Durham Debate: Stalinism reinforces capitalist apologetics

Ben Lewis spoke at the Durham Union Debating Society

"This house believes capitalism has failed" was the motion put before around 120 students from the Durham Union Debating Society on October 19. The society has a rich and prestigious history spanning nearly 200 years, and has been addressed by a number of esteemed speakers from across the political spectrum.1 The society has something of the quirky and anachronistic about it (black ties, ‘voting’ by shouting and a president’s gown “designed for a man”, as the current chair, Elise Trewick, told me). Despite this, the Durham Union is still popular today, with around 3,000 current students signed up and 50,000 “lifetime members” amongst Durham university’s alumni.

I was speaking on behalf of Communist Students and Harpal Brar, chairman of the ultra-Stalinite CPGB-ML, and leading member of the Stalin Society, was also down to speak in favour of the motion. The New Left Project declined an invitation to send a speaker. Luke Cooper of the Anti-Capitalist Initiative informs me that “we [it is unclear whether ‘we’ means the New Left Project or the ACI] turned down that debate, as we didn’t think teaming up with Harpal Brar would be particularly conducive to winning students to an anti-authoritarian vision of communism. To put it mildly ...” A pretty pathetic argument, of course - particularly when the format actually encourages disagreement between speakers on the same side of the debate.

So effectively we had just two speakers fighting the cause of anti-capitalism: myself and an outspoken Stalinist. In the blue corner, opposing the motion, were Dr Eamonn Butler, director of the Adam Smith Institute; Michael Brindle QC and Mark Littlewood, director of the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Opening shots

A former Durham student who now represents Grant Thornton, the accounting and consulting professional services network, introduced the debate. Without in any way wishing to influence the proceedings, he told us that he had just returned from an international gathering of his company, where lots of champagne and good food was consumed (the result of successful capitalist entrepreneurship, of course).

Opening the case for the proposing team, Harpal Brar pointed out that this question is obviously the one currently exercising most minds today: “If you read the serious financial press, they are all talking about the capitalist crisis”, which he described as one of “overproduction”. Comrade Brar gave an eloquent and witty account of the Marxist theory of crisis, arguing that the banks and the government were now propping each other up like two drunks leaving the pub at closing time. Moreover, while he had the greatest respect for the work of Adam Smith, today’s world is much different. Monopoly capitalism runs our lives “from the cradle to the grave”.

He was followed by Eamonn Butler of the Adam Smith Institute, who made a case for “more” capitalism. He chided the malignant influence of government regulation and intervention in markets - for him the source of many of the problems (poverty, etc) outlined by Brar. He then proceeded to argue that value is essentially something that “exists in our heads” and is realised subjectively in the process of trade and exchange.

I had prepared a speech of about 10 minutes in length,2 but I suppose my intervention vindicated von Clausewitz’s maxim that even the most finely tuned military strategy is often thrown out of the window in the opening shots of battle. Although it had implications for the structure and delivery of my talk, I decided instead to concentrate on some of Butler’s more specious assertions.

Firstly, I pointed out that any pro-capitalist who thinks that governments should not have bailed out the banks following the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 is clearly living on another planet. Any serious financial commentator knew what was at stake in 2008: the meltdown of the entire system. Articles in the Financial Times castigated those like Dr Butler and the loony fringe of the Republican Party for opposing bank bailouts: do they not remember what happened in the 1930s as a result of letting banks go to the wall?

I also questioned Butler’s understanding of value and trade. He was perfectly entitled to hold this standard marginalist view of economics. But it was a bit rich to do so in the name of Adam Smith. I quoted the latter’s Wealth of nations to this effect: “Though the manufacturer [ie, the worker] has his wages advanced to him by his master, he, in reality, costs him [the capitalist master] no expense, the value of those wages being generally restored, together with a profit, in the improved value of the subject upon which his labour is bestowed.”3

No return to the ‘free market’

I maintained that those wishing to return to the supposed halcyon days of ‘perfect competition’ (which only really exists in A-level economics textbooks) are chasing a pipe-dream. Monopoly and state intervention have evolved out of the fundamental laws of motion intrinsic to capitalist accumulation. The dominance of monopoly and state intervention in fact negatively anticipates a higher form of society based on planning and social control, not the anarchic imperatives of capitalist production and the law of value.

I asserted that this was one of the most compelling aspects of Marx’s critique of political economy. Even during the 1840s - when capitalism was expanding across the globe, transforming the world in a way that no previous mode of production had done - Marx could both marvel at this system and presciently observe that its very success would sow the seeds of its own destruction. Marx sought to place capitalism in its historical context. Like feudalism and slavery, with their own particular social dynamics, capitalism and its laws go through a period of birth, maturity and decline. Capitalism is not a form of society that has existed forever, and obviously will not last forever either. Those like Butler, who reify and eternalise capitalism, view it as the supposed culmination of ‘human nature’. But capitalism is an inhumane system: it cannot meet human needs because it is not designed to.

I concluded by arguing that the spectre of Marx still haunts the establishment: comments made by Thatcher’s biographer, Charles Moore, the recent Masters of money BBC documentary and the appearance of Marx’s picture on the front page of a recent edition of the German business newspaper, Handelsblatt, all testify to this. However, as long as it is able to keep its system staggering on - a zombie seeking bailout blood - the capitalist class has no real reason to fear for its own survival. Objectively the system is in a big hole. But the subjective factor, the working class “gravedigger” of capital, is still a long way from coming to power, from filling in this hole and burying the system once and for all.

One major reason for this is that Marxist political organisation and ideas are tainted by ideas purporting to provide an ‘alternative’ to capitalism: ie, Stalinism, with its dictatorship over the proletariat and ‘socialism in one country’; and social democracy, which attempted to bureaucratically steer the economy through state intervention.

The failed transition to socialism in the 20th century weighs down like a nightmare on the present: it is all too easy for establishment apologists to say, ‘Capitalism might not be perfect, but change capitalism and you get Stalin and unfreedom.’ Some, like Harpal Brar, even positively desire such an outcome.

But such views can only act as a brake on the emergence of an alternative: how can Marxism win millions to its banner if we excuse what happened? Nobody will take us seriously, and quite rightly so. It was not just that millions died in the Soviet Union, or that people lived under extremely alienating conditions of state repression. It is that this route towards communism patently did not work. The Soviet economy was a disaster, and Russia is now on the road back to capitalism. Little wonder, then, that for the vast majority of people today it is often easier to imagine some kind of ‘end of the world’ scenario than it is a credible alternative to capitalism.

Freedom and love

With Michael Brindle QC stepping up to speak, the debate started to take on a different direction. It was now not so much a question of whether capitalism had failed, but how, despite its failure, it was still more attractive than what all the speakers, with the exception of yours truly, described as “communism” (ie, its opposite, Stalinism).

Brindle is an expert in banking law who was ‘lawyer of the year’ in 2010. He was a little more sensible than Butler on the question of banking bailouts, and argued that the crisis could be traced to elaborate financial schemes that nobody understood at all. This is why he was at a loss as to how this could be seen as a crisis of overproduction - after all, we are dealing with the financial sector, not production (Brar, however, had already pointed out that speculation is often where capital turns when it cannot sell the mass of what it produces).

Brindle assured us that we should not get too excited about the crisis: it was only the financial system, after all. He then drew a distinction between the “freedom society” (capitalism) and the “love society” (communism), making a fairly robust case against the utter failings of ‘communism’ by pointing out that those in the “love society” tended to love each other too much - so much so that they stamped out the freedom of the very people they were trying to emancipate. A quaint little allegory, perhaps. But pretty much useless in understanding either Marxism or where we are today.

Mark Littlewood of the IEA also argued for more capitalism and less regulation. But the main thrust of his intervention exhibited all the limitations of empiricism so common in bourgeois thought: he heavily drew on statistics pointing out how much longer a worker had to toil just to get shelter or food 200 years ago, compared with today. Of course, communists do not dispute the historical achievements of capitalism - or the working class under the conditions of capitalism.

But then he simply extrapolated these trends into the future, as if they would continue inexorably. He assumed that living standards would simply rise and rise, and that capitalism would expand indefinitely. This is particularly preposterous at a time of the biggest crisis of capital since the 1930s. He predicted that living standards in Britain would rise by 2015 - I am more than willing to have a tenner with him on this.

Interestingly, however, after falsely accusing me of wanting to “nationalise everything” (Harpal Brar can speak for himself, but I obviously never said such a thing), he went on to laud the success of China, where, although the capitalist sector is developing at a rate of knots, all the major means of production are still in the hands of the Stalinist bureaucracy and where bureaucratic state planning is still dominant. It says a lot about the current state of capitalism that so many avowedly pro-market, pro-capitalist forces are looking to China for inspiration. It actually further underlines how capitalism has failed even on its own terms.

Stalinist ‘alternative’

Things got worse when Harpal Brar summed up for the proposing team. He was brimming with the most dewy-eyed Stalinist apologia, which only served to strengthen the false dichotomy created by Brindle and others between ‘capitalism’ and ‘communism’. He described the Soviet Union as “the greatest society we have ever seen” - even praising Ceau?escu’s Romania to the skies. I could only hold my head in my hands, as the audience began to wonder if this was actually for real. When it came to the ‘vote’ at the end, our side was pretty substantially defeated.

Afterwards we were led through the picturesque university grounds to a ‘members only’ room for a glass of wine and further discussion. I had quite a long conversation with Michael Brindle and his wife, both of whom thought they knew a little about Marx’s work (on the level of “Marx was a determinist” and “He was wrong to predict the total collapse of capitalism”, etc.) For some reason, after I had suggested to Dr Butler that I might make a good employee at the Adam Smith Institute, he did not seem all that keen on me ... oh well.

But there was keen interest from many of the students. The topics of discussion afterwards ranged from value theory to China, to Eric Hobsbawm. Some were particularly enthused to hear a non-Stalinist defence of Marxism. One politics student felt that I was absolutely correct to highlight that Marx was not seriously taught or studied any more. When it came to the section on Marx in her course, the lecturer would simply say something like: ‘You are not going to understand this - nobody ever correctly answers the exam question on Marx, so it is probably best to concentrate on the other parts of the course.’ A fitting symbol of the poverty of education today.


1. More information can be found at www.dus.org.uk.

2. A longer article based on my speech notes will soon be published on the Communist Students website and circulated amongst members of the DUS.

3. A Smith An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations book 2, chapter 3, p430 (available at www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smWN.html).