The surest indication that an idea is alive and well is that someone claims it is missing. If the idea were dead and gone, no one would say anything about it. When thinking about communism today, then, the question to ask is not why it is missing, but what the forms of its return are.
Communism’s return as a philosophical concept was fully established five years ago. In March 2009, a conference at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities attracted over a thousand people. With lectures by Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, Slavoj Žižek, Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri and others, the conference marked a new moment in left thinking: the courage to use “communism” again as a political name. There have been subsequent conferences in Paris, Berlin, New York, and Seoul. Papers from the conferences have been collected and issued by the publishing house Verso, with reviews, debates, and critiques appearing in a wide array of academic and para-academic fora. Videos of the lectures circulate online, accompanied by often-heated debates on blogs and in social media.
Indeed, there is a flourishing communist ecosystem on the Internet, offering classic texts in multiple translations, links to parties and groups, information about ongoing struggles around the world, and discussion opportunities on matters of theory and practice. Whether in Verso’s successful Pocket Communism series or in established university presses, numerous books exploring communist themes have been published in recent years. There, authors develop detailed positions: for example, advocating a weak, “hermeneutic communism” (Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala) or a global “communism of communisms” (Bruno Bosteels). In addition to this academic work, many of the intellectuals focusing on communism today write as public intellectuals, from Zabala on al-Jazeera to Žižek in the Guardian. The sheer volume of communist material is such that one has to live in a bubble, whether of privilege, willful ignorance, or pop-cultural saturation, not to know that communism is the most exciting topic of discussion among leftist intellectuals.
A plot to destroy the U.S. economy
The Arab Spring, Greek and Spanish occupations of the squares, and the Occupy movement opened up communism’s return as a political possibility. Even as multiple specific concerns motivated individuals to come together in urban spaces, their collective presence in opposition to capitalism was undeniable. For example, all commentary on the Occupy Wall Street movement in the corporate media understood the protests as a left reaction to the global economic crisis. Some, including the New York Times, went further, associating the movement with Marxist fundamentals. Right-wing critics went into a full-blown frenzy, shrieking about the communist threat. Notorious reactionary David Horowitz, for example, seeing communism in Occupy’s DNA, said that the movement was committed to nothing less than communist revolution. Controversial libertarian Glenn Beck likewise emphasized the communist tenor of Occupy, appearing on Fox News to describe the movement as part of a global communist plot to destroy the U.S. economy.
On the one hand, the hysteria of the far right is part of the long Cold War tradition of red-baiting. They want to delegitimize any position to the left of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan as a communist threat. On the other hand, an element of truth underlies their rhetoric: communism is the one name we have for a positive alternative to capitalism. Insofar as the Occupy movement emerged out of anger over unemployment, bank bailouts, debt, corporate welfare, economic inequality, and the overall hold of the finance sector on U.S. society, it makes sense to associate it with communism. Key components of the encampments—People’s Kitchens, People’s Libraries, People’s Clinics—strengthen this association. Rather than providing goods and services to one another in accordance with a market logic, they provided them on the basis of principle “from each according to ability to each according to need.”
Communism as political possibility and communism as philosophical concept mutually reinforce each other. Without the active movements in opposition to austerity, cuts, debt, and inequality, the theoretical discussions would have failed to resonate. They would have remained stuck in libraries and lecture halls, dusty remnants of past struggles rendered objects of scholarly reflection. Likewise, without the conceptual reemergence of communism as an idea, the movements of 2011 would not have appeared as a common struggle. The connections between education struggles in England, austerity struggles in Greece and Spain, and anti-foreclosure struggles in the U.S. would not have jumped from their local contexts and become legible as moments in the same struggle, a struggle against capitalism.
What, then, does this new communism have to offer?
First, it offers no guarantees. Unlike the so-called scientific Marxism of the twentieth century, contemporary communists reject the determinism of “iron laws of history” that dictate a certain path of development and a certain logic of revolution. Capitalism’s capacity for adaptation coupled with the complexity of its varied and interacting global forms make near-term predictions of its demise unreliable at best. At the same time, however, no one denies the winner-take-all character of extremely competitive, technology-driven, global capitalism: as wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few, ever more of us find ourselves making do with less. Work formerly associated with “professions”—law, medicine, accounting, journalism, education—becomes “proletarianized” and people realize they can no longer hold on to their places in the middle class.
We make our own history
The absence of certainty thus creates the opening for people to organize themselves in political struggle, an important advance for a generation schooled in the failures of the state parties of the twentieth century. Rather than having to believe that a party has all the answers, people only have to recognize their own collective strength. We make our own history, though not in the conditions of our choosing.
Second, communism offers a politics suited to globally networked telecommunications. A key feature of contemporary social media platforms, for example, is that they rely on the free work of many. This work eludes capitalist assumptions of value. So while tech entrepreneurs worry about how to monetize social media (ad sales are clearly inadequate) and content providers continue to fret over piracy, the real issue is the appearance of a mode of production and association that capitalism cannot enclose. In fact, the social media that billions now take for granted so completely ruptures capitalist ideas of property, ownership, and waged labor that it calls up the idea of the commons as what belongs to and is managed by the collective people. What should we provide one another—guaranteed income, free education, housing, transportation, and medical care?—and how should we arrange this provision fairly and equitably?
Third, with the idea of the commons, communism is the only political idea adequate to address climate change. We all know full well that a market approach to carbon emissions is a ruse, another device for creating more markets, more financial instruments, and more opportunities for the strong to exploit the weak. As it rejects the capitalist mode of production tout court, communism challenges us to think and act with an eye not toward securing private gain but rather collective good. How will we be able to develop our economies and arrange our societies to adapt to the changing climate?
The return to communism has not resulted in a single platform or list of concrete proposals. Its true advance is in its rejection of the suppositions that cloud thinking and action, a rejection that enables us to ask the questions that need to be asked.