I am a communist. You might call me a Marxist, a socialist, an eco-socialist, a radical, a revolutionary, a Trotskyist or number of other names, but I prefer ‘communist’. Though I am not a Communist. However, while rejecting utterly the Stalinist aberration, it is not possible to also erase that legacy. Including what might have been inherent in the Bolshevik experience that allowed for the part of the bureaucracy, including Stalin, to emerge from its ranks. It has to be embraced and subjected to context and critique in order that we might understand it with the imperative of avoiding such future cataclysms, so profoundly criminal and obfuscatory.
‘Communism’, nowhere in the entire canon, practice and traditions that armed the working class movement in the decades before the Soviet experiment, those same traditions that helped guide the Russian working class in forging that revolution, could have been taken to mean anything like the Stalinist nightmare that came. Stalinism, in too many ways, became the antithesis to the vision which made the revolution. So I remain a communist without contradiction. It is in Stalinism that contradiction, grotesque contradiction, is held.
The date of the fall, of the degeneration, is entirely secondary for it was a process that began as soon as the Russian revolution found itself starving and alone in the world. And further back, a revolution whose roots were burrowed deep into a base and backward, absolutist feudal past. No one, not one person, with a genuine understanding of the communism of Marx (or indeed of Lenin), could dare describe the Gulag State as communism without first redefining the term until it lost all its emancipatory and historical meaning, all its theoretical and analytical foundation. It is for those very meanings, those foundations that I find it impossible to not embrace the term for myself. I am a communist.
And speaking of losing all meaning, what could it possibly mean to call oneself a ‘socialist’, a term deemed more approachable, when Tony Blair, in a fit of nostalgia or guilt or whatever, might call himself one as well. In deed the entire, disastrous, neo-liberal agenda has been implemented by so-called Socialist parties. Even at these parties’ best (many years ago now) when ‘socialism’ meant the capitalist state taking ownership of capitalist enterprises then not only am I not a socialist, I am, in a sense, an anti-‘socialist’. When a serial rapist like (recent) International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss Kahn; a rapist of women, of resources, of workers, of whole nations is a leading member (and possible Presidential candidate still) of a ‘Socialist Party’ then shouldn’t our movement be as resistant in confusing our vision by calling ourselves socialists as we are resistant in calling ourselves communists because of Stalinist ignominy?
But isn’t this is just as true of words like ‘democracy’ (what, pray tell, does THAT mean anymore?) or ‘feminism’ or ‘environmentalism’ or any other term that I positively use all of the time. It is no accident, however, that each of those words has been positively appropriated by the ruling classes for their own ends (even as we struggle to appropriate them for ours), but the term ‘communism’ (with a good deal of assistance from the Stalinist debacle) has only been vilified and damned. It is because that word, in its essence, cannot belong to them. They cannot appropriate it, for it would stick in their throats and choke them to death. So it is ours, let us treat it so.
We can not escape words, each of which have their own history, any more than we can escape history. Part of our task is to rescue definitions made wrong; to define, in our own terms, the tasks and vision of our project and use the words most fitting to illuminate the goal and the practice. There was a reason, as opposed to other trends in the movement of workers and the oppressed, that the progenitors of our movement, the one that still lives and still breathes despite all, despite everything, called themselves ‘communists’. It is thoroughly modern as it looks to the horizon; it posits the foundations of the future in the capitalist present at the same time it proudly inherits a tradition of the commons, of the egalitarian impulse and the deeply social needs our species have displayed so consistently and in such variety that it might rightly be said to be a part, a core, of our human nature.
‘Communism’ as envisioned and, in the past and in different form, lived, has no need for state or coercion or institutions vested with power standing apart of the whole. It is a ‘free association’ where in which ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’ or it is nothing. It is classless and produces only use values. Its wealth is defined by the satisfaction of needs, and those needs are defined by a people free of commodity, of commodification and in cooperation with, not antagonism to, the natural world of which we are a part and now apart. The natural world which is required for us to live.
I recognize that anything we say about ourselves and what we propose requires explanation, requires us to wash away the muck our enemies, and ourselves, have covered our project and our ideas with over these many years of struggle. That we have to choose our words carefully and that we must be creative in responding to the subjectivity of folks, we must meet them where they are now; we can’t use words that confuse rather than make clear and for that reason I do not walk around talking about ‘communism’ as part of my real-world political practice.
If, however, we allow the ruling class to invest the language we use with their fears and prejudices, with their hollow truths, then they have won already. Language is the greatest of all social institutions; it is the medium in which ideas travel and action organized, it is not neutral and our role in the waging of the class war is, in part, to wage a war to (re)appropriate language that elucidates and to expropriate the words that have been made obscure, an obscurity which hides their true history, as they are spoken through the ruling class. In doing so our history is lost, through the words used to understand it, to the whims of the enemy. If we are ever to win the battle, or even effectively engage it, we must win the words we use to define our struggle. It is an essential component in that most precious, for the survival of our species, of processes; that process by which the working class is transformed from a class ‘of itself’ into a class ‘for itself’.
To pose an alternative that might capture the imagination of masses of folks it is necessary to name that alternative and to place its realization in the transformation of the present and not in the faith of an idealized future. However, that transformation, both its beginnings and its outcomes, is only made real by a vision; a goal worthy of the terrible cost liberation entails. And for this we revolutionaries, as communists, ‘disdain to conceal [our] views and aims. [We] openly declare that [our] ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution.’
To win that world the working class must also win on the field of language, which is essential if we are to win on the field of ideas and of ideology. With clarity and the legitimate audacity history, when deeply absorbed and understood by the best of working class combatants and the communities of struggle they lead, affords us we can remake words into weapons and refound ideas as the power to wield those weapons. We must do so without jargon or dogmatism or sentimental fealty to moribund traditions, but we must do so. In so doing we take power into our own hands, the power of ideas and the power to communicate those ideas. And, in my opinion, that is one giant step on the path to communism, or at least to a revolution which might make communism a possibility many years after all of us are gone. And yes I am, proudly, a communist.
Lev …thank you for your input……I’m merely referring to some of the severely misguided elements of religious persecution.. No Communism…nor socialism in their true forms stray from their true principles with regards to abuse of power…….unfortunately under the guise of wealth redistribution and policing abuse of power…..much seriously unnecessary persecution of people for simply engaging in spiritual practice and holding allegiances to adepts they regard as spiritual authorities. I would assure you if we spoke at length we have far more in common than different. I’ve worked co-operatively with Communist authorities ( indirectly) In Tibet…….The communists have initiated much good there……there is need for further dialogue and evolution of ideas I promise……..
I joined The Socialist party 20 years ago with only some rudimentary understanding of differences………I was an Athiest at the time who believed in freedom of worship. This is my primary point of division today. Love some things about the basic ‘Communist ‘ ideology and truth……support the need to dismantle corrupted clerical power structures….even taking a few hits in the process….c’est l’a vie…… Yet even as of late feel dismayed at the advocation of violence toward religious institutions and demand of clergy to resubmit monks vows with no distinction made for valued or antithetical toward Marxist principals. If the Communist world is to find a working and intelligent definition of the elements of organized religion that are contradictory to it’s objectives perhaps many of us Socialists may rejoin. At present this article sidesteps my primary point of contention. Really……no version of Communism has even a latent potential of regarding the community personnel of spiritual master/guide as part of it’s overall system. I’ll work with you until you become us ……but Mao himself And as well Lenin and Marx made no intelligent terms of inclusion. Separating from Capitalist regime is great …….Communism …..by any definition……does get down to the people who blow up churches/monasteries and kill and incarcerate clergy…..categorically…..this is one of those pre-Stalinist issues inherent in the Maoist movement or however ‘Marxists’ ‘Communists ‘ choose to define themselves. I’m a more evolved form of Athiest today called a Buddhist’ as well clergy ….I am a Lama.
Not so, Communism do not “go down” to “people who blow up churches” ant the like. Sure, this happened in Russia just after the 1917 revolution. Just as it happened in France on the aftermath of the 1789 revolution and for the same reason: priests and the clergy had riches and power and flaunted them, they lived far above the common people.
The communist point of view on religion is twofold. First, religion can not and therefore should not be used to explain the human history and struggle. This one is a general statement about all idealistic philosophies, not only religions: in communism the state of the world and its evolution are explained using dialectic materialisms.
Second, the religion is frequently abused by some man or groups of man to gain power and domain above the others, to became “more equals” than others. This should not be condoned in a marxist society. No priest, nor any other should adverse the domain of the proletariat.
facebook won’t let me post this because it’s been flagged!
There were some problems earlier, but I hoped they were sorted. I’ll check into it. Thanks for sharing the blog!
If this is a rant,keep them coming please. Couldn’t agree more!
Thanks Damien, us communists have to stick together.
When talking to people outside the movement, I tend to use both socialist and communist when talking about my politics, since I don’t really see a functional difference between the two. As a member of the Socialist Party, the term “socialist” might come more intuitively, and occasionally I get confused comments from other SP members when I identify myself as a communist, but for the most part it’s relatively easy to explain.
That said, I really identify with this rant of yours, am glad that you posted it. It also reminds me of a comment from Isreali-British socialist Moshe Machover, on the term “communist” versus “socialist,” which I think expresses a very similar sentiment:
“Originally I used the term ‘socialism’ in the title and the body of the article; but I have now changed this to ‘communism’. Let me explain why. The terms ‘communist’ and ‘communism’ have undergone a significant semantic shift since the beginning of the 21st century. For long these terms had been usurped and virtually monopolized by Stalinized ‘official communism’. For this reason, anti-Stalinist communists tended to avoid these terms as self-description and a description of the kind of society they strive for. Instead, they used terms such as ‘revolutionary socialists’ as self-description, and ‘socialism’ for their aim. (The term ‘socialism’ was also usurped by Stalinists, but they never managed to monopolize it.) However, with the collapse of ‘official communism’, there has been a growing tendency to reclaim the former terms and use them in their older sense as in the Communist Manifesto and Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme. I am happy to go along with this semantic shift and actively promote it.”
Thanks Peter. I appreciate what you say, I call myself a socialist a lot as well. As I probably didn’t make clear enough, it’s the ideas (along with their social history) not the collection of constants and vowels that make words important. There are plenty of good reasons to call oneself a socialist as well. Thanks for the Machover quote, one positive consequence of the fall of the USSR is that we can now engage Marx on his own terms with much more ease.
i agree with rustbelt radical’s last point!
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Beautiful, absolutely beautiful.
Personally, I often shy from publicly identifying as the communist, for fear of awkward encounters with people from the ex-soviet bloc. I’ve essentially surrendered the word, just like you describe. But your article makes things crystal clear, unambiguous. I will be referring back to it.
Can I have your permission to republish it on my blog, with attribution to the source, of course?
Thank you for your kind words. Appreciated. Of course you may republish. Thanks.