My communist parents were contemporaries of Martin Kettle’s (How did my communist family get it so wrong? Because politics was religion, 23 January), but my experience was very different from his and that of David Aaronovitch. To characterise all communists as believers in a religion is a simplistic caricature. Many communists viewed and view Marxism as merely a useful tool – one of many – for understanding history and social relations. The enormous body of theoretical work that has been and is still being produced by Marxist scholars and the ideas of those who still profess to be Marxists in one form another is ample evidence that Marxist ideas still have validity in a seemingly chaotic capitalist world. No other significant thinker before or since has been able to provide plausible explanations for the developments of the world we live in.
The household I grew up in was a tolerant one, and one where all ideas were welcomed. I and my brother were never discouraged from having Bible lessons or singing in the church choir. Nor were we pressurised into choosing a communist path. I have always seen Marxism as something that helps me understand the way economics and class relations largely determine the unfolding of history. The present calamitous situation in the Middle East, the refugee crisis and financial meltdown, far from making me doubt Marxism, buttress its arguments. But I remain open to all other and more modern interpretations and theories and, if they make sense, then I take them on. I would ditch Marxism tomorrow if someone came along with a better interpretation of society. The Tories are pursuing an irrational, dogmatic and ideologically based programme. Are they not believers?
• Like Martin Kettle I have communist antecedents, joining the CP when at university in the 1950s – but in my case it lasted a mere three years when Hungary and “democratic centralism” dashed the gloss from my eyes. But I am 20 years Kettle’s senior and his mistake is to have been born too late to appreciate what really motivated his and David Aaronovitch’s parents and so many of their generation to espouse the cause. It wasn’t as a faith or quasi-religion as Kettle suggests. It was the emergence of fascism and the connivance of capitalism’s advocates in it. It was this, and the belief that, despite its hesitant reactions to the Nazis, the only credible alternative was communism buttressed by the Soviet Union.
• Martin Kettle, as a “recovering communist”, appears to believe, in common with David Aaronovitch, that “surviving” some earlier political delusion necessarily bestows a kind of sceptical wisdom on the individual concerned. In fact it could merely be taken as evidence of a proven susceptibility to delusion itself. Kettle refers admiringly to Aaronovitch’s hardly original comparison of communism with religion. GK Chesterton once wrote “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything”. Perhaps these words should cause David Aaronovitch and Martin Kettle to reflect a little on their confidence in the certainty of their current ideological positions.
Kingston upon Thames, Surrey
• In discussing the fall of communism, Martin Kettle avers that the world has “happily moved beyond it”. Happily for Mr Kettle, maybe, because he is not old or poor or black. Happily, too, that he is neither unemployed nor homeless nor ill nor forced to use a foodbank. And happily, he does not live in Greece or Poland or Hungary or even the US, where there is a real prospect of a Donald Trump presidency.
But he does live in 21st-century Britain, where staggering levels of inequality (Britain’s 100 richest families have increased their wealth by at least £57bn since 2010, according to Equality Trust) are not only tolerated but encouraged as “aspiration”. If ever an experiment has failed, it is neoliberal capitalism. Sadly, the world has yet to move beyond this.
• Absent from Martin Kettle’s reflections on the difficult lives of communists in the years of the cold war is… capitalism. I still have the notes I took at a 1960s meeting of the Young Communist League in Luton in which the speaker, Arnold Kettle, illustrated Marxist scientific method with an account of how, after the seeming disappearance of Chartism, a new trade union movement of the super-exploited working class arose.
It is capitalism which makes and constantly remakes the social forces which threaten its hegemony. But it is not the rather combative and revived Communist party in Britain that is Kettle’s target. It is Labour under Corbyn which, far from displaying the characteristics of a religious sect, seems more in touch with reality and the lives of millions than the weary guardians of the system as it is, whether they be found in the parliamentary Labour party or the liberal media.
• Martin Kettle’s article brought back many memories for me, not as someone who is (or was) a communist, but as someone who grew up in a Midland working-class family, whose political views were formed in the early 1980s. Witnessing the devastation being inflicted on working-class communities I joined the Labour party. I recall hard-left activists handing out pamphlets outside party meetings who, like Martin Kettle, I found to be decent people with genuine belief in their views. But I also recall how they were often posh and seriously middle class. The irony of being earnestly lectured about my political naivety, my false consciousness and how “the workers” needed to recognise this, was never lost on me.
Thirty years on I still run into them and still they are handing out their pamphlets and questioning my failure to recognise “the true faith”. In the intervening years a Labour government was elected that (while it may not have got everything right) pragmatically made very real improvement to the lives of so many of “the workers”.
The working class doesn’t exist in the same way it did when I was young. It is infinitely more complex, more fractured and diverse and so often more marginalised. More than ever, ordinary working people need a Labour party that doesn’t fall into the hard-left trap of articulating, with religious conviction, a view of a socialist utopia. Martin Kettle is right: it doesn’t work and in the end people will hate it too.
• There is nothing stunningly original in the assertion that communism and socialism have much in common with religion. In this country certainly, religion and leftwing views often flowered on the same vine and major figures from John Ball, Gerrard Winstanley and William Morris were arguably driven at least as much by theology as politics. Also, religion essentially arises out of our inability to cope with our own mortality and what communism did was to transfer this longing for some form of transcendental permanence from an imaginary next world to an imaginary future. As with religion, communism offered future salvation but, as history shows, both got lost along the way, in a maze of greed, sectarianism and violence.
Where I part company with Kettle however is in his evident faith that we now have something better, by which I suppose he means capitalism, neoliberalism and the market economy. What he and Aaronovitch (converts both) choose to ignore is that these dogmas of the right are equally faith-driven and delusional. Likewise capitalism has a history every bit as violent as the communism of the Soviet Union and China, when its wars of conquest, colonialism and present-day interventionism are taken into account.
Kettle also seems to assume that when the Soviet version of communism perished so did socialism in general. However as an environmentalist and socialist I would assert that the greatest threat to our species and indeed the planet is now market capitalism and its suicidal addiction to GDP growth, the new “pie-in-the-sky” of rampant consumerism which has replaced the old-paradise myth of established rightwing religion. I am absolutely certain that, if allowed to continue, this fundamentally unjust and divisive addiction will at the very least destroy civilisation as we know it. This is not an article of faith but straightforward mathematics on a finite planet. Furthermore, I can see no solution other than a paradigm shift in economic and political thought towards some sort of steady-state society. Such a transformation would require a massive redistribution of wealth and resources. Not a matter of faith but survival. In one word, what we would then need is socialism.
Haywards Heath, West Sussex
• An important ingredient of the “religion of communism” not mentioned by Martin Kettle was the awareness of the unequal and unfair world, including the British Empire, in which the believer lived. A movement which sought to overcome such inequality commanded respect, and in some cases worship.
• Martin Kettle presents a convincing picture of the failure of the communist religion in which he was raised, and of the inevitable downfall of a leftwing labour movement. In doing so, he also explains why so many people, especially in the Middle East, see that the only alternative to the slaughter which is inflicted a result of capitalistic greed and to the so-called democracy which gives disproportionate wealth to 62 individuals, is terrorism. Mr Cameron, and other millionaires, will be pleased to see his article in the Guardian.
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