Back to the Left ? On The Idea of Communism

On ‘On the Idea of Communism’ – held March 13th, 14th, 15th, Birkbeck College. Illustration Sam Cox: ‘Zizek and Friends’:

“The communist hypothesis remains the good one, I do not see any other. If we have to abandon this hypothesis, then it is no longer worth doing anything at all in the field of collective action. Without the horizon of communism, without this Idea, there is nothing in the historical and political becoming of any interest to a philosopher. Let everyone bother about his own affairs, and let us stop talking about it. In this case, the rat-man is right, as is, by the way, the case with some ex-communists who are either avid of their rents or who lost courage. However, to hold on to the Idea, to the existence of this hypothesis, does not mean that we should retain its first form of presentation which was centered on property and State. In fact, what is imposed on us as a task, even as a philosophical obligation, is to help a new mode of existence of the hypothesis to deploy itself.” Alain Badiou

( :Conference Blurb.

I would be interested to source the papers given at ‘On the Idea of Communism’. I have, so far, this to go on:

A selection of videos from the conference, courtesy of Perverse Egalitarianism.

And this:

A conference report, courtesy of ‘Commune’, a self proclaimed ‘Communist’ blog, which is naturally critical of this convention of academic behemouth’s, assembled apparently in their name, but with no intention of considering concrete issues surrounding the politics of the Left:

‘The symposium will not deal with practico-political questions of how to analyze the latest economic, political, and military troubles, or how to organize a new political movement.’

That sounds to be an invitation to disaster, on anything up to an epic scale, both within the conference hall, and in the wider world.

Zizek apparently adding to this last statement that: ‘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.’ (From

They will not deal with practical issues, but they are in agreement that we should maintain the ‘communist hypothesis’. Hypothesis towards what? – Surely towards a practical realisation of Communism, otherwise there would be nothing to be hypothesized, hypotheses being, as they are, projections of real outcomes or actual existent realities; one cannot hypothesise a concept.

More radical questioning of an academic nature is apparently needed by the Left before they proceed. Yet Zizek acknowledges simultaneously that we have been questioning ‘from Plato onwards’.

Indeed, if Communism is such a good idea, and has been from Plato onwards, why does it still need to be considered as an idea alone? Are we to gather that what is meant by Zizek is precisely that it is a good idea, good ideas being defined by their difference from good actual practical events: Good ‘things’?

Good things come to those who wait: Good ideas are just mulled over for eternity!

What I’d most like to get to here, is the exaspersating notion that somehow, in Communism’s failing – the triple failing of 1990 – ‘the retreat of the social-democratic Welfare State politics in the developed First World, the disintegration of the Soviet-style Socialist states in the industrialized Second World, and the retreat of emancipatory movements in the Third World,’ (this from the above mentioned conference blurb) – ‘Capitalism’ seemed to triumph, as ‘Free market Globalisation’, and yet in the apparent – temporary at the least – failing of the current model of Capitalism, a failing which had been evident since the conference was planned a year ago (and since long before, one could proffer), we must look back to ‘Communism’, and in a quite ineffectual way; much in the same way, in fact, as we always have.

Why would there not be another option? And, indeed, one that is not gauged as exactly half way between the two extremes – re; the ‘Third Way’ of Blair, Brown, Clinton, Sarkozy, et al. – as if pinning a tale on a donkey.

To be sure, Zizek, as can be seen immediately below, shows some considerable flexibility on the issue of Right vs. Left.

Ths Communist ‘thing’, he says – and I have to paraphrase here, so I won’t quote as such – does not have to happen outside Capitalism: There is no ‘outside Capitalism’ (a point which Badiou also makes: Such a sentiment is heartening, so long as it does not imply, along with so many news commentaries, that, due to the part nationalisation of the Banks in some countries, we now have a form of Communism sanctioned by Liberals, and bought in through the back door, against even their own wishes. This latter view is nothing short of naive: We have a State system propping up Capitalism, so scared that, left to its own devices, Free Market Globalism will not run its course as effortlessly as was once believed by that same Liberal State.

Where such a sentiment might otherwise be heartening is where it points to the need to collapse notions of both Capitalism and Communism, as, indeed, following the effective non-existence of Communism – if it ‘died’ it cannot be revived as it was – there can be no Capitalism per se, merely a world which we inhabit, which may be tweaked on a social level to facilitiate greater or lesser sharing amongst beings, should we want to (incidentally, follow the link to Perverse Egalitarianism for a video of Ranciere talking on the importance of ‘sharing’ as a notion central to the Left, aside from dogma).

In this case, and this is what I’m saying – here we have to leave Zizek, a prolific writer who speaks for himself – it is of the utmost importance that we do not slip back into a consideration of Communism, political or ideological (what good would the entertainment of the ‘idea’ do, if the ‘thing’ itself could not be seen to work?) as a term useful in facilitating a World in which wealth – or more especially food and access to essentials – is shared and not horded.

Yet the conference blurb has stated that:

‘This defeat [the triple defeat of Communism] raises the question: is “Communism” still the name to be used to designate the horizon of radical emancipatory projects? In spite of their theoretical differences, the participants share the thesis that one should remain faithful to the name “Communism”: this name is potent to serve as the Idea which guides our activity, as well as the instrument which enables us to expose the catastrophes of the XXth century politics, those of the Left included.’

I cannot think of a notion more blind: how many names did the notion of ‘sharing’ go under before it settled with ‘Communism’; doubtless very many – and more so if we consider variations in syntax and language ? Why keep a name which is divisive, which evokes the image of Stalin, amongst others, and which sets up again, as an enemy, the full force of ‘Capitalism’?

It is suprising that with the full philosophical resources available to them (‘since Plato’) the participants of the conference did not consider another name, another option, another course … Though I am going on snippets here. I would be interested to see what anyone who attended the conference thinks – especially those who were speaking!

Late thought: This all brings to mind attempts by many of the same assembled philosophers to consider Christianity from a secular purview – as in Zizek’s ‘The Fragile Absolute‘ and Badiou’s ‘Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism‘. Is there a reticence to move onwards here? Perhaps that in itself would be cause for exploration.

This just in
(17/03/09): Total Assault on Culture has posted extensive conference notes, having actually been at the conference. A useful resource, and one that makes it all the easier to critique the conference itself. Not sure if anything here makes me want to renege on what I have said re; the snippets of info I have based this post upon:


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Filed under 'On the Idea of Communism', Badiou, Ranciere, Zizek

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