The Mirage of Neo-Communism

By Isaac, Jeffrey C. | Dissent, July 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Mirage of Neo-Communism


Isaac, Jeffrey C., Dissent


The Mirage of Neo- Communism The Communist Horizon byJodi Dean Verso, 2012, 250 pp.

In November 1977, II Manifesto, the Italian group led by dissident communists Rossana Rossanda and Lucio Magri, held a conference in Vienna on "Power and Opposition in PostRevolutionary Societies." Featuring more than thirty left intellectuals and activists from Eastern and Western Europe - including Jiri Pelikan, István Mészáros, Louis Althusser, Charles Bettelheim, and Fernando Claudin - the conference centered on the need for the Western Left to reckon with the experience of Soviet-style communism. Conference organizer Rossanda emphasized that "solidarity with [East European] comrades is a moral duty from which the European left has defaulted all too often," and that the Soviet model was systematically bankrupt ("the lack of freedom, the inequality, the persistence of relations of exploitation . . . the extent of militarization of the economy and the role of the armed forces - all these factors do not constitute defects . . . [but] the real roots" of the system). The conference featured discussions about worker struggles in Poland, new possible alliances between Eurocommunists and socialists, the importance of new social movements, and the proper relationships between ethics and politics.

The common premise of those attending, all of whom were experienced members of left parties and movements, was stated by Rossanda, who claimed that "there will be no revolution in the West without a thorough critical examination of the experience of the societies of the East. To ignore them, to draw back, not to get involved, would mean to refuse to understand what kind of society we want and will be able to construct here. It would even mean to renounce political theory itself."

In 2008, New Left Review published Magri 's "The Tailor of Ulm, a reflection on fifty years in the Italian Communist Party" (PCI). Magri opposed the PCI's 1991 dissolution, "not because this was too innovative, but because it innovated in the wrong manner and direction - senselessly liquidating a rich identity and opening a path not simply to a social democratic model, itself already in crisis, but to a fully-fledged liberal-democratic politics." But he adds that "[I] am all the more compelled to ask myself why it carried the day." The article later became a book, an autobiography that is a model of honest recollection and reflection. "Anyone who did believe in what Communism was attempting, and took part in it, has a duty to account for it - if only to ask whether this burial was not too hasty, and whether a different death certificate might be required." Magri does not write in the manner of the contributors to The God That Failed, for he sought not to close the book on his experience but to reopen "a critical discussion of Communism." However, like those contributors - Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, and others - Magri offers a profound reckoning with historical experience, bemoaning that "a historical experience and theoretical heritage that marked an entire century have thus been consigned, in Marx's expression, to the 'gnawing criticism of the mice,'" and worrying that "the condemnation of memory is now extending even further, to cover the whole experience of socialism, and from there to the radical components of the bourgeois revolutions . . ." In his final years, Magri withdrew from organizational commitments. As Perry Anderson explained in his 201 1 New Left Review obituary, "The unity of theory and practice, once a touchstone of historical materialism, had long since disappeared from the annals of Western Marxism. Magri was the strange exception, who lived by it, and would die from it. Political thought, without a 'real movement' to guide it, could not bear fruit .... Programmatic ideas without popular forces behind them he had always believed, were vain. He was by nature a strategist; without an army, there could be no meaningful strategy."

Jodi Dean's The Communist Horizon comes with the following boldface recommendation from Slavoj Zizek on its back cover: "This is what everyone engaged in today's struggles for emancipation needs: a unique combination of theoretical stringency and a realistic assessment of our predicament. …

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