At 15 I fell in love with the idea of communism — the image, the goal, the seduction, the hypnosis, of it. I fell in love with the idea of humankind as a great caring family, a world governed by class and then human solidarity. I’ve never fallen out with it. Everything I see in the capitalist reality around me has reinforced and strengthened it — renewed and yet again renewed my conviction about it.
I have shifted in the sense that I tend to take — and believe I should take — a longer view of things, beyond the instant agitationalism of the would-be left which is opportunistic in the sense that Lenin used the term — going for short-term advantage and easy “gain” that contradicts the larger goals and ultimate purpose of socialism.
The mix of instant agitation and powerlessness to affect reality dominant on the would-be left leads to a self-debilitating negativism. Never mind what the position is, or its implications for the working class and socialism, you back it so long as it expresses hostility to the established order. That approach is deadly for the would-be left.
The slogan “Troops Out of Iraq” is a terrible example. We opposed the invasion of Iraq, AWL no less than the rest of the would-be left. But then the demand for an instant solution, the focus on one aspect of the solution that socialists want, became a demand on the invaders to leave Iraq in the worst possible shape, even if it meant the destruction of the nascent labour movement, and a choice to ally with militant clerical fascists as opposed to those who stood for something like bourgeois democracy, or not far from it.
I loathe and reject, and want to oppose and fight, class society and capitalism now not less than when I was in my teens. More, perhaps, in the sense that I know a very great deal more about it. And I believe that the working class, and the working-class movement, represent the only progressive alternative to it.
Of course, when I became a communist, I had little idea of the troubles and contradictions in reality, the result of the cumulative defeats — lost chances, betrayals — that beset the struggle for socialism in the 20th century, or of the reserves of strength of the bourgeoisie and bourgeois society.
In 1958, the socialist movement was a maze to find your way in — a multi-storey maze. The mass “communist” movement of fifty years ago — and until the 1990s — was not a communist movement, but a terrible combination of militant workers in the capitalist countries allied with the totalitarian Stalinist powers. In so far as it had a programme beyond what served Russian interests, it was the bearer of a programme — the establishment of a totalitarian Stalinist state — which was utterly reactionary, and most reactionary of all in what it meant for the working class and its labour movement.
For a couple of decades I had a running argument with another comrade, Martin Thomas, about whether it was right for the Trotskyists in the 1940s and after to raise the demand that the French and Italian Communist Parties take power. I thought we shouldn’t want them to take power — that a French or Italian CP regime would be reactionary, and in the first place because it would destroy the labour movement. Martin solved the problem — for himself — with the argument that in order to take power the CPs would have to become something else than what they were — that the communist workers would escape and assert a different programme. The great questions that was being begged was: what if the existing Communist Parties, as they were, took power?
For example, in Czechoslovakia, there had been a mass Communist Party before World War Two, and mass support for the Stalinist regime after 1945. The Russians gave the CP effective control of the state — the Ministry of the Interior, etc. — though it was formally part of a coalition government. The Stalinist coup of February 1948, which marked the tightening of the state to totalitarian intensity, had mass working-class support. The Stalinists organised a sort of parody of a working-class revolution — mass working-class demonstrations and so on.
In 1968, the period of the Prague Spring — the “socialism with a human face” of Alexander Dubcek and his faction of the CP of Czechoslovakia and the Russian/ Warsaw Pact invasion to restore stone-faced Stalinism — I read a lot about Czechoslovakia and the Stalinist revolution there in the 1940s.
Dubcek was the son of an old pre-war Communist Party militant. He had mass support from workers who remembered the socialism they had set out to fight for and, despite over 20 years of Stalinism, had not forgotten it, or accepted the lie that Stalinism was socialism. By 1989-90, when European Stalinism fell apart, all those socialist aspirations had been destroyed by another 20 years of Stalinist rule.
Reading about Czechoslovakia made me aware of the complexities and hybrid forms that Stalinist reality had thrown up. The experience of the 1948 parody of a working-class revolution, and of mass working-class support for it, seems to have thrown a layer of the Workers’ Party/ Independent Socialist League — people like Irving Howe, Manny Geltman, Stanley Plastrik and others, who went on to found the magazine Dissent — into a crisis of political faith and confidence in the working class.
Reading about 1948 did not make me go that way. But it made it impossible for me to take refuge in glib “logical” formulations such as: if Stalinists take power in Western Europe, then ipso facto they will have ceased to be Stalinists.
That solution was too like the Mandelite gibberish that the spread of Stalinism was the refutation of “socialism in one country”. Yes, but it wasn’t the point — and it did not signify that Stalinist society, whose first nascent ideologising in the mid-20s had centred around “socialism in one country”, had been superseded.
Portugal posed the issue for us, when the Communist Party tried to take power after the 1974 fall of Christian clerical fascism. We didn’t come out of it all that well. Hope and the orthodox Trotskyist tradition weighed down on us.