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.

Croydon – Heart of the World Revolution?

Red Croydon
Why have I modified the classic poster Moscow – Heart of the World Revolution this week to substitute Croydon for Moscow? Well, the skyline depicted in the original does look a bit like Croydon’s, does it not? More significant, however, there were two events of some significance in our town over the weekend. On Saturday the Croydon Assembly, sponsored by Croydon TUC, held a day of speeches, workshops and discussions at Ruskin House. The day was opened by John McDonnell MP and Philipa Harvey, Vice Chair of the NUT. At lunch time it was addressed by Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of the PCS union. Thus at one meeting Croydon hosted the leading socialist parliamentarian, a rising star in the NUT and the country’s most prominent left wing trade unionist. In between there were a series of dynamic workshops on topics as diverse as how to save the NHS, democracy and trade union rights, education, climate change and welfare cuts. Most of these workshops agreed to meet again in the New Year to press on the political parties standing in Croydon at the forthcoming General Election the need for progressive reform and an end to creeping privatisation, cuts and austerity. If they want our support and our votes, they can no longer rely on the old argument Vote for us, we are the least bad option.

The other big event in Croydon over the weekend was the 53rd Congress of the Communist Party, held at friends Meeting House on Saturday and reverting to Ruskin House on Sunday. The keynote speech by General Secretary Rob Griffiths took a similar line. Mr Griffiths said that “if Labour is serious about winning the General Election” it must commit to “taking the railways, Royal Mail, gas, water and electricity back into public ownership.” Resolutions passed by Congress included commitment to step up campaigns to save the NHS and oppose discriminatory policies against the disabled.

Perhaps Croydon – Heart of the World Revolution is a little over the top, but it was a moment of optimism and hope in Croydon last weekend. Revolution? Not yet perhaps, but the fightback against the rich and powerful is just beginning.