over a century of active involvement in the wider movement and many mistakes and reappraisals. Every communist party will have its own story to tell of periods of sectarian isolation, others when reformist ideas invaded the party from outside and others when breakdowns in internal democracy prevented the further development of strategy and theory.

What characterises this style of work? In essence it is confidence in the working class and its basic organisations: a confidence born of necessity. For ultimately it has to be workers in these organisations who become class conscious if there is to be any progress towards a different order. These and no others. There can be no short cuts. Accordingly, the Communist Party does not seek to establish "doctrinally pure" front organisations under its direct control. Nor is the party primarily a recruiting organisation or an electoral machine on

its own behalf.

The key organisations are those for the routine day to day defence of working class interests. First and foremost these are the trade unions. But they also include tenants and community organisations, organisations defending the rights of particular groupings such as black and ethnic minorities, young people, women and pensioners. Individual Communists seek to build these organisations and their effectiveness: to develop confidence that collective action can bring change. They do so in the knowledge that for long periods of time the level of activity will be purely defensive and often sectional. But Communists also know that occasions will occur in which broader alliances can be established, solidarity developed and class understanding thereby transformed.

In terms of how this is done, it is very important to be specific. The whole point of a communist party is that it develops general (international) experience concretely in its own national circumstances. So here, because anything else would be presumptuous, let's consider Britain.

Our communist party has always been relatively very small and has worked within a massively bigger trade union and labour movement. It has never entered government. It has had very few elected representatives. At particular points, however, the party has had a relatively decisive role in bringing the working class movement into action -- sometimes with historic consequences for the balance of class forces.

The late 1960s and early 1970s would be one example. This period saw first a Labour and then a Conservative government seek to limit trade union rights, to impose an incomes policy and to run the economy with significantly higher levels of unemployment and particularly detrimental effects for regional economies. The Communist Party argued for the use of strike action to bring pressure to bear on governments. The reformist leaderships of the TUC [Trades Union Congress] opposed such action. From very small beginnings in 1968 the movement of shop floor, shop steward led resistance grew. Within five years the position had been transformed. By 1973 TUC itself was backing political strike action. Regional alliances had been established, based on the trade union movement, communities and local business, to press for interventionist economic policies. Solidarity strike action was taking place on issues of unemployment and public services. Two miners' strikes had restored the right to free collective bargaining. Shipyard workers on the Clyde had taken over their yards for a year to assert the right to work. By 1974 the Labour Party was calling for an irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people and won a general election on that basis.

These changes were certainly not engineered by a conspiracy of communists. Nor did communists work alone. The key work was done by many rank and file activists, communists and non-communists, winning arguments in the workplace and democratically gaining votes for particular courses of action. In mining, shipbuilding, the docks and the car industry communists were especially to the fore. Their contribution was particularly important in two areas. One was to raise the need for solidarity between different groups of workers. The other was to pose the necessity for the building of alliances with other social forces. Critical to the success of the shipyard workers on the Clyde was the strategic vision which led to the creation of a regional/national alliance, including local business, and the resulting political isolation of Conservative government in Scotland. In this sense the working class was at last taking a leading role -- defining the way forward for other social forces within a wider anti-monopoly alliance.

The ability of Communists to achieve this in the struggles of the early 1970s was precisely because they had the genuine trust of those with whom they worked. The outcome, as well as defeating government attempts to shackle the unions and building a mass movement, left individual organisations stronger -- as much as anything because these wider struggles created tens of thousands of activists whose political horizons and experience had been transformed. The great majority of these activists were in the Labour party and this in turn had major political consequences for the democratisation and leftward movement of that party by the early 1980s ‑- developments which gravely worried our ruling class.

Today the position of our Communist Party will hardly recommend itself to any self-styled revolutionary. The Communist Party of Britain still identifies the Labour party as the organisation that must be the focus of Left activity. It is not denied that the Labour government is fully aligned to imperialism. It is accepted that the potential actions of the Blair government on Star Wars and euro membership will strengthen the most aggressive trends in imperialism today.

Yet the CPB also sees the converse of this reality. New Labour's ability to govern on behalf of the British ruling class largely depends on a relationship with the trade union movement, the working class electorate and the Labour party as a mass organisation. And it is precisely here that the organised majority of working people are and where the key changes will have to be won if the labour movement is to go forward to the next stage. It is also at this level, and nowhere else, that actual changes in policy on the euro and Star Wars have to be made -- changes that are critical for working people across the world and which will most effectively open up contradictions in the international alignments of our ruling class. The Communist Party would probably attract many more recruits if it took a different, more "revolutionary" position. But it would not, it is suggested, be conducting itself as a Communist Party -- a position argued in detail in the current (2001) edition of Britain's Road to Socialism.

What then of the other issue that is so crucial in the case for communism: the relationship between the party, the working class and state under socialism? The British party has no experience of its own. But it is an issue which no party can ignore. The reverses of 1989-91 colour the entire climate within which working people operate across the world. While this is not the place to rehearse the entire debate, already well developed elsewhere, it is important to itemise some of the key points.

It might be proposed initially, as a basis of argument, that the economic functioning of centrally planned economies has generally been good. Economics, in any narrow sense, were not the problem. Growth rates in the socialist countries were generally higher than those of comparable capitalist societies for most of the post-war period. The much slower growth of later 1970s and 1980s largely reflected the political decision to reallocate resources from investment to military use. Today growth rates in Cuba and China, each adopting very different models of development, are higher than those of comparable economies in their regions. Both countries have (so far) shown themselves to have sufficient political cohesion to be able to handle transnational companies on terms that do not subordinate their own national objectives -- a matter of no small importance to other countries in the third world.

The difficulties relate more to the long-term interactions between economic and political development and the way in which socialist state power is constructed and sustained. What follows is no more than a list.

First, there is the issue of how labour discipline is developed and accumulation of capital secured at the same time as widening the mass base of a socialist society. There is the longstanding debate on material and moral incentives. There is the newer one, posed dramatically in China, of market socialism and of privately owned capital operating in a relatively open market for labour. What form of labour regime is most compatible with maintaining and deepening socialist consciousness -- or at least avoiding its catastrophic loss? No doubt most of the answers will be concrete and specific, relating to the circumstances of time and place. But there are also general issues here.

Second, there is the much wider but linked issue of the forms of socialist state power. Again answers are likely to be specific. Britain's Road to Socialism stresses the retention of the institutions of parliamentary democracy and a commitment to the operation of a plural party system including parties opposed to socialism. This perspective, central to the BRS, was developed after the last war to match the particular national circumstances of a country where the working class had won democracy prior to socialism and where institutions previously based solely on the representation of capitalist property were democratised. Questions, however, remain about how this process of democratisation will be completed. For any transition to socialism this will be crucial. The government apparatus has to be made fully responsive to the legal, social and economic requirements of socialist construction. In this sense what should comprise the socialist state in terms of institutions that express the political will of the working class as a class? Is it enough at this stage to say that this will be done through the parliamentary representation, and extra-parliamentary pressure, of the trade union movement and its party, the Labour Party, once that party has been transformed through struggle -- once it regains its previous democratic and federal structure and the Communist Party again becomes an integral part of it?

This leads directly on to a final question. What should be the relationship between the Communist Party and the state under socialism? One influential critique of the Soviet Union poses the fusion of the Communist Party with the state apparatus as a major cause of inertia and loss of momentum. The role of the Communist Party, it argues, is to spearhead the social forces of change. The role of the state, even the socialist state, is to sustain the existing socialist order. A fusion between the two aborts social progress. It might be claimed that the formulations of the BRS provide a guarantee against the problem. The Communist Party would be in government and at the same time also exist as a democratic entity outside it with its own internal structures. But is this too glib? Such a separation of roles was also formally the case in the Soviet Union and elsewhere.

So to summarise.

There is a case against capitalism. It becomes more urgent by the day. The weight of imperialist domination is proving increasingly destructive, economically and in terms of social cohesion, for a majority of people across the world. In the advanced capitalist countries big business is enforcing a free market regime that once more uses unemployment, casualisation and insecurity as it principal weapons of control and is directly creating the conditions for racism and fascism.

There is also a case for communism. It is somewhat different from the generalised case "for Socialism" -- which in its popular and rhetorical form is usually weakly specified except, by implication, against the experience of the "communist states". The case for communism rests as much on its methods as its objectives. It is not utopian. It seeks a scientific, tested approach. It seeks to do this through the actual experience of working class struggle -- including that in the building of socialism. In attempting to put the case for communism today it is therefore this experience in particular that we as Communists have a duty to assess.


1. Bakimed Azad, Heroic Struggle - Bitter Defeat: factors contributing to the downfall of the socialist state in the USSR, International Publishers, New York, 2000.

2. Frederick Engels, "Marx and Rodbertus. Preface to the First German edition of The Poverty of Philosophy", Marx and Engels, Collected Works, XXVI, pp.278-291, Moscow, 1990.