On the Idea Of Communism: Notes On Day 1

From March 13th-15th, there was a remarkable conference at the Birkbeck, University of London to discuss communism as a philosophical concept.  The conference, titled “On the Idea of Communism,”  featured presentations by Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, and Michael Hardt among others.  Kasama will be posting reports and videos from this conference.

For some background on this event, which took place in London, see our previous posts here and here.

These are notes from the first day of the conference. The original post can be found on the infinite thought blog.

 

On the Idea of Communism, Birkbeck 13-15th March, 2009

Costas Douzinas: Welcome

Hello friends and comrades. George Birkbeck believed that everyone should study philosophy, theology and Latin. Birkbeck is primary institution for adult education and for re-establishing the role of the public intellectual. We did not predict severity of crisis. Premises of neo-liberalism have become denaturalized. Communism is not just a regulative idea, but is immanent within our social relations.

Alain Badiou: Opening Remarks

Five very simple remarks. The conference on ‘Communism’ means that we have a precise goals, to discuss the precise significations of the word ‘Communisms’ and to see whether this dead word must become the new positive word in philosophy and politics. Conference is not about the generality of political thinking or different ways of revolutionary politics but about the different significations and possible use of the word communism. All the speakers at the conference must have the conviction that is really a positive use of the word communism today. Not repetition of the classical critiques of the word. Sometimes we agree with these critiques, in fact. Wed don’t say that communism is not a criminal word. What we need is a renewal of the word. There is a common point here which is to propose a positive signification of the word ‘communism’. Is a philosophical conference. The idea of it started with discussion between AB and SZ. SZ often criticises AB, but this is a true sign of friendship. Nobody represents a party at the conference, everyone is representing his or herself. No party/power. No Kim Jong-Il, no Fidel Castro. There is a collective search for new use of the word communism after terrible experiences of the last century. Collection of phil/pol singularities – we are on the side of novelty, creativity. We are on the side of communism in its newness.

Slavoj Žižek: Opening Remarks

There is a materialist grace to it being Friday the 13th. That is what we are. It should be noted that Wang Hui was not allowed to come here for what we suspect are political reasons. A certain epoch is upon us: a radical communist movement over the party-state epoch. Our predicament – there is a new urgency but at the same time has to be rethought radically. We need the patience of the concept. People will say: how can we spend time on endless speculation when children are starving? I say go and talk to Bill Gates! Here is instead a time to think. The blood, sweat and tears of hardcore theoretical thought! There is a certain liberation in this – until now, to be a radical leftist was to suffer stigma – 20 million dead. A special moral stigma. This stigma is over. The times of apology are over – the ruling criminals have to apologize. Besides, we can explain the catastrophe of communism better than conservatives and liberals. Trust theory! Be Leninists! Be the Lenin of 1915 who went to Switzerland and read Hegel’s Logic. This conference should in fact be understood as a two-day seminar on Hegel’s logic!

Michael Hardt: The Common in Communism

Four senses of the common. The common must be foundation of communism – capitalist production relies on the common as property. Like Badiou and Zizek we should invent new terms of struggle using old terms. Everyone hates it when you invent new terms, but it is also difficult to struggle over old terms. Communism means ‘state control’ in the media – which is the opposite of what it should mean. ‘Democracy’ is similarly corrupt, we need to struggle over that too – and this is a struggle over these two twin concepts. It is also a critique of political economy and private property. We need to re-pose the communist hypothesis for our times, we need to move from Lenin to Marx. Composition of capital and their products have altered. How do people produce in and out of the workplace? What are the stakes of race and gender in this new world? We need to analyze relations of production that are produced – critique of property. Abolition of private property. Move from critique of political economy to private property. No longer immobile property but mobile property – bitter battle between the two forms. Landowner emphasises the role of agriculture. Moveable property is more flexible - Marx says that moveable inevitably triumphs over immobile property. Profit triumphs over rent. Parallel forms today – dominant mode of expropriation. Reverse movement from profit to rent. Rent – capitalist is relatively external to production, merely extracts value produced by other means. Profit is more involved. Keynes – profit has such dignity that he predicts the end of the rentier. Primitive accumulation as absolute rent. Industry no longer holds hegemonic place in economy – not to say fewer people work in factories. Qualitative not quantitative shift – immaterial or biopolitical production. We must try and grasp this. Concept of affective labour was developed on basis of socialist-feminist work (here Hardt mentions the fantasy conference programme forwarded to the speakers). Most of these forms of production are immaterial – language is in large part immaterial. Nurses, flight attendants give us an image of affective labour Qualities imposed over various sector of the economy. Affects and care increasingly central in production process. Immediate implications for gender divisions.

There is a new struggle between two kinds of property. No longer immobile/moveable, but between material and immaterial property. Scarcity/reproducible property. Property that is easily shared – reducible trumps over producible (this is why campaigns such as Free Our Books are important). Common property as such. Sharing an idea increases its utility. When privatized their utility is reduced dramatically. Emerging contradiction – expansion of the common undermines property/privitisation. Neo-liberalism has been defined by this battle. The Commons is both the land of the 7th century Commons, but also refers to results of human capacity – language, creativity, etc. Natural/artificial distinction has been eroded because Neo-liberalism has aimed to privatize both kinds of these (see David Harvey). Patents and copyrights try to privatize the commons with increasing failure. Copyrights generate rent – not a return to the past, but rent is mechanism to exert control – exploitation is expropriation of the common. Accumulation by dispossession. Contemporary predomination of finance – relative rent. We shouldn’t think that finance is fictional – see Marazzi. Warns against dismissing finance as unproductive. Finance expropriates the common.

Productivity becomes increasingly autonomous. Like Marx, this development is not good in itself, it’s still exploitation yet we can recognize calls for increased autonomy of the common. In the 1844 Manuscripts, the common explains what Marx means by communism – positive expression of the abolition of private property. Crude communism merely generalizes to universal private property, but communism is abolition of property as such. We are made so stupid that we think we only have something when we have it – what if we have it when we don’t own it? Capitalist development contains seeds of the common. Communism is the positive supersession of private property – appropriation of essence from and for man. Appropriation of our own subjectivity, our own humanity. Marx appropriates his essence in an integral way via the production of subjectivity – not appropriation. Man produces man, himself and other men. Autonomous process of subjectivity – a new thinking, loving etc. [it's Feuerbach! - IT]

Capitalist production is aimed at eroding objects and subjects – Grundrisse – subject for object and vice versa, Marazzi – anthrop-genetic model. Living being as fixed capital are central part of the process in which putting to work human faculties is directly productive of value. Head/heart – what is being produced are forms of life. Capital is a social relation – not commodities by social relations. Marx’s definition of communism and contemporary turn to biopolitics – one more element: Foucault – on Marx – not expression of humanism. We must produce something that does not yet exist. Producers and products are both subjects – co8ud destroy capitalism. Through the increasing centrality of the common, weapons of, capitalism is creating its own gravediggers. Think of the notion of the common in Rancière. Common is the terrain of partage. Two primary points: plea for critique for political economy – such an analysis makes good on our periodisation – class composition, how production works, conditions both in and outside the workplace – reveals increased centrality of the common. We need to extend this critique to an analysis of property- affirmation of open an autonomous production, creation of a new humanity. What private property is to capitalism, what public property is to socialism, communism is to the common.

Bruno Bosteels: Communism in the Age of Terror

Thee epigraphs – Engels in the German Ideology: Communism is not an ideal, we call communism the real movement which abolishes the current state of things. Mao: Communism cannot be reached unless there is a communist movement. Thirdly a graffito: don’t ask what would Jesus do, ask what would Zizek do!

Did somebody say a left-wing communism? In 1920 Lenin diagnosed the infantile disorder of left-wing communism, in 1968 Danny the Red and Cohn-Bendit announced tongue in cheek that leftism was roaming the streets as remedy for the ‘senile disorder’ of communism. Should we resort to Lenin’s diagnosis? Or should we expand our voice to paean to leftism? Can we as a group – everyone – can we come to an agreement to separate communist hypothesis from the history of leftism? Is there hope for a new ‘we’ [hopefully not the Zamyatin kind - IT]? The media will dismiss leftism/extreme gauche as both restricted to academics and as the equally dubious opposite of the extreme right. Is not the accusation of ultra-leftism a problem for within communism as well? As well as of reformism? There are contradictions in the midst of the people! There is no quick fix in superficial consensus. A work for the world – united forces. Unlike Marx, Lenin prefers a medical image – left-wing communism is to be eradicated with the appropriate medicines, like a childhood disease. Maybe we should catch it when we’re still young like measles! Perhaps we need more pedagogical terms. Thus Leftists are communists with ADD. Lenin’s effort involves principles stance against all bourgeois groups/parliament/trade unions. Doctrinal repetition of truths of pure communism. Repudiation of the party principle – in order to overcome leftist trend, Lenin rolls out masses, classes, parties, why replace all this with some new rigmarole? M + E struggled with radicalism of Blanqui and communards.

Leftism underwent a reversal of fortunes in the 60s. The Leftist hypothesis becomes so dominant that it gains new epithets such as ultra and pseudo-leftisms. Contradiction reduced to unmediated opposition – masses vs. the state, e.g.. New Philosophers in France – purification of the Marxist contradiction – state and the police. Bourgeois Epoch has simplified the opposition – spaltung no longer opposed bourg/prol, but formless masses vs. excessive form of the state, modeled on image of the gulag. Creative masses vs. repressive state – 1968 rhetoric excels in flattening out dialectics – always creative masses vs. same state power. Mar and Engels already attacked this when they wrote vs. generic communism. Primacy of politics – which in Maoism received the name of contradiction. Aesthetic forms of such a mode – we are under the sway of a melodramatic mode of presentation – Althusser in For Marx on materialist theatre – a false dialectic of good/bad conscience. Rancière turns this back against his former teacher. Simple contradictions are nowhere to be found in reality – nowhere does power. no-power play itself out. Never any pure discourse of proletarian power/non-power. Politics vs. the police. Where is power/non-power tied together in a single knot?

Immanence between power and resistance – vitality of communism within capitalism – virtually existing communism – this idea has solid orthodox credentials. Marx and Ruge – conditions for new society are already present in old one. No mental dividing line between past and future – mankind is consciously carrying into effect the old world. No longer break, but a fold or a wrinkle, finding the old warped into the new. There is an ontological primacy of resistance – overwhelming power of repression displayed by the state. Not world breaking into two (Nietzsche), but 2 times 1. Immanent reversibility of empire/multitude. Two sides of flippable coin. Another world is possible without a world behind the world.

Current situation and our tasks: where do we stand between left-wing communism and the ABC of Marxism? All that is left is unlimited energy of pure communism – that once invoked infamous names, What if communism is only retained in a Platonic way? Can we still tie the concept to Marxism? All traditional mediating terms have been taken out – for a communist invariant? At a distance from the state? Isn’t this left-wing communism? Crisis as terror – leftism always offers moral high-ground. Maybe be flip side of turn to right. In speculative leftism in radical philosophy the most tempting posture is adventurism. Leftism as beautiful soul of communism yet without his soul communism is an empty body, if not a corpse. What are the presuppositions of this impasse? We need to talk about underlying Maoism of movements today – what about periphery to periphery association, Japan and Brazil e.g. Some component of Latin America – we are missing important components of international communism if we refuse to talk about them. There are new models of the proletariat – new theories of the revolutionary subject – populist appeal to other names for as yet unformed masses, Deleuze’s hordes, Hegel’s Pobel. These are ways of bypassing issues of representation. La potenzia plebia. unity of intellectual and the people – immanence as potenzia as difficult to translate as Negri’s potenza – not power, potentiality or potency. To potentialise, maybe – to actualise that which otherwise as yet remains potential.

Workers for themselves in face of capitalist determinism for itself – self-determination. Two tasks in regard to the communist hypothesis – Badiou’s argument for subtraction – historicizing communist hypothesis, Axiomatic invariant whenever masses confront poverty, hierarchy, etc. Our first task amounts to writing history of communist eternity – not stages, but of sequences of the communist hypothesis in a strictly immanent determinations. Communism must also be actualized as a real event - a political subject even if it doesn’t pass through traditional form of the party. A body for that thought is needed. Party is finished in 1860 according to Marx after collapse of the League of Communists. Equality is fundamental – what can be done from the state in the functioning of the communist horizon? To potentialise Potentiality. As for those of us with ADD who dream of having no dealing with the state – abandon all images that would base communism on bases of human development – this actually confirms tacit assumption that communism is passing phase within capitalism.

Peter Hallward, Communism of the Intellect, Communism of the Will

Posing question of Communism in terms of its idea. Distinguishes its idea from practice of anti-capitalism. But danger in equating the two, concedes too much to capitalism – how long do you have to wait? Temporality makes it hard to distinguish anti-capitalism from pro-capitalism. Second, invites free or reckless speculation, encourages us to detach ourselves from skeptics – ‘how dare you talk about communism when you don’t have the solution to the historical problem of communism? An alternative model of distribution?’ etc. 18th/19th century reminiscent of debates about slavery. Abolition couldn’t eve be raised, question wasn’t posed. We need to anticipate a solution even when we don’t have a full solution – St Just, John Brown, Toussaint L’Ouverture, - simply asked what we can do now. Not writing recipes for the cookbooks for the future – communism as a mode of production but geared to ideas of producers themselves. Communism as real movement which abolishes present state of things. Rel to idea as ideal and as principle of its own realisation. Danger of beautiful soul, Zizek danger of full identification with realization as such – imperative to act – acting is form of doing nothing/everything/the impossible (Stalin’s forced collectivization)/dong something sensible (Morales, Chavez, Aristide). Is there a common ground between the ideal and its realization. How far are we preparing ground or digging the grave?

Question to Hardt – by emphasizing notion of property – and rent from commons, do we lose some of Marx’s emphasis on equality and the process of revolt? It is labour is exploited and on that basis we talk about egalitarian association of free producers. Equality and exploitation, and what is at stake in actual process of revolt? Socialized humanity, mastery over nature and own organization. Paris Commune implemented this project – we could generalize this insistence on a deliberate process work as necessity to voluntary self-determination. From work to will – as collective self-determination. common ground between Badiou and Zizek and Kant and Hegel.

Jacobins – weren’t communists, but help us to think notion of a collective will that an help us to work out what we mean by communism. Dialectical voluntarism – lots of objections. That it is idealism, folk psychological delusion, vitalism. Problem of the will – even Badiou and Sartre don’t develop a notion of the will as such, especially of collective will. Kind of voluntarism PH has in mind is not conspiratorial putsches – not alchemists of revolution. Not vanguardist about theory of general will in Rousseau. How can they impose will on social situation itself?

Collective or Political Will: commentary on Rousseau – 1. political will is voluntary and involves autonomous action, command, action through free rational act and deliberation. Robespierre eventually says: ‘when people will or want to be free they will be’. Will of people not restricted ala Machiavelli as approval or consent. Kant’s freely proscribing our own ends. Will is determinate in the first instance. 2. Political will concerns collective action ad direct participation. power and practice of inclusive assembly – the will of the general. inaugural association most voluntary act in the world – the common master that they have chosen to participate in. Collective project can be embraced by all the parties involved. A people. 3. political will is matter of material power before its representation. Class never separable from its action. Will is a practice that cannot be representation – we need a critique of political representation. Taking power not receiving it on the assumption that one already has it. Living Communism – shack dwellers – the humanity of every human being. Politics of the places that we hold. Opponents tell them to wait, to wait forever. 4. political will in grounded in practical sufficiency of its action. what it does and makes or what it has or knows. Politics is not aspect of ontology of everyday life. 5. if it is to persist, popular must be protected or enforced. internal difference with a group one thing, practical division is another. Must be one will. The despotism of truth. Make virtue reign. 6. practical exercise of will only proceeds in the face of resistance. Negative power to be overcome. Can’t have will without resistance. Terror was aspect of attempt to continue will of the people. Let us be terrible, so that the people need not be - Danton. 7. practical exercise of will is not mere wish or fantasy – will is that which realizes its own achievement.

Most profound form of disempowerment is a kind of voluntary servitude, self-subjecting worse than any for of external domination. Fanon, Aristide, Foucault, Deleuze. We are unable to follow through on our action, against the war, etc. people are still stubborn in various parts of the world, whose side are we on?

Question Session

1. What about the capitalist hypothesis! I am a philosopher and I don’t think that communism is my home. Capitalism is the home of philosopher – finance is understanding, how value is understanding! Governments are brought to their knees because they have no philosophical understanding of the economy. We have highly intelligent neurons being misdirected!

2. In former Yugoslavia there was idea of social property – private – state the social property. How does the commons link to social property? 3. Ali Alizadeh – problems with PH – theory of will as post-revolutionary theory. Conflation of will and action – what stands between will and action id knowledge or consciousness, will has primacy in post—revolutionary situation.

MH – We still don’t know what people can do. question of capacities, for self-rule. Labour not the only way to understand this.

BB – That was a bold act by the first questioner. Which place will have water in a few hundred years? When the boat is sinking lock yourself in the first class cabin to write dissertation on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Ha ha ha ha!

SZ – the only philosopher I know who is at home in capitalism is Ayn Rand. Philosophy is always about problems! Not an equal debate – where were we invited there, to capitalist conferences?! On changing human nature – we can now literally change human nature, Desire – it is fashionable to say desire – but I am opposed to Freudian-Marxism, which evokes psychoanalysis to not think about Marxism. Revolution doesn’t happen instead of questioning presuppositions, Freudianism makes things easier to accept the failures of political practice. I am not for this.

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