In Sickness and in Health

Robert Maisey responds to a recent Fabian article discussing how the left should view communism.


"Although it has since divorced itself many times over from orthodox Marxism, social democracy’s roots are planted as firmly in Marxism as in trade unionism"

Virulent anti-communism is nothing to be proud of. It places you in the same historical camp as a whole host of foul reactionaries, nationalists and fascists. It has provided euphemistic cover for anti-semitism (“Judeo-Bolshevism”), attacks on civil liberties (McCarthyism) and wholescale crimes against humanity (The Korean and Viet Nam wars).

Social democrats should take a measured approach in their critique of communism and acknowledge their shared history – rather than obsessively dwelling on their long and bitter antagonisms.

As Labour Party theorist Ralph Milliband noted in his 1984 essay “Reflections on anti-communism”, contemporary socialists were correct to criticise the failures in the Soviet record, but should take equal care to remain sharply opposed to anti-communism.

Perpetually dancing to the tune of our political opponents, in an endless litany of gulags and bread lines, we allow these reactionaries to whitewash our shared achievements out of history. From the heroic anti-fascist actions of the International Brigades and the anti-Nazi resistance movements, to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa (The ANC’s first housing minister was also the leader of the South African Communist Party, of which Mandela was also once a member) to the bread and butter work undertaken within trade unions and the labour movement for over 150 years.

The social democrat that allows themself to become complicit in the far right’s desire to erase the heroism and sacrifice of our socialist forebears has lost their way indeed.

Fabian anti-communism is more baffling than most. Ignoring the history of the Fabian Society itself (Sidney and Beatrice Webb were both fellow travellers and H.G. Wells even conducted an interview with Stalin for the New Statesman!) it also demonstrates a total lack of comprehension of the intertwined nature of the social democratic/communist relationship from the very beginning.

Although it has since divorced itself many times over from orthodox Marxism, social democracy’s roots are planted as firmly in Marxism as in trade unionism. The great social democratic parties often proclaimed they sought the same outcomes only via different methods.

Even when social democrats have been most acquiescent to the influence of capital, the lurking threat of their more radical sister ideology has empowered them in their progressive demands. It has rendered the capitalist class more cautious, softening the brutal and violent nature of raw, unrestrained market forces.

Is it a coincidence that the collapse of  a credible alternative global system has directly preceded the collapse in the ability of social democrats to extract even minor concessions for the working class?

At this point you might be tempted to declare, with the absolute moral certainty of a true ideologue, that the crimes of Stalinism render all such arguments academic. The communist sympathiser might in turn be inclined to point how the German Social Democratic Party’s failure to oppose their nation’s march to war in 1914, playing a key role in plunging the world into the prolonged period of barbarism that precipitated the era of Bolshevism in the first place.

No socialist should attempt to deny or minimise those atrocities that were done in the name of human progress, just as the advocates of the capitalist system must never forget that not so long ago, its hallmarks were brutal conquest and slavery.

Perhaps the most sinister aspect of left wing anti-communism is the self denying lengths it will go to in order to condemn what it perceives to be the horrors of a truly egalitarian system. In a recent Young Fabian article on the subject, the writer quoted Lenin’s demands for the expropriation of the wealth of the church to alleviate the starvation that was driving peasants to literally eat their own dead as an example of the terrible crimes communists were willing to commit against private property.

Think back more recently to the media outrage at Jeremy Corbyn when he suggested that empty investment properties in Kensington should be put to use by local government for the housing of the victims of Grenfell Tower fire. No matter what we think of the internal affairs of 1920s Russia, do we truly wish to align ourselves with people for whom the sanctity of an investment asset is greater than that of a human life?

When criticising the political system which brought healthcare and education to a country like Cuba for the first time, we should put ourselves into the shoes of people who had never known such basic necessities. Part of the reason social democracy has never taken hold in most of the developing world is because it was always violently put down under the pretext of anti-communism. Fidel Castro once presented Chilean social democrat leader Salvador Allende with an AK47, which Allende refuted that he would ever use. Allende was gunned down in a CIA backed coup not long afterwards.

Modern social democrats appear to have forgotten that a healthy society is a pre-requisite for a healthy democracy. As the world is once again torn apart by extreme inequality plus the new and looming peril of climate change, we forget this at great cost to both democracy and humanity.

No amount of diatribes on the horrors of collectivisation are going to put off young, courageous minds from the search for a more glorious collective future. The battle we need to refight today is not between socialists and slightly more moderate socialists, but between labour and capital, great forces once again locked in existential conflict.


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