Sunday, May 8, 2011

Review: 'The Idea of Communism'

The Idea of Communism
(eds) Costas Douzinas and Slavoj Žižek (eds) 
Verso, London 2010. 226pp., £14.99 pb
ISBN 9781844674596

Reviewed by M.E. Mitchell, Marx and Philosophy:  M.E. Mitchell graduated from the University of California, Riverside with a PhD in Philosophy and currently works as an itinerant lecturer at several colleges in the Southern California area.

This volume collects a series of lectures given at the eponymous conference in March 2009, hosted by Birkbeck’s Institute for the Humanities. Its participants provided, for the most part, affirmative answers to the question of ‘whether “communism” is still the name to be used to designate radical emancipatory projects’ (viii). The essays are markedly diverse, not surprisingly – each of the fifteen contributors has carved out his own niche within the sphere of radical politics. Notwithstanding, many of the essays approach the topic from certain corners of the philosophical tradition and not others. While Marx himself is a prominent but not a privileged authority on the fate of the idea of communism, Nietzsche, Lacan, Heidegger and Foucault are invoked in ingenious attempts to understand communism’s most persistent conceptual problems in new ways.

Perhaps the most widely agreed-upon point among contributors is the necessity of distinguishing the State from communism. More broadly, there is agreement on the necessity of distinguishing concrete historical movements and institutions that identify with ‘communism’ from the idea that proceeded, guided, and survives those movements and institutions. The political and historical motivations for such a distinction are readily apparent: first, the demise of communism in its nation-state form; second, the slow but persistent erosion of socialist achievements by neo-liberal influences; and third, the restrictions these achievements have placed on human freedom, accompanied as they are by a rigid, expanding, and invasive bureaucracy. The distinction also issues from a philosophical engagement with the Marxist-Leninist thesis of ‘the withering away of the State, the State as organizer of the transition to the non-State’(9). The philosophical form of this question of the relationship between communism and, say, the U.S.S.R., is the ancient question of the relationship between the immaterial, indivisible, eternal Idea and its partial, singular incarnations. There are explicit attempts to steer a theoretical course that can both recognize failed attempts to institutionalize communism and yet resist the Platonic search for Communism-with-a-capital-C.

Alain Badiou’s work is particularly prominent in framing this task. His essay offers a sample of some of the concepts central to his corpus – concepts that will be difficult for the uninitiated to grasp in fourteen pages. Although Badiou begins by invoking Plato, he states rather un-Platonically that the ‘Idea’ is ‘better understood as an operation than as a concept’(4). This is an operation by which we come to relate to our workaday existence through History, writ large, one that provides the opportunity for the transformation of the subject into something more than the facts would seem to permit. In its emphasis on history and practice, Badiou’s Idea tries to keep its feet on the ground while at the same time maintaining a transcendent quality, made possible by the indeterminate meaning of ‘history’.

Whether Badiou successfully avoids a too-otherworldly orientation is debatable. Bruno Bosteels’ essay on the paradoxes of leftism places Badiou in the camp of purist leftists, in the company of those who have a deep suspicion of gradual progress, especially in the form of socialist institutions. This variety of leftism, Bosteels argues, seeks to effect ‘a complete delinking’ of communism and State (50). Consequently, politics faces the challenge of conducting its activities sans ‘party, unions, parliaments and other electoral-democratic mechanisms or compromise formations’ (52) .

Peter Hallward likewise rejects Badiou’s idealism, arguing that it effectually removes communism from the realm of the thinkable, from the realm of the actionable, thereby also robbing it of its revolutionary significance. At the same time, he acknowledges as legitimate Badiou’s efforts in resisting the equation of communism with historical movements, a move that robs communism of its action-guiding function. Hallward asserts that Slavoj Žižek tends to fall into this latter error, particularly in his enthusiastic affirmation of any political resistance movements as emancipatory. Hallward asserts that ‘he deprives the prescription of radical political action of any clear and consistent criteria other than those of radicality itself’ (115). The mean between these two extremes, Hallward argues, is that the concept of a political will, specifically the will to assume the task of social transformation. Hallward’s solution is guided by Rousseau’s concept of the general will.

In a novel contribution to this conversation about where to locate communism, Michael Hardt proposes that we need look no further than contemporary capitalism. Hardt recalls Marx’s observations on the transition from immobile to mobile property that accompanied industrialization. The accumulation of wealth was thereafter achieved not by land ownership and rent collection, but by the accumulation of profit, of capital. This is not, Hardt observes, a quantitative claim; that is, Marx is not claiming that factory owners outnumber landowners. Rather, it is the qualitative claim that ‘all other forms of production will be forced to adopt the qualities of industrial production. Agriculture, mining, even society itself will have to adopt its regimes of mechanization, its labour discipline, its temporalities and rhythms, its working day, and so forth’ (134). Contemporary capitalism, Hardt argues, has undergone a similar transition – from industrial production to immaterial or biopolitical production. ‘Immaterial’ production is the production of ideas, codes, images, knowledges, languages, and social relationships. ‘Biopolitical’ production indicates that human subjectivity and relationships, human forms of life, are produced by capitalism. In this era of wealth accumulation, capitalism carries an internal tension that may be exploited for communist resistance. This tension lies in the difficulty of the private ownership of the immaterial. Ideas, images, knowledges tend to increase in value when they are shared. In this sense, the immaterial goods that capitalism seeks to profit from are essentially communist; their value lies in their common accessibility. ‘The more the common is corralled as property, the more its productivity is reduced; and yet expansion of the common undermines the relations of property in a fundamental and general way’ (136).

Hardt’s critique of contemporary political economy is echoed in Antonio Negri’s essay, and Žižek relies upon it in his blueprint for a new communist politics. The notion of ‘immanent communism’ has its critics, though. Bosteels, for one, argues that even this conception collapses into the old leftism insofar as it seeks to purify and simplify antagonisms, to collect them all under a single paradigm of conflict (49). Moreover, Hardt’s communism has given up on anything ontologically external to, radically ‘other’ than, the capitalist/communist dyad. This is grounds for Jaques Rancière’s criticism. In ‘Communists Without Communism?’, he argues that the ‘common’ identified by Hardt belongs to capitalism, not to communism.

Bosteels, Rancière, and, most explicitly, Susan Buck-Morss advocate a more inclusive communism, one that is not tied to Western European struggles and successes, or to ‘strategies based on the analysis of social evolution’ (176). Bosteels turns to Bolivian activist Alfredo Garcia Linera’s concept of potencia, translated as ‘potential’ and ‘power’. In the spirit of Linera’s writings, Bosteels argues that the concept of communism should be developed as an idea in abstraction from the flow of history, as a pattern or set of patterns and regularities that describe its many instantiations. For Rancière, emancipatory practice is one of the defining regularities; ‘communist moments’ can be found wherever the egalitarian maxim is instantiated, wherever people have acted on ‘the confidence in that capacity’ to ‘collectivise the power of the equality of anyone with everyone’ (173). Buck-Morss’s essay offers a theoretical articulation of an inclusive communist project. She draws on Benjamin’s concept of the messianic to guide her reinterpretation of the Hegelian Aufhebung, the movement of progress, as the preservation or rescuing of the past. In “rescuing the past”, the old can hook up with the new, the heretofore unseen. The rescue of the past is a preparation for the new, one that resists the reduction of every history to one more repetition of the same narrative. More generally, the notion that communism is in some sense prior to Marxism is invoked by Badiou, Terry Eagleton, and Jean-Luc Nancy.

The call for inclusion, for an expansion of communism’s borders, is accompanied by a critique of inadequate strategies for achieving inclusion, namely, identity politics. As Judith Balso notes, the State’s designation of the worker as a social fragment, as one more piece of the social body clamoring for recognition, cannot overcome the structural disenfranchisement that is integral to the relationship between State and worker. Thus, it will accomplish little to give workers ‘rights’ within a capitalist-State system if the system itself produces the inequality; the rights can only reinforce (by requiring) the system. Costas Douzinas explores this relationship more thoroughly, beginning with Marx’s devastating critique of natural rights. Still, Douzinas holds out hope for the possibility of integrating the normative aspect of rights language into a communist project. His attempt to accomplish this is ontological in nature: rights are one attempt to come to grips with adikia, a fundamental social dislocation, dissension. Capitalism is not its only name, and rights are bound to be unsuccessful in securing justice, owing to the permanence of adikia. Douzinas argues that the ‘normative call’ of communism emerges against the failure of liberal human rights. Such rights, by regarding equality as a regulative ideal, obscure a more radical interpretation of the term, as ‘axiomatic equality’: ‘equality is not an objective or an effect, but the premise of action’ (97). Axiomatic equality reveals the right and the power to revolution, the capacity to re-create ourselves, ‘a “right to law” based on the constitutive force that inaugurated the legal system’ (98).

The most general, and arguably the most important inquiries into the idea of communism focused on whether it is a question for politics or philosophy. Radical philosophers, for the most part, accept Marx’s call to action, to ‘change the world’, not simply to describe it. What, then, is the role of theory? Is it a mere description? Is it its own kind of action? Judith Balso, one of few who expresses skepticism regarding the desirability of reactivating ‘communism’, claims that politics and philosophy inhabit separate spheres. Philosophy can and should investigate politics, but should not pretend that it is thereby doing politics. Alessandro Russo, by contrast, argues that the very investigation of ‘the idea of communism’ is a political act representing philosophy’s opposition to a regime that restricts its full exercise. The question of the relationship between politics and philosophy would be a promising starting point for a more systematic treatment of the future of the idea of communism. If philosophy is itself a kind of political action, as Russo asserts, what can it hope to accomplish? Is it at least as effective as other political efforts that attempt to ‘change the world’?

It might also be fruitful to consider the extent to which certain theoretical problems are perpetuated by the way they are framed. One of the volume’s recurring themes is the deeply paradoxical question of how to conceive of capitalism’s ‘Other’. If communism lies outside of our experience, and the many failures of socialism and the welfare state are grounds for thinking that it does lie outside of our experience, how are we to speak of it? Badiou’s Event, Buck-Morss’s reinterpretation of Aufhebung, Eagleton’s reflections on art and Hardt’s ‘immanent communism’ are just some attempts to solve this riddle. But pure exteriority, like pure interiority, is metaphorical. It is a metaphor that can be put to work in the service of an emancipatory project, of course. But it should not drive that project.

The constraints of the conference format do not show themselves in this volume, save, perhaps, for Badiou’s essay, which is too dense, too rich, to be digested in one short chapter. This density is underscored by his many references to his prior works. Three essays, those by Jean-Luc Nancy, Antonio Negri, and Gianni Vattimo, depart from the standard academic format in which the author develops a central thesis. These offer ‘food for thought’ rather than a careful, sustained analysis. Nancy’s and Vattimo’s essays are brief, telegraphic; Negri’s reads like a call to arms.

The Idea of Communism is certainly a worthwhile read. Whether its status is philosophy or politics, its authors demonstrate that ‘communism’ remains an abundant resource for critique and speculation, where those are oriented towards emancipation.

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