The Birckbeck Institute for the Humanities’ conference ‘On the Idea of Communism’ seems to me an utterly fascinating phenomenon, not so much in and of itself (there are academic conferences held on all manner of topics), but because the massive response it provoked – this is an event featuring some of the most difficult and abstruse philosophers in Europe and yet it attracts the crowd of a sporting event – hints at how deep the yearning is for an alternative to the status quo. I wrote about this in my book on Guido Baracchi: that, for most of the twentieth century, the presence of Official Communism demonstrated, to the Right as much to the Left, that the world could be changed, a fact with massive significance for the entire political culture. Since 1989, that sense of an alternative has vanished, something which explains a lot about the mixture of cynicism and apathy which characterised popular attitudes to politics over the past twenty years.
None of which is to suggest any nostalgia for old school Stalinism, a political system responsible for more murders than can be tabulated. Indeed, any revival of a Left worthy of the name depends upon a rigorous re-assessment of crimes with which too many leftists were complicit — it’s not a good sign, one has to say, that some of the Birckbeck speakers apparently enthused about the Chinese cultural revolution.