The ghost of communism past

Against “conference communism”

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Image: El Lissitzky, PROUN

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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.” Continue reading

Art and politics in class society

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Book review:

Ben Davis, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (Haymarket. Chicago, IL: 2013)

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The following review was originally published by the CUNY Grad Center’s journal The Advocate. It is available in print and online, and I’d encourage anyone who’s interested to pick up a copy.

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Ben Davis’ 9.5 Theses on Art and Class has clearly struck a chord with contemporary artistic communities, critics and practitioners alike. Not all have responded the same way, however. While most applaud the admirable clarity of its arguments and readily acknowledge Davis’ gifts as a writer, some have lamented the book’s “rather bleak” tone and the seeming despondency of its conclusions. One review went so far as to accuse Davis of drawing “lazy caricatures” of his opponents, panning Art and Class as “crudely reductive” and given to “smug, self-righteous dismissals.” Yet others have welcomed its challenge to the conventional image of artists as born radicals, and praise Davis’ sober reassessment of the lofty political ambitions often claimed for their work.

Despite a few cautious endorsements from figures like Molly Crabapple and William Powhida, the book’s reception among actual producers of art has likewise been mixed. At a recent talk held at Housing Works in downtown Manhattan, Davis invited to the stage a group of practicing artists with whom he’d been in close dialogue while writing Art and Class. The discussion that followed was polite enough, touching on some of the book’s central themes, but there were moments in which the panelists could be seen practically squirming with discomfort at the language Davis used to characterize their vocation. Even though they’d all read it before, and were thus familiar with the text’s provocations, it was as if the wound was still fresh.

So what is it about Davis’ thesis that makes it such a bitter pill to swallow? Part of it is semantic. Though the sociological framework he employs throughout his investigation into art under capitalism is generally sound, Davis encounters terminological difficulties as soon as he tries to conceptualize class. How does one talk about a mode of creative activity that doesn’t neatly fit the division of society into workers and capitalists? What accounts for this peculiar survival of quasi-artisanal forms of labor within such a rarefied commercial sphere as today’s art market? Art and Class approaches these questions from an avowedly Marxist angle. But this presents problems of another sort. For although classical Marxism had at its disposal an arsenal of readymade categories with which to comprehend the position of the artist, Davis finds terms like “petit-bourgeois” (probably the most fitting designation for artists at one time) irretrievably démodé. Looking for a more accessible word that might replace it, he arrives at “middle-class.” Davis emphatically asserts that “the contemporary artist is the representative of middle-class creative labor par excellence.”1

This nomenclature is unfortunate for a whole host of reasons, not least of which is the confusing cluster of connotations that already surrounds notions of “middle-class.” Class is commonly (mis)understood as a purely quantitative relation, a function of “pay scale” or “income bracket.” As Davis points out, this distorts the more precise definition offered by Marxist theory, which sees class as a specific relationship to the means of production — namely of ownership or non-ownership, combined with some owners’ ability to hire others to operate them. Beyond such bland technicalities, however, Davis anticipates a more basic objection artists might raise to his analysis. “The issue of class has moral overtones,” he recognizes.2 Artists, who tend to sympathize with vaguely leftist political ideas and issues of social justice, bristle at the suggestion that they are somehow “middle-class.”

Gustav Klutsis, Multilingual propaganda machine (1923)

Once one gets past this initial allergic response, and accepts the meaning assigned to “middle-class,” the rest of the book’s contentions about art in class society fall into place. Davis is hardly indifferent to artists’ plight, either. Quite the opposite: the narrative he unfolds in Art and Class has profound implications for the way artists orient their politics. “The upshot is that artists’ middle-class position is not merely a limit on their relation to larger social struggle but also on their ability to organize to transform their own conditions,” Davis writes. He goes over some of the efforts to orchestrate artists’ strikes in the 1960s and 1970s, virtually none of which could be considered a success. “From whom would the artists be withholding their art if they did go on strike?” the book asks, quoting Carl Andre. “Alas, from no one but themselves.”3 By contrast, the closer artists get to wage-labor — those instances where they actually constitute a paid workforce, as with studio animators or industrial designers — the more effectively they can unionize and leverage demands. Continue reading

Burying Lenin

The revolution entombed

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The Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow was first designed by the architect Aleksei Shchusev in 1924. Even outside of Russia, its image is fairly familiar: some kind of cross between geometric modernism and a primeval ziggurat. What is seldom remembered today, however, is that Shchusev had to design and redesign the building more than once. Of course, the public display of Ulianov’s corpse was originally intended to only last a few weeks.

An exceptionally cold winter (Lenin died in January) helped preserve the Bolshevik leader’s remains longer than expected. Despite Lenin’s explicit request that his body be cremated and buried next to that of his mother, the new Soviet administration began making more permanent arrangements.

Soviet architect Aleksei Shchusev

Vladimir Paperny offered a fairly memorable explanation for this fact in his book Culture Two: Architecture in the Age of Stalin. He suggested that a transition was then underway between the two dominant cultural attitudes that define Russian-Soviet history:

Culture One [Bolshevik, avant-garde culture] wanted to burn its limbs [Shklovskii (1919)], wash memory from its soul, kill its old [Maiakovskii (1915)], and eat its children — all this as an attempt to free itself from the ballast that was interfering with its surge into the future. In Culture Two [Stalinist, realist culture], the future was postponed indefinitely. The future became even more beautiful and desirable [the architect Krasin (1937)], and the movement forward was even more joyous [state prosecutor Vyshinskii (1938)], but there did not seem to be an end in sight to that movement — the movement had become an end in itself.

[Stalinism’s] movement “forward, ever forward” changed nothing: The…goal was still the same; therefore, there was no way to determine whether this was movement or rest…Movement in Culture Two became tantamount to immobility, and the future to eternity…The history of the building of the Lenin Mausoleum is a good example of how culture’s idea of the longevity…changed. In Culture One, the idea of a mausoleum evoked a temporary structure, one that was needed “in order to grant all those who wish to, and who cannot come to Moscow for the day of the funeral, a chance to bid farewell to their beloved leader.” Culture Two had no intention of bidding farewell to the beloved leader. The temporary wooden mausoleum erected in 1924 was replaced first by a more solid wooden structure [six months later], and then, in 1930, by one of stone built to last.

Clearly, the different materials implemented in the construction of each version reflect different anticipated durations. The first was to be fleeting, the second durable, the third eternal. While the second is still, like the first, only made of wood, its form already appealed to eternity. Planks and crossbeams combined into regular geometric slabs, beyond real space and time. The upper half meanwhile ascends in pyramidal fashion, evoking that same mute permanence one feels before the ancient pharaohs’ tombs.

Lenin’s memory still haunts today’s Left. Just as the post-1991 Restoration in Moscow could not bring itself to finally lay his corpse to rest, neither can the contemporary Left bring itself to discard the legacy of October 1917. Even in rejecting Lenin or Leninism — whatever this might be thought to entail, be it democratic centralism, vanguardism, totalitarianism — it is forced to confront such associations. This is to say nothing of those who seek to take up Lenin’s mantle, with all the competing interpretations and conflicting points of emphasis. Continue reading

Program and utopia

Roger Rashi, Sam Gindin, Richard Rubin,
Aaron Benanav, and Stephen Eric Bronner

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This year’s Platypus International Convention concluded with the plenary “Program and Utopia,” held on June 6 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. This closing plenary brought together Roger Rashi, founding member of Québec Solidaire; Aaron Benanav, of the Endnotes collective; Stephen Eric Bronner, a professor at Rutgers University, scholar of modernism and the history of socialism, and member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA); Sam Gindin, author, and director of the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly; and Richard Rubin, of Platypus. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation that night. A full video of the plenary can be found online.

Opening remarks

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Roger Rashi:
Thank you for inviting me to speak tonight. I am honored to be on a panel with such distinguished guests. Can utopia and program be merged in a new, formal relation in the 21st century? It will not be easy, but I think we can follow the example of Marx, who, as the French Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre has pointed out, synthesized the utopian and the political trends within French Socialism and thereby politicized utopia. Marx hypothesized that, by seizing power, we could eventually, through a series of stages, arrive at a classless society. This synthesis was put to the test in the 20th century and has not come out unscathed. Can we undertake this synthesis again in the 21st century? I believe we can. However, it will be a difficult process that requires our involvement in mass struggles and in the anti-neoliberal movements, which are starting to merge into one.

Today, the Left is in crisis. But there remain many social movements. The first decade of the 21st century saw a rise of mass movements challenging neoliberalism. This has taken two major forms. In Latin America there is the “pink tide” — Chavez in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador — representing attempts to use state power to move gradually towards a form of socialism, although it is not socialism yet. Then, there is the new active struggle in the Middle East and southern Europe: the tremendous movement of the Arab Spring and the ongoing fight against austerity, respectively. Out of these movements, how can we craft a new political expression for the Left that will synthesize utopia — the goal of a classless society — and program, the practical movement towards formulating this kind of plan?

One approach is to come back to a vision of communism that Marx had in the middle of the 19th century. Here we should remember that Communism is not just a program or a utopia, but the actual movement attempting to abolish the existing state of affairs. It is the practical movement struggling against the status quo. From this perspective we can understand the emergent Left parties in different parts of the world, including Québec City, where I live. In the movement there, we have tried to develop from a united front against neoliberalism into a political party that can engage in elections as well as mass struggles — what we call combining the street and the ballot. We hope to move towards an understanding of what it means to overcome neoliberalism as well as the basis of neoliberalism: capitalism.

Continue reading

An interview with Dean Whiteside on Marxian Musicology

Conducted by C. Derick Varn

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Image: Large bust of Lenin next to
a smaller bust of Beethoven

After listening to Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata, Lenin added sadly: “I’m often unable to listen to music, it gets on my nerves. I’d like to stroke my fellow beings and whisper sweet nothings in their ears for producing such beautiful things in spite of the abominable hell they are living in. However, today one shouldn’t caress anybody — for people will only bite off your hand.” Georg Lukács, Lenin: A study in the unity of his thought (1920)
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Originally posted on The (Dis)loyal Opposition to Modernity blog. Please follow and subscribe to it.

Dean Whiteside studies music theory as a conductor at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna. He has an interest in reintegrating music theory with materialism.

C. Derick Varn: The debates on aesthetics and Marxism have often been framed in terms of visual arts and in terms of music. This, perhaps, is the legacy of Theodor Adorno. Do you see Adorno as a primary entry point to Marxist musicology?

Dean Whiteside: It is not enough to say that Adorno was partial to music. For Adorno, the mutual dependency between musical and critical thinking cuts both ways. For this reason, many of Adorno’s deepest thoughts work through the relation between music and conceptual thinking. Adorno claims that German music and philosophy constituted a single system since the time of Kant and Beethoven. Adorno has a critical take on this relationship. His method is deeply historical and sensitive to the ways in which music embodies the antagonisms of bourgeois capitalist society, especially its fissures and points of non-identity. Left at that, Adorno would be suggesting merely another way to think about the relationship between music and society. But his inquiry is deeper: he wants to interrogate the social truth content of music itself. Music does not lie outside of capital, nor does it provide a safe haven from instrumental reason, but it also isn’t reducible to them: it’s a mode of thinking about what is contradictory and unarticulated within the world. Through music we discover the possibility of thinking about thought insofar as thought finds itself sublated within musical form, often through the concepts and signs which have the most authority over us, especially basic ones like repetition and self-identity. Thought is saved from the fate of merely smashing its face repeatedly against a mirror: its redemption lies in the broken and bloody shards on the floor — music, if you will (certainly Neue Musik). Conceptual thinking then faces the burden of making sense of its own broken image. The anxiety which neue Musik causes us is that we don’t recognize ourselves in the fragments. Thought’s return to itself must overcome a moment of mis-recognition. Many listeners don’t get past the initial: “WTF, that’s not me!” Their reaction is wrong but understandable. Obversely, Adorno wants to problematize the moment of false recognition that bourgeois listeners experience while listening to Mozart or Beethoven. Adorno insists that Beethoven’s music is Hegelian philosophy in a truer form than Hegel’s philosophy itself could ever be. This is not an analogy. He maintains that although we can no longer write music like Beethoven, we should still think and act like Beethoven’s music. This amounts to an ideal of praxis which I think Adorno himself only occasionally lives up to. His failings are usually on the side of musical theory, namely a simplistic understanding of tonality and harmony. So to answer your question, yes and no. Continue reading

special issue on communism

Platypus Review № 54: Special issue on “communism”

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Special Issue on “Communism”

The Platypus Review, № 54 [PDF]

1305823769_www.nevsepic.com.ua_doloy-kuhonnoe-rabstvo-1931-shegalVerso’s Pocket Communism series seeks to reorient leftist discourse by taking the idea of “communism” as a shared point of departure.  In this series of articles and interviews, the Platypus Affiliated Society seeks to host a critical dialogue on this subject in order to clarify the various positions and oppositions that are at work, situate them within the broader history of the Left, and evaluate their salience for the present.

‘Communism’ is still the name to be used to designate radical emancipatory projects. It is a name that can not only express the Idea which guides radical activity, but can also help expose the catastrophes of the twentieth century, including those of the Left.

— Slavoj Žižek and Costas Douzinas, The Idea of Communism (2010), pgs. viii-ix.

I am not in favour of raising any dogmatic banner.  On the contrary, we must help the dogmatists to clarify their propositions for themselves.  Thus communism in particular is a dogmatic abstraction.

— Karl Marx, “Letter to Arnold Ruge” (September 1843)

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.

— Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (1845)

Contents

Alain Badiou's The Communist Hypothesis (2010) The Marxist hypothesis: A response to Badiou’s Communist Hypothesis
by Chris Cutrone
And yet a very different set of historical periodizations, and hence a very different history, focused on other developments, might be opposed to Badiou’s. Counter to Badiou’s “communist hypothesis,” which reaches back to the origins of the state in the birth of civilization millennia ago, a “Marxist hypothesis” would seek to grasp the history of the society of capital.

bosteels1

Traversing the heresies: An interview with Bruno Bosteels
by Alec Niedenthal and Ross Wolfe
On October 14th, 2012, Alec Niedenthal and Ross Wolfe both interviewed Bruno Bosteels, a Professor of Romance Studies at Cornell University and author of such books as Badiou and Politics (2011), Marx and Freud in Latin America (2012), and The Actuality of Communism (2011). Click to view an edited transcript of their conversation.

Jodi Dean's Communist Horizon (2012)

What is to be done with the actually-existing Marxist Left? An interview with Jodi Dean
by Ross Wolfe
On October 13th, 2012, Ross Wolfe of the Platypus Affiliated Society interviewed Jodi Dean, Professor of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith College, and author of Žižek’s Politics (2006) and The Communist Horizon (New York: Verso, 2012). Click to view an edited transcript of their conversation.

Boris Groys' Communist Postscript (2009)

A remembrance of things past: An interview with Boris Groys
by Ross Wolfe
On December 15th, 2012, Ross Wolfe interviewed Boris Groys, the Global Distinguished Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University. His numerous published books include The Total Art of Stalinism (1986), Art Power (2008), and The Communist Postscript (2009). Click to view an edited transcript of their conversation.

Further reading:

Editorial statement of purpose

Taking stock of the universe of positions and goals that constitutes leftist politics today, we are left with the disquieting suspicion that a deep commonality underlies the apparent variety: What exists today is built upon the desiccated remains of what once was possible.

In order to make sense of the present, we find it necessary to disentangle the vast accumulation of positions on the Left and to evaluate their saliency for the possible reconstitution of emancipatory politics in the present. Doing this implies a reconsideration of what is meant by the Left.

Our task begins from what we see as the general disenchantment with the present state of progressive politics. We feel that this disenchantment cannot be cast off by sheer will, by simply “carrying on the fight,” but must be addressed and itself made an object of critique. Thus we begin with what immediately confronts us.

Vote communist! [Vota comunista!] truck featuring model Sputnik, Rome 1958

Vote communist! [Vota comunista!] truck featuring a model of Sputnik, Rome 1958

The Platypus Review is motivated by its sense that the Left is disoriented. We seek to be a forum among a variety of tendencies and approaches on the Left — not out of a concern with inclusion for its own sake, but rather to provoke disagreement and to open shared goals as sites of contestation. In this way, the recriminations and accusations arising from political disputes of the past may be harnessed to the project of clarifying the object of leftist critique.

The Platypus Review hopes to create and sustain a space for interrogating and clarifying positions and orientations currently represented on the Left, a space in which questions may be raised and discussions pursued that would not otherwise take place. As long as submissions exhibit a genuine commitment to this project, all kinds of content will be considered for publication.

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Remembrance of things past: An interview with Boris Groys

 Ross Wolfe
Platypus Review
March 2013
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On December 15th, 2012, Ross Wolfe interviewed Boris Groys, Global Distinguished Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University. His numerous published books include The Total Art of Stalinism (1986), Art Power (2008), The Communist Postscript (2009), and Going Public (2011). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

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Ross Wolfe:
 In the introduction to your 2006 book, The Communist Postscript, you provocatively assert: “The communist revolution is the transcription of society from the medium of money to the medium of language. It is a linguistic turn at the level of social praxis.”[1] What do you make of the “communist turn” in contemporary left discourse, that is, the return to the idea of communism in Badiou, Žižek, Bosteels, Dean, et al.?

Boris Groys: It doesn’t seem to me that any return has actually taken place. If you are speaking now of the West, not of the East, then you have always had communist parties: the French Communist Party, the Italian Communist Party, every European nation had a communist party during and after the Cold War. So I would rather speak about a migration of discourse away from the framework of mass parties. These became inefficient, partially dissolved, and lost their influence and power within European societies. And now we have groups of intellectuals who are asserting their hegemony over the discourse of the “communist hypothesis.”

French leftist intellectuals Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault, 1972. Gilles Deleuze can be seen in the background

French leftistsJean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault, 1972.
Gilles Deleuze can be seen in the background

But we also shouldn’t underestimate the influence or the intellectual and institutional power of the mass party. The communist party apparatus and communist press were very influential in France and Italy throughout the Cold War. And then, if we look at the intellectual trajectories of different figures, from Sartre to Foucault and Derrida and so on, all of them in one way or another defined his position in the first place vis-à-vis the Communist Party, much more so than in relation to capitalism. So if you look at the career of Badiou, for example, he began with a kind of Sartrean connection, but then developed a Maoist infatuation very early on, in the 1960s. His project since then was one of constant revolt against the domination of the French Communist Party. The Maoist movement, like many others from that time, was actually directed against the leading role of the Communist Party. Everything that we read now from Badiou and others comes out of this very early experience of French Maoism in the 1960s. They experienced the “betrayal” of the 1960s movements by the Communist Party, even though these movements had been partially directed against the communist parties to begin with. We can argue what happened in different ways, but my impression is that right now we have the continuation of an immanent contestation of the communist party that started much, much earlier — in the 1960s.

On the other hand, I was and still am very interested in the institutional and official traditions of communism. As with the early Protestants who saw the Catholic Church as the church of Satan, communists today claim, “All these decades and centuries of communist movements — that was not real communism. Communism will begin with us.” It is a claim that one can understand, but it seems to me historically, ideologically, politically, and philosophically problematic. All of the theorists of communism today say: “We start anew. We reject everything that came before. We don’t interpret or correct it — we just reject it as a fundamental failure.”

RW: Just as the theorists of communism at present would say that all past forms of communism were the work of Stalin?

BG: They reject Stalin in favor of the idea of communism. But how is one to access this “idea” of communism? To stress the immediate idea of communism is idealistic and neglects the necessity of dealing with the materialist side of communism. Communism is not God. One cannot be a Saint Paul of communism. Sartrean existentialism, Maoist event, or Deleuzean direct contact with energies, desires, affects — these all claim to provide an unmediated understanding of what communism is beyond any tradition, institution, or party. They’re direct, individual, ultimately involving only one person. That is a very Romantic, almost mystical-religious approach. Because, of course, traditionally Marxism has something to do with mediation and a disbelief in the possibility of directly grasping something like “the idea of communism,” or of experiencing communism as an event.

Portrait of Iosif Stalin (late 1920s)

Portrait of Iosif Stalin (late 1920s)

RW: You also argue that the emphasis on the “idea” of communism leads to “a modern form of Platonism in practice.”[2] What is specifically “modern” about communism?

BG: For me, Platonism does not refer to the possibility of immediately grasping the Idea, but rather to a demonstration of the impossibility of any such insight. What the Socratic dialogues demonstrate is the impossibility of the notion of a human being grasping the Idea because every course of argumentation collapses on itself. And this place of collapse is actually a site of power. If you look at the Platonic state, the philosopher-king is someone who actually manages and administers this space of collapse, the defeat of the desire for truth. Historically this site was the Soviet Union. What makes this a modern experience is the extreme scale on which it takes place.

We are living in a society that is split in such an obvious way that we no longer believe in the possibility of democracy, at least from a liberal perspective, because there seems to be no hope for consensus, which is the traditional basis of democracy. If you look at contemporary American society, or really any contemporary society, it is so fundamentally fragmented it seems incapable of reaching consensus. Such societies can only be administered, but cannot be brought to any kind of democratic politics. In the West, this kind of administration — in these societies beyond consensus — occurs through the market. But in the East, the market was ultimately abolished by the Bolsheviks. And so instead of being governed by economics, there was an emergence of certain kinds of administrative power practicing a language beyond consensus. The phenomenon of a language where no agreement can be reached is precisely what one can find in a very refined form in the Platonic dialogues. And the philosopher here is someone who manages language beyond consensus. What makes the Platonic problem modern is that it has became urgent and political, a problem of society as a whole, rather than of a small group of Greek intellectuals in the agora.

In Plato, the state is administered by the philosophers through an occasional application of violence, not determined by any consensus, because Plato understands that such consensus is impossible. So both capitalism and communism, especially in their Eastern European form, constituted answers to the insight that the French Revolution’s bourgeois dream of reaching a sort of basic consensus had collapsed. The dream had collapsed already by the time of Marx, and then even further with Nietzsche. As long as you speak about commonalities or “the common,” you remain at the level of reflection, which is fundamentally pre-Marxist. If you want to speak of politics after Marx, after Nietzsche, after Freud, you have to consider societies that have nothing in the way of common ground. Because if you look at the intellectual landscape before the French Revolution, and even slightly afterward, you find this kind of hope for a consensual politics or ideology. There’s a belief in a natural truth, a divine truth, a common truth, a truth that’s reached at the end of history. But a new, modern period of political thinking commences from a dissatisfaction with such truths. When the class struggle asserts itself the possibility of reaching consensus or a common truth disappears. How does society manage that? There are two models: the state and the market. They manage the problem in two different ways.

Crowds gather for Maiakovskii's funeral

Crowds gather for Maiakovskii’s funeral, 1930

RW: With management by the state being socialism and management by the market being capitalism?

BG: A socialist state exists only where the state has been liberated from the market — in which the market has been either subordinated or eliminated entirely. In a capitalist state, say, in the West, the state is subordinated to the market. So what was the Stalinist state? It was a machine for the frustration of everybody, in which the possibility of achieving the truth was excluded. And what is the Western market? The same. It’s a machine for the frustration of everybody, since everyone knows that whatever a politician says, nothing will come out of it.

RW: As an author of one of the books on communism for Verso: How central was Marx’s thought to the formulation of communism? Obviously there were pre-Marxist communists such as Saint-Simon or Fourier or Proudhon. And later there were non-Marxist (anarchist, post-Marxist) developments or articulations of the idea of communism. But with respect to your own work the question is different, I think, in that more than the irreducibility of Marx, it asserts the irreducibility of Stalin.

BG: I would argue for irreducibility of both, and that of Marx, I have summarized already. All these thinkers you mention — Saint-Simon, Fourier, and so on — proposed improvements that were based on the possibility of consensus, on the hope of reaching a common understanding, the insight that life as it is presently is bad, but can be changed from bad to good. Marx believes that such a common understanding is impossible, because of the difference of class interests. He was, basically, anti-utopian.

RW: But didn’t Marx believe in the possibility of a classless society?

BG: Yes, but only after all the classes are suppressed as classes, and this is potentially an infinite process. The traditional utopian communist ideal was based on a perception that one could take all classes, the whole population as it is, and proceed toward a new social truth. Marx argued that this wasn’t possible. For him, one has to start a war inside society, which involved class struggle. A classless society cannot include a huge part of society as it is and that must be therefore destroyed. Stalin’s insight was that a classless society is not something that emerges immediately, spontaneously, or even necessarily, after the abolition of the existing class system. The society that comes after the revolution is also a society that should be managed, which creates its own classes. Now the question is how one deals with that.

Marx starts his discourse with the impossibility of common interest. Everything else comes out of this. Insofar as you believe that there’s something — a “desire,” an “energy,” “absolute spirit,” whatever — that unites society as it is, you’re thinking along pre-Marxist lines. To adopt a post-Marxist lens, you have to see society as something irreparably and irreversibly divided. For this kind of outlook, the question becomes how one manages this division. How does one operate under the assumption (or actually the reality) of this irreparable divide? That is the post-Marxist problem.

Stalin and Roosevelt fraternizing at the Yalta conference, February 1945

Soviet premier Stalin and American president Roosevelt
fraternizing at the Yalta conference, February 1945

RW: To rephrase things slightly: Would you say that Marx’s thought is the necessary presupposition or the condition of possibility for communism? And then, conversely, would you say that Stalin is the necessary outcome of communism?

BG: No, I wouldn’t say all of that, for there isn’t any single answer to this question. Stalin is an answer. Is it a plausible answer? Yes. Is it a likeable answer? Well, no, it’s not. But it’s not an answer that can be ignored. The market doesn’t provide an adequate answer. Stalin doesn’t provide an adequate answer either, at least, not the answer I would prefer. But at the same time, I don’t believe that any answer can be sufficient if it ignores the question, and all its radical implications.

RW: Toward the beginning of your book, Going Public, you refer to “the period of modernity” as “the period in which we still live.”[3] You roughly date it, at least theoretically and philosophically, as coinciding with Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790). The obvious political correlate to this would be 1789 and the French Revolution. Are we still — or were we ever — postmodern? If so, how does this relate to modernity, “the period in which we still live”? Might postmodernity perhaps be reaching an end?

BG: Well, when I speak about postmodernity in my writings, it’s because other people use this word and believe themselves to have a certain understanding about what it means. Personally, I don’t think any such transition from modernity to postmodernity ever happened. Postmodernity has never really had any meaning as a concept.

Postmodernism was associated with disbelief in progress. But nobody in the nineteenth century who was intelligent believed in progress. Baudelaire didn’t believe in progress and neither did Flaubert, nor Nietzsche, or Wölfflin. “Postmodernity” was a way by which people came to understand what people already understood in the nineteenth century.

But perhaps it was only known at first by avant-garde intellectuals, elite circles of artists in Western Europe during the nineteenth century. When people speak of postmodernity, they’re really talking about something that was known before but now was becoming clear to everybody. From the perspective of artistic, intellectual, and cultural modernity, however, nothing has changed. And we still don’t know how to deal with it. Modern problems, as they were formulated in relation to art, culture, and writing, during the nineteenth century, remain very relevant and unsolved. The real change came toward the middle of the nineteenth century. It occurred with the collapse of Hegelianism, the collapse of European idealism amidst the industrial revolution, and with it, the beginning of intellectual and cultural modernity.

But almost as early as the disjunction between Romanesque and Gothic churches, if you will, you’ll always see these “waves” in the succession of European styles. So beginning with the Renaissance, you have clear-cut forms, geometrical models, and a certain kind of clarity or intellectual transparency. But then it’s followed by the Baroque period: by complexity, obscurity, and contradiction. Then you have something similar between Classicism and Romanticism. And then at the start of the twentieth century, there is the avant-garde, which lasted until 1926 or 1927. After that, though, there is this huge wave of embryonic postmodernity — historicism, Socialist Realism, Nazi art, the “return to order,” and the Novecento in Italy. But all of that was suppressed after World War II. Following the war, there’s a new wave of modernism — a neo-avant-garde that goes from the 1950s and 1960s, lasting through the early 1970s. Starting in 1971 or 1972, you get a kind of neo-baroque. There’s Of Grammatology by Derrida, a baroque gesture. So there are these waves in the cultural history of Europe, shifting from clarity, intellectual responsibility, mathematico-scientific influences, and transparency to opacity, obscurity, absence, infinity. What is the Deleuzean or Derridean moment? It’s the moment where they took the structuralist models, defined as a system of finite rules and moves, and made it infinite. It is precisely what Romanticism did with the Enlightenment, what the Baroque did with the Renaissance, and so on. Even in terms of Marxism, you get these waves. There is the classical period of clarity. Then there is a period of obscurity — Benjamin, Adorno, and the like.

RW: A related question: How would you say the Soviet project relates to the modern period? Do you think there’s any sort of link between what’s understood in the West — perhaps wrongly — as “postmodernity” and the collapse of historical Marxism in the 1970s and, after 1989, the dissolution of the Soviet Union? Is there any correlation between the post-Soviet moment and the general onset of postmodernity?

BG: Just as I don’t believe in “postmodernity,” I don’t believe in the “post-Soviet” situation either; rather, we are experiencing an intermediate moment between two periods of wars and revolutions. Today we live under the illusion of peace and free markets, just like people did during the nineteenth century, before the First World War. Our current mode of existence is very similar to the second half of the nineteenth century: there is mass culture, entertainment instead of high culture, terrorism, an interest in sexuality, the cult of celebrity, open markets, etc.

Before the rise of Imperial Germany, everybody in the West believed it was interested in capitalism, although in Germany everyone understood it was about war. That is what will happen again in the foreseeable future. In fact, it is already beginning to happen, in that we are actually witnessing a return to a state and military infrastructure. Just as after the French Revolution, there is the reversion to antiquity, and then a new medievalism with Romanticism, the infrastructure of our epoch will be contested, and this will start a new period of war and revolutions. At that point, we’ll remember the Soviet Union, and many other phenomena. |P

Notes


1. Boris Groys, The Communist Postscript (London: Verso, 2009), xv.
2. Ibid., 2.
3. Boris Groys, Going Public (New York: Sternberg Press, 2010), 10.

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What is to be done with the actually-existing Marxist left? An interview with Jodi Dean

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IMAGE: Cover to Jodi Dean’s
The Communist Horizon (2012)

Platypus Review № 54 | 2013

Ross Wolfe

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On October 13th, 2012, Ross Wolfe of the Platypus Affiliated Society interviewed Jodi Dean, Professor of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith College, and author of The Communist Horizon (New York: Verso, 2012). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

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Ross Wolfe:
 Your new book, The Communist Horizon, builds upon a body of literature that has accumulated around the concept of “communism” over the last decade. What is the significance of this renewed emphasis on communism?

Jodi Dean: The shift towards communism puts leftist thought into a distinct political horizon. It is no longer a sort of touchy-feely, identity issue-based, and fragmented emphasis on each person’s unique specificity. It is no longer a generic, attitudinal lifestyle, preoccupation with “awareness” or the spontaneous, and momentary reduction of politics to the minuteness of the everyday. Communism returns politics to grand, revolutionary possibilities — to projects of political power. And that change is absolutely, crucially enormous, even if forty years out of date. Continue reading

Traversing the heresies: An interview with Bruno Bosteels

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IMAGE: Cover to Bruno Bosteels’
The Actuality of Communism (2011)

Platypus Review 54 | March 2013

Alec Niedenthal and Ross Wolfe

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On October 14, 2012, Alec Niedenthal and Ross Wolfe interviewed Bruno Bosteels, Professor of Romance Studies at Cornell University and author of such books as Badiou and Politics (2011), Marx and Freud in Latin America (2012), and The Actuality of Communism (2011). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

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Alec Niedenthal:
 It is well known that 1968 was a critical moment for the Left in France, but the simultaneous events in Mexico are not so well-known. What was at stake for you in making this connection more explicit?

Bruno Bosteels: The events of 1968 were definitely pivotal globally for the Left. The reason why 1968 in France was a key moment was because the so-called theories, what people now call “French theory” and the philosophical elaborations and politics stemming from it, all share this interest in “the event.” Whereas Foucault, Derrida, Badiou, and Deleuze were once read as philosophers of “difference,” now it is common to read them as philosophers of the event — that is, 1968. So, we might ask, “Why is it an important moment or event in the history of France or Mexico or other places where, in the same year, there were riots, uprisings, popular movements, rebellions, and so on?” But also, “What does it mean to think about ‘the event’ philosophically?” The theoretical traditions that led to this pivotal moment have a longer history in France than in other places where one must search obscure sources to get to the same theoretical problem. Within the French context, for institutional, historical, and genealogical reasons we have a well-defined debate that can be summed up, as what Badiou himself called “The last great philosophical battle”: the battle between Althusser and Sartre, between structuralism and humanism, or between structure and subject. One can place these in different contexts, but they are extreme versions of the debate on the transparency of the subject versus the opacity of the structure. What I thought was interesting was that the most intriguing theoretical (but also experimental, literary-essayistic, or autobiographical) writings to emerge from 1968 are situated somewhere at the crossover between those two traditions, breaking down both and making caricature impossible. A similar debate also took place in Mexico with José Revueltas, typically considered a kind of Sartrean humanist-existentialist writer and theorist, versus a very strong tendency of Althusserianism on the Mexican left. Continue reading

The Marxist hypothesis: A response to Alain Badiou’s Communist Hypothesis

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IMAGE: Cover to Alain Badiou’s
Communist Hypothesis (2010)

Platypus Review 29 | November 2010

Chris Cutrone

Against Badiou

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Alain Badiou’s recent book (2010) is titled with the phrase promoted by his and Slavoj Žižek’s work for the last few years, “the communist hypothesis.”[1] This is also the title of Badiou’s 2008 essay in New Left Review[2] on the historical significance of the 2007 election of Nicolas Sarkozy to the French Presidency.[3] There, Badiou explains his approach to communism as follows:

What is the communist hypothesis? In its generic sense, given in its canonic Manifesto, “communist” means, first, that the logic of class — the fundamental subordination of labour to a dominant class, the arrangement that has persisted since Antiquity — is not inevitable; it can be overcome. The communist hypothesis is that a different collective organization is practicable, one that will eliminate the inequality of wealth and even the division of labour. The private appropriation of massive fortunes and their transmission by inheritance will disappear. The existence of a coercive state, separate from civil society, will no longer appear a necessity: a long process of reorganization based on a free association of producers will see it withering away.[4]

Badiou goes on to state that,

As a pure Idea of equality, the communist hypothesis has no doubt existed since the beginnings of the state. As soon as mass action opposes state coercion in the name of egalitarian justice, rudiments or fragments of the hypothesis start to appear. Popular revolts — the slaves led by Spartacus, the peasants led by Müntzer — might be identified as practical examples of this “communist invariant.” With the French Revolution, the communist hypothesis then inaugurates the epoch of political modernity.[5]

Badiou thus establishes “communism” as the perennial counter-current to civilization throughout its history. Continue reading