George Walford: The World Political Series

The British parties do not appear in the rest of the world and verbal correspondences are usually misleading. The Bolsheviks originated as one wing of the Russian Social Democratic Party, but this does not make a British social democrat a Bolshevik (or a Menshevik either), and an American liberal is not the same as a British one. The British parties possess features peculiar to themselves, and so do those of every independent state, but in their more substantial features the major ones link up, none the less, with political regularities extending throughout the advanced world. The three broad classes into which the principal British groups fall – the non-politicals, the defenders and improvers of existing society, the reformists and revolutionaries – appear in all advanced countries (proportional representation tends to increase the number of organisations into which each political category is divided) and they everywhere exhibit substantially the same features and relationships as in Britain.

The rule, outside Britain as within, is that the greater the changes one of these political classes seeks to achieve the smaller its size and, consequently, the weaker its influence. The consistency with which this obtains is not self-evident; trouble makes news, and it takes an effort to remember the millions living peacefully behind the upheavals that fill the screens and the front pages. Even after this distortion has been allowed for the exceptions to our rule may still appear to be so many and so great as to render it worthless, but they largely disappear upon examination.

In France, Australia and elsewhere parties calling themselves socialist have been voted into office, but these are hybrids like the British Labour Party, in which the large and powerful main body of trade unionists, and others seeking better conditions within capitalism, outweighs the small socialist section. In a number of countries, including the one with the largest population and one of the two super-powers, parties flying one or another version of the Marxist banner have controlled the state. It may seem perverse to say that here, also, communism has been a minority movement, but there are good grounds for doing so. I am using ‘communism’ in the classical sense, to mean a humane, non-militarist, non-nationalist society emerging from revolution, with full political freedom and without class divisions, in which the means of production are owned and democratically controlled by the people as a whole. (Also, by extension, the movement advocating such a society). This is what Karl Marx, founder of the communist movement, meant by the term, but nothing reasonably close to it has appeared in the so-called communist countries. Periods of disorder opened the way for communist parties to grasp control of the state, but the outcome has not matched either the hopes of these groups or the fears of their opponents. Following Marx’s prescription the expropriators were expropriated, but most of the workers and peasants refused to play their allotted part.

In Russia the adoption in 1917 of the famous slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets’ (that is, to the democratically-elected governing committees of the time) indicated the belief of the Bolshevik leaders that, the rule of the oppressors having been overthrown, the people would now take over and build the new society for themselves. It did not work out like that. As the dust settled after the upheaval the new leaders found the way forward blocked by a non-communist, non-socialist, non- anarchist majority. Rational persuasion did not win general acceptance for the new ideas, and propaganda had little more effect. The popular demand was for distribution of the land, not collectivisation of it, and the stubborn persistence of the general body of the people in pursuing their private interests proved to be the rock on which the attempt to establish communism came to grief. They showed no enthusiasm for merging themselves into one great economic community but persisted in acting as independent individuals, some operating farms and businesses, others pursuing their private interests as employees. The resistance against collectivisation was strong enough to oblige Lenin to ease the pressure for adoption of the new methods; with the New Economic Policy adopted in 1921 the Bolsheviks accepted a strong element of competition and private ownership into the economy.

In the 1930s under Stalin the attempt at collectivisation was renewed, this time using the full coercive power of the state. It produced one of the greatest man-made famines, but as an attempt to establish communist or socialist principles as a basis for the operation of Russian society it failed; the tendency for individual people and groups to pursue their own economic interests, irrespective of the effect upon the community, could not be eliminated. What took place, under the name of collectivisation, was little more than what has happened, less violently, in the West; the emergence of a small number of large units which swallowed up most of the small ones. The collective farms and great industrial and commercial undertakings of the USSR equate with the agri-businesses, the conglomerates and multinationals, that dominate Western production and distribution. In each country economic activities are motivated by the pursuit of individual satisfactions rather than a regard for the welfare of the community, the main differences being that in Russia the control exercised by government is more open and direct, and the greatest benefits go to high-level bureaucrats as inflated salaries and privileges rather than to capitalists as profits.

In Russia in 1917 the great numbers who constitute the bulk and substance of society, workers and poor peasants as much as bourgeoisie and kulaks, tended to think as a body and to act in economic affairs as individuals, favouring the modes of behaviour Lenin and his colleagues were working against. The Revolution had less to do with any mass movement towards communism than with the inability of Tsarism to cope with the stresses imposed by the First World War. With the great majority seeking a return to accustomed ways of living after 1917 the communist minority, even though now in control of the state machinery, were powerless to bring about the changes they sought. After the revolutionaries and their heirs had been in control in the USSR for nearly three generations communism, and socialism too, remained hardly more than an aspiration, the society continuing to operate its economy rather by competition than co-operation, exhibiting divisions between rich and poor, between those who command and those who obey, as wide as in any professedly capitalist country, and with militarism and nationalism flourishing. The course of events in Russia since the revolution indicates the continuing presence there of political groups corresponding, in their relative sizes, degrees of influence and principal features, to those found in Britain.

Explanations have been offered, for the failure of the Russian Revolution to produce the expected results, ranging from the feeble to the fantastic. Stalin was an Asiatic, Lenin no Marxist but a secret follower of the conspiratist Blanqui, the rulers were in the pay of Western capitalists. They are beside the point, for no leaders, however strong and pure their convictions, could have established communism, or socialism either, in the face of a great majority otherwise inclined.

In China the drive towards communism came in the shape of repeated pushes alternating with periods of relaxation; there, also, the initiative was defeated by the undemonstrative but determined adherence of the people to their accustomed ways. The works of William Hinton, a supporter of the revolution who lived in the country for long periods at the relevant times, provide illumination.

The Maoists claimed that the masses and their hero-leader, driving forward together towards socialism, had been frustrated by entrenched bureaucrats. [1] Hinton loyally tries to persuade himself and the reader to accept this authorised version of events, but reality keeps breaking through. His narrative shows that the repeated drives towards communism – the Socialist Education Movement, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution – were not undertaken by Mao together with the masses. It may well be true that Mao provided the initial impulses but each of them, although supported by many activists of the Chinese Communist Party, was passively resisted by the broad masses and it was this, rather than any cunning manoeuvres of a minority of bureaucrats, that defeated them. The attempt to induce the general body of the people to work primarily for the collectivity to which they belonged was a failure. At the beginning of the Great Leap the East Wind Commune guaranteed each of its members three meals a day and two-and-a-half yuan in wages even if they did no work at all. This was the outcome:

Since everyone could eat free of charge and everyone who lay at home all day got paid, those who had always been most active began to slow down. If one could eat and earn whether one worked or not, why work? [2]

The interests of the commune did not come into it, let alone those of the wider Chinese community, and the welfare of the workers of the world was still less relevant. What mattered was the individual interests of the people concerned, and an advantageous trade-off of work against rewards ranked high: ‘While political rhetoric remained militantly socialist, reality tended towards the ‘capitalist road…” [3]

Communism in the classical sense can only function with the willing cooperation of the overwhelming majority, and in no country has this been forthcoming; the general body of the people, educated and uneducated, rich and poor alike, persist in putting their private interests before those of the community and their sheer numbers, together with their untheorised, almost unthinking tenacity, have dragged social practices towards their end of the range. For decades now Russia and China have been moving, in irregular jerks, towards open recognition that their system works to meet the expectations of the great majority rather than those of the communist minority. We have no good reason for expecting the other ‘communist’ states to follow any very different course.

With local and transient exceptions the same great political classes appear in the states called communist as in the professedly capitalist countries. They are found all over the industrialised world, exhibiting everywhere broadly the same principal features and relationships.

Provided we look past superficial appearances to deeper and more enduring characteristics we can take the correspondence farther; wherever these three political classes appear they are subdivided (again, with temporary and localised exceptions) in much the same way as in Britain. Under a variety of names, sometimes organised as parties, sometimes not, and often enjoying only restricted freedom of expression, the same movements play their parts in the workings of all developed states.

Taking the supporters of existing society first, these sub-divide into one movement emphasising the value of authority in political affairs and another pressing for the maximum of political liberty consistent with the security of the state. Where conditions permit these tend to appear as parties, but the absence of a distinct party does not indicate absence of the movement. No distinct liberal party became established in France, although that country was the original home of European liberalism; but the ideas and the movement made themselves felt as ‘a smear of liberal persuasions across the entire centre of the party spectrum.’ [4]

In Soviet Russia all parties except the Communist were suppressed soon after the revolution and every attempt made to spread communist ideas, but no amount of persuasion, propaganda or compulsion could ever get the great body of people to take any principled interest in political affairs. Stalin was seen as the father of his people and when the need to arouse widespread support became urgent the rulers abandoned the welfare of the workers of the world, proclaiming instead the Great Patriotic War. Liberalism, persisting as a feeling that the Communist Party would operate more effectively if it were more democratic (in the old-fashioned, Western sense of that highly elastic term) began to appear more openly after Khrushchev’s secret speech to the 20th Party Congress (it must be the world’s best-publicised secret) and is strengthening under Gorbachev.

Moving farther along the range, the Labour Party is a peculiarly British construction, the schisms, programmes and commitments of the British communist movement find no accurate reflection abroad, and British anarchists have concerns they do not share with those of any other country, But the socialist, communist and anarchist attitudes towards political and economic affairs appear in all industrial societies. Indeed, it is misleading to speak of societies in the plural for industrial society now forms one world-wide system, everywhere exhibiting substantially the same structure both political and economic.

The political structure of the civilised world comprises (to use the British names for movements appearing elsewhere under other titles) the non-politicals, conservatism, liberalism, socialism, communism and anarchism, the movements becoming smaller and less influential as the place greater value upon freedom in political affairs and regulation in economic matters, seek wider and deeper changes, and tend more strongly to accept theory as a guide to action. These relationships cause advanced society, under whatever title it appears, to behave like one of the old clown figures, pointed at the top, rounded and weighted at the bottom; it can be tilted in any direction but persists in returning to a position governed by the mass towards its base.

Continue reading Beyond Politics by George Walford (1990):
Preface | Introduction | Politics as Ideology | The British Political Series | The World Political Series | From Politics to Ideology | Ideology Beyond Politics | The Beginnings | From Village to Empire | After The Empires | The Eidodynamic | The Origins of Ideologies | The Evolution of Ideology | Conclusion | Appendices | Notes & References | Select Bibliography | Index | Synopsis