On The Idea of Communism


Here is the speedy write-up of my notes from the three-day conference on The Idea of Communism, hosted by Slavoj Žižek at Birkbeck College, which included Judith Balso, Alain Badiou, Bruno Bosteels, Terry Eagleton, Peter Hallward, Michael Hardt, Toni Negri, Jacques Ranciere, Alessandro Russo, Alberto Toscano and Gianni Vattimo. I have only managed to type up my notes on a few of the papers, although I may try to add Judith Balso’s a little later, if time and the legibility of my notes allows. Please excuse my mangling of some of the terms. The conference was a resounding success and Žižek was thoroughly entertaining, if only the same could be said of some of the questions that the speakers were subjected to. I particularly enjoyed Michael Hardt’s contribution on the concept of the common and its relation to immaterial labour. Also, there was a fair few mentions of the cultural revolution and the Shanghai People’s Commune, which is something that would appear to warrant further investigation on my part, as my understanding of Chinese mass politics is limited. Žižek’s attempt to get the 800-strong audience to sing the ‘Internationale’ at the end was nothing short of heroic. However, the call for the abolition of christmas got the biggest round of applause.

UPDATE: Dr. Nina Power has posted Alberto Toscano’s full paper on Infinite Thought: Communist Power/Communist Knowledge

Costas Douzinas began by making some comments on the denaturalisation of neo-liberal values that the crisis has brought about. And there were apologies for the lack of  representation from Latin America.

Further introductions:

Alain Badiou: Addressed the word ‘communism’ as a dead word and its need to become a new positive word. The need for it to talk not of generalities, but about different significations and convictions. Therefore not a return to classical critique, but a search for something new, a renewal.

Slavoj Žižek: Began by mentioning that today was by coincidence Friday 13th, a good day to discuss dangerous dynamics. He also mentioned that a particular academic, who currently resides in the US, could not attend the conference as he was told he would not have his visa renewed for re-entry to the States. He continued by saying that the epoch of the party-state is over, but there was a new urgency to bring about existing communism. It needs to be resuscitated and rethought. Now is the time to think! An injunction to engage in the blood, sweat and tears of theoretical work (reminding us that this is a philosophy conference). We need to break from the ethical blackmail of neo-liberalism. ‘The Stigma of Communism is Over!’, this should be our new slogan. Apology is over. We can do it better! He concluded by saying that we should be like Lenin in 1915, two years before the Bolshevik revolution, when he perversely retreated to Switzerland to read Hegel.

MICHAEL HARDT: The Production of the Common

excerpt from his latest book, co-written with Toni Negri entitled Commonwealth

The common in the word communism. The terrain of the common is composed of two parts:

– the production of the common.
– the common being antithetical to property.

We are faced with a choice, either to to invent new terms or struggle over the meaning of existing but corrupted terms. Communism is a degraded term and democracy is a similarly corrupted term. In order to produce a critique of political economy and bring about the destruction of property, we must move from Lenin to Marx. We must investigate the contemporary composition of labour and the conditions of property that we labour under.

Therefore, by returning to Marx we can enquire into the relation between property and the common, the movement from immobile property to mobile property and how mobile property ‘attacks’  and triumphs over the stasis of immobile property. In this way, profit triumphs over rent. This is the dominant mode of expropriation under industrial capitalism, at the time Marx wrote Das Kapital. But now, under cognitive capitial, there is a reversal of rent triumphing over profit. Marx’s claim is a statement of industry’s hegemony over agriculture; this is a qualitative claim about the discipline of industrial capitalism. Today industry no longer has hegemony; this is also a qualitative claim. The successor maybe bio-political and immaterial hegemony; an informational hegemony. Now the product/commodity is immaterial, not the labour. Affective, emotional work is now essential to the valorisation process (the air hostess, call-centre worker, etc.).

This takes us back to two forms of property (reproducible and irreproducible, mobile and immobile). The current conflict over copyright, the human genome, etc. highlights this reversal and inaugurates new problems for property: the immaterial over the material and the shared over the exclusive. Ideas, images and affects must now be shared. The commodity itself is now becoming a fetter on the capitalist mode of production. Neo-liberalism has been a continual battle against that which is common (or the commons in the 17th century sense). Hence, the perpetual necessity to privatise the common and commons; this is thoroughly documented by David Harvey and Naomi Klein. Biopiracy is exactly this sort of privatisation, giving actual pirates a bad name, a kind of inverse piracy.

So, there is a reverse movement within cognitive capitalism from profit to rent and exploitation through appropriation of the common. The turn to economic financialisation is characterised by this general trend of profit to rent. In Marx’s description of mobile property’s triumph over immobile property capital must remain tied to production, which in turn leads to the increased autonomy of the common (see Marx’s early manuscripts).

If we want to discuss the common in relation to communism it is necessary to talk about the abolition of private property and property in general; both private and public. The dialectic between private and common property ignores the common (private property under capitalism and public property under socialism).  The divestment of the common is key to human self-estrangement and the means by which our subjectivity is appropriated. Subjectivity is the creation/production of something sensorial (‘man produces man’). This has some relevance to the bio-political turn. ‘Living beings, as fixed capital, are directly productive of value’, says Christian Marazzi. Capital in its essence is a social relation, not a commodity. Commodity is merely the appearance of that relation. For Foucault, who pronounced that ‘man produces man’, he is not talking about humanism or human essence, it is an injunction to produce the new as a bio-political process.

There is a proximity between property and bio-political production. Capital in this sense, is ‘producing its own gravediggers’. Therefore, the common is a terrain of sharing. So here we have:

– a plea for a critique of political economy of how and what we produce.

– and an affirmation of the common (the autonomy of the common/communism as a weapon).

PETER HALLWARD: Communism of the Intellect, Communism of the Will

The virtues of the communist idea are distinct from anti-capitalism. Anti-capitalism concedes too much to the idea of capitalism. How long must we wait for capitalism’s destruction? We must decriminalise the notion of communism and disregard objections about distribution; which are very similar to the arguments for slavery, unable to envisage a future post-slavery. It is crucial to anticipate the solution in the manner of the Jacobins or John Brown, rather than wait for a solution. Communism is far from indeterminate. It is not just an ideal, but a real movement that abolishes the present state of things. There is always a danger of abstraction (to adopt an idealistic Kantian  ‘program’) or conversely, over-identifying with action. But rather than doing nothing or everything, instead to do something sensible.

How far do we need to prepare the ground  for capitalism’s grave and how much do we dig the grave of capitalism? Revolution is a thinking process of becoming. The class called-forth by capitalism will expropriate the expropriators. Communism is therefore an egalitarian movement of free producers. What is at stake? Mastery of humanity over nature and their own social organisation, as the example of the Paris Commune shows us. Voluntary self-determination comes about through will and self-determination is the will of the people. The Jacobin will is carried over into communism as a collective will.

Dialectical voluntarism is a difficult propostion. Will is a philosophical problematic (will/intention/volition). Rousseau maintained that political will is voluntary rather than involuntary, it is a willing freedom which renders one alternative better than another according to what is in our power and capacity. As Robespierre suggests, it is to ‘freely prescribe our own ends’.

Political will is composed of our direct action and participation. It is a willing of the Platonic general without which there is no common. It is the inaugural association in the common or general interest, that which is most just and most equal, in which the self is carried into the general.

The willing of the general interest will dissolve if the will cannot be reconciled with ‘a people’. Therefore, the need to identify with a general will. This is revolutionary, the mobilisation of the people themselves; i.e. The Will of the People. This is not an intellectual conception of justice, but a popular self-empowerment. Class is action. The will is a practice that cannot be represented. Will commands the execution of action The oppressed already own that which they are reappropriating (this is a demand external to time, without time, so there is no waiting involved). There is then a necessity to create a ‘living communism’, by which we no longer wait for socialism to be built. Otherwise we could wait forever, socialism would be endlessly postponed.

Rights protect order, prosperity and property. Freedom is achieved through will and acting, and as soon as it sleeps it is enchained. Virtue is equal to the dedication to the general will. Rousseau proclaims that, ‘…we must make virtue reign’.

If we go forward to Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat, will only proceeds in the face of resistance (will with resistance). The question then morphs into: to continue or not to continue? To stop before the end is to perish. Therefore, there is a requirement for continual revolution. The Jacobins would contend that ‘that which is good is often terrible’, in order to maintain the deliberate will of the people. In a sense this a defence of violence, when the State adopts the will of the people and carries out violence in their name. Will ≠ Wish/Fantasy (Sartre). Through acting will is consolidated; a concrete determination (see Hegel vs. Kant).

We prescribe our own ends and make our own history. Disemancipation is tantamount to voluntary servitude, as  Étienne de La Boétie names it (we only have to look at our own impotence in the face of the Iraq War). Therefore there is a need to reengage with collective politics against the the repacification of people (e.g Gaza and Haiti).

The question is: who’s side are we on?

ALBERTO TOSCANO: The Politics of Abstraction.

Toscano begins by stating he will not address action, more the question of communism for philosophy. There is a need to define how communism rose from and against philosophy. This is crucial to its reinvention. The political politics of abstraction are a doomed attempt to philosophize the world through abstraction. The enthusiasm for the abstract (negativism) brings about a fanaticism of the abstract against the concrete.  There is a critique of communism as an ideocracy (via its abstraction) which comes from Anglo-Saxon empiricism. Yet Marx himself was against dogmatic abstraction or the dogmatic anticipation of the world to come. The problem therefore becomes one of non-dogmatic anticipation

What does it mean to anticipate? Philosophy anticipates inversely(?) (see German backwardness in The German Ideology). The unmasking of religion leads into the unmasking of politics. This is productive immanent negativity. If I negate A, I am still left with B. This is the farce of restoration without revolution. So political backwardness is set against the radicality of Marx’s philosophy. The classical model of revolution is inactive, therefore philosophy is impractical and action/actuality must strive towards thought (isn’t this also the ideality of capitalism?). The specificity of communism contains a tension towards revolution in the idea. Equality, revolution, power and knowledge which are defined in contrast to economics are inherently problematic.

In his critique of the Gotha Program Marx is opposed an economic theory of justice and the equal right of all. The abrogation of exploitation will not simply end in justice. Distribution is still problematic in the transition to communism. And equality is still predicated on capitalism, it is a capitalist form of measurement and bourgeois right(s).

Communism is the determinate, not a negation of capitalism. It requires a non-standard equality without a concept. A post-revolutionary situation would require the creation of a society in which inequalities are inoperative beyond standard right and equality. This realisation is intrinsic to communism, not secondary. Accordingly, communism is a problem not an idea (see Deleuze’s Bergsonism  for his definition of problems and ideas). Communism anticipates politics philosophically and there is an antimony here between aim and practice. Reification and concretisation are deeply unsatisfactory beyond the question of right and value. There is a need to find ways of fostering political capacity. What is the role for knowledge (not just truth)? Tronti says, ‘Science as struggle is an ephemeral knowledge’.

There is an urgency in this task for a world that only imagines that it believes in itself.

The question of communism needs to be turned into a real question.

TONI NEGRI: Communism, Reflections on the Concept and Practice.

The basis of historical materialism is one of class struggle. Class struggle is communism. It is a case of being inside the movement and its critique is not a telos.

Communism is a history of class struggle and a relation of power characterised by the hegemony of capitalist command. It is the relation between worker and boss. Capital’s hegemony is global, meaning that we are encompassed by its totality (both worker and boss). This is a reality in which we only experience exchange value, there is no longer use value. Communism takes shape when the worker targets and reappropriates community. As Marx states, ‘Money is itself the community of capitalism’. For instance, who could conceive of doing without finance? The common now belongs to exchange value, soiled by the apex of Capital. So there is a new question, regarding the metamorphosis of Capital through struggle, struggle being the antagonism between workers and Captial. The event is the starting point, not the destination.

Being a communist means being against the State, composed of private property, production and exploitation, and being against the public, again which is a source of alienation and exploitation. The public is the State’s common. Therefore, communism is the enemy of socialism. Socialism has a tendency to neutralise the history of class struggle without questioning capitalist command.

Workers form an immanent subjectivity inside capitalism itself. Resistance and refusal form/produce new power with new knowledge, it is the constant motion of the production of new subjectivities. Dual power is short-lived, this is constituent power’s importance. Communism is neither anarchy or dictatorship.

Building a new world requires starting from our present circumstances, it is the realisation of building power that is superior to present power. Only force makes this possible (e.g. strike, riot, migrancy, exodus). Collective revolutionary will exalts the rupture. There is no revolution without organisation (the organised surplus or surplus value). Communism is closer at hand today because of cognitive capital, that surplus that is indigestible to capitalism. This is where present capital differs from industrial capital (see Hardt). We require a multiplication of struggle and the development of new institutions of the common from below. This is not a dialectical affirmation of the will, but it is generated from the inside the multitude itself. Under capitalist command, bio-power itself is put to work.

What is a communist ethics? It is indignation and refusal in which militance and struggle open onto a new plane, working towards a multitude, a true democracy. We therefore need to radically think the democracy of the common belonging to all. Solitude is death through individualist reality. We need new forms of constituent power through the take-over of bio-political dispositives (i.e. figures of power). In this manner use value will be returned to the inside of the totality. A multi-coloured Orpheus will emerge from underground, a new use value, a new common. Use value will be the new foundation of this new constitution.

ALAIN BADIOU: Communists without Communism.

Construction of the concept of communism requires the proposal of 4 elements. It is therefore a complex idea:

1/ The Political
2/ The Historic
3/ The Subjective
4/ The Ideal

THE POLITICAL: The condition of political truth.  Empirically, it is the a concrete sequence of emancipatory politics (the French Revolution, the Cultural Revolution, etc.). A truth procedure and the construction of new truth in the political field which is specific and particular.

THE HISTORICAL: Truth has historical dimensions. There is an interplay between different truths and the truth is also retroactive.

THE SUBJECTIVE: There is the possibility of an individual to decide to become part of  a truth procedure, a militant truth beyond his or herself. A new subjectivity, that represents the subjectivisation of the concrete sequence of emancipatory politics.

THE IDEAL: Which is the synthesis of the other 3 element’s nature. The subjectivisation between political truth and global history, an operation through which the singularity is connected to the global movement of history. It is a historical decision and a realisation of belonging to a movement of history.

To be a communist empirically means to be a militant of a communist party, a historical agent of the becoming of humanity. This cannot be a purely political idea. It is not purely ideological, but inside the synthesis of the aforementioned elements.

Communism is the Real of politics, in the construction of a historical fiction.

Some abstract definitions:

THE EVENT: An event is a rupture, not the realisation of a possibility, but the creation of a new possibility. Not simple possibilities, but the possibility of possibilities.

THE STATE: The State is a system of constraints that limits possibilities. That which is possible or not. The event is beyond the State and not prescribed by the State.

THE TRUTH PROCEDURE: The truth procedure is a fact by opposition to the event. Truth is not composed of facts. What is it? Truth is the becoming of a new subject. The creation of the truth. This creation is the creation of a ‘space’ of communism. An idea presents the truth as fact and inside the idea (of communism), we have the presentation of truth. Between event and fact some facts are symbols of truth, exposed like a historical fact (the direction of history), a real sequence of the truth.

A PROPER NAME: The function of an idea is a function of the exposition of the truth. Something in relation to empirical existence and its realisation. It is the inscription of the real in  the symbolic order of history. There is an imaginary point in the idea of truth between the anonymous and its proper name (the symbolic form). The proper name is a singularity that saves the truth from its invisibility. The truth is also in art, science, and love. It is the possibility of exposition in the form of a new state.

How can we be prepared? We must be orientated towards the acceptance of the event. We live in political passivity, in which State’s law is historical necessity. Therefore, we must have an idea — the possibility of possibilities — of something else. We require the affirmation that new truth is historically possible (a synthesis between the pure real and an event with the support of an idea). Communism is the name of this idea, the name of  politics itself. It is the name of the possibility of possibilities, inscribed within a space, the fact that an event is possible. The point is not continue the communist hypothesis, but to reestablish the hypothesis.

The idea of a communist state is a monster. Communism requires the decline of the State and is in fact the organisation of the the decline of the State (see Mao). We must beware of false syntheses of certain communisms, we must separate communism and the State.

Today we are nearer the 19th century than the 20th century  with the arrival of utterly cynical capitalism. We are witnessing the return of all sorts of 19th century phenomena such as pirate nationalisations, nihilistic despair and the servility of intellectuals.

We must create strong subjectivity and subjective existence in relation  to the communist hypothesis, this must be a new form of existence, other than its existence in the 20th century.

If we take De Sade’s injunction: ‘You must, so you can’ and reverse it, we arrive at ‘We can, so we must’.

[The failure of socialism is a political failure due to distrust and secrecy in politics. The masses are not exposed to politics]


About andrewosborne

Andrew Osborne has recently completed his MA in Contemporary Art Theory at Goldsmith's.
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5 Responses to On The Idea of Communism

  1. Thank you for that extensive report. I have critiqued the conference, without having been there. Though to be fair, I critiqued the litertaure around the conference, the blurb that preceded it, and some snippets of video. Philosophically entirely unsound as an exercise – or I should say, methodically unsound – but I did get across, nonetheless, a notion about the direction of philosophy.

    I’m going to add a note about this blog page, with a link.

    Do check out mine: http://logicalregression.blogspot.com/2009/03/back-to-left-on-idea-of-communism.html

  2. Pingback: On The Idea of Communism « The Posthuman Marxist

  3. Pingback: Badiou’s Communist Hypothesis and Idea of Communism conference- Resources « Verso UK’s Blog

  4. Pingback: Back to the Left ? On The Idea of Communism « logical regression

  5. Pingback: On The Idea of Communism (via Total Assault On Culture) « Minimal ve Maksimal Yazılar

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