The Idea of Communism

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Tariq Ali, Chicago University Press, £9.99

This beautifully presented little hardback book is the first in a series edited by Tariq Ali on the question, What was Communism? Its layout and extra touches, such as an illustrated pullout of the Brecht poem "In Praise of Communism" give the initial impression of a beginner's guide to Karl Marx and socialism.

However, it soon appears that Ali is aiming to do something different. Writing in the context of economic crisis he explicitly states that global capitalism requires a "robust intellectual response". In particular, he wants to rescue the "grand narrative" of history.

Despite the short length, Ali creates a narrative starting with slavery and ending with recent anti-capitalist movements. He explores the ideas of Hegel, Feuerbach and Marx, takes in key historical events, looks at the Eastern European states post-1945, discusses China, and much else besides, before finishing with Perestroika and the fall of the Berlin Wall. A grand sweep indeed.

This is more of an extended essay designed to be read in one sitting. Without chapters, headings or subtitles, there are no initial pointers to help the reader negotiate the amount of information put forward.

However, despite a few confusing changes in tense, this is very readable. Ali reasserts a materialist view of history and clearly shows that free market capitalism is not the only way to organise society. He is particularly strong when discussing events such as the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalinism.

For a reader new to the history he covers there could be an element of overload. However, by providing such an overview, Ali prompts further reading and so gives a number of pointers to key events and ideas.

Readers more familiar with this terrain, particularly those from a tradition that would characterise the USSR as state capitalist, may be left feeling slightly frustrated. It definitely makes you want to go away and sharpen up on some particular questions. But I found it clearly referenced and the use of interesting quotes pointed me in the direction of some texts I might not have thought of reading.

There is a slight ambiguity in his conclusions. Despite acknowledging his debt to Marxist theory, rather than discussing the role of the working class as a force for change in transforming the world, Ali talks of how "the possibility of anti-capitalist movements taking power cannot be ruled out". At times the central idea of Marx that the "emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class" seems to have been forgotten in favour of a more top-down approach to change.

However, for any reader this is a very thought-provoking book. Ali unashamedly identifies himself as an "intransigent socialist" committed to fighting the injustice and inequality of capitalism.

This is a welcome contribution in the current political climate of economic crisis, war and climate chaos. By attempting to reassert what was really meant by communism and analyse attempts at its creation, Ali rebuts the idea that there is no alternative to capitalism.