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.

LORRAINE MALLINDER
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A dictator in the family: why Ebrima Jammeh wants retribution in Gambia

“I want to see Yahya Jammeh jailed and prosecuted in this country. Justice will finally come.”

On 21 January Yahya Jammeh left Gambia. Within minutes of the erstwhile dictator’s departure on a private jet, relieved crowds began to gather at Westfield Junction, a popular meeting point in Serrekunda, the largest town in the country.

For 22 years, Jammeh had cultivated a sorcerer-like persona, claiming he could cure HIV with herbs, ordering a nationwide witch hunt and magicking away countless dissenters to fates unknown.

After losing elections in December, he brought the country to the brink of war, staring down the West African troops waiting at the Senegalese border to remove him. Unable to conjure a way out, he eventually agreed to be exiled to Equatorial Guinea.

Leaning against a car at Westfield, Ebrima Jammeh (pictured above) watched the celebrations with a bitter-sweet expression. Shouting over blaring car horns, he said that he wanted justice for his father, murdered by the regime in 2005. His father, it turned out, was Haruna Jammeh, a first cousin of Yahya. The story of how Haruna and his sister, Masie Jammeh, were “disappeared” by security forces is well known here – a striking example of the former ruler’s ruthlessness.

Days after Yahya Jammeh’s departure, I met Haruna’s widow, Fatimah, with Ebrima and his sister Isatou. They recalled the early Nineties, when “Cousin Yahya” would drop by for green tea in his army officer’s uniform and brag about becoming the next leader of Gambia. “He was very arrogant,” Fatimah said.

Haruna and Yahya grew up on the family farm in Kanilai, on Gambia’s southern border with Senegal. They would play together in the fields. Haruna, six years older, would walk hand in hand with Yahya to school. They were more than cousins, Ebrima said. People called them “cousin-brothers”.

Once they were adults, Haruna remained protective of his cousin. He was working as a restaurant manager, and was a rising star in the Novotel group. Often, he helped out the then-impecunious Yahya with money or food. Few expected the hothead lieutenant to become the next president.

But in 1994 Yahya seized power in a coup. “I heard his voice on the radio and I was surprised,” Fatimah told me. “I phoned my mum and said: ‘Look, he did it.’” By 2000 Yahya had coaxed Haruna into ditching his hotel job and returning to manage the farm. The president had big plans for the farm, which grew into a huge enterprise that controlled many of the nation’s bakeries and butchers – thriving allegedly through land-grabs and subsidies.

Fatimah and the children stayed behind in Serrekunda, but would often visit. Ebrima had happy memories of meals with the extended family. Yahya was by now a distant figure, surrounded by bodyguards on the rare occasions when he visited. Ebrima remembered his uncle telling him to “work hard at school”.

In 2004, Haruna accused some soldiers of stealing fuel and food, and started to speak out against the regime’s frequent sackings and arrests. When he was removed from the farm, Fatimah begged him to come home. But he refused. “He was a strong character, a man of his word, a man of truth. He didn’t take nonsense from anyone,” Ebrima said. Haruna did not expect his younger “cousin-brother” would harm him.

In 2005 Ebrima, by then 21, spoke to his father for the last time after he was arrested in the middle of the night. “Dad said: ‘I don’t know if I’m coming back,’” he told me. “I was scared. I was devastated. I didn’t think I was going to see him again. I knew the kind of person Yahya was and the kind of rages he had.”

Shortly afterwards, Haruna’s sister Masie also disappeared. “My aunt was bold enough to approach the president, but she went missing, too,” Isatou said. “We stopped going to the village. We decided to be quiet because we were so scared they would come after us.”

In the years that followed, Fatimah and the children kept a low profile in the backstreets of Serrekunda. Questions about their surname were common but they denied all links to the president. For a long time, they had no idea whether Haruna and Masie were alive.

In 2014 Ebrima learned the truth from an interview on a Senegalese radio station with Bai Lowe, a former driver with the “Jungulers” (an elite presidential hit squad). Lowe said he had witnessed the strangling of Haruna and Masie Jammeh in July 2005. Their deaths were recorded in a 2015 Human Rights Watch report.

The interview was conducted by Fatu Camara, a former press secretary to Yahya Jammeh, who fled to the US in 2013 after being charged with “tarnishing the image of the president”. She said Masie had threatened to see a marabout, a spiritual leader with reputed supernatural powers, if Yahya did not reveal Haruna’s whereabouts. Having already set the Jungulers on Haruna, Yahya then targeted Masie, too.

On 26 January Gambia’s new president, Adama Barrow, returned from exile in Senegal. He leads an unwieldy, eight-party coalition with differing views on how Jammeh should be held to account. Barrow, who claims to have inherited a “virtually bankrupt” state, has promised to launch a truth and reconciliation process to investigate human rights abuses during the Jammeh regime. In interviews, he has chosen his words carefully, avoiding any mention of prosecution.

But, like many of those who have suffered, Ebrima wants retribution. “I want to see Yahya Jammeh jailed and prosecuted in this country. Justice will finally come.”

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times