Communism’s reputation plummeted after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. While free-market advocates hailed the “end of history,” Communist parties around the world entered a race to change their name. Awkward paraphrases with the obligatory qualifier “democratic” abounded. The financial crisis of 2007, however, rekindled the interest in alternatives to capitalism. Neoliberalism’s golden age was over, and communism was back on the agenda. In 2009, prominent left-wing intellectuals, including Jean-Luc Nancy, Toni Negri, and Slavoj Žižek, met in London for a conference titled “The Idea of Communism,” which proved hugely popular. The Guardian ran the headline: “Move over Jacko, Idea of Communism is hottest ticket in town this weekend.” Similar events followed across Europe. In Latin America, popular socialist movements turned to Cuban communists for inspiration, and Marxist authors presented us with books such as The Communist Hypothesis (Alain Badiou), The Communist Horizon (Jodi Dean), or The Communist Necessity (J. Moufawad-Paul). Those less inclined to awaken ideological debates of old threw related, yet less controversial terms into the mix: “commons,” “communalism,” or “communitarianism.”
Let us recall the perhaps most concise definition of communism in Marx’s work. In the Economic and Political Manuscripts of 1844, he says:
Communism as the positive abolition of private property as human self-alienation, means the real appropriation of human entity by and for man; thus the complete, conscious return–accomplished inside all the riches of the past development–of man for himself qua social, that is, as a human being. This Communism is, as perfect Naturalism, identical with Humanism, and as perfect Humanism identical with Naturalism; it is the real solution of the antagonism between man and nature, between man and man; the genuine solution of the conflict between existence and essence, between objectivisation and self-affirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species. It is history’s solved riddle and is conscious of being the solution.
This is somewhat abstract, but it is not difficult to spell out some concrete implications: communal property; collective production and allocation of goods; legal and political equality; social and ecological sustainability; community instead of egoism; solidarity instead of competition; personal fulfillment instead of alienation. These principles guide leftists to this day, at least if they dare to dream beyond the welfare state and an alternative (any alternative) to Trump. But we must be clear: the realization of these principles requires radical change; that is, a socialization of industries, an expropriation of private fortunes, a collectivization of agriculture, a redistribution of global wealth, land reform, participative democracy, and the end of the nation state. It is no stroll to communism. This might also be the reason its resurrection has come with a twist…
While Marx and Engels opposed any form of utopianism and stressed the scientific foundation of their communist convictions (historical materialism), the current communist revival has a strong utopian bent. People longing to do away with capitalism’s inherent contradictions (exploitation, the gap between the rich and the poor, social hierarchies, and so on) have embraced communism as an abstract ideal, but the effect on real politics has been limited. In some places, nominally communist parties still wield political power. In Cuba, China, and Vietnam, communist one-party systems avoided post-Soviet collapse. In Nepal and the Indian state of Kerala, communists have been voted into government. Greece’s governing party Syriza is the result of a coalition that included several communist organizations. The politics of these parties, however, are not communist. They are characterized either by state-capitalist compromise, or by continuing the social-democratic policies abandoned by social-democratic parties. That the communist revival mainly parades communism as an abstract ideal has been confirmed by one of its most prominent figureheads, the French philosopher Alain Badiou. In 2008, he stated in an article in New Left Review that communism was “an Idea with a regulatory function, rather than a programme.”
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