Monday, 16 July 2018

Murder, starvation, poverty, did communism get to be cool?

It came to a head with an attractive young journalist proclaiming on morning TV: "I'm literally a communist, you idiot". For me this seemed little different from someone popping up and saying; "of course I'm a Fascist, twit face" or "absolutely, you numpty, I'm a Nazi". Yet unlike these latter statements, saying you're a communist doesn't get shock horror reactions, The Guardian won't headline its spluttering indignation at someone being a communist. Indeed the more likely reaction is a sort of "bless, young people care so much about the downtrodden - communism is wrong but their heart's in the right place".

Communism - even in places that really ought to know better like East Berlin - is cool and trendy. Communism is cool despite its track record of economic failure, suppression of democracy, state-sponsored murder, starvation and the incarceration of political opponents. The cruelty of Pol Pot's Cambodia, Mao's 'Cultural Revolution', Stalin's purges and Castro's gay correction camps is set aside because, y'know, communism is cool.

Why is this - seriously, why? Here's a few thoughts with my marketing hat on.

Communism is an ideological brand and people's attachment to it isn't based on much considered analysis but on the belief that (as my Dad said years ago) "socialism just means good". And if you don't believe me, here's a response to me on Twitter following my criticism of communism:
The communist manifesto like any seminal text is not to be taken so very literally but considered and applied to the current socioeconomic climate, taking or leaving as appropriate. This just seems like adult common sense to me.
It's like the Bishop of Durham explaining how, in a very real sense there is a god but he/she/it isn't quite how it says in the bible, that's allegory. So let's explore how communism got to move from being a 19th century piece of political philosophy to a seemingly faith-based creed (despite killing about 100 million people inbetween).

Communism's brand identity has a variety of elements - workers, the people, revolution, anti-establishment - that position it well for those looking to be politically contrary (a common trait in younger people). All of the factors in communism's brand identity are positive - other than the unfortunate fact of, when put into action, its tendency to make people poorer or at least those people it hasn't killed or exiled. But the identity is strong enough to resist these unfortunate historical issues. How come?

Communism's brand associations provide a justification for the "not true communism" response to any criticism citing the Soviet Union ("Stalin wasn't really a communist"), Castro ("Cuban totalitarianism was forced on it by US aggression") or Vietnam (US aggression again). These brand associations - what do you think of when someone says 'communism' - include:

Trendy university lecturers (I recall one lecturer's opening remarks to our 'Geography of South East Asia' module - "I'm a radical Marxist geographer")

Marx and Marxism - not The Communist Manifesto but the degree to which Marx is seen as significant in economics and (especially) sociology. Communism gets academic credibility to match lecturer trendiness

Communist iconography is appealing and rebellious - Che Guevara t-shirts, the hammer and sickle, the colour red.

WW2 - the Russians were our friends and allies (sort of) so communism isn't as bad as that other totalitarianism we don't talk about except when we want to criticise slightly orange US Presidents

All the bad stuff must have been a mistake ("not real communism") because Dr Steve Rogers* is way too trendy to do anything so bad as executing shopkeepers or forcing accounts clerks to work in market gardens. And anyway Marx says (insert trite quote cut and pasted from Good Quotes or Wikipedia). "Do you like my Che t-shirt - only £9.99 down the market?"

The communist brand also has what we can call width - if you thought communism was about economics or sociology think again. Those trendy lecturers crop up everywhere and communism (or "Marxism" but in branding terms there's little difference) has something rebellious - always "challenging orthodoxy" to the point where the challenge becomes the orthodoxy - to say: in the arts, in offshoots of sociology like gender studies and media studies, in literature, language studies and doubtless archaeology.

We can take a step back and observe that communism, from its inception in Marx and Engels' manifesto, has always been predicated on the idea of violent revolution - how else are you going to get hold of the property "for the people"? But this essential violence becomes cool because some of us (especially men) get quite turned on by political violence and the people advocating the violence are rebels, cool dudes fighting for a better world.

Communism's brand is cool because the idea of using violence to remove oppression is cool (watch Star Wars if you doubt this for a second) and the flaws - communism's track record of cruel, hateful oppression - is disregarded because the iconography, identity, story and associations allow for a myth rejecting its failures, most commonly because of the actions of communism's enemy rather than because of its inherent failings. Communism is cool because its brand values allow it to resist an honest assessment of what it has done and what it means.


1 comment:

James Higham said...

It's like the Bishop of Durham explaining how, in a very real sense there is a god but he/she/it isn't quite how it says in the bible

It's de rigeur to not be Christian these days to be a senior cleric.