“The SWP is a home for dim, middle-class children. For years it has been a sect or cult rather than a party — think of the Moonies, but without the smiles.” So observed Nick Cohen, almost twenty years ago. As it happens, I do remember smiles, emanating from that warm glow of feeling right, of possessing the truth. There was also an intoxicating camaraderie of being a part of some tight-knit group, all speaking a common language, all sharing in the international endeavour of putting the world to rights.
But Cohen’s point still stands. I bridle at dim, of course. But “middle-class” and “sect” hit home. I left the SWP because I felt a fraud: a public schoolboy selling socialist newspapers outside the Haymarket Metro in Newcastle City Centre, imagining my ripped jeans and dyed hair put me at the vanguard of the proletariat. Mea culpa.
Over time, Christianity took its place — one “change the world” belief system replacing another. But for all its many failings, I suspect there will always remain in me some small sense of nostalgia for my Trotskyite phase. The world felt simpler back then.
A hundred years ago this summer, the Communist Party of Great Britain established its youth wing, the Young Communist League. Earlier this week, comedian Alexi Sayle and former children’s laureate Michael Rosen described their experiences of growing up within this all-encompassing belief system. Rosen remembers his mother linking her commitment to Communism to the growing threat of fascism in the 1930s; with Black shirts on the streets of the East End, Hitler’s rise in Germany and the Civil War in Spain. “Who else was going to defend us?” she asked.
Put this way, communism shares its basic question with protestant Christianity: “How are we saved?” Indeed, when considered experientially, Communism is much more like a salvation religion than a dry body of Marxist philosophical doctrine.
Yes, I remember endless arguments down the Student Bar about the precise relationship between the working class and the revolution, just as later I would argue with my friends about the way in which Jesus would inaugurate the Kingdom of God — all rather technical sounding stuff. And both arguments rapidly descended into heated debates on minor details of doctrine: the People’s Front of Judea vs. the Judean’s People’s Front. But the existential punch of both belief systems is carried much more by something like the simplicity of Mrs Rosen’s question.
That question is also at the heart of Paul’s Mason’s forthcoming book, How to Stop Fascism — a fascinating study of how the hard Left continues to reinvent itself despite its numerous disappointments; the kingdom having evidently failed to come, and the supposed harbinger of that kingdom, the Soviet Union, having so clearly betrayed its higher calling, most obviously in the invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968.
But Mason also explores a much more interesting question: why did the Left in Germany not unite to counter the threat that was Hitler? Why did they not offer more spirited resistance to the rise of the Nazis? “Who else is going to defend us?” asked Mrs Rosen, encouraging her son to support the Communists. And yet they didn’t.
Why? Partly, as Mason explains, because the Nazis didn’t fit the narrow Communist script of historical development. Its whole economic and class-based analysis was just too narrow a lens through which to recognise the full horror of what the Nazis were planning. Marxism’s failure was “its inability to grasp complexity”. For orthodox Marxism, just as with Christian eschatology, historical progress was unstoppable.
The arc of history was on their side, leading inevitably to the sunny uplands of peace and prosperity for all. The gas chambers were just not in the script. And as Hitler rose to power, too many Communists remained in their equivalent to the student bar, debating obscure points of doctrine. The communist leadership “sit in the tavern and carries on the fight against fascism [there]. Landlord, another pint …” as one communist remembered from his jail cell.
Mason’s fascinating book is a call for the Left to re-invent itself once again, in the face of a new form of fascism he sees in people like Trump, Modi and Bolsonaro. Of course, the hard Left has reinvented itself many times before. Following the Soviet invasion of Prague, many Communists became disillusioned with the Soviet focus and reinvented themselves as Euro Communists. They started reading Gramsci who proposed a more culturally sophisticated analysis of political power.
But Mason goes one step further. He proposes that Marxism has to learn the language of morality, and even — shock horror — the idea of a radical evil similar to that espoused by Christians. Marxism, he writes, “failed in the face of fascism because it had no explicit theory of evil, and when confronted with a systematic, militarised, genocidal anti-humanism, it could offer scant explanation.”
This is a very long way from Marx, who remained highly suspicious of moral philosophy, and especially of anything that had the whiff of theology. If Gramsci brought about a cultural turn in Marxist theory, Mason is proposing a moral one.
Yet this book still feels a little too much like notes from the student bar. How to Stop Fascism does not mention Winston Churchill, for instance, except to condemn the far-Right racists who rallied in support of Churchill after his statue had been graffitied by Black Lives Matter activists. It’s a strange omission, given Churchill’s actions constituted one of the most obvious solutions to the How to Stop Fascism challenge. Similarly, Zionism is not even mentioned by the former young communists as a possible answer to Mrs Rosen’s question, though Israel was established as a response to precisely that fear. The Left do not have a monopoly on hating fascism.
And indeed, Mason is correct that it would be a mistake to dismiss of fascism as a dead duck. Mason’s definition of fascism — “the organised refusal of human life” — is cleverly pithy, though perhaps a little too broad to be meaningful or accurate. But as the recent hounding of BBC journalist Nick Watt demonstrated, the heightened emotions of street thuggery remain alive and well, and are being expressed disturbingly close to the centre of our democratic institutions — though the hard Left, including Mason himself, is no stranger to whipping up strong feelings on the streets. I am frightened by both, and by the way that both fascism and communism justify their emotional intensity with reference to the moral failings of the other.
One of the insights of salvation theology is that you can pretty much work out the shape of what that theology will be if you understand what it is that we are being told we need saving from. In Christian terms, some think we need saving from death, others from hell, or the devil, or sin or self-regard. Others think we need saving from our enemies.
Mason thinks that we need saving from fascism and from the ethno-nationalism that underpins it — and his soteriology proceeds on that basis. It’s a kind of secular theology.
What Mason could also have mentioned is that Communism and the Abrahamic religions share a belief in iconoclasm — a statue-smashing instinct that refuses to allow the glorious richness of divine or human life to be ossified in stone statues or dollar bills. Religious people call it idolatry Marxists call it commodification.
The problem with statues is not that they sometimes glorify bad people. NO, they are a metaphor for the way some people can stop thinking or stop loving — they are a celebration of unreflective stasis, fixity, dead lifeless doctrine. Iconoclasm is a movement of renewal, with the need to display human love at its centre.
My Marxism is long dead. But I still can’t shake off the idea that I have more in common with communism than I feel comfortable with. Marxist theology is not just about lefty priests, but about disturbingly quasi-religious Marxists, too.