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 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."
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 organizers 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 subject 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 characterized by critiques of totalitarianism, praise for human rights and apparently humanitarian (but in reality, imperialist) "interventions" 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. In contrast, he describes his own trajectory as a refusal to yield to this counterrevolutionary 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."
Toward 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." 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."
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 labors of the capitalist 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?" 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 realize communism, Badiou suggests, must be treated as stages in the realization 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 realize 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 name 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.
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."
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. "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)."
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." It is necessary, Žižek says, to return to the valley, to rethink all assumptions, to begin again from the very beginning.
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." 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," these movements reveal, in its purest form since the Paris Commune, "a communism of movement." 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 toward 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." 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."
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 noninterference, 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." 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?" If philosophy is good for anything, Badiou argued, it must be the radical critique of the public opinion molded 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." 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?"
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 privatization 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 privatization fund) in 2005, before becoming Gaddafi's minister of economy, trade and investment.
No wonder that almost three decades after his proclamation that communism was dead, Bernard-Henri Lévy – note too that he persuaded French president Nicolas Sarkozy to meet with the rebels, and ultimately to recognize them as Libya's legitimate government – could tell the president that "the people on the National Transition Council are good guys." 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 "Stabilization Unit," comprised of economic, political and justice advisers, to plan for a post-Gaddafi order.
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.
As Badiou has argued, what is at stake today is not the victory of the communist idea but its very existence. 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 finally capable of realizing communism.