‘The Idea of Communism’ by Tariq Ali: An Excerpt

The fall of the Berlin Wall was the monumental event that signalled the beginning of the end of Communism in the former Soviet Union. Yet, why was this collapse of Communism considered final, but the many failures of capitalism are considered temporary and episodic? In The Idea of Communism, Tariq Ali addresses this very question.

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An Excerpt

The notion of ‘freedom’ emerged as a response to slavery; the idea of ‘Communism’ grew out of a need to challenge the wage-slavery of workers during the industrial capitalism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The processes were considered analogous. Whereas a slave was regarded as private property to be bought and sold in the marketplace, the worker or wage-slave was property-less but enchained. The slave lived in shacks close to the fields and plantations where he worked, dependent on his or her owner for continued existence. The first industrial workers lived in semi-slums close to the factory or the mines where they were employed; in many cases, these were owned by their employers and tied to the job. Out of work, out of home. The maltreatment of slaves led to frequent rebellions from the time of Spartacus onwards, but the overwhelming strength of slave states always determined the outcome. This remained the case for many centuries, until the first real victory won by slaves and former slaves—the triumph of the ‘black Jacobins’—in Haiti, soon after 1793, when the French Revolution veered sharply to the left, an event that ignited hope among slaves as far apart as Brazil and the United States.

The extreme working conditions of ‘wage-slaves’ further deteriorated as the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century spread and took root in western Europe and North America. Some of the finest descriptions of those early conditions, under which men, women and children laboured, are to be found in the novels of Charles Dickens, Emile Zola and Upton Sinclair. Workers responded to the oppression by attempts at self-organization and struggles for unity against the bosses. Even before the birth of Fordism, there had been virtual uprisings by weavers in Silesia and Lyon. (They were usually greeted by repression.) And there is a memorable account of a Lyon weaver walking to Paris with the aim of ‘killing a bourgeois’, one example among many of ‘propaganda by the deed’. Simultaneous attempts to enlarge the suffrage produced embryonic trades unions in each craft and industry and, later, political parties created to represent the interest of the workers.

The first systematic attempts to codify the ideas that became known as Communism were born together with the modern proletariat during the early years of the Industrial Revolution—the technological leap that transformed the West (and Japan). Its results were what we can, in retrospect, describe as the first wave of globalization. From its continental launching pad, western Europe went in search of new markets and, in the process, unleashed a set of colonial wars and occupations and laid the foundations of new empires. The late eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed important economic and political changes that were decisive in the formation of the modern world.

The seeds, of course, had been planted by an intellectual–political revolution: the Enlightenment and the French upheavals of 1789–1815. The tree of Communism was stunted by defeats, but gained height with every new upsurge. Aware of the spectre in question, the Congress of Victors that met in Vienna in 1815 mapped a Europe where dissent could be easily controlled. The Vienna Consensus would be policed by Prussia, Russia and Austria with the British Navy as a reliable last resort. On the intellectual front, Hegel, theorist of permanent mobility, strong proponent of the idea that everything moves, that history, itself the result of a clash of ideas, is never static (each idea producing its opposite) and that this dialectic, where past and present determine the future, is both inevitable, unpredictable and unstoppable, now accepted the end of history. The once dynamic ‘world-spirit’ had cast aside Napoleon’s greatcoat and hat in favour of the steel helmets of the Prussian Junkers. A victorious Prussia had become the model state, the final resting place of the historical process. As we now know, this turned out not to be the case and many of Hegel’s young followers, while using his method to investigate the real world, were finding his conclusions deficient. They began to challenge his basic premises and ended up turning the master’s teaching on its head.

Ludwig Feurbach began this process: refuting the notion that ideas determined being, he insisted upon the opposite—that being determined consciousness. Another young Hegelian, Karl Marx, took the critique further by articulating the social and class differences within society as a whole. Might these have something to do with the difference in status between the King of Prussia, a Moselle peasant and a factory worker? They were all humans, they shared physiological and anatomical characteristics—but a social gulf divided them from each other, and those alive in the nineteenth century differed from those in the seventeenth, twelfth or earlier periods. Human beings were a product of Nature, but how did the differences emerge? It was not enough to say that humans were a product of their environment or that property was theft. What were the conditions that produced the ensemble of social relations that highlighted the difference between one class and another? Surely, Marx argued, it was this complex of contradictions that had to be analysed in order to understand the world. Marx and his co-thinkers were to spend their entire lives answering this question and, in the course of their researches, producing analyses of differing social formations since the beginning of written history. This history could only be understood as a clash between contending classes and their economic interests. Understanding history in this way was later categorized as historical materialism and, in some ways, remains the most important contribution of Marx, Friedrich Engels and the historians who followed in their tracks. It transformed the way history was studied, and Feminist and Black Studies owe a great deal to this tradition. And, because it is of lasting value, it will last as long as the planet.