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The Idea of Communism: An Interview with Tariq Ali

Seagull Books has just published the latest in its “What Was Communism” series. The new title, “The Idea of Communism” is written by journalist, author and filmmaker Tariq Ali. This short book was written on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It serves as both introduction and brief historical assessment to this most radical of theories -- with such a fraught legacy. Freelance journalist Aaron Leonard talked via phone with Ali about the book.

Given it has been 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is occasion for a lot of looking at the whole notion of communism, but beyond that why did you write this book now?

I think it was really for the anniversary. Seagull Books which is this new transcontinental publishing house was doing a series and asked my advice. I gave them my advice and they insisted I do a book on the idea itself. I did a short essay and put it out. Essentially the idea of it was that there are young people, students who have only heard about these things in a very vague way, in sound bites, to give them something that might interest them, then they could go and do their own reading.

You write, that “Marx and Engels would have been horrified by the suggestion that their writing might one day be elevated to the status of religion.” Yet it seems to continually landed in the hands of folks looking for a roadmap to heaven. How do you see this conflict, essentially between the content and the application of Marxism?

The very fact the idea of communism took off in two of the most backward societies at the beginning of the 20th Century -- China and Russia -- meant that the way it was picked up by many people, especially peasants and not so well educated people who joined in that revolutionary ferment was that the only way they could see it was as a secular religion, as a secular faith. The intellectuals who were initially won over the idea were of course not at all religious minded and by-in-large did not go in that direction or take Marxism in that direction either. If you look at the early Bolsheviks, most of who were of Jewish origin, they were cutting loose from religion--- the were very much the great-grandchildren of the French Enlightenment. That was also the impact on the intellectuals in China who founded the Chinese Communist Party.

I don’t think there was anything in the theory that meant it should go in that direction. It was, I’ve always felt that the emergence of one-Party state, the emergence of all powerful Politburos and Central Committees, the emergence of a total monopoly of information and of ideas by the Party made it almost inevitable that they would transmit these ideas as ideas that were unchallengeable. If you challenged them you were a heretic or much worse than that, a traitor or an enemy of the people.

It was that form of application of Marxism that reminded me very much of the Spanish Inquisition which the Catholic Church used to use against Muslims and heretics in medieval Spain. It was when this dictatorship was imposed and free thought was more or less banished that the process took on this particular form.

Your book seems to both see the continuity of Marx and what came after, and at the same time it points to demarcations and moments of departure. Could you talk about more how you see this?

Obviously there were always elements of continuity in terms of the economic base that was created by the Russian revolution and in China, Cuba and Vietnam as well. There is no doubt about that. The big question is that something obviously went wrong and you cannot abstract yourself from that fact. You have to ask, what happened? What went wrong? Why did these regimes implode or transform themselves or change whichever way you want to look at it.

I think one has to say that they were relatively austere and backward regimes that the total output was constrained by scarcity, the average level of productivity of labor was low. Add to that the fact the political structure that was imposed was essentially that of an authoritarian state. One that denied basic civil liberties to the producers -- all the rights of association and organization were expropriated. Culturally there was a total state monopoly or one should say Party monopoly of the means of communication. Ideas were repressed and regulated. And the blind worship of the nation became a feature of all these states in different ways. So what Marx had always argued for that the political structure of these states would be based on the radical popular sovereignty, giving people for the first time in history the means of their own democratic self-government, in their places of work, in their culture etc, that never came about.

One has to ask why? Scarcity is of course one explanation. Civil war is another explanation. But one has also to say that the failure right at the beginning of these revolutions, in Russia in 1923-24, and in China right from the very beginning, just the acceptance of the fact that it was going to be a single party state and the cutting off of all democratic protest, democratic opposition -- which could have actually strengthened these states. Without a debate at every level of society you cannot go forward in my opinion. The economic problems that these countries faced would have been far better dealt with by permitting a debate within and without of the party to see how the economy could be strengthened and improved. This never happened. The repression that took place in the former Soviet Union killed off all dissent and made all ideas seem very wooden and religious really.

If you are actually trying to study history with the aim of understanding what happened and why it happened then you have to try and find periods in these revolutions. And this doesn’t just apply to socialist revolutions, they were very similar things that could be argued about the bourgeois revolution took place in England, in Holland and France in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. That these revolutions even though they were far more...they started off not knowing what they were doing, toppling the monarchy and the feudal order. Nonetheless, big debates erupted inside these revolutions. The minute dictatorship was imposed, either by Cromwell in England or Napoleon in France the revolutions really went into a period of sharp decline. It remains important to understand what it is in the typology of revolutions that leads to this and hope .... the reason to do it is not to score points, but to hope that in the future these lessons are learned and it doesn’t happen again.

In the interest of churning over some things and perhaps dreaming a bit, let me ask a speculative question. You write, “The transition from feudalism to capitalism was a process that took nearly 400 years and accelerated sharply during the industrial revolutions in western Europe. Were the revolutions of 1917 and 1949 part of this same transition?” Marx also described class struggle as, “a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” Given the paradoxes contained in all this, what do you think history likely holds for humanity?

This is a very difficult question to answer. History is notoriously unpredictable. It is never linear as we find out. All one can say is that the starting point for any understanding of what is taking place has to be on history. It has to be historical. Which is why I talk about the transition process from feudalism to capitalism. One reason for making that point was to say that if that was how long the transition from feudalism to capitalism, the transition from capitalism to socialism on a world scale will probably take just as long if not longer. Because unlike the previous transitions, this one was premeditated. People knew what they wanted to do, knew they wanted destroy the capitalist order and create a society based on social justice on the ending of exploitation on the ending of the profit motive etc.

This is going to be a long, long transition and of epoch quality. The fact that it isn’t over... you can see this very much when you look at the state of capitalism and the hollowing out of what we always in the old days called bourgeois democracy, possibly slightly inaccurately. Now it would be totally accurate to call the states we’re living in bourgeois democracy. They’re totally linked and committed to capitalism.

I think what history holds for humanity in the future depends very much on what happens to humanity. Is the ecological crisis going to play a large role in forcing people to rethink the way they live? Are there going to be mass famines in parts of Asia and the African continent which are going to make people think in a different way? It is not easy to predict that. What is going to be the likely result of the economic rivalries between the United States and the European Union on the one side and China and the Far Eastern bloc on the other? These are imponderables really. There’s no magical solution, no magical answers. The system as it exists at the moment is certainly not working and that is why these questions are of relevance.

What is most relevant about the idea of communism today?

As long as capitalism exists socialism, different forms of socialism, the idea of communism will remain relevant. It might come up in different ways and people may call it by a different name, but something will have to emerge as more and more people on this planet realize that the way the planet is moving is not conducive to their medium term interests, leave alone their long term interests.

It looks as if the struggle for socialism is going to be part of a long historical process which will involve many things that we can’t even see. We know what it has involved over the last century, regressions, deformation, not dissimilar to those which afflicted capitalism before it. We can say that people now will no longer accept emergency style dictatorship and repression as a way of moving forward, but will want something different than the capitalist system that exists today which induces and produces a form of institutionalized conformity in both politics and economics.


Tariq Ali is a writer, filmmaker, and a long-time political activist and campaigner. He has written over a dozen books on world history and politics—including The Clash of Fundamentalisms, Bush in Babylon, Rough Music, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Axis of Hope—as well as five novels and scripts for both stage and screen.