The Commune - A Radical New Grouping or Old Left in a New Form?

Since their public emergence in the autumn of 2008, the International Communists who publish The Commune have managed to establish an impressive range of activity including the publication of a monthly paper, several pamphlets and leaflets and a series of public meetings and discussion groups. But who are and what is The Commune and, is their appearance on the political scene to be welcomed by revolutionaries or, are they just another manifestation of radical social democracy? We attempt to answer these questions.

Beyond State Capitalism

In April of this year, the Midlands Discussion Forum hosted a meeting on the response of revolutionaries to the economic crisis. The meeting was mainly attended by groups and individuals associated with the communist and libertarian left. One of those present was an experienced militant who had recently joined The Commune. He gave a frank account of his break with Trotskyism and his disillusionment with the bankruptcy of Trotskyist left-social democratic politics for the working class. Whilst his perspectives were not those of the CWO or most of the others at that meeting, he appeared nonetheless to be a genuine and sincere militant, and probably not atypical of others who believe that The Commune offers a new way forward through the dead-end of the Trotskyist and Stalinist left.

Reading the Platform of The Commune it becomes immediately apparent that this group’s understanding of communism goes way beyond the multiple variants of state capitalism peddled by much of the so called left. It is clearly stated that communism is the self- emancipation of the working class through the abolition of wage labour.

“Communism will abolish the system of wage-labour so that our ability to work will cease to be a commodity to be sold to an employer; it will be a truly classless society; there will be no state, no managers or organisations superior to those of workers’ self-management.”

It is clear that this perspective is radically different from leftist groups such as the SWP whose understanding of ‘socialism’ is pretty much limited to nationalisation albeit under workers’ control (whatever that means), i.e. the working class manages its own exploitation. As
The Commune_ say:

“This conception of communism has nothing in common with the fake “socialisms” of the Stalinist state planning of the former USSR, of the sweatshops of China, and social-democratic “humane” capitalism. No nation in the world today is communist, nowhere is the economy managed by the workers. These models of “socialism” have all proven to be complete failures, maintaining and in many cases aggravating the working class’s lack of self- determination. There is no particular connection between socialism and nationalisation by the state, which merely replaces one set of managers with another.”

The Organisation Question

So far so good, the Platform goes on to talk about internationalism and building links with workers’ organisations in other parts of the world and the need for revolutionary organisations within the working class. Their conception of organisation is somewhat nebulous, seeking to establish a ‘pluralist communist network’

“Our aim is to create a pluralist organisation, a network of committees whose members come together to promote their ideas in an organised manner and to renew them in the practice of the class struggle..”

This organisational model borrows from libertarianism and anarchism. There is no reference to the need to create an international proletarian party which we see as playing an essential role in developing class consciousness and organising the class. The organisation question may seem an academic one in the present period of low level of class struggle, where the influence of revolutionaries in the class is negligible. But in a period of escalating struggle where revolution becomes a possibility, the organisation question becomes crucial. In the 1917 -21 revolutionary wave the fact that a revolutionary working class was able to seize power in Russia but not in Germany was in no small measure due to the more coherent leadership of the Bolshevik Party compared to wavering of the German revolutionary movement and its delay in breaking with Social Democracy.

Another criticism that can be levelled at the platform of The Commune is its lack of any historical perspective or awareness of the lessons of the history of the class struggle. They correctly deride invocation of socialist ‘sacred texts’ as bible study and instead seek to learn the real lessons of workers’ struggles over ‘the last three decades’ - suggesting that anything that happened before that isn’t really worth knowing. However a carte blanche rejection of all the ‘sacred texts’ suggests a dangerous empiricism lacking any theoretical underpinning and increasing the risk of repeating mistakes of the past. There is a huge body of revolutionary theory so we do not need to reinvent the wheel. But this does not involve a slavish adherence to old texts, it is up to us to decide what is still relevant and what can be safely jettisoned.

A clearer understanding of what The Commune are about perhaps comes from examining their publications and activities rather than the formal statements in their platform. To their credit there are a number of excellent articles on issues such as the sham nature of parliamentary democracy and the bankruptcy of leftist ideas such as nationalisation. But it appears that a number of contributors to The Commune are academics and trade union officials, which perhaps explains some serious weaknesses in The Commune’s perspectives. The most problematic area is their perspective on how the class struggle needs to develop. They correctly identify the anti-working class nature of the trade union leadership and bureaucracy but, their solution is good old fashioned leftist rank and filism. In other words the rank and file should wrest control of the unions from the bureaucracy and in so doing transform the unions back into genuine working class organisations. This is a historic impossibility as the trade unions never were revolutionary organisations. During the period of capitalist ascendency in the 19th century the unions were able to wrest from the bourgeoisie significant gains for the working class. The fundamental role of the unions is to negotiate the sale of labour power but in the period of prolonged crisis which we have never escaped following the collapse of the post- war boom, the role of the unions is essentially to negotiate worsening conditions as the bourgeoisie have nothing else to offer. Thus the treachery of the unions is a function of their role in capitalist society and not just the greed, corruption and cowardice of the union bosses and bureaucrats. In time rank and file movements would inevitably go the same way unless they reject the limits of trade unionism and struggle outside of and against the unions to create genuine working class unity across sectional and national divides.

A further misconception arises on the issue of workers’ self- management. Of course in a post revolutionary situation workers’ self management would prevail as a fundamental characteristic of socialist production. However The Commune appear to share an anarchist view that workers’ self management can develop within capitalism and contribute to its demise. In Commune No 1 this question is discussed with the Marxist economist Andrew Kliman who correctly argues that within capitalist society workers self-management is self-exploitation and that self-management is only progressive if it arises in the course of class struggle. Unless that struggle goes on to become revolutionary workers self-management remains a defensive measure.

The National Question

Another area where The Commune lacks clarity is in relation to the national question. They quite reasonably denounce national oppression but there appears to be no clear understanding of the fundamentally anti-proletarian nature of national movements. This was demonstrated at a recent Commune discussion meeting in London at which supporters of the Tamil LTTE were given a platform. These speakers were out and out bourgeois nationalists who quite openly stated that they were only interested in the national struggle in Sri Lanka. Inviting these nationalists to speak indicated that perhaps The Commune think that there is something progressive about their struggle. Similarly The Commune seem happy to debate with the Labour left. We don’t doubt that The Commune will challenge what these leftists say but the perspective seems to be that such people are part (albeit in a misguided way) of the ‘labour movement’ that encompasses social democracy through to communism and anarchism. The Commune do not appear to have a clear understanding of class lines which are forged fromreal historical experiences, thus debates with the bourgeois left are seen as a valid political activity. Unfortunately history tells us that the Labour Party and their fellow travellers are fundamentally bourgeois. Remember it was the German Social Democrats who murdered revolutionaries such as Liebknecht and Luxemburg and destroyed the revolutionary potential of the German workers from within. Regarding the social democratic left as potential allies is a serious error that would inevitably have disastrous consequences for any future revolutionary movement.

The Commune are a new formation and it would be churlish not to give them the benefit of the doubt. They have a good understanding of what communism is and a decent analysis of issues such as state capitalism and the irrelevance of nationalisation to the working class. However there is an irony that in their desire to break the mould of the ‘old left’ they are actually sustaining a number of classic leftist misconceptions. The most serious of these is the belief that the trade unions can be transformed into revolutionary organisations and, a failure to distinguish between the labour movement and the revolutionary class struggle. The Commune do show potential but at the same time there is a risk that they could lapse back into the classic formulae of the left, the capitalist left that is. We hope that they will move forward to more coherent positions and we would welcome the opportunity to enter a debate with them on these issues.


Revolutionary Perspectives

Journal of the Communist Workers’ Organisation -- Why not subscribe to get the articles whilst they are still current and help the struggle for a society free from exploitation, war and misery? Joint subscriptions to Revolutionary Perspectives (3 issues) and Aurora (our agitational bulletin - 4 issues) are £15 in the UK, €24 in Europe and $30 in the rest of the World.