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Whither Thou, Communism?

Although communists continue to comprise a significant portion of the anti-capitalist left's population in Canada and the United States, ever since the fall of the Eastern Bloc and the flurry of anti-communism that triumphed with the capitalist end of history, the existence of communist organizations and individuals has largely been seen as anachronistic by the non-activist mainstream.  In the Western Hemisphere's centres of capitalism, these nightmare fortresses of advanced capital, the common discourse of communist failure and supposed atrocity––all the cold war propaganda that has been victorious since the end of the Soviet Union and the free marketization of China––has helped produce the misconception that communism and communists are a thing of the past.  And even when the typically myopic western mind is able to admit, with grudging confusion, that communism might be an ongoing reality over there, it generally is unable to comprehend the persistence of communist ideology amongst the populations in its own hemisphere.

If you speak to people outside of the normative activist terrain about communism the response is often one of bemusement.  There is a general confusion and curiousity about the very concept, a deep-seeded belief that you might be speaking about something that happened half-a-century ago and might not be relevant to the contemporary era.  The fact that there are still a lot of communist groups and individuals, that they form a significant portion of the activist left, really doesn't matter to the majority of the people you encounter on an everyday basis; the majority of the population is not activist and largely unaware of the vicissitudes of activist life.

There is a significant problem, in my opinion, that communist organizers have persisted––that new commie groups are born every five years––but that the general population is most often confused about this persistence.  Most disconcerting is the fact that the proletariat, that working-class that is not to be found in the labour aristocratic trade unions, has been largely unaware of communism and communist organizations.  If communism is about organizing the masses, specifically the most exploited ranks of these masses, then the fact that it can continue to thrive in activist spaces and yet remain largely unknown in proletarian spaces is extremely telling.  If it is only organizing students, academics, and those of us who have grown out of our anarchist phase, then it is not organizing as it should be organizing: this is not the communism that means class struggle, but the communism that means an ideological club of fashion activists and ivory tower academics.

So despite the fact that there are a lot of us communists out there, we have tended to accept the capitalist imaginary regarding the end of history and often chosen to be blanquist about our politics.  The argument is that the people aren't ready for communism, that in this uber-capitalist reality people are overly hostile to communism, and that we should never talk openly about our politics––we have to hide what we believe, pretend to be trade-unionists, submerge ourselves in the nebulous realm of movementism, or degenerate into tiny and dogmatic groups who preserve a "pure" communism.  When the people one day "wake up", the scales magically dropping from their eyes by the grace of God, they will suddenly say "oh yeah, communism, I think I like that" and go out shopping for whatever communist group, all of which have been hiding more or less in the shadows, best fits their new political desires.

When I look back on my activist life and try to make sense of how I gravitated towards communism, I'm struck by the absence of communist organizers in my pre-political phase.  Like many young people who are just becoming interested in anti-capitalism, I defaulted on anarchism because I simply assumed that communism was dead end, due to the failures of actually existing socialism, and I was not aware that anyone thought differently.  It wasn't until I started to become involved in activism that I realized, with surprise and confusion, that there were a hell of a lot of communists out there, maybe as many as the anarchists I assumed were the normative activist reality, and at first I could not help but see them as an anachronism.  And yet my story is one of student privilege: I was part of that population who, moving through the ranks of the radical student movement, was even able to enter the activist terrain.  I was not a worker who did not possess the same access to radical ideology––these days, in this part of the world, anti-capitalist ideology and anti-capitalist agitation tends to be limited to privileged sites of organization.

The point is that, for a long time, communists have chosen to accept the limits imposed by the end of history narrative and, fearing the hostility of their traditional social base, retreat into the ranks of the petty bourgeoisie.  And because of this retreat, either in limited activist circles or in parliamentary politics, the very people they claim to speak for, the most exploited and underprivileged of this society, started to forget that communism was a viable political commitment.

One of the justifications for this retreatist blanquism is that, because of the failures of communism and the propaganda connected to these failures, communism has become an ugly word and the masses will be hostile to any mention of a communist revolution.  And yet, even if this is a universal truth, we must ask how the masses will stop being hostile if the actually existing communist groups continue to hide within privileged spaces.  Maybe if we stop calling communism communism, and come up with other names and categories that are just a rebranding of the old names and categories, we can circumvent this supposed hostility… But this is assuming that people are stupid and won't figure out that we're talking about the same thing they supposedly hate.

A more important question to ask, however, is whether or not this hostility is as widespread and normative as we are told it must be.  Certainly there are people hostile to communism, but there were always people hostile to communism––even in the days before the Russian Revolution.  These days, when I speak about communism with people outside of the traditional activist milieu, I'm struck more by the bemused curiousity than the outright hostility.  When we held a teach-in about communism at a public library several months back, for example, the only person present who was hostile was someone who believed that the Illuminati and the Free Masons controlled the world––the type of person who would be hostile to all politics that did not fit his conspiracy theory categories.  If hostility is still present, it is the hostility that will always be present against communism: the hostility of those committed, in some shape or form, to capitalism––social democrats, the petty bourgeois, are more hostile to communism than the people communists are supposed to be working to organize.  This is the point.  So why are we hiding our politics from those we are supposed to organize, yet sharing these very same politics with a class filled with people who often are outrightly hostile to the idea of communism?

This refusal to be principled about our politics has become a normative and ingrained practice for communists.  Take, for example, the march a briefly described in the previous post where a bunch of people decided to start singing the Canadian national anthem (amongst other things) as an expression of their politics.  As it turns out, there were other communists at the march who did not think it was worth intervening in this expression of pro-imperialism because (I'm assuming) an intervention would be "alienating."  Although I was annoyed that the national anthem was sung, and was willing to confront it with my comrades and allies, I understand that in the pre-political space of this #occupy movement there are people who are still caught within the discourse of Canadian nationalism.  I am less annoyed, therefore, with the people singing the national anthem than the communists who should know better who thought it would be okay to just accept this expression of colonial-capitalism.  By refusing to intervene, by keeping their supposed principles to themselves, no one would even know that they were communists; they might as well have been social democrats also yearning for a return to the "good old days" of Canadian capitalism.  They might as well have been saying, in a different context, "boys will be boys"––we know that this is an excuse, an acceptance of anti-people politics.

The people deserve better than a "people will be people" attitude to problematic behaviour.  It is condescending and patronizing to fail to intervene in those pre-political spaces, to fail to push the people who want something more towards an actually liberating politics, but when we continue to hide our politics we can be nothing more than patronizing and condescending.

I will end this post by referencing the recent statement of the Revolutionary Communist Party of Canada regarding how we as communists should approach spaces such as the #occupy movement:

A revolution does not just happen, nor does it triumph by chance. A revolution is the product of a conscious and long-term struggle led by thousands of proletarian people, people that are as ordinary as they are heroic. People who make the first decisive action to engage in the struggle. Some proposals we can uphold right now are:

1) To discuss and share our collective problems and to convince those around us of the necessity of class struggle in order to radically transform society. We need to combat systems of oppression, such as sexism, racism, and all forms of chauvinism aimed at dividing the camp of the people.

2) To organize in our workplaces, our schools and our neighborhoods by establishing committees for socialist revolution. Such committees could serve as the basis for circulating revolutionary ideas: by distributing newspapers and leaflets, by organizing events and actions, for example denouncing public services cuts, acting in solidarity with strikers, occupying a factory, responding to racial profiling by the police and ‘justice’ system, acting against a polluting industry, etc.

3) To build the revolutionary organization capable of uniting the proletariat and leading the fight for socialism.


  1. Singing the Canadian national anthem is as controversial as a piece of chocolate cake. How exactly will you plan to persuade the Canadian masses to go against the mainstream left, pro Canada discourse?

    By the way, although I do not consider myself a revolutionary I have read your blogs once in a while out of curiosity and to learn about new things. A facebook friend occasionally posts your work.

  2. Radicalization begins by breaking from a specific bourgeois discourse and radicalization does not happen if the people who have gone through the process of breaking from this discourse with-hold their perspectives. When people begin to realize that the Canadian state is not their friend, and this is a realization amongst large sectors of the population who refuse to participate in elections and who have said that they hate every canadian government (there is, some have argued, an already existing boycott of the Canadian State that is not yet organized into a revolutionary agenda). This is also a realization amongst indigenous nations, migrant workers, guest care workers, and so many other working sectors of society––these are also the Canadian masses.

    While singing the national anthem may be, in some contexts, "as controversial as a piece of chocolate cake," in a context where there were indigenous allies and other groups that have experienced the brunt of Canadian imperialism it is very controversial. It is especially controversial when there was clearly not consensus, and a lot of anger, but it proceeded anyhow. As I noted in this post, however, I am more annoyed with the leftists who should have known better than the people who sang the national anthem.

  3. Your obsession with the singing of the Canadian national anthem at an occupy toronto demonstration and your belief that it is some kind of horrible unforgivable sin on the part of those who sang it really seems silly and idealist to me in terms of how you approach a very complex political question. In the 1905 revolution in Russia, didn't the protesting workers carry portraits of the Tsar to show their loyalty to him. Hadn't Russia's Tsarist regime been incredibly brutal in oppressing ethnic minorities and smaller nations that they engulfed for many years. Were the workers who protested in such a manner thus being idiots and worthy of condemnation as anti-revolutionary reformists who only wanted a reformed Tsarist regime that protects workers a bit but is still as imperialist and oppressive as ever towards ethnic minorities, including Poles, Ukrainians, Jews, Roma and many others?

    In the same post in which you decry the petit-bourgeois nature of tiny communist sects, it is incredibly ironic that you would come to such a petit-bourgeois idealist conclusion about how communists should 'intervene' in movements. For one, none of us communists believe in consensus decision-making as an optimum model for organizing political action. Another important point is that it was the working class youth who came out for the G-20 who sang Oh-Canada and not the 'petit-bourgeois' academic leftist groups. In any mass working class protests to emerge in this country, a large number of working class participants will sing Oh-Canada to show their loyalty to Canada and that they, and not the government or the state, represent Canada. For better or worse, many of those singing will not be white or even European.

  4. First of all Michael, before you feel the need to throw around insulting terms like "idealist", maybe actually read how I qualified it in the above paragraphs for those who were confused about it in my previous post. This was not an "obsession" but an example I brought back, due to comments on the previous post, in order to qualify my position. In fact, I even said (if you were reading and not straw-personing), that my problem is not with the people who were singing it but by the leftists who endorsed it. Moreover, I was using this as an example of a larger problem: a blanquism where communists refuse to speak about their principles.

    It's funny how you throw "idealist" around and yet your entire analysis is caught in some idealist failure to provide a concrete analysis of a concrete situation. Were there a lot of people at that march who were alienated by the singing of the national anthem? Yes. Was an indigenous contingent angry? Yes. (I realize that you have no analysis of the colonial context, which again speaks to a specific "idealism.") Did the Communists involved in 1905 *not* maintain a specific and unhidden communist line? Yes they bloody well did and to pretend they were keeping quiet about their politics in that space is historical revisionism.

    Furthermore, how is intervening "petty bourgeois"? All the communist movements you worship with the same idealism you ascribe to me always believed in intervening, but doing so not in a disciplined manner. (As noted, there was intervention and political agitation in 1905.) If there was no intervention in the left as a whole, then we would have to endorse every sexism and chauvinism with a whole patronizing "well that's just the working class" pat on the back condescending attitude. As for your claim that the people who were singing the national anthem in this context are "working class youth", now who is being an "idealist"? Have you been doing social investigation? Do you know the class composition of the people involved?

    Next time you feel the need to throw around insults on my comment string, please make sure you understand the concepts you're throwing around. Idealism, for example, means the opposite of materialism where the material world is a product of ideas: your concept of the working class in Canada, applied so wholesale to prove that I am petty bourgeois, is one such idealism.

  5. I think it's also important to think about the singing of the national anthem in the context of occupation - one thing that has come up in (in Canada at least, or specifically in Toronto - because i'm not familiar with movements in other locations) is an emphasis on the importance of acknowledging that this "occupation" is already happening on occupied land - the land of Canada's indigenous community.

    At a few of the general assemblies i went to (i've only been to a few) part of the opening statements is to acknowledge that this is happening on occupied land. I think if you're going to say that and mean it, shouldn't there be some attempt to think about how a national anthem that states "our home and native land" (when it actually isn't) might be extremely offensive?

  6. Yeah, this critique was made back when the #occupy movement started happening in the US. There were several articles, some of them by indigenous activists, circulated to this effect. There is, for example, this one:

    At the same time, the (de)occupy people at occupy toronto strike me as a particular self-righteous group of academics, none of whom (from what I've observed so far) are indigenous, and all of whom play that "more radical than thou" game with activism though, if you actually speak to them about politics, they tend to be committed to social democracy in practice. Not that I disagree with this critique, but I do think it's important that I overheard an AIM activist saying about the (de)occupy folks, "we know the difference between the left tradition of occupying and colonial occupation." It does make one wonder, therefore, whether this semantic accusation is also a category mistake.

    Even still, there is definitely a need to acknowledge the colonial underpinnings of our context and this discourse, even if it is a category mistake, does draw attention to that. Singing the national anthem, with that key colonial line that you've noted, does not.

  7. i'm staying up late and reading old blogs for some reason. I agree with Josh about the class composition of the de(occupy) folks in Toronto and those i've met online. Although its interesting that now this coalition (in toronto) managed to get it together and do a major leftist re-do of the GA (sadly its still consensus but at least its 90% consensus now) and have been learning through experience that their conception of anti-oppression and decolonization needs a lot of work and is really academic and you have to be patient. Those who've been with occupy from the beginning (who haven't gone mad) have learned from experience a lot about organizing with the lumpenproletariat and whatever stray working class elements make it into the morass- its been interesting to watch the transition. And in (a very late) response to Xtina, on talking to a bunch of the oh canada singers, many of them honestly had no clue that the anthem was offensive to anyone and had never considered that it might offend natives.

    1. Clearly people might not find the national anthem offensive, but I think the problem in that case was that there was resistance to singing it, especially on the part of indigenous activists present, and people ignored the criticism and went ahead and sang anyhow. And I know some of the people leading the singing (including the person who came up with the idea) because they were my students a few years ago (gods i feel old), and were definitely not working-class youth––and in the case of some these people specifically, who didn't seem to have changed a whole lot since having them in tutorial and hearing them go on and on about Nietzsche, are not the kind of people who like to listen to criticisms.


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