Archives for posts with tag: Lenin

Reflecting on the failure of the socialist dream people like his own communist parents had subscribed to, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg wrote in a 1994 poem [1] that ‘Research has shown Socialism to be a universal failure wherever practiced by secret police’.

This, to me, is at the nub of the problem with 20th Century socialism.

Now, however, at the juncture of the greatest crises of capitalism since the Great Depression, is it time for communism to rehabilitate itself?

The best example for us in the West of the dream gone sour is that of the former GDR (DDR or East Germany) – the Soviet satellite that found itself the frontier of the Cold War, both on its border (with West Germany) and in its capital, Berlin – divided geographically and ideologically.

In the last decade there have been a number of examples that have shown us an East Germany shaped only by the Stasi. Works like ‘The Death of Lenin’ or ‘The Lives of Others’, both brilliant movies, but both pedalling only a single thread of the wider story that was day-to-day life in the GDR. Then there have been journalistic forays into a state held captive in both Anna Funder’s ‘Stasiland’ and even the BBC’s own ‘Lost World of Communism’. All these rightfully question the role of the state and the individual, and offer many cases of terrible injustice and oppression. But I feel the idea of an ideology in crisis is not explored. The examples merely qualify the statement I cited earlier from Ginsberg. Those works don’t widen the debate.

Other publications, like ‘Stasi Hell or Workers’ Paradise? Socialism in the German Democratic Republic – What Can We Learn from It?’ and the Stasi Museum’s own ‘GDR Guide’, give fuller examples of everyday life for quiet conformists. They offer a narrative that living in a police state was not actually the main experience of life for the overwhelming majority, even if the culture it bred created its framework. This is not to revise, forgive or ignore those state crimes but we must be mindful that we witness the GDR from a purely Western perspective.

I am also mindful, however, of Rowan Williams’ Easter address this April where he picked up on the point that life can be richer than material wealth. A clear admission, perhaps, that the basis of socialism is still a natural human desire for many people, though they’d never call it that.

And Rowan Williams isn’t the first man of faith to recognise our principles…

Of all the modern economic theories, the economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability. Marxism is concerned with the distribution of wealth on an equal basis and the equitable utilization of the means of production. It is also concerned with the fate of the working classes–that is, the majority–as well as with the fate of those who are underprivileged and in need, and Marxism cares about the victims of minority-imposed exploitation.

…says the Dalai Lama [2]. It might be a bit strange for a Marxist to cite religious leaders, but what I am doing here is trying to highlight the universality of the basis of socialism.

I am not for a second suggesting that everyday life in a police state is better than today’s relative affluence. But following the most recent banking crisis and with public services sliding away from us only to build more profit for the powerful few, the desire for something more humane is widespread. So, I contest we might to do better than to gloat at the dubious humanity of capitalism’s triumph over the Soviet Union, asking of ourselves instead whether can socialism mean more than totalitarianism?

Of course it can.

Show me where the great British socialists William Morris, Engels or Marx even suggest the formation of a police state or the summary arrest of ordinary citizens. You can’t because it doesn’t exist.

The basic premise of socialism is our most precious principle: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. But even that can only be built on solid ground. The opening remarks of many a revolutionary tract is the need for freedom from our oppressors. Not the freedom to oppress others.

I share the analysis of philosopher (and incumbent International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London), Slavoj Žižek, that the time for the rehabilitation of communism is now. In my opinion, the most important means to achieve this is to publicly denounce the legacy of totalitarianism and divorce it from our own modern British programmes. We have nothing in common with the dictatorships of China or North Korea, though we have everything in common with its people. That seems a good place to start.

Two fundamental aspects of Marx I find lacking in the conduct of socialism are the most important checks that have never been served well by its executors. Firstly, that Marx clearly makes a case for analysing reality in its current context – that things move in struggle and it is only in our understanding of that struggle in its current place in time that we can hope to address it; that means we cannot use early 20th Century revolutionary means to overthrow the capitalist state of today. But that does not mean the goal has moved but rather that we actively revise Marxist thinking for our own age.

Secondly, and to complement the first point is the issue of self-criticism within the current context. If only Mao had read Orwell’s 1984, then I’d rather think the Cultural Revolution would be one less shame laid erroneously at our door.

Žižek picks up on Lenin’s point [3] that sometimes it is ok to start-over. The road to revolution is not always best achieved from starting from where we left off the last time we had to abandon that road – this leads us only to misinterpret the failure and, ignoring history, repeat the mistakes for generation after generation. If we re-boot from the ground up then we build a new solution from outset in today’s context based on today’s analysis. That might sound like the road to Pol Pot’s year zero but hear me out – I cannot think of any philosopher or scientist worth listening to today who doesn’t see the education of our children as the best way to change the world for the better.

In post-war East Germany, the Soviet’s built up a youth movement to create great patriots of the Soviet. The terrible reality, however, was that, apart from the colour of their neck-ties, its members looked exactly like the Hitler Youth. It seems to me that the issue here is fear: fear of losing popular support. The need to force an ideology on citizens shows a fear that, perhaps, the ideology is not really up to the job of human civility.

I don’t think this is true. I think that if we truly believe in the power of socialism – and in particular our fundamental basis of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” – then its greatest asset is in its freedom to stand proud against the immoral basis of capitalism, and to stand up to scrutiny from our own, let alone our enemies.

A socialist state built by popular support is the true expression of this project we call ‘civilisation’.

The task now is to find a home from which we can build a movement. The ‘British Road to Socialism’ – the programme of the Communist Party of Britain – unlike its less mature SP and SWP programmes, seeks this home in the Labour Party and Trade Union movement. It is under no illusion of power, but it is a compelling reminder that – if we’re honest with ourselves – for the left and true Marxists who can see the job at hand, in its current context, there is only one true place for British socialists.

[1] from ‘Cosmopolitan Greetings’ by Allen Ginsberg (Penguin, 1994)

[2] http://hhdl.dharmakara.net/hhdlquotes1.html#marxism

[3] In his ‘First as Tragedy, Then as Farce’ (Verso, 2009)

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“The revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat…is a power directly based on revolutionary seizure, on the direct initiative of the people from below, and not a law enacted by a centralised state power.”