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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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.

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.