by Nathan Coombs
One of the remarkable things about the manifesto of the recent University of California Santa Cruz student occupation, the Communiqué from an Absent Future, was the emphatic use of the word communism to describe their project to “demand not a free university but a free society”.
This re-appropriation of the word communism marks a new direction after numerous attempts to refigure a certain spirit, while avoiding the specific content, of communism under such concepts as “the common” or “communisation” in various brands of leftwing, post-cold war political activism. Communism itself had been more or less abandoned to the dwindling base of old far-left political groups and Maoist movements.
Yet something has certainly changed of late, of which the UCSC occupation statement is simply the tip of a larger cultural iceberg. After the 2008 global economic crisis a spell of naivety – about the potential of the half-forgotten anti-globalisation movement; the efficacy of anti-war demonstrations; and whose interests are really being served by identity politics – has arguably been broken. This has forced a reappraisal of the whole project of postmodern, leftwing political thought: from the commitment to non-violence, all the way up to the abandonment of materialist economic analyses like Karl Marx’s theory of the “declining rate of profit”.
Those shrinking violets of radicalism past (many now in their 70s) have also re-emerged to appreciative audiences. The trend came to a head with the “Idea of Communism” conference organised by Birkbeck College earlier this year, which through its assembled group of rockstar theorists and with its provocative title managed to sell over a thousand tickets.
However, as was clear to those attending the conference, and the way in which it was received on Cif (from which you would imagine the speakers were advocating the reintroduction of the Soviet gulag), what this word communism actually stood for was not altogether clear.
One of the more concrete arguments that emerged from the conference, and in his subsequent interview with the BBC, was Alain Badiou’s insistence that after the failure of 20th century communism there was now a necessity to “maintain a distance” from the state.
Although equating communism with a radical antipathy to the state might seem like mumbo jumbo to those whose historical memory of socialism equates solely with the one-party state and the command economy, it is worth remembering that from the start if communism meant anything it was the means by which the conditions could be ripened to eliminate the need for a state – ie with the abolition of capitalism. What separated the communist from the run of the mill liberal reformer, or social democrat, was precisely the will towards the end of the state.
It is with the greatest irony, then, that communism in the 20th century became synonymous with the monolithic state, grand, orchestrated parades and totalitarianism. Although there were achievements in Russia, China and Cuba, there is thankfully little enthusiasm on the left for a return to this social model. Rather, there is increasing interest in the embryonic hope offered by the short-lived Paris Commune of 1871, which Marx enthusiastically described as “a revolution against the state as such”.
In its latter day form, this model of Paris Commune organisation equates to a tendency to promote autonomous working-class seizures. In her filmThe Take, Naomi Klein endorses this model of communism (without using the word directly) by publicising the expropriation of the factories by workers after Argentina’s period of economic meltdown in 2001. In Michael’s Moore’s recent film too, Capitalism: A Love Story, he promotes democratic and egalitarian worker co-operatives as an alternative to capitalism, claiming: “People love this part of the film.”
Before we get too excited though, it is worth understanding the full scale of the limitations and obstacles facing this form of communist organisation. Islands of worker co-operatives face enormous obstacles in regard to competition from capitalist rivals, which due to the inherent nature of capitalism are able to command economies of scale, depress wages and drive down their product prices, thus undercutting their worker-managed competitors.
Worker co-ops also require at least a somewhat sympathetic legislature and the backing of a mass movement to allow what are, after all, factories and machinery simply stolen from the bosses. The question of politics and the state is therefore never far away – without a political theory of how to deal with the state, such a form of organisation is doomed to the realm of idealism, or just random occurrences.
Furthermore, there is the question as to whether this form of communism has universal potential beyond the conditions of blue-collar factory work. How, for instance, could workers expropriate a call centre (even if they wanted to) when there is little to expropriate except office space, probably rented by the company, and some phone lines?
And most difficult of all is that persistent bugbear of the left: who is the subject for change? In Marx’s Communist Manifesto, the term proletariat was used precisely to indicate a class with nothing to lose, who are capable of taking the high risks required in any radical political transformation. Is there any such group today? Vast sections of the working class have been fully pulled into dependency on the liberal state. Immigrants are often atomised and lacking solidarity.
I think what we lack is theoretical work that explains plausible scenarios in which autonomous worker co-operatives could be politicised and achieve universal scope.
Still, in the real world there are promising signs we should not ignore. Even in the UK, the dominant form of radical protest is shifting to the occupation – we have seen this with the university occupations overGaza and worker occupations at Visteon and Vestas. What is now needed is for workers and students to stop making demands on the state, whether that be nationalisation, concessions or government intervention; and figure out how to take their occupied spaces and make them their own.
Nathan wrote this piece for the Guardian website