Ed Griffiths of the Communist Corresponding Society contributes to the debate on communist recomposition today.
At times we are doctrinaire, at times we are frivolous,
Plastering over the cracks…
— Louis MacNeice
As dialecticians, we’re supposed to relish contradiction—but this one seems rather bitter. On the one hand we have a capitalism that is now glaringly unable to make use of the productive forces it has set in motion. The picture in many fields is one of stagnation, even retreat; and information technology, one of the few areas where dramatic advances have indeed been made, is the very area where new developments have to be most blatantly cramped and restricted to make them fit inside outmoded institutions like profit and private property. Capitalism is in decline, and it knows it: that’s why the ideologists of the ruling class can no longer stump up any optimism for the future, and why the mass culture industry is obsessed with depicting the future in terms of degradation and misery. On the other hand, meanwhile, we have a political Left that hasn’t been so marginalized since the 1880s. Decades of stunning defeat have left the proletarian movement—including its Marxist section—disoriented and close to despair, clinging grimly to ‘sensible’ minimum programmes that have less and less to say about today’s world of capitalist decline.
Driven by the remorseless logic of the falling general rate of profit, the decline of capitalism plays itself out in everyday experience in the form of a grotesque and systematic squandering of human potential. Under these conditions, the Left’s timid little lists of policies are ignored precisely because they are so transparently inadequate to the needs of the time. But the exceptional international resonance achieved by the empty slogan Another world is possible demonstrates the eagerness with which people are longing for a radical alternative. At this point, the most forgivable mistake Leftists could make would be to come across as starry-eyed Utopians; the least forgivable would be to continue seeming to underwrite the bourgeoisie’s insistence that There is no alternative.
The alternative can only be communism, understood as Marx and Engels understood it: as the practical movement to establish a society in which there will be no private property, no production for exchange, no division between mental and manual labour, no classes, and no state. Communism isn’t the alternative because we’d like it to be—it’s the alternative because that’s the direction in which modern society is straining to develop. Production and distribution have been almost entirely socialized. The small private producer and even the independent retailer are now historical relics. In the most advanced sectors of the economy, it’s rapidly becoming simple common sense that private property is a hindrance to progress. Mass unemployment (even in boom times) and the much-publicized ‘end of the job for life’ have eroded particularistic craft traditions: today’s workers, who can never be sure what job (if any) they’ll be doing this time next year, are confronted directly with their status as sellers of undifferentiated labour power. These changes define the revolutionary opportunities of our time. But they also oblige us to undertake a fundamental reconsideration of theories and strategies that were developed for another era. World history is plunging blindly towards communism; and the little ‘vanguards’ of the existing Left are still standing somewhere in 1974, tapping their wristwatches and wondering when the masses are going to show up.
The whole period that began in 1917 is over—and the ‘political traditions’ (a highly revealing turn of phrase) that emerged from it now belong to history. As Karl Korsch once wrote,
“dogmatic calculations of how far the different versions of Marxist theory correspond to some abstract canon of ‘pure and unfalsified’ theory should be abandoned. All these earlier and later Marxist ideologies must on the contrary be seen in a historical, materialist and dialectical perspective as products of a historical evolution.”
(Needless to say, the use of this quotation does not imply affiliation to a particular, ‘Korschian’ tradition.) In fact, each Leftist ‘tradition’ interprets the theoretical legacy of Marxism in terms borrowed from Hollywood (or from the Vatican): everything always comes down to goodies versus baddies. In any particular debate, one side has to be flawlessly ‘correct’ on all points—and the other can’t even just be wrong, it must be deliberately Betraying The Revolution. Supposed error is always conceptualized as betrayal; a writer who has once adopted a position we don’t like is consigned to eternal damnation, and, conversely, it cannot be admitted that a favoured writer ever once made a mistake. Ultimately each ‘tradition’ narrows down to a single individual, and theoretical ‘work’ then consists exclusively of reiterating the given leader’s favourite catchphrases in an effort to catch one’s current factional opponents misquoting the line. This method is the direct opposite of that practised by the founders of scientific socialism. No other branch of literature or science adopts it. It is incompatible with the most elementary grasp of historical materialism.
But cobbling bits and pieces of single issues together with bits and pieces of ‘political traditions’ into a sort of lowest-common-denominator Left unity is neither useful nor even possible. The only meaningful way forward is to develop a new synthesis—a conscious political expression of the actual need for communism. That will involve scrupulous analysis and difficult theoretical work. It will mean criticizing the various ‘traditions’ we ourselves come from, and recognizing the insights contained in others. In the initial phases, our agitation and propaganda for communism will inevitably be somewhat abstract in character. Even this represents a colossal step forward; but the goal must be to work out a whole political programme that embodies and resonates with current experience, while also pointing forward to communism. Such a programme cannot be drafted in isolation—it can only arise from the real conditions of life of today’s proletariat, and from the actual experience of class struggle.
The development of a new communist synthesis and a new proletarian politics is a massive task—one on which we are only just beginning. But awareness of the need for it is spreading. In ones and twos and small groups, Leftists are getting to grips with the task of understanding modern capitalist society and laying the foundations for a new synthesis. This tendency represents the main hope for serious Marxist politics in Britain. The organization of which I am a member, the Communist Corresponding Society (established in 2008), is one such small group. We claim no monopoly on truth—and no immunity to error. There are probably plenty of questions on which we are still burdened by uncriticized assumptions inherited from the various ‘traditions’ to which our members once belonged. And there are numerous other questions that we have barely managed to raise. At this stage that is unavoidable; and it is no great cause for alarm. The real danger facing the C.C.S. and other such groups would be the temptation to lose our nerve—to retreat to our ‘traditional’ certainties, and ultimately to slump back into the theoretical and practical comfort zone of the existing Left.
It would be meaningless (and damaging) to pretend we were setting ourselves up as something called a political party. After literally dozens of attempts to form a new Communist Party, it’s time to admit that the formula as we have it doesn’t work. The C.C.S. describes itself as a discussion and propaganda group—which we believe is the most appropriate organizational form for Marxists to adopt in today’s Britain. In the medium term we expect to see the establishment of many other small groups of non-‘traditional’ Marxists: these groups will obviously come from different starting points, and we would resist any attempt to hammer them into a premature ‘unity’. As our Outline Manifesto puts it,
“Unity is not yet among the needs of the hour: clear-sightedness, boldness, and creativity are.”
Instead we envisage a process of debate and thought that will pave the way for a loose confederation of groups and individuals engaged in Marxist discussion and agitation. That, in its turn, might create conditions under which it became meaningful to raise the question of founding a party.
Viewed from the perspective of the existing Left, this approach can only look like a kaleidoscopic alternation between dogmatic ultra-orthodoxy (‘back to Marx!’) and wild, unfettered revisionism (‘ditch the traditions!’). But, in fact, the two moments are inseparably linked: they’re simply the two sides of the necessary attempt to start from scratch. And, however unrealistic the objective of communism might seem (to the Left), the technical and economic prerequisites for it are falling into place and problem after problem now demands it. In campaigning for communism, we are cutting with the grain of world history. But imagining we could somehow roll capitalism back to an earlier, ‘social democratic’ phase of its own historical development—that genuinely would be unrealistic.
 K. Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy (English translation: London 1970), p. 93.
 Communist Corresponding Society, Outline Manifesto (pamphlet, 2009), p. 7.