Type
Essay
Category
Culture

'The long night of the Left is drawing to a close'

In 2010, Slavoj Žižek, whom the New Republic once dubbed ‘the most dangerous philosopher in the West’, gave a public lecture at the London School of Economics on the necessity of communism. The audience at this elite university overflowed the auditorium into a nearby room, watching through a video link. At one point, the evening’s host, the international relations theorist David Held (also the PhD advisor to the son of Muammar Gaddafi), looked visibly agitated and managed to interrupt Žižek – itself something of a rare achievement.

‘You use the word “we”,’ Held interrogated. ‘Who is this “we”, the royal we?’

The audience laughed, perhaps anticipating Žižek’s reply. Because he is renowned for explaining everything from global geopolitics to Lacanian psychoanalysis by telling dirty jokes, Žižek attracts audiences that laugh uproariously in Pavlovian fashion as he begins to speak (whatever the topic), making him perhaps the only person capable of turning Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit into stand-up comedy.

On this occasion, though, Žižek’s response was serious. In speaking of a communist ‘we’, he explained, he was not evoking an already existing political subject, let alone an inherently revolutionary sociological class. Rather, the use of ‘we’ could best be understood as a speech act or a performative utterance – that is, as one of those utterances identified by the philosopher of language JL Austin that do not describe an existing reality but instead produce a new one. Just as statements like ‘I do’ or ‘You’re fired!’ are themselves actions, transforming rather than describing a situation, Žižek said he hoped the act of evoking a communist ‘we’ would contribute to bringing a collective subject into existence.

People around me chuckled, and riotous laughter from the main auditorium blasted over the video.

Only a year earlier, such laughter might, perhaps, have been warranted. Yet, having just arrived from the Berlin Communism conference, the third in a series of conferences on ‘The Idea of Communism’ that Žižek and the French philosopher Alain Badiou had initiated over the past two years, the Slovenian philosopher had reason to believe that his speech acts were indeed felicitous.

In 2009, the first conference in London attracted more than a thousand people who listened to many of the world’s most important living philosophers declare, as Badiou put it, that ‘the word “communism” can and must now acquire a positive value once more.’1

Among the speakers were thinkers from diverse traditions who had contributed to keeping the idea of communism alive, as well as younger thinkers who have helped to revive it more recently. Along with Žižek and Badiou, a former Maoist, speakers included the former Althusserian Jacques Rancière; Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, authors of the bestselling Empire; Terry Eagleton, the English cultural critic; as well as Judith Balso, Alessandro Russo, Gianni Vattimo, Bruno Bosteels, Peter Hallward and Alberto Toscano.

The event’s success was unexpected even for those who initiated it. When the organisers began planning, they booked a room for 180 people. Once registrations opened, they changed the room twice, and ultimately moved the conference to an auditorium that held 900. Even so, an adjacent spillover room with a video link attracted 300 more over the course of the three-day event. Subsequent conferences in Paris and Berlin also drew large audiences, primarily young people.

On the surface, such a phenomenon is perplexing. Is communism not the name for an enormous crime, for the Gulag Archipelago and for totalitarian states? Did it not fail, both economically and politically? Didn’t people risk their lives to escape communism? Is ‘communist’ not, moreover, the name for the party that still rules over the world’s most populous country – a country that is both markedly authoritarian and profoundly subjected to the dictates of neoliberal capitalism? Such has been the hegemonic view for the past three decades.

What Badiou terms the period of ‘restoration’ began in the mid-1970s with the decline of national liberation struggles, youth movements and factory revolts. The ebbing of these struggles, he argues, ushered in a ‘bitter period of betrayal’ in which former activists rallied to parliamentary politics and submitted to global capitalism. It was an era characterised by critiques of totalitarianism, praise for human rights and ‘apparently humanitarian (but in reality, imperialist) “interventions”’,2 and capitulations to the power of the United States.

For three decades, Badiou wrote, the word ‘communism’ was either forgotten or taken to signify a criminal enterprise.3 In contrast, he describes his own trajectory as a refusal to yield to this counter-revolutionary betrayal. For Badiou, who constantly affirms his own fidelity to the events of May ’68 and the revolutionary Marxist heritage, the very impetus for philosophy comes from the attempt to understand ‘how and why many of his generational peers could betray their revolutionary convictions’.4

Towards the end of his life, Michel Foucault noted, in the midst of a discussion of revolutionary subjectivity and the idea of ‘converting to the revolution’, that in the ‘somewhat bland experience of our immediate contemporaries – we only convert to renunciation of revolution’.5 Implicitly addressing those former Maoists with whom he was then closely aligned, Foucault suggested that the ‘great converts today are those who no longer believe in the revolution’.6 Amongst those he may well have had in mind was Bernard-Henri Lévy (BHL) who, like the other self-styled ‘New Philosophers’, is a former Maoist who played an important role in the 1970s in discrediting revolutionary Marxism, which he framed as a ‘barbarism with a human face’.7

By 1982, BHL was ready to proclaim victory. ‘We have won!’ he wrote, in response to the crisis of Marxism and the emerging humanitarian consensus. Human rights slogans had emerged from the wilderness as ‘the new “Open Sesame” to the doors of the planet’.8 And, indeed, for some time, the New Philosophers achieved near-hegemonic status with their conviction that emancipatory political visions had been superseded by a morality focused on the alleviation of suffering.

Today, BHL’s 1982 declaration of victory may not look quite as hubristic as George W Bush’s in Baghdad in 2003, but there are nonetheless signs that the consensus he celebrated is once more open to challenge. If, as Žižek and Douzinas noted in their introduction to The Idea of Communism, ‘the long night of the Left is drawing to a close’,9 to what can this be attributed?

Many commentators have noted that the popular mass uprisings known as the Arab Spring mark the end of the end-of-history triumphalism that followed the Cold War. Even the New Philosopher Andre Glucksmann has depicted the revolutions as the refutation of both Francis Fukuyama’s belief that history had come to an end and Samuel Huntington’s thesis that the confrontation between the East and the West has been superseded by a ‘clash of civilisations’.10

For many of the philosophers who took part in the communism conference in London, however, the first of these theses had been disproven long ago and the second was never anything but a guise for Western military interventions.

Rancière, for instance, had, in a series of essays dating back almost a decade, drawn attention to the crises and disillusionments that muted the end-of-history celebrations of the immediate post-Cold War period, as the belief in a liberal utopia of democracy and human rights gave way to new wars and genocides, and then to the crisis of the ‘capitalist utopia’ of a perfectly self-regulating free market.11 For Žižek, paraphrasing Marx, ‘Fukuyama’s utopia of the 1990s had to die twice’ – first with the political crisis of 9/11, then again with the global economic crisis. It was in this context that Badiou was able to proclaim that the ‘word “communism” is now back in circulation.’12

On failure

In his short book The Communist Hypothesis, Badiou argues that today all that remains of the ideological machinery of freedom, human rights and Western values is a simple, negative statement: communism failed. The labours of the New Philosophers, he says, amount to little more than the assertion that there is no choice but to consent to the capitalist, parliamentary present. But what ‘exactly do we mean by “failure” when we refer to a historical sequence that experimented with one or another form of the communist hypothesis?’13 he asks. When we say that the socialist experiments failed – and Badiou does not dispute this proposition – do we mean that the communist hypothesis and the horizon of emancipation to which it gestured should be abandoned? Or do we mean that they failed because they took a wrong path, because they failed to respond to the initial problem in the right way?

The failures of previous attempts to realise communism, Badiou suggests, must be treated as stages in the realisation of the idea. For him, as for the other philosophers at the communism conferences, the problems that gave rise to this idea have, if anything, become more acute. Here, Badiou compares the history of attempts to realise the idea of communism with the history of efforts to resolve a mathematical problem. Fermat’s theorem, for instance, was solved only recently after 300 years of failed attempts. Referring to those New Philosophers who authorise their condemnations of communism through reference to the brief and loose communist affiliations of their youth, he notes that no-one would take very seriously a mathematician who failed to solve a problem in his early twenties and used that as evidence that the problem itself no longer exists.

But would it not be better to give up on the name, to find another less compromised, one with a less tragic history? If we accept that the model of state socialism called ‘communism’ is not a model we would want to see revived, should we not give up on the very label ‘communism’? To do so, Michael Hardt argued at the London conference, would be to leave behind the long history of ‘struggles, dreams and aspirations’ that are tied to it.14

In a similar vein, Badiou argues that the communist hypothesis is not confined to its Leninist sequence but has existed since the beginning of the state, since the moment that mass action began to oppose state coercion in the name of egalitarian justice, from the slave revolt led by Spartacus to the Paris Commune. Here, Badiou follows Marx, who wrote after the brutal suppression of the Commune and the massacre of tens of thousands of revolutionary workers that ‘the principles of the Commune are eternal and indestructible; they will present themselves again and again until the working class is liberated.’15

At the London communism conference, Žižek addressed the question of failure by quoting a passage from Lenin’s ‘On ascending a high mountain’. Dating from just after the introduction of the New Economic Policy of 1922, the text concerns the need to avoid despondency in the face of that retreat from the abolition of market relations and private property. Using the metaphor of a climber forced to descend to the valley after a first failed attempt, Lenin writes of both the ‘malicious joy’ of those who hope to see the climber fall, and of those who conceal their glee, remarking that, they too would like to see the mountain scaled, but had warned that now was not the right time, that the conditions were not right and that scaling the mountain prematurely risked a failure that would discredit the great plan to climb the mountain in good time.

‘Those communists are doomed,’ Lenin writes, who believe that it is possible to proceed without retreats and alterations of the course.16 ‘Communists who have no illusions,’ he says, ‘who do not give way to despondency, and who preserve their strength and flexibility “to begin from the beginning” over and over again in approaching an extremely difficult task, are not doomed (and in all probability will not perish).’17

Fail again, fail better, as Samuel Beckett would say.

To begin from the beginning, Žižek argued, cannot mean simply holding ground, or returning to a previous point of strength. Rather, as Lenin said, it means forging a path with ‘no vehicle, no road, absolutely nothing that had been tested beforehand.’18 It is necessary, Žižek says, to return to the valley, to rethink all assumptions, to begin again from the very beginning.

Communism as a real movement and the Arab Spring

In The Communist Hypothesis, which was published in 2010, Badiou argued that a key source of the crisis of Western democracy is that ‘it is less and less capable of corrupting its local clientele and buying off the ferocious regimes of the Mubaraks and Musharrafs who are responsible for keeping watch on the flocks of the poor’.19 Within a year, Mubarak was gone and uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa had profoundly transformed the face of global political possibility. For Badiou, echoing Marx’s much-cited definition of communism as the ‘real movement that abolishes the present state of things’,20 these movements reveal, in its purest form since the Paris Commune, ‘a communism of movement’.21 But, in what sense is it meaningful to speak of the Arab Spring as communist?

Badiou’s point is not that the participants in these uprisings are subjectively communists – indeed, after decades of successful annihilation of the Left across the Middle East, this would hardly be expected. Rather, the point is that a successful popular uprising points towards the horizon designated by Marx as the withering of the state, opening up a realm of non-state political action in which that elusive figure ‘the people’ comes into being.

‘Communism’, Badiou writes, ‘here means: a common creation of a collective destiny.’22 Such a common, he argues, is generic, representing humanity as a whole, and capable of overcoming statist contradictions between substantive identities. When female doctors from the provinces sleep peacefully in the middle of a circle of young men, when a row of Christians keeps watch over Muslims at prayer, when a group of engineers entreats young suburbanites to hold firm, these situations and inventions, he suggests, constitute the communism of movement.

The events in the Middle East, for Badiou, have created not a new reality, but myriad possibilities for the world as a whole, and refuted the belief that all that is possible in politics is to choose between parliamentary representatives. Rather than lecturing the movements about democracy, he argues, we should be their students, heeding their lesson that a genuine politics of emancipation is possible. The uprisings, he argues, give life to the principles the dominant powers have tried to convince us are obsolete – in particular, ‘the principle that Marat never stopped recalling: when it is a matter of liberty, equality, emancipation, we all have to join the popular upheavals.’23

In a similar vein, for Hardt and Negri the uprisings are experiments that open up new political possibilities across the world,24 and for Žižek the ‘miracle of Tahrir Square’ was the moment of truth of the neocon dream of the universalism of freedom and democracy. If the neocons are nervous, he argued, this is because the people of Egypt speak both of freedom and democracy, and of social and economic justice.25

Within a month, the story of the popular uprising had given way to the familiar language of humanitarian intervention, as NATO forces began their attack on Libya. In this context, an exchange, of sorts, took place between Badiou and his old friend, the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy. In an open statement, the latter rejected the recourse by those on the Left whom he portrayed as ‘beautiful souls’ to the principles of non-interference, and argued that ‘it is necessary to strike’ in order to support the insurgents against Gaddafi. In itself, such a position was hardly unusual, shared as it was by numerous commentators and intellectuals, including anti-imperialist leftists like Michael Albert and Gilbert Achcar.

For Badiou, however, as he wrote in an open letter published in Libération, Nancy’s position was ‘a sorry surprise’. In an earlier interview, Badiou had singled out Nancy and his collaborator Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe for refusing to participate in his isolation during the period of restoration, at the point at which the New Philosophy had been installed and intellectuals had rallied to Mitterand and the Socialist Left. ‘I hold them in the greatest esteem and love them very much,’ he told his interviewer.26 Now, this philosopher who had spent his life attempting to understand the capitulation of revolutionaries to the dominant ideology addressed a public appeal to his friend.

‘Can you simply accept the “humanitarian” umbrella, the obscene blackmailing in the name of the victims?’ he implored. ‘But our armies kill more people in more countries than the local boss Gaddafi is capable of doing in his. What is this trust suddenly extended to the major butchers of contemporary humanity, to those in charge of the mutilated world that we are familiar with?’27 If philosophy is good for anything, Badiou argued, it must be the radical critique of the public opinion moulded by the propaganda of the Western powers.

For Badiou, the NATO bombing campaign in Libya was not the continuation of the Arab revolutions but the attempt by Western states to transform a revolution into a war, putting the people out of the picture and making way for armies that would reconquer the territory for ‘the despotism of capital’.28 Weren’t you struck, he asks Nancy, by the emergence of a ‘supposed “revolutionary council” led by a former accomplice of Gaddafi, where nowhere else was there any question of the masses who had risen up appointing some people as a replacement government?’29

The council, in fact, included Gaddafi’s former justice minister Mustafa Abdul Jalil and prime minister Mahmoud Jibril, who had served in Gaddafi’s regime as the head of the National Economic Development Board where he promoted neoliberal privatisation policies. Its foreign affairs representative, Ali Abd-al-Aziz al-Isawi, holds a PhD in privatisation and was appointed director general for the Ownership Expansion Program (a privatisation fund) in 2005, before becoming Gaddafi’s minister of economy, trade and investment.

No wonder that almost three decades after his victory proclamation, BHL – who persuaded French president Nicolas Sarkozy to meet with the rebels, and ultimately to recognise them as Libya’s legitimate government – could tell the president that ‘the people on the National Transition Council are good guys’.30 From the perspective of the popular uprising, it is hardly reassuring to hear the constant reports of ‘rebel’ forces being reshaped into a more ‘professional’ military, or to read that the UK government has dispatched a ‘Stabilisation Unit’, comprised of economic, political and justice advisers, to plan for a post-Gaddafi order.

As the political theorist Wendy Brown noted in another context, the ‘heavy price of institutionalised protection is always a measure of dependence and agreement to abide by the protector’s rules.’31 If Badiou responded with despair to Nancy’s support for the bombing campaign, it was because he saw that Libya provided the opportunity for the Western powers, who had reacted with fear to the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, to use a humanitarian cover to reinsert the numerous possibilities opened up by the Arab Spring into the familiar narrative of neoliberal democracy.

BHL’s 1982 victory speech may have been premature but the circulation of the communist idea does not yet mark the end of the consensus embodied by the New Philosophers. As Badiou has argued, what is at stake today is not the victory of this idea but its very existence. But, if we continue to affirm this idea, and continue to say ‘we’, the isolation of the communist idea may yet give rise to a new collective subject capable of realising it. Don’t laugh …

  1. Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, Verso, London, 2010, p. 37.
  2. Alain Badiou, Metapolitics (trans. Jason Barker), Verso, London, 2005, p. xxxiv.
  3. Alain Badiou, ‘The Idea of Communism’, in Costas Douzinas and Slavoj Žižek (eds), The Idea of Communism, Verso, London, 2010, p. 13.
  4. Nina Power and Alberto Toscano, ‘Alain Badiou and the Enemies of May’, Boundary 2, no. 36, vol. 1, 2009, p. 34.
  5. Michel Foucault, Hermeneutics of the Subject, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2005, p. 209.
  6. Foucault, p. 209.
  7. Bernard-Henri Lévy, Barbarism with a Human Face (trans. George Holoch), Harper and Row, New York, 1979
  8. Cited in Robert Horvath, ‘“The Solzhenitsyn Effect”: East European Dissidents and the Demise of the Revolutionary Privilege’, Human Rights Quarterly, no. 29, 2007, p. 882.
  9. Douzinas and Žižek, ‘Introduction’ in Douzinas and Žižek, p. vii.
  10. Andre Glucksmann, ‘Revolution Without Guarantee’, Continental Philosophy Bulletin Board, 18 February 2011, <www.continental-philosophy.org/2011/02/27/andre-glucksmann-revolution-without-guarantee/>, accessed 1 June 2011.
  11. Jacques Rancière, ‘Communists Without Communism?’, in Douzinas and Žižek (eds), p. 174.
  12. Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, p. 36.
  13. As above, p. 6.
  14. Michael Hardt, ‘The Common in Communism’, in Douzinas and Žižek, p.13.
  15. Cited in Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, p. 188.
  16. Slavoj Žižek, ‘How to Begin from the Beginning’, in Douzinas and Žižek (eds.), p. 210.
  17. As above.
  18. Lenin, ‘Notes of a Publicist: On Ascending a High Mountain’, in VI Lenin, Collected Works, Fourth English Edition, vol. 33, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1966, p. 204.
  19. Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, p. 4.
  20. Alain Badiou, ‘Tunisia, Egypt: The Universal Reach of Popular Uprisings’, Lacan.com, <www.lacan.com/thesymptom/?page_id=1031>, accessed 1 June 2011.
  21. As above.
  22. As above.
  23. As above.
  24. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, ‘The Arabs Are Democracy’s New Pioneers’, Guardian Online, 24 February 2011, <http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/24/arabs-democracy-latin-america>, accessed 1 June 2011.
  25. Slavoj Žižek, ‘From Egypt, This Is the Miracle of Tahrir Square’, Guardian Online, 10 February 2011, <www.guardian.co.uk/global/2011/feb/10/egypt-miracle-tahrir-square>, accessed 1 June 2011.
  26. Alain Badiou, ‘“Can Change Be Thought”: Interview with Bruno Bosteels’, in Gabriel Riera, Philosophy and Its Conditions, SUNY Press, Albany, NY, 2005, p. 239.
  27. Alain Badiou, ‘Open Letter to Jean-Luc Nancy’, Libération, 28 March 2011, <www.versobooks.com/blogs/463>, accessed 1 June 2011.
  28. As above.
  29. As above.
  30. Cited in Alexander Cockburn, ‘Oh, What a Stupid War’, ArcaMax, 25 March 2011, <www.arcamax.com/politics/alexandercockburn/s-857754>, accessed 1 June 2011.
  31. Wendy Brown, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1995, p. 169.

Jessica Whyte is a Melbourne-based writer. She wrote a PhD on the political thought of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben and is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the School of English, Communication and Performance Studies at Monash University.
Overland 204-spring 2011, pp. 22–28

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Jessica Whyte is a senior lecturer in Cultural and Social Analysis at the University of Western Sydney. Her book on human rights and neoliberalism will be published by Verso in 2018.

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