The Two Names of CommunismJohn Roberts
Toujours avec l’espoir de rencontrer la mer, lis voyageaient sans pain, sans batons et sans urnes, Mordant au citron d’or de l’ideal amer. Stephane Mallarme, 18621
The recent explosion of writing on the communist idea, ideal and ‘communization’ recovers or expands a moment in the early to mid-1980s when French political theory and philosophy (in particular Felix Guattari and later Jean-Luc Nancy) and post-operaism in Italy were thinking through the content of communist practice against the defamation of the name and legacy of communism under Stalinism and Maoism. This writing emerged as much from the increasing debacle of the PCF’s pro-Moscow statism (and wait-and-see tactics) as from the anti-Stalinist ruins of French Maoist militancy. But what is particularly striking about it is how productive and unapologetic it is in its support for the ‘communist ideal’ (as a yet unnamed or to-be-named ideal) at the height of the new Thermidorian reaction in the West, before the general slide of the French Left into mordancy and shame.
Guattari and Negri’s Communists Like Us (1985)2 and Nancy’s The Inoperative Community (1986)3 are emblematic here. Nancy in particular makes it his job to think ‘community’ not as a reach-me-down category of bourgeois democratic politics, but as a living (non-identitarian) communist concept and practice. Thus we tend to forget today, as Alain Badiou’s intellectual advocacy of the ‘communist idea’ takes on a quasi-leadership function in current debates, that he is contributing to this shared and creative hold-out from the early 1980s. Indeed, Badiou has continued to honour Nancy, if not Negri. As he said of Nancy in 2004: ‘Let us greet the friend, the loyal man, the last communist, the thinker, the intellectual artist of sensible disparity.’4
This leads us to link the current writing on the communist idea and communization to the key problem of this longer political sequence: the fundamental radical impasse between working-class politics and the state-party form. The electoral and political demise of workers’ and Communist parties is not the consequence of an enduring crisis of the Left (or even the demise of the industrial working class), but of this political form, which the very real political crisis of the Left (after the collapse of European and Soviet Communism) has simply covered up or deflected. In this sense, the new writing on the communist idea comes out of a profound and long-standing crisis of proletarian agency and representation, which even Henri Lefebvre was noting in the 1950s in his reflection on the increasing dissociation between the French working class and its assumed class identity. Workers were then beginning to develop various strategies of resistance to their identity as workers.5 Today, in a sense, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of social-democratic reformism, this disconnection is all the more stark and generalized.
One of the consequences of this is a split, as Alessandro Russo has cogently put it, between communism as a name in politics and communism as a name in philosophy; communism as a (failed) political tradition and set of strategies, and communism as an (emergent) emancipatory theory.6 The current re-engagement with and re-theorization of the communist idea and legacy are hyperconscious of this split as a condition of political renewal. Thus, if the limited communization of the early Soviet Union remains a source of invaluable political knowledge in the making of a revolution, the legacy of ‘actually existing Communism’ as a depoliticized state form cannot be deflected or suppressed in the renaming of communism as an emancipatory politics in the present. The failure of this state form and its reification of the name ‘communism’ have to be brought to bear on the political uses of the name ‘communism’ now. For it is easy to pass from the crisis of the political name of communism to the philosophical name of communism, indifferent to the fate of communism as a political name, as if the renewal of the philosophical name can instantiate a communism untouched by the realities associated with the political name of communism. But history is not that easily amended or ignored.
The negotiation between these two names of communism, political and philosophical, is therefore the rhetorical ground of the current debate, the space …