The specter is haunted by the British media: the specter of negative takes on capitalism. Since the academician and writer Ash Sarkar pronounced the words “I’m a communist, you’re an idiot” on national television, the right has recoiled from horror. The alacrity with which commentators jumped on Sarkar’s off-the-cuff comment to relitigate the cold war is deeply revealing.
The right has been terrified that it is losing the war of ideas to the left ever since Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour deprived the Tories of a majority a year ago. Sarkar’s unintentional rescue of Marx’s vision of communism – as a stateless, classless society in which humanity is liberated from wage labour – from the Stalinist totalitarianism that followed led the magazine Elle to declare she was “literally a communist and literally our hero”. The Telegraph reflected: “Communism sent millions to their deaths – so why is it cool to wear it on your T-shirt?” As far as Douglas Murray of the Spectator is concerned, meanwhile, Sarkar is no better than a fascist.
Don’t get me wrong: regimes that took the name “communist” – from Stalin’s to Pol Pot’s – committed unspeakable, monstrous crimes. But for the right, a revival of interest in Marx’s pre-Stalinist vision of communism is the most striking and chilling example of its own collapsing ideological supremacy: “communism” is synonymous with tens of millions of deaths and nothing else. Capitalism, by contrast, is presented as a largely bloodless, blameless engine of human prosperity.
The story of capitalism is more complicated than that. If you want to read effusive praise of capitalism, you’ll find it in Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto: the revolutionary dynamism of the capitalists, they wrote, had created “wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals”. But capitalism is an economic system drenched in the blood of countless millions.
That is, of course, not to excuse the horrors of Stalinism: the totalitarian model pioneered and exported by Stalin’s regime deprived millions of their liberty and, in so many cases, their lives; similarly, the millions of lives lost to murder and famine in Maoist China can never be forgotten. Yet the charge sheet against communism does not aid the champions of capitalism quite as much as they would like. According to The Black Book of Communism, a disreputable key reference point for the right, almost a hundred million humans perished at the hands of self-described “communist” regimes, mostly victims of Mao Zedong’s regime in China. The Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen notes that between 23 and 30 million people did indeed die as a consequence of Mao’s catastrophic Great Leap Forward policies in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
But he also noted in a 2006 paper that in the middle of the 20th century, China and India had the same life expectancy – around 40 years. After the Chinese revolution, a massive divergence took place. By 1979, Maoist China had a life expectancy of 68 years, more than 14 years longer than that of capitalist India.
The excess in mortality of capitalist India over communist China was estimated to be a horrifying 4 million human lives a year. So why isn’t India held up as a case study for the murderousness of capitalism?
Capitalism was built on the bodies of millions from the very start. From the late 17th century onwards, the transatlantic slave trade became a pillar of emergent capitalism. Much of the wealth of London, Bristol and Liverpool – once the largest slave trading port in Europe – was made from the enslaved labour of Africans. The capital accumulated from slavery – from tobacco, cotton and sugar – drove the industrial revolution in Manchester and Lancashire; and several banks today can trace their origins to profits made from slavery.
Even when the international slave trade began to crumble, the blood money of colonialism enriched western capitalism. India was long ruled by Britain, the world’s pre-eminent capitalist power: as Mike Davis’s Late Victorian Holocausts explores, up to 35 million Indians perished in needless famines as millions of tonnes of wheat was exported to Britain in times of starvation. Here was a cash cow for British capitalism, becoming the country’s main source of revenue by the end of the 19th century. The west is built on wealth stolen from the subjugated, at immense human cost.
It was the 20th century when capitalist Europe began to import the mass horrors it had previously inflicted on others. The Great Depression – still the most severe crisis of capitalism – helped to create the conditions of popular discontent that led to the rise of the Nazis. In the early period of Hitler’s regime, big business, fearful of the power of the German left, made its grubby compromises with National Socialism, seeing the Nazis as a blunt instrument with which to bludgeon both communism and trade unionism. German businesses made huge donations to the Nazis both before and after their rise to power, the industrial conglomerate IG Farben and Krupp among them. Many businesses profited from Nazi slave labour and the Holocaust, including IBM, BMW, Deutsche Bank and the Schaeffler group.
It is possible to believe in capitalism passionately, or simply be resigned to it as the only viable system, but also acknowledge that it has its own dark shadows and complicities with murderous episodes in human history. It serves a useful political function, of course, to suppress the idea that there is an alternative to capitalism, resting on different principles and values.
The democratic radical left has long repudiated the totalitarian nightmare, and has reflected at great length as to how it happened. But many of capitalism’s unapologetic defenders have failed to scrutinise its own past: respectable politicians and historians still defend colonialism, despite its grotesque horrors. Diving back into the darkest days of 20th-century totalitarianism is not a fair way to take on 21st-century democratic socialists.
Aspiring to a world of material abundance, freed of the state, rooted in cooperation, does not make someone a murderous totalitarian in the making. Even if you don’t believe any of that will ever happen, that doesn’t mean surrendering to market fundamentalism, not least as climate change – driven by an unsustainable economic order – wreaks growing mayhem on our planet. A new democratic and just society is waiting to be born – one that breaks decisively with all the failed systems of the past.