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George Comninel: A Critical Remembrance

Political theorist George Comninel, author of Rethinking the French Revolution, passed away in August 2022. In this critical obituary, Jordy Cummings reflects on Comninel's scholarship and complicated political life. 

Jordy Cummings21 October 2022

George Comninel: A Critical Remembrance

In 2007, at thirty years old, I was an underemployed journalist, organizer and auto-didact at loose ends. So, I did what any self-respecting communist in the Greater Toronto Area would do and I decided to take some visiting courses in the department of politics (Poli-Sci) at York University, still one of the great homes of social movement-rooted scholarship in the English language. This decision ended up with me taking a Masters’ degree, then earning a PhD. I am presently teaching in the department, standing on the shoulders of giants, many of whom I have had the privilege of working with both inside and outside of academia. More than a few of those giants have left us in recent years, most recently the enigmatic Marx lookalike, George Comninel, who died at his home in Toronto on the 18th of August at 70 years of age.

Born in New York on 9 December 1951, George Comninel was a product of the working-class gains in New York City’s municipal public sector in the 1950s and 1960s, a striver growing up in the context of the New Left and sixties counterculture, but firmly rooted in an archetypally working class and often trade union-oriented culture. Indeed, Comninel worked in construction while finishing his doctorate. Growing up working class, Greek and Irish, he went to the renowned PS 173 before being admitted to the prestigious Bronx School of Science. This was followed by a scholarship to Cornell and eventually a Master’s degree and PhD at York. George went to graduate school at York at a fortuitous time alongside many others who later became his colleagues, such as Shannon Bell and David McNally, along with others beyond York, notably John Bellamy Foster and Colin Mooers. The faculty at the time included the likes of Ralph Miliband (for a time), George Rudé, Neal Wood and Ellen Meiksins Wood.

While it was from Rudé that George developed a lifelong fascination with the French Revolution it was with the Woods, and in particular Ellen Meiksins Wood, that he built a lifelong connection of mentor and mentee. By all accounts, they were in constant contact her entire life, they both continued to build on the spirit of intellectual Bildung well after the end of formalities. While others who worked with Wood may have had relationships built partially around debate, Comninel was her acolyte. If Althusserians had to be denounced, then George would jokingly accuse graduate students who cited Louis Althusser of succumbing to the dark side, though intellectually, he meant it. On the other hand, he himself had committed a cardinal sin among the Marxist intelligentsia and popularized an already existing (even among Althusserians) critique of the “French Revolution as Bourgeois Revolution” framework. The debate among Marxists is down to a draw between so-called “Political Marxists”, and those who defend situating it as a bourgeois revolution, like the late Neil Davidson. After all, the latter assert, like Brenner and Comninel, that if there were capitalists, they certainly weren’t the prime revolutionary movers. Very little Marxist scholarship still makes the stagist claim that the French Revolution was an explicitly capitalist revolution. In Davidson’s terms, it brought capitalism to power in France in a “consequentialist” sense, setting the conditions of possibility for an eventual full transition to capitalism.  As I once said to Neil, there was no real empirical gap between Comninel and himself. The gap was conceptual and interpretive. And, on this point, Comninel may not have been entirely consistent.

Though he would later soften this position, Comninel, unlike Wood and Brenner, made the declarative point that the concept of bourgeois revolution is “non-Marxist in both its origins and implications.” Blanket statements like this may have been provocations, as Rethinking the French Revolution is as much a work that defends and expands upon Wood and Brenner’s analysis of European development as it is a response to the revisionist (often counterrevolutionary) challenge to the orthodox Marxist accounts that dominate French academia. To some extent, the revisionist challenge had come in the wake of the nouveaux philosophes who had thrown out any and all revolutionary thinking along with their erstwhile Maoism. Yet Comninel challenged them on empirical terms. He did not, as some assert, cede terrain, rather he reframed the framework of analysis.

He argued that the revisionist challenge, while hampered by a demographic approach (what he calls a “conservative liberalism”), was correct in focusing on the role of what Brenner elsewhere called the horizontal struggles within the class-like state. The standard account was teleological, instilling the revolution with a sense of inevitability such that scholars could, in one fell swoop, theorize away both the Terror and Napoleon, not to mention the repression of Toussaint L’Ouverture. Comninel was attempting to put the novelty of the French Revolution on a different plane, to look at its politics as such, as opposed to as a mere marker of a teleological process culminating in revolution. This type of reading inspired, most recently, Xavier LaFrance’s The Making of Capitalism in France.

Knowing and admiring his aforementioned work on the French Revolution, the first course I took as a visiting non-degree student was Comninel’s Classical Marxist Theory course. Comninel cut a charismatic figure, with his Marx-like appearance, his jeans and a leather jacket get-up and his booming, fast speaking style. Reportedly, he was larger than life and striking in appearance even as a graduate student. He had a teaching style that was exceptionally persuasive, one that I have consciously adopted as my own. That is to say, he would assume his students already agreed with the radical theory they were reading, whether they knew it or not. Moreover, when one took a liking to Comninel, he would be enormously helpful. Of course, on that point, the corollary was true, as well. One did not want to cross George Comninel.

His Marxism course’s overall argument, focusing on the continuity of the dialectic of alienation and emancipation in Marx’s work, produced a book-length tome a few years back, George’s second published book after a long gap, Alienation and Emancipation in the Work of Karl Marx. Some of these arguments were initially made in the History of Political Thought essay, “Marx’s Context”. Well reviewed by Jules Joanne Gleeson in Tribune, Alienation and Emancipation in the Work of Karl Marx led to a minor revival of interest in his work. To my mind, as a former student of his, this draws Comninel, and, to an extent, Ellen Wood’s work into sharper focus. To reduce both of their work to “Political Marxism” is to discount the depth of their method of reading political theory, the “Social History of Political Thought”.

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One of Comninel’s most compelling insights about Marx situates how, growing up in a non-capitalist society and hence lacking capitalist pre-suppositions, he was able to de-naturalize what was being presented as inevitable social and economic developments. The transition to capitalism could not simply be abstractly stated to have existed in the ‘interstices’ of feudalism—it was something very specific. Comninel had a reputation for being one of the most particular of the Political Marxists to argue that capitalism has a singular and specific origin story. Those who had the great privilege of taking his wonderful “Theory and Practice of the State in Historical Perspective” graduate seminar will remember his regaling the class with photos of the “very field in England’ where the “open field” method of agriculture began. If the Political Marxists have a narrow conception of capitalism, as is alleged by their critics, Comninel, at the very least, had a very expansive understanding of the politics of Marx. He would often point out Marx’s writing, both “theoretical” and journalistic from the 1850s. When writing about actually existing social formations, Marx clearly shows vast socio-economic, industrial and political differences between, for example, France, Britain, the United States and Germany. The novelty of capitalism shines through Marx’s output.

For Comninel, Marx’s work should be seen as an organic whole, from his discovery of the proletariat in the “Introduction to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”, to the discovery of private property as the key to the alienated state form, and thus the interaction between the two. Marx built a career on critique, and, in particular, the critique of political economy, not merely to overthrow capitalism, but to emancipate alienated humanity from the ‘impersonal power’ of the state, a power guaranteed as such by capitalism, but not reducible to it.

At the same time, Comninel was able to identify what he saw as more or less productive strains within Marx’s body of thought, as he demonstrates particularly in Rethinking the French Revolution. For Comninel, the break pivots around Marx moving away from a “stagist” account of social history, as in the German Ideology and Communist Manifesto. This shifted analytically after the failures of the 1848 revolutions and, in particular, with the topsy turvy quality of revolution and counter-revolution in France in the early 1850s. This more multilinear approach was confirmed empirically with Marx’s research as well as his first-hand reporting on early capitalist crises.

All of this is to say that, while not entirely original, Comninel certainly had a left-wing reading of Marx or perhaps a reading of Marx as a leftist. Marx was a revolutionary, not a mere academic, he loved pointing out. He wrote for the working class. If properly read, thus, he would never lead a reader to develop an historical schema comparable, for example of a “productive forces” or Promethean Marxism. Indeed, if anything, his reading could be and was used by eco-socialists and Indigenous solidarity activists. Perhaps most notably on this point was Comninel’s work providing the framework for Tom Keefer’s classic 2010 essay in Upping the Anti, Marxism, Indigenous Struggles, and the Tragedy of ‘Stagism’”. Moreover, if properly read, Comninel’s Marx could not inform centrist social democracy predicated upon developing state and in particular municipal capacities to ameliorate but not eradicate the problems of capitalist social property relations. Yet, as someone who worked for middle-of-the-road social democracy, and had lifelong ties to New Democratic Party officialdom, Comninel’s own practical politics stood in seeming contrast to his reading of Marx.

Comninel was never a revolutionary socialist. “The time isn’t ripe,” he would say. Colleagues recall him being absolutely disconnected from the campus left as a graduate student, not involved in the TA union. While, at first, identifying as an anarchist, Comninel seems to reflect a common trajectory amongst the downtown Toronto Left – radical in theory, social-democratic in practice. Yet, to Comninel, there was a very real principle to his politics, which often placed him at odds with his colleagues—in particular on campus unions, the heart of radical politics on campus, at least for graduate students and adjuncts. Comninel’s graduate students who were particularly involved with Left organizing sometimes found themselves de-prioritized compared with Comninel’s moving and shaking in faculty governance circles.

Unlike more than a few other leftists who embrace academic officialdom, colleagues who may have disagreed with him point out that there was never a hint of opportunism to Comninel’s operating in these milieux. After all, they were not disconnected from the political spaces in which he operated. Comninel was thus acting upon the same principles as he was as a member of the NDP. At the time, this may not have seemed such a contradiction, for in the 1980s the Canadian New Democratic Party was opposed to Canada’s participation in NATO and still explicitly called for socialism in its platform. While there was living memory of the radical-left “Waffle” being exiled from the party, there was also living memory of concrete reforms, particularly on the level of municipalities and provinces. It was not uncommon during the time that Comninel became active in the party, for “non-aligned” leftists, ostensibly well to the left of the party, to join the NDP in a similar manner to American leftists joining the DSA today.

The way in which Comninel truly believed in the university, and his defense of it was therefore implicitly predicated upon an implicit claim that the university was a neutral ground, if not a gain for progressive or social-democratic forces. Thus, union struggles on campus often struck Comninel as counterproductive and “ultra-left”. This stood in contrast to many of his colleagues, including those who by no means claimed radical politics, who stood shoulder to shoulder with campus organizing, whether around the many unions, social movements and so on. To his credit, Comninel was not a hypocrite about his distance from the union. When he was caught on video screaming at undergraduate supporters of the union “Shut up!!!” outside a campus senate meeting, it was captured in the online “Great Moments in Leftism” satirical comic. He posted the comic on his website, along with a student’s electronic remastering of his outburst, set to pounding house music beats.

Recalling Comninel’s reading of Marx, then, one may propose that he had such a fortuitously cogent reading of Marx for the same reason Marx had a fortuitous reading of the capitalist mode of production. Just as Marx lacked capitalist presuppositions, Comninel was evaluating radical political thought by adopting its standpoint as a reader and analyst but keeping a sufficient distance. While his reading of Marx inspired and continues to inspire students, colleagues and Marxist intellectuals who have mined its radical implications, these were not Comninel’s own politics. Certainly, some may make the case that Political Marxism is inflected with a voluntarism that can lend itself to a somewhat social-democratic understanding of class formation, pointing out the influence of E.P. Thompson. Thompson, in turn, ended up somewhat of a Euro-communist, not all that far off from the 1980s social democracy on which Comninel cut his teeth. Yet this, to my mind, is a tendentious reading that attempts to write off the messiness of one’s personal politics not exactly corresponding with the implicit or sometimes explicit politics of one’s work by finding a hidden affinity. The truth is, Marxism was simply a subject for Comninel. And he did a great job in capturing that subject.

Jordy Cummings teaches in the Department of Politics as well as the Department of Social Sciences at York University. He is a writer, cultural critic and labour activist based in Toronto and has written for Spectre, New Politics, Salvage, Le Monde Diplomatique and other outlets.

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