Reclaiming Communism

Reclaiming Communism

Thirty years ago on the 9th November 1989, the Berlin Wall, which separated East Germany from West Germany, was breached. This symbolic event led not only to the end of the Cold War but also to the demise of the state capitalist totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe, including Russia. We were then told that "The End of History" had occurred with the imposition of a New World Order led by a triumphant United States. We were also told that "Communism" had collapsed and the ideas of Karl Marx buried with it.

If socialism, as a word, has been dragged through the sewers of 20th and early 21st politics, worse befell communism. However communism's true meaning as a social system of free men and women, working in harmony to produce solely to meet human need, requires to be reclaimed.

Communism and communist emerged, as words in the late 18th century. Both words are associated with Marx and Engels, with the publication of the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO in 1848 on behalf of the Communist League.

In his book KEYWORDS (1976), Raymond Williams noted that the word communism had been in use long before the publication of the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO. One of the first uses of the word in its modern sense, according to Jacques Grandjonc, in his book SOME DATES ABOUT THE USE OF THE WORDS COMMUNIST AND COMMUNISM (1984), is in a letter sent by Victor d'Hupay to Restif de la Bretonne around 1785 in which d'Hupay describes himself as an auteur communiste (communist author)

Communists from Germany living in London met at the Communist Club in Soho. The club was founded in 1840 and had links with Karl Marx. The club formed an important link between Chartism, the First International, the Social Democratic Federation and then the Socialist Party of Great Britain. The SPGB had our first head office there and also held meetings at the address (see THE COMMUNIST CLUB by Keith Scholey, no date).

The London Communist Propaganda Society was founded in 1841, by Goodwyn Barmby. John Goodwyn Barmby was a utopian communist, influenced by the ideas of Robert Owen and the early 19th century French Utopian socialist theorists. Barmby launched propaganda organisations to spread these utopian ideas, as well as founding his own communist community in west London. He is often associated with the growth of socialist and utopian projects during the rise of Chartism.

In France Communiste is recorded in 1840 in use by Cabet in 1840 who Marx and Engels dismissed as a utopian communist whose supporters opposed the "progressive historical development of the proletariat" (COMMUNIST MANIFESTO p. 90). Cabet was convicted and sentenced to five years' exile. He fled to England and sought political asylum. Influenced by Robert Owen, Thomas More and Charles Fourier, Cabet wrote VOYAGE ET AVENTURES DE LORD WILLIAM CARISDALL EN ICARIE ("Travel and Adventures of Lord William Carisdall in Icaria", 1840), which depicted a utopia in which a democratically elected governing body controlled all economic activity and closely supervised social life. "Icaria" is the name of his fictional country.

Marx and Engels used the word communism and communist rather than socialism and socialist because Communism was a working class movement while socialist at the time were associated with respectable reforms. In Part Three of the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO there groups were labelled "Reactionary Socialism", "Feudal Socialism", "Petty Bourgeoisie Socialism", "German or "True" Socialism" and so on. The only exception was the utopian communists like Fourier and Cabet who were written off for their utopian speculations.

In the Preface to the 1888 edition of the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, Engels wrote:

Yet, when it was written, we could not have called it a socialist manifesto. By Socialists, in 1847, were understood, on the one hand the adherents of the various Utopian systems: Owenites in England, Fourierists in France, both of them already reduced to the position of mere sects, and gradually dying out; on the other hand, the most multifarious social quacks who, by all manner of tinkering, professed to redress, without any danger to capital and profit, all sorts of social grievances, in both cases men outside the working-class movement, and looking rather to the "educated" classes for support (p.55).

Engels saw no problem in using the word Socialism when he published his pamphlet, SOCIALISM: UTOPIAN AND SCIENTIFIC (1880).

Marx and Engels were also quite clear that Communism meant the abolition of buying and selling (p. 75). This would mean the end of buying and selling of labour power; no labour markets and no employers and employees leaving:

" association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all" (p. 81)

The central principle of the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO was that the working class and the working class alone were to establish communism. Marx and Engels wrote:

"All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority" (THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO AND THE LAST HUNDRED YEARS Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1948)

Marx and Engels often used communism and socialism interchangeably. Marx used many terms to refer to a post-capitalist society - "socialism", "Communism", "free association of producers", etc. He used these terms completely interchangeably. The notion that "socialism" and "Communism" are distinct historical stages is alien to Marx’s work and were distorted by Lenin and the Bolsheviks long after his death. Lenin, in his THEN STATE AND REVOLUTION (1917), distorted Marx by referring to two stages as 'socialism' and 'communism' respectively, where the former would have a money economy, labour markets and a coercive state.

In his CRITIQUE OF THE GOTHA PROGRAMME (1875), Marx made a distinction between two stages of 'communist society'. In both cases the stages were based on common ownership. There was a lower stage, with individual consumption being rationed through the use of labour-time vouchers, and a higher stage when people contributed to society according to their ability and take from what is produced to meet their needs. In both stages there would be the absence of money and a coercive state. Lenin however snatched at the notion of a two-tier revolution and built up from this brief reference, in a letter, a whole new opportunistic theory, one which was more suited to the backward conditions of 1917 Russia.

Almost one hundred and fifty years later, if socialism were established and despite the problems bequeathed by capitalism, there would be no "lower" or "higher" stages and there would be no need for vouchers and rationing.

William Morris in the 1890s wrote a pamphlet WHY I AM A COMMUNIST (1894).

Morris wrote:

Communism, therefore can see no reason for inequality of condition: to each one according to his needs, from each one according to his capacities, must always be its motto. And if it be challenged to answer the question, what are the needs of such and such a man, how are they to be estimated? The answer is that the habitual regard towards Society as the real unit, will make it impossible for any man to think of claiming more than his genuine needs. I say that it will not come into his mind that it is possible for him to advance himself by injuring someone else. While, on the other hand, it will be well understood that unless you satisfy a man's needs, you cannot make the best of his capacities.

Morris went on to state:

The communist asserts in the first place that the resources of nature, mainly the land and those other things which can only be used for the reproduction of wealth and which are the effect of social work, should not be owned in severalty, but by the whole community for the benefit of the whole

When Marx drafted the rules for the International Workingman's Association in 1864, he started with the statement:

"That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves."

No other class could do the work of liberating the working class from capitalism, only the working class itself. This is perhaps one of the most important socialist principles of the 19th century. And it finds an echo in the fifth clause of the SPGB's DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES of 1904:

"That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself

The word communism was usurped by the Bolsheviks after the coup d'etat in 1917. They had no right to use this word to describe their anti-working class politics. They rejected Marx's primary principle that communism/socialism had to be the work of the working class itself and no one else - particularly a so-called vanguard of professional revolutionaries. It was the Bolsheviks and their imitators who linked communism - and socialism - to genocide, concentration camps, dictatorship and totalitarian state capitalism. It is high time the word was rescued and used in its correct Marxian sense without apology.

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Object and Declaration of Principles


The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Declaration of Principles


1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.

4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.

6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.