Blog post

The Alternative in Shreds

Is there still time – or, indeed, is it already time – to revisit communism?

Isabelle Garo18 April 2023

The Alternative in Shreds
How can we know if your communism according to the Book Isn’t going to be cancelled like the Sunday ball,
Because with the rain the orchestra is stuck in the mud? 
Heiner Müller, The Displaced Person 

Is there still time – or, indeed, is it already time – to revisit communism? There are reasons to doubt its survival. In these dire times, how can we be oblivious to the fact that global capitalist domination and its crisis have, as their corollary, the unprecedented defeat of the forces of social contestation and, above all, of any alternative collective, majoritarian political project? In recent years, however, the question of communism has tended to re-emerge here and there, in theoretical and in some philosophical works. This modest return is paradoxical, given the profound and enduring disqualification of the radical political project to which the term refers. Since the late 1970s, Stalinism has been depicted as the very essence of a communism that is quintessentially totalitarian and murderous. More than two decades later, François Furet’s Le Passé d’une illusion and Stéphane Courtois’s Le Livre noir du communisme seemed to bring the epoch of positive use of the word to a definitive close, replacing it with a criminalization pure and simple, and debate now focuses exclusively on the millions of deaths attributed to it. Deliberate use of the term did not disappear for all that, though. Preserved within parties and organizations that continue to identify with it – despite their weakness and marginality – it has also remained alive thanks to critical theoretical works. Located on the margins of classical engagement, the latter have sought to explore and redefine the fertility of the term in an original, striking fashion. 

The Return of the Communist Question 

The current uncertain and unstable meaning of the word ‘communism’ therefore derives from a long history and a recent conjuncture. From the late 1980s, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of the communist bloc helped gradually free the term from the charge of totalitarianism, while serving to bury the idea of a viable alternative to capitalism more deeply than ever. If the word thus became available for positive usage – certainly minoritarian but, to some extent, reviving the hope of which it was once the bearer and confronting violent, reactionary neoliberal policies – it remains uncoupled from any concrete political perspective. Now it is a question not so much of politically preparing the transition to communism, understood as the supersession or abolition of capitalism, as of evoking it in a way that combines the desire for change with oppositional practices, critical radicalism with academicism. Accepting this marginality, contemporary use of the term, when positive, attests to a continuing aspiration to reconstruct alternatives which, if not concrete, can at least be named, preserving them as hypotheses while the social conditions and political forces for their reactivation are wanting. This is how we might understand the philosophical return of the communist question in France and its resonance, in particular, via the works of Alain Badiou, Antonio Negri, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Rancière or the Invisible Committee – alongside those Marxist authors who never stopped identifying with communism and reworking its meaning, but whose readership is more limited, such as Lucien Sève, André Tosel, Jacques Bidet and Daniel Bensaïd. 

Notwithstanding their differences and divergences, it is striking that the great majority of post-Marxist approaches to communism situate themselves on a philosophical terrain which they attempt to redefine and which they find disconnected from the issue of socialism – traditionally a major site for reflection on the moments and transitions of political and social transformation – when they do not directly reject its terms. How should we understand this new situation? Does it fundamentally alter the post-capitalist perspective? The aim of Communism and Strategy is to analyse this situation while being involved in it. Rather than venturing a strictly descriptive, general panorama of intellectual debate on the left, we shall dwell on a few authors who broach key questions of socialism and communism from an original, prospective angle, each of them stressing a particular dimension of the alternative: Alain Badiou (on the state and the party); Ernesto Laclau (on the conquest of power and strategy); and Antonio Negri and theorists of the common (on labour and property). Sharing a similar commitment to theoretical and political intervention, which resonates strongly even outside activist circles, they strive to renew this tradition while revisiting its fundamentals. 

These authors have another essential feature in common: it is in confronting Marx and Marxism critically that they contribute to a revival of reflection on the alternatives to contemporary capitalism. In so doing, they engage in two striking tendencies. On the one hand, they illustrate the fragmentation of the projects outlined, which are incompatible with one another, focusing on certain themes of the socialist, communist or anarchist tradition to the exclusion of others. On the other hand, they embody an attempt to repoliticize theory, but on the terrain of theory itself. Such repoliticization remains dependent on the philosophical displacement of politics, updated in line with the critique of Marxism in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, which all these authors represent. Remaining more convinced than others of the need for radical social change, they are distinguished by their claim for a power peculiar to theory in this regard. 

At the same time, the social and political urgency of an alternative comes directly up against an inability to build it collectively alongside the serial defeats of the labour movement, whereas capitalism, having entered its authoritarian neoliberal phase, not only adds to its misdeeds, but multiplies its disasters upon one another: exploding inequalities, increasing exploitation, combined forms of domination and oppression, the clash of imperialisms, unbridled financialization, general militarization, the ransacking of nature, ideological domination and so forth. This destructive sequence, on an unprecedented scale, arouses anger and rebellions, social struggles and multiple challenges, without it being possible in the short term to envisage a radical transformation of the mode of production as a whole, despite the growing urgency to do so. Given this, the resurgent contestation on the philosophical and, more broadly, theoretical terrain should be regarded as an admission of weakness, but it is also an asset, one of the ways of countering a neoliberal ideology unduly convinced of its omnipotence. Evidence of such contestation in search of new political roads helps in its own way to reopen space for an intervention at once critical and activist. 

To revive collective reflection on the question of an alternative to capitalism, beyond its critical dimension, we must therefore begin by taking these theoretical propositions and interventions seriously, starting from the paradox of a politics both projected and impossible, referred to as ‘communism’, which is once again an emblem of the problematic links between a project of emancipation and its realization. But rather than adding a further option to the patchwork coat of scattered alternatives, or attempting to reconcile fundamentally divergent hypotheses, Communism and Strategy opts to broach them from the angle of what is missing in contemporary political critique and contestation alike: a strategy, in the strong political sense of the term, that enables the collective construction of a project of general, mobilizing, radical transformation by the exploited and dominated. Over and above ways to win power, the term refers to the invention of mediations that go beyond such a conquest, aiming to escape state control and the conversion of means into ends. Strategy concerns forms of collective mobilization to be organized on an enduring basis, but it also designates critical reflection combining historical analysis with the development of a shared, democratic, dialogic consciousness, the latter escorting political intervention to control and readjust it to ends that are likewise elaborated en route. 

 This is an edited excerpt of Communism and Strategy.

[book-strip index="1"]


Communism and Strategy
If the question of communism is making a comeback today, this renewed interest is often accompanied by an abandonment of any concrete political perspective. Critical philosophies are flourishing an...