"Labour’s history of anti-communism is one to be proud of. The championing of liberty and democracy over fanciful utopias, the hard graft of improving people’s lives, is one to be proud of."
Has too much ink already been spilt on the seemingly endless re-litigating of the Piers Morgan – Ash Sarkar brouhaha? Almost definitely. But waste and endless spillage are not so far off topic.
The episode in question, a rambunctious debate on Good Morning Britain over Donald Trump’s recent visit to the UK, was itself rather negligible. To adapt a line from Borges, it was two bald men fighting over a combover. Two people of little influence suddenly front and centre stage offered through the banality of morning television.
But still, as Sarkar and Novara Media attempt to establish themselves as vocal and influential players in left politics and might be considered on the harder edge of Corbynism, it might be worth considering whether being a communist, literally or figuratively, does offer anything substantial to British politics.
Other than a brief flash after the end of the Second World War, when the Communist Party of Great Britain took two seats in Parliament between 1945-1950, communism has never been a dominant force in the United Kingdom. Always dwarfed by the European sister parties, British communism always stood in the shadow of the labour movement. As Alan Johnson, among others, has pointed out, communism in Britain failed to capture many converts because of the Labour Party. And with each fresh example of Soviet chauvinism the membership of the Communist Party steadily disintegrated, until only the most ardently faithful remained.
And therein lies the problem. Communism discredited itself as much as it was bested. It dug its own grave.
Sarker’s interpretation of communism, as espoused during recent conversations with Owen Jones on both Novara Media’s and Jones’ YouTube channels, amounts to a mix of futurism, power-to-the-people celebration, and a reverence for anti-colonialism and the missed opportunities of the breakdown of European imperialism. There’s always a preliminary acceptance, an early throat clearing, of the gulag and the famines, before almighty jump to how Marx still offers the key, provides the insight and resolution to an approaching post-automated world. This burgeoning view, among some anyway, of communism as something ‘fun’ and ‘exciting’ which will wrest power away from the elite to be handed to the people flies in the face of all that has been demonstrated about the practical effects of communism.
The Bolsheviks, as the prime example of the communist experiment, were cold and cruel in their determination. From outset they practiced terror. Having lost the only election they ever allowed, they set about ensuring the extirpation of opposition. Consider this from Lenin, dated March 1922, in a secret letter to the Politburo: ‘It is precisely now and only now, when in the starving regions people are eating human flesh, and hundreds if not thousands of corpses are littering the roads, that we can (and therefore must) carry out the confiscation of church valuables with the most savage and merciless energy… Precisely at this moment we must give battle to [the clergy] in the most decisive and merciless manner and crush its resistance with such brutality that it will not forget it for decades to come… The greater the number of representatives of the reactionary clergy and reactionary bourgeoisie we succeed in executing for this reason, the better.’ Charming.
Labour’s history of anti-communism is one to be proud of. The championing of liberty and democracy over fanciful utopias, the hard graft of improving people’s lives, is one to be proud of. It was the fight, as Orwell committed himself, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.
An understanding of Marx is important. His attempted analysis and often wry, sardonic impressions of the age and economy in which he lived makes worthy reading. The essays and letters on India and the American Civil War are some of the best you’ll ever read. He is integral to understanding the 20th Century. But, ultimately, more can be learned not from what he got right but from what he got wrong – which counts for the majority. For all the credit Marx awarded capitalism at the beginning of the Manifesto, he never would grasp how revolutionary and adaptable the system he opposed was. And the movement which took his name and marched forward did not find itself aboard the locomotive of history, driving human progress inexorably to its next stage. The communist nations were prison states which destroyed the lives of the people behind their walls.
It is possible that by 2030 humanity will have abolished extreme poverty. The question is how to harness the forces which may enable this and, through a careful, considered application, continue to improve the lives of all people. It is the steady walk toward the future. Communism never had the hope of achieving the marriage between prosperity and human freedom. It offered only the grey landscape. It is just an observable fact that, for all that might be said about worker’s rights in the 1936 Soviet constitution or improved literacy rates or Cuban healthcare, for the near totality of people who had to live under those regimes it was a complete disaster. And not one which should be idly dismissed or serve as a pithy preamble for further re-interpretations.
Daniel Wood is a Young Fabian member.