Why Should We Celebrate the Russian Revolution?

One question communists can expect to receive is Why should we celebrate the Russian Revolution? It’s a difficult one to answer with soundbites, especially when the questioner isn’t really interested in your answer. There is a wonderful example of this here when the BBC interviewed Rob Griffiths, our General Secretary, during his recent trip to celebrate October 1917 in St Petersburg with CPs across the world. First the loaded question; then the broken link before Rob can answer fully; and then the smear implying that either Rob himself or possibly Putin pulled the connection. Deliberate sabotage or incompetence by the BBC would seem more probable explanations.

In fact any assessment of the Russian Revolution or, more meaningfully, the failed attempt by the USSR to build socialism, is highly complex and the subject of continuing serious study and debate. It has, for example, been a recurring item on the agenda of our own Communist University in South London (CUiSL). Here, however, are ten more or less random reasons why it should be celebrated:

  1. The contribution of the USSR to the defeat of Hitler – without it the Nazis would have won the Second World War and you and I would now be enslaved – or dead. Does anyone think Tsarist Russia could have defeated the Wehrmacht?
  2. The mere existence of the USSR strengthened the confidence of workers in the West and required capitalists from 1945 to offer concessions to workers to dampen demand for a revolution here. This explains why, as the economic performance of the USSR imploded in the 1980s, capitalists in the West no longer saw any need to offer concessions to their workers, resulting in increasing inequality and exploitation thereafter.
  3. With its planned economy, the USSR saved its own population from the ravages of the Great Depression of the 1930s. In the West, only the advent of WW2 achieved this.
  4. The USSR should be recognised for organising through the Comintern opposition to the rise of Hitler and then for seeking collective security agreements which could have to isolated the Nazis. Only when these were rebuffed and it became clear from the Munich Agreement that the USSR stood alone and that the capitalist nations would be happy to see Hitler attack the USSR did the USSR seek its ill-fated, non-aggression pact with Hitler.
  5. The USSR was the only country to provide support for the Spanish government against the Franco putsch and, though the Comintern, organise the International Brigade. The capitalist nations turned their back on Spain and provided implicit support for Franco with the non-intervention pact.
  6. The cultural and artistic achievements of the USSR – dance, music, painting etc
  7. The scientific achievements of the USSR – achievements which matched those of the much wealthier West.
  8. The tangible support the USSR gave to the socialist revolutions in other countries, especially China and Cuba, both of which continue and provide hope for us all.
  9. The tangible support the USSR gave to communist parties in the West and in the developing world.
  10. The USSR’s contribution to the dismantling of colonialism and the ending of apartheid in South Africa. While the Cuban contribution was more tangible, that would not have been possible without the USSR’s support for Cuba.

Can anyone propose two more to make it a dozen? But for a more balanced assessment of the USSR, its successes and failures, and to learn the lessons for the future, we need not only study the former USSR. We can learn from China and Cuba where the building of socialism continues; and we need proper discussion and debate, not soundbites, sneering BBC commentators and mysteriously pulled plugs.

 

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A Thought for Halloween

Writing this week in City AM, Diego Zuluaga, Head of Financial Services and Tech Policy at the Institute of Economic Affairs, seeks to defend capitalism. His article on 24 October Big Businesses Denigrating Capitalism Don’t Understand It is interesting not for its call on big business leaders not to rock the boat, nor for its arguments in defence of capitalism – even the author must surely recognise, deep down, they are disingenuous – but because it was felt necessary to publish such a defence at all.

For Marxists, a study of history and an analysis of capitalism and its instabilities leads us to conclude that capitalism is merely the penultimate stage in our evolving, class-based society, not the final equilibrium or ‘end of history’ envisaged by Francis Fukuyama. Marxists are sometimes accused of irrational belief, but belief has nothing to do with it. Our approach is a rational and scientific one. It is the defenders of capitalism who exhibit irrational belief. Their confidence that de-regulating markets will lead to the welfare of all is, at best, based on an elegant model built on unrealistic assumptions[1]. In practice, it is based neither on economic theory nor on Zuluaga’s flimsy arguments but on the self-interest of the ruling class and those in their pay. Our theories, on the other hand, have concrete evidence to support them: the 2007 financial crash; historic levels of inequality; Grenfel Tower; global warming; the housing crisis; growing hospital waiting times; bloated expenditure on ‘defence’; and …. Readers of this blog are invited to complete the list.

It may be too soon to claim again, as did Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, that ‘a spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of communism’, but we can take comfort from the thought that something is spooking our ruling class.

[1] The Arrow-Debreu Model, a mathematical expression of Adam Smith’s ‘hidden hand’. Amongst its many unrealistic assumptions is perfect and complete markets.

Reasons to be cheerful

At the end of 2016 it would be fair to say that the future looks bleak. We confront four years of a climate denying US President. We face a similar period of Tory rule in this country, propped up by a mass media owned by sympathetic oligarchs or, in the case of the BBC, cowed into grovelling submission. Both are intent on persuading the public that Labour under Corbyn is “unelectable”. The prospect of a Tory negotiated Brexit threatens an outcome that could be even more dire than the slow strangulation by neo-liberal policies we experience as a member of the EU. Pessimism is not, however, a trait associated with communists. Hey, we overcame the failure and eventual collapse of the first serious attempt to build socialism anywhere in the world, the USSR. We remain determined to build our own Road to Socialism in Britain and then across the world and we won’t be deterred by a few, short-term obstacles such as these.

Reasons to be cheerful? Here are a few.

On the international stage, while our mass media speaks of the rise of populism and gives as examples the rise of Le Penn in France and the break-up of Angela Merkel’s centre-right coalition in Germany, they ignore the improved prospects for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, backed by the French Communist Party, and for Die Linke, the successor to PDS, the East German communist party.

Looking to the USA, we can take comfort from the relative success of Bernie Saunders, achieved in the teeth of a mass media who told the electorate that, like Corbyn, he was simply “unelectable”. What we learned was that the mass media has been weakened by the growth of social media and that an electorate offered the ‘same old, same old’ centre-right options will look for something else. This will apply just as much to the Tories and their ex-coalition partners, the Lib-Dems, as it did to Hilary Clinton. Even under first-past-the-post elections, standing as the least worst candidate may no longer be the ticket to success.

We also learned from Greece that half-way measures don’t work. Syriza won the election and thought it could stay in the Euro and use its democratic mandate to negotiate with the European Commission. As if! Had the electorate had the nerve to vote in the Greek Communist Party, with its uncompromising attitude to the EU, the country would at least have stood a chance.

Peace in Syria? Stability in Iraq and Libya?   Not yet and not soon enough. But at least we have learned that military intervention and bankrolling the opposition with a view to “regime change” doesn’t benefit the inhabitants of these countries or those adjacent to it.

And what of Brexit? Although the immediate prospects are daunting, leaving the EU was an essential first step on the road to socialism. We have to resist the attempts that will be made by Dame Theresa and her gang to further disadvantage the trade unions – they received precious little from the EU but even that could be threatened – and to enter into trade deals that favour big business, not workers. If these can be resisted, opportunities will arise for genuine democracy at home and real internationalism abroad.

Socialism isn’t “what a Labour Government does” (Herbert Morrison) any more than communism is “Soviet power plus electrification” (Lenin). It’s a society were, eventually, each receives according to their need. Let’s make 2017 the year when we take significant steps towards this.

All the best for the New Year from Croydon Communist Party.

What’s the difference between a socialist and a communist?

Party Congress, a biennial event at which delegates from every branch, district and nation meet to agree party policy and strategy and to elect a new Executive Committee which, in turn, will elect Party Officers, including the General Secretary, will be held later this month. It’s therefore an appropriate time to reflect on why we are communists and what is the difference, if any, between a communist and a socialist.

In the popular mind, the distinction is one of degree. Socialists want a significant degree of public ownership and greater equality of outcome – although some would settle for mere equality of opportunity. Communists, on the other hand, are commonly thought to want to abolish all private property and achieve total equality. There is also a commonly held view that communists want a society modelled on that of the former USSR and former socialist states in Eastern Europe. There may be elements of truth in all these distinctions, but they are, nevertheless, mistaken. The principal distinction between a socialist and a communist is that anyone can call themselves a socialist, but to call yourself a communist you need to be a member of a communist party.

Communist parties differ from other parties in that they are subject to democratic centralism, which means they arrive at decisions and policies after unrestricted internal discussion and debate and then unite to promote these policies and implement them. Communist parties reach their decisions by applying the ideas of Karl Marx as developed by others Marxists such as Lenin and Gramsci. These ideas can be described in one hyphenated word: Marxism-Leninism.

Does Marxism-Leninism mean that we are striving to replicate the former USSR and Socialist countries of Eastern Europe? No. We recognise that, while the USSR achieved much, it failed in the end to build socialism. Lessons must be learnt from these failures, and no one is keener to discover them than communist parties. Next time we must do it better – more democracy, greater efficiency, deeper humanity and more effective connection with working people.

This emphasis on communist parties begs the question – what is a communist party? The much loved and missed Tony Benn was fond of pointing out that there were too many socialist parties and not enough socialists. Regrettably, this is also true of communist parties. Only one party in Britain can trace its origins back the formation of the British Section of the Communist International in 1920. This section became the Communist Party of Great Britain and, in 1991, the Communist Party of Britain. Now known simply as the Communist Party or CP (generally preferred to CPB), we do not recruit in Northern Ireland, leaving that to our sister party, the Communist Party of Ireland. There are, however, four or five other parties and small groups in Britain calling themselves communist parties – the New Communist Party, the Communist Party of Scotland, CPB-ML, CPGB-ML etc. Without wishing to disrespect individuals who are members of these groups – some are sound Marxist who engage constructively with the wider labour and trade union movement – overall they lack substance, legitimacy and, as reference to Solidnet, will confirm, recognition by the international movement of communist and workers parties[i]. This lack of legitimacy is especially true of the so called Communist Party of Great Britain, a grouplet that high-jacked the party name dropped in 1991 in order to defeat an attempt at that time to dissolve the party and close our newspaper, the Morning Star. This attempt failed and the group behind it has long since dissipated, but the consequence, loss of the use of our original name, continues, only partially ameliorated by the fact that we retain its exclusive use for electoral purposes, having registered it with the Electoral Commission.

No review of communism in Britain, however brief, would be complete without reference to the other revolutionary Marxist tradition present in the UK. This derives, however tortuously, from Trotsky’s Fourth International founded in 1938 rather than directly from the British Section of the Communist International formed in 1920. While also suffering from an excess of minor parties and grouplets, it is represented by two quite significant parties, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Socialist Party (formerly Militant). We share much Marxist theory with these parties but, given the history of conflict between us and a resulting lack of trust, it is hardly surprising that it is not always easy to work with them; and these difficulties can be exacerbated by their employment of “entryism” whereby membership is concealed in order to enter social democratic parties and coalitions. This practice was encouraged by Trotsky but abjured by communists who point to the advice in Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto that communists should not hide their membership of the party. Despite these differences, we have, however, in recent years managed to work successfully with them in certain narrow areas, particularly opposition to the EU and it is to be hoped that these tentative links will grow in future.

The above reflections are personal ones and don’t necessarily reflect the CP’s formal policy or official history. If your views differ from mine, you are invited to comment accordingly.

[i] With one minor exception – the small New Communist Party has secured some limited recognition internationally.

The Same Mistakes

Disappointment at learning that the ‘wrong’ Dylan, Bob, not Thomas, had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature this year was only partially mitigated by the reminder that being dead disqualifies one from winning a Nobel Prize. Dylan Thomas has been dead for 63 years and in his turbulent lifetime never courted Establishment recognition.’Llareggub’ was what he expected and that’s what he got.

Establishment recognition is a heady treat that recipients are well advised to imbibe with caution. The credibility of the British gong system and, in particular, membership of the House of Lords, is at an all-time low following misuse by successive governments to reward party donors and pack the second chamber with party hacks. Can it still be deemed “an honour” to receive such taudry awards? The Nobel Prizes for Chemistry, Literature, Physics, and Physiology/ Medicine were first awarded in 1901 and remain hugely prestigious. Less so is the Nobel Prize for Peace – awarded to Barack Obama in 2009 for no obvious achievement than that he had won the US Presidential Election eight months previously. The so-called Nobel Prize for Economics was the creation of the Swedish Central Bank in 1968 and is awarded to whichever bourgeois economist can come up with the least implausible justification for sticking with free market economics.

Notwithstanding the award to Bob Dylan, the Nobel Prize for Literature, while inevitably more contentious than awards for science, has until now retained its credibility. The award in 2005 to Harold Pinter cannot, for example, be faulted. Another worthy award, albeit one given very little coverage or endorsement in the UK media, was that to Svetlana Alexievich in 2015. She writes in Russian, which could conceivably explain this lack of interest, but a more likely explanation is that her interviews with citizens of the former Soviet Union are far too sympathetic for the tastes of our newspaper owners; and, although she does not whitewash the shortcomings in the former USSR, neither does she portray a system that was all bad. The current edition of the London Review of Books contains a detailed and largely positive review of her book Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets and may encourage sales of the book.

Another sympathetic look at the shortcomings of the USSR is Landscapes of Communism by Owen Hatherley (Penguin, 2015). This book looks at the built environment of the former socialist states and China and refrains from rubbishing them out of hand. Mr Hatherley, coincidentally, also writes for the London Review of Books. While it would be pleasant to dwell only on the successes of communism, glorying in the October Revolution, the Long March etc, it’s vital to understand what went wrong in the first attempts to build socialism. Superficial analysis that focusses on the flawed personality of the leader or conflates socialist states with totalitarianism won’t achieve this. We need honest and thoughtful analysis so that we don’t make the same mistakes next time.

The Long Term View

In the final paragraph of his book, Stepping Stones, the making of our Home World, Steve Drury concludes that:

a mere 10 thousand years of human history has created economic chains that stifle such potential and increasingly endanger its survival. It seems to me that if history is to continue being recorded and sifted through, the next stepping stone is consciously to break those chains.

As communists we heartily endorse this conclusion, but we may not all be fully aware of how we got here. Marxists tend to study history and pre-history back to the end of the last Ice Age, but Steve Dury takes us from when our planet was formed some four and a half billion years ago and, drawing on the latest scientific evidence, explains everything with stunning clarity and insight. You can still find copies of the original hardback first edition  (Oxford University Press, 1999, ISBN 0 19 850271 0) if you hunt round for them but he has now generously published a revised, second edition as an e-book  here . Both this and the revised second e-edition cannot be recommended highly enough. Day to day political and economic analysis and knockabout is all very well, but, in addition, we all need to be aware of the long term view..

Follow the Cuban Model

In the posting last week I suggested that resistance to antibiotics should be added to the threats facing humanity. This has been confirmed by the Final Report to government from the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) published today. In the preface to this report, Lord O’Neill, now a government minister, accepts that routine surgeries and minor infections will become life-threatening once again and that the hard won victories against infectious diseases of the last fifty [surely sixty plus] years will be jeopardized. Unless action is taken, the report concludes, the number of deaths each year from AMR could balloon to 10 million, at a cumulative cost to global economic output of $100 trillion. On this basis, by 2050, the death toll could be a staggering one person every three seconds and each person in the world today will be more than $10,000 per annum worse off – quite a problem when the world average income is currently less than $18,000 per annum – but such distributional matters tend not to concern Tory ministers.

Some of the report’s recommendations are obvious, including restricting doctors from prescribing antibiotics until they have confirmed with tests that they are actually required. Others are conspicuous by their absence and reflect the prejudices of the government of which Lord O’Neill is a member. These include the need to block TTIP so that US factory farming methods dependent on intensive antibiotic use are not forced on us when this agreement with the  EU is signed. Leaving the EU is the best, possibly only, way of stopping TTIP  – what a shame that the official Brexit Campaign, dominated as it is by right wing Tories, is so reluctant to point this out.

The report concludes that remedial action can be financed from existing NHS budgets. That will generate a huge sigh of relief from a government unwilling to provide an adequate level of funding for even current services. It depends, however, on the assumption that the drug companies can be made to pay. The key recommendation is a new settlement with Big Pharma, a so-called ‘pay and play’ requirement: pay for the investment in new antibiotics and inoculation in exchange for continuing their privileged position as monopoloy suppliers to governments. Given Big Pharma’s record of dodging taxes and ripping off governments, this has all the prospects of a snow ball in hell. The knee jerk reaction from the trade body the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry was, as would be expected,  immediate rejection.

Big Pharma is the epitome of capitalism and the illusion that if we give the rich and powerful everything they want, the welfare of everyone else will be enhanced. The truth is that, as with global warming, international, profit driven enterprises cannot be trusted with the fate of humanity. They will always put the interests of the elites who own them or feed off them as managers first. They must be cut down to size, stripped of their monopolies and, in the case of Big Pharma,  replaced with democratically controlled research institutes. If the impoverished Cubans can do it, so can we!

Meeting the challenge

For an excellent report on and pictures of the Croydon May Day march and rally at Ruskin House last Saturday, you can do no better than see this report on the Sangha Kommune website. I was within earshot of the author of the report when he had his reported encounter with the passer by who, on seeing the hammer and sickle flag, declared that we were “forty years too late” and challenged us to provide an example of where communism had been successfully implemented.

There is not a lot one can do in such situations other than respond with confidence and good humour. This the comrade did with much skill and courtesy. Marches and street demos are not ideal situations for educating and persuading confrontational members of the public who have swallowed the anti-communist propaganda that permeates capitalist society. Of course, we could have pointed out that, without the attempt to build socialism in the USSR, we would have lost the Second World War and he and his family would not be around to challenge us. One could also point to the considerable achievements of Cuba where, by prioritising health and education, life for ordinary people is far better than it is for ordinary people in other developing countries. Finally, one could counsel caution about writing off too soon China’s attempt to build socialism. Of course China faces problems, but we should not let the distorted reporting in our mass media persuade us that China has given up on building socialism. China is taking its own, long term path, and we wish them well. As Marxists, it is, however, our critique of capitalism and our understanding that it is a historical phase that will eventually collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions (and the shove we will give it at the right moment) that leads us to believe that we can and must build something better and more permanent before the capitalists destroy the world.

For a more comprehensive statement of the Case for Communism, try the CP pamphlet of the same name by John Foster, available from the CP shop for £2 plus 50 pence postage. He puts it much better than I can.

The Property Ladder

Walking around Croydon it’s obvious that there are a lot of home extensions being built by owner occupiers. This is hardly surprising. Homes are seen by owner occupiers as a form of saving – often their primary form – and a recent report by LSE Professor Paul Cheshire forecasts that house prices will double by 2030. This would represent a tax free return on investment of 4.6 per cent a year. It could be even higher: according to the Office of National Statistics house prices have grown on average by 8.75% per annum over the past 47 years. That is much higher than the return on bank deposits and comparable with long run returns on equity investment – especially so as tax is paid on interest, dividends and capital gains on shares but not on your primary home.

Many extensions have the effect of shifting what in many cases would be affordable homes for first time buyers into a more expensive category. They do, however, represent a great investment opportunity for owner occupiers already fortunate enough to be on the so called ‘property ladder’. Not only will the new investment increase in value in line with the original investment but there is also an immediate tax free capital gain to be enjoyed. As rule of thumb, it’s generally thought that £20,000 of building work, providing it’s not totally unsuitable, should add more than £50,000 in property value.

What’s going on here? There are a number of economic and socio-political forces at play. First, we need to ask what is the source of this exceptional high return to owner occupiers. The answer is straightforward: it is a transfer from those who don’t own homes to those who do. Many in the fortunate latter group think it’s an entitlement justified by their hard work paying off their mortgage and they have a right to pass it on to their kids. The fact that these kids may themselves be unable to get on the “property ladder”, or, on the other hand, may already be much better off than those without homes is overlooked. Also overlooked is the risk that predatory care home operators lie in wait for owner occupiers with every intention of appropriating the bulk of their investment. There is also the consideration that banks do very nicely in providing mortgage finance. Banks are essential to modern capitalism and, as the government’s austerity programme demonstrates, nothing must stand in the way of their profits.

Another interesting question is what is the source of the capital gain when an extension is built. According to neo-classical economic theory – the type they teach in universities, award Nobel Prizes for and regurgitate on the BBC and in the capitalist press – market should respond to eliminate all such predictable gains. They call this ‘arbitrage theory’. Marxist economist, on the other hand, recognise that building workers, like every other worker in productive industries, sell their labour for less than the value it creates. It’s this surplus value that accounts for the average capital gain on building extensions. If building workers were to received the full value of the labour power they sold to owner occupiers, on average there would be no capital gain from building extensions. But then if all workers could do this, capitalism would grind to a halt nd we would be forced to begin constructing a socialist society in which, initially, operate on the principle of from each according to their means to each according to their work*.

The underlying issue here is that, according to neo-classical economic theory, value is created when a commodity (including a house) is sold, or merely revalued in a market. Value is created out of thin air in the form of a “consumer surplus” because the seller and buyer have different subjective valuations. Marxist economists, on the other hand, take a more objective view. They consider that value cannot, on average, be created by exchange or shifting market prices. Exchange is a zero sum game – the buyer’s gain is the seller’s loss and vice versa. These are two fundamentally different ways of looking at how markets work in capitalist societies. It’s a theme we hope to explore when the Communist University in South London is relaunched shortly. Watch this space for news of this development.

* Only under a fully developed communist society would we attain the position of to each according to their need

TRUMBO

It’s very rare for any film to show communists in a sympathetic light. The excellent Trumbo, currently on general release, does this. It is an excellent film and is highly recommended.

The film recounts the life of Dalton Trumbo, a celebrated screenwriter and open communist who was forced to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) about his membership of the Communist Party. Refusing to give evidence and to name fellow communists, he was jailed for 10 months and blacklisted. After release, he worked for peanuts without having his work credited while remaining loyal to his fellow communists and helping them too to survive. Almost hounded to destruction, he clings on and, in the end, his genius as a film writer is recognised and he is re-habilitated by winning an Oscar.

One scene particularly caught the attention. Aware of the anti-communist hostility mounting around the family, Trumbo’s daughter asks him, “Are you a communist?” to which he replies “Yes”. She continues “Is Mummy a communist?“ to which he replies “No”. Finally she asks “Am I a communist?” to which he responds with a question:

 

“If you see a fellow classmate at school who doesn’t have anything to eat, what do you do? Do you ignore him, or perhaps do you offer him a loan at 6% to buy some food?” She responds “I would share my lunch with him.” Trumbo smiles at her and says “Then you’re a communist”.

 

It’s very rare indeed for any film, especially a Hollywood film, to put the communist case so succinctly. Such a film can expect to attract plenty of criticism in the capitalist press. This film is no exception. According to the film critic in the Guardian, it “fails to challenge Trumbo’s unrepentant communism”. True: it celebrates it. Other critics have tried to undermine the film for technical reasons such as the supposed dominance and integrity of the central character, Dalton Trumbo. The despicable Economist magazine even tries to argue that Trumbo, while working twelve hours a day to survive by producing anonymous scripts for peanuts, was doing rather well out of his blacklisting. For them working people should apparently be grateful for whatever crumbs fall from the table of the rich and powerful.

The quality as well as the politics of this film are nevertheless undeniable. Bryan Cranston has been nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Dalton Trumbo and it’s well deserved. Ignore the negative comments and don’t miss this film.