I know we’ve had this conversation before, and I know you’ve asked me more often than not why the ‘Idea of communism’ matters in such an age as ours. You’ve pointed out that the history of communism has been the history of a great failure. But was it communism that failed us, truly? Should we not admit that mistakes have been made? Are we better than Comrade Lenin who once stated that those “Communists are doomed who imagine that it is possible to finish such an epoch-making undertaking as completing the foundations of socialist economy (particularly in a small-peasant country) without making mistakes, without retreats, without numerous alterations to what is unfinished or wrongly done.”1 Yet, we cannot stop there, we must continue, must remember, allow his message to sink in completely into the core of our being, listen to what he says after this first iteration: “Communists who have no illusions, who do not give way to despondency, and who preserve their strength and flexibility ‘to begin from the beginning’ over and over again in approaching an extremely difficult task, are not doomed (and in all probability will not perish). (ibid.)
Do you hear me Comrade? Do you understand the message? What he is saying is simple: we must return to the beginning, over and over again, repeat the movement of that Idea of communism over and over again. As comrade Zizek tells us it is high time for us to descend to the beginning and ‘follow a different path’.2 But what is this different path you ask? How can we begin again differently, form – as that other great philosopher of our time, Alain Badiou, puts it: “a new modality of existence of the hypothesis,” allow it to come into being. How create the space of a new experimentation in political action and praxis.
Don’t confuse the issue either, this is no Kantian “regulatory Idea” with which to regulate our lives and thoughts, some imperative or Ideal to which we might attain; no, this is a practical truth, as Comrade Marx long ago iterated: “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”3 We move against actual social antagonism that exist. Yet, as you’ve pointed out several times in our conversations there are those neoliberal apologists who tell us that this is all old hat, that with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 the – as they term it, ‘End of History’ released us from the old forms, that capitalism at last has proved to be the path of triumph, not communism and its economic policies. As your – shall we call them, acquaintances in the business community tell it, we should just resign ourselves to the power of capital. That we should let this silly Idea of communism fall away as just one more lost Cause (Zizek).
But is this really what we should do? Should we allow ourselves to follow the path of least resistance, “endorse the predominant naturalization of capitalism, or does today’s global capitalism contain antagonisms powerful enough to prevent its indefinite reproduction?” (212) But I get ahead of myself. I know, I know you still have questions about this ‘Idea of communism’. What is this Idea that so many seem to be talking about these days? As you’ve said before, “Why do we need a new Idea of communism? Why not just return to the great originals – to Marx and Lenin, Trotsky and Mao? Let us be clear: yes, yes, of course return to the early writings, study and learn the details, understand what worked, what didn’t; but, and this is important, this is not what we mean by the return to the Idea of communism. No. As Comrade Badiou explains it, before we can understand what we mean by the ‘Idea of communism’ we must start from the formal definition of the Idea itself: “an Idea is the subjectivation of an interplay between the singularity of a truth procedure and a representation of History.”(3) But, you ask, this is a little too abstract a definition. I agree. Yet, it is a good starting point from which to understand just how such an Idea as communism ever enters our temporal lives.”
We know that the word ‘communism’ itself has a unique history or temporal dimension, that it is the locus of an Idea that had as its central core the field of possibilities we term emancipatory, or revolutionary, politics.(3) We know that political truth embodies the emancipatory dimension of the temporal sequence of specific events such as French Revolution, from 1792 to 1794, the Bolshevik Revolution, from 1902 to 1917, etc. (2) What this entails for the individual is that his/her active participation in the historical process is base on a praxis, a historical decision on his/her part in becoming part of a new Subject, a collective movement of History. The militant activation of individual in a larger collective allows for the subjectification of the individual into this larger historical dimension. Yet, we must remember that History as such does not exist. As Comrade Badiou remarks: “Of course, there is no real History and it is therefore true, transcendentally true, that it cannot exist. Discontinuity between worlds is the law of appearance, hence of existence.” (6) Yet, he goes further, he tells us that what does exist is, under the real condition of organized political action, the communist Idea, an operation tied to intellectual subjectivation and that integrates the real, the symbolic, and the ideological at the level of the individual agent.(6)
I know, I know, you hate it when we bring in all the Lacanian wireframes. And I want bore you with all the intricacies of Badiou’s philosophical framework: the event, the State, facts, History, etc. So I want force that on you. Instead I’ll be brief and to the point. Let us return to our beginning, the communist Idea. If, for an individual, an Idea is the subjective operation whereby a specific real truth is imaginarily projected into the symbolic movement of a History, we can say that an Idea presents the truth as if it were a fact. This is how the Idea presents certain facts as symbols of the real truth. (8) We’ll give it to you plainly from Badiou himself:
A truth, is the political real. History, even as a reservoir of proper names, is a symbolic place. The ideological operation of the Idea of communism is the imaginary projection of the political real into the symbolic fiction of History, including in its guise as a representation of the action of innumerable masses via the One of a proper name. The role of this Idea is to support the individual’s incorporation into the discipline of a truth procedure, to authorize the individual, in his or her own eyes, to go beyond the Statist constraints of mere survival by becoming a part of the body-of-truth, or the subjectivizable body.(11)
The proper names of which Badiou speaks (i.e., Spartacus, Thomas Munzer, Robespierre, Toussaint-L’Ouverture, Blanqui, Marx, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Mao, Che Guevara among so many others) are those who sum up the multiplicity, all those anonymous masses who go unnamed within the history of emancipatory politics. After decades of reactionary encrustation within the global arena we are seeing the reemergence of the communist Idea as a viable option for those of us who still affirm a politics of truth and emancipation. I know you are traveling for the summer and have asked me to send you a few letters of advice on this very subject so I’ll try to address this by bringing some of the history of these singular events to life.
The return to the Idea of communism is not a return to dead ideas, to some old resurrection of Marx, Lenin, Mao, et. al., no – this, too, would be a mistake; instead, we should begin to think again, to see through their eyes but see better. What we see are other issues and concerns that they never spoke of, that never crossed into their awareness, never saw the light of day. Our agon is against the looming threat of ecological catastrophe, the so called notion of ‘private property’ that has now been transformed into intellectual property rights, the socio-ethical implications of the NBIC technologies (Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology, and Cognitive Science), and, last, but not least, the new forms of apartheid, the slums and divisions, the exclusions by race and economics spawned on us by the new globalism. Today all of us are threatened with becoming the excluded ones, the homo sacers – outlawed from the world of the living, both in and outside the law, shriven of our rights and forced to the edge of existence.
Today we must fight for a new form of inclusiveness, for a redaction of all those sovereign appeals to legalese and the State apparatuses that impose their dark enlightenment, their neoliberalism on the global world. Ultimately it is the excluded and poor of the earth that will rise up in concert and seize the moment for a truly resounding revolt against all hierarchic orders. A moment that involves nothing less than the need to seize power for egalitarian justice, for a new form of social organization that opposes all forms of global capitalism. Yet, in this opposition we must remain true to our needs, to the new forms that will be needed to overcome the inertia of those exploitative regimes that still control immanently as well as externally. As Antonio Negra, and Zizek after him, concur,
One has to bring capital to recognize the weight and importance of the common good, and if capital is not ready to do it, one has to compel it to do so.3
The point here being that our new forms will not abolish capitalism per se, but compel it to recognize the common good, force it to use its resources to solve the real issues facing us on this planet. As Negri states it:
The picture is one of a circulation of commodities, webs of information, continuous movements, and radical nomadism of labour, and the ferocious exploitation of these dynamics … but also the constant and inexhaustible excess, of the biopolitical power of the multitude and of its excess with regard to the structural controlling ability of dominant institutions. All of the available energies are put to work, society is put to work … Within the exploited totality and injunction to work lies the intransitive freedom that is irreducible to the control that tries to subdue it. Even though freedom can run against itself … lines of flight still open up in the ambivalence: suffering is often productive but never revolutionary, what is revolutionary is excess, overflow, and power.4
Yet, if we follow this logic and carry it to its end we see something Marx never envisioned; as Zizek points out: “the privatization of the ‘general intellect’ itself’ – this is what lies at the core of the struggle for intellectual property rights.” (see below: Idea of Communism p. 224) The point that Zizek makes is that the whole framework of Marxist analysis on exploitation is defunct in our present situation, that a new form of capitalism characterized as a renter’s paradise – a ‘becoming-rent for profit’ has been put in place. As he remarks:
What can be discerned at the horizon of our historical becoming is thus a society in which personal libertarianism and hedonism coexist with (and are sustained by) a complex web of regulatory state mechanisms. Far from disappearing, the State today is gaining in strength … In other words, when, due to crucial role of the ‘general intellect’ (knowledge and social cooperation) in the creation of wealth, forms of wealth are increasingly ‘out of proportion to the direct labour time spent on their production’, the result is not, as Marx seems to have expected, the self-dissolution of capitalism, but the gradual relative transformation of the profit generated by the exploitation of the labour force into rent appropriated by the privatization of the ‘general intellect’.(224-225)
Zizek makes the point concrete by asking a simple question: How did Bill Gates of Microsoft become the richest man in the world? It wasn’t because his products we so great, or that other better products, such as the open source initiatives like Linux weren’t better; no, it was because he was able to impose his product as ‘an almost universal standard, (almost) monopolizing the field, a kind of direct embodiment of the ‘general intellect’.(225) He continues, saying:
Gates became the richest man on earth within a couple decades by appropriating the rent received from allowing millions of intellectual workers to participate in that particular from of the ‘general intellect’ that he privatized and controls.(225)
The point he is making is that now more than ever the ‘intellectual worker’ is alienated from the social field, the ‘general intellect’ itself – because the latter is mediated by private capital and under their control. But this is only one example, there are many. The same goes for natural resources – it being the central form of rent in the world today, and one exploited on the greatest scale. As one example oil demonstrates, we pay rent to those who control the resources based on the scarcity and limited supply, yet the cost of production for this commodity are negligible. The prices rise and fall based on wild speculations in the stock markets over such control and scarcity, not on the actual commodity itself.
Even the working class itself has changed over the years. In today’s world the working class has been divided into three separate and distinct regimes, exploited by the dominant money classes, each with its own distinct ‘way of life’ and ideology: intellectual laborers, the old manual working class, and the outcasts (unemployed, or living in slums and other interstices of the public space).(226) As Zizek remarks: “the enlightened hedonism and liberal multiculturalism of the intellectual class, the populist fundamentalism of the working class, and the more extreme, singular forms of the outcast fraction.” (226) Because of this fractured status of the working class the powers that be have produced a formidable propaganda system to pit each of these classes against each other. Through a purely negative identity politics waged within the media systems that circulate the propaganda we see exposed the passive helplessness of an inept working class pitted in a fantasia of confrontation and exploitation. What they all have in common as Zizek remarks is that they share recourse to a “particular identity as a substitute for the meeting spaces of a universal public space.”
What is needed today is the reuniting of the fractured working class that has spawned this identity politics of all against all, a call to arms not in some military sense, but in the sense of tearing down those false walls that separate us from each other, of recreating the public spaces where we can meet each other in comradeship and open communication as brothers and sisters who have a common cause. This is where the ‘Idea of communism’ comes into play… but that is for another letter, another day.
note: decided to try the fictional construct of a series of letters in the tradition of Letters to a young… of which we can find many. A sort of epistolary concourse…
1. V.I. Lenin, “Notes of a Publicist: On Ascending a High Mountain…’, in Collected Works, vol. 33 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965), pp. 204-11.
2. The Idea of Communism. Edited by Costas Douzinas & Slavoj Zizek (Verso, 2010).
3. Toni, Negri, Goodby Mr. Socialism (Rome: Feltrinelli, 2006) p. 235.
4. Negri, ‘On Rem Koolhaus’, Radical Philosophy 154 (March-April 2009) p. 49.