You can‘t vote for communism


Over the last couple of years, we have seen leftist activists throwing themselves into electoral movements – Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and more recently the movement for Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and for Bernie Sanders in the US[1]. To some extent, enthusiasm about these popular campaigns is certainly understandable after decades of only defensive or unsuccessful left wing struggles which were not able to achieve structural change. However, there is also a lot of confusion about what to actually expect from an electoral strategy, since these movements often talk the language of radical change (e.g. Sander’s “political revolution”) and socialism, but in fact only have a social democratic program for regulating capitalism. I would argue that for radical leftists, it makes sense to figure out where we actually want to get – let’s call it communism – in order to figure out how to get there and what our practice should look like. (Spoiler alert: electoralism is not such a practice.)

What is communism?

In The German Ideology, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels write that communism is not “a state of affairs which is to be established”, but the “real movement which abolishes the present state of things”. However, they still make some points about how this “state of affairs” that will be reached through the abolition of the present state of things might look. For example, in the Communist Manifesto, they write that communism is an “association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”, and in the Critique of the Gotha Programme Marx names “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need” as the principle of the highest form of communism.

This means that wage labour, as well as the commodity form and thus money and private property, would be abolished. People would get what they need without having to give anything (like money) for it in exchange. People would manage re/production[2] in a self-organized way and distribute the goods that are produced either freely (in case of abundance) or to those who need them most (in case of scarcity). This should not be misunderstood as an ethical utopia where people have to be inherently “good”. Rather, communism is a societal structure where the inclusion of others is functional. Since people do not produce in isolation from each other, but within networks of free cooperation, they have to take into account the needs of those with whom they cooperate – if they cannot force them to cooperate through wage labour (which is a form of coercion) or a state apparatus, like today.

The problem with state socialism

This goal of communism has generally been shared by most Marxists (as well as anarcho-Communists), even if they may not have explicitly thought about the organization of a communist society in detail. Where they diverge from faction to faction, however, is the question of how to get there.

Traditionally, many Marxists have focused on gaining state power first to establish a transitional society. They can refer to Marx’ Critique of the Gotha program here, where Marx named “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need” as the principle of the highest form of communism, which was in his opinion only possible when the productive forces were sufficiently developed. Until then, he suggested a model where people would not receive according to their needs but according to how much they worked, and where the state would not be abolished, but led by workers. Vladimir Lenin later called this transitional stage “socialism” to distinguish it from the ultimate goal of communism. I will call it state socialism here, since socialism is often used in a much broader sense.

The problem with state socialism is that it leaves fundamental capitalist relations intact. The difference between it and capitalism is that production is not organized by the market where capitalists compete to try to increase profits, but by the state that tries to centrally plan the production. This leads to the question of how this central plan is enforced. This can happen either through brute force, or – which is much easier – through wage labour. Private property is not abolished, but people only get access to it when they work according to the plan. The commodity form, and thus the contradiction between use value and exchange value, remains intact. People might be motivated to produce good use values, but they have to orient themselves towards exchange value in order to make a living. The state as economic planner is interested in good, yet cheap products, while the production units are interested in minimizing their effort while getting more money (or other equivalents) from the state. Thus, they still need to externalize costs and increase exploitation, almost like in capitalism. The lack of market competition takes removes some of the pressure to produce exchange value, but also leads to crappier products.

While there are many problems inherent in state socialism, the biggest question is probably how this transitional stage is supposed to move forward towards a much freer communist society which would include the withering away of the state. For most Marxists, gaining state power in order to establish socialism became the priority; the question of how to reach communism became secondary at best. Historically, state socialist countries have all either developed brutal, totalitarian bureaucracies, collapsed altogether, or moved towards free market capitalism. Nowhere has there been a development towards communism.

This did not, however change the goal of many state socialists of gaining state power. They share this goal with reformist social democrats like Corbyn and Sanders. In fact, it seems to have become so much of a priority for them that they actually forget what they wanted to get state power for in the first place – which is why they throw themselves into electoral movements for moderate social democrats, just because they speak a seemingly radical language of “socialism”.

The problem with reformism

These reformist, social democratic electoral movements have not questioned capitalism – far from it. In fact, Sanders has explicitly said multiple times that when he refers to democratic socialism, he means a welfare state like in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries – regulated capitalism, so to speak. While it would of course be a life-saving improvement to have Medicare for all, it is also necessary to consider the limitations of such a social democratic programme.

Within capitalism, the state is dependent on a growing economy, which generates the jobs and tax money that the state needs in order to actually do anything. When a state establishes high social and ecological standards, such as a high minimum wage or a carbon tax that make production more expensive for companies, they tend to move to other countries where they can produce more cheaply. Historically, social democracy has only been possible under specific circumstances, such as high growth and productivity rates, or the inter-system competition with the Eastern bloc in the post-war era. Social democracy is also inherently limited to a single nation state. To regulate capitalism in a way that makes it socially just and ecologically sustainable without externalizing costs is impossible. This can also be seen in social democracy’s favorite example of Sweden. While that country does have a relatively high carbon tax, this is reduced for those sectors that produce for export and have to compete internationally.

Even if social democratic reformism might attain some improvements, it cannot solve capitalism’s fundamental contradictions, let alone pave the way for communism.

Communism is a movement from below

If the state is not a tool that can be used to establish communism, how do we get there instead? If we do not consider communism a question of who holds state power, but a question of social relations beyond state and market, we can already see it everywhere in embryonic forms. Communism is alive in the commons; both traditional commons where land and other resources are shared and used for people’s needs, as well as modern commons such as open source software. It can even be seen – though in a very restricted way – within the capitalist economy, where self-organization has become a productive force. But most of all, it is alive everywhere where people resist oppression and build relationships of solidarity. In struggle, it is not a question of ethics or charity to include other peoples’ needs, but it is functional: we can only win when we stick together. The role of a communist movement might be to link all those existing communist relations together, to appropriate resources such as land, housing and means of production and organize re/production in a communist way – without the mediations of state and market.

If the state has any role to play in this, it would be to distribute resources to the movement. It is much more likely, however, that communism needs to be fought for against the state. This does not mean that communists should necessarily abstain from voting. Through elections, we have the possibility to vote for our preferred enemy, for conditions under which struggle might be easier. However, we should not put our energy into electoral movements for some boring social democrats who actually have nothing to do with communism at all. You can’t vote for communism; you have to build it from below.

[1] as analyzed and criticized by Daphne Lawless in the latest Fightback issue on electoralism:

[2] Production and reproduction, which are no longer separate spheres.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Chelsea Manning’s gender identity

article by Anne Russell, reprinted from

The Queer Avengers (Wellington) are holding a solidarity action with Chelsea Manning on 2pm Saturday the 7th of September, at the US Embassy [Facebook event]

For the most part, gender minorities operating in the public sphere are recognised by their gender first and the content of their work second. This is why Rolling Stone articles on“Women Who Rock” kettle together artists as musically and lyrically diverse as Taylor Swift, Missy Elliott and Sleater-Kinney, as though ‘woman’ is a subgenre of music. Even at comparatively progressive activist events, cisgender women and transgender people—particularly trans* women—rarely dominate the overall speaker line-up. Rather, they are given separate sessions to discuss sexism and/or transphobia, implying that these issues are only problems for the oppressed parties in question.

In contrast, issues like mass surveillance and military crimes are framed as issues that everyone should be concerned about, evidenced recently by the scale of controversy around the NSA leaks and the recently-passed GCSB Bill. This is not to say that they are not important or damaging problems, merely that they receive much more cultural attention than the routine struggles of oppressed gender minorities. While the soldier formerly known as Bradley Manning was hitherto widely considered a hero in radical movements, figures like radical activist and trans* woman Sylvia Rivera are not widely known outside the trans* rights movement itself. It is arguable that the activist world, like everywhere else, is still somewhat divided into gendered categories, at least on a surface level: the cis men examine military documents while the cis women and trans* folk talk about unequal access to healthcare, cultural invisibility and sexual harassment.

Private Manning’s recent announcement that she is a transgender woman—to be known as Chelsea Manning from here on—thus represents a stunning collision of different activist factions. Manning released a statement last week announcing that she identifies as female, and wishes to undergo hormone therapy as soon as possible. This is not entirely new or unexpected information, as Manning’s chatlogs with informant Adrian Lamo in May 2010 read: “I wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed so much, if it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me… plastered all over the world press… as a boy.” Moreover, her lawyers attempted to use gender identity disorder as a defence in her trial. However, many of Manning’s supporters felt uncomfortable referring to her as female without the explicit go-ahead from her.

That time has come, and yet many commentators remain confused orhostile(trigger warning: transphobia) to the announcement. Manning’s requests have been fairly straightforward—“I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun”—but many media outlets, particularly Fox News and CNN, continue to use her historical name and masculine pronouns. Since swathes of information about transgenderism are merely a Google search away, this misgendering demonstrates how heavily entrenched transphobia and the gender binary remain in public discourse. [Read more…]

Cornel West: “President Obama is a global George Zimmerman”

Transcript of an interview on Democracy Now [video here]

AMY GOODMAN: In the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict and the mass protests around the country, we turn right now to Dr. Cornel West, professor at Union Theological Seminary, author of numerous books, co-host of the radio show Smiley & West with Tavis Smiley. Together, they wrote the book The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto, among Cornel West’s other books.

Professor Cornel West—

CORNEL WEST: Yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama surprised not only the press room at the White House, but the nation, I think, on Friday, in his first public remarks following the George Zimmerman acquittal. What are your thoughts?

CORNEL WEST: Well, the first thing, I think we have to acknowledge that President Obama has very little moral authority at this point, because we know anybody who tries to rationalize the killing of innocent peoples, a criminal—George Zimmerman is a criminal—but President Obama is a global George Zimmerman, because he tries to rationalize the killing of innocent children, 221 so far, in the name of self-defense, so that there’s actually parallels here. [Read more…]

France’s occupation in Mali: Past and present

mali france

Joel Cosgrove

Most mainstream reporting on events in Mali included various tropes, such as that Europe is under threat from Islamic fundamentalism, that the invasion of French troops was about freeing the local people, and the involvement of French troops was defended as being an undesirable but necessary outcome resulting from a bad situation. The defence for the invasion has been remarkably similar to that made for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq at the time.

As with Iraq and Afghanistan the reality is that the occupation of Mali has come about as part of an imperialist contest for political power and resources. Although the French government may be assuaged by the ease of its military’s entry into Mali, in operations such as these the invasionary period is one of the less difficult phases of an occupation.

During the first phase airpower was used effectively against fixed and clear rebel positions. Now the situation has developed. Already recent kidnap victims have reported of hideouts hacked into the side of caves, as well as petrol and ammunition dumps hidden in various parts of the north. There is now a transition to the type of irregular guerilla warfare that has proven so hard for the occupiers to deal with in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In a recent article on the French adventure, long-term Middle East/North African correspondent Patrick Cockburn made a similar point:

This was one of the many lessons of the US takeover of Iraq and Afghanistan. Most Iraqis and Afghans were glad to see the departure of the previous regimes. Iraqis wanted an end to Saddam Hussein’s rule, but this did not mean that they welcomed foreign occupation. Similarly, in Afghanistan, foreign forces were initially popular and the Taliban discredited. But in both cases foreign forces soon behaved like colonial occupiers, and were resented as such. [Read more…]

Paperback books will be the death of us, or how “industry” always finds new technology threatening

If a book is any good, the cheaper the better

-George Bernard Shaw

E-books are a new thing, the idea of a “digital book” is something that has been scoffed at, but within the past few years, the e-book has steadily gained ground on the more traditional form. Barnes and Noble claim they sell three times as many e-books compared to all forms of physical books and Amazon claim that since the start of the year they are selling 114 e-books for every 100 physical books. It was George Santayana who said “Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it” and so for any discussion of the latest developments in technology and social relations, we need to start with an understanding of what has gone before.

George Orwell is quoted as saying “If other publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them” in relation to paperback books, specifically Penguin books. Orwell was writing in response to the potential lowering of royalties that writers could expect to receive in the paperback form as opposed to hardback.

It was Allen Lane who saw the huge gap in the market in which he could exploit and profit hugely from. Inexpensive paperbacks had existed from the 19th century onwards, whether as pamphlets, airport/train novels or the wider genre of pulp fiction. Lane didn’t invent the paperback, but he upped the quality in both production and design alongside the low cost, revolutionising the format (much like Apple with the iPhone and iPad) suddenly making literature available on a mass-scale, moving away from its earlier perception as a sophisticated and expensive commodity to a mass-based medium, available to all. Like the printing press before it and digitial technology after it, paperback publishing revolutionised the way the book was seen and consumed. [Read more…]