the global commune: communism for the 21st century

On January 16th Edinburgh played host to the ‘Global Commune’ day school, hosted by Scotland’s Republican Communist Network and supported by The Commune.

Although we are faced with the greatest crisis of capitalism for decades, the majority of socialists today are not prepared to make the case for a viable alternative social order to get us beyond the ever-deepening capitalist crisis.

The objective of the day school was to develop communist thinking on what kind of society we want to create and how that relates to our activism and our slogans in the context of today.

Workshops at the event included discussions on ‘What real communism would look like’, ‘How communists organise and operate’ and ‘The legacy of official and dissident communism—or what communism isn’t’.

The day featured lively and comradely debate and we hope to stage another joint event in Edinburgh shortly.

Here we present reports on the contributions made by the speakers in the opening session of the ‘Global Commune’ event.

where have all the marxists gone?

Mary MacGregor
Republican Communist Network

Mary welcomed everybody to The Global Commune event. She explained that the RCN enjoyed sharp debate, but many of us have come from organisations where insult is an art form. The RCN does not believe this is the way to greater truth or understanding, insisting that debate should be conducted in a comradely fashion. We can still learn from others even when we disagree.

The RCN has been in existence for ten years. Our members come from different traditions and have united around the slogans – Republicanism, Revolutionary Democracy and Culture, Workers’ Power, International Socialist Revolution and World Communism. We form a platform, acting as a republican communist pole of attraction in the Scottish Socialist Party. The SSP does not see itself as a revolutionary party, so we have faced a sometimes difficult struggle

Nevertheless, the RCN has had its successes. In particular, we are seen as the champions of democracy within the party. We have also pushed the leadership into an openly republican stance.

The RCN has also challenged nationalism, seeing the struggle for an independent Scottish republic as part of the break-up of the Union and the struggle against imperialism. We have pushed for united struggles on the basis of ‘internationalism from below’.

Mary had been listening to a radio programme, which asked, “Where have all the Marxists gone?” Somebody replied saying they were still here celebrating the fact that Marx was right and that capitalism was in freefall.

However, we know that this is not an adequate response. We face a terrible economic crisis, where many of the working class are being thrown on the scrapheap, where we face new unimaginable horrors, with never-ending imperialist wars, environmental disaster, whilst many of the world’s poorest live on less than a $1 a day. We are being brought to the brink of barbarism.

In the UK we face the rise of fascist organizations. The left is fragmented. Many believe this is as good as it gets. There has been a rise of religious extremism, superstition and mysticism, all offering their own ‘safe havens’.

Yet there are still those of us who remain convinced that there is a communist solution to the crisis. Nevertheless, many think us as deluded in our beliefs as any religious sect, and see our beliefs as an gesture of faith.

This is why we must deepen our understanding, and convey our thinking in ways that don’t alienate; organise in a truly democratic way and offer a vision of the future which can inspire.

neither utopia nor settling for less

Allan Armstrong
Republican Communist Network

The thing that has brought the RCN and The Commune together is the left’s response to the so-called ‘credit crunch’, or what is really a deep-seated crisis of capitalism. Many on the left had celebrated what they saw as the end of capitalism, believing that as the capitalist class was being forced to adopt neo-Keynesian measures to deal with the crisis, this represented a step towards socialism.

This view comes from the widespread belief on the left which equates state control with socialism, in particular seeing nationalised property relations as something inherently progressive. Indeed the difference between orthodox communism and social democracy is often seen to be a difference in the degree of state control of the economy.

However, when the banks were nationalised, it wasn’t to advance some progressive agenda, but to save the system from itself. The banks were bailed out at our expense and before long bankers were once more receiving obscene bonuses. When Obama went on to nationalise Chrysler, this was followed by a programme of massive redundancies and attacks on pay and conditions.

Because much of the left confined themselves to demanding the existing state nationalise even more private companies, the capitalist class began to regain confidence. Their current neo-Keynesian measures may represent little more than a blip on the road back to neo-liberalism. The key issue isn’t whether something is controlled by the state, but which class controls the state.

Last June, Allan was writing and article for Emancipation & Liberation. He found The Commune was addressing the same problems on the left as the RCN. We published the relevant articles in each other’s journals.

One issue that Allan thought needed looking at again, was the left’s, particularly the Trotskyist left’s, belief that the current situation could be addressed using ‘transitional demands’. In effect, this meant trying to relate to workers’ trade union and social democratic consciousness, expressed in support for such things as better wages, a public health service and free education. Instead of making an ‘abstract’ call for socialism, workers striving for ‘transitional demands’ will come to see the need for socialism through their experience.

The problem with this approach is that it hasn’t worked. When a crisis occurs, governments, especially social democratic ones, say that they sympathise with workers’ demands, but they just can’t be afforded at present. Thus, our desires have to be shelved until the system can afford them. Therefore, workers need to be convinced of the possibility of a real alternative, if they are to sustain struggles to defend their interests in an economic crisis.

We have seen this problem in the SSP, where demands such as ‘free school meals’ and ‘free prescriptions’ have been called ‘transitional’. These though have been taken up and watered down by the Scottish National Party, and have provided no transition at all. The thing that could possibly considered transitional about the necessary struggle for reforms, is if they enhance independent workers’ organisations.

So what are the issues that communists should raise? We need once more to address the fundamentals. Opposition to wage slavery is a key issue. Wage slavery is the essence of workers’ existence under capitalism. In the past there were major struggles against chattel slavery. Yet some on the left would dismiss the notion of opposition to wage slavery as ultra-left – something that ‘would not be understood’ by workers.

Indeed, those from the Militant (Trotskyists on the left of the 1980s Labour Party) tradition, for example, often raised the story of a communist organisation visiting a picket line of workers striking for higher wages, with a leaflet calling for the abolition of wages. ‘How ridiculous is that?’ Yet most workers and indeed many others, including those on the right, do appreciate that life under wage slavery is crap. That is why they try to escape ‘field slave’ status by becoming managers, or capitalism’s ‘house slaves’, or to set up their own small businesses.

Another issue which the left won’t raise is the issue of alienation. This is seen as abstract Marxism. Yet, out in the real world, in the favelas and shanty towns, religious groups like the Pentacostalists are recruiting massively, by addressing such issues, albeit in their own dead-end ways. Issues like alienation should not be left to the forces of organised religion.

All this would probably be dismissed as ‘Utopia’ by most of the left today. You have to look to art to see these issues addressed. Art can be seen as releasing the world of the imagination, and expressing our deep-seated desire for freedom.

We don’t want to construct an abstract Utopian programme, but connect the struggle for communism with the real struggles on the ground. One of the attractive features of The Commune is its active engagement with issues such as migrant worker rights. This is a key issue. Genuine communists have always related to the struggles of the most oppressed.

This leads to the question of organisation. Allan had been a trade union activist brought up in the rank and file tradition. This means not only opposing trade union leaders locked in social partnerships but also the Broad Left approach of ‘capturing’ union leaderships. A rank and file approach means acceptance of elected trade union officers, but only if recallable and on the average workers’ wage, with all actions under the democratic control of the workers involved.

However, Allan recognized there is another approach advocated by the IWW and in Ireland (where social partnerships have been in place longer than the UK) by the Independent Workers’ Union. Space for new independent unions has also been created by the widespread de-unionisation and the emergence of new non-unionised jobs. Communists need to get involved in the debate between the best approaches to be adopted, in particular circumstances, showing tactical flexibility as needed.

Lastly there is the question of communist political organisation. The Commune seems to have stumbled on what is necessary – a return to the pioneering Communist Correspondence groups of the early 1840s. The RCN has contributed to The Commune, with its wide ranging debates and contributions from elsewhere in the world. The RCN very much welcomes The Commune’s proposal for a new International Communism magazine.

In the longer term, Allan thought we should be trying to move towards a Communist League, with a definite platform. This platform could only come about through widespread prior discussion and debate, which he hoped would be facilitated by our present stage of organisation. Any Communist League, like the original in 1845, should be both international and open to a wide variety of tendencies.

self-government, self-management

Chris Ford
The Commune

Chris thanked the RCN for organising the day’s event and for inviting comrades from The Commune to contribute.

Chris wanted to reiterate the comments made by Mary about the need for a real culture of debate. In today’s society with such alienating social relations, it was not acceptable that the left treated each other like dirt.

This is why The Commune makes frequent reference to communist pluralism and unity in diversity. These phrases may trip easily off the tongue and be harder to bring about in reality.

However, they are an absolute necessity. If we are to transcend capital, we must organise in a manner that is complementary to the type of society we wish to create.

We need to reestablish a culture of divergences, platforms and fractions. It is not about conquering each other, but using the various contributions to take philosophy, theories and clarity to new levels, if we are to bring about working class emancipation in that spirit.

It is twenty years since the so-called ‘Fall of Communism’. Fukuyama has called this the ‘End of History’. We were told there was ‘no alternative’ to capitalism or to liberal bourgeois society. These predictions have not been fulfilled. There has been no new golden age of bourgeois liberal democracy.

The problem we have to face today with our meagre resources is the tragedy that whilst whole swathes of the populace agree that capitalism is an unviable society, with continued exploitation, oppression and alienation, there is little confidence, even on the left, that there is a viable alternative.

Let’s look at another ‘end of history’. Engels said that Hegel marked the ‘end of philosophy’. Hegel was unique in that he considered philosophy as a whole. At each turning point in history; certain philosophers had come forward representing the search for truth, as representatives of their historic moment. As Raya Dunayevskaya, the Marxist Humanist, said each generation of Marxists, in their own right, had a duty to restate Marxism for their own time and place. That is the responsibility we face in our time.

The ideas of Engels and a number of other post-Marx Marxists have left us a problematic legacy. A considerable number in their view of historical development and theory adopted an approach that there were scientifically proven truths which could be revealed, and laws that were themselves unfolding and bringing about the new society, which would evolve from capitalism almost by process of spontaneous combustion.

In this vision the role of actual human beings involved as the decisive, creative subjective force was degraded. There was little conception of a new society based on new social relations.

Most problematic was the position in which they placed the state over and above society, as the vehicle for creating a new society. This has been the legacy of official and dissident communism. That legacy remains very much with us today.

It says a lot about the left, that during the ‘credit crunch’, 20 years after the collapse of that totalitarian society calling itself communism, and the most apparent bankruptcy of state ownership model of socialism, that some still argue that we could begin to create a new society by nationalising this or that part of capitalism, in the belief that this formed part of the ‘invading socialist society’.

As it turned out, Brown answered their call, with state intervention in the banking sector. Indeed a recent Editorial inThe Times claimed that the banks now represented the last bastion of workers’ control! Therefore, we have had not only much the nationalisation of capitalist bankruptcy but the bankruptcy of the traditional left.

In the face of all this, it is vital that we restate the vision of communism that has been eroded and destroyed for such a long period of time. The most important point is that communism is created by human beings themselves. It is the radical rejection and total uprooting of the social relationships of capitalist society. It is a process of de-alienation in which workers’ self-management a key. It is the creation of new social relationships and new forms of economic life.

It is not a society that is based on one party, or even two or three party rule. It is directly organised by workers themselves. Indeed, communism is not a society run by a state at all. It is one of communal self-government, the organising of the social life on the basis of the self-management of the producers of the goods and services.

That is the vision of the Paris Commune, which has been so abandoned by the traditional left. No doubt we will be called anarchists. That is what Lenin was called when he wanted to change the Bolsheviks’ official name from Social-Democrat to Communist. That was before he himself regressed. But the stateless vision of the Paris Commune was Marx’s communist vision.

If we don’t return to this vision, we will just end up recreating the unfinished revolutions of the twentieth century and get stuck in the same cul-de-sac. That is the danger we face if we don’t have a vision of total emancipation.