a communist revival?

13 10 2009

by Nathan Coombs

One of the remarkable things about the manifesto of the recent University of California Santa Cruz student occupation, the Communiqué from an Absent Future, was the emphatic use of the word communism to describe their project to “demand not a free university but a free society”.


This re-appropriation of the word communism marks a new direction after numerous attempts to refigure a certain spirit, while avoiding the specific content, of communism under such concepts as “the common” or “communisation” in various brands of leftwing, post-cold war political activism. Communism itself had been more or less abandoned to the dwindling base of old far-left political groups and Maoist movements.

Yet something has certainly changed of late, of which the UCSC occupation statement is simply the tip of a larger cultural iceberg. After the 2008 global economic crisis a spell of naivety – about the potential of the half-forgotten anti-globalisation movement; the efficacy of anti-war demonstrations; and whose interests are really being served by identity politics – has arguably been broken. This has forced a reappraisal of the whole project of postmodern, leftwing political thought: from the commitment to non-violence, all the way up to the abandonment of materialist economic analyses like Karl Marx’s theory of the “declining rate of profit”.

Those shrinking violets of radicalism past (many now in their 70s) have also re-emerged to appreciative audiences. The trend came to a head with the “Idea of Communism” conference organised by Birkbeck College earlier this year, which through its assembled group of rockstar theorists and with its provocative title managed to sell over a thousand tickets.

However, as was clear to those attending the conference, and the way in which it was received on Cif (from which you would imagine the speakers were advocating the reintroduction of the Soviet gulag), what this word communism actually stood for was not altogether clear.

One of the more concrete arguments that emerged from the conference, and in his subsequent interview with the BBC, was Alain Badiou’s insistence that after the failure of 20th century communism there was now a necessity to “maintain a distance” from the state.

Although equating communism with a radical antipathy to the state might seem like mumbo jumbo to those whose historical memory of socialism equates solely with the one-party state and the command economy, it is worth remembering that from the start if communism meant anything it was the means by which the conditions could be ripened to eliminate the need for a state – ie with the abolition of capitalism. What separated the communist from the run of the mill liberal reformer, or social democrat, was precisely the will towards the end of the state.

It is with the greatest irony, then, that communism in the 20th century became synonymous with the monolithic state, grand, orchestrated parades and totalitarianism. Although there were achievements in Russia, China and Cuba, there is thankfully little enthusiasm on the left for a return to this social model. Rather, there is increasing interest in the embryonic hope offered by the short-lived Paris Commune of 1871, which Marx enthusiastically described as “a revolution against the state as such”.

In its latter day form, this model of Paris Commune organisation equates to a tendency to promote autonomous working-class seizures. In her filmThe Take, Naomi Klein endorses this model of communism (without using the word directly) by publicising the expropriation of the factories by workers after Argentina’s period of economic meltdown in 2001. In Michael’s Moore’s recent film too, Capitalism: A Love Story, he promotes democratic and egalitarian worker co-operatives as an alternative to capitalism, claiming: “People love this part of the film.”

Before we get too excited though, it is worth understanding the full scale of the limitations and obstacles facing this form of communist organisation. Islands of worker co-operatives face enormous obstacles in regard to competition from capitalist rivals, which due to the inherent nature of capitalism are able to command economies of scale, depress wages and drive down their product prices, thus undercutting their worker-managed competitors.

Worker co-ops also require at least a somewhat sympathetic legislature and the backing of a mass movement to allow what are, after all, factories and machinery simply stolen from the bosses. The question of politics and the state is therefore never far away – without a political theory of how to deal with the state, such a form of organisation is doomed to the realm of idealism, or just random occurrences.

Furthermore, there is the question as to whether this form of communism has universal potential beyond the conditions of blue-collar factory work. How, for instance, could workers expropriate a call centre (even if they wanted to) when there is little to expropriate except office space, probably rented by the company, and some phone lines?

And most difficult of all is that persistent bugbear of the left: who is the subject for change? In Marx’s Communist Manifesto, the term proletariat was used precisely to indicate a class with nothing to lose, who are capable of taking the high risks required in any radical political transformation. Is there any such group today? Vast sections of the working class have been fully pulled into dependency on the liberal state. Immigrants are often atomised and lacking solidarity.

I think what we lack is theoretical work that explains plausible scenarios in which autonomous worker co-operatives could be politicised and achieve universal scope.

Still, in the real world there are promising signs we should not ignore. Even in the UK, the dominant form of radical protest is shifting to the occupation – we have seen this with the university occupations overGaza and worker occupations at Visteon and Vestas. What is now needed is for workers and students to stop making demands on the state, whether that be nationalisation, concessions or government intervention; and figure out how to take their occupied spaces and make them their own.

Nathan wrote this piece for the Guardian website

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4 responses

13 10 2009

We have had a debate about this article on the commune internal list: this post is just to summarise points I have already made. I have argued that it is too dismissive of the potential power of migrant workers and jobless workers in particular and perhaps, though I accept this is not Nathan’s intention, the class in general. (By which I mean the third from final paragraph, not quite counterbalanced in my reading by the welcome references to Visteon and Vestas workers.)

I also think it unduly promotes co-ops as a method of struggle. We have many forms available to us: unions, assemblies, councils, etc, and we should promote these. Co-operatives (such as the Zanon factory) have political content precisely because they have been expropriated through mass struggle. Instances of this are very rare, and while they’re worth taking note of, they can hardly represent a main plank of communist strategy. We also have to emphasise we are not advocating as strategy any sort of cooperative entrepreneurship.

Here are a couple of critical articles on co operatives, from a communist point of view:

And here is an article from the Economist which shows how thoroughly cooperatives to drive workers to manage their own alienation:

13 10 2009

Clearly there is a distinction between a business run on ‘co-operative’ lines and a workplace seized by its employees illegally. As c0mmunard writes, the process of expropriation is part and parcel of the radicalisation of the workforce and changes in the means of organising, which is not the case in Mondragon, John Lewis, Co-op supermarkets, etc.

But this is precisely why worker takeovers like Zanon, Brukman, IMPA etc. are genuinely interesting and it is ridiculous to dismiss them on the basis that socialism cannot succeed in ‘islands’ and individual workplaces. They really are a revolutionary measure – they challenge the idea of private property, they resist hierarchical workplace relations, and also in the various Argentinian examples, have sought community support, given free materials to other workplaces, schools, hospitals, etc. They are not sectional or shallow, as they are often accused of being.

For sure, they cannot exist forever by themselves in a capitalist sea. But that is not useful advice as to what those workers should do: they do not need some Trot group to tell them to try and seek wider links or broader support bases.

I would argue that such takeovers would be part and parcel of any revolutionary process, and indeed that is borne out by examples from Paris in 1871 to Hungary in 1956, Iran in 1979… and beyond.

In a sense such examples are ‘rare’, but that’s not a particularly helpful criticism if we consider that every revolution in history has failed. All gains achieved under capitalism are transitory and subject to potential reverse, but that is not to say that such victories as are achieved do not point the way forward to an alternative way of organising society.

14 10 2009
bill stcikers

you get to write about communism for the Guardian? Fair play!

14 10 2009

By ‘rare’, I suppose what I’m getting at is not merely that they’re rare as such, but that there’re good reasons they’re rare. I mean, would it make sense to workers in Visteon, THC, Vestas, Lindsey, Royal Mail (!) etc. that their perspective be to try to take over and run those businesses. It simply isn’t consonant with the real level of class struggle and political relations.

That does not mean that the perspective of communist self management cannot be introduced into those struggles in one way or another… as indeed, in various watered down forms, it has been.


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