By Nathan Coombs
It is not difficult to imagine the results if a newly trained M.B.A. in marketing arrived in London with the following diabolic challenge: do what Blair did for New Labour for the far Left; make them sell!
Clipboard tucked under arm, what our marketer would firstly observe is that the Left is indeed a crowded marketplace, with far too many groups attempting to sell their wares to far too few customers. Cross. However, looking into the content of these groups our marketer would be encouraged to see that their products are already well differentiated. Each group has a clear sense of their identity and the ideological niche which they represent. Tick. Conclusions: good product differentiation and branding, but insufficient mass market appeal and attempts to reach out to new consumers.
How should the Left take these findings? Surely the moral that emerges from this imagined scenario is a fairly predictable one – the Left is an incestuous place, more concerned about scoring points off one another than reaching out to create a broader base? No doubt there is some truth to this. Yet what the findings should highlight is something more profound: that the high-stakes invested in sectarian differentiation actually mirror a certain capitalist logic; what Marx called ‘fetishism.’
Could it actually be the case that the ideas of the Left have themselves taken on the character of an ideological fetish? The first counter-argument against this would be the expected one: these ideological splits are not some arbitrary marketing trick, but real differences that have emerged out of the experiences to realise Marxist-Communism in the 20th century. To try and tuck these differences under the rug is much the same as the maligned Stalinist ‘popular front.’
Certainly, the historical argument at first glance appears a convincing one. How could we debate the splits that emerged with respect to the following epochal events: Lenin’s siege of Kronstadt, the Stalinisation of the USSR, the phenomenon of Maoism, Castroism, the subscription of many Western Left parties to the ‘state capitalist’ interpretation of the USSR. Surely ample fodder for significant splits that we should be duly reverent of to this day? As a friend put his aversion to The Commune – “you don’t start to revive communism by falsifying history, adopting the insights of imperialist Sovietology and smearing Lenin!” In other words, historical truth is the truth.
The biggest shock to my friend was the following reply: even if these opinions were attributable to The Commune the reason I was attracted to this network is exactly because I feel under no pressure to adopt them in any sort of enforced Party line. The reason why The Commune was appealing to me was not as much its branding niche (workers self-management) as much as a general disposition away from sectarianism and towards pluralism; which after the inherited splits of the 20th century to me seems pivotal for any reconstitution of the idea of communism for the 21st century.
At root what we are dealing with here is the question of general disposition as a political factor. There is a laboured, perhaps overly-rationalist and instrumental assumption throughout much of the Left that the only thing that matters is the particular constellation of ideas represented by one group or the other – generally, to repeat, of a historical interpretivist nature.
Despite his numerous political failings, none the least his disastrous love-affair with Khomeini’s faction during the Iranian Revolution, it was Michel Foucault who first articulated his dissatisfaction with this view of politics set against the vagaries of the French Communist Party. In Foucault’s meditations politics is as much an ethics as it is solely an ideological struggle – having the right ideas, the correct historical interpretation, the best strategic analysis etc. is not enough. Just as significant is how these lines are arrived at, and how they are implemented with respect to the contingencies of an unfolding reality.
Lately, in philosophy circles, Graham Harman has made a similar point: the dry sterility of Anglo-Saxon analytic philosophy is attributable to the over investment in a fetishised conception of the rational argument, as opposed to the merely rhetorical or poetic-invocative. Broadly speaking, this is the assumption dating back to ancient Greece where according to Socrates the Sophists were nothing but purveyors of cheap trickery, whereas his dialectical method provided the route to nothing less than truth itself.
Now this is also not to say that we should also be too quick to become loyal card-carrying post-modernists and rebuke truth altogether. In the end, what Socrates was sentenced to death for in Ancient Athens was his willingness to relentlessly question authority and received wisdom. In the modern liberal imagination, Socrates, and his chronicler Plato, becomes the Fall of humanity: the moment in which the peaceful toleration of opposing opinions lead inexorably to the 20th century totalitarian state and the subjugation of nature.
It is this particular pious liberal pluralism – the type that renounces truth altogether and chastises any attempt to change society as a slippery slope to the gulag – that we should be quick to reject. For it amounts to nothing more than moral blackmail on the part of the status quo: “discuss all you like, but do not attempt to force change upon others: it will inevitably lead to disaster!”
No – what I mean by a general disposition towards pluralism is rather as follows: the investment in these historical splits takes on a fetish character when we fail to realise that they are no longer relevant for the praxis of communist reconstitution, and thus a pluralist disposition towards these questions is exactly what is needed so that we can leave said fetish behind and concentrate on the future. The 20th century’s evental sequence – which arguable stretches from 1917 to something like 1989 – is one that has closed; and it is high time to realise this.
When in a recent article for the New Left Review Slavoj Žižek talked about the necessity to ‘Begin at the beginning again’ my reading of this is not the obvious vulgar one: Žižek wants us to forget the 20th century and naively return to some pre-Leninist, or even pre-Marxist, idea of communism. What I take him to be saying is closer to what I argue now: the Marxist event sequence of the 20th century has closed, and an over-invested faith in what actually happened blinds us the way things have moved on regardless of this sequence and how we should retool our more fundamental faith to meet this challenge. A disposition towards communist pluralism is a strategic necessity as this particular point in history. And not only that, it allows us the opportunity to engage in a level of analysis that is not tied to endless historical exegesis and references to 20th century events.
Or to put it another way, our challenge today is not to fetishise even Marx but to repeat that fundamental gesture of Marx when he disappeared for more than ten years to write das Kapital. Nowadays we have to put our faith in philosophy and conduct new dialectical analyses of the situation. History does not culminate in the present; history has failed us – any good liberal will be quick to evoke history as a bogeyman to warn us away from communism.
Rather than get trapped in the vicious cycle of refuting the dubious claim, our move is to demonstrate with the utmost logical rigour why capitalism fails and oppresses, and how only radical communist ideas lead us out of the historic-deadlock of the rarefied false dichotomy between free market liberalism and authoritarian state socialism.