Communism and history

Thinking of of writing a book on the modest topic of the past and future of socialist politics. Much Australian left commentary sees the history of socialism as irrelevant, in particular the Communist movement is either an embarrassment or else the product of malign individuals. Yet we can have good reasons for making wrong decisions, and western Communism sometimes fitted this description, one of the strengths of Geoff Eley’s Forging Democracy is that it recognizes European Communism as part of the European left. Norman Geras argues that:

Paradoxical as it may appear to some, the existence of the USSR and its Marxist pedigree—however narrowed, distorted, and traduced—linked the Marxist and Marxist-influenced Western left to the notion of working-class agency as crucial to their politics, and thereby linked it, also, to democratic principles and forms of action. The link was strengthened by the practice of alliance with other democratically minded constituencies. Working-class agency was, of course, one of the crucial problems that Marxism yielded to its followers and to the broader body of opinion that it influenced. It was a problem because the working class in the developed capitalist countries failed to play the revolutionary role allotted to it. Be this as it may, the idea of the working class, and the political traditions of the working class in the Western democracies, had provided the Marxist-influenced new left with a kind of anchorage. The transformations in the East after 1989, quickening the decline of Marxism’s reputation as a political credo, seem not only to have liberated part of this section of the left from a rightly discredited model of socialism; it also freed many leftists from the demands of democratic agency that the tradition had embodied. Post-Marxist currents, brought up in the playground of postmodernism, only accentuated the free-floating tendency. Together these developments picked up on an earlier “Third Worldism” and went further with it. If the classical proletarian agent was not playing the role that it had been expected to, then other agents of opposition to Western capitalism and imperialism had to be found.

The high point of Communist politics in the west was the 1940s and the wartime Popular Front. A major work that presents American Popular Front culture in a sympathetic light is Micheal Demming’s excellent The Cultural Front. The 1940s, rather than the New Deal was the American social-democratic moment (see for example trends in income equality). An interesting interview with him in Minnesota Review:

the US working class becomes a much more significant part of the world working class in the 1930s and 1940s, partly because of the destruction of the organized working classes by fascism in Europe. In some ways, the US working class has a disproportionate world position once the German working class is smashed by Hitler and once the Italian working class is smashed by Mussolini. So the notion of the laboring of American culture, and the subsequent destruction of that laborist culture, particularly in the 1980s under Reagan, is an important historical argument that I would stand by…I remember one person I interviewed said to me, “I have to apologize for this, because I’ve been a pacifist all my life, but the war years were the most exciting years. We really felt like we were on the verge of creating a new world, and that after the war there was going to be this new world. It really wasn’t until 1947-48, when the Cold War comes in, that it really became bleak.”

One thought on “Communism and history

  1. [...] This annoyance inspired Micheal Costa’s book of 1991 Labor, prosperity and the nineties in which he seeemd to argue that the Accord was too far removed from economic liberalism whereas Peter Sams and John MacBean seemed closer to an old labourist position (an interesting response to Costa was Politics and the Accord). Now we have Julia Gillard as PM like Bob Hawke a former Victorian left-winger now on the right, the Victorian Labor government is travelling reasonably in the polls given its age and NSW Labor once the beacon of pragmatic labourist political success is in an unbelievable mess. No wonder Bob Carr is so unhappy! On Communism generally Norman Geras: [...]

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