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"Theorizing a communism for the twenty-first century"- The Idea of Communism reviewed on Libcom

Huw Lemmey18 January 2012

In his rigorous review of The Idea of Communism for Libcom, Alasdair Thompson walks us through the main themes of this collection of essays by some of today's most important political thinkers. Edited by Costas Douzinas and Slavoj Žižek, The Idea of Communism was developed in the wake of a 2009 conference of the same name at Birkbeck Institute of the Humanities. Thompson's review looks at a number of these texts in relation to each other, including work by Michael Hardt, Alain Badiou and Alberto Toscano.

"The spectre of Mao" has hung over his political life for the past 12 months, and for Thompson that spectre has been profoundly influential on this book. For that reason Thompson finds Alessandro Russo's "fascinating history" of the Cultural Revolution an important contextualising piece for the entire book, explaining how Mao's "attack on the party-state as singular legitimate seat of politics" created the mise-en-scene for the collapse of the socialist bloc two decades later. Thompson explains that this collapse has lead to a strict formal division:

Communism is split into "a name in philosophy", which still exists as an ideal which requires discussion and thought, as in this collection, and "a name in politics" which attaches to the party-state in China.

It is this split that has lead Russo to the position that "communism" is a defunct, counterproductive term, but Thompson is more cautious, asking "Should we be that quick to throw away the history and meaning of Communism, the word?". If not, what form of emancipatory project does it describe?

One such possible project, explored in the book by Michael Hardt, is that of the reassertion of an idea of "the common", whereby Hardt posits that the historic transition from immobile property (i.e. land) to mobile property (extracting profit from surplus labour) is today echoed in the transition to immaterial and biopolitical production—"that is the forms that property as a dominant entity in the late twentieth and twenty-first century take ... as ideas, images, knowledge, brands, relationships, affects and so on - information in a broad sense." Emphasis on the domination of immaterial production is strongly caveated though:

Hardt stresses that his periodisation should be seen as a qualitative dominance of one form of property, not necessarily of which form constitutes the quantitatively largest share of the economy in a given era; mobile property as expressed through the industrial revolution becomes dominant while agriculture, as representative of immobile property and rent, still makes up the largest fraction of the economy, for example. Similarly, that immaterial production is now the dominant form should not be taken to ignore the fact that most people globally are still employed in material production.

Thompson links this to the work of economist Christian Marazzi which focuses on the delinking of material and immaterial capital as part of the financialisation of the economy. For Hardt, however, the immaterial is a productive force which, in Thompson's words, is "constantly under pressure to escape into common ownership":

Considering communism as the idea that against both private and public property all should be held in common, we are informed that immaterial property is both particularly amenable to common (or non) ownership (there is no issue of scarcity and temporal control over ideas or information, whereas such considerations do have to be handled for material property) and also already (or in some cases still) held in that form.

Thompson counters the idea that capitalist development into reliance upon the common is a contradiction that empowers the autonomy of the common (therefore bringing us closer to the realisation of communism as a social project) by reprising the critique of Hardt and Negri by the British autonomist-influenced journal Aufheben:

Aufheben argue that far from being natural and autonomous from capital, immaterial labour is in fact best seen as a specific division of labour. As they say "[w]e do not eat, drive or wear ideas. Pure ideation can exist as such only because there is a stage of pure execution somewhere else."...Immateriality then presents itself not as a natural stage of production which moves us closer to communism but as an impediment with which we must break and radically overcome.

Both these critiques, according to Thompson, are radically different from that of Žižek, whose essay How to Begin from the Beginning confronts the "revolutionary antagonism of the commons" not as an inherent contradiction within capitalism, but merely "a series of challenges to the current form of capitalism, but not the underlying content".

Žižek's essay leaves a bad taste for Thompson, interspersed as it is "with the inevitable apologetics for and assertions of the need for a dose of 'Jacobin-Leninism' ". For the reviewer this touches on the unresolved tension within the Left, and it is this tension which forms the crux of the debate within The Idea of Communism- what role the state plays in the transition to a stateless society. Thompson contrasts Badiou and Žižek's echoes of Lenin—"the State as organizer of the transition to the non-State"—with Negri's contribution to the book—"Being communist means being against the State" in both it's public and private conceptions.

These differences are what make the book " an extremely interesting collection of essays" for Thompson:

[A]s an introduction to the task ahead of us in asserting a positive vision of society which goes beyond simply a rejection of capitalism, this book is a great place to begin and a useful contribution to how the idea of communism relates both to politics and philosophy today.

To see the full review, visit Libcom.

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