Review: The idea of communism

The Idea of Communism

Review and discussion of 'The Idea of Communism', a collection of essays discussing the place of communism in contemporary politics from Žižek, Toscano, Badiou and others

"From Plato onwards, Communism is the only political idea worthy of a philosopher" - Alain Badiou

"Do not be afraid, join us, come back! You've had your anti-communist fun, and you are pardoned for it - time to get serious again!" - Slavoj Žižek

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, in the public exposure of the inherent failings and the inadequacies of late capitalism to deal with the economic situation in which it finds itself, amid strikes, riots, occupations and revolutions, it seems apt to re-examine the alternative: the Idea of Communism.

In 2009, Slavoj Žižek and Costas Douzinas (both of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities) convened a conference to consider the Idea of Communism and how it can be re-interpreted and imagined for our own time. In 2010 Verso published, under the same name, a collection of essays from 15 of the participants. Here I attempt to overview and connect the various conceptions and considerations raised in those works.

1968: The End of Communism
The spectre of Mao has hung, semi-ironically, through memes and cultural references, over my experience in student politics over the last year, and, perhaps through Badiou, to whom this collection and conference were responding and who has recently himself considered again the meaning and implications of the Cultural Revolution, his legacy appears in many of the essays in the Idea of Communism. Most explicitly, Alessandro Russo considers in his essay whether the Cultural Revolution marked, or perhaps constituted, the end of communism. It's a fascinating history of the period and how it stood as an attack on the party-state as singular legitimate seat of politics, its relation to the other struggles occurring around 1968 and the question of students' and workers' self-organisation.

Russo concludes that the Cultural Revolution sets the stage for the dissolution of 'Actually Existing Socialism' two decades later, but that "rather than ending communism, [it] divided it into two, to quote Mao's favourite philosophical motto". Communism is split into "a name in philosophy", which still exists as an ideal which requires discussion and thought, as in this collection, and "a name in politics" which attaches to the party-state in China.

"Declaring 'communism' as the name for a contemporary political enterprise would soon lead to a deadlock. This is not to say that emancipatory and egalitarian political projects cannot exist, but how could the name 'communism' play the role of a basic cultural reference for revolutionaries?" - Russo1

Should we be that quick to throw away the history and meaning of Communism, the word? A history which as Jean-Luc Nancy tells us stretches back hundreds of years; the word 'communist' certainly already existing in the fourteenth century. As Michael Hardt argues at the start of his essay on The Common in Communism:

"In standard usage ... communism has come to mean its opposite, that is, total state control of economic and social life. We could abandon these terms and invent new ones, of course, but we would leave behind too the long history of struggles, dreams and aspirations that are tied to them." - Hardt

The Common in Communism
So if we are to keep the term communism, what do we mean by it today? Certainly we do not mean the same as the Chinese Communist Party. For Hardt communism today must be about reasserting the idea of the common.

Hardt argues that we should periodise capitalism via the changing nature of the dominant form of property. First immobile property, broadly speaking land, constitutes the dominant form, with rent constituting the main means by which capital is accumulated. With the industrial revolution immobile property comes to be usurped by moveable property, and rent to be superseded by profit extracted from surplus labour in industrial production. Quoting Marx from his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts:

"Movement inevitably triumphs over immobility, open and self-conscious baseness over hidden and unconscious baseness, greed over self-indulgence, the avowedly restless and versatile self-interest of enlightenment over the parochial, worldly-wise, artless, lazy and deluded self-interest of superstition, just as money must triumph over other forms of private property"

For Hardt (and similarly for Toni Negri, writing elsewhere in this collection) in the post-Fordist/post-industrial economy, the new dominant form of property is now immaterial or biopolitical, that is the forms that property as a dominant entity in the late twentieth and twenty-first century take are as ideas, images, knowledge, brands, relationships, affects and so on - information in a broad sense.

Hardt stresses that his periodisation should be seen as a qualitative dominance of one form of property, not necessarily of which form constitutes the quantitatively largest share of the economy in a given era; mobile property as expressed through the industrial revolution becomes dominant while agriculture, as representative of immobile property and rent, still makes up the largest fraction of the economy, for example. Similarly, that immaterial production is now the dominant form should not be taken to ignore the fact that most people globally are still employed in material production.

As Andre Gorz described in his book The Immaterial, however, it is the immaterial part of production which has become the key from the point of view of globalised capital:

"The major part of profits is achieved on the basis of the intangible dimension of commodities. Their 'materialization becomes secondary from the economic point of view.' Companies engaged in material production are relegated to the status of vassals of those firms whose production and capital are essentially immaterial." - Gorz

In the new economy, what becomes most important for companies is to be able to monetise the experiential knowledge of their employees, not just their formal knowledge and labour time. That is, what makes the most profits are the marketing strategies, the branding, the design and research that goes into production, and these aspects are not ones which can be simply reduced to a quantity of labour time; they require alternately moments of creativity which themselves rely on the whole lived experience of the employee. From this we see the development of flexible working for these roles in production, increasing self-employment, consultancy and so on which begin to break the distinction between work and life in the post-Fordist economy.

On the other side, even where material production is still concerned we see a number of changes . Increasingly companies choose to rent fixed capital (buildings, equipment etc.) instead of owning them directly. We see an increase in outsourcing and the employment of workers on temporary contracts etc. The logic of immateriality seeps out of the direct situations in which it first occurs and affects production across the board. Immateriality becomes the dominant form of property and production within the economy as a whole. (I would see also at this point the work of, for example, Christian Marazzi on the de-coupling of immaterial and material capital in the context of the increasing power of finance and the financialistion of the economy that accompanies globalisation and post-Fordism.)

Returning to the work at hand, this change in the form of dominance in property opens up new opportunities for the idea of communism, Hardt tells us. Considering communism as the idea that against both private and public property all should be held in common, we are informed that immaterial property is both particularly amenable to common (or non) ownership (there is no issue of scarcity and temporal control over ideas or information, whereas such considerations do have to be handled for material property) and also already (or in some cases still) held in that form.

"Ideas, images, knowledges, code, languages and even affects can be privatised and controlled as property, but it is more difficult to police ownership because they are so easily shared or reproduced. There is constant pressure for such goods to escape the boundaries of property and become common." - Hardt

In fact, Hardt goes further, asserting that not only are immaterial forms of property constantly under pressure to escape into common ownership, as evidently witnessed in the difficulty in and constant battles to maintain copyright and prevent pirating of cultural and software products for example, but also that private control and ownership of these property forms inherently reduces their productivity.

"If you have an idea, sharing it with me does not reduce its utility to you, but usually increases it. In fact, in order to realize their maximum productivity, ideas, images and affects must be common and shared. When they are privatized their productivity reduces dramatically - and, I would add, making the common into public property, that is, subjecting it to state control or management, similarly reduces productivity. Property is becoming a fetter on the capitalist mode of production. Here is an emerging contradiction internal to capital: 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." - Hardt

For Hardt then, the conditions of production and property in the post-industrial economy are opening up new contradictions in the functioning of capitalism, and that these contradictions and antagonisms create the space in which we can begin to see the possibility of communism.

"Putting my two points together - that capitalist production increasingly relies on the common and that the autonomy of the common is the essence of communism - indicates that the conditions and weapons of a communist project are available today more than ever. Now to us is the task of organizing it." - Hardt

Hardt's suggestion that our current situation is in fact closer to communism that it has ever been and moreover that capitalism is increasingly contradicted in its operation is appealing. It suggests that revolution may be relatively easy, that capitalism is inexorably undermining itself and furnishing us with the weapons with which to finish it off. But is this characterisation really the whole story? Are we really in such a positive position?

In their critique of Empire and Multitude (two earlier works by Hardt and Negri which deal with the condition of post-Fordist/immaterial production), Aufheben argue that far from being natural and autonomous from capital, immaterial labour is in fact best seen as a specific division of labour. As they say "[w]e do not eat, drive or wear ideas. Pure ideation can exist as such only because there is a stage of pure execution somewhere else." Though we may hope that material production can be increasingly automated and freed from the necessity of human labour, we cannot all be graphic designers, authors or academics; for some time, at least, many of us will have to be factory workers and farmers. Immateriality then presents itself not as a natural stage of production which moves us closer to communism but as an impediment with which we must break and radically overcome. For interest I think it worth mentioning that Gorz did see the externalisation of material production as a new division of labour, one that broke not only between providers of labour, but between companies and capital as well:

"Material capital is abandoned to the subcontracting 'partners' of the mother firm, which assumes suzerainty over them, forcing them, through the constant revision of the terms of their contracts, to continually intensify the exploitation of their labour force." - Gorz, The Immaterial

In his essay How to Begin from the Beginning, Žižek also considers the revolutionary antagonism of the commons and their relation to the idea of communism.

"There are four such antagonisms [which are powerful enough to prevent the indefinite reproduction of capitalism]: the looming threat of ecological catastrophe, the inappropriateness of the notion of private property for so-called 'intellectual property', the socio-ethical implications of new techno-scientific developments (especially in biogenetics), and, last but not least, new forms of apartheid, new Walls and slums." - Žižek

Žižek describes the first three of these antagonisms as denoting the domains of the commons, "the shared substance of our social being", and the last as the "gap that separates the Excluded from the Included". The enclosure by capitalism of these three domains of the commons, of culture, of external nature and of internal nature, to use Žižek's descriptors, constitutes a process of proletarianization which requires us to extend the idea of the proletariat to an "existential level well beyond Marx's imagination".

"Today we are all potentially a homo sacer, and the only way to defend against actually becoming so is to act preventively." - Žižek

Without addressing the final antagonism, however, without asserting the communist universal, the singularity of the proletariat, the others "lose their subversive edge".

"Ecology turns into a problem of sustainable development, intellectual property into a complex legal challenge, biogenetics into an ethical issue. One can sincerely fight to preserve the environment, defend a broader notion of intellectual property, oppose the copyrighting of genes, without confronting the antagonism between the Included and the Excluded." - Žižek

Rather than expressing an inherent contradiction for capital, as Hardt argues, for Žižek the problem of the commons merely asserts a series of challenges to the current form of capitalism, but not the underlying content. Capitalism can avoid the communist solution through a (perhaps superficially substantial) reorganisation; a new 'welfare state' based on citizens' income as share of the commons perhaps, the breaking of the bond between capitalism and liberal democracy (for which see 'capitalism with Asian values' as in China, Singapore etc. or the technocratic governments and total policing being imposed in Europe today), some new form of populist or communitarian capitalism or whatever.

The State and Revolution
As ever, of course, with Žižek, these insights are interspersed with the inevitable apologetics for and assertions of the need for a dose of 'Jacobin-Leninism'. In fact it is the very aversion to Leninism from some of us on the left that was the downfall of the communist project until now.

"The failure of the Communist State - Party politics is above all and primarily the failure of anti-statist politics, of the endeavour to break out of the constraints of State, to replace statal forms of organization with 'direct' non-representative forms of self-organisation" - Žižek

For Žižek, as for Badiou, the task is to make "the State itself work in a non-statal mode". Which, brings us to, perhaps, the second big debate in conceptualising what we mean today by the idea of communism: the nature of the state.

"State and Revolution is the title of one of Lenin's most famous texts. The State and Event are indeed what are at stake in it. Nevertheless, Lenin, following Marx in this regard, is careful to say that the State in question after the Revolution will have to be the State of the withering away of the State, the State as organizer of the transition to the non-State. So let's sat the following: the Idea of communism can project the real of a politics, subtracted as ever from the power of the State, into the figure of 'another State', provided that the subtraction lies within this subjectivizing operation, in the sense that the 'other State' is also subtracted from the power of the State, hence from its own power, in so far as it is a State whose essence is to wither away." - Badiou

"Being communist means being against the State" - Negri

In these quotes we see the outlines of the debate. No one here claims to be unambiguously for the State form (as currently existent), the question instead is whether we wish to see the State altered, to see it work in a "non-Statal mode", or whether it is to be simply opposed in all its forms. Can we directly implement the communist ideal of a stateless society and do away with the social relations that make up the underlying content of capitalism now? Or is there a need for a transitional State, a State which exists so as to do away with itself? Is the desire for communism now the only way to avoid lapsing back into the content of capitalism if not the organisational form or simply evidence of what Bruno Bosteels describes as a leftism, which reveals "a dangerous lack of maturity combined with an impatient desire to skip the intermediate phases in the gradual process of growth and development, by leaping all at once to the highest phase of communism"?

In Negri's Thoughts on Concept and Practice we the see, as with Hardt, the connection between the common and communism, and the distinction between the common/communism and the public/(state) socialism.

"Being communist entails the recognition that the public is a form of alienation and exploitation of labour - of common labour, in our case...communism is the enemy of socialism because socialism is the classical form of this second model of alienation of proletarian power (potenza), which also requires a distorted organization of the production of its subjectivity." - Negri

Philosophy, Abstraction & Equality
Away from these perhaps more concrete debates, the collection also considers the philosophical importance of the communist idea, the other side of Russo's post Cultural Revolution division. Alberto Toscano considers in his essay The Politics of Abstraction: Communism and Philosophy, what "might it mean to be a communist in philosophy, or to treat communism as a philosophical idea".

Concerning the notion of equality, and what a communist interpretation of such a notion might be, Toscano suggests that we need to go beyond the conception of equality as the social democratic equal rights for all to an equal product of labour. Quoting Marx from his Critique of the Gotha Programme he says that "'a right can by its nature only consist in the application of an equal standard' to unequal individuals". Or, as Lenin put it in the State and Revolution, "the defects of distribution and inequality of 'bourgeois right'...[continue] to dominate in so far as products are divided 'according to work'". Communism is not simply about the negation of the capitalist mode of organisation of the economy, but about the abolition of the social relations that constitute that structure.

"Rather than affirming the principled equality of human beings or promising their eventual levelling communist 'equality' implies creating social relations in which inequalities would be rendered inoperative, no longer subsumed as unequal under an equal standard or measure of right. This idea of equality beyond right and value is of course in its own way profoundly abstract - but it demonstrates, first, how the philosophical contribution of communism involves a struggle against a certain type of abstraction (the kind which is derivative of the capitalist form of value and the standards the latter imposes), and second, how the question of realization is intrinsic to the idea of communism." - Toscano

In all this is an extremely interesting collection of essays, which manages to touch upon some of the most important debates in theorizing a communism for the twenty-first century. I certainly don't agree with all the conclusions the participants come to, and indeed they are far from all agreeing themselves, but as an introduction to the task ahead of us in asserting a positive vision of society which goes beyond simply a rejection of capitalism, this book is a great place to begin and a useful contribution to how the idea of communism relates both to politics and philosophy today.

"If the idea or the problem of communism is inseparable, as I believe, from the problem of its realization - with the important consequences that this has for philosophy's relationship to communism - then the question of how to connect the prospects of communism to a partisan knowledge of the real and its tendencies, without mistaking these tendencies for a preformed logic or a philosophy of history, becomes crucial." - Toscano

  • 1. Where not otherwise noted all quotes are taken from The Idea of Communism.


Jan 19 2012 10:57

This has since been reposted on Verso's site!