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.

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Keeping focussed on Global Warming

Averaged as a whole, the global temperature across land surfaces for June 2016 was 1.24°C (2.23°F) above the 20th century average—tying with 2015 as the highest June temperature in the 1880–2016 record See source. In June the CO2 level reached an all-time high of 404.48 ppm. That compares with 381.82 in July 2006 and peaks of only 300 ppm in the last 400,000 years. See source.

The government’s response was to scrap the Department of Climate Change. Climate change is now the “responsibility” of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and will have no one in Cabinet to make the case for action to oppose it. If problems went away by ignoring them, this would be a masterstroke. Unfortunately, they don’t and it isn’t.

There is also a danger that, in the heat of battle over getting Jeremy Corbyn re-elected as Labour Party Leader, the Left, and even the Communist Party, could also lose sight of this issue. This must not be allowed to happen. Global warming may, according to Marxist theory, act as a fetter on the growth of productive forces and thereby lead to the replacement of capitalism with a higher form of social organisation, i.e. socialism, but this is not the only possible outcome. Global destruction – a Sixth Great Extinction – is another. Indeed, according to Barnosky and others Nature 2011, it has already begun, but it will only become irreversible if we allow the capitalists to ignore it.

The 54th Communist Party Congress will be held on the weekend of 19-20 November. We are currently in a pre-Congress discussion phase when members and supporters debate anything and everything on the Members and Supporters site. It’s important that we take this opportunity to keep Global Warming at the forefront of concerns.

 

 

The Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing

It was Oscar Wilde at the end of the nineteenth century who gave us the definition of a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. It’s also a good description of 21st Century capitalism. Under capitalism, human activity is increasingly commodified and traded in markets. The market is held out to be the supreme arbiter, providing the price of everything from a loaf of bread to knowledge. Markets are assumed to be ‘perfect’ in the sense that they don’t reflect the interests of individual buyers or sellers and both have perfect knowledge about the commodity being traded. Any exceptions to these conditions are considered to be infrequent, relatively trivial and capable of being remedied by regulation. To the extent to which ‘value’ has any meaning under capitalism, it is the price indicated by a ‘perfect’ market and corresponds to the sum of future benefits from owning the commodity discounted to a present value, the discount rate being the so-called cost of capital, i.e. the average return on capital.

Marxists have a different view. Under capitalism, value derives from the labour, past and present, used to create a commodity. The function of markets is simply to re-distribute this labour value according to the current demand for the commodity. Furthermore, we don’t share the idealised view of markets held by neo-classical economists, the priesthood and apologist for capitalism. Many markets are far from ‘perfect’ and one in particular, the labour market, does not begin the approach this idealised fiction. The tendency in labour markets is to drive prices down to the minimum required for labour to replicate itself. When capitalism, riven by its own contradictions, is eventually overturned and the work to build a communist society begins, the role of markets will be reduced and the economy will be run to meet the needs of those who work, including future generations, not the needs of the 1% who currently own capital.

The difference between these two world views has been brought into sharp focus this week by the reports that, according to Professor Vladimir Romanovsky of the University of Alaska, permafrost in parts of Alaska would start to thaw by 2070, resulting in the release of huge quantities of methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas and its release could trigger a huge climatic and economic catastrophe 55 years from now. For Marxists, action must be taken now to avoid this catastrophe and protect future generations of workers. Our government should therefore be pressing at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in November for solid agreement on the policies needed to keep global warming under 2 degrees centigrade by 2050 and to make our contribution to achieving this. From the capitalist perspective, however, an event 55 years in the future has little impact on current market prices. Assuming a long run average annual return on capital of 6% real, the price of such a catastrophe, the price reflected in the market, is only 4% of its eventual cost. When we factor in the market ‘imperfection’ that the 1% who trade in capital markets expect to protect themselves and their families from the coming catastrophe which will disproportionately affect the poorest and we can begin to understand why our government, and other governments across the world, won’t be too concerned if they fail to reach the required agreement in Paris in November.

Work ’til you drop? I don’t think so!

It’s worth reminding ourselves from time to time that, contrary to the establishment view, capitalism is not the permanent and definitive form of society, it is merely a transitionary phase in human development with a finite shelf life. There are a number of developments in the 21st Century that will make its survival into the 22nd highly problematical. These include:

  1. global warming and capitalism’s inability to deal with the cause – society’s dependence on fossil fuels;
  2. as predicted by Marxist economic theory (and largely ignored by non-Marxists), increasingly severe economic crises due to the over-accumulation of capital and a long-term tendency for the rate of profit to decline;
  3. increasing inequality and the failure of more humane variants of capitalism such as the Swedish social democratic model to survive; and
  4. demographics.

The last item is frequently overlooked. Growing world population clearly represents a threat to humanity’s survival but the greater threat to capitalism’s survival may come from its relative success in extending the average life of ordinary working people – assuming that is that the profits driven pharmaceutical industry doesn’t botch its response to the next pandemic or the equally profit greedy food manufacturers don’t kill us with obesity and diabetes generating food. Data published last week by the Office for National Statistics predict that a girl born between 2010 and 2012 can now expect to live until 82.8 while a boy is expected to live until 79. The previous predictions in 2005 were 80.6 and 76 respectively. The immediate response from the so-called pension ‘industry’ was that the state pension age will have to rise much faster than currently anticipated by the government “almost inevitably reaching at least 70 by the middle of the century”. Their motive, of course, is the huge profits they make peddling ‘personal pensions’, but there can be little doubt that the government will comply with their wishes.

What are we to make of this? By the middle of the century capitalism will have created an immensely wealthy 1% who own practically everything (where we live, the land beneath our feet, the services on which we rely) and who, apart from an ambitious, competitive minority, will neither wish nor have to work. For the remaining 99%, we will be required to work (or claim survival level ‘benefits’) well beyond any age at which we might be considered competent. Nonagenarian bus drivers? I don’t think so. Old people on jobseekers allowance? Much more likely!

The alternative is, of course, socialism which, in its fully developed form, has been described by Marx as from each according to their means, to each according to their need. While it will become immensely attractive to the exploited majority, it won’t, however, happen by itself. It will take organisation and effort. That’s where we in the Croydon CP and socialists and communists across the county and worldwide come in.

The economics of science

by Peter Horah

This article offers the reader a wide perspective to challenge and provoke discussion on the influences and drivers of science in the 21st Century and how we have become dependent on a capitalist model to develop technology and improve the lives of people.

Scientific discoveries made since the beginning of the 20th century have been astonishing but we must be cautious at the idea that individuals or a scientific community generously devoting their time and personal resources for the pursuit of knowledge for the general wellbeing of mankind. There invariably been a “sponsor” and in such relationships, an expectation of reward from the customer for access to large amounts of money.

We also have to discard the romantic vision of individual polymaths beavering away in a hidden laboratory. Most scientific activity takes place within walled institutions using expensive machinery and these institutions will select the most able to contribute and participate in a “project”: the modern language for experiments and research.

For most “ordinary” working men and women, the activities of the scientific industry (no longer a community) is judged on the latest available and affordable gadgets (washing machine1, TV, car, smartphone) or medical choices in combatting human-created diseases (obesity, diabetes, recreational drug use).

Science has become an integral part of consumerism.

What is science for?

Asking such a question to the 21st Century, western, face-book addicted teenager; you are likely to be rewarded with the answer: “whatever!”

This is not to suggest that we should conclude that the answer is inadequate or even rude as it succinctly summarises both polarities in the discussion.

On the one hand, it demonstrates “success” in that we have a new generation of young people having access to information at enormous speeds and gives opportunities for learning and communicating in new languages. The ICT smart-phone generation have more chances now than at any time in the past to be who they want to be – providing you have the parents who can afford to maintain their virtual lifestyles.

However, it also demonstrates failure as it stratifies society and exposes the IT divide between the ones who can afford access to the technology and the others who either cannot afford or are not able to understand it.

The rise of “popular science” on TV and in the media hasn’t curbed the enthusiasm of romantics who might have a vision of a better world and maintain an optimistic hope that things will be fixed as “science” either finds “a solution to all the pollution” or creates a “military laser in space so the ozone heels in a week”8

We have come to rely on capitalist science to solve problems and put right the mistakes that we may have made in our private lives from liver transplants from alcohol abuse to prosthetic limbs from causalities in war and peace.

So, is the purpose of Science about the free pursuit of knowledge of natural things that make the world work so that we can live full and happy lives? Or could it simply be the activities of a powerful and clever elite who push the boundaries to develop products and resources that can then be sold?

Let’s briefly consider how science is shaped by three main drivers in economics: multinationals, governments and the media.

 

Science and the multinationals

Any discussion on science and economics has to consider the role of multinationals in raising capital and to invest in science for a profit.

As science has become more complex and less reliant on individuals to fund individual research; it has become the domain of large multinational organisations to use science for the development of products.

Science can be seen to be participating within the scope of the user, exchange and value triangle explaining that “science” has become a commodity and exchangeable4.

This relationship has affected learning organisations like universities as Corporations have influenced and taken over research departments. This has ultimately resulted in influencing teaching and the choices of courses by limiting the scope of what can be learnt and narrowing the focus of what is researched5.

This matters particularly when we consider the ownership of knowledge. Patents and controls on intellectual capital can create perverse situations where antiretroviral drugs or agriculture seeds are supplied by monopolies. Such organisations, we can be reassured; will have grand statements on corporate social responsibility but some of questionable outcomes from the overall global, capitalist strategy.

There is, of course, a dilemma here since if you have a life threatening illness like HIV; you are not going to care who owns the patents that will help you to live longer providing the drugs are available and affordable.

 

Science and governments

Governments have been eager to exploit science and scientists for their own ends: whether in developing new forms of energy or hideous weapons of mass destruction.

Governments should work on behalf of people and communities but it has had a lamentable history in delivering benefits to their citizens: particularly in developing and autocratic regimes.

There have been enthusiasts to harness “white heat”6 technology and in medical health, organisation and delivery has had greater success than specific research on diseases like cancer. There is still a heavy reliance on charities to raise funds for research and whilst survival rates have improved, it has been a slow process with many casualties on the journey.

We might forgive governments in times of austerity to focus on the most valuable and need: but you really have to question why they choose to spend huge resources on military hardware and supporting the arms industry. It is a perverse use of science and scientists.

 

Science and the media

Popular science is now clearly labelled in bookshops along with all the other compartmentalised, branded and targeted reading choices. The development of radio, television and the personal computer has allowed access to science to a mass audience and anyone can now search on the internet for scientific knowledge.

Science has also developed its own celebrities: Patrick Moore and the late Professor Jacob Bronowski brought science into people’s living room in the late 20th Century whilst Professor Brian Cox now charms a new generation of want-to-knows with a delightful Mancurian charm.

Science publications like New Scientist and Nature have also played a valuable role in scientific discourse and engaged with amateurs and academics.

All of which is great– and we need more of it! The challenge is that science programmes are in competition with hour upon hour of soap operas and celebrity shows. The market interferes with the opportunity of giving people quality choice and we are left with the options of a multitude of TV channels but with very few programmes worth watching!

The internet provides an alternative way to engage with science – and it is astonishing how much information is freely available. The NASA9 website, for example, is exemplary in the available material and it offers an exciting way to learn.

However, one of curious paradoxes of the internet has been the huge demand for pornography that has developed a multi-million pound industry9. Rather than enlightening people, it is atomising and stratifying3, in a way that Marx could never have imagined.

 

Conclusion

“If the theory doesn’t work, it must be wrong!”2 The study and practice of science demands a disciplined and investigative approach to test ideas and consider alternative reasons.

Within the context of human discourse on religion, Marx suggests that conflict or religious opposition will give-way to critical, scientific relationships where science will constitute a unity for man and discourse within this framework will be resolved by science7. But, one of the curiosities in recent years is the return of popular religion which is now being accepted in schools risking Marx’s vision.

Therefore, science needs to be maintained as way of understanding and learning. It is a skill worth having as it empowers the thinker to consider all perspectives and be cautious at human emotion and unproven ideas. We cannot, of course, jettison emotion and expect to behave like computers – but a new-age of enlightenment is needed to counter the mumbo-jumbo culture that dumbs-down politics to an X-factor style competition and advocates authority from religion.

The failure of the economics of science and scientists is that it has allowed itself to become servants of capitalism rather than the other way around. The demands for science to access resources (capital, skilled labour) risks a Faustian pact with private enterprise where compromises have to be made.

Science and scientists have enjoyed patronage from nation states as well as from private companies and this discourse is not suggesting that technology could have worked better in the past if it had been only a state centric approach to research and development. But, there is no place for ambitious maverick lefties in modern 21st Century universities that behave like multi-national corporations: seeking customers to pay for the privilege to learn from the knowing. Academics have to be business managers as well as free thinkers.

This paper has attempted to highlight both the opportunities and risks in the science and economics mix. The role of socialists in this debate is not determined. We can criticise the market and how it distorts or influences the profane – but we have to mindful that intellectual freedom is essential for science and scientists: even if we are uncomfortable where that thought can take people.

References:

1. Chang, Ha-Joon (2010 ) “23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism”, Penguin

2. Feynman, R ( 1995) “Six easy pieces”, The Fundamentals of Physics Explained, Penguin

3. Fromm, E (1987) “To have or to be?”, Picador

4. Harvey, D (2010) “A companion to Marx’s Capital”, Verso

5. Monbiot, G (2000) “The Captive State”, Pan

6. Pimlott, B (1992) “Harold Wilson”, Harper Collins

7. Tucker, R (1978) “The Marx-Engels Reader”, Norton

8. Robinson, T “Fifty” (1994) Love Over Rage [accessed Friday, 3rd February 2012]

9. Cochrane, K, The Guardian, (25th October 2010)

The men who believe porn is wrong | Culture | The Guardian

[accessed Friday, 3rd February 2012]

10. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, (2012) NASA – Home [accessed Friday, 3rd February 2012]