Communism, the word: notes for the London conference 2009

The fol­lowing are the notes that Jean-​Luc Nancy pre­pared for the con­fer­ence ‘On the Idea of Communism’, March 2009. An edited ver­sion is avail­able in Costas Douzinas & Slavoj Zizek (eds), The Idea of Communism (Verso, London 2010) 145 – 53.

Communism, the word. Not the word be­fore the no­tion, but the word as no­tion and as his­tor­ical agent.

“Communism” is a word with a strange story. It is very dif­fi­cult to rig­or­ously trace its origin. Nevertheless, it is sure that the word “com­munist” ex­isted already in the XIV cen­tury, with the meaning of “people having in common a prop­erty be­longing to the cat­egory of ‘main morte’ — that is, not being sub­mitted to the law of her­itage”: a mon­as­tery be­longs to the com­munity of the Monks, which is, as com­munity, in­de­pendent from the in­di­viduals. It seems that at the same time and even be­fore, from the XII cen­tury, the same word des­ig­nated some as­pects of com­munal law and was linked to the com­munal move­ment which ex­panded as the be­gin­ning of a bourgeoisie.

Later, namely in the XVIII cen­tury, the word ap­pears in a text written by Victor d’Hupay de Fuveau in 1785 — four years be­fore the French re­volu­tion. It des­ig­nates the pro­ject or the dream to found a com­munity of life — which pre­cisely is sup­posed to re­place that of the Monks.

Here for ex­ample a quo­ta­tion of d’Hupay:

Cette union et cette com­mun­auté de ré­gime moral économique serait prat­ic­able par pelo­tons, dans tous les états, sans con­fondre les for­tunes, eu égard au juste mérite de divers tal­ents, moyen que n’avaient point en­core voulu ad­mettre les Zélateurs de la République de Platon. Elle for­ti­fi­erait l’amitié hu­maine dans chaque pro­fes­sion, en ex­cluant toute vaine et ex­térieure dis­tinc­tion, odieuse dans une même classe de Citoyens: rivalité puérile qui con­fond et en­traîne en­semble tous les états à leur ruine et à tous les crimes. Tel fut l’abus fun­este auquel re­média par ses simples Lois Somptuaires le bon Roi Idomenée, modèle de nos deux Henris. Les Agapes des premiers Chrétiens tendaient au même but, en réun­is­sant les Hommes dans cet es­prit de sim­pli­cité le plus propre à main­tenir la paix et la re­li­gion. Il ap­par­tiendrait donc à un Prince qui voudrait mieux mériter le titre de Père de la Patrie, que tous ceux en­core qui ont fa­vorisé l’établissement des Moines, devenus inutiles aujourd’hui, pla­cent ces vrais et nou­veaux Modèles de tous les états, chacun re­l­at­ive­ment à leur fonc­tion, dans les divers Monastères qui se dépeu­plant tous les jours, semblent at­tendre une meil­leure destination.

D’Hupay was a a friend of Restif de la Bretonne’s, who is known to be the first to present, among the sev­eral kinds of gov­ern­ment, the “com­munism or com­mun­auté”. In his auto­bi­o­graphy (“Monsieur Nicolas”), he ex­pounds it as one among 9 types of gov­ern­ment and writes this one is only ef­fective for some people of South America, who “work to­gether in the morning and play to­gether in the af­ter­noon” (this is not very dif­ferent from what Marx says in German Ideology).

A short time later, at the time of the French Revolution, (and this is well known), Gracchus Babeuf, taking part in the first “Commune in­surec­tion­nelle de Paris”, used sev­eral times the word “com­mun­aut­ar­iste” in the con­text of his thought about the “Egaux” and the phrase “com­mun­auté nationale”.

Beside the ex­plicit use of the word, we have to re­member how other nouns des­ig­nated the same thing, for ex­ample in the doc­trine of the English “Diggers” of the XVIe cen­tury, who spoke of the land as a “common treasure” and who be­longed to the time of the first English Revolution, which ended with the cre­ation of the first Republic under the name of Commonwealth which had at the time al­most the meaning of “res publica”.

Actually, those his­tor­ical data are un­able to give us the origin and the meaning — or, even better, the sense – of “com­munism”. No his­tory, no ety­mo­logy either, can pro­duce any­thing like sense.

But there is some­thing we may un­der­stand from those data: some­thing has been at stake with this word, with the in­ven­tion of it and with the at­tempt or the need which was in­volved in it. Something — which is still in front of us, which is still to be dis­covered, or which is still to come.

Communism — the word, again. The word as pres­ence, as feeling, as sense (more than meaning).

To a cer­tain ex­tent, it seems strange that the in­quiry or com­mentary about this word should be so rare. As if it were al­ways con­sidered as self-​evident… It is, in a way — but in which way, this de­serves a little more reflection …

Even if his­tory is not enough to ex­plain what we could call the “des­tiny” of this word, some­thing seems to be pos­itive: com­munity — koinonia, com­munitas — emerges at times of pro­found so­cial trans­form­a­tions and/​or trouble or even de­struc­tions of so­cial order. This is the case at the time be­fore the Christian era as well as at the final time of feud­alism or later at the time of the first in­dus­trial re­volu­tion. The first time was that of the trans­form­a­tion of the whole so­cial and cul­tural struc­ture of the an­tique world — that is, the final achieve­ment of what had opened his an­tique world it­self: the de­con­struc­tion of agrarian cul­ture and of theo­cracy. Such a de­con­struc­tion makes clear, or pushes to the fore­ground what was hidden under or in­side the con­struc­tion: that is, the to­geth­er­ness of people (ad­mit­tedly, even of people with every other being like an­imals, plants, even stars and stones…). Before and out of the Greek — oc­ci­dental— mo­ment, the to­geth­er­ness is given first. We call that “hol­istic so­ciety”, sup­posing that such so­ciety un­der­stands it­self as a holon, that is a whole. To the whole we op­pose the parts — as parts taken out of their whole — or a to­geth­er­ness of sev­eral wholes — that is, of in­di­viduals. In both rep­res­ent­a­tions the same ques­tion arises: what be­comes of to­geth­er­ness when a whole is not given, and per­haps even not to be given in any way ?

Thus arises koinônia or I would say the drive to it, the drive to com­munity. It comes or it emerges, per­haps it con­sti­tutes it­self be­cause what it calls, what it names or des­ig­nates is not or is no longer given.

Certainly, many im­portant fea­tures or trends of common life — or, to be more pre­cise, life in common — are already given with the first kind of man­kind, as cer­tainly as pre­cisely the first kind of man­kind is or has never been an in­di­vidual but a group, a gath­ering of many. But as far as we can see, some­thing of the to­geth­er­ness is given, and is given with or through an as­pect of the whole, of to­tality (which has nothing to do with what has been called totalitarianism).

If to­geth­er­ness is given without this as­pect, that is, if it is given as a so­ciety — an as­so­ci­ation in­stead of, say, an in­teg­ra­tion like the family, the tribe, the clan — then the as­so­ci­ation as such opens a ques­tioning about its own pos­sib­ility and its own con­sist­ency: how is it pos­sible to as­so­ciate those who seem not to want it or even to re­ject it. Society then is what its mem­bers— the socii — have to ac­cept and to jus­tify. Communitas on the con­trary, or com­munio, is in­vented as the idea of what jus­ti­fies by it­self the pres­ence and even the ex­ist­ence of its members.

Communism is to­geth­er­ness — the Mitsein, the being-​with, un­der­stood as the be­longing to ex­ist­ence of the in­di­viduals, which means, in the ex­ist­en­tial meaning, to their es­sence. Society means an un­es­sen­tial — even if ne­ces­sary — link between in­di­viduals who are, in the final ana­lysis, es­sen­tially separate.

(I will not enter into the ana­lysis of the word so­cialism neither in gen­eral nor in Marx’s text. As we know, for sev­eral his­tor­ical reasons but as well — this is my be­lief — on ac­count of the strength and depth of the meaning of the word (of the image, of the symbol), com­munism alone took and kept the force of more than a polit­ical choice, a polit­ical line and a party.

This, for me, is the point: com­munism says more and says some­thing else than a polit­ical meaning. It says some­thing about prop­erty. Property is not only the pos­ses­sion of goods. It is pre­cisely beyond (and/​or be­hind) any jur­idical as­sump­tion of a pos­ses­sion. It is what makes any kind of pos­ses­sion prop­erly the pos­ses­sion of a sub­ject, that is prop­erly an ex­pres­sion of it. Property is not my pos­ses­sion: it is me.

But me, I, never ex­ists alone. It ex­ists es­sen­tially with other ex­isting be­ings. The with is no ex­ternal link, it is no link at all: it is to­geth­er­ness — re­la­tion, sharing, ex­change, me­di­ation and im­me­di­ation, meaning and feeling.

The with has nothing to do with what is called col­lective. Collectivity means col­lected people: that is, people taken to­gether from any­where to the nowhere of the col­lectivity or of the col­lec­tion. The co– of col­lective is not the same as that of com­munism. This is not only a matter of ety­mo­logy (mu­nire versus ligare) . This is a matter of on­to­logy: the co– of col­lect­ivism is a mere ex­ternal “side by side” which im­plies no re­la­tion­ship between the sides or between the parts of this “partes extra partes”.

The co– of a com­munism is an­other one. It is, in the terms used by Heidegger about the mit of the Mitsein, not a cat­egor­ical but an ex­ist­en­tial with (mit, co-​). A cat­egor­ical one means, in a more or less kan­tian way, that it is merely formal and does nothing more than dis­tin­guish between with and without (you are here with me, but you could be here without me ; it does neither dis­turb the fact you are here, nor the fact that you are you as I am me). An ex­ist­en­tial with im­plies that neither you nor me are the same to­gether or sep­arate. It im­plies that the with be­longs to the very con­sti­tu­tion or dis­pos­i­tion or as you may wish to call it — say: to the being of us. And there is more to it: only in this case is it al­lowed to speak of a “we” — or still better: only in this case is it pos­sible that a we comes to be spoken. Or even better: if the we can only and each time be a speech act, then only a we ex­ist­en­tially spoken may per­form its sig­ni­fic­ance (what is ex­actly this sig­ni­fic­ance is an­other matter: for now, I note only that it im­plies a re­la­tion­ship, not a mere side-​by– side).

(Another par­en­thesis — sorry ! It is not sure that there is, ab­so­lutely, some­thing like “a mere side-​by-​side”. Side-​by-​side is already taken in a re­la­tion­ship. But we may dis­cuss this point later.)

By put­ting to­gether the various ar­gu­ments I have used so far, I can say: com­munism is the speech act of ex­ist­ence as it is on­to­lo­gic­ally being-​in-​common. This speech act claims (for) the on­to­lo­gical truth of the common, that is the re­la­tion — which ul­ti­mately is nothing else than sense.

(I can come back later or else­where on this iden­tity of sense and re­la­tion — as well as the iden­tity of truth and ex­ist­en­tial co-)

Further: the truth of the common is prop­erty. Property does not mean only the pos­ses­sion or the be­longing. In a re­verse way, one should rather say that pos­ses­sion or be­longing may only be truly un­der­stood and de­term­ined if prop­erty is first understood.

Marx wanted to open the way for a prop­erty he calls “in­di­vidual prop­erty” just as dis­tinct from “private prop­erty” as from “col­lective prop­erty”. Private and col­lective refer both only to the realm and to the cat­egory of law. The law knows only the formal and ex­ternal links. Individual prop­erty means: prop­erty which is proper to the proper sub­ject (we may call it “person” or even, as Marx does in this pas­sage “individual”).

Subject means the ca­pa­city of what we could call “pro­per­ness”: the way to enter a re­la­tion­ship or to en­gage in a link, an in­ter­course, a com­mu­nic­a­tion, which has nothing to do with pos­sessing some­thing (but may be pos­sible as well with things, ob­jects). I am proper in so far as I commit my­self as well as I com­mu­nicate, that is, as the word makes clear, I am in the common (which in English can be the name for the common or com­munal place), I am made of it, by it, to it. Freud is the best way to un­der­stand it: as he states, the I or the ego is only a small disk, al­most a point, emer­ging at the sur­face of the large it which is the to­tality of the other being of the world. Even in solitude, I am made of the whole world as it takes with “me” or as “me” a new sin­gular point of sensitivity.

Communism, there­fore, means the common con­di­tion of all the sin­gu­lar­ities of sub­jects, that is of all the ex­cep­tions, all the un­common points whose net­work makes a world (a pos­sib­ility of sense). It does not be­long to the polit­ical. It comes be­fore any politics. It is what gives to politics an ab­so­lute re­quire­ment: the re­quire­ment to open the common space to the common it­self — that is neither to the private nor to the col­lective, neither to sep­ar­a­tion nor to to­tality — but without per­mit­ting any polit­ical achieve­ment of the common it­self, any kind of making a sub­stance of it. Communism is a prin­ciple of ac­tiv­a­tion and lim­it­a­tion of politics.

At this point it be­comes ne­ces­sary to ques­tion the –ism. Any –ism im­plies a system of rep­res­ent­a­tion, and a kind of ideo­lo­giz­a­tion (in the marxian meaning as well as in the aren­d­tian meaning of ideo­logy). Cartesianism is the ideo­lo­giz­a­tion of Descartes’s ori­ginal drive.

I do not want to go into the ques­tion of his­tor­ical or so-​called, so oddly called real com­munism. Communism is still ex­posed to the jeop­ardy of be­coming an ideo­logy and should lose its –ism. The word is commun without –ism. Not even commun — common, kom­mune, any thing that could be taken as some­thing like a form, a struc­ture, a rep­res­ent­a­tion — but com. The Latin pre­pos­i­tion cum taken as the uni­versal pre-​position, the pre­sup­pos­i­tion of any existence.

This is not politics, this is meta­physics or, if you prefer, this is on­to­logy: to be is to be cum. (At the very mo­ment I am writing this, I am sur­rounded by a singing crowd of futbol afi­cion­ados on a plaza in Madrid: there is there a mul­ti­tude of sym­bols, prob­lems, feel­ings about the common) But it asks politics this ques­tion: how is it to think about so­ciety, gov­ern­ment, law, not with the aim of achieving the cum, the common, but only with the hope of let­ting it come and take its own chance, its own pos­sib­ility of making sense — if, as I wish to sug­gest, any sense is ne­ces­sarily common sense or, if not “common sense” in the common meaning of the word, then in the meaning that any sense is made of com­mu­nic­a­tion, of sharing or ex­change. But of an ex­change which is not an ex­change of pos­ses­sions, but an ex­change of prop­erty: where my prop­erty be­comes proper by its own com­mit­ment; some­times this is called “love”, “friend­ship”, some­times “faith­ful­ness”, some­times “dig­nity”, some­times “art”, some­times “thought”, some­times even “life” and “sense of life” — under all those names there is nothing else than a com­mit­ment to the common.


If the ques­tion of com­munism is the ques­tion of prop­erty — namely, the ques­tion of neither col­lective nor private prop­erty but of in­di­vidual as well as common prop­erty, then it raises a double question:

1)what does it mean to be both “in­di­vidual” and “common” ? How are we to un­der­stand “the in­di­vidu­ality of commmon­ness” and “the com­munity of individualness” ?

2) how are we to think of wealth and poverty in the realm of common-​individual property?

To the first ques­tion I would like to an­swer by ar­guing that it has to be taken in terms of sin­gular plural, which has other im­plic­a­tions than “individual-​common” ; I do not want to ad­dress this matter here (I have already written some pages about it) ; but to say the least here I would sug­gest that singular-​plural avoids the jeop­ardy of the double sub­stan­ti­ality which may be in­volved in “indidual-​common”)

2) con­cerning wealth and poverty, the ques­tion is clear as it is ob­vi­ously presented to us: wealth means to pos­sess more than common life needs, poverty to have less. The first commun(ist) com­mand is ob­vi­ously that of justice: to give to the common what common life needs. This need at the same time is simple, evident (in a way, it is in­cluded in human rights — which nev­er­the­less may be dis­cussed from other points of view) — and it is nev­er­the­less un­clear: from the need to the de­sire or to the wish, there is no simple nor clear difference.

It is then ne­ces­sary to think dif­fer­ently. We shall not only take a first step of “needs” and their “satisfaction” — even if, of course, we shall ab­so­lutely con­sider a level of ele­mentary or min­imal sat­is­fac­tion. But we shall as well con­sider that in­finity is in­volved in each need and as the very es­sence of it. Need is to be taken as an im­pulse to get some­thing (like bread, water or space) but as a drive to­ward what is not a thing, and maybe is nothing — but infinity.

At this point we are close — again… — to cap­it­alism. that is, to in­finity taken as end­less ac­cu­mu­la­tion of things (which are all equi­valent, as meas­ured by the very pos­sib­ility of ac­cu­mu­lating them, whose name is money — money taken it­self as the end­less pro­cess of making money). Capitalism is end­less­ness in­stead of in­finity, or in­finity as end­less pro­duc­tion of cap­ital itself.

This has been, so to speak, a choice of civil­iz­a­tion. At one point (even if this point is ex­tended through some cen­turies) the western civil­iz­a­tion opted for end­less­ness. This point was the one where in­finity as the ab­so­lute given in each ex­ist­ence changed into in­finity as an end­less pro­cess to­ward accumulation.

Of course it has been con­nected with a change about wealth.

Control, reg­u­la­tion of the market is not enough. The chal­lenge is not only about man­aging the system of production-​consumption

It is about the meaning of wealth. Wealth and poverty may have two quite dif­ferent uses and mean­ings. One can be ac­cu­mu­la­tion vs dis­ac­cu­mu­la­tion, if I may say so, or get­ting rich vs inpoverishment.

Another can be what I would name glory vs hu­mility. (“The Humble”, the name of a virtue be­came the name of poor people…).

Possibly glory and hu­mility could not even be called wealth and poverty. They are re­lated to each other not as the plus to the minus but like, let’s say, a monk in his simple frock fa­cing a golden altar. Or my­self listening to Beethoven’s quartets.

Possibly this re­la­tion­ship, whose proper name is ad­or­a­tion or wor­ship, which names a kind of prayer as well as a form of love, never took place as such in so­ciety or was al­ways already mixed with or trans­formed in the op­pos­i­tion between wealth and poverty. Nevertheless, as a matter of fact, the couple rich/​poor as such and as a philo­soph­ical as well as moral and re­li­gious theme or topic was formed pre­cisely at the time of pre-​capitalism, that is in Antiquity, between Plato— and the cri­tique of money making soph­ists — and Christ with his strong re­jec­tion of wealth. This age has been the first, and in a sense maybe the last, time of the cri­tique of wealth, that is of no longer thinking of it as glory. On the con­trary, thinking of it as the fake bright­ness par excellence.

Our civil­iz­a­tion is a schizo­phrenic one that thinks its own value, its main value is fake.

The ques­tion of prop­erty is the ques­tion about the proper prop­erty, which be­longs to the proper “person”: that is, of the proper “wealth” (or “glory” — or, this is the same in a way, the proper “sense”). Such a proper prop­erty may only be common. As private, it makes no sense (sense for a single one is no sense at all) ; as col­lective it makes the same ef­fect for the col­lective is a single — mech­an­ical — unity, not the plur­ality of the common.

Common is the ad­equate word for the pro­per­ness of being, if being means on­to­lo­gic­ally being “in common”.

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