The New Communists

It’s 2017. Time to stop worrying about the questions of 1917.

Nothing catches the eye like gold set against red. And in the great war of the twentieth century, the color scheme was on both sides of the divide — the Soviet hammer and sickle, McDonald’s golden arches.

At its peak, some variation of the USSR’s flag flew over 20 percent of the Earth’s habitable landmass. But while McDonald’s has now spread to over 120 countries, today only three of the four ruling Communist parties left fly the hammer and sickle. Of the five nations that claim Marxism-Leninism, the hammer and sickle appears on the state flags of none. Once the symbol of the struggle for a better world, today the hammer and sickle is a sign of little more than single-party sclerosis.

Yet that very icon was forged in the kind of populist fires that have eluded it for decades. In 1918, the Bolsheviks were looking for a new flag for their young state. They knew that they had to communicate the weight of their achievement — the first workers’ state in history. Just as the French Revolution’s tricolor set the standard for the republics of the nineteenth century, Soviet iconography, they believed, should set the standard for the coming proletarian states. So Lenin and Anatoly Lunacharsky, the commissar of education, held a design contest to take in entries from all across the republic.

The winning entry borrowed the industrial imagery (the hammer) so celebrated in British, French, and German labor and social-democratic parties, but made a major concession (the sickle) to the three-quarters of Russians that were still peasant farmers. After all, the Bolsheviks were European social democrats, but their genius lay in their readiness to adapt doctrine to experience — to mold European Marxism to tsarist Russia.

In other words, in a country that didn’t neatly fit their understanding of the world, they made adjustments to their model.

Today, one hundred years later, the world has turned. Nowhere do the political tasks today look anything like those the Bolsheviks confronted in 1918. In the West at least, the agrarian question has been answered — by capitalism. The Bolsheviks inherited a Europe convulsed by murderous interimperial war; we live in the most peaceful period in recorded history.

The trade union movement that undergirded both the social-democratic and Western Communist parties has all but disappeared. Even the hammers have begun to look as antiquated as the sickles. Yet on the socialist left, we have hardly sundered our ties to the Soviet example. Leading academics convene conferences to debate “The Idea of Communism,” or publish books on “the resurgence of the communist idea,” or end their histories of October 1917 with a call to keep trying.

Lest we forget, most of us live in advanced capitalist societies ruled by sturdy, capacious states. In 1917, the tsarist regime had lost two million men to war; the rest returned to a country less developed than Angola, Bangladesh, or postwar Iraq today. No matter how many freshmen come to your September screening of October, today the probability of such a revolution is infinitesimally small. And yet, the sharpest way to pillory a lefty is still to call her a reformist.

How has it come to this? To observe that communism is obsolete is not to argue that it never traveled well. France and Italy both had thriving, powerful Communist Parties with working-class social bases up through the 1980s. Membership in the Italian party peaked at over two million in 1947; it received its highest share of the vote (34.4 percent) in 1976. To Europeans who lived through the nightmares of fascism, the hammer and sickle stood for organized and effective resistance. And soon after the war, after their capitalist classes were discredited for either explicit or tacit support of fascism, those hammers and sickles were hoisted by mass workers’ parties who spent the following decades winning sweeping reforms. In their struggles against employers, those trade unionists saw the same noble cause of antifascism.

Examples abound elsewhere, too. In South Africa, the hammer and sickle flew at the head of a decades-long fight against another reactionary, racist power. In Brazil, the Communist Party is the oldest active political party, and built its legitimacy in the struggle against a regime that took power after the US-backed 1964 coup d’etat. In parts of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) weakened a venal landed elite and won much-prized gains for workers and peasants.

But today, the Italian Communist Party is no more. One wing has become the Tony Blair-inspired Democratic Party; the other the Communist Refoundation Party, which can boast of no more than 17,000 members. In France, the Communist Party (now at 130,000 members) was a mere junior partner in the coalition behind Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who achieved the highest voting share for a radical left candidate in France since 1969, but did so under his own banner — La France Insoumise, a populist left formation that had little use for Soviet iconography. By that point, the French Communists themselves had already removed the hammer and sickle from membership cards.

In South Africa, the South African Communist Party is an appendage of the ruling African National Congress — a coalition which has done little to transform the realities that today make South Africa the planet’s most unequal nation. The Brazilian Communist Party is impotent — in the lower house of the National Congress, it has only 11 of 513 seats. In India, the CPI-M is today not much more than a regional patronage machine.

In effect, only two kinds of Communist Parties are left standing: Parties of Atrophy — who can boast large memberships but which have little to offer their supporters — and Parties of Marginality — who have entirely lost any substantial connection to workers, if they ever had one. In some ways, they mirror the two tendencies of the prewar US Communist Party. On the one hand, there was the extreme sectarianism of the Third Period (the late 1920s to early 1930s), in which the Comintern took aim against socialist parties. On the other, the worst accommodationism of the Popular Front and war years, in which the party supported no-strike pledges, uncritically hailed Roosevelt’s New Deal, and even briefly dissolved itself in 1944. CPUSA went so far as to denounce A. Philip Randolph for threatening the first March on Washington in 1941 in an attempt to desegregate war industries — quite a reversal for a party that had demanded “self-determination for the Black Belt” just a few years earlier. But these two extremes — ultra-left marginalism or defanged accommodation — only underline Communism’s deep malaise.

In fact, the problem goes far beyond parties that never broke with Moscow — it’s anyone who insists on looking at the world through October’s eyes. Counterfactuals have become the stuff of lifelong sectarian debates for the socialist left: “if only Germany had gone the right way, if only Lenin had lived, if only Stalin had been isolated, if only, if only . . .” In almost every instance of mass revolt they find the Bolshevik’s October — Germany in 1918–20, France in 1968, Egypt in 2011, and everything in between — revolutions made mere “revolutionary rehearsals” by conniving bureaucrats or naive cadre.

Instead of seeing the Russian Revolution as a tragic story of impossible choices in the worst possible conditions, we fantasize about a time in which states could be sundered and built from the ground up by revolutionary will. A time in which small groups of disciplined activists and intellectuals could remake the world: “Next time, we’ll be ready — we’ll make sure we make the right decisions!”

Whether or not twentieth-century communism was fated to fail, we now live in a new era. The question of socialism in the twentieth century was unavoidably the Russian Revolution. Today, it is a question which interests professional historians and the far left. The world’s working classes have moved on. And yet the far left today embraces the Soviet obsession like a vampire hunter wields garlic. The problem is that garlic repels far more than just monsters — it makes you stink.

At its worst, in this crowd, isolation is proof of revolutionary virtue, rather than political calamity. Particularly in a country like ours, the politics of “Yay revolution! Boo reform!” has led to a rhetorical arms race in which the most virtuous, maximalist positions are the most progressive. That these positions are untethered not only from a mass social base but also any plausible political strategy becomes just more proof of their purity: “Try and co-opt this, you Menshevik!” They are symptoms of a Left that looks inwards for validation — one with a battle plan and plenty of generals but no army.

Despite what liberals might say, it’s not an inability to atone for communism’s body count which haunts the socialist left today — it’s our inability to move on from these dreams of apocalyptic rupture; fantasies of new, unfathomable worlds that will somehow spring up unencumbered by the shells of the old one.

The lessons of social democracy’s rightward trajectory have been overlearned to the point of paralysis. As Ralph Miliband pointed out at the end of his life, Western European Communist Parties were also parties of reform. They differed from social-democratic parties “in terms of their sharper and more radical programmes of reform, and their willingness to resort to extra parliamentary agitation and action.” The uncomfortable truth for both liberals and die-hard revolutionaries is that whenever and wherever Western Communist parties were strongest, it was because they were the most effective reformers, not revolutionaries. They won when they bested the social democrats at their own stated aims. It was not starry-eyed dreaming but everyday material victories that led 1.5 million people to attend Italian Communist Party leader Enrico Berlinguer’s 1984 funeral. The flip side of this fact is that in the pre–World War II period, European Communism was feeble and ineffective — with the telling exception of the French Communist Party during the Popular Front and the Spanish one during the Civil War.

The unprecedented success of Bernie Sanders’s run and his enduring popularity should have been a wake-up call to much of Leftworld: the country is ready for working-class politics, and even for the s-word, as long as we talk about it in everyday, tangible terms.

And yet, much of the radical left learned the opposite lesson from 2016. We have been staking out increasingly wilder terrain, moving the goalposts well beyond what most of the last century’s socialists or communists thought possible. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with horizons — we need them. But the basic challenge of left-wing politics is to train our eyes on horizons that others can see. Social democracy failed not because it traded utopianism for reform but because it swore off horizons entirely, and began to
look inwards, upon its own parties and parliaments. In rhetoric, the radical left is different; but in practice, the mistake is similar: victory is defined as whatever makes the already-initiated tick. Ultra-leftism and reformism are united by their scorn for mass action.

If we are to learn something from October, let it not be from a reading group on Kronstadt. As Lukács said, Lenin’s genius was to demand “the concrete analysis of the concrete situation.” Today, the relevant Lenin is not Lenin the indefatigable revolutionary, but Lenin the disconsolate strategist — the man who in 1920 chastised Communists “to convince the backward elements, to work among them, and not to fence themselves off from them with artificial and childishly ‘Left’ slogans.”

One has to ask what such a man would think of socialists’ century-long obsession over the revolution he helped make. Four years before storming the Winter Palace, Lenin was grieving over the sad state of affairs in Russia. And he chose a peculiar example to highlight his own country’s backwardness — the New York Public Library. In it, Lenin saw a tangible, achievable example of what a modern, democratic society could deliver — not a hazy promise of a better world on the other side of disaster.

[T]hey see to it that even children can make use of the rich collections; that readers can read publicly owned books at home; they regard as the pride and glory of a public library, not the number of rarities it contains, the number of sixteenth-century editions or tenth-century manuscripts, but the extent to which books are distributed among the people, the number of new readers enrolled, the speed with which the demand for any book is met, the number of books issued to be read at home, the number of children attracted to reading and to the use of the library. . . .

Such is the way things are done in New York. And in Russia?

Today, it’s time for us to stop worrying about old answers to old questions and start worrying about the ones working people are asking. For the Bolsheviks, that meant “Peace, Land, and Bread!” For us, the answers will be different. “Medicare for All!” is a good start. So is “Green Jobs for All!” Each of these strikes at the core of the socialist dream — a radically more equal distribution of work, wealth, and leisure. These are horizons everyone can see — and most desperately want to reach.

But whatever the answers are, finding them is the only hope we have of winning. A radical must plant one foot firmly in the world as it is and the other in the world as she knows it could one day be. With the rise of Sanders and Corbyn, it’s clear that even in the heart of global capital, tens of millions of people are dead set on changing the world.

Everyone can see it. Everyone can feel it. Everyone, that is, who’s not looking for October.