A Practical Communism for the 21st Century

What would a practical communism look like for the 21st century?

By Luke DaviesFebruary 13, 2014

    A Practical Communism for the 21st Century

    The Oxford Handbook of the History of Communism by Stephen Anthony Smith. Oxford University Press. 672 pages.

    TO WHAT CAN WE ATTRIBUTE the modern-day failures of communism? Can this ideology ever be dissociated from the associations which classically torpedo it, such as authoritarianism on the one hand and pro-capitalist propaganda on the other? The Oxford Handbook of the History of Communism — a majestic 600-page collection of essays that examine the impact of communism upon the 20th century — arrives at a timely moment when these questions are being taken seriously in many circles around the world. In particular, the “Idea of Communism” conferences — held over the past few years in London, Berlin, New York, and most recently, South Korea — have aroused both critical and popular interest, and spawned a host of radically minded publications from prominent thinkers including Alain Badiou's The Communist Hypothesis, Bruno Bosteel's The Actuality of Communism, and the two Idea of Communism collections edited by Slavoj Žižek, containing submissions by Étienne Balibar, Jacques Rancière, Jean Luc-Nancy, Antonio Negri, and Terry Eagleton.

    Authoritarianism and communism have been married in the popular imagination of Western societies for over a century. It is not so easy to dismiss such associations in order to have a serious conversation about the potential efficacy of communist thought. Badiou, a central player in the effort to revive such a conversation, has made clear he recognizes “the undeniably terroristic nature of the first effort to embody [communism] in a state.” The intellectual project he and others have begun, he claims, concerns the redevelopment of a radical, anti-capitalist, and disciplined alternative to 20th century communist practices and the way certain regimes implemented them, often with indiscriminate brutality. In the Handbook, Daniel Leese seems sceptical of such an effort. He references Badiou in his essay “The Cult of Personality And Symbolic Politics”, in which he argues that “cults are indissociable from closed societies and a great deal of violence and fear.” Following on from this analysis, Leese links Badiou to “recent attempts to reclaim the existence of political genius” and expresses his own “great scepticism” about whether radical ideology can be dissociable from authoritarian, even terroristic, paradigms (citing North Korea as an example). This, of course, reflects the very inability to dissociate radical ideology from terror that Badiou and others are seeking to rectify.

    The 35 essays collected here — featuring contributors such as Susan Brownell, Allison Drew, Jean-François Fayet, and Mark Harrison — cover a wide range of topics, from communism in Africa and the Islamic World to the role of sport within communist society. The general focus is upon the global perspective and more specifically communist states, thereby excluding all extra-governmental communist struggles.

    Stephen Anthony Smith, the collection's editor, in attempting to measure the current state of communism, makes a number of interesting observations. He notes that with the exception of East Germany and Czechoslovakia, communism developed in agrarian countries “where agriculture was technically backward” and “where poverty was endemic.” We also learn that, again with the exception of Czechoslovakia, communism developed “in societies that had no traditions of representative democracy, civil liberties, or rule of law,” so that it often came to represent “a continuation of deep-rooted patterns of authoritarian government.” Given the volatility of the areas involved, Smith observes that communism was most often established through conflict. He cites Russia, China, Vietnam, and Korea as examples of countries where, “If one is looking for a single overwhelming cause of communist revolution, it was war.” The same view is repeated throughout the collection. In his essay on Eastern Europe, Pavel Kolář describes “changes of borders, the devastation caused by war, genocide and forced migration as a consequence of the imperial politics” that beset this region and that “played an essential role in the establishment of communist regimes.” Communism emerges here as an ideology that developed in impoverished, undemocratic, underdeveloped, and conflict-riven areas. Successful revolutions, Smith writes, developed “in Russia, China, Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Cuba and Nicaragua were rooted in economic backwardness, deep-rooted social inequalities, political repression or colonial domination.”

    Paresh Chattopadhyay returns to the writings of Marx and Engels, the seminal authors of communist theory. In his re-examination of the theory, he clarifies how far removed the conditions in these countries were from those that Marx had previously outlined. Chattopadhyay lays out Marx’s theory that communism could only arise “out of the internal contradictions of capitalism itself and as the outcome of a self-emancipatory proletarian revolution.” Marx insisted on the need for capitalism to create “the material and subjective conditions of its negation and, simultaneously, the elements of the new society that is destined to supersede it.” The condition of the countries in which communism was actually implemented during the 20th century had little to do with capitalism. Instead, these were pre-capitalist states overrun by hardship and war, completely lacking the means to support the ideology they fought to implement. Marx himself made a series of depressingly accurate predictions if the “necessary practical presupposition” were not set in place prior to the revolution: without capitalism as a forerunner, he wrote, “only shortage will be generalised and there will be a return to struggle around necessities and with it, a return to the old misery.”

    This far-reaching collection does have its flaws. The omission of any analysis of non-state communist movements is worrying. Especially disappointing is its failure to address communist activity in capitalist countries with the advanced infrastructure necessary to support communism. If, as this study would seem to suggest, communism was only able to rise out of adversity — propagated by conflict, factionalism, and poverty — then the various examples of state communism presented here are hardly reflective of the theory itself. Rajani Palme Dutt, John Strachey, Harold Laski, Wal Hannington, J.B.S. Haldane, and other prominent theorists and activists have argued for communism as a means of developing capitalist production techniques along collectivist lines. Their contributions are a canny example of communist theory and practice that is actually predicated on Marx’s theories (though none of them have ever been realized). If we are considering communism as a correlative of the theories set out by Marx and others, this school of thought surely represents a key area of study. It would seem all the more important to re-examine these ideas given that communism in the United Kingdom and other capitalist strongholds did not succeed largely because of the catastrophic failure of state communism. This seems especially pertinent given the suggestion that this failure was for reasons that delegitimize these very states as communist prototypes. Excluding independent communist thought and activity means that we only get half of the picture — the grimmer half, doomed from the start, and far less reflective of communism as a theory. Smith acknowledges that those looking for accounts of non-state communist activity will be disappointed, citing the history of communist practice in New Zealand and Finland as otherwise pertinent examples.

    Andrew Thorpe, James Jupp, James Eadon, and David Renton have all provided detailed studies on communist activism in the 20th century. Considering this abundance of data, analysis, and commentary, the absence of any discussion of this kind of work and thought within this collection becomes even harder to justify. Occasionally authors in the Handbook do take into account “external commentaries,” but these exceptions do little to mask the absence.

    It could be argued that this volume is so narrowly focused because state communism has had the most human impact. Smith also points out that all of the examples studied in the Handbook “subscribed to an official ideology of Marxism-Leninism.” He argues that whether or not state communist governments conformed to Marx’s proposed model, they at least attempted to follow it in the course of their development. The collection then should not be discounted. This volume can help us understand the rough model that was implemented throughout the 20th century and how it has discredited the ideology upon which it was based.

    For example, the Oxford Handbook strikingly reveals how the 20th century models of state communism tended to ape capitalism and its disciplinarian forms of governmentality. Communism seems to have taken on a “neo-traditional” pre-capitalist form, “reflecting cultural norms and practices” like “personalized rule, court politics, petitioning, and clientelism.” This pre-capitalist form perpetuated the inequality that made communist states strongly resemble capitalist nations. In his essay “Privilege and Inequality in Communist Society” Donald Filtzer reinforces this sense: “One feature that the Soviet Union and the Soviet-type societies of post-war Eastern Europe shared with capitalist societies was their hierarchical social structure, where a privileged elite enjoyed material privileges and lifestyles far superior to those experienced by the ordinary population.” Like many authors in this collection, Filtzer focuses on the experiential dimension in examining this phenomenon. He explains how “money alone did not determine a family's standard of living” — inequality was just as attributable to factors like “political hierarchy, the strategic importance of the enterprise or institution for which one worked” and other, more quotidian considerations. Filtzer provides a detailed analysis that goes some way towards demonstrating how “social stratification became fully formed without the wholesale recourse to capitalism.” In other words, despite the ostensible and perverse attempts to do away with the social hierarchies of capitalist states, the actual experience of living under communism, be it Stalinist Russia or Maoist China, was very close to the experience of living amidst capitalist inequality.

    Internal government recognition of this tendency toward capitalist practices was arguably responsible for some of the most notorious purges of the 20th century. Stalin's 1937–38 terror and Mao's 1966 Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution were both developments in which “those in power taking the capitalist road” were severely punished. Communist states were split in two; they both sought to become and fought against becoming more like capitalist countries. This internal struggle could account for the massive inequality and the extreme level of violence that characterised life under communism.

    Slavoj Žižek’s thinking on the current state of communism is centred on an examination of the blatant similarities between communism and capitalism that Stalin and Mao desperately tried to suppress. Žižek suggests that this is a problem intrinsic to Marxist ideology. In his 2001 text, The Fragile Absolute, Žižek writes that “Marxian Communists” have been guilty of succumbing to “a fantasy inherent to capitalism itself” based on “this notion of a society of pure unleashed productivity.” In Capital, Marx argued that this kind of society depended on the generation of surplus value through the exploitation of the labor force. In other words, Marxian Communists couldn’t possibly expect unbridled productivity without exploiting their citizenry. Žižek proposes that we recognize that productivity depends on exploitation, which must be at odds with the dream of communism engendering undreamt-of prosperity. Envisaging an alternative model for communism, he writes: “what we need today is […] a return to the ‘critique of political economy’ that would reveal how the standard Communist project was utopian precisely insofar as it was not radical enough — in so far as, in it, the fundamental capitalist thrust of unleashed productivity survived, deprived of its concrete contradictory conditions of existence.” He argues that the challenge today is to abandon this fantasy without succumbing to some kind of “pre-modern” existence.


    There is much in Paresh Chattopadhyay's essay to refute criticism of Marx and communist theory in general. Chattopadhyay quotes Marx, who wrote about a “union” of “individuals who are neither under personal dependence, as in slavery or serfdom, nor subject to material dependence as in commodity production.” This would be a community built “on the basis of the achievements of the capitalist era.” It is crucial to Marx’s thought that this community would contrast “with capitalism's separation of individual producers from one another” and also “with the separation of producers as a whole from the conditions of production.”

    Where does Marx betray a fixation on “unleashed productivity” here? Surely, the very point is that it is leashed — chained to the interests of the workers who would utilize the machinery and advanced production methods developed through the exploitative but necessary stage in history that is capitalism. Communism would allow them finally to work for themselves. Thus, for Marx, using “human powers as an end in itself becomes the sole objective.” In this way “wealth appears as nothing but the universality of needs, of capacities, of enjoyments.” It seems that Žižek is mistaken in muddling Marxism with the state communism that followed, in which there was undoubtedly a fixation upon productivity with the resulting adoption of capitalist practices and fantasies. Žižek’s use of the word “Marxian” as opposed to “Marxist” suggests some awareness of this problem, but Chattopadhyay’s essay shows that it still needs further clarification.

    Why did state communism in the 20th century inherit the capitalist fantasy of unbridled productivity? The answer may lie partly in this volume’s examination of the unsuitability of the countries that eventually turned to communism. This kind of scrutiny only reinforces Marx’s suggestion that communism would fail if implemented in underdeveloped countries. As Marx predicted, states lacking the necessary productivist infrastructure would have very little to share, and a collectivist means of production would be pointless. Under these conditions, it was inevitable that the states that adopted communism should regress (or perhaps more accurately, progress) to capitalism — hence the repeal of collectivization and the gradual privatization of lands that followed. Eastern Europe in the mid-century provides a useful case study of this process. Hungary began to allow private farming in the late 1940s; Yugoslavia began agricultural reform in 1952, and in Poland, land was handed back to small farmers after 1957. Taken within this light, Kruschev’s partial de-Stalinization seems inevitable.

    The analysis of economic policies and capitalist leanings that this collection offers only strengthens my initial reservations about this volume. State communism limits the scope too much because it simply doesn’t configure with the proposals Marx outlined. State communism reveals itself instead as an unfortunate deviation en route to the advanced production techniques of capitalism, inflected with communist discourse but far removed from the actual theoretical model. This in turn, reflects upon the ideas of theorists like Žižek when they suggest the need for a new model that is radical enough to decline “fundamental capitalist thrust of unleashed productivity” and thus manage to steer clear of the dangers of 20th century state communism. This collection of essays indicates that Žižek’s wariness of the implied contradictions within Marxist theory is more attributable to the practice of communism in the 20th century rather than Marx’s thought. Chattopadhyay's essay serves as a useful barometer as far as this tension is concerned. Žižek actually seems to be in accord with Marx, who argued that the real need was to abandon the goal-oriented logic of capital and enable “human powers” to perform “as an end in itself.” In other words, there was cause for even greater misery if the exploitative component of capitalism surfaced in unprepared communist states. However, that element could only be abandoned if revolutionary subjects used the capabilities that they had developed under capitalism, albeit along more egalitarian lines.

    We can look to the Oxford Handbook for an implicit answer to those theorists who have recently been debating the need to reclaim a radical alternative to liberal democracy in light of the recent financial crisis, the Arab Spring, and the ever expanding gap between rich and poor: perhaps Marxist communism doesn't need to be reinvented so much as revived?


    Luke Davies is a doctoral candidate in the English department at University College London. He reviews for the Times Literary Supplement, Review 31, and The Literateur.

    LARB Contributor

    Luke Davies is a doctoral candidate in the English department at University College London. He reviews for the Times Literary Supplement, Review 31, and The Literateur.


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