On July 16, Novara Media conducted an interesting debate titled “Communism vs Socialism” with Ash Sarkar making (a poor) case for communism and Owen Jones making a brilliant case for socialism. You can watch the debate in full online, but I have transcribed some of the highlights of Jones’ argument below:
The Original Struggle for Socialism
“For me this debate is about can we reclaim a vision of a stateless, classless society, of material abundance, of cooperation, of liberation from wage slavery, of alienation from labour which is at the heart of the modern capitalist system….
“That is a society which we should all aspire to, and I don’t think it will happen, probably, within my lifetime, but that itself is a society that we should aspire to. And the issue is, can we reclaim [Communism] from the Stalinist gulag.
“Because what happened is obviously that the Russian Revolution of 1917, the second one, took place in a semi-feudal society with a history of Czarist despotism, which then got invaded by 21 foreign armies, and in which there was a very very small industrial proletariat, or industrial working-class — the vanguard of which got wiped out in the Civil War, which was an exceptionally brutal Civil War.
“And then you got this degeneration, because the hope of the Russian revolutionaries was that there would be a revolution in Germany — the most advanced industrialised nation certainly before the First World War — and that obviously was in Marx and Engel’s view, that the advanced industrialised countries would be ripe for revolution.
“And the Mensheviks, the other half of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, they ended up with this kind of dogmatic interpretation of Marx which then leant itself to a kind of reformism. This meant they thought they needed to go through capitalism first to develop the productive means and then we would have a mass industrial proletariat and then we could move onto socialism, so now we basically got to let capitalism do its thing.
“And then what happened was because Stalinism assumed leadership of the international official Communist movement and strangled all dissent, and because it had the prestige of being the official communist state — and it then won further prestige during the defeat of Nazism, which the Soviet Union played the preminent role. Eighty per cent of all combat deaths were on the Eastern Front. We would be conquered by the Nazis without the extraordinary sacrifice of the Soviet people during World War Two, there is no point in pretending otherwise, 27 million Soviet people died during World War Two.
“But because of that then the anti-colonial movement tried to emancipate itself from the horrors of colonialism and they were struggling against the Western colonial states, clearly obviously looked to and got material and political support from the Soviet bloc. So you have got this situation [including Maoism] where various forms of Stalinism got so much hegemonic control that the original vision of communism was just completely toxified and side-lined.
The Stalinist Roots of New Labour
“Despite all the baggage that communism particularly has because of the gulag and the murder of so many people, including the original Bolsheviks, almost the entire Bolshevik leadership was exterminated by Stalin, or exiled, but mostly murdered – because the original communist dream was at such loggerheads with what Stalinism actually represented. But what is different about Britain compared to other Western countries is that we didn’t have a mass communist movement. Italy and France obviously had mass Communist Parties: in France the Communist Party used to be the biggest party, they had been in government. Japan had even had a Communist Party which was significant, while in Britain it was more in the industrial fronts.
“In the twenties you had the Shop Stewards movement where the Communist Party played a big role. You had for example in the thirties the hunger marches in Britain during the Great Depression where the communists played a preeminent role, and from after World War Two they had that big role.
“But what’s weird about communism is a bit more complicated than that, because New Labour partly emerged from it in a weird way. So you had John Reid and Peter Mandelson were both in the Young Communist League; but Marxism Today which was the in-house theoretical journal of the Communist Party of Great Britain… a lot of the key New Labour people came out of Marxism Today.
“I reject Stalinism, but I do believe in genuine socialism, and genuine socialism means a society where you extend democracy to every sphere of life, the economy, the workplace, and politics, where you bring into democratic public ownership as much of the economy as you can. I am not a social democrat, I don’t believe in just restoring the post-war consensus which was eradicated, which has led us to the mess we are in now… it is unsustainable, you have to build a different society where you have democratic management.
“Because in the post-war social democratic consensus people didn’t have a sense of ownership, the nationalised industries felt completely remote, divorced from people, they had no say in however they were run. When Thatcher privatised them, she said ‘in what sense do you feel like this is public ownership, how do you feel as a member of the public, do you have control over energy, or water, but you could shares.’ Now obviously that shareholding was a joke…
“Take democratic public ownership: Herbert Morrison, who was Peter Mandelson’s grandfather, in the post-war government of Clement Atlee he was one of the figureheads of the Labour right and he was in charge of drawing-up what nationalisation would look like. And he basically modelled it on private corporations, so they became public corporations where workers had no real sense of participation and neither did service-users. … I believe in democratically controlled services by workers and service-users; and you can have a management board, of say the rail industry, where you have a third of those in charge of it are the state, a third are workers, and a third are passengers.”