What's the Big Idea?

By Paul Graham, 8 April 2009

A recent conference at Birkbeck gathered together philosophers to discuss the past, present and, more importantly, the possible future of communism. Paul Graham takes a bird's eye view of proceedings

From Friday 13 to Sunday 15 March the great and the good of Continental philosophy, along with a few of their Anglo-Saxon(ish) counterparts, met at Logan Hall for a conference, On the Idea of Communism, convened by the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. Day one saw papers from Michael Hardt, Bruno Bosteels and Peter Hallward, day two from Alessandro Russo, Alberto Toscano, Antonio Negri, Terry Eagleton, Jacques Rancière and Alain Badiou, and finally day three from Slavoj Žižek, Gianni Vattimo and Judith Balso. Jean-Luc Nancy was originally down to offer interventions throughout the duration, but was kept away due to illness, so this responsibility fell, informally at least, to Žižek, who entertained with his unique brand of impromptu stand-up. It had been announced on the BIH website that the speakers would not ‘deal with practico-political questions of how to analyse the latest economic, political, and military troubles, or how to organise a new political movement,' but would instead approach communism ‘as a philosophical concept'. In their introductory remarks, Žižek and Badiou stressed the need to focus on the philosophical significations of the word ‘communism' itself, to breathe new life into it and look for something positive, and insisted that we distance ourselves from, in Žižek's words, the ‘moral stigma' of past associations. Žižek cautioned against the temptation for knee-jerk reactions in response to the financial crisis. As he put it, ‘There is a time to think'.

Such an approach prompted a skeptical response from some quarters, both before and after. At a time when even mainstream media can question the neoliberal project - however superficially - surely more could be expected from such erstwhile dissidents to identify the actually existing potential for the left to take advantage of the present crisis of capitalism. However, it's a very strange logic that takes philosophers to task for discussing philosophy. It should be agreed, after all, that since we are prepared to condemn blind subservience to neoliberal ideology, we should be equally willing to scrutinise our own ideals, and not risk a lapse into the kind of dogma that got us into the mess of the financial crisis in the first place. So a more appropriate response would be to judge the conference on its own terms. But this presents its own problems. Since there were so many papers delivered over the three days, and so many ideas developed, it's easy to fall into the trap of limiting oneself to trite objections, providing little or no genuine insight.What follows, instead, is a brief delineation of a few of the broader themes that emerged.

Something immediately striking on reflection is that, in spite of the opening remarks and the stated aims of the conference which tried to distinguish between communism as politics and as philosophy, so much attention was devoted to this relationship. There turned out to be much less consensus than originally implied.

As Badiou mentioned in his introduction, the idea for the conference had developed from an ongoing debate between himself and Žižek, following an article by Badiou published in the New Left Review in January 2008, called ‘The Communist Hypothesis'. In it, he sought to identify our present position within the history of communism, coming to the conclusion that we are in an ‘interlude' similar to that of the period between 1871 (after the Paris Commune) to 1917 (the Bolshevik revolution). In such periods, when the adversary is in the ascendancy, new sequences are required, and according to Badiou, ‘Marxism, the workers' movement, mass democracy, Leninism, the party of the proletariat, the socialist state - all the interventions of the 20th century - are not really useful to us anymore.'i So what are we left with?

Nothing but the idea, answered Badiou in his paper, ‘Communism: a Generic Name'. He identified four elements to this idea of communism: political, both in terms of a concrete sequence, such as, for example, the French Revolution, and in philosophical terms a truth procedure; historical, in the sense that any political truth procedure involves an interplay between historical truths; subjective, involving an action on the part of an individual to become part of a truth procedure; and ideological, which involves a synthesis of the other three so that an individual is aware that his or her involvement in a political process is an historical decision. He stressed the absolute necessity of this overriding, formal (philosophical) idea as serving a symbolic purpose. Without a philosophical idea, Badiou explained, there is no possibility for an event, defined as a rupture in an existing situation. The idea is the affirmation that a new truth is possible; it is the only way of being historically prepared for a political event; it is the formal possibility of other possibilities. This insistence on the communist hypothesis as a possibility has led to the criticism of abstraction, but it is also this very same insistence that means Badiou can ultimately claim, as he did in his paper, that this criticism is ‘without issue', since the communist hypothesis has to be abstract by definition, for, as he readily admitted, it is impossible to speculate on what form a communist politics might take, since the idea is merely the fact that it is possible.

In marked contrast, and in an apparent deviation from his original request that we take time to think about things (or was the request for time the deviation?), Žižek began his paper with a straightforward question: What's to be done today? Citing the need to get away from what he called ‘nice poetic explanations', in ‘To begin from the beginning, over and over again' he equated our situation with that of Russia in 1922, and in addressing the financial crisis he claimed that the likely outcome would be the construction of a narrative which identifies the cause as a freak deviation and not something inherent to capitalism itself. As he put it, the result will not be to awaken us to realities, but will instead keep us dreaming. We therefore have a choice either to accept this narrative or to look for antagonisms within capitalism.ii Žižek argued that these antagonisms (the threat of ecological catastrophe, the inappropriateness of private property for immaterial work, the social and ethical implications of scientific developments such as biogenetics, and new forms of apartheid) exist predominantly in the domain of the commons. Capital's enclosure of the commons results in a proletarisation of the disenfranchised, and so according to Žižek we are compelled to radicalise Marx's notion of the proletariat to an existential level, and be ‘resolutely modern' in standing up to capitalism.

Now, according to Peter Hallward, in between the apparent antagonisms of these two positions (one which puts faith in a regulative idea and one that compels us to act) runs a common thread. In ‘Communism of the Intellect, Communism of the Will', he sought to identify this thread in the idea of the general will, as conceived by Rousseau and the Jacobins, which, he argued, served as a precursor to Marxism. In doing so, he hoped to respond to what he identified as the potential criticisms that could be made of both Badiou and Žižek, noting how these positions can be equated with Marx's own conflict between the idea of freedom on one hand and its realisation on the other. According to Hallward, some of the main characteristics of this concept of the general will include its dependence on voluntary action, active empowerment as opposed to representation, the absence of any ontological guarantee, its exercise in the face of resistance, and its capacity to initiate the process of its own realisation. It's this emphasis on commitment as a kind of faith and obligation, then, which links Badiou's militant subjectivisation and Žižek's radical proletarisation. This could also be evidenced by their shared admiration for Samuel Beckett: ‘Try again, fail again, fail better', or ‘I can't go on, I'll go on.'

Alberto Toscano also struck a conciliatory note in ‘Communist Power / Communist Knowledge'.iii He argued that it is impossible to separate communism as philosophy and communism as politics because it can never be entirely one or the other. By drawing on Marx's formulation of communism in the face of contemporary German politics, Toscano showed how philosophy anticipates politics and how the very radicalisation of philosophy can only take place in direct confrontation with politics. He quoted Marx as saying, ‘We develop new principles for the world out of the world's own principles'. For Toscano, this is a powerful defense against the charge of abstraction. Likewise, since the doctrine of communism is necessarily concerned with its realisation, and the realities that determine the doctrine are ever-changing, so too must thinking about the idea of communism constantly call into question communist power - the power to enact its principles.

Conversely, Judith Balso, in her paper ‘Communism: a Hypothesis for Philosophy', claimed in no uncertain terms that we can't ask philosophy to complete politics or, as she put it, to answer questions that only politics can answer. She was categorical in her rejection of what she called a suturing of philosophy to politics, identifying this in particular with the work of Louis Althusser and his analysis of the failure of the French Communist Party, on which he blamed a lack of philosophical understanding. In contrast, Balso called for a ‘necessary double separation' as the only means of advancement. Since historical communism was a political hypothesis, the analysis of its failure, in what she called the ‘aftermath' of the communist hypothesis, must also be political, and deal in particular with the question of the State. I'll come back to this point below.

So, moving away from this debate between philosophical ideals and political realisation, where might we find the concrete stirrings of a communist hypothesis today, and in what manner should it be organised?

As mentioned, Žižek placed emphasis on the domain of the commons. This was the main theme of Michael Hardt's paper too. In calling for a necessary re-examination of the communist hypothesis in the face of significant changes in the conditions of capital, Hardt identified a crucial link between biopolitical production and Marx's definition of communism, since they are both concerned with the human production of humanity. In what was a rare foray into the realms of contemporary political economy, his paper, ‘The Production of the Common', stressed a double contradiction central to biopolitical production, which expropriates the common. Since ideas, information, knowledges etc. are best shared, or in Hardt's words are antithetical to property, neoliberal privatisation necessarily results in a decrease in productivity. In an effort to deal with this contradiction, expropriation has taken the form of rent (through copyrights and patents) and not through traditional privatisation per se. What this means for the communist hypothesis is that as capital becomes more and more dependent on the common, yet remains essentially unable to interfere in its production, a degree of autonomy is ensured which constitutes a breeding ground for communism itself.

Hardt didn't elaborate on how this autonomous breeding ground might be organised, but this was taken up by his colleague Toni Negri, as he advanced his concept of the multitude as a method of revolutionary organisation. He delivered the main points of his paper in Italian (although, bizarrely, its title was given in French as ‘Communisme: reflexions sur le concept et la pratique'), and a translator then expanded on these points. In designating the commons as the arena of struggle, he placed communism in direct opposition to the State, since the State is the main aggressor in its expropriation of the common means of production through ‘management', ‘delegation' and ‘representation'. Communism must be against the State, then, and since it is against all forms of property, communism must also be opposed to a socialist State. So in terms of how to build a new world, Negri stressed the need for force and constituent power, through strikes, riots and insurrections as indignant responses to capitalist production. He equated this with the idea of collective will, as developed by Hallward. But according to Negri, this collective will must have organisation, and this is where the multitude comes into it, as a group of institutions organising the commons in revolt.

Many of the other speakers at the conference, however, were happy enough simply to condemn the State-Party model, without providing a distinct alternative, such as the multitude. Judith Balso, for example, argued that the State is antithetical to emancipation, and she claimed that the failure of historical communism was its inability or unwillingness to do away with it. This was also the thrust of the argument put forward by Alessandro Russo in ‘Did the Cultural Revolution End Communism?' as he argued that the Cultural Revolution sowed the seed for the demise of the State-Party epoch. The problem for Balso is that the State today does not just consist of bureaucratic arms, the police and the army etc., but also involves the production of norms and values, to the extent that, as she put it, there is no outside and society is only an illusion. Using this broad definition, Balso argued that we must establish new places to think at a distance from the State in order to create new visions of the world. This is the only chance for something new to emerge from the aftermath of communism.

The all-pervasive nature of the State and the need to approach the idea of communism from outside its hegemony, and therefore outside of a Party form, was also taken up by Badiou. For Badiou, an event, by its very definition, can only take place outside of the State, since the State, as a system of constraints, defines what is possible in a given situation, whereas an event is something new, a rupture of the present situation, and therefore the creation of a new possibility. Like Balso, he defined the State broadly to include the capitalist economy in its entirety as well as constitutional government.

In a paper devoted to an examination of the term ‘emancipation', Jacques Rancière, in ‘Communists Without Communism?', also backed this insistence on the need to develop the communist hypothesis outside of a concept of the State. Like Balso, he argued that the State, as a means of organisation, is antithetical to true emancipation, and in a nod to Badiou's idea of the fidelity of individuals to a truth procedure, he claimed that the history of true communism, as emancipation, is the history of ‘moments', ‘famous or obscure', of the disruption of State power, when ordinary people have challenged the status quo in the name of equality. A communist hypothesis should seek to connect these moments, and thus seek to establish confidence, which is the true source of emancipation.

In contrast both to Negri, with his alternative model of organisation, and the others, with their vague assertions that something else is needed beyond the State-Party form, a few participants were still prepared to accept a role for the State in the development of a communist hypothesis. Despite sharing with Negri a conviction that communism is against both private property in the form of the State and public property in the form of socialism, Žižek pointed to the possibility of a violent intervention within the hegemonic field which would thus, in his words, ‘lay bare its true co-ordinates', like bringing down a house of cards. In this respect he held out hope for the likes of Bolivia and Venezuela. Bruno Bosteels, in his paper ‘The Leftist Hypothesis: Communism in the Age of Terror', also looked towards Latin America for inspiration regarding how to organise through the State, citing in particular the example of Bolivia and the theoretical work of its vice president, García Linera.

Taken in context and given the conference's stated intentions, it was refreshing that even a broadly philosophical approach to the idea of communism could still, in some cases, refer to some actually existing experiments in the radical redistribution of wealth by the State. Just as it's fair enough to argue for a re-appraisal and a scrutinising of one's ideals as an antidote to blind dogma, so this reformulation should be prepared to orientate itself around what's actually going on in the world we live in. Ultimately, though, this more pragmatic stance did not turn this philosophical discussion into a political rally, as evidenced by the general bemusement in response to Žižek's (tongue-in-cheek) call for a rendition of the Internationale as the conference came to a close. Of course, this was not the time or the place. And it was never going to be.

Paul Graham <ptgraham AT> lives in London and works in a library



On the Idea of Communism was convened by the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities and took place at Logan Hall, Institute of Education, University of London, 13-15 March 2009


i Alain Badiou, ‘The Communist Hypothesis', New Left Review, No.49, January-February 2008,

ii John Barker makes a similar point in his article ‘Wishful Thinkers of the Calamity Bazaar', Mute, vol 2 #11, March 2009,

iii Toscano's paper can be found in its entirety here,