HISTORY OF COMMUNISM

COMMUNISM dreams: to the 19th century AD

The words and Socialism are from the start often interchangeable and they still remain easily confused in modern use. The earliest recorded use of ‘socialist’ makes the point. An author writing in the Co-operative Magazine in 1827 states that ‘the chief question between the modern Political Economists and the Communionists or Socialists is whether it is more beneficial that capital should be individual or in common’.

The holding of possessions in common has been a characteristic of utopian communities in many periods of . Indeed ever since the first monks, the rejection of personal property has been an ideal in many religions.

In 17th-century England the new politics of the Commonwealth encourage dreamers such as Gerrard Winstanley and his sect of Diggers to insist that the land belongs to the people (though when they begin digging up sections of it for their own use, in 1649-50, they receive short shrift from other interested parties). In the French Revolution the extreme radicals, such as Babeuf, envisage the end of private ownership.

But it is in the early 19th century that socialism begins to find practical forms – most notably in the achievement of Robert Owen at New Lanark.

Instead the exercise of dictatorship, pioneered enthusiastically by Lenin and carried to far more extreme lengths by , has come to seem almost the point of the exercise. The Russian people are better educated than in former days, within the doctrinaire mindset of the Communist party, and years of mass misery have made possible an industrial miracle. But drab and terrified conformity has been, as yet, the most evident result of the great experiment.

The challenge of World War II unites Russia in a way that Communism has failed to. It also leaves the nation much better placed than previously to foster world revolution. Or to achieve Russian dominance? The distinction will become increasingly blurred.

New Lanark and elsewhere: AD 1800-1847

In 1800 Robert Owen takes charge of a cotton mill at New Lanark on the Clyde. It has been previously owned by his father-in-law, who established it in 1785 in partnership with Arkwright. It is therefore a thoroughly modern enterprise, well run by the standards of the time. But the idealistic young Owen is distressed by the conditions in which the employees and their families (some 2000 people in all) live and work.

Seeing ignorance, crime and drunkenness in the community, he blames it not on the workers but on their environment. And he considers the environment at New Lanark, or in any other factory, to be the direct result of the mill owners’ overriding concern to make money.

For the first time, in this perception, the ideals of socialism are directly opposed to the tenets of capitalism. The two great rivals of 20th-century politics discover each other.

Owen’s reforms make New Lanark an essential port of call for anyone interested in social reform. Visitors admire the high standards in housing and the conditions in the factory. They note that goods are sold in the village shop at almost cost price. They see the care shown for the health of the families and the education of their children (Britain’s first primary school is opened here in 1812). New Lanark becomes, and is recognized to be, a model industrial community.

Yet New Lanark is also a conventional business, making a good profit for its owners. Owen begins to dream of more utopian ways of solving society’s ills. He promotes the idea of self-contained communities of agricultural workers and craftsmen, owning everything in common including their land. With no capitalist owner to cream off the profit, he imagines such communities being so successful that they soon become the standard form of human society.

He proves less effective as utopian theorist than as benevolent mill owner. Four Owenite communities are founded between 1825 and 1839 (the best known is at New Harmony in Indiana). Squabbles and bankruptcy finish off every one of them within a very few years.

Owen’s community at New Harmony lasts just two years, from 1825 to 1827, but it is followed in the 1840s by many other similar experiments in north America. They are based posthumously on the ideas of the French social theorist, Charles Fourier, who has proposed an ideal community which he calls a ‘phalanx’. Each phalanx is to include a balanced mix of workers, combining all the necessary skills. A community of 1620 people is suggested as the ideal size.

As many as twenty-eight Fourier phalanxes are founded in the USA. Most of them soon collapse. The one which makes the movement famous, Brook Farm near Boston, lasts from 1841 to 1847. But in this same decade two young men in Paris are evolving a more ruthless concept of socialism.

, and historical : AD 1844-1848

Durig the 1840s Germany is the cradle of many radical groups, though the repressive political conditions mean that the activists tend to live elsewhere – in Brussels, Paris or London.

By far the most influential in the long run are two young men who become friends in Paris in 1844. Karl Marx is twenty-six at the time, Friedrich Engels two years younger. Their friendship is to be life-long, with the impoverished Marx frequently saved from near starvation by the generosity of Engels. They are also ideally suited as fellow warriors in the class struggle which they consider to be the central theme of politics and history.

Marx is the theorist, who has come to his political views through philosophy. As a student in Berlin he has been influenced by the dialectic of Hegel (the presiding genius of the Berlin philosophy school and only recently dead, in 1831). Hegel’s theory is that progress is made towards the truth, in any context, through a process of struggle; a thesis is opposed by an antithesis, and out of the clash comes a new development, the synthesis.

For Marx this chimes well with his view of politics as class warfare. From the struggle between the bourgeoisie (the existing thesis) and the oppressed working class (the antithesis) will come a new political order (the synthesis, in the form of the triumphant working class).

But Marx knows virtually nothing of the industrial working class except what he reads. Engels, by contrast, shares an interest in Hegel but also knows factory life in all its contemporary horror. He comes from a rich German textile family. In 1842 he is sent to manage the Engels and Ermen cotton-spinning factory in Manchester. The result, after two years of acute observation and detailed research, is a highly influential sociological survey, The Condition of the Working Class in England, published in Leipzig in 1845.

So Engels can add flesh to the bones of historical materialism (also known as determinism) which becomes the all-embracing Marxist theory of economics, politics and history.

Marx and Engels argue that development in human society is driven not by people’s will or by any cultural, legal or political achievement, but by a single economic factor – the inexorable advance in the technology of production.

In the Marxist theory of history, changes in methods of production lie behind mankind’s progression through certain predictable stages. In the recent past there has been feudalism, which has now given way to the 19th-century triumph of the bourgeoisie. In the future there is the imminent Dictatorship of the Proletariat, after which an interim period of Socialism will give way to the final achievement of Communism.

This progression is not, as liberals would wish, a gradual evolution. It is a series of violent upheavals in the struggle between the classes. One such occasion has been seen in France, where the bourgeoisie has overthrown the remains of feudalism in the revolution of 1789.

Once the new production methods of the Industrial Revolution have reached a critical point, crowding together a sufficient number of exploited workers in slum conditions in the cities, the stage will be set for the next revolution. The proletariat (a word used by Marx for the industrial working class) will smash the bourgeoisie and will appropriate their accumulated wealth for the common cause.

In the subsequent Dictatorship of the Proletariat all other considerations will be subordinated to safeguarding the revolution. This stage ends once everybody is a member of the proletariat. With only one class left, the class war is over. The next and penultimate stage is Socialism.

In the classless society of Socialism it is anticipated that mankind will live in harmony (class exploitation being the root of all evil). Now it will be possible for the apparatus of state gradually to wither away. The final Marxist paradise of Communism will operate on a simple and just distribution of work and wealth – in Marx’s words, ‘from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs’.

The : AD 1848

The basic tenets of Marxism, formulated by Marx and Engels from 1844, are presented to the world in 1848 in what is probably the most stark and powerfully written political pamphlet in history – the Communist Manifesto.

In June 1847, at a congress in London convened by a German radical group calling themselves the League of the Just, Engels persuades the delegates that they need a new name and new statutes. The chosen name is the Communist League, and the new statutes turn out to be much more uncompromising than anything heard from utopian communists such as Owen or Fourier.

In their opening statement the statutes of the Communist League boldly declare: ‘The aim of the League is the downfall of the bourgeoisie and the ascendancy of the proletariat, the abolition of the old society based on class conflicts and the foundation of a new society without classes and without private property.’ Soon a pamphlet is on sale in Drury Lane, aimed at German workers in London and headed with a new slogan: ‘Workers of the world, unite!’

The League decides that a full manifesto of its aims is needed. The task is entrusted to Marx and Engels. They work on the document in December and January and it is printed in Paris in February 1848.

The timing could not be more fortuitous. Europe’s most active year of revolutions is just beginning. The ruling classes everywhere are profoundly alarmed by the sudden and violent turn of events. Any among them who happen to read the Communist Manifesto can only have their worst fears confirmed by what is undoubtedly, from their point of view, a terrifying document. It is also one which is written with extraordinary brilliance and verve.

The manifesto begins with a now famous sentence: ‘A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism.’ There follows a clear account of historical materialism and of the class struggle, ending with a concise conclusion which must leap off the page for any bourgeois reader.

‘The theory of the communists may be summed up in the single phrase: abolition of private property.’ This stark statement is followed by two pages analysing the various objections made to such a programme. They all derive, the authors argue, not from any concept of justice but from self-interest. Again, there is a blunt summing up. ‘You reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend.’

The document is uncompromisingly bleak when it describes the proposed future. All wealth and control will be in the hands of the state, with power to direct everyone’s labour through the ‘establishment of industrial armies’ for all kinds of work including agriculture.

There follows a review of other socialist movements, all of which are dismissed as unscientific for going against the tide of historical materialism. The followers of Owen and Fourier in particular are dismissed as reactionaries, attempting to create ‘social utopias … duodecimo editions of the New Jerusalem’.

The authors rise to a superb clarion call at the end, with a deliberate echo of Rousseau: ‘Let the ruling classes tremble at a communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of the world, unite!’

A large proportion of Marxist theory is already present in this brief and easily comprehensible document. It provides, as its authors intend, a practical blueprint for revolution – but also, in its endorsement of rigorous state control, an easy justification for totalitarianism.

Marx joins with gusto in the revolutionary ferment of 1848, returning to Germany to edit a radical newspaper. But when the tide of reaction turns, in 1849, he is expelled. He settles now in tolerant London, where he spends the rest of his life researching and writing. His only subsequent involvement in practical politics is his role in the International from 1864.

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