by David Broder
This weekend Birkbeck in central London played host to a conference “On the Idea of Communism”, featuring such luminaries of Marxist academia as Slavoj Zizek (the main organiser), Toni Negri, Michael Hardt, Alain Badiou and Terry Eagleton.
The conference attracted nearly a thousand people, reflecting both the notoriety of the speakers and the renewed interest in communism and Marxist philosophy resulting from the economic crisis. There was even a session on ‘communism from below’. And the registration fee for anyone who wanted to discuss the future communist project was a mere… £100.
Strapped for cash, I did seriously consider just buying a ticket for the World Cup final instead.
Luckily for me and other opportunist types, the event’s organisers were very lax about checking that people going in and out of Logan Hall had paid, and so it was possible to see the Ronaldos and Rooneys of historical materialism for free. (The event stretched from 11:30 on Friday morning to Sunday lunchtime, no doubt in a further attempt to discourage attendance by those who happen to work on weekdays.)
I had received this programme via email, but unable to discern whether or not it was a joke, only managed to find my way to one of the sessions advertised. The speakers were Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière and Terry Eagleton, although as Badiou was just about to kick off the proceedings, enter Slavoj Zizek stage left, who told the speakers to swap order, so that he could listen to Eagleton and Rancière. Badiou replied “I am destitute [sic]”. Destitute? Had they fleeced him for £100 too?
Eagleton’s talk, which began with a long series of academics’ in-jokes, largely looked at communism in the framework of ‘utopia’, such as the many early modern fantasies of an infinitely productive society (which are normally obsessed with food and the abundance of milk and honey, custard tarts, ‘sweetmeats’ etc.) He quoted Gonzalo from Shakespeare’s Tempest:
In the commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession, 860
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty;- 865
All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour: treason, felony, 870
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.
Pointing to the difference between the ‘vulgar bourgeoisie’ obsessed with money, and those so rich that money is immaterial for them, Eagleton argued that communism means everyone living in the latter condition, and pointed to the aristocratic/dandyish lifestyle of Oscar Wilde, who ‘lived out’ his socialism by doing no work and living in luxury.
I kept waiting for Eagleton to break off this thread, and make the fairly obvious points that super-abundance and ‘productivism’ is not enough, as evidenced by the cult of economic development in the USSR; that capitalism does already produce enough to keep everyone in good living conditions; that communist societal organisation could be brought about even from a low material base, e.g. as attempted in France in 1871. However, he didn’t. This was all the more apparent since the early modern utopias to which Eagleton referred are fantastically abstract and tell us nothing about how to go about bringing the society we want into existence: all the professor had to say about that small matter was to claim that Marx differentiates between “socialism” (where we have to will notions of solidarity, collectivism etc.) and “communism” where there is a natural state of ‘virtue’. Aside from the abstraction of Eagleton’s categories, it is not in Marx (who uses the words interchangeably) but in Lenin that this distinction appears, explaining away the supposedly temporary excesses of bureaucracy as a necessary ‘transition’ stage.
Rancière started with a quote from Badiou which had appeared in the French Communist Party’s l’Humanité, something along the lines of “the communist hypothesis is the hypothesis of emancipation”, his talk largely focusing on the theme that there is no point discussing how we ought to organise or what communism would be like; no point talking about spontaneity versus organisation; but simply to reclaim the ‘idea of communism’ and argue that it would be ’emancipatory’. An idea of communism apparently uprooted from any historical context, the failures of the twentieth century or discussion about how such a society might be brought about! Indeed Rancière dismissed the idea that the means of bringing communism into existence might influence the society actually created with the argument that the question of how to take power had already been tried and tested by Communist Parties in the past… never mind that every working-class revolution in history was quickly defeated, often by self-proclaimed communists.
Badiou’s talk was much the same, and I will spare readers of this website a summary of his more lofty philosophical points. What was particularly noticeable in Badiou’s talk was that, when he did talk about the realm of history and practical politics, his categories were very eclectic and poorly-defined, for example when he threw out the idea that “history is the history of states”; when he said state-communism is “monstrous” and that communism means the withering away of the state, then quoted Mao (!) to the effect that “there is no communism without a communist movement” as if that were in any way insightful, had any reflection in the reality of Mao’s China or as if Mao were an appropriate authority to cite against bureaucracy. For most workers the most central obstacle to believing that communism is “emancipatory” is that it is easy to point to past state-monopoly regimes calling themselves ‘Communist’ and see that they were frighteningly oppressive.
Perhaps for some it is entertaining to come up with grandiose proclamations about communism, as Badiou does, “Without the horizon of communism, without this Idea, there is nothing in the historical and political becoming of any interest to a philosopher”. But as Rancière himself argued, communism is not some dream you cling on to like a religion, but a mode of societal organisation which can only brought about by the concrete activity of real human beings. There is no particular danger posed by thinking up blueprints – after all, we should know what the purpose of our activism is – but it is also the case that the future society we want to see also has to be reflected in how we organise today, so that the means used will lead to the ends desired. An academic conference which refuses on principle to talk about communism as a political movement in the here and now will therefore do nothing to re-establish anyone’s belief in a viable alternative to capitalism.