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

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.