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March 08, 2012


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John Ransom

I'm actually writing a book right now and in the middle of it this very issue comes up! Here it is, FYA; For Your Amusement. I start in after discussing the debate in communist circles over just the problem Jodi talks about above; namely, the difficulty of getting anywhere when using the label "communist." The person named "Swift" below is the principal character in my novel. Here's the excerpt:

The communist faction Swift belonged to disdained such apologetic veilings. After some internal debate, the name chosen for his sect's newspaper was "Revolutionary Worker," an unabashed title that made possible full treatments of Chairman Mao by no later than the centerfold. The result was that out of hundreds of attempts to induce members of the proletarian class to acknowledge their true class interests by forking over fifty cents for a left-wing newspaper, some twelve might buy the intentionally bland "Workers Voice," though they might object to the bait and switch involved by the appearance of openly communist material in the back pages. Out of those same hundreds, perhaps one or two would spring for the mouthpiece of Swift's sect, the "Revolutionary Worker," perhaps from the pity aroused by seeing someone try so hard and fail so regularly at selling something, or on a lark to see what such a strangely titled publication had to say, or if the comrade selling the newspaper were a woman.
But even this name for the sect's newspaper was judged too tentative by some, with "communist" being thought much more politically correct than "worker." In imitation of the perverse court intrigues of communist nations, where the most dangerous position of all was to be the anointed successor of the current great leader, Swift's tiny cultish sect was convulsed by yet another in a long string of splits, a process that is parodized to perfection in Monty Python's film, "The Life of Brian." These splits always reduced the number of comrades one had, but the reformed activity that resulted never got close to replacing even a fraction of the lost number. Finally, there were simply too few players to make up a proper game. At a certain point, it was simply no longer possible to fool oneself into treating what one was doing as important. Swift's moment of truth came when the last fragment to which he belonged actually offered him a leadership position of some kind. However flattered, he knew that this could not be a good sign.
The direct goal of communist militants was not itself a bad one. Their aim was to construct a communist paradise where creative human energies, rather than being stunted and dwarfed into a one-sided development of faculties forced on them by a demeaning division of labor, whether in a factory or a bureaucracy, would be allowed to flower in a variety of directions. As Marx and Engels put it in their early work, The German Ideology, instead of working all day on a factory assembly line, screwing the same bolt into the same hole hundreds of times a day, a communist society would allow members to pursue a wide variety of activities—poetry, fishing, political debate, and the like. But however pleasant such a prospect, and however possible it actually was or wasn't, it never had a chance in America, even to rise to the level of the discussable. But it cannot be said that Swift came away from the perhaps overlong affair with no benefits. Intellectually, bracketing the content of his knowledge, he had been trained in the tactics and dialectic of discourse and debate to a fairly high level. Swift knew his own worth with some frankness, and could easily see that his was not a mind as supple or discerning as those who rose to leadership in his sect. They saw things his mind skipped over; they analyzed the dynamics of a situation persuasively and forcefully. They initiated the destruction of whole organizations on nothing more than the scandalous use of ellipses points that gutted—so it was alleged—the revolutionary heart of a key passage from Marx or Lenin. Once at a meeting of his sect, a particular leading comrade interrupted himself during a talk, and worried that he was saying too much himself, and not giving others a chance to talk. Swift immediately offered that, for himself, he would rather see the lighthouse turned on, rather than wander the dark ocean of ignorance on his own without help. This metaphor was both imaginative and submissive at the same time, and many in the room smiled and blushed at its significance, in a way that flustered Swift, who had been in earnest. Swift unsparingly acknowledged their superiority. Ruefully, he had to grant the justness of the implication behind a younger recruit's rather rude question late in his career, made all the more hurtful as it came out of the mouth of a young woman, who was pretty in the unadorned, matter-of-fact way some younger comrades managed. "Why," she asked, "if you have been a comrade for so long, have you never become part of leadership?" The question answered itself, though a quick reddening of Swift's pale, Irish/English face provided it anyway.
But the skill level of Swift's intellect that consigned him to an embarrassingly intermediate position within his sect—not quite glib enough for what was called "mass work" among the workers, national minorities, and other populations communists tried to influence, nor smart enough to join in with the acrobatic stunts performed on the trapeze bars of obscure Marxist doctrine that those in leadership executed so effortlessly—was more than sufficient for Swift to make his way in the academic world, to which he turned once the organizational wheels had finally broken off the Maoist cart he had climbed on some ten years before. The realization had forced itself on him: one did not have to turn into a reactionary as a result, but one did have to admit that reactionaries had been right all along about communism. But it would have been very hard indeed to simply grant this, all at once, with barely the insertion of a pausing comma. Intermediate steps designed to soften the blow and distribute the knowledge that one had been so wrong about so much for as long as could be remembered were sought out. Second-tier Marxist figures not included in the original, sanctioned list were consulted. Perhaps the Stalinist bathwater could be jettisoned while holding onto the socialist baby. This could not, however, be Trotsky, however much his followers might offer themselves as the most obvious alternative. Everyone—at least, everyone Swift knew, which probably peaked at about 120 persons during his sect's headier days—hated Trotsky, almost as much as they hated Trotskyites, the very term seeming to stand for what was ridiculous and contemptible in socialist thought and practice (a sentiment Trotskyites returned when they commented on the term "Maoist"). Leaving him and them aside, were there any likely socialist-communists who could provide some promise for revivifying the communist ideal while turning away from the discredited, more prominent beacons in the communist, Maoist school? There were some candidates. Antonio Gramsci was among the more prominent. He did most of his thinking in one of Mussolini's jails in the 1920s, his main contribution being that revolutionary political work should focus less on the revolution itself, and more on the construction of an alternative revolutionary culture that competed in a practical and immediate way with the capitalist environment surrounding it. In other words, he was an Economist; but never mind. Reading and thinking about him was not valuable for its intrinsic merits, but more as one of a series of decompression chambers. Georg Lukacs, a Hungarian communist who participated in the revolutionary storms provoked by World War I managed a more existentialist version of Marxism. His critique of the powerfully alienating ramifications of capitalism—similar in mood to Marx and Engels' critique of the division of labor in the German Ideology—gave communists looking for a humanist tone and vocabulary something to work with, one that pushed back against the regimentation, centralism, and anti-individualism of more familiar models. The Russian communist Bukharin also offered some hope from within the bosom of Stalinism itself, and was rewarded with a pathetic show trial and judicially sanctioned murder in the 1930s. His crime lay in suggesting that it was possible to let some individuals and classes enjoy a modicum of economic welfare without the need to periodically strip them of all they own under the banner of extirpating the capitalist weeds that accumulate from time to time in socialist society. But however necessary these thinkers were for someone trying to leave behind a long history trapped in a Maoist sect, their usefulness outside that context is questionable. They were like successive decompression chambers, each one introducing an ever richer mixture of the real world into the oxygen a patient breathed, until finally he could survive on his own unaided.

Sheldon Baker

Well my response to that is if I use the word "Communist" then that automatically conjures up the image of repressive state socialism and Stalinism to people who don't have a real understanding of the term as meant in Marx and Engel's Communist Manifesto. On the other hand if I use the word "Socialist" then that gives me much more latitude to define the term as I want it to be understood. In my mind socialist and communist is the same, but it is how I communicate with others and how they receive it, that is the reason I prefer socialist.


I am coming from the opposite perspective. I would love to reclaim the word 'communism' from the ridiculous assumption that reduces to Stalinism.

However, my understanding of the definition is something like "the classless, moneyless, stateless society that comes after a transitional period of socialism." Personally, I doubt such a thing will ever arise, even though it is desirable - is a socialist still a communist if he doubts the communist ideal will ever be realized?

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