The New Communism: Resurrecting the Utopian Delusion

By Johnson, Alan | World Affairs, May-June 2012 | Go to article overview
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The New Communism: Resurrecting the Utopian Delusion


Johnson, Alan, World Affairs


A specter is haunting the academy--the specter of "new communism." A worldview recently the source of immense suffering and misery, and responsible for more deaths than fascism and Nazism, is mounting a comeback; a new form of left-wing totalitarianism that enjoys intellectual celebrity but aspires to political power.

The Slovenian cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek and the French philosopher and ex-Maoist Alain Badiou have become the leading proponents of this new school. Others associated with the project are the authors of the influential trilogy Empire, Multitude, Commonwealth, the American Michael Hardt of Duke University and the Italian Marxist Toni Negri; the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo (who recently declared that he has positively "reevaluated" The Protocols of the Elders of Zion); Bologna University professor and ex-Maoist Alessandro Russo; and the professor of poetry at the European Graduate School (and another ex-Maoist) Judith Balso. Other leading voices include Alberto Toscano, translator of Alain Badiou, a sociology lecturer at Goldsmiths in London, and a member of the editorial board of Historical Materialism; the literary critic and essayist Terry Eagleton; and Bruno Bosteels from Cornell University. Most spoke at "The Idea of Communism," a three-day conference held in London in 2009 that, to the astonishment of the organizers, attracted nearly a thousand people willing to pay more than one hundred pounds each. After that event, a companion publishing industry, powered by Verso Books, has grown up to accompany the movement, making it respectable on campuses. Among new communism's most important English-language texts, all published in the last few years, are The Idea of Communism, edited by Costas Douzinas and Zizek, Badiou's The Communist Hypothesis, and Bosteels's The Actuality of Communism.

Badiou's recent volume in particular, which Verso has designed as a little red book complete with a gold en communist star on its cover, gives a flavor of the movement's thinking and aims. Co-founder of the militant French group Organisation Politique and now in his mid-seventies, Badiou reads the presence of communism in human history as the ongoing struggle for human emancipation rather than the series of disastrous detours it mostly was. From the French Republic of 1792 to the massacre of the Paris communards in 1871 and from 1917 to the collapse of Mao's Cultural Revolution in 1976--these are but two "sequences" of the communist "idea" in modern history, the first a time for the "setting in place of the communist hypothesis," the second an era of "preliminary attempts" at its "realization." The gaps between these "sequences" (including the last three and a half decades) Badiou classifies as time when the communist hypothesis is "declared to be untenable" and capital all-powerful. The "thrilling task" to which Badiou calls his readers, and to which a layer of intellectuals have rallied, is to "usher in the third era" of the communist idea.

So, why this new interest in communism, of all things? After all, the leading new communists have refused to plumb the gist of the historic failures of the past and freely admit that they have almost no idea how to proceed in the future. And in the present they are politically irrelevant. The appeal rests on one fact above all: only the new communists argue that the crises of contemporary liberal capitalist societies--ecological degradation, financial turmoil, the loss of trust in the political class, exploding inequality--are systemic; interlinked, not amenable to legislative reform, and requiring "revolutionary" solutions.

Why does this idea appeal today? What can it actually mean, both theoretically and as a new form of radical politics in the twenty-first century? Do its evasions (of the communist record) and its repetitions (of the anti-democratic, authoritarian, and elitist assumptions of the old communism) define the new communism as yet another form of leftist totalitarianism?

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