The Communist Desire to Change the World – and Ourselves

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Composition Z VIII, 1924
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Composition Z VIII, 1924

Chiara Giorgi: Karl Marx’s representation of communism was that of an alternative to capitalism, the ground for which it had in fact already prepared. This idea opened up one of the main questions of communism, namely the very notion of transition. In The Philosophy of Marx, you have observed that, far from embracing an evolutionist view, the transition foreseen by Marx is instead “a political figure representing historical time’s ‘non-contemporaneity’ with itself, but a figure which remains inscribed in provisionality.” Is it not in this anti-evolutionism in its referring to the unforeseeable, to a multiplicity of processes, and to revolutionary rupture that one of the vital points of communism is to be found?

Étienne Balibar: The idea of communism we inherited from Marx has a long history, which cuts across modernity and is deeply tied with religious heresies and social revolts. Marx himself had initially embraced associative romantic utopias with conviction, as they responded to the industrial revolution with projects of social reorganization that were inspired by principles of equality and rationality where money was abolished. Later on, he thought that communist hope could be given a scientific foundation by inscribing it within historical evolution as the “mode of production” of the future, along a line which would have necessarily led from a class-based society to a classless one. Thus the idea of “transition” has a central role in Marx’s thought as much as in that of his successors. In a broad sense, this idea allowed the configuration of history as a great transition towards communism made possible by class struggle, of which capitalism is the ultimate manifestation. In a more literal sense, within the transition from capitalism to communism, capitalism’s contradictions must express themselves in violent form and find their “resolution,” thus making “transition” the political place par excellence. However, in this sense, the only function of politics would be that of realizing a predetermined tendency. Thus, the idea of alternative here must be taken in a weak sense. In my words you quoted above, I was looking for elements in Marx that contest this form of fundamental evolutionism, and I found a few. My intention was, on the one hand, to restore that dimension of uncertainty and creativity that belongs to politics, and on the other hand to think the alternative more like a junction than a final destination. By doing this, I tried to bring Marx closer to current revolutionary approaches that go beyond the catastrophic failure of “evolutionary communism” embodied by 20th-century socialist experiences.

CG: “Changing the world” to “transforming ourselves.” Gesturing to one of the most important aspects of the communist question – the plural dimension of the pronoun – this phrase of yours encapsulates the communist desire of a common engagement for the “common.”

EB: I thank you for giving a collective sense to the pronoun “ourselves,” which I meant in a generic and self-referential sense. I generally agree with the way you laid out the question, but allow me to add two qualifications: First of all, Marx’s communism never unequivocally privileged the ideas of “common” and “community” over individuality. This is exactly what distinguishes him from romantics and those longing for precapitalist societies, where the individual was directly subject to the totality. Capitalism’s alienating use of individualism (which is nowadays heightened by neoliberal discourse and its even more extreme model of global competition between individuals) inevitably leads communists to valorize the “common,” but Marx is looking for an existential formula by which – as in the Communist Manifesto – everyone’s development is the condition for the development of the community, and vice-versa. The second qualification I wanted to make is that I want to give a strong sense to the phrase “communist desire.” Communist desire is the motor of communist engagement, without which there is no communist politics. In some way it is an unfulfillable desire because it is boundless, yet it is possible to think it in “materialist” terms, not by binding it to conditions, but by instilling in it the aspiration for one’s own conditions, which is an allegorical summary of the phrase “transforming the world.” This is what distinguishes communist desire from, on the one hand, the Christian desire that aspires to a “new man” unto whom grace is poured, and on the other hand from that Nietzschean desire which Michel Foucault aptly captured with the formula “care of the self.”

CG: There are numerous images of communism and of the way to it. Among them, as you yourself have noted, Louis Althusser chose the more materialistic one, developed in the German Ideology, according to which communism is “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.” Do you share this image?

EB: We are back to the same problem. This beautiful sentence is at the risk of being interpreted in evolutionist terms (not without a theological foundation), such that communism would be the ultimate direction of history, and history the main road to communism… Thankfully, the sentence is ambiguous. In any case, it clears the ground from an interpretation of communism as a simple regulatory idea, while it affirms the “immanence” of communism in contemporary struggles and in the transformations they produce on society and its actors. We could also read it this way: communism is a force that actualizes itself in history, with no determined “end.”

CG: In the current context of ferocious attacks on democracy, is a re-signification possible starting from conflicts engaged in the name of new instances of equaliberty by so-called excessive subjectivities? Is insurrection, once again, the active mode of citizenship, if we understand the latter as a practice of political subjectivation and a field of unending struggle?

EB: What I deem important in the equaliberty proposition is that it is a fundamentally bourgeois (or civic-bourgeois) idea that carries an inescapably revolutionary, insurrectional, and excessive (or “hyperbolic”) dimension. That is why we reach back for equaliberty every time a new form of resistance or emancipation comes into conflict with institutional modalities predicated on class domination or, more generally, on social hierarchization. But the question of the genealogical and dialectical relation between the bourgeois idea of insurrection and communist political forms is not an easy one, neither for Marx — who believed he solved it with the theory of “permanent revolution” — nor for any other communist. That being said, different circumstances lead sometimes to strategic simplifications: the kind of “postdemocracy” currently developing as “governance”  is so antithetical to any idea of active citizenship that inscribing politics in this bourgeois tradition is already something subversive, which proves unbearable to the established order. But I do not think this is enough, because equaliberty speaks about individual as well as collective rights and capabilities, which alone cannot determine what we have called “communist desire.” Thus, in this sense, equaliberty characterizes only an abstract subjectivity.  

CG: Politically, where is the communist “striving” – as in Spinoza’s conatus – headed? How do the historical and prophetic aspect combine? Is the organizational question still a central one for communism?

EB: Well, here we are delving into the most interesting divergences and convergences of contemporary “postmarxist” thinkers. Everyone refers to Spinoza, but not everyone is reading him in the same way. As far as I am concerned, I see no difficulty in interpreting the conatus as that “enactment of historical potential” without a predetermined goal of which we spoke earlier with regards to The German Ideology. I am also tempted to take on a famous Derridean phrase by saying that we are dealing with a “prophetism without prophecy,” or one that lacks any other prophecy than what is coming from its own “striving,” an increase in its power to act and in its autonomy. Referring to Spinoza is useful because it shows very well that mass movements need a prophecy laden with imagination, thus more ambivalent. There is no politics without mass imagination, and the history of communism shows it. The deepest conflicts arise around the question of organization. I have claimed that Spinoza’s conatus is “transindividual,” while Negri says that its subject is the “multitude.” I then came to the conclusion that for Spinoza politics is always organized – as it is for Marx and Lenin, albeit with different objectives – and requires institutional mediation, while for Negri politics needs to retain a “savage” trait, in line with the radical opposition between autonomy and organization. This is a political disagreement, but also a profoundly metaphysical one. I am more interested in the rationalist Spinoza, he is more interested in the vitalist one. But this does not prevent us from doing a lot of things together …

CG: The objective of a “right to difference in equality” is the creation of a type of equality that does not neutralize differences but instead is, as you wrote, “the condition for and the demand of the diversification of liberties.” How can communism relate to this idea?

EB: It is precisely with this theme that we can think a transition from a “bourgeois-revolutionary” to a communist conception of equality (although this is less necessary for Marx than it is for Fourier). Precisely, we must jump on the other side of the equation, that is, over to a conception of liberty that overdetermines equality. Bourgeois freedom is universal, and thus universalizable, but not really differential. This means that it revolts in the name of  the common right of mankind against the discriminatory use of their anthropological differences. But this bourgeois freedom does not positively turn these differences and their free play into the content and ontological texture of equality. To include the affirmation of difference into the idea of communism is a performative gesture, not a philological one: it means bending the traditional meaning of communism to adjust it to our conception of universalism.

– Translated by Tommaso Manfredini

This article is part of a dossier entitled The Return of Communism

Author of the article

is a French philosopher and currently Anniversary Chair of Contemporary European Philosophy at Kingston University London and Visiting Professor at Columbia University.