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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Why are Moby, Ed Sheeran and Laura Mvula putting on gigs in the living rooms of total strangers?

Billy Bragg, The National and Nothing But Thieves are all doing the same.

Depending on your personal taste, Ed Sheeran turning up at your house, guitar in hand, to sings some earnest tunes could be a dream come true or a living nightmare. But what about The National? Or Moby? Or Laura Mvula? These are just some of the artists that have agreed to put on shows today in people’s homes around the world – from Washington DC to Cape Town.

Today, over 1,000 artists will play “living room shows” in 60 countries as part of Give a Home, “the largest global festival ever held”. Organised by Sofar and Amnesty international , the concerts are being held to raise awareness of the refugee crisis, and as a guesture of solidarty with the 22 million refugees worldwide: fans were given the chance to donate to Amnesty when applying to win tickets.

British rock group Nothing But Thieves have always injected a level of political consciousness into their songs. Their second album, Broken Machines, was released earlier this month, charting at number two in the UK album chart. I spoke to guitarist Joe Langridge-Brown about Give A Home and their concert tonight in London.

Why did you agree to be a part of Give a Home?

It’s just something that we’re passionate about. We write songs about the refugee crisis, and this is what we talk about as people: in the band, on the bus. My girlfriend works at NGOs like Care and Amnesty, so it’s something that we’re passionate about. When we got this opportunity to play we jumped at the chance - anything we can do to even marginally help, we will. This is going all around the world, Ed Sheeran’s doing one in Washington, and The National are doing one. It’s amazing how many bands and artists have got involved.

Any you’re particular fans of?

Well, I mean, Conor [Mason, lead singer] really likes the National – but they just beat us to number one album!

Have you done a gig like this before?

Yeah, absolutely. We like playing these stripped back sessions, it makes the song come alive a bit more in a way, because they’re really raw, and some of them were written like that: just acoustic guitar and voice.

Do you think musicians and celebrities have a responsibility to engage with politics and issues like the refugee crisis?

We feel that way. I feel like we would be letting ourselves down and neglecting some sort of duty to use your platform for good and for things that you believe in. I get that it’s not for every artist, and I don’t think every artist should be pressured into doing it. But personally, for us, we’re writing an album and we want it to say something. It wouldn’t represent us if it didn’t.

What do you hope people who go to the gig will get from it?

Hopefully it will give people a sense of community, that’s what this whole thing is about. Its about raising awareness for the refugee crisis: I mean, it affects 22 million lives. It’s important to do something that just lets refugees know that they’re welcome and safe. Anything we can do to help in that way would be a positive thing.

What can people do to support refugees?

You might have to ask my girlfriend! Just talking about it in a way that is compassionate is important. I think one of the problems we have, especially at the moment in the age of Facebook, is that although social media has done a world of good in some areas, it also creates an “us v them” enviroment, and I think that’s really dangerous for humanity. I don’t think that way of thinking is positive at all. If this can do anything to bring a sense of community and togetherness, then that would be amazing.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.