Communism: a viable alternative?

Bernard Keenan

Kana’an eBulletin – Volume IX – Issue 1844

As the epoch of liberal capitalism and the free market falls apart, the question of an alternative must be re-opened.

Let’s get one thing out of the way to begin with: history is back in fashion. A generation on from Francis Fukuyama’s claim that the fall of the Soviet Union marked the “end of history”, the epoch of liberal capitalism and the free market fell apart in spectacular style during a few short months last autumn. As jobs disappear and anger rises, the bare bones of ideology that prop up the present system are exposed.

The speedy panic with which our governments agreed to throw billions of pounds away to restore “confidence” suggests that the dream is over and we are awakening to a strange new socialism, in which an increasingly authoritarian government has taken public control of financial capitalism in order to save it from itself. We read today that equal pay reviews no longer matter. Migrants are left to starve on the streets as the government heads off the far right by pandering to it. And so it’s precisely now that the question of an alternative must be re-opened.

Against this backdrop, Birkbeck College this weekend hosted a symposium on the idea of communism. Originally planned as a meeting of philosophers and those who enjoy hearing their debates, the unexpected material circumstances of history instead gave the event a genuine sense of urgency. Even the BBC came to hear Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou, Jacques Ranciere, Michael Hardt, Toni Negri, and others speaking on the possibilities and challenges of reinventing the communist ideal today.

The conference was happily free of dogmatism. No one on the stage was there to represent a particular party or doctrine. There were disagreements, but at heart was a simple proposition. Communism is an idea that has been with us in different forms for thousands of years, as Terry Eagleton pointed out. The task is now to think what the concepts of egalitarian voluntarism, self-organisation, common ownership of common means of production, abolition of class-structured society, and freedom from state power can mean today.

It’s a bold statement, declaring oneself a communist. The cultural revolutions of 1968 were the beginning of the end of the party-state, when programmatic communism was replaced by a more postmodern, abstract idea of “the left”. Freedom of thought and nomadic thought undid the old certainties of Marxist political knowledge. No one has quite figured out how to replace them, and this perhaps more than anything else can account for the current weakness of the left, even as capitalism is in crisis: what is to be done?

First, the question of the role of the state and the economy remains open. While Judith Balso, Toni Negri and Alain Badiou insist on creating new political movements at a distance from the state, Zizek and Bruno Bosteels point to the experiences of Bolivia and Venezuela as contemporary proof that by taking power, a progressive radical movement can survive even against overwhelming reactionary forces. For Zizek, to reject the idea of a revolutionary state in the absence of a clear alternative is a cop-out.

However, such considerations all seem to beg the question of how to organise. It is difficult to imagine a new Communist party, but without one, the idea of communism remains just that: a quasi-religious article of faith. This was perhaps Eagleton’s point when he observed that it is not so difficult to imagine a communism of scarcity, foisted upon us by disaster rather than rapture.

Perhaps the true question is: why communism? It does no harm to remember that for Marx, communism was not something anachronistic and programmatic. Marx insisted on the simple idea that we and no one else are responsible for remaking the world. Communism can only be enacted from what really exists. The party-states attempted to bend society to match some abstract idea. A true philosophy of communism cannot provide all the answers, because it has not yet encountered the problems.

Separating the promise of communism from the disasters of the 20th century is no easy task. But it feels necessary. Already we know that choices will have to be made and sides taken. Impending ecological disaster suggests that this could be our last chance to do so. If another world is possible, it will happen in action, not abstract theory. The first choice is very simple: to begin.

Source:, 16 March 2009