Polling during last June’s EU referendum indicated that almost as many people in Britain have a negative view of capitalism (30 per cent) as have a positive view (39 per cent). Subsequent polls suggest capitalism’s critics are now the majority.
But what do we propose to put in capitalism’s place?
Before the Great October Socialist Revolution, the left could only offer people a set of values — liberty, equality, co-operation, comradeship, freedom — and the hope that we could create a new type of society in which those would be the ruling values.
There was little in the writings of Marx and Engels that could provide a concrete, practical portrait of what a future socialist and communist society might look like.
True, they pointed to the 1871 Paris Commune as an example of how power can be exercised by the mass of people through a system of direct democracy, holding their elected representatives perpetually to account.
But a short-lived experiment drowned in blood does not inspire hope or mass sacrifice.
Moreover, Marx was reluctant to provide the blueprint for a new society which should be created by the people themselves. As he put it in the very first rule of the International Working Men’s Association: “The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.”
After 1917, communists could point to the achievements of the Soviet Union in the teeth of civil war, imperialist intervention, sabotage and fascist intervention.
It transformed the lives of hundreds of millions of workers and their families for the better. It played the leading role in rescuing Europe from nazi-fascist barbarism. It proclaimed the equality of women, all races and nationalities and assisted the struggle for peace, progress, socialism and national liberation across the world.
From the outset, the heroic struggles of the Russian, Georgian, Ukrainian and other communists inspired many people in Britain as elsewhere.
But there were weaknesses, failures and severe violations of socialist democracy that undoubtedly eroded popular support for the Soviet Union from outside and within.
Problems of resource allocation, work incentives, productivity, innovation, gender equality, environmental protection and social alienation were never adequately resolved — as they have not been in capitalist society either.
These realities, together with the relentless campaign to discredit the Soviet Union, socialism, communism and Marxism, have made it difficult for the Soviet model to inspire people in Britain and the other developed capitalist countries.
This does not mean that communists should cease defending and promoting all that was positive, revolutionary and transformational in the October Revolution and its outcome. In the Communist Party of Britain’s estimation, the positive results greatly outweighed the negatives.
But how can we inspire workers and the mass of people today with the ideals of socialism and communism? Defining socialism as little more than the negation of capitalism is not enough.
We need to propagate our communist values and outline how they would shape a modern, humane and democratic society which can meet the needs and aspirations of the mass of the people.
The pre-Marxist pioneers of communism met this challenge with boldness and imagination. Yet today, in an echo of the 1848 Communist Manifesto, they are too easily dismissed as “utopian socialists”.
However, Marx and Engels later paid generous tribute to the originality, justice and power of Robert Owen’s ideas about working-class self-government, co-operative labour, anti-social behaviour, education, children, the family and communal living.
In his 1890 novel News From Nowhere, William Morris imagined a journey through the future communist society, during which his characters discuss the place in it for comradeship (or “fellowship”) instead of mastery, for relationships between men and women, for art and culture, property and productive and fulfilling work.
Morris anticipated the “harmonious society” envisaged by the Chinese Communist Party for its country in the 21st century.
Our vision of socialism — the lower stage of communism — not only has to explain how the economy and society might be reorganised on a new basis for the benefit of all.
The 2007-8 financial crash and prolonged economic recession exposed some of the deep and deadly faultlines of modern state-monopoly capitalism, as the power of the state is used shamelessly in the service of the reckless, corrupt monopoly corporations that dominate economic life.
Socialists and communists must address questions which have assumed new forms and greater significance today, as the general crisis of capitalism — economically, ecologically, socially, culturally, politically — reasserts itself following the freak period of extended post-war expansion from 1945 until the mid-1970s.
How will socialism secure the future of the planet’s ecosystem, bearing in mind that — as the most recent IMF World Economic Outlook confirms — the chief victims of global warming and climate change are the poorest layers of the working class in the tropical Third World?
Challenging the economic and political power of the capitalist monopolies must be an essential part of the communist solution.
Public ownership and economic planning — enhanced by the application of modern information and communications technology — are the antidotes to market anarchy, plunder and waste.
Liberated from the drive to maximise profit, automation and robotics can result in more fulfilling work, extra leisure time and higher living standards rather than the intensification of labour and mass unemployment.
How will socialism usher in an epoch of peace and international solidarity?
The left’s response must include a relentless struggle against imperialist super-exploitation, the military-industrial complex and wars of aggression. Social progress is impossible in a time of war. Communist and workers’ parties everywhere need to strengthen and project the World Peace Council and its national affiliated organisations.
In the advanced bourgeois democratic countries, communism in particular has an image problem. Many people — including many socialists and progressives — equate communism with dictatorship and the abolition of democratic rights.
Is that problem taken seriously enough?
More must be done to explain how and why communism, in its lower socialist and higher “full communism” stages, will expand and transform democracy, involving the masses of people in the self-government of their workplaces and communities, abolishing monopoly power and repressive legislation, opening up the mass media to social ownership and participation, and subordinating elected representatives to the needs and aspirations of those who elect them.
What will socialism mean for women, racial and religious minorities and young people?
The benefits of social ownership and investment, planning and people-orientated health and education services have to be spelt out if we are not to appear irrelevant to wide sections of the working class and the people.
Inspired by the Great October Socialist Revolution, these are questions that socialists and communists must answer if the 21st century is to mark the final victory of socialism. And in this spirit, Britain’s communists have begun the work of updating our party’s programme, Britain’s Road to Socialism.
Robert Griffiths is general secretary of the Communist Party of Britain.