A paper by Nathan Coombs for Sunday’s Communist Theory Forum
Wherever we look in the history of communist politics we see states which in one form or another have become dictatorships; the economic and political structures reduced to stifling bureaucracies. Can this be explained merely by recourse to contingent factors: the fact that revolution did not break out in Europe in the 1920s, imperialism against the socialist states during the Cold War, and so on?
The tempting answer for communists is to focus on these facts, lump the blame at the feet of Stalinism, or the leaderships of the Communist parties. This way guilt is apportioned and we can rest secure that the fundamental idea is fine; it is just the flawed implementation at the source of the problems, or the external pressures at work. Such an approach can be surmised by the optimistic refrain: ‘never mind, things will work out fine next time!’
Of course, the fact communists have to come to grips with is that there will not be a next time as long as such a sentiment prevails – the wisdom of crowds has already adjudicated on communism as a failed social model: ‘nice idea, but doesn’t work in practice’ being the gratingly predictable notion one encounters. The easy riposte to such sentiment would be a combination of judgment on the ignorance of people nowadays, their shallow materialism and ideological indoctrination into capitalism. The people thereby become the enemy, unable to realise the truth communists speak and forever held in suspicion and contempt. This latter option swiftly rejected, there seem to be two things to take into account here: (1) whether the degradation of all communist states into dictatorships is really just an assemblage of contingent causes; and (2) whether most peoples’ belief that there is logic to this failure is just a result of propaganda and under-education? And we could also add a third (3) factor: even if both (1) and (2) were ruled contingent, whether it strategically makes any sense to contradict the mass of opinion in this regard?
It is my opinion here that there is an immanent necessity as to why most people consider the communist model as flawed; and this cannot be reduced simply to the dispersed cultural indoctrination into the thought of such anti-communists as Frederic Hayek (The Road to Serfdom) and Leszek Kolakowski (Main Currents of Marxism). There are I believe flaws in the ‘idea of communism’ which not only led to the collapse of really existing socialism around the world, but also to its very undesirability as an alternative social model. These are numerous and multifaceted, but what I want to focus on here is the procedural dimension of how power is taken and used.
But before I start my critique of existing stratagems I first want to immediately make clear my even greater dissatisfaction with the prevailing neo-anarchist thought that has become fashionable since the end of the Cold War. That is, if we take John Holloway’s How to Change the World Without Taking Power as emblematic, there is a caution at work here that Slavoj Zizek rightly mocks as a fear of ‘going too far.’ For the insurgent ideological movement state power (or even power per se) must be kept at a distance, and as such radical politics is forced into a kind of tacit relationship with the status quo, where protesters demand things from those in power, but do not seek to attain and wield power themselves. There is much the same logic at work in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire, where the Frankenstein’s monster of the multitude (the many against the few) challenges the Empire, but not to seek to bring it down; because, in a profound sense, the Empire already is utopia realised. What all this points to is I believe the fact that ‘radical’ philosophies, which actively spurn power, all hide a dirty secret, which is the ultimate satisfaction which the status quo – that is, with the liberal, capitalist state.
In this regard I think we should be proud to be ‘dogmatic’ traditionalists. I really don’t see any evidence that the analysis presented by Rosa Luxembourg in Reform or Revolution is less true today than it was in her day. Yes – the mechanics of class struggle are infinitely weakened in their polarized, dialectical form than they were in the early 20th century; and yes – the historical consciousness of the defeat of the global revolutionary movement of the 20th century and the economic and political failures of really existing socialism, alter the strategic calculation. But the state-form as the expression of the interests of the ruling class and capital no less requires toppling now than it ever did – at least, in any form of communist politics worthy of that name. There is an immanent necessity which follows from a politics which aims to abolish wage labour that the state has to be smashed, or profoundly refigured for this to be accomplished.
That said, we are still left with what appears to be the cripplingly predictable outcome of Marxist revolutions which managed to take state power. They certainly represented an advance over events such as the short-lived Paris Commune, in that they not only managed to take power, but to also defend the revolutionary gains. This is an incredible achievement, not to be underestimated. But at the same time, these gains were achieved at the price of bolstering the state, rather than presiding over its withering away. A process of radical reductionism in all cases seemed to collapse the economic and political functions within the post-revolutionary state solely to the party-state. The gains of revolutions – once the initial shine of victory receded into the past – began to be measured solely by material indictors: education, health, housing, job security etc. And whilst one should not be too hasty to deride these achievements, it is obvious that they fall far short of the kind of social and political emancipation that Marx had in mind for communism. It could also be somewhat maliciously observed that these accomplishments ultimately only mirrored, in a radicalised form, the functions of the welfare state in social democracy.
The question, then, is what process could lead to a revolution in which this process of reduction to the party-state is not an inevitable outcome? Anarchist lullabies to one side – that all we need to do is take up a voluntaristic, negative position vis-à-vis the state – what needs to grappled with is the question of immanence: isolating those tendencies within the existing system that create the possibility for capitalism’s transcendence. This was Marx’s major breakthrough compared to all of his contemporaries.
The overall ‘line’ of The Commune – the ends of revolution need to follow from the means – I think correctly diagnoses the problems of communist strategy in immanent terms. How can we talk of mass political emancipation when the model of communist power involves some small, centralised vanguard who ‘know what’s right’ taking on the levers of the formerly bourgeois state and attempting to institute communism from above? For communism to be immanent, and thus have the required complexity, openness and organicity for emancipation, it needs to be based on real, immanent tendencies within the existing system.
And it is here that I think even The Commune’s thinking has not so far gone far enough. For in the notion of revolution we still cling to a big-bang type event, in which the immanent possibilities are suddenly released to become real. Now, whilst not wishing to deny the emancipatory possibilities of these great, historical events, the question it seems is more one of scale. And furthermore, it could also be one of strategy. No revolution in the model of the big-bang event has ever happened in a Western liberal-democracy. Whether we think of Russia, 1917, or even Iran, 1979, the big-bang event is restricted to those situations in which a dictatorship is being toppled, which for the historicist could lead to the depressing conclusion that one needs dictators to make revolutions, or more perversely that one needs to assist the forces away from liberal-democracy to authoritarianism to speed up the revolution – ‘things need to get worse before they get better’! It seems that both theoretically and strategically too much has been invested in the big-bang event of the revolution. That is not to repudiate the necessity of the revolution, but rather I would argue requires a change in thinking of it less as a big-bang and more as a ‘tipping point’ in which the pressures and immanent trends within the system can no longer be contained within the existing state structure. Just as rolling a heavy barrel up a hill takes an enormous amount of energy, we should think of the revolution more as the moment when it passes over the brow and rolls of its own accord and with rapid velocity down the other side.
What this implies is more than the means need to match the ends, moreover it means for me that the seeds of communist relations need to planted within the system before the revolution. The difficulties of this are numerous and well documented: individual worker co-operatives become prey to the same logic of the market as their capitalist counterparts; the political structures subsume, or make impossible, attempts at real democratic autonomy from the bourgeois state.
Nevertheless, some form of instituting these relations in the present needs to be introduced into communist thinking, which is perhaps something that can be taken from anarchist thought, but radicalised with the rigorous realism of communist thinking about the capitalist system. But at the same time I would also caution against the retro-utopianism of certain green thinkers that believe, for instance, that collective food self-sufficiency on a local level can institute these relations. Firstly, because, continuing with our loyalty to pursuing immanent possibilities, this kind of hair-shirted collectivism has nothing to do with the modern, technological aspirations of the majority of the population in the developed states, who are very happy with their iPhones and ready-made meals for £1 (roughly 20% minimum wage hourly salary – a clear benefit of automation). And second, the aspiration of the majority seems to be for more individualist autonomy, no matter how illusory under capitalism, rather than localised collectivity. On the latter point, it is not enough merely to point to the illusions of these ideals and the propagation under capitalism. No – they should be fully recognised as the authentic, immanent imaginary; and communist thought should press in the direction of making this imaginary properly real. So what is needed is quite difficult. Taking the collective, non-waged labour of such projects as Wikipedia from the internet and transplanting them somehow into the real world – where people need to pay rent, buy their groceries, and take summer holidays somewhere warm – is not easy to imagine, but I think it must play a vital part in stimulating immanent trends in the existing system in the direction of communism. Workplace organising and trade unionism play an important role in this, but I do not think they alone are enough.
Where this approach really cashes out, however, is in the question of state power. The problem with the approach of the means needing to match the ends is that it imposes almost impossibly high standards for the democratic nature of the revolution and the way state power is utilised in the early years of the revolution. There is the danger of being committed to a stubborn ideal, which in the chaotic, contingencies of the real world can never be lived up to. Perhaps a small vanguard really is necessary at some point to take political power from the bourgeoisie? Who knows. The important point is that if the immanent trends in the system have led to a revolution as a tipping point, rather than as a big bang, then no matter how that power is taken and wielded it still has to contend with the real immanent transformations in the system that have made it possible.
What I am proposing is that we need to have a theory of how to take power from both below and above; and it is in the coordination (or disarticulation) of these activities that a communist revolution could be achieved with an immanent possibility not to lead to inexorable reductionism to the party-state. Obviously much more work needs to be done to turn this initial sketch into a fully-fledged theory.