on the necessity of pluralist communism

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.

6 thoughts on “on the necessity of pluralist communism

  1. “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”

    Though I’m not actively involved, I read the blog for similar reasons; so a big Yes to this post.

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  2. Nathan,

    I agree that pluralism is a strategic necessity for a revitalisation of the communist movement. Like you this is one of the reasons which attracted to me to the Commune. I also agree that Marxist groups are saddled with a fetishisation of theory to the extent that a person has to accept a whole package of shibboleths before being accepted as a respected member of a group. The problem lies in the fact that some/many Marxists have come to believe that all questions and the answers given to them are equally relevant to the problems which face the working class and communist movement. Interesting as the debate is as to whether the Soviet Union was state capitalist, state socialist or other type of socio-economic formation, it has little relevance to revitalisation of the communist movement in the 21st century. However, this is not to say that it does not have intellectual value for political economy or historical studies. But what is of significance is that the Soviet Union was a politically authoritarian and repressive society which should be an anathema to the communist movement. This is why it is relevant. Secondly, an understanding as to how the Bolsheviks got themselves and the working class and peasantry into such a mess is instructive. Not only because it provides lessons for our own political practice but because mentioning communism to most people will get a response about our attitude to the Soviet Union. What is important though is that there can be a plurality of views on this within a single organisation.

    An interesting question though is how far should the Commune’s pluralism go? I don’t think you give an indication as to where you think the boundary should be. My own view is that it should not regard itself as a Marxist organisation or network. Certainly, the writings of Marx and later Marxists are a rich source of ideas and analyses which are just as relevant today despite changing conditions from the nineteenth century to today. However, Marxism has its weaknesses – for example, it is too rationalistic in that takes very little account of value, meaning, emotion and ethics in political practice. I’m glad you mentioned Foucault as someone to take note of and I think there are others which are worth paying attention to outside or on the edges of the Marxist ‘canon’: Georges Bataille, Simone de Beauvoir, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, Murray Bookchin, Martin Buber, Albert Camus, Pierre Clastres, Henri Bergson, Guy Debord, Christine Delphy, Mircea Eliade, Paul Feyerabend, Viktor Frankl, Erich Fromm, Arnold Gehlen, Andre Gorz, Ivan Illich, Karl Jaspers, Carl Gustav Jung, R.D. Laing, Christopher Lasch, Henri Lefebvre, Emmanuel Levinas, Alisdair Macintyre, Rollo May, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Wilhelm Reich, Paul Ricouer, Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Schelling, Alfred Schutz, Richard Sennett, Charles Taylor, Paul Tillich, Sylvia Walby, Alfred North Whitehead to name a few :) There is no coherence here, of course, but they all have interesting and valuable things to say.

    So with regards to theory, I think just about anything goes with regard to doubt and critique including the nature of the state, the labour theory of value etc. I’m convinced about the class nature of the state and almost convinced about the labour theory of value but I’m not convinced that you have to hold to either of these ideas to be a communist. You mention self-management as a branding niche and indeed it is referenced in the statement of principles. But I would be surprised that the original founders of the Commune saw it like that, rather than a considered reflection on the meaning of communism in the 21st century. However, like you I wasn’t attracted to the Commune on the basis of its ‘brand’ although self-management is an interesting idea. So an interesting question is whether you have to accept ‘self-management’ in the workplace to be a communist? Probably not, but you’d have to provide a fairly convincing case (possibly around some form of representative democracy at the higher levels of economic organisation) to replace it. But of course issues around the communist organisation of economic production cannot be settled theoretically but only in practice.

    I am sure you will agree though that must be a limit to the pluralism of a communist organisation and that is a broad agreement on the goal of the abolition of wage labour and capital and its replacement with a democratic alternative of controlling the means of production and distribution. Otherwise I’m not sure we agree on what communism means. I know that there are conceptions of market socialism in which wage labour and commodity exchange are maintained but I wouldn’t regard these as communist. This is not to say that such conceptions are not progressive only that I’m sceptic al that they wouldn’t actually be some form of capitalism albeit more democratic and egalitarian than other forms and this not what we are trying to achieve.

    However, having said all this I absolutely agree with you that in building a communist movement we have to question many things and that is only possible within an organisation which admits of a plurality of theories, ideas, tactics and even strategy.

    Mark

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  3. Hi Mark

    You raise some interesting questions about the limits of pluralism. Of course, in its pure form, pluralism represents an almost total emptying of content and a commitment to absolutely nothing: everyone should have their say, there is no one truth, there is no higher frame of reference by which to evaluate competing claims etc., which is of course something we could not accept as communists.

    But when pluralist becomes a predicate of communism, we have something different. We stake a truth claim in the word communism, but admit an internal pluralism upon what this word signifies. As you rightly point out this must mean there are a certain set of baselines or limits to this internal pluralism, but where are they? You are also probably correct that an understanding of society and economics as fundamentally class stratified – as opposed to the solely identity politics of gender and race – is a core of communist thinking, as is a commitment to abolishing class society, exploitation etc. Beyond that, yes, I think everything is probably up for grabs. Although I would also like to supplement that very austere understanding of communism, with a corollary commitment to scientific and technological modernity and Enlightenment rationality, without which we are at a loss to defend ourselves against the “grow your own vegetables” primitivist anti-capitalist so popular around green circles and the gap year sons and daughters of the chattering classes.

    I think, then, that we are on the same wavelength. The most infuriating thing ever as part of the Left, and even more so for people not actively involved with the Left, is when a perfectly good argument is forwarded and all you get in response is textbook dogma impenetrable to reason. For that matter, we should, as you say, be able to take on the insights of a multitude of thinkers.

    Personally, I am fascinated with the work of Alain Badiou; and just because he was once a Maoist (even continuing to defend a certain interpretation of Maoism) and just because he is a Platonist, rather than a historical-materialist, doesn’t in my mind disqualify him from being a respectable reference for communist thought.

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  4. I agree that we cannot reconstitute a communism for the 21st century as loyal card carrying post modernists. But we cannot forge a communism for today as post modernist fellow travellers either. The dispairing highly subjective attitude of History has failed us is not a communist disposition. Not is the claim that the Historical narrative of the events stretching from 1917 to something like 1989 is closed and has no consequences for the present which has mysteriously somehow moved on regardless of these events.how can a pluralist or indeed any other kind of communism be constituted without references to the events of the 20th and indeed 19th century or the history of capitalism and the fight for an alternative. It’s almost as if history is a bad dream we need to forget about. Not suprisingly with this view of history there is no specific content to the phrase pluralistic communism. The left like history is dismissed in general terms and discussed in a liberal free market metaphor. unspecified ideological splits are dismissed as no longer relevant for today or the future. But the commune and its position statement is already located in past ideological splits since the past does imping on the present. For instance,communism from below and against state and top down socialism. This politics does draw on the events of the 20th century and earlier. Since historical naratives are assumed to be closed to use there is no specfic discussion about pluralism or what communists could unite around. Can there be unity with communists who stand for scottish independence and does this self determination advance the interests of the working class? We cannot begin to address this question without a knowledge and discussion of the events of the 20th century. Did the history of the 20th century demostrate Lenin or luxemburg had the correct understanding? Were both wrong or flawed? The historical issues and the interpretation of them will have a lot of bearing on communist unity or otherwise. But I have to accept that such a discussion does not have much market value as a commodity for customers at the moment but as Marx wrote somewhere its not about a snap shot of the class at any given moment.We need boundaries so there can be no reconstituted communism with maoists or stalinists. And by the way the anti EU politics of some of the left including some self styled trotskyists shows that stalinism has not ended or closed to us in 1989. A final point. There can surely be unity with communists who take the view that Brest Litovsk was the turning point in the russian Revolution or those who take the view that Kronstadt was the defeat of the revolution or indeed some other time in the 1920’s because what is important is the recognition that without workers democracy and socialism or communism from below the alternative to capitalism will result inn a new exploiting society whatever label you give it. This is a lesson from the History of the Russian revolution which like other historical lessons is relevant for a new communism.

    Barry

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  5. Yes, the past is important as well as the historical logic we use to understand it and make it comprehensible, but so too is the present and the future. As the two Germans with beards maintained in the Communist Manifesto ‘The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.’

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  6. Barry, I think you present a caricatured portrayal of my argument, which in no way argues: “the Historical narrative of the events stretching from 1917 to something like 1989 is closed and has no consequences for the present.”

    My argument you will find is that the period in history of an active global revolutionary movement – based on certain vanguardist principles – has come to a close and there is little chance of it being reawakened. This is as good a reason as any for pursuing anti-statist communism; it does not need to be justified in regard to events in early 20th century Russia, although that does not mean one could not justify it this way.

    Furthermore, there are processes and ideologies that have moved on which are not solely reducible to the defeat of the 20th century’s revolutionary movement: technology for instance, which allows global mobility and global instantaneous communication that has effects on organizational and ideological matters. Is this solely a phantasmic effect of capitalism? On one level, its specific articulations are, but on another level its surely has effects autonomous from the ideological mode in which these technologies are used.

    I think, like your opinion on religion, your outlook suffers from an overly determinist, and even mechanical idea of what Marxism is. Is religion solely reducible to people’s poor material circumstances as you claim? I would say this is unlikely and bears little empirical scrutiny. There are autonomous processes in science, technology and cultural/philosophical disposition which we need to be aware of.

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