New Communists

An interesting critique of the ‘new Communists’ here that in part misses the point. Some observations drawn from the history of real Communism and real anti-Communism.

The new Communists evocation of the ideal of Communism seems to be an evocation of its historical memory. The danger here is of a revival of the old Trotskyist position that ended by adopting a position of critical sympathy to the  Soviet Union as the one break with the world of capital to use Perry Anderson’s phrasing. It’s an old road trod to a degree by Isaac Deutscher but most of all by Lukacs.

This Trotskyist position was an aspect of broader sensibility on part of the old left that saw advantages in existing Communism: full employment, social services, economic egalitarianism and an emphasis on ‘real’ ‘material’ production, i.e. manufacturing in contradiction to ‘unproductive’ services such as retail and advertising. Communist sympathies were most persistent among the working class. The appeal of existing Communism was in part a radicalization of old labourist themes: the fear of abundance, the belief that there is a limited amount of work to go around. This was a revival of a pre-Marxist state socialist and anti-liberal advocacy of a paternal and regulatory state, we can recall Ferdinand Lasalle or Edward Bellamy. It is a tradition that recalls non-Marxist critiques of capitalism as characterized by alienation and impersonality (I draw here on Goran Therborn).  In a recent qualitative examination of Australian popular political culture one old left respondent looked back with sympathy to his days in the army as a time of fair rewards and labour for the common good.  This politics is indifferent to economic growth. Even if such a model were capable of functioning without high levels of political repression it would simply fail to be attractive compared to developed capitalism. Perhaps some examples of late Communism, such as 1980s Hungary or contemporary Cuba approximated to this model. But Hungarians rejected Communism and Cuban voters will do the same when they have the opportunity.

The characteristic features of Communist economies: overinvestment, a chronic shortage economy which has as its consequence full employment, and as an inevitable consequence a state-controlled trade union movement to prevent the inflationary wage-price spiral that would otherwise emerge were dissected by many economists in the last years of Communism and the first of post-Communism: Janos Kornai, Nigel Swain and Michael Ellman.  There’s no sign that any ‘new Communists’ have addressed this.

Arguments against Communism often cite the Stalin experience. The problem here is that high Stalinism covered only a limited part of Soviet history. The danger is not that the new Communism is a return to the Gulag but that it offers nothing more than a return to the Soviet Union circa 1980. Frequently social democratic and liberal critics of Communism were guilty of bad faith; they accused Communists of privileging noble ends over criminal means. They always made exceptions for their violence. The rapid decay of liberal institutions that has accompanied the war on terror is an example. The legal system that has emerged combines elements of repressive authoritarianism with legal forms and the later are not merely an illusion. Even during the Stalin era legality and bureaucracy coexisted with unrestrained force. The Soviet experience provides many sound anti-Communist lessons but it also provides lessons for anti-Communists. Both sides can be guilty of what Max Weber identified as a characteristic mode of political dishonesty: where pragmatic means are claimed to absolute ends. As a rule someone who denounces ‘moral relativism’ is likely to be an apologist for torture, indeed many on the right apply the label of ’moral equivalence’ or ‘moral vanity’ to anyone who criticizes the conduct of ‘their’ side.

The ‘new Communists’ evocation of the spirit of Lenin’s model of politics as war has value but it is so entangled with nostalgia for the specifics of Leninism as to be counterproductive. Weber’s call to an ethics of responsibility or even Carl Schmitt might have more to offer here.

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