the communist wish

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By SLAVEJ ŽIŽEK*

The idea of ​​a society that has completely overcome domination

in your stupendous Yesterday's Tomorrow,[I] Bini Adamcza offers nothing less than a definitive description of what we are led to call an indelible and absolutely authentic “communist desire”, the idea of ​​a society that has completely overcome domination: “Unlike slaves, who only wanted to be as free as their masters, unlike peasants, who wanted to pay their lords a tenth of their harvest instead of a fifth; unlike the bourgeoisie, which only wanted political freedom, not economic freedom, what the workers demanded was a classless society. The communists promised the abolition of all domination. And as long as they are remembered, their promise will endure.”

This desire is “eternal” in the simple sense that it is a shadow that follows all of history – which is, as Marx and Engels wrote, the history of class struggle. Bini Adamczak's book is special in that she detects this desire through a very careful analysis of the failures of the (European) communist movement of the XNUMXth century, from the Hitler-Stalin pact to the brutal suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion. The details she describes make it clear that, shall we say, we cannot understand the Hitler-Stalin pact solely in terms of a brutal Realpolitik (Stalin would need time to prepare for the war that loomed over the horizon.)

Bizarre excesses distort this image, such as the fact that, in 1940, the guards of the gulag they were forbidden to call prisoners “fascists!” not to insult the Nazis: “What remains incomprehensible, because it is irreducible to any political calculation of power, is Beria's order prohibiting guards in gulag to ridicule political prisoners – mostly anti-fascists accused of “Trotskyist-fascist deviations” – with the epithet of fascist”.

Bini Adamczak's focus is twofold, as the book's subtitle makes clear: “On the Solitude of Communist Specters and the Reconstruction of the Future”. Absolute loneliness is that of communists who were expelled but continued to believe in the communist Idea that was embodied in the Party that liquidated them – that is, in Lacanian terms, the Party continued, for them, as the only big Other. His impasse was that insisting on the purity of the communist dream against its betrayal by the Party was not a way out: it was necessary to “rebuild” this dream of a future.

Most of them (just remember Arthur Koestler and Ignazio Silone) failed in this task, contributed to the liberal (or even conservative) critique of communism and produced writings in the “God who failed” style, adding to the Cold War anti-communist army . As Bini Adamczak notes, the absence of communist desire explains why, even when European communism disintegrated in 1990, “the jubilant cries of the Cold War victors were so unconvincing: they did not convey any joy. Instead of relief at a threatening danger averted, or shared joy at the new lot of those no longer oppressed, they expressed something that resembled an embittered malevolence: the malicious joy those who stayed at home because their brothers were drowned at sea.”

Here, Bini Adamczak inverts the well-known anti-communist motto that says that anyone who does not want to talk about Stalinism should remain silent about communism: “but what can be said about Stalinism by those who refuse to listen to communism? Those who want to write the history of this past without writing the history of that future that was buried with it?” Only communism sets the highest standards by which it must be critically judged and rejected. That is why “the first charge against anti-communism must be that of minimizing the crimes of Stalinism. Not because an idea was killed along with the people in the gulag – how cynical – but because only communism brought to light the historically realizable demand to refuse any deprivation, to tolerate no further degradation”.

This is why the worst thing a communist can do is to irresolutely and comparatively modestly defend communist states: “Communists react defensively to the (anti-communist) critique of communism – 'not everything about communism was bad' – by defending it whether – 'that wasn't even communism' – or attacking – 'criticism of the crimes carried out by communism only serves to legitimize the crimes of the enemies'. They are right on all counts. But what does claiming that Nazism was worse, that capitalism has been just as bad, mean for communism? What kind of verdict is implied in saying, not that everything, but almost was everything bad?

Let's remember a similar way of defending Cuba: yes, the revolution was a failure, but they have a good health and education system… We do not hear a similar argument coming from those who “show understanding” for Russia, although they condemn the invasion of Ukraine : “criticism of Russian crimes in Ukraine only serves to legitimize the crimes of the liberal West…”?

Bini Adamczak also dismisses the “postmodern” left who criticize communism for focusing on the economy while considering feminism, the struggle against sexual oppression, and all other domains of “cultural Marxism” secondary. Such criticism comes too close to a comfortable historicism, which ignores the “eternity” of the communist idea. When an injustice happens, the historicist relativization that operates by evoking specific circumstances ("he lived in a different time when it was normal to be racist or anti-feminist, so we shouldn't judge him according to current values") is wrong: we must do just that, measuring the mistakes of the past by today's standards. We must be shocked at how women were treated in past centuries, that benevolent and “civilized” people owned slaves, etc.

Current communist power is not just fighting its capitalist opponents; he is betraying the emancipatory dream that brought him into the world. This is why a true critique of really existing socialism must not just point to the fact that life in a communist state was, on the whole, worse than that in many capitalist states. Its greatest “contradiction” is the antinomy it carries at its core, not just the stark contrast between idea and reality, but the less perceptible change in the idea itself. The idealized image of the future promised by communist power is incompatible with the communist idea.

In the last act of The storm, Prospero says to Caliban: "this dark thing I recognize to be mine". Every communist must say something similar about Stalinism, the greatest "dark thing" in the history of communism: to really understand it, the first gesture is to "acknowledge it as mine", to fully accept that Stalinism was not a contingent deviation or a misapplication of Marxism, but it was implied in it as a possibility... And doesn't Hegel say something similar in his famous sentences about the French Revolution?

“Never, since the sun began to shine in the firmament and the planets began to revolve around it, has it been realized that man's existence is centered in his head, that is, in thought (...). Anaxagoras was the first to say that the us rules the world; but only now has man realized that thought must govern spiritual reality. Thus came a glorious dawn. All thinking living beings celebrated this time. In that period, a sublime enthusiasm reigned, an enthusiasm of the spirit, which shook the world as if only now the true reconciliation of the divine with the world had happened”.[ii]

Note that Hegel says this a quarter of a century after the French Revolution, and decades after he had shown how the freedom he wanted to actualize had necessarily become terror. We must say the same about the October Revolution after the experience of Stalinism as its aftermath: there also happened “a glorious dawn. All thinking living beings celebrated this time. In that period, a sublime enthusiasm reigned, an enthusiasm of the spirit, which shook the world”. We have to face this antinomy fully, avoiding both the pitfalls: reducing Stalinism to an error due to contingent circumstances, as well as the quick conclusion that Stalinism is the “truth” about communist desire.

This antinomy is taken to an extreme in The State and the Revolution, by Lenin, a book whose vision of the revolution is definitely founded on the authentic communist desire: as Lenin writes, with the revolution, “for the first time in the history of civilized societies, the mass of society will rise to autonomous participation not only in polls and elections, but also in day-to-day administration. Under socialism, everyone will manage in turn and will quickly get used to no one managing”.[iii]

This properly communist dimension is condensed in the famous Leninist formula that says that “every cook must learn to govern the State”, repeated incessantly during the 1920s as a slogan for the emancipation of women. However, it is important to look more carefully at the precise context in which Lenin justified this slogan which, at first glance, may seem extremely utopian, especially since he emphasizes that the slogan designates something that “can and must be done at once, overnight,” not in some distant communist future.

Lenin begins his argument by refusing to be utopian: against the anarchists, he asserts his complete realism. He is not counting on “new men”, but on “people as they are now, with people who cannot do without subordination, control and “bosses and accountants”: “We are not utopians. We do not 'dream' of dispensing with all administration, all subordination at once; these anarchist dreams, based on a misunderstanding of the tasks of the dictatorship of the proletariat, are fundamentally alien to Marxism and in reality only serve to postpone the socialist revolution until such time as the people are different. No, we want the socialist revolution, with people like those of today, who will not be able to do without subordination, without control, without 'managers'”.

“But it is necessary to subordinate oneself to the armed vanguard of all the exploited and the workers – the proletariat. We can and we must, from now on, from today to tomorrow, begin to replace the specific 'hierarchization' of State officials with the simple functions of 'administrators', functions that, even today, are completely within reach of the level of development of city dwellers in general and which can be perfectly executed through the 'worker's wage'.”

But how to do it? Here is the key moment of Lenin's argument: "the mechanism of social management is already at hand" in modern capitalism - the mechanism of automatic functioning of a wide production process where the bosses (representing the owners) only give formal orders . This mechanism works so stably that, without disturbing it, the role of the boss is reduced to simple decisions and can be occupied by any ordinary person. Then, all the socialist revolution needs to do is to replace the capitalist or state-appointed head with an ordinary (randomly chosen) person.

To illustrate this point, Lenin uses the example of the postal service: “A witty German Social Democrat of the 70s called the post office the model of socialist enterprise. Very fair. The post office is today an economy organized according to the type of state capitalist monopoly. Imperialism progressively transforms all trusts into organizations of a similar type. Above the 'simple' workers, who are overworked and starving, one finds here exactly the same bourgeois bureaucracy. But the social management mechanism, in this case, is already ready. Overthrowing the capitalists, destroying the resistance of these exploiters with the iron hand of the armed workers and demolishing the bureaucratic machine of the contemporary State – with that, we have before us a mechanism of high technical equipment free of the 'parasite', which the workers themselves united they can perfectly put into operation by hiring technicians, administrators, paying the work of all of them, as well as that of all 'State' employees in general with a worker's salary.”

Lenin is arguing here that “public functions will lose their political character and will be transformed into simple administrative functions”. What, then, is the place of the opinions of those who should obey “iron discipline” in this depoliticized administrative machine? Lenin's solution was practically a Kantian solution: free debate in public meetings during weekends, but obedience and effort during work!

The Bolsheviks must “put themselves at the head of the exhausted and weary masses who are looking for a way out, lead them along the right path, along the path of labor discipline, along the path of reconciling the tasks of holding meetings about working conditions with the tasks unreserved subordination to the will of the Soviet leader, the dictator, during work. (…) It is necessary to learn to combine the tempestuous democracy of the rallies of the working masses, which flows like the spring flood, which overflows all shores, with iron discipline during work, with unreserved obedience to the will of a single person. , of the Soviet leader, during work”.[iv]

It has already been noted several times how Lenin gradually narrows the field: in the beginning, it is the majority, the mass of exploited people; then the proletariat, which is no longer the majority (recall that in Russia at that time more than 80% of the population was made up of peasants), but a privileged minority; then even this minority becomes a mass of “exhausted people” and confused who need to be led by “the armed vanguard of all exploited workers”; and, as expected, we ended up with unconditional obedience to the will of a single person, the Soviet dictator.

A Hegelian would readily raise the question about mediation: we have three levels, the Universal (the working majority, "all"), the Particular (the party, the "armed vanguard" that controls state power), and the Singular (the leader ). Lenin automatically identifies them, ignoring the modes of mediation in which the political struggle itself takes place. This is why, as Ralf Millband noted, there was no debate about the role of the party when Lenin described the functioning of the socialist economic edifice. This lack becomes even stranger if we take into account the fact that the focus of Lenin's political work is the struggle, within the party, between a true line and different revisionists.

This leads us to another of Lenin's antinomies: despite his total politicization of social life (for him, for example, there is no such thing as a neutral "justice" in the courts: if the judges are not on your side, they are on your side). of the enemy), his perspective on the socialist economy is deeply technocratic. The economy is a neutral machine, which can run stably regardless of who controls it. The fact that a cook can be head of state means precisely that it doesn't matter who is in control. The cook may strangely resemble the role attributed by Hegel to the monarch: she only gives a formal “yes” to proposals prepared by managers and specialists…

But, why insist on this old subject, which today is clearly dated? Because it's not dated at all: the latest trends in corporate capitalism offer a perverted vision of Lenin's dream. Take companies like Amazon, Facebook or Uber. Amazon and Facebook present themselves as mere mediators: they are working algorithms, regulating the commons of our interactions. So why not nationalize them, cut off their heads (who are their owners or bosses) and replace them with ordinary people who will see to it that the company serves the company's interests, that is, that the machine will not be misrepresented to serve the private business interests, which made the previous owners multi-billionaires?

In other words, couldn't bosses like Bezos and Zuckerberg be replaced by the popular “dictators” imagined by Lenin? Even more, consider Uber: it also presents itself as a pure mediator, bringing together drivers (who own their cars, their “means of production”) and those who need a ride. All of them allow sustaining the (appearance of) our freedom; they only control the space of this freedom. Phenomena like these would not justify Karl-Heinz Dellwo, who invokes a “subjectless domination”? [v] Today, would it not be “reasonable to stop talking about masters and servants, to talk about servants who command servants”? Servants who command servants: is this not what Lenin was aiming for in his slogan “every cook must learn to command the state”?

Is it not already possible to observe, at certain moments, the elements of a post-party politics in today's developed capitalism? Take the case of Switzerland. Who knows the names of ministers in your government? Who knows which party is in power over there? Decades ago, a communist was repeatedly elected mayor of Geneva, a city that represents big capital, and nothing has changed... (But it should also be mentioned that Switzerland is actually run by an elite, semi-secret council of twenty men who decide everything).

So, yes, we have to accept the fact that it is impossible for communism to win (in the same sense that Ukraine cannot win against Russia), i.e. that, in this sense, communism is a lost cause. But, as GK Chesterton said in his What's wrong with the world? [What's wrong with the world?]: "the lost causes are the very ones that could have saved the world." What can we do once we fully recognize this antinomy?

In the last pages of the book, Beni Adamczak tries out two extreme solutions. What if the communist revolutionaries, knowing that they will bring a new terror, capitulate to the counterrevolution beforehand in order to save their morale and avoid their own counterrevolution? His example is that of Salvador Allende, who renounced the armed struggle against putsch military. We must, however, at the very least complement this example with that of the debate in the Soviet Union of the 1920s when, after it became clear that there was to be no European revolution and the Bolsheviks realized that they had no chance of starting to build socialism, some they proposed simply to surrender and hand over power...

Beni Adamczak's other extreme solution is, after gaining state power, for communists to fight the terrorist temptation by using terror against themselves and consciously accepting the need for their own elimination, the liquidation of first-generation revolutionaries. (But, to some extent, isn't that exactly what Stalin did – liquidate the first generation of revolutionaries who came to power?)

What if the only imaginable solution to this antinomy is a bizarre short circuit: assuming power, the communists themselves organize a “counterrevolution” against their government, shaping a state apparatus that limits their own power?

*Slavoj Žižek, professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School, he is international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London. Author, among other books, of In defense of lost causes (boitempo).

Translation: Daniel Pavan.

Originally published on the website The Philosophical Salon

 

Notes


[I] See Bini Adamczak, Yesterday's Tomorrow, Cambridge: MIT Press 2021. After reading this book and trying to pick out some of its passages, I was overcome with a bizarre feeling that the entire book needed to be quoted.

[ii] HEGEL, GWF philosophy of history. Brasília: Editora UNB, 2008. P. 366

[iii] LENIN, V. The State and the Revolution. Sao Paulo: Boitempo, 2017.

[iv] LENIN, V. “The Immediate Tasks of Soviet Power”. Available at: < https://www.marxists.org/english/lenin/1918/04/26.htm>

[v] DELLWO, Karl-Heinz, “Subjektlose Herrschaft und revolutionaeres Subjekt. Friady for Future?”. A speech given in Leipzig on the 12th of January, 2021. (Manuscript quotes).

 

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