On “conference communism”

Some thoughts in closing

Fol­low­ing the ap­pear­ance of my be­lated re­port on “con­fer­ence com­mun­ism” a couple days ago, I re­ceived a num­ber of ap­pre­ci­at­ive com­ments, e-mails, and replies. It would seem I wasn’t alone in my rather low opin­ion of these con­fer­ences. A few of the people who sent me notes to this ef­fect caught me genu­inely off guard; it al­ways feels vin­dic­at­ing to know that oth­ers agree with you.

Pre­dict­ably, however, the re­sponses that came in from the speak­ers who ac­tu­ally par­ti­cip­ated in the event, es­pe­cially those who had been singled out for cri­ti­cism, were less than ap­pre­ci­at­ive. Some seemed to take it all quite per­son­ally — and one of them, George Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er, went so far as to de­friend me on Face­book. Was a bit sur­prised by it, to be hon­est; I’d al­ways thought he had pretty thick skin, oth­er­wise. For the most part, I think, I’d re­frained from the ad hom­inem at­tacks and man­aged to keep my re­marks strictly ad rem. Maybe he felt that by at­tack­ing his cre­den­tials to speak on a giv­en sub­ject, I was thereby in­dir­ectly at­tack­ing his char­ac­ter. This was not my in­ten­tion.

Congress of Soviet deputies, 1918

Either way, it’s not like it mat­ters. I’d an­ti­cip­ated it any­way. Just goes to show you can’t please every­one. Continue reading

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.” Continue reading