‘the only political idea worthy of a philosopher’

That’s a quote from Slovenian Slavoj Zizek, the rock star philosopher, in reference to a conference held last weekend.

Birkbeck College this weekend hosted a symposium on the idea of communism. Originally planned as a meeting of philosophers and those who enjoy hearing their debates, the unexpected material circumstances of history instead gave the event a genuine sense of urgency. Even the BBC came to hear Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou, Jacques Ranciere, Michael Hardt, Toni Negri, and others speaking on the possibilities and challenges of reinventing the communist ideal today.

An earler Guardian piece gives this context:

Such has been the interest in the conference, entitled On the Idea of Communism, being staged at London university’s Birkbeck college from tomorrow, that the venue has been changed three times to accommodate the extra demand and is sold out. Participants are flying in from the US, Latin America, Africa and Australia to hear from some of the world’s big hitters on the subject.

One of the organisers, the Slovenian philosopher and writer, Slavoj Zizek, has emphasised that the purpose of the gathering is not to “deal with practico-political questions of how to analyse the latest economic, political, and military troubles, or how to organise a new political movement”. He added: “more radical questioning is needed today – this is a meeting of philosophers who will deal with communism as a philosophical concept, advocating a precise and strong thesis: from Plato onwards, communism is the only political idea worthy of a philosopher.”

Although the conference seems particularly timely, it was planned last summer, well before the scale of the current economic collapse had become apparent.

“The response has taken us by surprise,” said Costas Douzinas, director of the Birkbeck institute for the humanities, which is hosting the three-day event. “It must be related to the wider political context. There is a sense that we have to start thinking again.”

He said that the gathering was about the meaning of communism and speakers had indicated that they would be very critical of the Soviet model. Among the questions to be addressed is whether “communism is still the name to be used to designate the horizon of radical emancipatory projects”.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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  1. How about thinking, if I’m an artist in this society right now, I have a choice between spending my career talking about myself or trying to create a genuine revolution. Whether I suceed or not is irrelevant, even if it is a wild tilt at windmills, because the morality of an act is not in its outcome but in its intention.
    Or you could go think about something else, whatever.

  2. I don’t consider myself qualified to take sides for either capitalism or communism. This is a problem. Generally speaking, this is ‘the’ problem. We must absolutely ‘start thinking’, and yet we must challenge statements such as ‘the only political idea worthy of a philosopher’ is capitalism. That sounds a lot like an attempt to stifle independent thought.

    So people like me will sit around twiddling thumbs and supporting diversity of opinion while others give people like me a swift kick up the ass and off the fence. My ass is sore. I think it’s time to start shopping for some working boots. But first I’ve got some personal issues to deal with.

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