The lessons of communism

A reply to John Gray

This is a guest post by David Priestland, author of The Red Flag: Communism and the Making of the Modern World (Allen Lane, £35)

In the many discussions of the anniversary of the fall of communism in Europe, much more attention has been given to the revolutions of 1989 than to the lessons of the communist experience itself. John Gray, however, in his very generous review of my history of communism The Red Flag in the New Statesman, did address this central question of 20th-century history. Communism, he argued, was a "radical humanist" project, and its failures marked the death of progressive politics. It is therefore no surprise that "left progressives are beached", even though the recent crisis of financial capitalism should have given it the best opportunity in decades.

Gray, I believe, is right to argue that the communist experience is intimately connected with the leftist tradition. But I think he is wrong to insist that the failures of communism discredit the leftist project as a whole.

Certainly, we should not be surprised that the collapse of Marxist regimes has caused a crisis of the broader, non-communist left. Communists departed from Marx's thought in many ways, but they did pursue two projects which are very much part of the progressive tradition: they promoted a radical form of equality by means of revolution, and they favoured technocratic, state-led modernisation. As I showed in my book, communist reigmes tended to zigzag between the two, but both had serious drawbacks: the first caused chaos and a great deal of violence, while the second created an ossified bureaucratic caste and economic failure.

But state involvement in the economy, and popular participation in politics, were not utopian ideas in themselves. Rather, the communists' failures were caused by their love of absolute solutions: their belief that the bourgeoisie was evil and had to be destroyed completely; and their view that an alliance of mobilised masses and state officials could rule without the market. By demonising the market, they ignored its uses -- as a spur for innovation, and as a balance to an overmighty state. It was this extreme, class-warrior view of the world that led to both the violence and economic stagnation of the communist world.

Nevertheless, these undoubted Marxist failures do not invalidate two central progressivist insights: first, that left to themselves, markets reinforce inequalities, which lead to blighted lives, economic stagnation and sometimes popular anger and violence. And second, that the only effective counter to the uncontrolled market is an alliance of popular action from below and the state.

The history of the 20th century, and of communism, bears out both of these lessons. Communism and revolutionary violence arose when capitalists supported aristocratic or imperialist regimes -- whether in pre-1789 France, pre-1917 Russia, or the Nazi, Japanese, European or postwar American empires. Stark social or racial inequalities caused anger and violence.

But even when capitalists disentangled themselves from aristocrats and generals and pursued more liberal, laissez-faire politics -- as in the 1920s in the United States -- they created dangerously unequal societies, and destabilised capitalism itself. Finance was let off the leash and money poured into speculation. The result was super-profits, high levels of inequality and massive indebtedness. The bubble inevitably burst, and the state had to step in to stave off starvation and revolution.

Prosperity and justice have flourished most when the state has accepted the market, but imposed strict controls on it, as in the two decades after the Second World War. Capitalists had discredited themselves -- both by collaborating with the Nazis, and by their irresponsibility during the 1920s. And governments believed that western Europe was on the verge of becoming communist. They were therefore willing to regulate the market, and share power and profits with trade unions and other popular groups. In doing so, they presided over one of the most prosperous eras in the history of the west.

The post-1945 system of course had its failings. It was too technocratic. It also excluded large groups -- including women, the young and the global "south". And it was seriously challenged when it failed to cope with the economic crises of the 1970s. But rather than seek to adapt the post-1945 system to new conditions, an American-led global elite has sought to dismantle it and return to the world of the 1920s. The defeat of the USSR and the end of communism were seen merely as proof that the progressive project was dead and untrammelled markets would be the world's saviour.

The result has been predictable. As in the 1920s, businessmen preferred to invest in financial speculation and assets rather than job-producing industries. The result has been rocketing inequality, with a small group of global rich bidding up house, art and oil prices, and a stagnating middle class encouraged to take on debt to keep up. Now the bubble has burst, and the west seems set for on a long period of relative decline.

Thus, the progressive left, far from having no answers, has the only solution: markets must be tamed. So why is the left so weak? Why is the right winning throughout Europe, while the Conservative Party astonishingly claims that the state has to be cut back?

In large part, the problem is that the present generation of centre-left leaders entered politics during the defeats of socialism and the fall of communism in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Under Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder, the traumatised left became true believers in the free-market faith. Meanwhile, former Trotskyists such as Alistair Darling, or socialists such as Gordon Brown, swapped one rigid ideology for another. It is, ironically, easier for the paternalistic right of Nicolas Sarkozy or Angela Merkel to use the language of state intervention -- even if they are unlikely to do much in practice.

But the progressive left is also to blame. It, too, needs to learn the lessons of the communist experience, and show how the state can co-ordinate the economy without the rigid technocracy of the past. It also needs to make the decentralised democracy championed by the young Marx and abandoned by his successors seem practicable.

Even so, new ideas are emerging that challenge the dominance of market thinking. Theorists of "deliberative democracy" are considering effective ways of involving citizens in decision-making. Meanwhile people such as Elinor Ostrom, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics -- are showing how local collectives can manage scarce resources more effectively than either markets or state bureaucracies.

There is a real danger that we fall back into the ways of 1930: a year after the shock of the financial crisis, governments have recovered their balance and are returning to politics as usual. Keynesian ideas are more influential now than they were then, but even so we are far from a new, truly international Bretton Woods-style agreement, in which states guarantee a new, just and fair economic order. The result will be stagnation, high unemployment and, possibly, political extremism. Ultimately, it took six years of war and 55 million deaths before Keynes's ideas were fully accepted. We can only hope that history does not repeat itself.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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