In July of this year, the writer, lecturer, and activist, Ash Sarkar, appeared on the breakfast television programme, Good Morning Britain, describing herself as ‘literally a communist’ in a hot-tempered exchange with the show’s host – the Trump-apologist and former editor of the News of the World and Daily Mirror, Piers Morgan. Sarkar’s comments provoked discussion in some seemingly unlikely places, including Teen Vogue and Elle magazine. But they also generated discussion in some more conventional settings: the meaning of the word communism was debated on the BBC’s Daily Politics show, controversy raged on Twitter, and the incident provided copy for a variety of magazine and newspaper columns. ‘Communism is hip again – but until it means liberty, count me out, comrade’, ran a headline in The Guardian. ‘Does Teen Vogue understand what it means to be ‘literally a communist’?’, The Spectator enquired. ‘Communism isn’t cool, it’s a murderous creed’, proclaimed a headline in The Times. What, then – away from the hype and political point-scoring – is one to make of these claims and the attempted rehabilitation of the word communism which prompted them?
The word ‘communism’ was born in 1840. It was coined by leaders of the secret societies which grew up in Paris under the July Monarchy of Louis Philippe (1830-1848). It was preceded by the word ‘socialism’ – first used in an Owenite periodical in 1827 – and both terms were antedated by a host of others, forming a primitive socialist vocabulary: radicalism, agrarianism, harmonisme, uniteism, synthesism, associationism, phalensterianism.
Because of its militant, revolutionary connotations, the word was adopted by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who set out their own communist programme in their manifesto of 1848. By the 1880s however, Engels had ceased to use the term, opting instead for ‘socialism’ in describing the new model of society he envisioned. In any case, the revolutionary meaning belonging to the word in the middle decades of the nineteenth century applied only in Continental Europe. In Britain and America self-described communists were peaceful and often religious, preoccupied with the formation of intentional communities, rather than the conquest of state power. In fact, between 1880 and 1918, the word communism was almost entirely expunged of its revolutionary content, meaning simply a community of property.
It was only when the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party decided to alter its name to the Russian Communist Party in March 1918 that the meaning conferred to the term by Marx and Engels in 1848 was revived. This is also the current meaning given to the term by journalists and politicians, unfamiliar with Friedrich Nietzsche’s dictum that ‘it is only that which has no history which can be defined.’ Popular critics have essentialised the word, establishing its indelible connection with Marx, the Soviet Union, and state planning. But if the critics of communism are historically ignorant, failing to note the different uses to which the word has been put over time, are they mistaken philosophically? Is Marx’s communism congenitally illiberal, or even totalitarian?
The idea that Marx envisaged a permanent role for the state in his harmonious society of the future is plainly not right. The state was conceived instrumentally. It was destined to ‘wither away’, gradually ceding ground to ‘the administration of things’. At the same time, however, Marx was never strong on political theory, dismissing out of hand writing recipes for ‘the cookbooks of the future’.
Preoccupied with the problem of who rules, Marx did not consider the problem of how, supposing the relationship between democracy and socialism to be automatic. Marx had not heard, apparently, that power corrupts. Marx was not interested in the individual as an agent in history. Nor was he interested in political rights, disregarding the security furnished by the state as merely ‘the insurance of egoism’.
Marx’s description of capitalist dynamism, his analysis of commodity fetishism, and his advocacy of cooperation remain relevant and important. But tyranny, as some contemporaries sympathetic to socialism anticipated, is by no means antithetical to Marx’s theory. As John Stuart Mill observed in his unfinished Chapters on Socialism (1869), ‘rivalry for reputation and for personal power’ would not cease under communism. In the absence of private property, it would betake itself, instead, to the domain still open to it, namely influence in management. Mill happily acknowledged that paucity of ‘public and social feelings’ was not inevitable. But it remained for communism to prove by practical experiment (i.e. by the formation of intentional communities) that a high standard of moral and intellectual life was possible. To act in advance, ‘substituting the new rule for the old at a single stroke’, was arrogant and reckless.
Marx’s communism was poorly attuned to securing the liberty of the individual. There is, however, no direct relationship between Marx and the gulag. Communism has, indeed, been murderous, but that is not true of the tradition as a whole – a tradition including bible communists, shakers, and communitarians, who were motivated, above all, by the ideal of equality. Moreover, however much one might wish to chastise Marx for failing to consider unintended consequences, his intentions, too, were benign. Yet, given its twentieth-century history, to rehabilitate the word communism is still perhaps not wise.