21st-century communism

Alan Johnson wrote a very interesting analysis of a new wave of communist thinkers in World Affairs. Johnson is on the editorial board of Dissent, an avowedly democratic socialist magazine. According to its description, Dissent has been anticommunist since its founding in the 1950s. I happened on Disssent several years ago through Michael Kazin’s excellent takedown of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

Johnson contends that the new authors’ proposals of communism as the solution to capitalism in crisis are neither coherent nor humane. Here is Johnson’s description of the new communists’ writing on the crimes of previous communist regimes:

Finally, the refusal to face up to the criminal record of actually existing communism as a social system, let alone stare into that abyss until one’s politics and theory are utterly reshaped by it, tells us that the new communism remains within the orbit of leftist totalitarianism. These evasions take several forms.

First, for all the talk of new beginnings, new communists often deploy what Louis Althusser mockingly called “quotes from famous people” as a substitute for serious social science. For example, Zizek argues that “one should shamelessly repeat the lesson of Lenin’s State and Revolution” (as if the book holds the lessons, not the history). And Toscano makes the case for “communist equality” by simply repeating phrases from Marx’s 1875 Critique of the Gotha Programme. Second, a bleaching language is employed to redescribe mass murder. Thus, there were “many restrictions on freedom” under Stalin, mumbles Gianni Vattimo. Third, a hollow rhetoric of resurrection is deployed to market the idea of leftist revival: “communism is rising from its grave once again,” celebrates Zizek. Fourth, the new communists like to change the subject—from the crimes of communist regimes to the “long history of struggles, dreams, and aspirations that are tied to [communism].” So, Jacques Rancière is able to write that “communism is thinkable for us as the tradition created around a number of moments . . . when simple workers and ordinary men and women . . . struggle.” For its millions of victims, of course, it is thinkable as something else. Fifth, there is a brazen promotion of evasion as a virtue. The “culture of memory” is right-wing, according to Bruno Bosteels, so it must be combated by “active forgetfulness”; Badiou declares that “the period of guilt is over”—as if it ever started. About criticism of Stalin and other communist leaders, he warns that it is “vital not to give any ground in the context of criminalization and hair-raising anecdotes in which the forces of reaction have tried to wall them up and invalidate them.” Sixth, definitional fiat is used to ward off criticism. Thus Zizek: “There can be a socialist anti-Semitism, there cannot be a communist one. (If it appears otherwise, as in Stalin’s last years it is only as an indicator of a lack of fidelity to the revolutionary event.)”

Johnson also thinks that the communist revival poses a danger:

The democratic socialist Eduard Bernstein issued a warning at the turn of the nineteenth century to his fellow Marxists. The danger of a “truly miraculous belief in the creative power of force,” he prophesied, is that you begin by doing violence to reality in theory, and end by doing violence to people in practice. What distinguishes the new communism is that its leading partisans are fully aware of that potential . . . and embrace it as a strategy. As Zizek puts it:

The only “realistic” prospect is to ground a new political universality by opting for the impossible, fully assuming the place of the exception, with no taboos, no a priori norms (“human rights,” “democracy”), respect for which would prevent us from “resignifying” terror, the ruthless exercise of power, the spirit of sacrifice . . . if this radical choice is decried by some bleeding-heart liberals as Linksfaschismus [left-wing fascism], so be it!

This flirtation with the notion of left-fascism helps explain why the new communism needs to be taken seriously. Communism itself, of course, is dead. But when Zizek recommends the “insight” of the 1970s Baader-Meinhof gang that “in an epoch in which the masses are totally immersed in capitalist ideological torpor . . . only a resort to the raw Real of direct violence . . . can awaken them,” we should be concerned. Recent history tells us that authoritarian philosophical and political ideas can still find their way to the streets in advanced capitalist societies. The new communist ideas might yet connect with the young, the angry, and the idealistic who are confronted by a profound economic crisis in the context of an exhausted social democracy and a self-loathing intellectual culture. Tempting as it is, we can’t afford to just shake our heads at the new communism and pass on by.

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