Something is desperately wrong with the world; everyone knows it. Hundreds of millions of people face starvation, even while transport planes stand idle and mountains of food are destroyed. Millions die from diseases that can be cured with a handful of tablets. All around us we see skills and talents and hopes and potential being crushed out by the twin evils of mass unemployment and menial, pointless work. The liberating possibilities inherent in computer technology are systematically squandered. Technological advance in many other fields has slowed to a crawl; in some it has even gone into reverse, with Concorde mothballed and supersonic flight once again only available for military purposes. The social order is seizing up. Culture is obsessed with 'heritage': we assume as a matter of course that nobody can make paintings or buildings or poetry as well as they used to in the past, so we look after whatever we can 'conserve' and we sneer at any attempt to go beyond it. We are taught to take it for granted that progress means danger, reform means restriction, change means decay. Even our image of the future is affected. We used to be told we'd soon be travelling everywhere by jet-pack, and it would be fine to run the domestic robot all day because the atomic piles meant power would be 'too cheap to meter'; today a thousand sermons, speeches, essays, and movies portray the future in darker and more apocalyptic colours, haunted by environmental degradation and by catastrophe-fantasies that grow ever more extreme. The best, the very best, that is held out is the forlorn hope that the status quo might last our time. When Francis Fukuyama wrote that 'we have trouble imagining a world that is radically better than our own', the effect he was going for was one of post-Cold-War euphoria; today his comment sounds more like a confession of bankruptcy.
It is the bankruptcy of a class, and of a whole system of society. Capitalism has entered its phase of terminal decline. Bourgeois ideologists' inability to come up with any perspective of further progress is convincing evidence of it, as is the way capitalism is forced to restrict and strangulate the potential of new technologies in order to retain outmoded concepts of profit and private property. Millions of people are turning away in disgust from the social and political Establishment–but, so far, only a tiny fraction of them are coming over to the Left. Most of the disaffected relapse into empty cynicism, or else they look for solutions from religious cults, conspiracy theories, radical environmentalism, the far Right, identity politics, single issues, pure ethics, and occasional outbursts of despairing violence.
This reflects the historic, worldwide defeat that has been suffered by the Left–a defeat of which the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and its allies was only one headline symptom. Marxism, which once succeeded in synthesizing the spontaneous demands of the world's exploited and oppressed people into a unitary theory and practice, has gradually disintegrated into a bewildering variety of mutually hostile or mutually incomprehensible 'Marxisms'. The Marxism of the organized Left often seems Byzantine in its complexity, Byzantine also in its schisms and recriminations over details of terminology; and the Marxism, or post-Marxism, of the academy has been thinned down to a few 'dialectical' catchphrases. Even non-Marxian socialists find themselves profoundly disoriented. In Britain, the manifestations of this defeat have included the stagnation and ultimate breakup of the Communist Party of Great Britain and the decisive rout of the Left wing in the Labour Party. Whatever their faults, these two tendencies used to be the sheet-anchor of organized socialism in Britain; their loss means that a whole generation of workers has been deprived of any sustained exposure to socialist politics.
Historic defeats of this magnitude can be overcome; they cannot be reversed. Those on the Left whose objective is to restore or to re-create either the C.P.G.B. or the Labour Party, as those organizations existed in the 1970s, are attempting the impossible. There is no road that leads back to the era of social democratic consensus, no possibility of escape into past phases of capitalism's development: the only way forward is forward.
And that means we have a lot of hard thinking to do. Communism itself, the advance to a classless society of free people in which wealth will belong to society and production will be planned for use, has never looked more timely; but the strategies, programmes, and organizations that were meant to get us there are creakingly anachronistic. The Left is demonstrably failing to enunciate a vision that is capable of inspiring people. All too often we find ourselves concentrating on exclusively reactive and defensive campaigns: don't privatize x, don't cut y, don't abolish z. In the absence of communism as a coherent objective, these defensive struggles fall apart into a series of separate single-issue lobbies. The historic task facing Marxists in modern Britain is to develop a new theoretical and political synthesis–a strategic vision that can begin to re-integrate the disparate single issues and sectional campaigns into a consistent Marxist understanding.
Consciousness has a way of lagging behind real development, so it's no surprise to find a majority of Leftists continuing to define themselves in terms of 'traditions' that now belong to history. Just the same happened after the last general crisis of the world socialist movement, in 1914: even now there are still little groups of 'impossibilists' and De Leonites out there, still valiantly upholding their traditional answers to questions world history no longer asks. (We would be interested to learn of any Fourierist or Owenite survivals, living fossils belonging to an even older stratum in the prehistory of our movement.) But to define ourselves today as being 'Stalinist' or 'Trotskyist', 'Maoist' or 'official communist', would make no more sense than calling ourselves Saint-Simonians, Guesdists, or Lassalleans. The passion that does still attach to the 'traditional' labels is largely a by-product of the Left's pervasive betrayal complex: 'Stalinism', 'Trotskyism', and so forth have become emotional symbols by which Leftists express their own determination not to 'betray the revolution'. The need for a new synthesis means transcending these inherited shibboleths; but a useful first step would be to drain the excess emotion, allowing Leftists to disagree about aspects of socialist history without it ending in mutual hatred and contempt.
Despite the ferocity of its betrayal complex, the Left in this country is dangerously untroubled by failure. Most of the activities we busy ourselves with are done for their own sake, and we feel better for having done them; by definition they can neither really succeed nor fail. Like the working-class religious movements of the past, to which the Left owes something of its culture, we are happy to be 'nonconformists' and 'dissenters', the saved remnant amid a wicked society, reassuring ourselves that at least we have not allowed the spark to die out; as we sing in our great socialist anthem, 'we'll keep the Red Flag flying here'–but we don't really expect to raise it over Buckingham Palace or Number Ten. If the nonconformist conscience ever feels a bit dull, a bit lacking in romance, we can add a touch of glitter by contemplating defeated revolutions and heroic failures: we find the Spanish Civil War (where the Left lost) much more congenial than the Russian Civil War (where it won), we prefer Che Guevara dead in Bolivia to Fidel Castro grappling with the problems of building a new society, and for some of us the victory of a revolutionary movement is itself strong presumptive evidence that it must have 'betrayed the revolution'.
This state of mind is not without a certain wrongheaded nobility, and of course part of our suspicion of power and success is grounded in our experience of the grubbiness and viciousness that do characterize power and success in capitalist British society; but it really isn't good enough. The crying, urgent needs of the exploited and oppressed cannot be met by a policy of reminding ourselves that 'the world is very evil'. There was a lot of discussion after March 2003 about why the anti-war movement had failed to prevent the invasion of Iraq, but the main reason is perhaps so simple that it tended to escape notice. The people who wanted a war with Iraq had power; the people who didn't had none. We were a majority of the population, we had eloquent spokespeople and wise arguments and competent organizers, but we didn't have any power–so we were ignored. That is how politics works.
The proletariat–the class of propertyless wage workers–must acquire what William Morris called 'intelligence enough to conceive, courage enough to will, power enough to compel.' In today's society, however, the proletariat exists only as something to be studied by sociologists and political economists. 'In itself' it constitutes an overwhelming majority of the population, but it does not exist 'for itself'–as a self-aware class, conscious of its interests and capable of acting. When Leftists refer to 'the working class' we are simply not understood: people think we're talking about that strange amalgam of identities (to do with sector and region and caste and education) that is labelled as 'class' in the ideological culture of British snobbery.
But every day brings new clashes between most people's interests and those of the few who monopolize wealth and power. These clashes inevitably generate popular resistance: trade union militancy, campaigns to defend local services, anti-war and anti-racist activism, etc., etc. Every union branch or campaigning group is potentially a seedbed of class consciousness, allowing people to overcome the artificial barriers of racism, sexism, national chauvinism, religious bigotry, sectional particularism, and other attempts to divide us, and to recognize that we have common interests and common enemies. The experience and the political culture that millions of people can acquire through informed participation in this kind of movement are preconditions for the future emergence of alternative organs of democratic power–the broad, inclusive organizations (communes, soviets, workers' councils) that must be the basic units of socialist democracy. But, even though much of the legwork is typically done by members of the organized Left, these movements' consciousness-raising potential remains largely unrealized. Leftists are oddly shy about raising fundamental issues; we prefer to stick to the immediate demands of the specific movement we are involved in, so in one meeting we talk about Jobs, and in another meeting we talk about The War, and our attempts to relate the two tend to be perfunctory and mechanical. Unsurprisingly, many conclude that Marxism has nothing to contribute but cliches. And if the campaign they have joined fails, as it will do often enough, they are left not with a deeper understanding but with a hopelessness that is frequently misdiagnosed as apathy.
It would be quite wrong, however, to believe that most people are apathetic about politics. Certainly, people are bored by the narrow little side-issues and the raging egos that pass for politics in Parliament and the media; and the Left probably does spend too much of its time talking about 'politics' in the sense of parliamentary games and ministerial tittle-tattle. But politics, in its full sense, embraces every part of life. Wherever you begin, global poverty or your own working conditions, art or civil liberties, jobs or the war, if you dig down to the roots of the matter you will find yourself dealing with the basic structure of society. We need to reach a critical understanding of every aspect of contemporary life, to analyse the experiences of the various popular movements, and to synthesize the results into a consistent Marxist conception. We need to educate ourselves and others in Marxism. We need to engage with people who are already discontented, already looking for ways out, and convince them that Marxist socialism offers the only adequate explanation and the only real solution.
The Communist Corresponding Society was launched in 2008, as a step towards realizing this objective. We publish and distribute literature making the arguments for socialism and communism, and where we have local sections they host discussion circles, study groups, and public talks. We claim no kind of monopoly: indeed, most Left organizations find themselves operating more or less as discussion-and-propaganda groups, even when they style themselves as 'parties'. The C.C.S. differs only in that it approaches this task consciously and deliberately.
It follows that we can be neither for nor against 'Left unity', in the sense in which that term is commonly used. Even if such a thing were possible, lumping all the various Left groups together under a single organizational umbrella wouldn't actually solve any of our underlying problems. There have been numerous attempts, over the last two decades, to set up either a replacement Labour Party or a replacement Communist Party; in every case the results have fallen far short of the proclaimed objectives. The only reasonable conclusion is that the recipe no longer works: the Left's inherited shortlist of 'sensible', 'attainable' demands has lost touch with reality. This situation calls for sustained theoretical work. Unity is not yet among the needs of the hour: clear-sightedness, boldness, and creativity are.
'The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas'; and in an era of capitalist decline, when a decadent ruling class is radiating wave after wave of cynicism, nostalgia, frivolity, and despair, it is vitally important for the Left not to succumb to the prevailing drift. When Leftists encourage people to attend anti-war demonstrations in face-paint or fancy dress, as though mass murder were an opportunity for a street party, we are mirroring the grotesque thoughtlessness of the ruling Establishment itself; when we build up the 1970s as a golden age we chime in with the bourgeoisie's newfound conviction that any golden age must be behind us; when we buy into environmental scare-stories about the need for retrenchment and restraint, as opposed to more and better technology, we risk endorsing the apocalyptic daydreams of a ruling class that fears the future.
Instead, let us unashamedly make the case for a better social order. The ultimate degeneration and failure of the governments that issued from the great revolutions of the twentieth century should not deter us: a socialist and communist movement that has learnt from those first improvised attempts, with all their squalor and grandeur, is a movement equipped with invaluable experience that its predecessors never had. And the socialism of tomorrow will not have to deal with the extreme economic underdevelopment of Russia in 1917 or China in 1949. Capitalism has created all the economic prerequisites for socialism. Even fifty years ago the task of socializing food distribution in any country would have been a formidable one, requiring the establishment of social control over endless thousands of independent small shops; today, in Britain, most people obtain their food supplies from four or five big firms. The supermarkets are already a model of efficient central planning. It is planning with no democratic control or scrutiny, and the whole operation is aimed at realizing maximum profits rather than at the general welfare; but the mechanism is there. A revolutionary proletariat would have nothing left to do except to expropriate the shareholders and turn the work of administration and decision-making over to the usual organs of participatory socialist democracy.
Capitalism is straining towards its opposite. Wherever you look, you see more evidence of its bankruptcy–and of the potential for socialist change. But the organized Left, battered by decades of defeat, is not managing to promote the widespread Marxist political consciousness that would make socialism a realistic proposition. The Communist Corresponding Society calls everyone who shares our perspectives to take part in elaborating, debating, and popularizing a Marxist politics that can resonate with people's experiences today. Some of those who take up this task will want to join our Society; others, in all likelihood, will pursue what is essentially the same objective while remaining members of other organizations (or even of none). We are aware that the C.C.S.'s present very small size restricts the contribution we can make, and we welcome applications for membership: but the most important thing now is to start thinking, discussing, and persuading, rather than to quarrel about which group people should join. In the longer term, of course, it will be a distinct sign of progress when an organization like a Communist Corresponding Society is no longer needed.