The Mirage of Neo-Communism

The Mirage of Neo-Communism

It is no longer clear that social democracy possesses a coherent and compelling political identity. But it is clear that social democracy has one important thing going for it: the serious commitment to democracy.

Young Pioneers laying a wreath at the Lenin mausoleum, May 1981. (V. Khomenko, KIA Novosti)

The Communist Horizon 
by Jodi Dean
Verso, 2012, 250 pp.
In November 1977, Il Manifesto, the Italian group led by dissident communists Rossana Rossanda and Lucio Magri, held a conference in Vienna on “Power and Opposition in Post-Revolutionary Societies.” Featuring more than thirty left intellectuals and activists from Eastern and Western Europe—including Jiˇrí Pelikán, 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 2011 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 Žižek 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.” The book is part of the Verso “Pocket Communism” series. As explained on the Verso website, “Since Alain Badiou first formulated the ‘communist hypothesis’…it has become a concept that has acted as a reorienting focus for the Left.” Verso has published many books by Žižek (including his 2002 Revolution at the Gates: Selected Writings of Lenin from 1917, the 2011 edition of which is now tellingly billed not as “The Essential Lenin” but “The Essential Žižek”); and a paperback series seeking to revive interest in a far left canon that has fallen out of favor after 1989 (Slavoj Žižek Presents Leon Trotsky: Terrorism and Communism; Slavoj Žižek Presents Mao: On Practice and Contradiction; and, most invitingly, Slavoj Žižek Presents Robespierre: Virtue and Terror). Together these volumes constitute a discussion, on one part of the Left—not the Dissent part—about the desirability of “revitalizing communism.”

This discussion is also linked to a conference, organized in March 2009 in London, that produced a volume edited by Žižek and Costas Douzinas, The Idea of Communism. Unlike the Il Manifesto volume, the 2009 discussion is occasioned less by real political problems than by a Platonic essay, Alain Badiou’s “The Communist Hypothesis.” The discussion features academic theorists and includes no one—except Žižek himself—who actually experienced Soviet-style communism in Europe. The volume begins by announcing that “the twenty-first century left can finally leave behind the introspection, contrition and penance that followed the fall of the Soviet Union. The left which aligned itself with ‘actually existing socialism’ has disappeared or turned into a historical curiosity. New forms of radical militancy and mobilization have marked the return to politics.” Its contributors do not offer a straightforward apologia for twentieth-century communism. Instead, they wish simply to leave the twentieth century behind in the face of new forms of “militancy”—the Latin American radicalisms of Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales, strikes and antiwar protests in Western Europe, Indignado movements in Southern Europe, and Occupy movements in North America. Although the conversation purports to leave history in the past, it unabashedly takes its bearings from the long-standing tradition of Jacobin-inflected Bolshevism. And its participants embrace a hostility to liberalism and social democracy that defined the sectarian and repressive history of twentieth-century communism. They just as adamantly embrace the identity “communist” (if not “Communist”). While the contributors to The Idea of Communism do not speak with a single voice, the parameters of their conversation—who is a friend and who is excluded as an adversary—are clear.

Jodi Dean apparently did not join Badiou, Žižek, Antonio Negri, and Jacques Rancière in London. But The Communist Horizon enthusiastically joins their discussion.

It is difficult to comment on this book. Dean is a respected scholar who has published important work on writers ranging from Jürgen Habermas to Žižek to Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. She also edits Theory & Event, an important e-journal edited from a broadly “postmodern” perspective. Yet The Communist Horizon is not a scholarly book. It is a polemic, indeed an exhortation. Further, unlike Dean’s more academic work, it is written in a dismissive and disparaging tone. Dean condescendingly lumps together “capitalists,” “conservatives,” “liberals,” “liberal democrats,” “social democrats,” “democrats,” and even “radical democrats” as identities joined by a commitment to “the repression of the communist alternative.” “They”—a category that seems to include this reviewer and probably most readers of this journal—“unite to block communism from consideration. It’s off the table.” Anticipating objections, she justifies this rhetorical move as follows:

“Those who suspect that the inclusion of liberals and democrats in a set with capitalists and conservatives is illegitimate are probably democrats themselves…they should consider whether they think any evocation of communism should come with qualifications, apologies, and condemnations of past excesses. If the answer is “yes,” then we have a clear indication that liberal democrats, and probably radical democrats as well, still consider communism a threat that must be suppressed—and so they belong in a set with capitalists and conservatives.”

This passage conflates the critique of communism with the effort to suppress it. It also makes plain that reviving communism is less the book’s argument than its premise.

To respond to the book in kind seems wrong to me. Instead, I will outline Dean’s major claims, and then critique them, expanding on the theme implied by the contrast between Il Manifestoand the current revival of communism.

The Introduction lays out the book’s central theme—that “communism” is the unsurpassed “horizon that conditions our experience,” and that, in terms derived from Jacques Lacan via Žižek, it is Real, that is, it can be denied or evaded only through delusion. Dean positions herself vis-à-vis her fellow communist revivalists, critiquing the insufficiently “materialist” positions of Badiou (for whom communism is a Platonic idea) and Hardt and Negri (for whom a “multitude” will more or less spontaneously rise up against “empire”). She aligns herself with Bruno Bosteels and especially Žižek, from whom she draws three things: (1) a commitment to a “communism without apologies,” (2) a professedly Leninist conception of “the political party” as the primary agent of (revolutionary) communism, and (3) a psychoanalytic understanding of the sources of social compliance. Dean contends that although communists have the fortitude to engage “the Real,” many on the left are frightened, and thus “dismiss the communist horizon as a lost horizon.” Such people “eschew a more militant anticapitalism. Instead…this tendency redirects anticapitalist energies into efforts to open up discussions and find ethical spaces for decision…I take the opposite position…an analysis that treats capitalism as a global system of appropriation, exploitation, and circulation that enriches the few as it dispossesses the many and that has to expend an enormous amount of energy in doing so can anger, incite, and galvanize.”

In Chapter 1, “Our Soviets,” Dean rehearses the claim that “Soviet Communism” is a Western construction based on liberal fears: “The chain communism-Soviet Union-Stalinism-collapse sets the parameters for the appeal to history that is characteristic of liberal, democratic, capitalist, and conservative attempts to repress the communist alternative.” She cites no specific appeal to history; dismisses the entire field of Soviet studies as “primarily a propaganda apparatus of the foreign policy establishment”; and asserts that “there is not yet a credible and established body of historical literature on communism, socialism, or the Soviet Union.” Dean’s point is clear—“communism” isn’t the bad thing its critics have claimed, and communists on the authentic Left ought to stop worrying about the history of twentieth-century communism.

In Chapter 2, “Present Force,” Dean suggests that in our supposedly postcommunist age, communism powerfully “names” the injustices and crises of capitalism, inspires anticapitalist rebellions, and strikes fear into the hearts of liberals. She scorns those for whom the future of emancipatory politics lies in a commitment to “democracy,” insisting that in so doing they support “a defense of the status quo….Left use of the language of democracy now avoids the fundamental antagonism between the 1 percent and the rest of us by acting as if the only thing really missing was participation…” And she suggests that the embrace of “democracy” is a symptom of cowardice and fear of “the successful mobilization of the energy and rage of the people,” giving no indication that this “energy and rage” is something to be even slightly troubled about.

In Chapter 3, Dean endorses the unmediated sovereignty of the people. Drawing on the concept of “proletarianization” to develop a conception of “the people as the rest of us,” she enthusiastically discusses Etienne Balibar’s On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat(she describes this pamphlet as “a contemporary defense of the dictatorship of the proletariat.” In fact, it is thirty-five years old, and Dean fails to mention that it originated in unsuccessful efforts by Balibar and others to oppose the French Communist Party’s “common program” that committed it to democratic procedures) Contending that the notion of “sovereignty of the people” is preferable to “dictatorship of the proletariat,” she also notes that “the sovereignty of the people corresponds to the political form Marxist theory refers to as the dictatorship of the proletariat, the direct and fearsome rule of the collective people over those who would oppress and exploit them.” Dean notes that “we do well to remain mindful of sovereignty’s limits,” but claims that “these limits do not mean that other determinants are simply outside our attempts to steer them.” In short, while this “sovereignty of the people” is imperfect and always subject to revision, it has no use for any principled limits on public power—it is the antithesis of liberalism.

Dean proceeds to argue that “communicative capitalism” is an “ideological formation” centered on “networked communication technologies” that subject us to “the competitive intensity of neoliberal capitalism”; commercialize and monitor our “social networks”; contribute to “the displacement and dispersion of critical energy”; and yet also help bring into existence a “common” that cannot be enclosed by capitalism. This discussion is the most interesting and most pessimistic part of the book, for although Dean calls for the reclaiming of “the commons,” her analysis suggests that a communist reclamation of such a dispersed social world is a rather remote possibility. This pessimism is actually reinforced, albeit unintentionally, by the chapter that follows, where Dean turns to the psychoanalysis of “Desire.” Here she challenges Wendy Brown, who criticizes “forms of left nostalgia” for a time when “the notion of unified movements, social totalities, and class-based politics appeared to be viable categories.” Dean insists that the problem is not excessive commitment to inherited left positions, but insufficient commitment, and “the betrayal of revolutionary ideals, of the proletariat.” For Dean, this attitude “sublimates revolutionary desire to democratic drive, to the repetitious practices offered up as democracy (whether representative, deliberative, or radical).” She thus calls for a new “communist desire.”

The book culminates in an immanent critique of the Occupy movement. Dean claims that this movement manifests the “actuality” of communism. She describes Occupy as “a watershed moment.” “Before Occupy, the Left was fragmented, melancholic, depressive. Now we appear to ourselves—we say ‘we.’” Occupy is “an organization of capacities and intensities” that by disrupting the normal course of events “changes everything.” However, Dean also insists that the movement’s failure to achieve real political success is due to its libertarian and democratic refusal to recognize “the necessity of the party.” She briefly critiques David Graeber’s anarchist writings. But she mostly reiterates Leninist nostrums about how “the party is necessary to keep the left focused on the importance of class struggle” and that the “energy” of Occupy “comes from a vanguard of disciplined, committed activists undertaking and supporting actions in the streets.” “Bluntly put,” she writes, “Occupy does the work that Lenin associates with a revolutionary party, establishing and maintaining a continuity of oppositional struggle that enables broader numbers of people to join the movement. It builds collectivity.” But it could do this work more effectively if it acknowledged the need for “discipline,” and thus embraced the concept of revolutionary party innovated by Lenin and defended by Georg Lukács.

What are we to make of this endorsement of “communism?” In one sense, an answer is easy: not very much. For Dean advances no specific arguments about any actual problem, movement, or party. “The party” is an abstraction, repeatedly invoked. What party? Who? Where? There is a shocking lack of specificity to her presentation. She thus favorably invokes Álvaro García Linera—an activist in the Bolivian Movement for Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples and Evo Morales’s vice president—but says nothing specific about Linera, Morales, or Bolivia. She vaguely refers to struggles over fiscal austerity, student debt, inequality, and even the Arab Spring—but discusses nothing specific. Particular initiatives that could conceivably help flesh out her position, such as the Greek Syriza party, are unmentioned. The discussion of Occupy itself is entirely abstract, and important texts such as the September 2011 “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City” or Stéphane Hessel’s February 2011 Indignez-vous!are ignored.

If vagueness is one issue, Dean’s method of proceeding by assertion is another. The dismissal of all conservatives, liberals, social democrats, and democrats as anticommunists whose differences are essentially irrelevant is one form this method takes. Her inattention to the actual claims or practices of the anarchists, libertarians, and participatory democrats who are her Occupy colleagues is another. But most striking is that her call for a communist revival lacks any serious attention to the twentieth-century history of Marxism. She ignores Il Manifesto. Although she draws from Badiou, she ignores a rich history of critical debates within French Marxism. She says nothing about Socialisme ou Barbarie and the tradition of antitotalitarian leftism founded by Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Lefort. Lefort is arguably the premiere French political theorist of the post–Second World War period, and his final book, published in English in 2007 as Complications: Communism and the Dilemmas of Democracy, represents a major reflection on the history of the twentieth century. He is unmentioned by Dean. And although Dean praises Balibar’s 1977 The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, she ignores his recent advocacy of human rights and radical democracy and his endorsement of a return “to a radical bourgeois or civic form of pre-Marxist communism, the communism of ‘equaliberty’” (Bruce Robbins’s “Balibarism” in n+1 of April 5, 2013 offers an excellent discussion of the awkwardness of Balibar for contemporary communist revivalists). More generally, the trajectories of Gramscian political theory, and of English Marxism, are ignored. Where Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s 1985 Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, for example, proceeds through a careful critique of the entire tradition of Marxist political theory from Eduard Bernstein to Antonio Gramsci, The Communist Horizon has none of this.

Dean’s communism is fundamentalist. It engages a small, convinced group of intellectuals who take solace in an unadulterated Leninism and largely ignore the best traditions of twentieth-century Marxism—which recognized the pluralistic character of the social formations and political identities, the complexity of the state, and especially the ethical and political importance of democracy. In 1978, Verso published State, Power, Socialism, Nicos Poulantzas’s final book. A major restatement of Marxist political theory, it concluded by noting that “socialism will be democratic, or it will not be at all.” In The Communist Horizon, Dean gives no evidence of having encountered that book.

At the conventionally political level, The Communist Horizon suffers from its enthusiastic reading of Occupy as an “evental site.” The movement, considered broadly, still has an impact. And in places such as Greece, Spain, and Italy, it maintains real political traction by virtue of its strong links to social movements, labor unions, and political parties—in the plural. Yet, especially in the United States, both the actual physical presence and the political momentum of Occupy have largely faded from the scene. This could perhaps be regarded as confirmation of Dean’s point—that Occupy is doomed to failure until it embraces “the party.” But such a reading is implausible, because Dean’s entire account of why “the party” is indispensable hinges on the vitality of Occupy as a constituency and sign of a revolutionary moment requiring proper organization. This makes a serious political analysis of the present—its possibilities and its challenges—all the more pressing. And it makes the absence of any such analysis from The Communist Horizon all the more disappointing.

Nevertheless, Dean’s book has been warmly received by many on the academic Left. Dean speaks at campuses across the country, and many of these talks are posted on YouTube and discussed in the left blogosphere. For at least some left activists, The Communist Horizon’s rhetorical posturing seems to strike a chord. Dean’s discussion of proletarianization appeals to the many students and young academics who face a future of indebtedness and economic insecurity. Indeed, there is a strong generational dimension to Dean’s argument that the networks of digital communication are the new “commons,” and most people’s continuous connection to this veritable “Matrix” constitutes the source of both oppression and freedom. Communism as the socialization of social networks is not Dean’s political platform. But the call for a reappropriation of the digital commons is something with which many young people can at least vaguely identify. And if it resonates with their experiences of academic and economic superfluity, and is easily digested by them in paperback form and through the blogosphere, then it is something that many will want to know more about. There is a connection, no doubt complicated, between Dean’s style of theorizing and many forms of campus radicalism associated with Strike Debt and the broader Occupy movement.

But more than style is in play here, for Dean is surely right that we are living through a real crisis of capitalism, one that causes great hardship to many and tests established forms of domestic and supranational governance. And although many liberal and social democratic journalists, policy intellectuals, and politicians advocate a vigorous and innovative Keynesian response, European and American elites promise only greater austerity, hardship, inequality, and discontent. Whether or not “class struggle” suffices to describe this discontent, much of the resistance to austerity, especially in Europe and parts of Latin America, clearly takes the form of class conflict. And while there is no reason to interpret these struggles for justice as signs that communism is “the horizon that conditions our experience,” there is also no reason to celebrate the resourcefulness or ability of liberal or social democratic reformism to ameliorate, much less resolve, the current crisis. Indeed, Perry Anderson’s comment on Magri, quoted above, could easily be turned on contemporary social democrats: “Programmatic ideas without popular forces behind them…are vain…without an army, there can be no meaningful strategy.”

It is no longer clear that social democracy possesses a coherent and compelling political identity. But it is clear that social democracy—and the broader traditions of democratic socialism and critical Marxism with which it is associated—has one important thing going for it: the serious commitment to democracy. The year 1989 did not herald an “end of history.” But it did herald the end of Communism (and communism) as a serious political movement. Communism failed for many reasons. One was that it disparaged liberal democratic politics but had no plausible vision of a non-tyrannical alternative. The communist parties that defined the landscape of twentieth-century politics are gone, and vague exhortations to embrace “the party” will not prompt their revival. Yet social democratic parties endure, and their commitment to Max Weber’s “slow boring of hard boards” through the liberal democratic political process constitutes a strength both ethical and political. Social democracy hardly exhausts the range of democratic contestation. Alternative political parties, such as the Greens or the Greek Syriza party, are an important part of the democratic political landscape, along with insurgent social movements and political initiatives such as Occupy, Los Indignados, Kínima Aganaktisménon Politón, and the more prosaic labor and social struggles to which they are often linked. There is no single way of narrating or linking these diverse forces except to say that together they constitute the political promise of the democratic Left. I remain pessimistic about the likelihood that these forces will effectively organize an alternative to the current neoliberal hegemony. Contrary to Marx’s famous quip, mankind does not always set for itself only problems it is able to solve. And it is likely that the range of problems currently before us will persist and even grow, and that an effective political response will not be forthcoming. This is a reason to refrain from celebrating a post-historical dispensation or from mythologizing the power of the democratic Left. But it is also a reason to refrain from mythologizing communism or fantasizing about a “communist horizon.” Communism was a god that failed. And the communist horizon is a fantasy of salvation. Democracy is an imperfect means of ongoing dialogue, dissent, contestation, struggle, and public problem solving. It faces profound challenges. In the face of these challenges, the only horizon worth keeping in view is that of democracy itself.

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University and editor of Perspectives on Politics. He is also editor of a 2012 edition of The Communist Manifesto published by Yale University Press. He thanks Rafael Khachaturian, Mike Kovanda, Brendon Westler, and Margot Morgan for their comments.