(Every now and then, we find pieces by other people that deeply resonate with our own thoughts, alignments, positions, fears, passions. This piece, by the Rustbelt Radical, is such a case. I agree with it to an iota. Republished here with RR’s permission. See also the companion article.)
I am a communist. You might call me a Marxist, a socialist, an eco-socialist, a radical, a revolutionary, a Trotskyist or number of other names, but I prefer ‘communist’. Though I am not a Communist. However, while rejecting utterly the Stalinist aberration, it is not possible to also erase that legacy. Including what might have been inherent in the Bolshevik experience that allowed for the part of the bureaucracy, including Stalin, to emerge from its ranks. It has to be embraced and subjected to context and critique in order that we might understand it with the imperative of avoiding such future cataclysms, so profoundly criminal and obfuscatory.
‘Communism’, nowhere in the entire canon, practice and traditions that armed the working class movement in the decades before the Soviet experiment, those same traditions that helped guide the Russian working class in forging that revolution, would have been taken to mean anything like the Stalinist nightmare that came. Stalinism, in too many ways, became the antithesis to the vision which made the revolution. So I remain a communist without contradiction. It is in Stalinism that contradiction, grotesque contradiction, is held.
The date of the fall, of the degeneration, is entirely secondary for it was a process that began as soon as the Russian revolution found itself starving and alone in the world. And further back, a revolution whose roots were burrowed deep into a base and backward, absolutist feudal past. No one, not one person, with a genuine understanding of the communism of Marx (or indeed of Lenin), could dare describe the Gulag State as communism without first redefining the term until it lost all its emancipatory and historical meaning, all its theoretical and analytical foundation. It is for those very meanings, those foundations that I find it impossible to not embrace the term for myself. I am a communist.
And speaking of losing all meaning, what could it possibly mean to call oneself a ‘socialist’, a term deemed more approachable, when Tony Blair, in a fit of nostalgia or guilt or whatever, might call himself one as well. In deed the entire, disastrous, neo-liberal agenda has been implemented by so-called Socialist parties. Even at these parties best (many years ago now) when ‘socialism’ meant the capitalist state taking ownership of capitalist enterprises then not only am I not a socialist, I am, in a sense, an anti-’socialist’. When a serial rapist like (recent) International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss Kahn; a rapist of women, of resources, of workers, of whole nations is a leading member (and possible Presidential candidate still) of a ‘Socialist Party’ then shouldn’t our movement be as resistant in confusing our vision by calling ourselves socialists as we are resistant in calling ourselves communists because of Stalinist ignominy?
But isn’t this is just as true of words like ‘democracy’ (what, pray tell, does THAT mean anymore?) or ‘feminism’ or ‘environmentalism’ or any other term that I positively use all of the time. It is no accident, however, that each of those words has been positively appropriated by the ruling classes for their own ends (even as we struggle to appropriate them for ours), but the term ‘communism’ (with a good deal of assistance from the Stalinist debacle) has only been vilified and damned. It is because that word, in its essence, cannot belong to them. They cannot appropriate it, for it would stick in their throats and choke them to death. So it is ours, let us treat it so.
We can not escape words, each of which have their own history, any more than we can escape history. Part of our task is to rescue definitions made wrong; to define, in our own terms, the tasks and vision of our project and use the words most fitting to illuminate the goal and the practice. There was a reason, as opposed to other trends in the movement of workers and the oppressed, that the progenitors of our movement, the one that still lives and still breathes despite all, despite everything, called themselves ‘communists’. It is thoroughly modern as it looks to the horizon; it posits the foundations of the future in the capitalist present at the same time it proudly inherits a tradition of the commons, of the egalitarian impulse and the deeply social needs our species have displayed so consistently and in such variety that it might rightly be said to be a part, a core, of our human nature.
‘Communism’ as envisioned and, in the past and in different form, lived, has no need for state or coercion or institutions vested with power standing apart of the whole. It is a ‘free association’ where in which ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’ or it is nothing. It is classless and produces only use values. Its wealth is defined by the satisfaction of needs, and those needs are defined by a people free of commodity, of commodification and in cooperation with, not antagonism to, the natural world on which we seek to live. The world which is required for us to live.
I recognize that anything we say about ourselves and what we propose requires explanation, requires us to wash away the muck our enemies, and ourselves, have covered our project and our ideas with over these many years of struggle. That we have to choose our words carefully and that we must be creative in responding to the subjectivity of folks, we must meet them where they are now; we can’t use words that confuse rather than make clear and for that reason I do not walk around talking about ‘communism’ as part of my real-world political practice.
If, however, we allow the ruling class to invest the language we use with their fears and prejudices, with their hollow truths, then they have won already. Language is the greatest of all social institutions; it is the medium in which ideas travel and action organized, it is not neutral and our role in the waging of the class war is, in part, to wage a war to (re)appropriate language that illuminates and to expropriate the words that have been made obscure, an obscurity which hides their true history. And in doing so we lose our own history, through the words used to understand it, to the whims of the enemy. If we are ever to win the battle, or even effectively engage it, we must win the words we use to define our struggle. It is an essential component in that most precious, for the survival of our species, of processes; that process by which the working class is transformed from a class ‘of itself’ into a class ‘for itself’.
To pose an alternative that might capture the imagination of masses of folks it is necessary to name that alternative and to place its realization in the transformation of the present and not in the faith of an idealized future. However, that transformation, both its beginnings and its outcomes, is only made real by a vision; a goal worthy of the terrible cost liberation entails. And for this we revolutionaries, as communists, ‘disdain to conceal [our] views and aims. [We] openly declare that [our] ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution.’
To win that world the working class must also win on the field of language, which is essential if we are to win on the field of ideas and of ideology. With clarity and the legitimate audacity history, when deeply absorbed and understood by the best of working class combatants and the communities of struggle they lead, affords us we can remake words into weapons and refound ideas as the power to wield those weapons. We must do so without jargon or dogmatism or sentimental fealty to moribund traditions, but we must do so. In so doing we take power into our own hands, the power of ideas and the power to communicate those ideas. And, in my opinion, that is one giant step on the path to communism, or at least to a revolution which might make communism a possibility many years after all of us are gone. And yes I am, proudly, a communist.