On the Name of Communism, or
‘Julian Assange is Spartacus’
‘On February 18, some of their guards entered one of the compounds to find out which prisoners of war were Korean civilians who had been forced to join the North Korean army, and did not want to be repatriated. As the guards attempted to begin the screening procedure, there were riots by prisoners armed with iron bars, clubs and barbed wire. The guards opened fire, and seventy-five prisoners were killed. On May 7 the prisoners took hostage the camp commandant, an American, Brigadier-General Dodd, and demanded the right to establish a Communist organisation within the camp, complete with telephones and mimeograph machines. Their demands were met and Dodd was released.’ (1952 – Korean War). Martin Gilbert – ‘Challenge to Civilization – a history of the 20th century 1952-1999’. p6.
The above quote is testament to the resilience of the idea of communism, the name for a tendency in thought which Badiou, one of today’s most consistent champions of the cause, describes in the following way:
‘The communist hypothesis is that a different collective organization is practicable, one that will eliminate the inequality of wealth and even the division of labour.’ – Badiou, New Left Review 49, Jan-Feb, 2008
Such a basic principle has re-entered public discourse quite unexpectedly in the UK in the wake of a worldwide economic recession which has in turn led to the bailout of the very banking institutions responsible for that recession, at the taxpayers’ expense, and a corresponding wave of cuts in public expenditure across sectors to account for a subsequent shortfall in funding. A new counter-capitalist movement has gained momentum particularly in relation to the issue of cuts to further education expenditure, with the principal demand made that funding for tertiary level education be maintained at current levels, or – and, why, with nothing to lose, would the growing movement be content with anything less? – , indeed to restore free tuition to undergraduates.
This particular cause, which has had a great many advocates since prior to New Labour’s election to government in 1997, after which the then government, as is often forgotten, reneged on a manifesto pledge (their ‘contract’ with the nation) to resist implementing the university fees scheme proposed by the Conservatives under John Major. As a cause then it is nothing new or radical, indeed it seems to a great many people who education should be provided free, or at an affordable cost, such that people from all backgrounds (from those who pay, have paid, or will pay little tax to those that pay, have paid or will pay a lot of tax during their lives) can afford to benefit from learning up to the level they require, so that they may then develop their talents for their benefit and for the good of others. Yet somehow this has changed from becoming a common sense argument to a revivifying cause celebre for an emergent middle class leftism, effectively anticipated by the popularity of last year’s sold out 3-day ‘On the Idea of Communism’ conference at Birkbeck (this year sees the accompanying book being released in time for Christmas). It is perhaps coincidence that the cause which has converted the (across new and old media) anti-capitalist movement from the preserve of a hardcore of dedicated anarchists and eco-warriors to a movement peopled with students, artists and academics is one that has the issue of public versus private funding at its heart. The Socialist Workers Party must feel that their moment has come again, exonerated by the march of history foreseen by Marx. Yet as Badiou himself argues – though we will later see that here he suffers a sticking point – changing times require changed methods, rather than an adherence to dogmas aimed strictly at reaching the horizon (the horizon is always X many miles way):
‘It is foolish to call such communist principles [in relation to the hypothesis, quoted above-MW] utopian; in the sense that I have defined them here they are intellectual patterns, always actualized in a different fashion.’
Indeed, it is for this reason that I question the sense in maintaining the very word ‘communism’, for where Badiou and Zizek fall short, it is clinging to a vestige that by their own logic we would be better off jettisoning. Far from being radical provocateurs, in fact, academia’s two most vocal champions of the just cause appear hopelessly reactionary at the point at which they, as they did at the ‘On the Idea of Communism’ event, insist on maintaining the name of communism.
At the time of the conference, March 2009, this appeared as a harmless and irrelevant academic quirk, it being merely the ‘Idea’ of communism that had been evoked in name. Indeed, the whole affair came across like a Dungeons and Dragons convention, with people moving fantasy figures – ideas – around hypothetical worlds. However, if one might describe the 20th Century in Europe as the Socialist century, a period in which great pains, which, after all, didn’t have to be made, were made to give a great many people a minimum standard of living across the Western world, we are now seeing a reverse trend, which in fact started with the nationalization of the banking industry at the start of our current economic crisis. This move marked the beginnings of a form of State-backed Capitalism, not as the reigning in of the latter, but as the blunting of the State as a tool for the distribution of wealth to those in need.
At this point it is worth noting that whilst it is coincidental that the cause fought over by students and academics today perfectly embodies the maxim ‘from each according to their abilities to each according to their need’ – coincidental because in the case of this particular cause, the maxim merely represents common sense, not a desire to necessarily revive the spirit of Marx -, things have somehow realigned, in a quite unexpected way, so as to make this Marxist maxim appear as a viable and necessary corrective to the injustices that we face today. For today we see a society run on the opposite principle, ‘from the needy regardless of their means to the wealthy, regardless of their needs’, bought about via the sleight of hand discussed above: If the 20th Century began when the working classes demanding their rights, the 21st Century began with banking class calling in its ‘privileges’, under the guise of a worker buyout of the banks. As reported in the Telegraph, October 13th 2008: ‘Today will go down in history as the day the capitalist system admitted defeat.’ This was not, I would venture, a ruse on the part of the wealthy newspapers owners, or those in the banking industry who have influence over them. The ruse was played out by capitalism itself, a faceless and independent movement of forces by now beyond the control of the State, and even of business. So the banking class has benefitted on behalf of a system over which it has no control, which does not exonerate the banking class any more than it gilds the working and middle classes with the glow of a soon to be fulfilled destiny. Injustices suffered at the hands of capitalism do not prove the efficacy or correctness of left wing theory or political tactics. The current sense of triumphalism displayed by leftist academics and commentators both established and emerging – Zizek, Badiou, Pilger, Power, Seymour, and so on – is quite counter intuitive, for what we have seen recently is the total upending of the leftist ideal with no sign of the collapse of capitalism (in fact its protection is now enshrined in Western law to an extent never before seen). And so to argue that socialism, communism should somehow naturally step to the fore given its past failure, given that it has been the main opposition to capitalism for the lifetime, so far, of the latter, and that it has failed in this capacity appears nonsensical. Yet as the ideal that Badiou described (above), of course communism must continue and now is its time, in that now the ideal of a fair and just society must be pursued before capital gains a stranglehold and removes permanently the ‘e’ from humane. It is this ideal that Zizek defends, against its modification by those who seek to fit the communist ideal into a changing world, rather than assessing the changing world in terms of an irreducible concept of communism:
‘Postmodern society, risk society, postindustrial society, informational society… They, I think, miss what is really new. The only way to grasp what is new in the new is to analyze what goes on today through the lenses of what was eternal in the old. If communism is an eternal idea then it works as a Hegelian concrete universality. It is eternal not in the sense of a series of abstract features which can be applied to every situation, but in the sense that it has the ability, the potential to be reinvented in its new historical situation. So my first conclusion: to be true to what is eternal in communism, that is to say, to this drive towards radical emancipation which persists in the entire history from ancient times of Spartacus and so on, to keep this universal idea alive one has to reinvent it again and again. And this holds especially today.’ – Zizek, ‘What does it mean to be a Revolutionary Today?’, Marxism 2009
Herein resides a paradox, for either the fundamental notion of communism as the Ideal of a society in which wealth is equitably distributed according to ability and need is concrete ad unchangeable, or it is something that needs changing to suit a changing world. Yet Badiou and Zizek argue for the constant reinvention of the notion of communism, so long as communism remains. And here a very Hegelian reading of Marx is evoked, in which revolution is cast not as a revolution from one situation to another, but as a perpetual revolving, in this case between communism in its fixity as a given notion and the idea of communism, as a potentially changing idea. In terms of political praxis this reading of Marx can actually be interpreted as bringing about stasis, as the two equipotent forces of communism as practiced ideal and not-communism (the reality, the difficulty in maintaining the ideal) revolve in a perpetual struggle. In terms of academic discussion, the pure Idea of communism suffers equally, caught between its need to transcend and find a new mode of expression, and its need to remain ‘communism’, which is a quandary that ‘communism’ as ‘communism’ will always face, for its tendency is to aim towards what we don’t yet have, yet it is always required to do so from the purview of where we are now, as communism as a projected Ideal.
It is this tendency, to throw oneself ahead of oneself which thwarts the communist ideal naturally. Yet it seems odd that our supposed greatest minds let themselves be trapped in this way. For Zizek identifies a tendency towards justice, in the story of Spartacus, as does Badiou, and both miss what is otherwise blatant in so doing:
‘Popular revolts—the slaves led by Spartacus, the peasants led by Müntzer—might be identified as practical examples of this ‘communist invariant’. ‘ – Badiou, New Left Review, as above.
Firstly, the tactic of declaring communism as an invariant which we must adhere to, and then backing this up with recourse to the story of a slave rebellion which occurred some 1860 years prior to the French Revolution is so poor as to not even attempt deception. If the ideal of justice has a name and that name must be, unchangeably, communism, then Spartacus, and indeed Müntzer, who took part in the German Peasants revolt of 1525 are retrospectively embedded within the invariant which is communism as an Ideal which must seek new channels and new modes of expression, whilst not departing from the fixity which reality imposes on the Ideal, as unrealised and unachievable end. For to cast the dream of communism back upon earlier uprisings and revolutionary movements is to effectively involve then in the failure to overcome domination. Yet might it not have occurred to Badiou and Zizek that Spartacus and Müntzer have nothing to do with communism? This almost seems too simple now, yet it opens up a possibility that if what went before, in terms of movements keen on seeing a just and fair society or community, was different to communism, then there may be such a thing as a sound movement for equality and justice possible today, which does not fall prey to the pitfalls of communism. And this is without even getting on to the unpopularity of the word in most circles, the difficulty in persuading the public to rally behind it, for whatever historical reasons. Yet above and beyond this, we have seen it is not like every other word, for due to its meaning it is caught by its nature in a stasis between what might be, and what is, the working away of an Ideal upon the forces of the real world.
Words often serve to trap us where freedom is concerned, and they do this as they participate in the real world. ‘Politics’ originally meant ‘to do with citizens’, yet politics is rarely to do directly with citizens, or even, as we in the UK are, ‘subjects’. For today politics most commonly evokes argument, or a series of arguments, and people are often careful to dismiss what is ‘just politics’, or what is merely ‘politics’, as a cipher for petty wrangling or bureaucratic knotting, which serves to prevent rather than expedite decision-making and action. This is not least because the notion of actually doing politics in reality requires first the notion of freedom, which Badiou and Zizek insist on calling ‘communism’, the communist hypothesis, where a new kind of labour relations might be envisaged, to be made concrete, yet as an Ideal the gap between reality and a hoped for deliverance from it will always be wide, like grasping forever at the proverbial horizon. Indeed, politics today is not a means of organizing power for the benefit of the citizenry, it is more commonly a blockage of power, maintained by close but opposed arguments. Politics as the practice of power is stuck, and communism, as an ideal of freedom is stuck outside of it, looking in, paralyzed by the injunction that it must stay the same, always reinventing itself in order to do so. Everything within the Capitalist whole, of which communism is part, if we take the argument that the world has been completely commodified, is perfectly poised for stasis.
Yet tears can be and have been made in the fabric of a ‘politics’, which blocks out positive interaction with and development of arguments, and these have not come through the envisaged struggle of workers protests – pickets, occupations, marches, riots – which in any case represent the activity of people whose only recourse, not having means to communicate and bargain through other channels was physical representation (being somewhere, staying somewhere, taking something etc.). Yet in the popular representation of Spartacus (Kubrick 1960) it is not an intervention in the means of production or the ownership of space which represents the filmic revolutionary moment (which in fact almost certainly didn’t happen in reality, other than in the reality that is the film).
In the film, the Greek slave-rebel Spartacus faces the soldiers of his enemy Crassus, who ask that he, out of the several thousand men assembled, present himself for capture and certain execution:
I bring a message from your master…
Marcus Licinius Crassus…
commander of ltaly.
By command of His Most Merciful Excellency…
your lives are to be spared.
Slaves you were…
and slaves you remain.
But the terrible penalty of crucifixion…
has been set aside…
on the single condition that you identify the body…
or the living person of the slave called Spartacus.
The response of Spartacus’ men is to individually claim:
A displacement of reality, circumvented by hubristic ruse, and in this sense not a representation of communist solidarity, for this does not mark a gap between a hoped for Ideal and reality, but the altering of reality as everyone becomes Spartacus, individually and on their own say so, whilst ‘Spartacus’ as a word represents at that point a circumvention of the political system. It is indeed the opposite of the ruse played by the inmates in the Korean camp (opening quote), who, communist or not, are in any case still imprisoned, first by the fact of being physically in prison, secondly by their adherence to an Ideal for which its perpetual distance from its aim (freedom from the prison that is the gap between reality and desire) marks an incarceration of thought within reality.
Arguably, indeed, this is not a political act, as an organization of power from the top down, or bottom up – politics as the ordering of the mass of citizenry. It is more akin, indeed, to the artistic statement, by which this or that artwork or this or that banal object, might be declared as ‘art’, a ruse which takes the individual administered object and presents it as ‘free’, above and beyond the confines of mere commodification. And it is indeed ‘art’ which might be a better course of appeal these days than ‘communism’, cast as a perpetually thwarted hope for ‘politics’. The Ideal of communism, as the very simple notion of fairness and justice must be maintained, but the name and the means must be changed.
As Julian Assange, WikiLeaks spokesman currently resides in a UK court, pending deportation to Sweden, it is worth noting the similarity between the functioning of WikiLeaks and the filmic representation of Spartacus above. Deception, evasion and individual participation in the declaration of freedom, of the ability to act, to throw off the strait jacket of recent political history, of the recent history of freedom movements. Julian Assange is Spartacus. No I’m Spartacus. No I’m..
Mike Watson is working on a forthcoming publication by ZerO Books, Joan of Art: Towards a Conceptual Militancy. He lives and works in Rome.