The ghost of communism past

Against “conference communism”

Image: El Lissitzky, PROUN


A few months ago I attended the “Communist Currents” mini-conference at Cornell University in Ithaca. Douglas La Rocca and I departed from New York near the crack of dawn, around 5:00 AM, driving upstate to Ithaca. There we met up with his buddy Roger Palomeque, an engineer with an interest in Marxian economics and one of Doug’s fellow Linux-nerds. The drive to and from was cool, as was hanging out with Roger, but I was less than impressed with the actual proceedings of the symposium. I suppose the posh digs of the conference setting at Cornell’s White House were pretty fun/funny. The building’s main claim to fame is that former President (and staunch anti-communist) Ike Eisenhower once ate there. Only fitting that a series of talks on “the communist idea” today should be held there, really — though the very fact such a thing is permitted should give some indication of how benign the “idea” has become.

Over the last five years, books and conferences on “the communist idea” have been greeted by some as heralding the rebirth of the radical Left (“the long night of the Left is coming to a close”). Verso has released a string of titles and essay collections in its “pocket communism” series, featuring marquee names like Alain Badiou, Boris Groys, and Slavoj Žižek, as well as a host of “rising stars” — second-tier up-and-comers like Jodi Dean, Bruno Bosteels, and Alberto Toscano. After a few sellout conferences in London, New York, and Berlin, the organizers brought it to Seoul in South Korea, a longstanding stronghold of anti-communist reaction. Surely all this bodes well for the revolution, right?

Nearly a century ago, there were those who hailed the workers’ councils as the units of proletarian organization par excellence, a vehicle for the self-emancipation of the working class. Led by figures like Anton Pannekoek and Paul Mattick, they were called the “council communists.” Today, it is instead the academics’ conferences that hold the promise of communism (or so it would seem). It is only fitting that they be dubbed, in like fashion, the “conference communists.”

For a while now, I’ve refrained from commenting on the event out of respect for a couple of its key organizers. That respect remains undiminished, but now that some time has passed I feel like a more sober assessment of the papers presented is in order. Part of the reason I withheld criticism in the first place is that I’ve found my opinions often come across as needlessly “negative,” even mean-spirited. Admittedly, I do find a lot of the elbow-rubbing and chummy collegiality that goes on at these academic gatherings rather tedious, if not utterly grotesque. In such moments I’m reminded of something Engels once wrote in one of his articles on The Housing Question (1872):

I am not going to quarrel with friend Mülberger [whose work Engels was criticizing] about the “tone” of my criticism. When one has been so long in the movement as I have, one develops a fairly thick skin against attacks, and therefore one easily presumes also the existence of the same in others. In order to compensate Mülberger I shall try this time to bring my “tone” into the right relation to the sensitiveness of his epidermis.

Clearly, polemic isn’t what it used to be. No matter. I’ll see what I can manage.

Jason Smith’s paper on “Party and Form, History and Politics” was easily the best of the bunch. Honestly, even though he was arguing against uncritically adopting the old party form in light of recent struggles (think Occupy, anti-austerity protests in Greece and the indignados in Spain, the numerous uprisings during the Arab Spring), I found his talk much more historically grounded than the one that followed, in which Jodi Dean argued for a new version of the Leninist party. Smith’s perspective is informed by Endnotes’ reworking of Théorie Communiste’s now-familiar thesis regarding the eroded political subjectivity of the proletariat over the course of the twentieth century, and with it the attenuation of older programmatic forms of organization —  whether socialist or syndicalist — that traditionally accompanied it. It’s a complicated and fairly technical contention, related to “formal” versus “real” modes of subsumption under capitalism. Moreover, this seemed to be filtered through another trope that Smith has recently picked up, albeit in heavily modified form, from Alain Badiou. Namely, he borrows Badiou’s characterization of the present as the “age of riots,” rather than oppositional practices like strikes, which characterized the previous era of labor politics. To Smith’s credit, he seeks to take seriously emerging forms of struggle, quite correct in his belief that theory (i.e., self-critical reflection on praxis) in the absence of praxis (i.e., the real transformation of the world) is devoid of content.

As I said to Smith after his talk, though he readily agreed, struggles don’t always bear theoretical fruit. Fruitless forms of struggle do not lend themselves to fruitful theorization. Of course, even propitious forms of struggle can sometimes result in failure or defeat. Not all failures are fruitless, however, so it’s something of a judgment call when it comes down to it. Where he sees signs of life, I see only signs of further decay.

The other talks I was far less interested in. I’d heard Bruno Bosteels present on “The Other Commune” at HM in New York, so a lot of it was pretty familiar. His point, as I understand it, was to reframe the problems posed by radical social and political experiments such as the 1871 Paris Commune by focusing on an alternative example in the New World largely overlooked by Marxist theory. (Paris 1871 occupies a fairly central place in the imagination of all subsequent Marxist thought, a favored object of rumination). Multiple layers of mediation exist in Bosteels’ lecture, as he was looking at an imprisoned figure (I forget who) in Mexico who wanted to write a counterfactual history along these lines. Still, this seemed to sidestep the crucial question that the Paris Commune put on the table: the dictatorship of the proletariat. Much as they like to proclaim that they’ve bravely rescued the word “communism” from the purgatory of liberal indignation, conference communist philistines have of late been filled once more with wholesome terror at the words “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Engels even went so far as to write in his 1891 postscript to Marx’s Civil War in France: “Do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Jodi Dean, Joshua Clover, and James Martell at the Communist Currents symposium (November 2013)

Jodi Dean, Joshua Clover, and James Martell at the
“Communist Currents” symposium (November 2013)

Not just Engels, however. There are some who like to depict Engels as a bumbling buffoon, the proverbial Watson to Marx’s Holmes. Here they encounter not a little difficulty in trying to pry Marx’s “crystalline” thought from Engels’ “vulgar” additions. By Marx’s own account, as he wrote in 1852 to Weydemeyer, his only major “contribution was 1.) to show that the existence of classes is merely bound up with certain historical phases in the development of production2.) that the struggle between these classes necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; and 3.) that this dictatorship itself constitutes no more than a transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.” And it’s not as if this were some naïve piece of youthful juvenilia, either. Marx reiterated this point in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program, in which he indicated that “[b]etween capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Talk of the “transition” between capitalist and communist society would seem a natural lead-in to Alberto Toscano’s paper on “Transition Deprogrammed,” on the issue of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Apart from the spirited exchange between Trotsky and Kautsky during the Russian Revolution, in which they traded metaphors about horses and engines to allege Russia’s (un)readiness to lead a proletarian revolution, Toscano’s dry rereading of a few moth-eaten texts by Étienne Balibar from the 1970s on transition was otherwise a snoozer. How he got there from Trotsky-Kautsky I’ll never know; he must have just leapt right in. You could almost feel the exegetical fatigue humming down through his microphone. Similarly, I strain to remember anything from James Martel’s presentation “What is Common,” except for the fact it was a hyperbolically close reading of just three words (!!!) from a single sentence (!!) in Jodi Dean’s The Communist Horizon (!!!!). I seem to recall that he endorsed her idea of “the commons” as a fragmentary unity, composed of diverse and often antagonistic group interests. The enthusiasm for Negri’s resuscitated notion of “the commons” is somewhat beyond me; it seems a subtle form of nostalgia for precapitalist (prelapsarian) times, before enclosure and primitive accumulation ruined everything. Engels explicitly warned against such conservative sentimentality in Anti-Dühring:

All civilized peoples [i.e., all those who arrived at settled agriculture] begin with the common ownership of the land. With all peoples who have passed a certain primitive stage, this common ownership becomes in the course of the development of agriculture a fetter on production. It is abolished, negated, and after a longer or shorter series of intermediate stages is transformed into private property. But at a higher stage of agricultural development, brought about by private property in land itself, private property conversely becomes a fetter on production, as is the case today both with small and large landownership. The demand that it, too, should be negated, that it should once again be transformed into common property, necessarily arises. But this demand does not mean the restoration of the aboriginal common ownership, but the institution of a far higher and more developed form of possession in common which, far from being a hindrance to production, on the contrary for the first time will free production from all fetters, enabling it to make full use of modern chemical discoveries and mechanical inventions.

Unexpectedly, the paper I expected to hate the most turned out to be much better than I’d anticipated. Jordana Rosenberg, who presented a paper on “The Molecularization of Sexuality: Capital Accumulation and the Ontological Turn” had a couple things the other panelists lacked: stage presence, and an uncanny sense of timing. Her delivery made some of the frankly excruciating jargon far more bearable. Plus, it became clear in the course of her exposition that many of the terms included in the title of her talk were precisely those that she meant to criticize. Though her own commentary was also sometimes a bit stilted and clunky, some of the confusion was probably unavoidable, as it was encoded in the texts and positions Rosenberg critiqued. Besides, I sympathized with her disdain for object-oriented ontology, that miserable neue Sachlichkeit of online philosophy. The poet and sometimes political economist Joshua Clover raised a decent objection to her narrative, however: Wasn’t Rosenberg rather hasty in borrowing David Harvey’s notion of neoliberalism and ongoing primitive accumulation? (As opposed to the “one and done” model, whereby it only happens once, in which capitalism doesn’t have to constantly create a new “periphery” from which to extract value, as if anything today exists “outside” the globality of capitalist relations).

Lately, I’ve begun to wonder what the significance of this whole renewed interest in “communism” actually is. Is it a fad? Just an “edgy” marketing scheme? Or does it have anything like real political purchase? So far it’s a mainly academic phenomenon. This despite the fact Libcom forums have managed to popularize the phrase “full communism,” and even as Sebastian Budgen continues to promote it through the vaunted “counter-hegemonic apparatus” of his small publishing empire. Who knows what it might lead to?

Today, however, something blipped across my radar — okay, my Facebook feed — that should’ve thrown up red flags (pun intended) for everyone all around. George Ciccariello-Maher, author of the book We Created Chavez: A People’s History of the Bolivarian Revolution and seasoned conference communist, publicly inquired:

I had always assumed The Communist Manifesto played a major role in marking the workers’ movement as “communist” (especially since the Paris “commune” didn’t come until 1871). But this doesn’t account for the pre-existing “specter of communism.” — Any idea what or who Marx and Engels were referring to? Who, besides “Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies,” was decrying communism and why? (An abiding interest in how imposed identities are reappropriated).

Marx and Engels were, needless to say, hardly the first “communists.” This much should be obvious from the Manifesto itself, whose third section includes a lengthy critical review of the “existing socialist and communist literature.” Not to mention the incredibly famous letter from Marx to Ruge, in which the former calls for the “ruthless critique” of all that exists. He also mentions, not long thereafter, the communists “Cabet, Dézamy, and Weitling.”

I’m flabbergasted by how few of the conference communists know this. This is intro-level stuff, really, schoolboy fodder for most leftists worth their salt. When I pointed this out, someone sarcastically remarked: “Yes, everyone who isn’t born with a knowledge of the history of the communist movement prior to Marx should just hang their heads in shame.” Of course, it’s not at all a matter of being “born with it.” You’d think that if you’re being featured as a panelist at academic conferences on “communism,” there’d be an assumed level of knowledge in the field. This isn’t even something anyone would need to read a detailed history of, let alone a biography of x, y, or z pre-Marxian communist. Just by reading Marx, this much should be pretty clear.

“Communist Currents” was a mixed bag, unevenly developed. But for the most part, aside from the papers by Smith and Rosenberg, it was little more than lack of insight buried beneath mounds of useless erudition. With this last bit, one begins to wonder if all the emphasis on “communism” or “the communist idea” (both rather empty signifiers) doesn’t serve to conceal the still more looming specter of Marxism. “Communism” can be just as obfuscatory as any other political ideology. As Marx wrote:

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.

This may serve as a coda for the preceding.

12 thoughts on “The ghost of communism past

  1. I wonder how many of methe “conference communists” voted for Obama… I think the question of the rev. party very important: but it is absurd to copy the Bolshevik party which was underground in 1903. We need to see “the party” dialectically, subject to change and development rather than fixed in time.

    • Oh! How I miss the Cold War! As a child of the 50’s, I remember being scared shitless to go to sleep at night , for fear those Commies would attack us at any time. The radioactive fallout drills in our school basement,bomb shelters in neighbors backyards,stockpiling canned goods, watching Krushchev shaking that fist at the western world, day after day, promising to bury us. The Ghosts of Communism barely walk this earth anymore. It’s the end of an era. All we have to LQQk forward to these days
      are crazed Muslims of the Isis ilk. Nothing compares, not even of a bunch of crazy rag-tops who misrepresent an Islam tradition, with extremes at both of it’s ends.
      Big Brother is hardly watching anymore. Pity.

  2. A fine, if somewhat over-erudite, report on the “conference communist” developments. My personal feeling is that academics, being pulled into a bureaucratic mold by their schools, are looking for an amalgam subject like “political economics” where separate disciplines can “share” perspectives and…what? Create new classes to be held? Train a cadre of “Marx-ologists” who can discuss him philosophically, historically, above the fray, divorced from a real movement? Yes, that’s what it looks like. This “Communism” is so detached from the actual life of any “working class” that they can comment upon Marx and political developments as if visiting a zoo. Real live people are out there, desperate for a way of thinking AND working their way out of this mess – and the academics prattle on. Meanwhile, the actually practicing leftovers of our alphabet soup of “parties” rage more at each other than at the bourgeoisie, in the hopes of creating an identifying “space” for themselves. Such parties, led by intellectuals, are rightfully snubbed and hated by workers when they can do this kind of garbage work. Event- and riot- centered activism is what the Left retreated into when meaningful work in the working class was stopped by McCarthy and the retreat of Marxism in the US. Marches, sit-ins, Occupy, all are blips rather than steps toward a unified development of workers consciousness. What came of the 1960’s is still with us, in devolutionary lockstep with the chaos of our capitalist system.

  3. Good and insightful report.

    One thing that strikes me about this crowd is how detached they are from doing real economics and historical analysis. I feel that if I were to have been at this conference and delivered a paper on, say, current Marxist approaches to the origin of early states and their implications, I would’ve stuck out rather uncomfortably. Even the historical examples mentioned like the Commune are, it seems to me, disembedded from their historical context and reified into a kind of meta-discourse on organisation.

    I wonder, if there had been a conference on current capitalist exploitation and ways to counter it and build communism, involving unionist and other practical oppositional figures, would it have been welcome at this venue?

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