I was a teenage communist

by Tom Miller

The 100 year anniversary of the October revolution is a strange one for someone who developed their political opinions as a Communist. I remember learning about the revolution in school and, unlike almost all of my classmates, being totally inspired. Though I never joined any Communist party, by late teenage years I was fully signed up on the revolution and the great historical movement I felt it represented. Though I suppose at that age, and particularly as someone who was very much into the punk scene, I was never going to pledge my loyalty to someone else’s views. Which is funny – I routinely have to do this as a Labour Councillor. Which feels a lot safer.

At 32 now, I am just about old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet collapse. But to someone ten years older than me, the idea that ‘any system which had to wall people in must be a bit fucked’ would have been a lot more obvious. Instead my only concentration was really on the failures of various types of conservative thinking. At 16 I was not formed, but I grew up in the North East, a proud but badly hit part of the world. With my family had I moved to Woking at a couple of years beforehand, and I had said goodbye to that part of the world.

As well as disliking aristocracy and hating Fascist-like-stuff, I disliked how unequally people had been treated between and within parts of my own country, and I was decidedly anti-capitalist.

I couldn’t get my head around how people in a single lifetime could accumulate thousands of times more stuff, thousands of times more power over others, or such a greater opportunity to do well in life than someone else. I also couldn’t get why it was ever right for those things to be inherited if it was about working for it. I couldn’t justify how ancient traditions or polite legalities justified any of it. Whether times were good or bad, it couldn’t be meritocratic and it didn’t give people a chance. It certainly hadn’t in 90s Newcastle, and that was pretty clear all round.

So I knew what I was against. The gaps filled quickly.

To me at 16, the October revolution represented the death of a system which literally starved millions in order to preserve class privilege – a system which had to be dragged kicking and screaming even to abandon serfdom, the practice of tying peasants to land as a form of indentured servitude.

It also represented the birth in the largest country in the world of a new social and economic class that most of us now simply recognise as ‘normal people’ – people who work for a living. For most of the revolutionary process, these people had been joined with middle-class liberal business owners and professionals in a struggle to overthrow a regime which hadn’t even allowed free speech or elections.

When the ‘progressive middle classes’ used this platform to continue to force starvation wages and conscription for a murderous and needless world war, it was clear that only a different type of democracy could triumph – these people too had become oppressors and defenders of something profoundly backwards.

But the new democracy never really came to be – again, the people who captured the state put their own protection first.

Realising this critique of the early soviet years and the direction it led to under Stalin gave me an interest in Trotskyism, but again the sects behind this line of thinking seemed even weirder and more out of touch than the official Communists, who themselves were totally out of touch with working class people’s lives and opinions – and modern history.

Despite the value in some of the left press’s reporting, you couldn’t even make arguments from the Morning Star in most pubs without getting the piss ripped out of you, let alone something from Socialist Appeal or Solidarity. Turns out loads of the publishing sects have covered up rape or sexual abuse too, which is obviously down to vile individuals, but facilitated by the secretive political cultures and power structures which would not have been alien to the Russian emigre exiles of the 1910s.

The revolution did lead to some clear historical victories, to the benefit of liberal democracies as well as for Communists. It is no coincidence that voters in liberal countries strongly favoured Communism over fascism before WWII, nor that this trend continues in modern Britain, even expressing itself among Tory voters.

It’s worth wondering, without the Bolsheviks, whether the revolution could have survived – would any of the other parties have managed to protect it against the well organised and financed White Russians, or their international allies including Britain, 14 of whom invaded the country?

Consequently, would Hitler would have been defeated with no USSR, no partisans? Would Fascism have taken over Europe before then with no Spanish volunteers? Would social democracy would have succeeded in the post-war West? Would China would have remained a feudal society, and would the imperial subjects of the world now be free from colonial rule? All of these look unlikely.

We can wonder whether we would have gone to space. Remembering in particular that long before Stalin banned homosexuality, it had been legalised under Lenin… that the Male pale and stale USSR financed anti-racist and anti-colonial projects around the world, and mandated workplace equality for women… we also have to wonder whether feminists, black activists and LGBT people would have had a tougher struggle without being able to point to these examples.

But.

Most fundamentally of all, the USSR collapsed, and for good reasons, some of which took decades to play out. The truth became fiction in what passed for political debate. Famines, judicial murder and mass killings spent a couple of decades becoming normalised, before being buried by the secret state, backed up by waves of surveillance and censorship. The country along with its vassals and allies fell victim to the economic and cultural stagnation inherent to statist centralism. People overall felt they had no control over the system or stake in it. And on all levels, it eventually collapsed in.

In doing so, it destroyed Soviet countries societies and economies, and discredited the whole left internationally for at least 3 decades – something which had sold itself as the biggest step forward left us only with the biggest step back. A true believer will always blame the wolves of the West for post-Soviet hardship and the drubbing of the wider left – and then politely rub their hands when you point out it was their system which collapsed, or which mutated before, yes – collapsing.

This is something I’m glad to have recognised by the time I turn 20 – I know quite a few for whom this didn’t really register.

So many of the drawbacks and costs of the Soviet Union and the Bolshevik legacy were totally unnecessary, even in the conditions of its under-developed civil society and economy, and some powerful external threats. Basic civil rights, aspects of multi-party democracy, and some level of economic autonomy were all things which could have been afforded without placing the gains of the October revolution in danger. It was not external threats which brought down the Soviet Union, but its own internal contradictions and the fact that so few people ended up left with much to support about it continuing. After all, they had been shut out from governing or steering it for decades.

At the end of the day, it’s better when anyone in power has to have majority opinion on side, even if it means limits and compromises. For the left it is an essential.

By this time I realised this I’d also had a near miss in a workplace safety incident and I joined a union not long after. I started to think about politics in terms of mainstream beliefs and every day life. The Iraq war was now raging without much justification, and thousands of civilians were needlessly dying. Real world shit.

My increasing distance from Communism and ‘abstract academic politics’ generally was settled by my second year of uni, and unlike many who left over Iraq, the war meant that I felt a burning need to get into Labour and turn it around.

I see nothing wrong with political intellectuals, but ‘adult me’ only really sees a point in that when it is realistic and applied. People need reasons but ultimately what you do matters more than what you think or say. As the years went, I stopped even caring about foreign policy as much, compared to what I know I can affect closer to home.

But, 1917 swirls around us. There are those in politics who are unable to imagine a left not based in some kind of past experiences, especially in an era which has been a bit uncontested and boring, in which our opponents have dominated even our own movement. But unless checked with an ear for real lived experiences, this outlook can make it difficult to tell past failures failures from successes, or to engage with how political and economic forces have changed or re-aligned.

Ironically, this kind of ‘trad left’ disposition was part of what drove the latter years of Soviet failure. Whilst ‘horseshoe theory’ is bollocks (and an aid to both the alt-right and Holocaust revisionists), there is no need to base any modern political outlook on Soviet templates, nor to deny Soviet crimes, or try to find prestige in its widely discredited name. Outside of the far left, there isn’t any.

The democratic left allying with Communists has been important to past campaigns, from the Bevanites supporting the Spanish Republican war drive through to anti-Apartheid and the Poll Tax. But whilst it’s useful to strike together, there is only cost without benefit when it comes to sharing a marching banner. As memory of the Soviet Union fades with its shit cars, bans on rock music and its elderly male wardens, nostalgia or apologetics are no more useful, but they are asserted with growing confidence.

And sure, the soviet system had progressive achievements, and there is nothing wrong with admitting this (as I have above). But so did Victorian capitalism. Who cares? The point is that it is not a useful blueprint.

Some of the USSR’s problems and flaws were only fully apparent by the late 1960s or mid 70s, but all of them had common roots in 1917, which removed the need for participation or popular consent, both of which were actively suppressed by the mid-1920s. For socialists living in modern western-style democracies the long-burn lessons of the Soviet Union’s collapse (and how some of us reacted) should seem obvious.

  • There’s no point in a left which isn’t about winning or majority support, or which depends on shutting down basic freedoms.
  • Mainstream class politics with wide backing trumps small sects and cults – rarely indeed do the two meet.
  • Debates within the left should be honest, open and transparent. Internal politics should be seriously contested.
  • The broad left itself is a coalition of different voices and class forces. Usually they can coexist, and when politically diverse parts of the left and centre-left have reason to throw their lot together with organised workers, the common project is stronger.
  • Not everything in politics is about the economic base even for many Marxists. We’ve evolved a complex and political culture as well as a very politically and economically diverse class system. People expect outreach and participation.
  • Groups are oppressed in capitalism for reasons not directly about class.
  • The right dominates culture, and we must challenge this to win any control.
  • We can’t run an economy without international trade or demand-led production, or people have no stake in economic success. It will rely on inflation, and then shut down as quick as a Cuban railway system. Nor can we capitulate to the right as many 90s centre-lefts did, outsourcing politics to market competition, when private interests also don’t give people a stake in success, especially when private productivity stalls, we lack national leadership and we have weak unions . This is really the key point behind the modern left’s existence, but tensions with the need for global trade define our challenges.
  • Public good trumps private good. But political systems need reasons to act accordingly. Public ownership needs to have tangible benefits for control and reward to workers and customers, as well as having a strategic role for the state. Without these, we might as well let someone else take financial risks, private or mutual, and mitigate resulting social risks. Likewise, one of the early successes of the USSR was the NEP. Makes sense. Centralist production in the USSR often failed to meet basic need and fell over completely when consumer goods were needed. Does anyone really need nationalised rationing of telephone handsets?
  • Art, science, journalism, politics. Let people express themselves.
  • Modernity and fluidity fights stagnation and has intrinsic value, not least in the era of global warming, ageing societies, and mass migration. Stagnant politics which resists change is bad news for humans. Ease up and don’t create brittle political systems. If they are popular enough to defend, and can also adapt, they will survive.
  • Our international alliances should encourage peace as a primary goal, but let’s demand policies of economic and social liberation from our allies instead of ‘uncritical support’ type ‘anti-imperialism’. The Cold War set low standards for everyone involved and meant that internationalism for the Svoiet state was not always about greater autonomy for working people. Why continue?
  • We need to organise ourselves, find allies, and be rooted in the present.

These opinions are as compatible with much of Marxism as they are with social democracy and the centre left. There is no reason not to share a basic platform, when it comes to learning from Soviet shortcomings. But admittedly, they have less to say to the developing world generally, and especially in formally Communist states. What people like me say cannot matter there.

100 years on, the legacy of 1917 is a long way from clear, particularly with the international rise of China and similar states such as Vietnam, as well as the stagnation and isolation of post-Soviet Russia. The revolution trickles down as finance in huge engineering projects, private investments in capitalist markets across the globe, and military geopolitics between great powers – a hilarious historical irony.

Despite the failure of the soviets and of western Communist Parties, parts of Marxism still inspire me. Marx took economics, relationships between ‘things’, and made clear that it is really about relationships between people. His work made clear that this can be expressed in formal politics, latent ideologies, or simply going to work. In doing so, he showed us the poverty of high-minded moral philosophy or epistemology when it ignores the importance everyday experience, overlooks power and society, and does not produce social change.

And it is not just about economics, because everyday life and political being is about culture too. Marxists like Eric Hobsbawm or Stuart Hall, both of the Gramscian tradition, are invaluable to helping leftists understand the realism of a world which jarrs with our outlooks, and also the advanced strategies of our well financed modern opponents in liberal democracies – the so called ‘war of position’. But despite the Leninist origins of their thought, it is precisely the steps which they take beyond Leninism which release their value.

The Russian revolution and the society it gave birth to fundamentally gives shape to the context of post-Soviet Marxism, but vastly more importantly shapes politics in every aspect of the modern world. As a result of its ignominious conclusion in Russia and the Eastern bloc, the workers movement which was rising before 1917 all over the world has long been in need of adaption and recovery.

The above bullet points should be clear enough to people on the left in Europe and the Americas. In the world as it is now, if we are to have a transformative left, it must be an open one.