It would seem that communism is becoming cool again. Ash Sarkar recently made a splash on Good Morning Britain by proclaiming “I’m literally a communist”. Teen Vogue subsequently gave her a friendly interview. Novara Media, the far-left website where Sarkar is a regular contributor, is now selling T-shirts featuring the above quote. As communism seeks to rebrand itself 30 years after the end of the Cold War, is there a place for such ideas within the Labour Party?
I was born in Moscow, and the first of my immediate family to be born after the collapse of the USSR. To this effect, my opinions on this subject have been shaped to some extent by my parents and grandparents. From them, I’ve heard many stories of living amid the greatest communist experiment in history. Lining up in the early hours of the morning, food stamps in hand, outside nearly empty supermarkets. Listening to copies of smuggled West German pop music or underground psychedelic rock. Being forced to pick strawberries in the middle of a university degree, an idea some Tory ministers are apparently keen to revive.
Last October, I found myself at a debate where a local Tory councillor, once made aware of the fact that she happened to be in the company of a Labour activist, proceeded to exclaim that Jeremy Corbyn’s (allegedly) 1970s-esque programme consisted of “Stalinist economics”. Personally, I found that insulting as well as plainly stupid, because of one of my grandfathers who I’ve never had the chance to meet. He was among the millions who persisted at the hands of Stalin’s NKVD. A likely tip-off from a paranoid neighbour. An unmarked black truck in the middle of the night. No one knows where he was taken, or what pit he was likely buried in. One thing I do know: the victims of Russian communism would have given anything to live in Wilson or Callaghan’s Britain.
Communism is an ideology that has brought destruction to every nation it has ever touched. Even the Republican zone during the Spanish Civil War, often cited as a positive example of left-libertarian and anarchist power, soon became host to gulags and torture chambers as soon as Spanish communists and their Russian puppet masters expanded their influence. The international brigades ruthlessly punished members who spoke out and many veterans found themselves ostracised by fellow leftists for daring to question the official Comintern narrative. Among such dissidents was one of Britain’s greatest socialist writers – Eric Blair, better known by his nom de guerre, George Orwell.
In 1948, the Attlee Labour government that Orwell campaigned for succeeded in establishing the National Health Service. Meanwhile, British communists remained silent as Russia’s gulag population swelled to an all-time high. To be clear, my aim here is not to refute contemporary communists such as Sarkar by listing the atrocities committed by their ideological brethren throughout the 20th century. Frankly, that’s not an awfully effective tactic, given that everyone already knows that Stalin was terrible and the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own inefficiency. Young people flirting with such ideas today do not exactly look to the USSR for inspiration. But at this current point in time, abstract notions of communism are a distraction from Labour’s own successful history of pragmatic socialist governance.
Democratic Socialists across the world, including those in our European sister parties, have succeeded in achieving what communists have failed to do practically everywhere. We have helped build, in the words of Attlee, “A society of free men and women. Free from poverty, free from fear (…) A society bound together by rights and obligations (…) free from gross inequalities and yet not regimented, not uniform.” We have lifted millions out of poverty and extended rights to groups of people long oppressed and marginalised. We have ensured that no person in Britain will die due to lack of access to basic healthcare. And we have accomplished these things whilst making citizens more free, not less.
Clearly, we yet have far to go. Decades of progress are being reversed, and Britain needs a Labour government now more than at any point since 1945. As we rise in the polls amid a mounting Tory civil war, the likelihood of a socialist Labour government by 2022 is ever greater. There are indeed communists that are members of the Labour Party, although I understand that Sarkar is not. Labour has not campaigned on a remotely communist platform since the early 1920s, however, and prior to that its founding values had far more roots in trade unionism and traditional English humanism as opposed to the theories of Engels and Marx. As we prepare for government, our party should build upon its historical success, as opposed to indulging in a failed and destructive ideology.