The Idea of Communism

Article excerpt

Costas Douzinas and Slavoj Zizek (eds.), The Idea of Communism London: Verso, 2010

In March 2009 a large conference was held at the Institute of Education in London to discuss the 'Idea' of communism. It brought together a number of Marxist philosophers, mostly academic celebrities; scholars such as Jacques Rancière, Antonio Negri, Terry Eagleton, Jean-Luc Nancy and Slavoj Zizek. It was focussed around a keynote address by Alain Badiou. An ex-Maoist, Badiou is now heralded as one of the great philosophers of the twentieth century, at least by his Marxist friends. Badiou, a latter-day Platonist, suggested that communism was the only political idea worthy of the true philosopher, and that it had the status of an eternal idea. It was essentially a kind of hypothesis about emancipation. The question was therefore posed as to whether the term 'communism', given its association with that 'historical failure' - the communism of the Soviet regime under Stalin - could be usefully applied to the 'new forms' of radical politics that the Marxist academics at the conference clearly felt they were initiating. This book is thus a collection of some rather abstruse reflections on the 'Idea' of communism by some fifteen academics, although who they are and where they came from is never indicated in the text.

The term 'communism', of course, has many different meanings and connotations - the determinate negation of capitalism; the state control of the economy; the visions of the nineteenth-century Utopian socialists; the state capitalism of the current Chinese Communist Party; or, as Marx wrote, 'the positive expression of the abolition of private property' (p. 139). As Michael Hardt puts it, in an essay relatively free of scholastic jargon, communism is the affirmation of common property, as opposed to that of private and state (public) property (p. 144). Kropotkin, of course, was suggesting this at the end of the nineteenth century.

The book has a rather in-house feel to it, as the likes of Badiou, Zizek, Ranciere, and Negri form a kind of exclusive Marxist coterie which continually refers to the work of its clique. The reflections offered in the text are also rather exclusive, for many of the essays simply offer rather scholastic commentaries on such luminaries as Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao Zedong, reflecting on what they had to say about communism, although such political reactionaries as Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger often get an affirmative mention. These academic Marxists seem blissfully unaware that there have been socialists or communists outside the Marxist tradition. When reference is made to political theorists outside the usual Marxist canon, what are we offered? - the radical universalism of the Islamic scholar Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual inspiration of the Muslim Brotherhood; and the plebeian socialism of Garcia Linera, the current vice-president of Bolivia. Moreover, some of the essays are written in the kind of scholastic Marxism that is barely intelligible. Thus we get such expressions as: 'the ideological operation of the Idea of communism is the imaginary projection of the political real into the symbolic fiction of History' (p.l 1). The book is in fact full of platitudes wrapped up in scholastic jargon. Interestingly, some of the more informative and insightful essays - Hallward on political will, Bosteels on Lenin and left-wing communism, and Douzinas on human rights - are not in fact by the famous academic gurus.

What then constitutes the 'new' Marxist politics, and its vision of a 'radical emancipatory project'? …