What’s “Left” of Communism? Part I of II

Red StarIn his 1980 book The Inoperative Community, Jean-Luc Nancy famously claimed that communism is, “… no longer the unsurpassable horizon of our time.” Three years later Benedict Anderson, in his groundbreaking book Imagined Communities, showed us how alliances based on common identity are much stronger bonds that alliances based on ideology. All of this seemed to be more than supported by the collapse and dissolution of the European communist states and the wars in the former Yugoslavia throughout the late 80s and the 1990s, prompting Francis Fukuyama to claim that we had arrived at the “end of history.”

Fast-forward thirty years to our post-unipolar and post-financial crisis world where we have been witness to rebellions springing up against the established order across the globe and it appears as though history has returned. We are once again in the mist of the Left (that great catch all political category) returning to communism. Indeed, it is not only that these thinkers situate communism as the best possible alternative to capitalist ideology, but it is often theorized as the only alternative available. In fact Alain Badiou wrote that, ‘from Plato onwards, Communism is the only political Idea worthy of a philosopher.’ (2010, ix) This return is, however, to a communism that many of us on the Left have a hard time identifying with. In the following two-part series I’d like to first take a close look at this particular brand of communism and what ideological remnants are left within it in an attempt to show why it is that so many have a hard time supporting it. Then in the second of these articles I intend on examining a different revolutionary merger of theory and practice that I propose is a better example of what is “Left” of communism.

Before getting started though, it’s important to note that this return to communism is not a call for Leninism, Stalinist totalitarianism, or for any of the other “real” communist systems of the 20th century. Nor is it a return to utopian projects. Rather this is a call for an idea, or a mode of both thinking and acting that totally breaks free of the capitalist spectacle. The thinkers usually associated with this return often vary quite a bit in their visions of this “communism to come,” but Costas Douzinas and Slavoj Zizek have identified four points of commonality that they all share:

  1. Recent politics has attempted to ban and foreclose conflict. The idea of communism confronts widespread de-politicization by introducing new political subjectivities and returning to a popular voluntarism.
  2. ‘Communism’ is the idea of a radical philosophy and politics. As the precondition of radical action, communism must be thought today taking its resistance from statism and economics and becoming informed by the political experiences of the twenty-first century.
  3. Neo-liberal capitalist exploitation and domination takes the form of new enclosures of the commons (language, communication, intellectual property, genetic material, natural resources and forms of governance). Communism, by returning to the concept of the ‘common’, confronts capitalist privatizations with a view to building a new commonwealth.
  4. Communism aims to bring about freedom and equality. Freedom cannot flourish without equality and equality does not exist without freedom. (2010, ix-x)

To quote Zizek, ‘communism is not an eternal set of rules that are present in every epoch of history to be applied rapidly, but simply a movement that has to be reinvented in each new historical situation.’ This beautifully fluid understanding of communism with its implicit focus on the “being-in-common” and communal desire – rather than the dogmatic and pathetically romantic ideology that popular culture usually ascribes to communism – does contain within it an amazing potential to actually help form a feasible alternative to capitalism.

Although nonetheless, I still find it difficult to bandwagon with this new communism as an idea. I believe this is because (with a few notable exceptions, most especially Antonio Negri) there are three other, undisclosed and problematic, commonalities that mark the current return to communism.


The first of these commonalities is that the proponents of this “new” communism is that they are often unapologetically Eurocentric, going so far as to claim that The Left must get over its guilt and re-invent a progressive and radical Eurocentrism looking to models such as the French Revolution. As such, while many are quick to praise the rebellions in the Arab world and Turkey, they insist on reading the events only within a European context, casually refusing to allow the people taking part in the uprisings full agency.

So when Alain Badiou reads the mass uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia as “Communist” what we see is his French Maoist ideology coming out. This is a particular type of Maoism where China is nowhere operative, and which renders “Asia” transparent while totally over-looking – if not willfully ignoring – the international division of labor. Under the conditions of globally integrated neo-liberal capitalism (neo-colonialism) “the workers” in the third world are not the same “the workers” as in France and the issues which they must address are equally different. So when he stated that the movement in Egypt and Tunisia was a pure Communism not seen since the Paris Commune the actual protesters are nowhere to be found and we are forced to read “The Arab People” as a shallow reproduction of “The French Communists.” Beyond that he is also implying that without the French Communists there would be no collective uprisings like the ones that erupted throughout the Arab world. They are basically claiming that all radical social movements are ideologically and historically rooted in a European tradition that begun in 1789 in France. As such when anyone articulates any notions of ‘liberty,’ ‘justice,’ or ‘democracy’ they can only be reasserting the dominance of western ideology.

This is not to say that any thought that originates in or is influenced by European thinkers should be rejected wholesale. I believe that it would be just as absurd and shortsighted to discount a concept simply because it originated in Europe as it would be to discount a concept for originating outside of Europe. However, this brand of unapologetic and uncritical Eurocentrism is a stark throwback to colonial discourse that only serves to situate Europe as the center of all thought and civilization.

Communism as communal identity infused with ideology

One of Slavoj Zizek’s favorite points to make is that we do not live in a “post-ideological world.” In fact, as Zizek often notes, the world of today is highly ideological, but the material effects of this makes it so that we cannot see the underlining ideology that is guiding us in our everyday lives. In fact the “tragedy” of ideology is that, “when we think that we’ve escaped it into our dreams, at that point we are within ideology.” Ideology here is cast purely in terms of neo-liberal capitalism. Perhaps this is why so many of the thinkers associated with this return to communism are often quick to claim that it’s not an ideology per se (to claim that it is an ideology may amount to an admission of it being a return to the communism of the 20th century), but rather a “horizon” (Dean); an “idea” or “hypothesis” (Badiou); or simply the name of the problems of commons (Zizek).

However, as Jean-Luc Nancy pointed out, the very existence of the suffix, the “ism” denotes a system of representation, an ideology. This is why Nancy prefers to use of the word commun or, better yet, the Latin cum since that would signify a metaphysics or an ontology of being-together rather than a politics. (2010, 145-154)

Badiou would counter with the claim that communism is not merely a politics or an ideology, but that it situates subjects within a “History”, a shared history of militants fighting in a communal struggle for emancipation. So what becomes clear is that the “common” or communal element here is a shared identity. It dictates that the communist “event” of being radicalized inscribes you in a mythic origin that locates the project as a communal and eternal. As such communism becomes an essentialized identity that is ascribed to people, and forms a community that is based around a project of revolution, creating a field of immanence (a feeling that the community will live on forever, and by extension so will its members). It is here that, as both Jen-Luc Nancy and Maurice Blanchot noted, there is the “… seemingly healthy origin of the sickest totalitarianism.” (1988, 2)

Zizek himself has noted that there is no self-contained full identity without an additional aspect of ideology – what is unsaid (implied) is what marks our difference. The ideological referent here – what is not said, but suggested – is that in order not to be a capitalist patsy, you must assume the identity and follow the communist line, including its hierarchical structure. This is a position that became abundantly clear in Zizek’s recent celebration of authoritarianism (or at the very least vanguardism) and his claim that the Left needs a “Master” equal to Thatcher. This is a thread of thinking that seems to germinate from a certain re-reading of Plato, a reading that, ironically, is strikingly similar to Leo Strauss (the man often credited as being the grandfather of neo-conservatism) and his writings on Plato and the ‘Nobel Lie’.

This communism as ideologically infused communal identity carries with it the menace of what Deleuze and Guattari referred to as “micro-fascism”, that is a communal identity solely based on exclusion. Since, as Zizek points out, to love one group and, by extension, it’s guiding ideology means that you must at the same time hate all those whose identity poses (or at least could pose) a threat to that group. Following this to its logical end, in the best-case situation we would see horrific purges such as the Robespierre’s Terror or the “Red Terror” that followed the Russian Revolution.

At first sight what could possibly be more fascistic than this oppositional stance (so famously uttered by George W. Bush) that “you’re either with us or against us”? However Slavoj Zizek defends this position by stating that radicals are, “…possessed by what Alain Badiou called the ‘passion of the Real’: if you say A – equality, human rights and freedoms – you should not shirk for its consequences but muster the courage to say B – the terror needed to really defend and assert the A.” A sentiment shared by Badiou in his readings of Saint-Just when he states that those who do not want virtue and terror want corruption because, after all, “…terror is nothing but the abstract upshot of a consideration required by every revolution.” (2009, 88)

Lacks diagnostic

The final problematic element that I see as uniting the new theoretical return to communism is that it lacks an internal diagnostic mechanism. In an interview Jodi Dean noted that a certain strain of post-structuralist thought emanating from Deleuze, Foucault and Derrida was no longer as persuasive and compelling as communism. However it is precisely within these strains of thought that the most effective self-diagnostic mechanisms against totalitarianism are in place.

While the re-articulations of communism carry with them a romantic element that many do find persuasive, the problem with the idea that the event of revolution or of being radicalized would level people out and effectively allow them a totally new History with which to ascribe them their identity is the simple fact that everybody carry with them traces of their former ideological world view that – far from being replaced by new meaning – forms an assemblage with the new mythic history that pulls in and reproduces – to greater or lesser extents – unequal power relations. In other words the revolutionaries still would not be able to truly imagine a world beyond capitalism.

What is needed here is a decolonized form of communism. Decolonization here is not a simple North/South divide, but rather what Frantz Fanon called a decolonization of the mind. That is a revolutionary practice and theory that would have a build-in diagnostic mechanism to locate and address instances of it reproducing repressive practices, but would not find itself caught in an endless deferral that would disable any concrete action.

In his introduction to Anti-Oedipus, Michel Foucault stated that our, “…strategic adversary is fascism … the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.” (2003, xiii) It is precisely this fascism (the short-hand term for this type of fascism coined by Deleuze and Guattari is “micro-fascism”) that threatens every project of emancipation and that these thinkers were concerned with uprooting. As such, leaving their thought behind for the more romantic notions of revolution expose the revolutionary group to falling into the same traps that claimed so many revolutionary projects of the 20th century.

Anthony Fara­melli is a PhD stu­dent at The Lon­don Gradu­ate School and part-​time lec­turer in Media and Cul­ture Stud­ies at King­ston University


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