why we need a new human emancipatory communism

by Allan Armstrong


How many people today, even on what remains of the Left, publicly and confidently declare their support for ‘Communism’? Take just three British organisations, which claim to be key parts of the revolutionary Left – the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Party and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. Nowhere in their What We Stand For columns is there any mention of communism. If these comrades are communists they are ‘closet communists’.

Looking tentatively out from their closets, with doors slightly ajar, they might whisper to those within hearing distance, that ‘Communism’ is nothing to get het-up about really. ‘Communism’ can be safely relegated to a distant future. The real task is “to build socialism”. If they make any reference at all to communism, it is confined to in-house events or theoretical journals and has about as much purchase on their everyday politics as ‘Clause 4 Socialism’ had for the reformist Left who led the old British Labour Party. If Marx hadn’t called himself a communist for most of his life and hadn’t entitled his best-known work, The Communist Manifesto, most of the British revolutionary Left would probably prefer to jettison the term altogether.

1. Communism – an outdated and nostalgic label or a human emancipatory alternative society

Mention of the word ‘Communism’ today conjures up visions of tyrants such as Stalin, Ceausescu, Kim Il Sung and Pol Pot, or grey bureaucrats like Brezhnev, Honecker and Husak. Indeed so discredited has the Communist label become, particularly amongst young people, that even when they clash violently with the representatives of global capitalism’s New World Order, whether in Seattle or London, they call their protest ‘anti-capitalist’ not communist.

The experience or knowledge of ‘official’ Communism is now the biggest material factor preventing the recreation of a new human emancipatory alternative to imperialism’s New World Order today. Struggles, often on an epic scale, such as those of the Zapatistas in Mexico, the factory workers in Brazil and South Korea, the immigrant agricultural workers in the USA and the Anti-Poll Tax Movement and the Liverpool Dockers in the UK, have taken place recently. However, in the absence of any popular vision of an alternative human emancipatory society, most current struggles set themselves self-limiting objectives, which make them easier to defeat, contain or marginalise. Therefore, although new forms of struggle emerge, the lack of a clear political alternative still leaves them trapped within limits set by bureaucratised trade unions and political parties, clinging on to varying versions of social democracy and nationalism.

Therefore, if we are to proudly proclaim ourselves as communists, it is vital that we outline a genuine new human emancipatory communism, which takes full stock of the failings of both ‘official’ and ‘dissident Communism’, and which can persuasively show that human liberation can still be achieved. This means a break with both reformist and ‘revolutionary’ social democracy, i.e. social democracy calling itself Communism. The main purpose of this article will be to show that a genuine new communism, based on real trends in capitalist society, can form an operational politics

2. Marx and the abolition of wage slavery versus ‘Revolutionary’ social democracy and the continuation of the wages system

Re-examining Marx’s understanding of a fully developed communist society, we can see that it is based on a human emancipatory vision:-

1. “From each according to their ability; to each according to their needs.”

2. “Where the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

If we then look at the key transformation which Marx felt was necessary to bring about communism, we will find that it is the ending of wage slavery. In Marx’s major critique of capitalist political economy, Capital, he railed against those on the Left who confined their demand to, “A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work”. He also opposed the slogan, “We demand the full product of our labour”. Marx wanted communists to inscribe on their banner, “The abolition of the wages system”. Yet very few of today’s socialists try to highlight the domination of wage slavery under capitalism. The battles for the emancipation of chattel slaves and women are seen as great past and present human struggles. But the continued extension of wage slavery throughout the world (often alongside other more brutal forms of bondage such as enforced child labour) hardly concerns the Left. Yet, even many on the Right instinctively rebel against the condition of wage slavery, hoping to be independent owners or at least join capitalism’s ‘house slaves’ as managers.

Yet, when we examine the society that ‘revolutionary’ social democrats want to build immediately after their Revolution, it is most peculiar. The wages system is to be retained under socialism. This is a bit like the black slaves of pre-Civil War USA rising up against their slave masters – but once they have expelled them, not proceeding to abolish slavery! Instead, slavery would remain, but the slaves would elect and emancipate a select few of their number to manage the affairs of the plantation. The job of this new management would be to organise the slaves with a view to increasing production, promising a much fairer distribution of the resulting produce afterwards!

We can see that Marx offers a much more profound criticism of capitalism than the majority of today’s revolutionary Left. Furthermore, with its emphasis on wage slavery it has the potential to unite the vast majority of humankind, either struggling under wage slavery’s yoke, still trying to resist its imposition or forming drop-out, non-waged ‘maroon’ enclaves, beyond its reach. Marx gave various names to the new social order he was struggling to give voice to – ‘revolutionary democracy’ and ‘humanism’, but his settled label was ‘communism’. However, Marx had to warn against other ‘communisms’ – particularly ‘vulgar Communism’. ‘Vulgar Communism’ expressed the hatred many felt at the growing inequalities and injustices associated with the early days of industrial capitalism at the beginning of the nineteenth century. However, it took the form of an angry levelling down of the new capitalist order, rather than creating a new emancipatory higher level of society.

Therefore ‘anti-capitalism’ is not enough. Revolutions can lead to an immediate feeling of intense liberation, but they are usually followed by much longer periods of defence, setbacks and painful reconstruction. The twentieth century was the ‘Century of Revolutions’, but it eventually produced so little for humanity at such a high cost, it is not surprising that many are very cautious, despite the growing barbarism of The New World Order. Therefore, it is vital that we outline a genuine emancipatory communism rooted in today’s realities and we show how this could be achieved.

3. The decline of Marx’s genuine communism and the rise of orthodox Marxism and ‘official Communism’

During Marx’s lifetime, communist politics had the support of a wider spectrum of opinion than was to be the case later. Marx himself never claimed to be the sole advocate of a patented ‘Communist’ model. Indeed this was the very opposite of his aim, which was to give voice to the aspirations of workers and others for an emancipatory alternative struggling both within and against capitalism. Furthermore there were other contemporaries of Marx, such as Dietzgen, who theoretically contributed to this wider communism. Communism wasn’t Marxism.

The Second International was formed at a time of worker militancy in 1889, but this did not lead to a new wave of communist revolution. Indeed it was the Second International, which helped to massively shift the terms of the debate. Instead of advocating the abolition of wage slavery, it helped promote the idea of the ‘noble’ wage worker, and the acceptance of the condition of wage slavery, but on better terms. Trade unions would improve wages. Social Democratic politicians would tax the capitalist wage-slave masters. This would provide workers with a social wage too. The term ‘communism’ itself was relegated by the Second International as a new Social Democracy made increasing accommodation with a renewed capitalism – the monopoly imperialist capitalism identified by Lenin.

After the defeat of the International Revolutionary Wave of 1916-21, which gave birth to the Communist Third International, Marx’s genuine communist legacy became almost completely marginalised and lost. Ironically though, this occurred at the same time that the Communist Party leaderships in a whole number of countries, beginning with the USSR, but later followed by Yugoslavia, Albania, North Korea, China and Cuba amongst others, promoted an almost complete identity of ‘Communism’ with Marx. ‘Communism’ became an ideology associated with a ‘great individual’ (and of course the self-chosen successor/s); a notion that the ideologues of ‘western capitalism’ were equally keen to promote! Marx saw communist organisation as completely subordinate to a real revolutionary movement of wage slaves seeking to abolish their slavery. ‘Official Communism’ and its ‘dissident’ emulators elevated first ‘The Party’ and, then the Party-state, to the prime mover of further social development, through an increasing number of ‘necessary’ political and economic stages. ‘Orthodox Marxism’ trampled over the genuine communism originally promoted by Marx.

The abolition of wage slavery, which formed the core of the genuine communist project, was relegated to an increasingly distant utopian ‘Communist’ future. In the meantime a new middle class was to be in control. ‘The Party’ was to fuse with the state to provide a new class with the political power the traditional capitalists enjoyed through private ownership and control of capital.

4. Wage slavery and the living creative pole of capital

Wage slavery is enshrined in the labour contract, which allows capitalists to appropriate the products of our labour power. However, the surplus value created by our labour power (over and above what we are paid for by the boss) is transferred to these products. So the capitalist owners or controllers can then appropriate this surplus value, ‘contained’ in the products we make, when they sell them as commodities on the market. Because the eventual realisation of surplus value takes place at some distance from its creation in the workplace, appearing ‘magically’ in the accounts at company HQ, the value we create through our labour power doesn’t immediately appear to us – it is hidden. Furthermore, our own labour power is bought and sold on the labour market, like any other commodity. As long as our labour power ends up producing their capital, we remain wage slaves.

But Marx clearly understood that wage slaves aren’t merely victims. We also represent the creative pole of the capitalist relationship. Yet the essence of this relationship appears to be reversed, making the capitalist owners and controllers seem to be the initiators of all production and distribution. This has helped to imbue them with legitimate political power too. However we, as workers, create all new value and wealth. We create both ourselves as living labour and capital as dead labour. We produce not only all our means of subsistence and the luxuries of the capitalist class, but the capital – the factories, offices, machinery, technology, raw materials and commodities – through which they try to control us, but never completely succeed. It is literally a constant life and death struggle between living and dead labour.

We perform a wide variety of very different concrete labouring activities such as mining or building, assembly or office work, nursing or cleaning, word processing or image creation, etc. However, these different concrete labour activities have to be reduced to a common abstract labour standard, which can be expressed in some common monetary form. This enables the capitalists to convert surplus value into profits in the sphere of capitalist circulation, with its banks, stock and commodity exchanges, etc, through the competition of the market. It also enables them to compare relative rates of profit, so that they can direct their investments to the most profitable sectors of business. In order to maximise their profits they need to push our wages down to their socially necessary minimum. They attempt to increase the hours we work or intensify the labour we do. To help achieve this they closely monitor and measure our work and threaten us with disciplinary action or the sack.

Labour time is the measure of our labour transferred to products to create new value. However, since our own labour power is also a commodity, then its cost is also determined by the labour time necessary for its production through training, feeding, clothing, sheltering and providing the domestic and social life necessary to raise more workers for the future. Marx identified simple and complex labour. Simple labour is unskilled, involving relatively little labour time in its production, hence it usually receives low wages. Complex labour is skilled labour created through greater inputs of training and education, thus involving more labour time in its production. Much of this is provided by family, friends, workmates, or by the wider public through taxation. Yet capitalism frequently allows individuals to privately appropriate the benefits of this wider social contribution in the form of higher pay. This helps to explain pay differentials.

Although labour time determines value under capitalism, this is not achieved in a planned way, but through the market. As a result there is an irrational core to all this. Goods and services are usually produced before the need for them has been socially determined. It is only if these goods and services are sold that their need has been proved by capitalist criteria. However, to achieve this state of affairs there may have been periods of massive overproduction, with goods unsold and factories on short-time working or closed down. This leads to reduced wages or redundancies. On other occasions there are chronic shortages, leading to overtime working, speed-ups and increased industrial accidents. These are only the direct human consequences. Yet all this is rational by capitalist criteria. Society does continue to reproduce itself, and material wealth has been greatly increased. Yet this is a by-product of the central drive to create profits and many people and environments have been exploited, degraded and devastated in the process.

Furthermore, capitalists are continually trying to lower their costs, so skilled labour is under constant attack, through the application of new technology. Although new technology may lead to new more advanced skills for a few, for the majority it is a de-skilling process. This is because capitalists only introduce technology in the first place to lower their costs and increase their direct control of the production process. During the nineteenth century, when workers first successfully struggled to shorten the working day, capitalists responded with the introduction of machinery to intensify labour. They reduced their workers to ‘hands’. Discipline was imposed by the regular working of the machine and by the supervision of the chargehand. Today, call centres have become the modern sweatshops, with discipline imposed jointly by embedded computer programmes and by floor managers. It is the capitalist owners and controllers who gain the benefits of technological ‘progress’, since it is they who appropriate our dead labour to invest and create further rounds of surplus labour.

Even though workers collectively produce all the new wealth in society (the sum total of goods and services), once we leave our workplaces, the only access we have to this is by spending the money we have earned. Therefore, the only relationship we have with the other producers of wealth we mutually depend on is a monetary connection through the market. It is the capitalist owners and controllers who interpret our needs and promote particular products, often with a built-in obsolence or a ‘dependency hook’. Under capitalism vast amounts of labour time are employed in the promotion and advertising of particular products and in the media cultivation of certain lifestyles. Thus £millions were spent producing and promoting the blue ‘Smartie’, involving many undoubtedly skilled people on a project of zero social worth.

This all adds up to what Marx called commodity fetishism. Relationships between people take the form of relationships between things. This becomes particularly marked, when very immediate human needs – housing, health and education provision, or even intimate sexual relations – are handed over to ‘the market’. But commodity fetishism is merely part of a much wider condition of alienation, which stems from the contradictions and conflicts in the capitalist production process, at the heart of which is the condition of wage slavery.

Therefore communism is already latent within capitalism. It is the product of the constant struggle between the capitalist and working class. The core of this conflict is a ‘battle of needs’ focussing on socially necessary labour time. The need for the capitalists to make profits means they define this socially necessary labour time as the minimum necessary to produce and reproduce the workforce they require. For us, socially necessary labour time is a much wider concept. It means maximising our consumption of humanly valuable goods and services and living a more human life with greater time for social, cultural and recreational activity. It also means trying to get beyond the alienation we feel under wage slavery.

5. Communism, the end of wage slavery and the transformation of socially necessary labour time

Thus Marx rooted the conditions for the achievement of communism in the ending of wage slavery, not in the building of an increasing number of ‘necessary’ political and economic stages. In this orthodox Marxist schema the central emancipatory drive becomes lost and the emphasis is placed initially on achieving a separate political power before further building up the national and world economy using the most advanced capitalist technologies. In Marx’s emancipatory vision of communism, technology is a subordinate element. The communist revolution is neither essentially economic nor technological. During the first phase of communism we would still have to make use of capitalism’s inherited technologies. But part of the communist revolution will be ‘take these technologies apart’ and reassemble them so they are consistent with truly human productive activity and to create new technologies more adequate to the purposes of human liberation.

Marx saw the voluntary cooperative and consciously planned efforts of freely associated labour as communism’s primary basis for providing a qualitative step beyond capitalism. He certainly saw this as leading to a quantitative increase in the material wealth necessary to lead a truly human life and this will still remain the case whilst poverty persists. But an increasingly important contribution to developing communism, resulting from freely associated labour, is the ability to incorporate non-economic, social, cultural and human ‘spiritual’ elements into the production of human wealth, leading also to a transformed understanding of human needs, no longer based on a capitalist ‘shop-till-you-drop’ philosophy.

Under the first phase of communism, socially necessary labour time continues but is transformed. Socially necessary labour time becomes defined on the basis of human needs, whilst the planning of production and distribution is done directly on the basis of labour hours. Each person receives a certificate showing the hours of work they have completed. This enables them to withdraw goods and services from the ‘communal store’. To achieve this, each individual’s actual hours of work; the average social hours of labour time embodied in each product; the average social labour time used in each arena of production, and the total social labour time used by society, all have to be calculated.

There wouldn’t be a 1:1 relationship between individual labour time performed and individual consumption. There needs to be deductions for simple reproduction of the continued production process and for the general ‘costs’ of administration. These are intrinsic to the production process itself and can also be calculated in labour hours. The importance of meeting wider social needs would also be met through deductions prior to individual consumption. e.g. for education, healthcare, provision for children, the elderly, sick, etc, and for emergency contingencies. There would also be deductions for new production projects. The proportion of goods and services which are provided for on the direct basis of human need (water, heating, transport, etc) increases as their abundance develops, although they are still accounted for by labour hour calculations. One part of the effective transition to the upper phase of communism, is where distribution is solely on the basis of need and no longer on the basis of labour hours worked. However, the conditions for the upper phase of communism must directly develop from the lower phase.

Yet distribution on the basis of hours worked is still radically egalitarian. Such distribution also undermines the inherited class-bound notions of superiority still embodied in the social democratic would-be administrators’ vision of a planned society, with its continuing large differentials inherited from capitalism. Crucially, in the lower phase of communism, there is no necessity for the intervention of a centralised administration of ‘socialist’ planners to allocate consumption items according to some ‘socialist’ wages, taxation and pricing policy. Therefore, the significance of planning production and distribution on the basis of the measurement of labour hours is also political for it underlines workers’ real, rather than the nominal control of production and distribution, which occurs when these functions are separated.

6. Communism and overcoming the division between political and economic

Marx outlined the necessary ‘economic’ condition for the first phase of communism. If workers are to retain real power, then wage slavery must be abolished. This means that production and distribution must be based on the calculation of labour hours. However, this condition can only be met if it is married to a second ‘political’ condition – the replacement of the old capitalist state machinery and parliament by the commune model – with linked workers’ councils backed by the power of armed workers’ militias.

In uniting the ‘economic’ and ‘political’ conditions in this manner, the first phase of communism also overcomes the political and economic division promoted by capitalism. It strips away the mask disguising the real source of capitalist ‘political’ power – their continued ‘economic’ extraction of surplus labour. Traditional capitalist owners don’t need to take direct ‘private’ control of the capitalist state, precisely because their real political power ultimately stems from their private ownership and control of capitalist property. This is guaranteed a continued legal contractual existence, whatever parliamentary, fascist or military government is in office. This is why traditional social democrats could take political office, but they could not take real political and economic control, whilst such a division remained in place.

Therefore, if workers fail to abolish wage slavery and plan production and distribution on the basis of labour hours, then even a new commune state can’t prevent the re-emergence of full capitalist control. Marx already realised that, what later became the ‘official’ and ‘dissident Communist’ ‘Marxist orthodoxy’ – the wages system under workers’ control – could no more open up the road to human emancipation than capitalist parliamentary democracy under workers’ control, that earlier contribution of ‘orthodox Marxism’ by pre-1917 ‘revolutionary’ Social Democracy. Herein lies the connection between reformist and ‘revolutionary’ social democracy. Neither sees the immediate abolition of wage slavery as necessary to the first phase of any emancipatory transition.

Capitalism is pregnant with the communist alternative based on our collective struggle against the alienating condition of wage slavery. But both reformist and ‘revolutionary’ social democracy insert their new and ‘necessary’ political and economic stages – either a majority socialist government or a ‘workers’ state’. So instead of moving to the first phase of communism, clearly outlined by Marx in The Critique of the Gotha Programme, we are offered instead a ‘transition to socialism’, where our social democrats want to continue with the wages system. Reformist ‘social democrats’ see their transition taking place under the parliamentary direction of the commanding heights of the economy. ‘Revolutionary ‘social democrats’ see their transition through the Party-state direction of ‘The Plan’. In this manner any genuine transition to communism is stillborn. All attempts to implement the ‘transition to socialism’, in the last ‘Century of Revolutions’, proved to be rather roundabout ways to introduce the transition to capitalism. As some Eastern European wags used to put it, “Socialism is the longest road to capitalism!” A failure to realise this can only lead to growing irrelevance as resistance to imperialism’s ‘New World Order’ grows or to repeating the same old mistakes.

Marx had anticipated the roots of the failure of ‘official’ and ‘dissident’ Communism. He saw that workers can‘t hold on to their political control under the first phase of communism if they still remain wage slaves. For the maintenance of the wages system under workers’ control only elevates workers to politically favoured ‘house slave’ status, whilst the real control lies with the ‘socialist’ administrators implementing ‘The Plan’. In the absence of the objective accounting system outlined by Marx and later developed by others (1), through calculations based on labour times, the ‘socialist’ administrators have to resort instead to arbitrary moral criteria or cost calculations based on the capitalist model. Their ‘Plan’ usually however provides special rewards for selected people in ‘The Party’!

Such a ‘socialist’ administration would displace remaining workers’ control and extend its power over every aspect of the economy and society. It would increasingly see itself as the representative of the ‘general interest’, whilst seeing workers’ councils as merely representing local and special interests. Therefore, these workers’ councils would need to be marginalised or suppressed whenever they came into conflict with ‘The Plan’ and ‘The Party’. Even, if workers were initially consulted over ‘The Plan’, through their workers’ councils, this would not give workers real control, which would remain elsewhere. It is only if workers have direct collective control in each workplace over the labour hours they dispose of, that they have the equivalent power capitalists enjoy through direct private ownership.

7. ‘Orthodox Marxism’ and the suppression of the full legacy of the Paris Commune

Marx learned from the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871 the necessity for communists not just to take over the capitalist state, but to smash it. However, Marx was not reverting to the older ‘vulgar Communism’ with its attempts to tear down and level (an anger which could be well understood after the brutality of the suppression of the Paris Commune). He pointed instead to the Commune as the model for a new workers’ semi-state to offer a real alternative to replace the pre-existing capitalist state. It was still a state because it needed to retain the power to repress the remaining capitalist opposition by means of armed workers’ militias. To this extent it still had dictatorial aspects. However, it was now the majority who were to rule through their communes not the minority, as in all previous class states. In other words the majority democratic dictatorship of the proletariat was to replace the minority parliamentary/ one-party/ military dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

From 1917 this much became the ‘orthodox Marxism’ of a wide range of ‘official’ and ‘dissident Communist’ organisations. This is largely due to Lenin’s most famous work, State and Revolution, written between the 1917 February and October Russian Revolutions. This did much to revive this lost legacy of Marx. Now, whilst it may be ‘orthodox Marxism’ today, with the admittedly much smaller band of ‘post-official Communists’, this certainly was not the case in 1917. The year before, Lenin himself had accused fellow Bolshevik, Bukharin, of an anarchist deviation for suggesting the need to smash the capitalist state. The reason for this was that Lenin was still trying to unlearn much of the previous ‘orthodox Marxism’ he had absorbed from such ‘revolutionary’ Social Democratic theoreticians as Kautsky of the SPD in Germany and Plekhanov of the RSDLP in Russia.

The pre-1917 ‘orthodox Marxism’, which prevailed in the Second International, claimed workers could exercise real political control by means of capitalist parliamentary democracy under workers’ control expressed through Social Democratic parties holding office. In countries where parliamentary democracies were absent or weak, then Social Democrats could seek to establish temporary revolutionary dictatorships, but the aim was that these should give way to parliamentary democracy whenever possible. But in 1917, after the February Revolution in the Russian Empire, Lenin witnessed the reappearance of the workers’ councils or soviets, which had first formed in the failed 1905 Russian Revolution. He suddenly saw the significance of Marx’s commune model and quoted extensively from Marx’s The Civil War in France in his State and Revolution.

But, as we have seen, Marx went further still in outlining the conditions for the implementation of a genuine communism in The Critique of the Gotha Programme. But Marx’s second condition for the setting up of the first phase of communism – the production and distribution of goods and services on the basis of labour time – is as alien to today’s ‘official’ and ‘dissident’ Communists, as Marx’s first condition – the smashing of the capitalist state and its replacement by the Commune semi-state – was to Second International Social Democracy, even its self-declared revolutionary wing.

When the rising International Revolutionary Wave began in 1916 (Lenin dated it with the Easter Rising in Dublin) millions of workers, already thrown into the maelstrom of the First World War, felt the need to reject the whole Second International legacy, including its ‘revolutionary’ leaders, such as Kautsky and Plekhanov. When a new Third International was formed in 1919, after the Russian Revolution, it once more returned to Marx’s name for his new social emancipatory order – communism.

However, even Lenin didn’t fully appreciate the significance of Marx’s second condition for the first phase of communism, although he referred to Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme in his State and Revolution. Lenin states, “Accounting and control – that is what is mainly needed for the ’smooth working’, for the proper functioning of the first phase of communist society”. This is very close, but instead of firmly adopting Marx’s ground for “accounting and control” – the planning of production and distribution on the basis of labour time, Lenin retreats to the older ‘revolutionary’ Social Democratic view. He still substantially shared the view that socialism (the first phase of communism) was the culmination of the ‘objective’ concentration and centralisation undertaken by monopoly capitalism.

This view looked to the state to continue the centralising process until production was fully nationalised and hence ripe for socialisation. Lenin took the logic of Social Democratic, ‘orthodox Marxism’ one step further. He argued that “German imperialism, which has made the greatest advance… in big industrial organisations within the framework of capitalism, has independently given proof of its economic progressiveness by being the first to introduce labour conscription”! Lenin extended this “progressive” capitalist legacy to his view of communism, where he declared, “All citizens are transformed into hired employees of the state, which consists of armed workers… The whole society will have become a single office and a single factory, with equality of labour and pay.” Thus we see that Lenin ends up advocating a kind of ‘vulgar Communism’ or ‘barracks socialism’. ‘Revolutionary’ social democracy views the economic organisation and technology bequeathed by capitalism as progressive. It does not see the need to abolish wage slavery or to question its technology but to make it fairer and more efficient – to put the wages system under workers’ control.

Furthermore, if we look at Lenin’s quotes, we can see how close they come to anticipating the society that eventually triumphed under Stalin. The supervision of armed workers soon gave way to the supervision of unarmed workers by ‘socialist’ administrators, backed by the army, the regular and secret police, as well as ‘The Party’ placemen at every level. Needless to say equality of labour and pay were never implemented! But certainly Stalinist USSR came close to being a society organised as one big “office” and “factory”.

Although the imperialist interventions from 1918 failed to overthrow the infant USSR, the military, diplomatic and economic pressures produced, in effect, ‘a counter-revolution from within the revolution’. With the crushing of Kronstadt in 1921, workers lost all remaining direct power over the state and workplace and the promotion, not the abolition, of capitalist waged labour became a central aim of the New Economic Policy, introduced after the victory of the Party-state.

8. ‘Dissident Communism’ fails to get to the roots of the degeneration of the Revolution

Trotsky and Trotskyism have tried to present themselves as a coherent alternative to the degeneration of ‘official’ Communism. Yet Trotsky himself was a pace-setter of the earlier phase of ‘the counter-revolution within the revolution’. He openly supported the militarisation of labour in 1920, and he helped to suppress the Kronstadt Rising in 1921, at a time when the political role of Stalin was less central. However, the political degeneration of the USSR became so rapid after this that Trotsky increasingly found himself in opposition to the emerging majority of the Party-state bureaucracy led by Stalin. Trotsky moved from being an ‘official Communist’ to becoming a ‘dissident communist’.

Yet defence of the Party-state still remained the key for Trotsky. Hence Trotsky called for ‘political revolution’ not ‘social revolution’ in the USSR after Stalin consolidated his power. Trotsky opposed Stalin’s attempt to build socialism as an autarky with minimal trade with the outside world. He argued that the USSR needed to be able to draw on the resources of imperialism, either by revolutionary appropriation through the overthrow of capitalist powers or, where this couldn’t be achieved, through state controlled international trade. The Trotskyist dispute with ‘official’ Communism has no genuine communist grounding to it, since neither variant of ‘revolutionary’ social democracy upheld the need to end the wages system as the central part of the revolutionary transition to the upper phase of communism. Trotsky paid little heed to the continuation and extension of waged labour under the New Economic Plan, nor under Stalin’s Five Year Plan after 1928 (with its massive growth in labour camp slavery too). Therefore, scrape the surface of the much vaunted alternatives – Stalin’s ‘socialism in one country’ and Trotsky’s ‘international socialism’ – and it can soon be seen that what is really immediately on offer is national capitalism. ‘Socialism in one country’ and ‘international socialism’ both mean capitalism in every country!

Trotskyists, appalled by the consequences of what they termed ‘Stalinism’, (overlooking Trotsky’s own earlier direct role in the degeneration of the Revolution) lay the blame on Stalin’s attempt to build socialism in one country. As a result some Trotskyists have, in effect, retreated to a neo-Kautskyist view. Kautsky, the leading theoretician of pre-World War One ‘revolutionary’ Social Democracy, had argued that the major imperialist powers would increasingly be able to plan the division of the world between them, rendering imperialist wars more and more unlikely. This was his theory of ultra-imperialism. This led Kautsky to a position of passivity in the face of the First World War. Whilst the newly emerging communists organised amongst those workers and armed forces who felt the necessity to challenge the war mongers with increasingly revolutionary action, Kautsky looked to the logic of imperialist development itself to bring about the end of war, helped by Social Democrat-organised pacifist moral pressure upon the war-making governments!

Echoing Kautsky’s theory of ultra-imperialism, some today now look to the long march of global capitalism to create a global working class, which can ultimately unite in a near simultaneous world-wide revolution. This ‘Big Bang Theory of Socialism’ overlooks the fact that it is precisely in resisting the policies of imperialism with its ‘New World Order’, that any real communist organisation can be built. The neo-Kautskyite theory places its adherents in the camp of the apologists for the New World Order, undermining those workers, peasants and tribal peoples resisting such ‘progress’ in the here and now. In essence, the neo-Kautskyist view is a lefter version of that held by today’s ‘social market’ democrats such as Tony Blair! They argue that, such is the power of ‘globalisation’ and the world market, there is very little a national government can do except meekly bow to the dictates of multinational capital, hoping its citizens will benefit from any ‘trickle-down’ benefits and that governments can make the workings of the ‘free’ market a little more humane.

Now, whilst such a passive anti-revolutionary view carries some weight today, when the working class is still being politically atomised under the current Capitalist Offensive, a ‘revolutionary’ social democratic alternative still lingers on in the wings, drawing some sustenance from the post-1917 Revolution. In Germany, Italy, Spain and Scotland, former ‘official’ and ‘dissident’ Communists have joined together in an attempt to build new social democratic Parties.

Despite the historic divisions between Stalin and Trotsky, they both shared the view that it is nationalised property relations which form the basis of socialism and it is the Party-state which is the prime agent in building socialism. This is why Trotskyists continually found themselves politically disarmed by Stalin’s actions. In 1928, Stalin abandoned the New Economic Policy, with its strong dependence on peasant-based agricultural development, which Trotsky believed would eventually subordinate the USSR to imperialism. In its place Stalin forced through his First Five Year Plan with extensive nationalisation. This ‘revolution-from above’, was supported by the majority of Trotsky’s followers, along with many other previous ‘dissidents’. However, Trotsky himself maintained that Stalin, now attempting only ‘to build socialism in one country’, could not spread this new revolution. Indeed he claimed the Stalinist regime would either succumb to full-blown imperialism or to political revolution in the forthcoming Second World War. Thus, when Stalin’s Red Army seized and held on to eastern Europe and Manchuria in 1945, once again many Trotskyists found themselves confused. The majority gave various degrees of political support for Stalin’s advances.

Stalin had never abandoned an intention to internationalise his ‘revolution-from-above’. It was just that, as the victor in the intra-Party struggle after Lenin’s death, and hence the holder of state power, he was more conservative about any unnecessarily ‘adventurist’ international actions which could jeopardise his control. When, as after the Second World War, the balance of forces was overwhelmingly in his favour, he went on to internationalise his ‘revolution-from-above’. And, whenever, Trotskyists got close to state power, whether in Bolivia or Sri Lanka, they too seemed to become as cautious as any ‘official Communists’!

Therefore the anti-Kautskyist wing of Trotskyism saw its ‘permanent revolution’ being implemented, albeit rather slowly and mainly under the hegemony of the USSR. Yet for them every hesitant new ‘workers’ state’ still marked a stage on the long march to ‘international socialism’. This wing of Trotskyism could also raise criticisms and try to distance itself from the ‘stalinist’ excesses, but when push came to shove, they remained ‘official Communism’s loyal opposition. Trotskyists had long ceased to define workers’ states as states directly controlled by workers. Instead, these states got their essential character by virtue of having large-scale nationalised property. On this basis a huge Trotskyist in-house debate developed over the ‘degenerate’, ‘deformed’ or ‘deflected’ nature of such ‘workers’ states as those found in the USSR, Yugoslavia, eastern Europe, China, Cuba, Kampuchea, Afghanistan and even Burma! This debate has been about as politically productive as that of the medieval scholastics – ‘How many angels can dance on the end of a pin’.

Today’s remaining Trotskyists claim to follow in a more democratic tradition than that of the old ‘official Communism’. Given the profoundly undemocratic practices of most of the Trotskyist Left in the UK – the blatant thuggery of the old Socialist Labour League springs to mind – this is an extremely questionable point. To any genuine communist, ‘official’ and ‘dissident Communists’ seem to come from the same political stable, with their common emphasis on ‘The Party’ or Party-state.

Now, when in opposition, Trotsky did begin to raise the demand for more democratic freedoms. He called for the revival of the soviets he had helped to suppress, but these were to be promoted top-down by ‘The Party’. But ‘official Communist’ states have shown their ability to involve the population in mass mobilisations in various forms of popular assemblies, in for example, China and Cuba, another factor that has disorientated many Trotskyists. Yet Trotsky, himself, still remained very cautious about promoting working class organization, which might have asserted its political independence of the Party-state. This, of course would also have been anathema to any ‘official Communists’ holding state power.

9. Challenging the arguments of ‘revolutionary’ social democracy

The essential point, shared by ‘official’ and ‘dissident Communists’ alike, has been their political/economic stageist view of Communism, and their invention of a new ‘transition to socialism’. This is why the hoary old story pedalled by today’s ‘revolutionary’ social democrats’ needs to be constantly challenged. They claim that any attempt to begin the abolition of the wages system, when workers have only seized power in one or a few countries, is doomed to fail. Yes, workers can have their workers’ councils, but they must confine their activities to helping to formulate The Plan for more efficient production and more equitable distribution, whilst they continue to earn their wages. Workers can’t be trusted to take full and direct responsibility for planning, production and distribution on the basis of labour hours until the World Workers’ Republic is achieved. They need to have all of the planet’s resources to achieve this.

Yet, imperialism isn’t going to like it, whatever form the ‘workers revolution’ takes, if it involves any serious challenges to their New World Order. Imperialist powers weren’t even happy with mildly reforming governments such as Arbenz’s challenge to the United Fruit Company in Guatemala or Mossadeq’s challenge to Anglo-Dutch Oil in Iran. They were bloodily suppressed.

Whether the new post-revolutionary state maintains the wages system under workers’ control, as our ‘revolutionary social democrats’ want, or whether it moves directly to abolish wage slavery, as genuine communists want, it still faces the same difficulties, until the revolution spreads further. Both would initially command the same material resources within the same borders. However, the imperialists can exert more direct pressure upon a state, which has already largely separated itself from real workers’ democratic control, whilst a genuine workers’ council state in the process of abolishing wage slavery would be a much greater inspiration to workers worldwide when it comes to spreading the international revolution.

No doubt after a successful workers’ revolution the debate will rage as to how much emphasis is placed on spreading the revolution internationally or on how to consolidate what has already been achieved. The Russian Revolution (the most advanced part of the wider International Revolutionary Wave of 1916-21) certainly faced such debates. One such debate occurred when German troops invaded the infant Soviet republic in 1918 – should the humiliating Brest Litovsk Treaty with Germany be signed, or should a revolutionary defencist war be continued. Even if some argue that Lenin and the Bolsheviks made the correct tactical decision in every such case, it must still be conceded that there were increasingly high political, economic and social costs involved with each political retreat, which together built up a cumulative legacy. This means that such actions don’t necessarily provide ideal models. Making a current virtue out of every past ‘necessity’ isn’t a good basis for developing a human emancipatory communism for a new millennium.

The Brest Litovsk Treaty, and the later introduction of the New Economic Policy, were both opposed from within the camp of the Third International by various Left communists. (2) These communists came nearest to reclaiming Marx’s full communist legacy, during and soon after the International Revolutionary Wave of 1916-21. Some clearly understood that the development of world communism involved the deepening of the roots of working class power, through real workers’ democracy and the attempt to abolish wage slavery. They also understood the immediate need to spread the revolution internationally until, by triumphing over the whole globe, the second higher phase of communism could be achieved.

However, our aim shouldn’t be to try and elevate all their political positions to a new ‘orthodox Marxism’, since, just like everyone else struggling in difficult conditions, their politics were marked by contradictions too. However, we have the great benefit of hindsight and the dubious benefit of a further eighty years of capitalism to be able to draw conclusions for a more human emancipatory communism.

At present, the need for a new genuine communism is only appreciated by a relatively small number and is under constant political attack from the ‘revolutionary realists’, who pitch their politics at the level imposed by ‘dead labour’ or capital, hoping vulture like to eventually inherit and feed off the carcass. As communists we should always be part of living labour’s challenge, looking a deeper and further, knowing that communism is an ever-present spectre within capitalism. To Marx, communism was not an alternative religion to be preached by a new secular ministry in ‘The Party’. Marx’s view of political organisation was not ‘The Party’ organised by an ambitious new middle class armed with ‘The Plan’. It was a real movement of workers in struggle, the living, creative pole of capital, constantly seeking ways to break the chains of wage slavery.

10. Marx and communist organisation

Marx was quite ruthless in his attitude to political organisations, especially communist parties. When the movement of wage slaves welled up and challenged their capitalist masters in a revolutionary manner, whether in the 1848 Revolutions, or during the Paris Commune of 1870, Marx was at the forefront of helping to create a new communist party. However, when the revolutionary wave ebbed, Marx made sure that the communist party didn’t give way to ‘The Party’. It was only the ‘revolutionary’ charlatans and would-be ‘revolutionary’ dictators who saw the need to hold on to their Party after such conditions had passed. Marx sought the dissolution of the communist party until a new phase of revolutionary struggle created the basis for a new communist party. Any genuine communist party had to express a real revolutionary movement with a new vision of communism, which could take root in the new conditions.

In the heady days of the 1848 Revolutions, Marx threw himself into the Communist League and, along with Engels, wrote The Communist Manifesto. When the Revolution went into decline Marx drew up a balance sheet in 1850, The March Address to the Communist League. Soon after, he withdrew his support from those trying to continue the Communist League in a non-revolutionary situation. When, twenty years later, the Paris Commune exploded upon the scene, Marx hastened to publish The Civil War in France. This drew on the practical experience of the Paris Communards in order to further develop an understanding of communism to inspire the First International. This workers’ international had initially been formed in 1864 as a united front organisation of communist and non-communist workers. When it became clear that the Paris Commune wasn’t going to be the immediate precursor of a wider communist movement, Marx pushed for the winding up of the First International. Marx didn’t want any International hijacked by the ‘revolutionary’ charlatan or careerist. He especially warned his supporters not to try to form a new party prematurely, in his most considered balance sheet of communist practice, The Critique of the Gotha Programme, written in 1875.

This is an edited version of an article was first published in two parts in Republican Communist, nos 3 & 4 in 2000. It was written by Allan Armstrong, who was then in The Communist Tendency, which has now dissolved into the Republican Communist Network, a platform in the Scottish Socialist Party:-http://republicancommunist.org/blog/

1) See The Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution by Jan Appel

2) See ‘Left Communists and the Russian Revolution’ in Aufheben no 8

13 thoughts on “why we need a new human emancipatory communism

  1. Nowhere in their What We Stand For columns is there any mention of communism.

    Perhaps it’s because most people associated the word ‘communism’ with totalitarian oppression?


  2. Duncan that is no excuse, its even more reason to challenge the association. The first opponents of the rising Stalinist bureaucracy did so from the standpoint of a communist opposition. Marxism and communism as a whole is branded as an historical failure by our enemies if we are ever to suceed we need to conquer the lies.


  3. Excuse? Nah, I’m pointing out a basic fact Chris.

    See the problem is that if people’s primary association of the word ‘communism’ is with bad stuff like oppression they won’t hang around long enough to hear you’re doubtless persuasive argument of ‘ahh well actually although we call ourselves communists as did the leaders of the former Soviet Union we feel we have a more plausible claim to the term than the Stalinists and argue that at best what occured during the Soviet era was a gross corruption… hey have you gone, come back, I haven’t expounded my ideas on what the nature of the USSR was yet!’

    Once we called ourselves ‘social democrats’, we ditched that one. Time to drop the word ‘communism’, the hammer and sickle’s and all nostalgiac synbols.

    If we can’t let go then it’s clear what a conservative bunch the left are.


  4. personally, I don’t care what words get used. Like the man said –

    I pondered how men fight and lose the battle and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.

    But the fact is, Duncan’s organisation, the Socialist Party, uses the word ‘Marxism’ in a similarly belligerent manner. In fact, we are told, they are not only ‘the socialists’, they are also ‘the Marxists’! Doesn’t ‘Marxism’ for many people have the connotation of support for the Stalinist USSR Duncan? Of course it does! But the SP has chosen to hold that it is worth reclaiming so, for Duncan, it is beyond reproach.

    I don’t think any organisation is obliged to include any given word in its platform. I don’t particularly care, and neither do any normal people. But any group has to make their choices, choose the words that can work for them in the context in which they operate. For Duncan to imply that this or that word, or group, is peculiar in this respect is plainly not accurate – the SP has made its choice, just like any other group.


  5. But the fact is, Duncan’s organisation, the Socialist Party, uses the word ‘Marxism’ in a similarly belligerent manner

    Yeah, it’s a bit silly that we do that. Oh well, no-ones perfect.

    Doesn’t ‘Marxism’ for many people have the connotation of support for the Stalinist USSR Duncan? Of course it does! But the SP has chosen to hold that it is worth reclaiming so, for Duncan, it is beyond reproach.


    I’d defend the use of the term ‘Marxist’ for reasons consistent with the above, most people haven’t heard of it so it doesn’t carry the same negative connotations as the word ‘communism’ does.

    If it does carry those connotations (and in all my years of doing SP stalls I’ve never encountered anyone who had a particular problem with the word ‘Marxism’ or connected it with instrinsically bad stuff – except one women who blamed Marxism for causing suicides among young people, but that’s a different story) then we should ditch it. I’ve no problem arguing that. After all, Marx himself didn’t like the term!


  6. Yes Marx and Engels liked the tern communist, it also had all sorts of connotations at the time regarding conspiratorial and elitist organisations but they fought to give a different connotation as a movement for human emancipation. Socialism in Britain actually had bad connotations arising from the experience of Owen and his sect with its regimented communities such as New Lanark.


  7. I’ve never encountered anyone who had a particular problem with the word ‘Marxism’ or connected it with instrinsically bad stuff



  8. Should be fairly self-evident c0mmunard, try re-reading it or quoting it in context.

    While doing SP stalls, as I have done regularly for several years now, I’ve never encountered anyone who, after spotting the word ‘Marxism’ or the name ‘Marx’ on books we flog, immediately connected the word(s) with instrinsically bad stuff (which would be indicated by them having a go at us or walking off in disgust) in the way that a significant number of people do with the word ‘communism’ or the hammer and sickle.

    I’ve certainly encountered people who think it’s wrong, or think it leads to bad stuff happening but in my experience it doesn’t provoke the same reaction of ‘avoid/ignore’ that other traditional symbols and formulations of the left do. If that’s a lot of people’s instinctive reaction then it doesn’t matter how sophisticated our arguments of ‘oh Stalinists, we’re not like them’ are because people won’t stop to listen.

    As I said, if it turns out the word ‘Marxism’ does provoke that kind of reaction we should drop that as well, as you say it doesn’t matter what words we use.




  10. Many, and for a period most of, the staunchest opponenents of the regimes of totalitarian state-socialism which called themselves ‘communist’, were in fact Marxists. It was only in the 1980s that the opposition began to take a different direction in Eastern Europe. Indeed Jacek Kuron the famous Polish communist dissident who abandoned Marxism, announced shortly before he died that he was wrong to do so as globalisation and the experience of ‘post-communist’ Poland had proved Marx more relevent than ever.


  11. Duncan, isn’t it the Socialist Party which believes that Russia, China, Cuba etc (and in wackier times, the likes of Zanzibar and Burma) were some form of “workers’ state” purely on the basis that the state ran the economy?

    Now for most people those words imply that people like them ran the state (as if it were even possible for the majority to run the bureaucratic machine, army etc.), so you’re hardly one to lecture us on using terms people find relevant to themselves.

    As it happens, for most people the word ‘socialist’ means something between Jim Callaghan and Joseph Stalin. I’m not sure where on that spectrum the Socialist Party place themselves.


  12. I wrote a pamphlet on this. Although I recognize the need for neologisms in place of “communism” (even “commonwealth-ism” would be more accurate about Marxist political economy), this social-proletocrat (social-abolitionist and proletarian democrat) likes the critique of revolutionary social democracy. I say “revolutionary” without the quotation marks because, despite fundamental theoretical errors, the central premise of organizing the working class around revolutionary economic goals and around revolutionary political goals (not just one or the other) is sound.

    Also, consider going past Marx on the electoral principle and opt for demarchy, the random selection of all officials while making them subject to recall.


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