In defence of an idea (by one who was there)

Starting out to criticise something that one hasn’t seen, heard, read, and so on, is obviously ill-advised, especially if, despite a preliminary disclaimer (‘I wasn’t there, so I don’t know’), one carries on to vent one’s spleen regardless. The defence of an idea that remains to be thought will always be difficult when faced with those who are certain of their condemnation or praise before that thought has been attempted. Certainty confused with rigorous argument and disciplined thought has been the bain of Marxist thought for some time. Thankfully, this confusion seems to be passing, for some at least.
The disasters that have occurred in the name of communism are familiar to all but the most politically ignorant and need not be rehearsed here, least of all with eager, sensational images. To not speak of these disasters – or rather not to dwell upon them as an historical impasse, for they were spoken of at the Birkbeck conference – is not to carry on as though everything is ‘tickety-boo’ but rather to understand, perhaps, that the problem of an egalitarian and emancipatory politics cannot be allowed to disappear with the fall of a wall, however perverted the trajectory of such a politics might have become to have ended thus. In other words, to paraphrase Badiou, the truth of communism cannot be subsumed by the historical facts, which no one has tried to deny or justify. And again, between truth and fact is the space of thought. The enemy of thought in this instance would be, as it was for Adorno many years ago, resignation to failure and to the resentment and cynical detachment that follows.

Of course, such ‘French stuff’ might be described as speculative and ‘dangerously’ abstract, and one might, like the reviewer mentioned by Alberto Toscano, appeal to good common sense and carry on as though all the thought had been done on the matter. This was Eagleton’s approach, it seems. He was witty and disappointing, lacking any sense of urgency or shared difficulty as he meandered along familiar paths through Shakespeare’s precursory communism with a peculiarly English cheeriness, envisioning a ‘deliciously indolent’ and bountiful communism that seemed, in light of our current situation, rather grotesque. Mark Fisher’s criticisms of him are not ad hominem (in the way, for instance, that describing Badiou et al as ‘French stuff’ might be considered ad nationem: scare quotes cannot hide lazy prejudices), but point simply to the fact that the questionable virtues of pluckiness, common sense and the occasional well-intended sneer have allowed us all to get away with the insupportable for too long.

What is being advocated is neither a ‘socialism of fools’ that would seek a scapegoat for systemic excesses nor some folksy populism à la Bové. Thankfully, neither was the chimera of working-class subjectivity, whatever that might be, given any more attention than such an impoverished political category deserves; impoverished precisely because it reduces political subjectivity to economic imperatives, leaving very little room for thought, and also for politics, within a market whose necessity remains largely unquestioned even at times of crisis and which imagines ‘only that it believes in itself’, as one speaker described it. In such a situation all that can be done is to wait for the ‘right’ conditions and snipe at those who don’t agree.

If anything connects the thought of the likes of Badiou, Rancière and Negri it is a greater generosity as to what constitutes political subjectivity and its potential for significant action in a world in which conditions of labour are not those faced by either the Third International or indeed the New Left. This fact no doubt explains something of the popularity of the event at Birkbeck.

In the absence of an idea of communism one wonders what might be left for avowed Marxists or anyone else concerned with political association and organisation imagined in any way other than the desperately inadequate forms with which we must work at present.

There were problems with the conference at Birkbeck (not least, the dominance of celebrity WASP intellectuals, as Rancière described it), but seeking to rethink the idea of communism was not one of them, unless one imagined to have it all figured out beforehand.

Posted By: Tim Stott (