What was communism and what is capitalism?

I have been thinking how we begin to develop a new economic paradigm to supersede the failed neo liberal strategies of the past 30 years.

Before I share my thoughts with you, I remind myself that prior to 1979 the world of economics (or at least as taught at A level) was entirely in the grip of Keynesian orthodoxy and Cairncross reigned supreme across the whole syllabus. Hayek and Friedman were seen as wild men at the fringes.

So during my lifetime we in the West have managed to extricate ourselves from what was perceived to be the straightjacket of one orthodoxy, sadly to replace it with another that has played havoc not just with that entity we label ‘the economy’ , but also with collateral consequences for many other areas of our lives.

But let us also not forget that for over 100 years there was a competing theory of economics and indeed society, namely communism. Both its practice and its theory. That ideological challenge served to keep capitalism on its toes .It forced a recognition of the permanent structural inequality that capitalism was bound to generate and the need therefore to act to address the needs of those who were not benefitting fully from its onward development.

Now I do not hear many voices calling for the reinstatement of the historically polarising and potentially dangerous ideology of communism in practice , but it is surprising that outside of academic circles and the closed ranks of obscure think tanks there has not been more thought given to just why communism failed and what we can learn from that failure for progressive politics’ (by which I mean -at a minimum – a body of thought that does not accept that the market will be able to deliver the society that most want if left unfettered and unregulated).

I take as my starting point that many if not most communists sincerely believed that the analysis of Marx and Engels provided the starting point for the transformation of society and the creation of a world that would be fairer, more just and peaceful . They may not have given their wholehearted support to the pseudo-science of historical determinism and many certainly didn’t subscribe to later Leninist and Stalinist doctrines (although sadly too many did). But we should remember thast Marxism tapped into other ethical and economic positions that pre dated and developed alongside it , such as the cooperative thought of Owen and Fourier, the humanistic guild socialism of William Morris and of course Methodism and later in the 20th century the liberation theology of the catholic church.

So I was pleased to find an excellent article in a posthumously published collection of essays from Fred Halliday* .It is simply and clearly entitled ‘what was communism?’.

What I want to discuss is not the full content of that article , stimulating though it is, but one of the four very persuasive reasons he gives for why communism did not succeed in meeting its own goals in spite of its sometimes noble objectives.He argues that communism failed because it lacked ‘any independent articulated ethical dimension’. That absence allowed the illegitimate use of state power and violence in the service of the Party’s goals and what he characterises as ‘scorn’ for the ‘bourgeois’ concept of universal human rights.

Of course communist governments did profess to have an ethical dimension to their actions – winning power for the increasingly mythical ‘working class’ upon whose broad, usually male shoulders the task of emancipating all humanity sat.But without an external framework of ethics and codes Party could not be held to account for what it did in the name of ‘the revolution’. A morality free zone opens up in which whatever the party decides needs to be done is de facto the only thing that could be done given historical necessity. It then follows that it is both morally and ethically the only position that the individual citizen can support without flying in the face of ‘common sense’.

I find this a very fresh and exciting guide to considering the world we now find ourselves in, albeit without the help of Fred to develop this very fruitful line of thought.

Because I want to argue that what we might agree to call ‘neo liberal late capitalism’ seems in danger of adopting a remarkably similar position. Questions of morality and ethics are subsumed to practical utility and the efficacy and efficiency of the market dictates what shall be done .The essential rights and freedoms that we assumed to exist outside of any specific moment in time or economic cycle are themselves seen as legitimate targets for corrective action. Debates about means are misleadingly turned into debates about ends!

Like the Leninists of old, those in power are starting to label as ‘technocratic’ a whole range of positions, decisions and installed governments that are behind highly political and ideological policies and practices that should in any developed democracy be vigorously contested and debated. And it is that independent ethical framework that Halliday saw as the essential underpinning that allows us to have that debate.

So I say, let’s start a debate about that ethical dimension, because in that way we can have a conversation about the balance between economic efficiency and sustainability, ensure the maintenance of hard fought individual rights even when they are not consistent with market needs and at the same time examine the very real conflicts that always arise during times of crisis .

Personally I do not hark back to the past or hanker after the purer, yet divisive politics of my youth. (I’ll keep the Clash t-shirts in the wardrobe and the ‘save the GLC’ badges in the sock drawer!)

But I fear that if we don’t talk to each other , we will lose our ethical compass and be lost on a sea of techno-pragmatism.

Maybe the Occupy movement has begun the process, however vague their aspirations and outlandish their message might seem to some.. We need to develop a convincing and positive story to tell ourselves and our children about who we are and what we want from our time on this planet. At the moment I see all too many who should know better watching passively as ‘the market’ plays God with all our lives while Governments of left and right simply act as willing and complicit disciples .

As good democrats we should never accept the doctrine of ‘there is no alternative’, even if some of you reading this believe that the actions being taken at national and supra national level are the right ones. History teaches that that at almost every moment, however dark the days, there are choices to be made. We should reject both the historical determinism of Marx and the ‘TINA’ of the free marketeers. We must be grown up enough to make choices for ourselves, not simply pass the responsibility onto unelected officials and hapless Governments. .

* In ‘Political Journeys’,Fred Halliday, http://www.saqibooks.com

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