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Corbyn, Capitalism and Culture: Who Are the Young Communist League?

Staff writer Fred Taylor interviews the leader of the British Young Communist League, Johnnie Hunter

The 250 year old battle of capitalism versus socialism is over in the United Kingdom. Politics since lockdown has been centred on anything but the one debate that ruled the political discourse of the twentieth century. Starmer, Sunak, Johnson and Truss have all been different kinds of capitalists, and, from a communist’s point of view, have been proposing marginally different versions of essentially the same thing. 

But the system is currently not providing its constituents with their desires, or even their needs: the cost of living crisis has dealt a crippling blow to the well-being of society. Some blame this on Tory mismanagement, on the lack of investing in the right energy sources or the miss-apportionment of tax resources. Others think that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and post-Covid scarcity are the sources of the fire that has ignited this latest fiscal bonfire. All are reasonable explanations that could help work out why the path that we have taken has led us to such a dire destination. But all fail to shine light on the underlying system that some say has catapulted us into this less than ideal situation. 

Every fifteen years or so, we do battle over the cause of the current economic crisis. Different explanations are offered up by the political establishment: imprudent lending, poor financial regulation, unavoidable supply chain issues, war… But few fail to completely challenge the scaffolding upon which all this reasoning is conducted. The Labour Party will take a passing glance at it, the Greens may have a slightly more sustained look, but that is the all the attention that anti-capitalism will get in our political system. Even Corbyn advocated for a reformed version of capitalism, aiming to ensure its negative offshoots are dampened.

Enter the Communist Party of Britain, and its daughter party the Young Communist League (YCL). They argue that the British students are “in desperate need of class oriented politics on campus”, and that, fundamentally, the core right of capitalism to extract profit is the shining light that has led students into the abyss of high rents and unsustainable living costs. Roar interviewed the general secretary of the organisation, Johnnie Hunter, on these arguments. 

“The abolition of the right to extract profit, whether that is from university institutions big businesses or private landlords, is what communists call for.”

He argues that many universities have lost the political radicalism that they used to be known for, becoming depoliticised areas which accommodate for “ruling class” interests. This has led to the mass-exploitation of students both by universities who ask for extortionate tuition fees and by landlords who demand extortionate rents. This, in Mr Hunter’s mind, has opened a chasm in the “student’s struggle” that needs to be filled by “an organisation of communist politics fighting for students and building a movement amongst students”.

He contends that other parties to the left, including the Young Greens and Young Labour, are aiming at the wrong object when discussing capitalism. They target the landlord, the big business with unconscionable practices, the university institution which underpays lecturers, but not the system whose fundamental trait is to allow said practices to occur. He believes that we are blinded from questioning this underpinning structure. 

“From cradle to grave, people are inculcated with the ideology of the ruling class, throughout education, nursery all the way to university. The basic ideas, the orthodoxies the things we should not question are the ideologies that underline capitalism.

“We take it for granted that private property is a god given right, that the only type of free society that can exist is that turning around private property and that socialism and communism are evil and have killed 100 gazillion people on the planet to date.”

His concerns may seem radical, but questioning the system is necessary. Capitalism is a choice that affects us all as we go about our lives. It would seem imprudent not to question this structure and compare it to the potential alternatives. However, many people’s understanding of communism is the practical consequences that its attempted implementation has had in the past. For instance, Stalin’s regime in the Soviet Union (USSR) killed at least 20 million people either through starvation or execution, and Mao’s tragically took the lives of 50 million Chinese.

Mr Hunter, however, questions this vision of history. “The reason why people question the feasibility of socialism is the writing away of the ‘great achievements socialism has achieved’, including the socialist regimes in the Soviet Union, China and Cuba.”

On the controversies of the USSR, Mr Hunter says that “One of the first and most concerted attempts, for all its faults, the achievements of the Soviet Union for the people of the USSR, not just the USSR, but the anti-colonial movements around the world were stunning, despite the faults and the deficiencies that that first attempt to build socialism had.”

Yet perhaps most surprising, was his claim that the Uyghur genocide is a false narrative and a US attempt to “stir up ethnic and sectarian tensions in order to attack China and undermine [its] territorial integrity”. He sees no reason to doubt the Chinese Communist Party line that this is no more than a ‘de-radicalisation’ attemptThis is despite sustained evidence that Uyghurs have been subjected to torture and the suppression of births in the Xinjiang region of China. (For more on China’s brutal treatment of the Uyghur people, see this article from the Smithsonian Magazine.) This is a particularly bizarre claim considering the capitalistic nature of today’s Chinese regime. Mr Hunter is defending an enemy.

These are the bold and controversial claims that make the YCL stand out in the communist field. The Socialist Workers Party, for example, repudiate the claims that Stalin’s regime was socialist at all, and accordingly condemn it in strong wordsMr Hunter accepted that people may be scared at the YCL’s controversial views but explained why a robust defence of past socialist regimes is needed.

“We would say that it is important to defend the legacy of previous socialist countries and currently existing ones as part of that battle of ideas. 

“Also, one of the biggest strengths is that we can argue that socialism is not just an idea that works on paper, but is something that can be achieved in reality. Something that millions, billions of people are working toward in the world today. That is part of the battle of ideas, a battle we are not prepared to shrink from in the interests of expediency.”

Returning to British politics, I ask him whether Jeremy Corbyn showed that socialist reforms were not palatable to the British public. After all, in the 2019 election Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party got the lowest number of seats for the party since 1935, and Jeremy Corbyn polled the lowest satisfaction ratings of any opposition leader since 1977.

Yet Mr Hunter sees this failure as a natural reflection of the party’s “[disrespect for] the democratic outcome of the [Brexit] referendum” held three years prior; in the 2017 election “Labour got the biggest vote in their history thanks to Jeremy Corbyn, on the basis of a progressive economic programme”. In addition to this, the ex-leader of the Labour Party had “the whole forces of the British state and monopoly media against him”.

“Capitalist democracy is a sham, that has always had the trappings of an outwardly democratic society and wraps it itself in its vocabulary, but in actual fact provides no meaningful control for working people over most aspects of their lives.”

I ask him how he plans to change the system if he believes the system is undemocratic. He responds passionately to this challenge. 

“[We need] a mass movement that is capable of seizing state power and attacking the power of the capitalist class. Undermining the power of the monopoly media to make those sorts of attacks, democratising the civil service, police and army, and removing ruling class interests there, and also building mass organisations to protect revolutionary change as you see in various socialist countries around the world today.”

Big words, but few results. At present, the likelihood of a socialist mass-movement capable of seizing state power seems as likely as Karl Marx being resurrected and joining the Conservative Party. But there is no need for any communists out there to have their spirits dampened. Mr Hunter reminds me that Lenin too once lamented that “history moves faster and slower at different points”. Although, at present, we may be at a slow point, “a revolution isn’t possible until it becomes inevitable”. 

This endless hope embodies the organisation, who see all of capitalism as an evil force to be reckoned with. He believes that the perceived ‘moderate’ assets of capitalism, such as the advance of LGBTQ+ and minority rights in capitalist states will be short-lived.

“One of capitalism’s main ways to defend itself, in our view, is to divide working people, along any lines that it can muster. Whether that is their sexual identity, their religion, the colour of their skin, it will do so. Legally and in terms of mainstream politics, an outward acceptance of LGBT rights exists but, by and large, this is done in an opportunistic way and in a way that denies full integration into society.” He claims socialist countries are far better at protecting LGBT rights and integrating LGBT people into society, giving Cuba as an example, a country where there are presently vast legal protections of LGBT rights, despite cases of state-backed discrimination

So, from LGBTQ+ rights to the student struggle, the YCL see a strong case for communism. Apparent in all of the group’s literature is a deeply ideological view of the world around us, seemingly attributing every negative outcome in our society to capitalism. Questioning the system is important, but being too unpragmatic when doing so can lead to ideologies becoming dogma, a common criticism of Marxism.

Furthermore, the engagement in conspiracy theories and the denial of unfavourable facts may be the reason why the YCL, once the youth wing of an influential communist party, has sunk into its present day relative unimportance. But with the youth of today being largely unsatisfied with capitalism, only time can truly tell what the future holds for the group and for the communist ideology as a whole. 

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