The long night of the left is drawing to a close. The defeat, denunciations and despair of the 1980s and 1990s, the triumphalist ‘end of history’, the unipolar world of American hegemony — all are fast becoming old news. In Europe, in the year 2000, Jürgen Habermas and Ulrich Beck enthused about the European Union and its common currency, prophesying that it would become the model for the future of humanity. How different the reality is today! The Union is no longer a model but a dysfunctional organization of fanatical right-wing governments and supine social democrats imposing unprecedented austerity measures, unemployment and poverty on working people in order to return to ‘fiscal discipline’.
All pretence of social solidarity and justice, always an exaggerated assertion of the EU, has been abandoned. The 2008 ‘bail-out’ of banks to the tune of over one trillion dollars socialized the losses of neo-liberal casino capitalism, asking the multitude to pay for the speculation of hedge funds, derivative markets and an economic system based on consumption and debt. Socialism for the banks, capitalism for the poor became the modus vivendi of the 2000s. People around the world learnt, to paraphrase Brecht, that you go to prison if you fiddle your benefit payments, but receive huge bonuses if you bankrupt a bank.
At the beginning of the second decade of the new century, the post-Cold War complacency is over. The economic crisis has matured into a full-fledged political crisis which is de-legitimizing political systems and distancing people from capitalist ideology. New antagonisms and struggles are developing over the defence of the welfare state in the West, the programmatic exclusion of large groups of people from economic activity and political participation, and ecological fears. A new militancy evident at the beginning of the new decade in, amongst other places, Greece, France, India and Thailand is introducing wide sections of the population and, critically, young people to ideas of resistance, rebellion and emancipation. If 1989 was the inaugural year of the new world order, 2001 announced its decline, and the collapse of the banking system in 2008 marked the beginning of a return to full-blown history. If that was our ‘new world order’, it is the shortest the world has even seen.
The return of history has led to a renewed interest in radical ideas and politics. The twenty-first century left can finally leave behind the introspection, contrition and penance that followed the fall of the Soviet Union. The left which aligned itself with ‘actually existing socialism’ has disappeared or turned into a historical curiosity. New forms of radical militancy and mobilization have marked the return to politics. In Latin America, the different new lefts in Bolivia, Venezuela and Brazil are developing unprecedented and imaginative national paths to socialism. In the United States, the election of Barack Obama was a symbolic moment hailed throughout the world as a sign of historical progress. In India, China and Africa, dissent, resistance and rebellion have replaced the somnolent and fearful 1990s.
In this context, the conference ‘The Idea of Communism’, organized by the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities in March 2009, had huge political importance. When we first planned it, in the summer of 2008, we expected only a limited audience and booked a room capable of holding 180. But when, in early 2009, we opened for registration, the interest was such that we had twice to move to larger rooms, eventually ending in the main auditorium at the Institute of Education accommodating 900 people, with an adjacent video-link room holding another 300. Julia Eisner, who administered the conference, was deluged with messages and pleading voices from individuals, campaigns and political organizations all over the world who came to London to listen and participate. Julia’s efficient, calm and elegant presence made this event possible.
The participants at the conference — now the contributors to this volume — have developed new theoretical and political radicalisms that have a particular resonance amongst younger people. But the conference was the first occasion for bringing together some of the most interesting philosophers on the left under the name of communism — a word that has recently received more bad press than perhaps any other. The key question addressed then, is whether ‘communism’ is still the name to be used to designate radical emancipatory projects. The conference participants, although coming from different perspectives and projects, shared the thesis that one should remain faithful to the name ‘communism/. It is a name that can not only express the Idea which guides radical activity, but can also help expose the catastrophes of the twentieth century, including those of the left.
By de-demonizing the signifier communism’ — by asserting in Alain Badiou’s felicitous words that ‘from Plato onwards, Communism is the only political Idea worthy of a philosopher’ — the conference opened the way for a reactivation of the strong link between radical philosophy and politics. The massive participation, the amazing buzz that propelled the conference (strangers greeting each other like old friends), the good-humoured and non-sectarian question and answer sessions (something rather rare on the left), all indicated that the period of guilt is over. If this conference was a major intellectual encounter, it was an even greater political event.
Left theory has been always linked with political practice. Thinking in action is the left’s key weapon. At this critical turning point, where all bets on the outcome of the crisis are off and the best and worst stand in close proximity, the idea of communism has the potential to revitalize theoretical thinking and reverse the de-politicizing tendency of late capitalism.
The energy, dynamism and pluralism that characterized the conference is evident in this collection. We have edited the lectures minimally in order to preserve the vitality of a political event. It goes without saying that the speakers did not all agree on the meaning of communism, its relevance today, or the ways in which it may mark a new political beginning. But despite some, disagreement, certain common themes emerged. Without any particular priority, these were the shared premises that brought most people together.
- Recent politics has attempted to ban and foreclose conflict. The idea of communism confronts widespread de-politicization by inducing new political subjectivities and returning to a popular voluntarism.
- ‘Communism’ is the idea of radical philosophy and politics. As the precondition of radical action, communism must be thought today by taking its distance from statism and economism and becoming informed by the political experiences of the twenty-first century.
- Neo-liberal capitalist exploitation and domination takes the form of new enclosures of the commons (language and communication, intellectual property, genetic material, natural resources and forms of governance). Communism, by returning to the concept of the ‘common’, confronts capitalist privatizations with a view to building a new commonwealth.
- Communism aims to bring about freedom and equality. Freedom cannot flourish without equality and equality does not exist without freedom.
As Slavoj Zizek suggested during the closing session, we have to start again and again and beginnings are always the hardest. But it may be that the beginning has already happened, and it is now a question of fidelity to that beginning. This then is the task ahead.
Costas Douzinas and Slavoj Zizek