report of conference ‘on the idea of communism’

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.

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20 thoughts on “report of conference ‘on the idea of communism’

  1. Thanks for this! I was chuckling all the way through reading it. I remember reading the call for papers for the thing a couple of months back and thinking, like you, that someone had to be taking the piss… If I didn’t laugh I think I would have been sick.

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  2. Also of note was the lack of left groups selling papers (of course, The Commune sold like hot cakes).

    The only other “leftists” flogging their publications were the American Maoist group ‘Revolutionary Communist Party USA’. But I don’t like nuts.

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  3. Hi David

    Thanks for posting your thoughts, although I think your conclusion is a little cynical and rather too much in the spirit of sectarian distrust. In the end, it was a philosophy conference; and to have these kind of conversations in academia, to even talk about Communism and Lenin etc., represents a thaw of sorts. If we are in any way ‘disappointed’ by the speakers – and I must note the final session on Sunday was much better than the one you discuss here – it is because we expect too much from these people.

    In the end, the responsibility for real political organization is ours, not a bunch of 60-something philosophers.

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  4. …and on the topic of the price: the hall apparently cost £14,000 to hire! Unfortunately in the internal market of Universities claiming exemption on the grounds of being a Communist conference doesn’t cut much ice with the bureaucrats and accountants..

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  5. If there were nearly 1,000 people there, £100 x 1,000 is £100,000. Even at less than half price costs could have been covered easily.

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  6. In the end, it was a philosophy conference; and to have these kind of conversations in academia, to even talk about Communism and Lenin etc., represents a thaw of sorts.

    Maybe, but as Zizek himself points out, there’s always been room for talking about these people – though less Lenin – so long as it’s merely that. So long as communism stays as a philosophical problem within the bounds of the Bourgeois understanding of philosophy. So for Eagleton to talk about wealthy dandies living their communism through a life of personal abundance and luxury is just perfect. I mean, look at the concluding paragraph of the conference notice. The cheek of them!:

    “The symposium will not deal with practico-political questions of how to analyze the latest economic, political, and military troubles, or how to organize a new political movement. More radical questioning is needed today – this is a meeting of philosophers who will deal with Communism as a philosophical concept, advocating a precise and strong thesis: from Plato onwards, Communism is the only political Idea worthy of a philosopher.”

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  7. MK Communists:

    I’m not one of the conference organisers, so don’t see me as an apologist on this matter, but it is my understanding that initially the cost per person (£100/£45) reflected the expected attendance to cover the cost of hiring a smaller hall, plus the expenses of flying in and sheltering the speakers from across the world. Obviously, when the conference changed location and eventually gained 900 odd attendees the total revenue probably exceeded the costs of organising the conference. Lets hope they put it to good use.

    Ibs:

    “So for Eagleton to talk about wealthy dandies living their communism through a life of personal abundance and luxury is just perfect.”

    Eagleton was not being literal; it was just a story to illustrate a point – a quite important point I think. He was trying to argue, in an oblique way, that our vision of Communism should be based on abundance and the elimination of unnecessary work, not the kitsch imagination of toiling workers in fields and workers grinding away on the production line in factories. I agree with him. Although we need to be realistic, automation and the elimination of drudgery, and material scarcity, should be at the heart of a materialist vision of Communism.

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  8. “‘The symposium will not deal with practico-political questions of how to analyze the latest economic, political, and military troubles, or how to organize a new political movement.’

    That sounds to be an invitation to disaster, on anything up to an epic scale, both within the conference hall, and in the wider world.

    Zizek apparently adding to this last statement that: ‘more radical questioning is needed today – this is a meeting of philosophers who will deal with communism as a philosophical concept, advocating a precise and strong thesis: from Plato onwards, communism is the only political idea worthy of a philosopher.’ (From http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/mar/12/philosophy).

    They will not deal with practical issues, but they are in agreement that we should maintain the ‘communist hypothesis’. Hypothesis towards what? – Surely towards a practical realisation of Communism, otherwise there would be nothing to be hypostasized, hypothes being, as they are, projections of real outcomes or actual existent realities; one cannot hypothesise a concept.

    More radical questioning of an academic nature is apparently needed by the Left before they proceed. Yet Zizek acknowledges simultaneously that we have been questioning ‘from Plato onwards’.

    Indeed, if communism is such a good idea, and has been from Plato onwards, why does it still need to be considered as an idea alone? Are we to gather that what is meant by Zizek is precisely that it is a good idea, good ideas being defined by their difference from good actual practical events: Good ‘things’?

    Good things come to those who wait: Good ideas are just mulled over for eternity!”

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  9. Although I like the song of that Title by Chuck Jackson, surely you mean “Good things come to those who organise alongside the working class in the real world to bring them about.” Simply waiting for them as an inevitability sounds rather Bernsteinian to me.

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  10. I think David gives a good overview but that he and others are missing the point of the conference. If people wanted yet another conference which dealt with looking at the practice side they were right not to attend – and indeed they could go to one of the many tens of meetings held every year in Britain on a “New Workers’ Party” and listen to Bob Crow, Serwotka et al go on and on about how crap eveything is and how we need something different but have no solution except to keep doing what the left is doing.

    There is nothing wrong with having a conference with an explicit aim to re-discuss the meaning of communism, what it means for people today, how and if the term can be reclaimed and the ways in which this can be accomplished. Without this we continue to run in circles which lead back into themselves.

    I am most intrigued, and have been for some time, with Hardt & Negri’s work which attempts to draw on a new understanding of class in the form of the multitude in its struggles against Empire. Whether one agrees with thier definitions or not the point is that this opens the framework within which class struggle can be not only discussed but also acted upon. Both Hardt & Negri spoke extensively on their notion of “the common” and the need to build institutions of the common in order to create radical change. How we do this and how we move forward is up to those who mix theory and practice – but let’s not rubbish what these people are saying – there is much that is ontologically appealing and needs to be said and there is even more that we must absorb into our practice to make it successful. John Holloway’s book “Change the World Without Taking Power” as also a very good theoretical piece which, although I don’t agree with all of it, does attempt to grapple with the complexity of Marixst theory with the aim of finding a way forward. Let’s not counterpose theory and practice – let’s embrace them both, mix them together, shake them up and try to find a way out.

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  11. True, there is nothing wrong with having a conference on the the philosophy of comunism. In fact, having spent three years as a philosophy student, I would say that it is probably the most interesting thing philosophers could spend their time doing, if they are going to be philosophers.

    What I think David’s report shows is that pure ‘academic’ communism runs the risk of being trite and ridiculous. Nathan says that later sessions were better; good – but isn’t it nonetheless ridiculous that some of the ‘finest’ communist intellectuals in Europe could get together and manage to say nothing sharp, new or interesting, even for one session? I mean, sure communism includes an idea of abundance, the destruction of class positions, but this is hardly new. It is basic!

    the need to build institutions of the common in order to create radical change. How we do this and how we move forward is up to those who mix theory and practice

    To my mind, this is rather like saying that we need to grow wings, and leaving the question of how to evolutionary anthropologists. For the former to make sense, the latter part has to have been thought through already. These are supposed to be the finest minds on the left. Can’t they do a bit better?

    ontologically appealing

    i.e. appealing in respect of the actuality, nature, or order, of existence (in particular or general)?

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  12. Ontologically in the sense that much of the criticism of the failure of the left to come up with solutions is valid as well as a recognition of how people work, resist and struggle as is instead of how we wish it were. Further to this, Negri’s analysis of the rhizomatic, networked nature of how struggles actually take place is appealing and useful. I agree that they are starting from a rather basic level as far as re-thinking the ideas are concerned but its not necessarily a bad thing to go back to the beginning again, determine how we got here and attempt to move forward by looking at alternate ways of organising which reflect actual resistance as it takes place on the ground instead of continuing to insist that the only way forward is building a party and taking power of the state. There is a lot of work to be done, but I think the fact that the conference was held was a positive and not a negative contribution overall.

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  13. Tami, you write:

    “If people wanted yet another conference which dealt with looking at the practice side they were right not to attend – and indeed they could go to one of the many tens of meetings held every year in Britain on a “New Workers’ Party” and listen to Bob Crow, Serwotka et al go on and on about how crap eveything is and how we need something different but have no solution except to keep doing what the left is doing.”

    The problem with the new workers’ party/Crow/Serwotka etc. gigs is not that they keep trying to do something practical and ‘practice’ is exhausting, it’s that their political project (the actual creation of a Labour Party Mark II, or rhetoric about making one whilst sitting on their hands) is a dead end. No doubt you are as weary as I am, Tami, of such events, but surely we nonetheless still think of theory/’big ideas’ as a means to practical organising?

    Within that framework, you are quite right to say that this organising needs to be based on an understanding of what society we actually want to create, “There is nothing wrong with having a conference with an explicit aim to re-discuss the meaning of communism, what it means for people today, how and if the term can be reclaimed and the ways in which this can be accomplished. Without this we continue to run in circles which lead back into themselves.”

    But the point made above is that the conference did not discuss the ways in which communism can be reclaimed (which is surely by means of building a political movement for it?). The left of the trade union bureaucracy and the CPB, SWP, SP etc. are indeed going round in circles – but in their own way, so are the Badious and Rancieres.

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  14. If anything, the conference shows that the question of forging an alternative to capitalism is one that is on the minds of some of the world’s greatest intellectuals. Reinstalling that sense of intellectual mission is not one we should be quick to dismiss. In today’s hyper-reflexive climate, ideas matter; and ideas help change the hegemony of the situation.

    That does not lead out of the vicious circle of course. Rather, I think the best place for us to start today is this website, here and now: to build an intellectual and political project of the highest quality, with no sacred cows. We need to put aside all petty sectarian squabbles, all the dogmatism of the old left and be brave enough to admit we don’t have all the answers, but that we need to start now.

    This was Zizek’s message in the final moments of the conference. It was an important one that needed to be said.

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  15. Tami wrote, “Ontologically in the sense that much of the criticism of the failure of the left to come up with solutions is valid as …”

    One of the speakers at the conference, Alberto Toscano, did directly address this ‘failure’ in his paper, “Communist Power/Communist Knowledge”, reproduced here:
    http://thekubrickiangaze.blogspot.com/2009/03/communist-powercommunist-knowledge.html

    If the idea, or the problem of communism is inseparable, as I believe, from the problem of its realisation – 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 logic or a philosophy of history, becomes crucial. This task is especially urgent in a world such as ours which, to recall Marx, ‘only imagines that it believes in itself’. In 1842, in the Rheinische Zeitung, Marx wrote: ‘The fate which a question of the time has in common with every question justified by its content, and therefore rational, is that the question and not the answer constitutes the main difficulty. True criticism, therefore, analyses the questions and not the answers. just as the solution of an algebraic equation is given once the problem has been put in its simplest and sharpest form, so every question is answered as soon as it has become a real question’. This is our task today, to turn the question of communism into a real question. We will then get the answers we deserve.”

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  16. Was re-directed here from a comment on the Guardian online.

    “capitalism does already produce enough to keep everyone in good living conditions” – perhaps David Broder has not been much outside Europe?

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  17. Perhaps theres a difference between whether enough is produced for everyone if it was shared out equally, and whether everyone has enought…

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  18. ps. As I seem to remember, Eagleton ended with the following quote from Lear on the heath:

    Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
    That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
    How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
    Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
    From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
    Too little care of this [as had Eagleton, until this point]. Take physic, pomp,
    Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
    That thou mayst sheake the superflux to them
    And show the heavens more just.

    He then spoke briefly about a communism of necessity, but left the question open. To my mind, it does at least dismiss the majority of the cyberspace criticism I have read of his lecture, which usually wants to suggest he went off on some sort of mad utopian ramble and actually *advocated* the Wildean eco-topia of excess, which he *quoted* from Gonzalo’s.

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  19. …speech. & perhaps even a communism of scarcity come to think of it. But my memory might be letting me down there.

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