For a lot of people, life as a student included a certain degree of flirtation with communism. There is something powerfully seductive about the promise of a utopia that essentially means your irritating boss no longer exists.
The spoken consensus is that the temptation of communism is a ubiquitous feature of one’s political learning, when issues and policies are viewed through the prism of unfiltered idealism. It’s the ideology that demands equality and frees the workers from the shackles of capitalism’s exhausting pressures.
But it’s seen as a young person’s ideology. Politics for fools and the gullible, those unexposed to the harsh realities of practical life and unaware of history when the process of implementing capitalism has been doomed to repeated failures, at the cost of millions of lives. The problem with utopia after all is it tells you what something entirely different to the current status quo is like but doesn’t deliver you a plausible roadmap for it.
For a while communism had slipped out of the political vocabulary here in the UK but has recently surfaced with a strand of the far left now entwining itself with the Labour Party, encapsulated with the rise of Novara Media, whose editors are self-declaring communists. Or as Ash Sarkar said to Piers Morgan, “I’m literally a communist you idiot.”
This has prompted a fascinating sea of articles, Twitter threads and Facebook posts about how unintelligent and uninformed young leftists. Others have sought to compare it to fascism to present the notion of communism being as unfashionable and morally vile as Nazism.
The idea that communism at its root is the same as Nazism is arguably wrong. The latter promotes violence as part of its ideological creed against minorities and anyone else it regards as cancerous strands to the society it is building based on principles of absolute authoritarianism, racial purity and uniformity. Violence is embedded within fascism whereas it exists as a likely, and devastating, product of efforts to implement communism due to the human condition. To this effect fascism and communism are both totalitarian but whereas fascism is this in theory and practice, with communism it is in practice most often.
That doesn’t imply there isn’t a naivety in the likes of Aaron Bastani and others to believe in the emancipation of the individual through the “withering away of the state” as Karl Marx predicted. Reality suggests that the movement will always require a vanguard to drive it. Someone will act as a manifestation of the people’s interests and for the sake of democracy, representatives would have to exist. They would form the state. Moreover, when faced with a pushback by dissidents, communism always reacts with crushing violence under the guise of representing the people. People are treated like sacrificial lambs for the cause, the ends justifying the means even if that includes the state-sanctioned murder of thousands. Trying to divorce the totalitarianism from the ideology would be acceptable if it only happened once. But Lenin, Stalin, Mao and others indicate that the state will always turn violent against the people it was supposed to liberate. There’s also something frustrating in how communism is edgy when delivered by a brown woman but abhorred when propagated by a white man. It’s still communism and it’s still a terrible idea.
But someone can reject communism and still understand what draws people like Ash Sarkar to it and accept excerpts of its critiques of capitalism. Society today is one of damning inequality where today’s youth is far worse off than their parents and grandparents. Low-pay, insecure jobs have flooded the labour market in Britain, be it through the gig economy or through the complete decline of trade unions and community-rooted forms of employment that made individuals feel like actual stakeholders in their society. Young people in particular have suffered hugely. Locked out of the housing ladder, forced to juggle multiple jobs, grinding through poverty all the while battling in a ferociously competitive labour market. Within this system there is resentment and apathy towards liberal democracy and a hunger for something extreme, new and different. Why after all should they express fidelity to something that hasn’t worked for them? This is partly a reason why populist politics has swept Britain, empowering both the far left and the far right. Understanding why communism has a huge drawing power is to understand how oppressive poverty and hardship can be for young people trapped in poorly-paying jobs. Capitalism preaches freedom and ambition but denies it to those whose collective energies create its wealth. Even though the answer to that isn’t communism, dismissing criticisms of globalised economic liberalism as just wishful thinking or the politics of idiots is what delivered populists today and shook the foundations of liberal centrist politics.
The tendency of some like Janan Ganesh to dismiss swings to socialism as people being “thick as pig sh**” is particularly hypocritical given these are usually the same people insisting we talk to Leave voters and understand what prompted them. It’s also strategically absurd not to gauge at why populist left-wing politics has suddenly resurfaced. You cannot unlink it from everything that has trailed after the financial crash in 2007 and the enormous difficulties that people have lived through since then with austerity. Young people have lived through a crisis in living conditions, threatened by homelessness, poverty and more whilst watching the wealth of the super-rich simply grow and grow. And the free-market is in its unfiltered form an oppressive concept for people. It has today through globalisation forged the Amazon reality where a CEO like Jeff Bezos takes home billions while his workers languish in dire poverty. The stratification of wealth has never been more starkly apparent.
So yes, communism is stupid and almost certain to result in nothing but the mass spilling of blood and tears. But that doesn’t mean the material conditions which fuel temptation for it should be exempt from criticism.