“Communism for Everybody”: An Interview with Bini Adamczak, author of Communism for Kids

Tano D’Amico, In the Occu­pied Hous­es of Frankurt am Main [Nelle case occu­pate di Fran­co­forte sul Meno]. 1972. Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Vol­e­va­mo solo cam­biare il mon­do under the title Appel­lo alla ribel­lione [Call to Rebel­lion]. The graf­fi­ti reads: “Kids, Let’s Rebel!”
Jacob Blu­men­feld: Why did you write Com­mu­nism for Kids?

Bini Adam­czak: The book was writ­ten dur­ing the so-called “end of his­to­ry” — the his­tor­i­cal epoch between the fall of the Sovi­et Union and the rise of the Arab Spring. This was at the time when the anti-glob­al­iza­tion move­ment mobi­lized around the slo­gan, “anoth­er world is pos­si­ble.” The slo­gan was so pow­er­ful because it addressed the social atmos­phere that many were feel­ing at the moment: that cap­i­tal­ism had won, that lib­er­al democ­ra­cy was the only option, that all we could hope for were lit­tle changes, that every­body was on their own, and that the space for action was in the pri­vate sphere. To say “anoth­er world is pos­si­ble” was to chal­lenge this com­mon sense.

The sec­ond social con­di­tion for the book was the frag­men­ta­tion of the left. This was con­nect­ed to the “end of his­to­ry” feel­ing as well as to the expe­ri­ence of “actu­al­ly-exist­ing” author­i­tar­i­an social­ism. Although many peo­ple con­tin­ued to  fight for social change, it was very often in sin­gle-issue strug­gles. Alliances formed most­ly on the basis of these dif­fer­ent sin­gle issues, and often failed to last.

In 2003, a group of undog­mat­ic left­ists, antifas­cists, and rad­i­cals orga­nized a gath­er­ing in Frank­furt called “Inde­ter­mi­nate Com­mu­nism” to address exact­ly this prob­lem. Their aim was to bring togeth­er dif­fer­ent non­sec­tar­i­an left­ists, anti-racists, anti-sex­ists, ecol­o­gists, and anti-cap­i­tal­ists to open up the space for a broad­er, more rad­i­cal hori­zon of com­mu­nism. I wrote my book in this con­text. It start­ed as a the­o­ret­i­cal exe­ge­sis of Karl Marx’s ideas on the future, but I imme­di­ate­ly con­front­ed a writer’s block. I real­ized that, espe­cial­ly in the epoch of the “end of his­to­ry,” it was not pos­si­ble to write about the desire for a dif­fer­ent world, a world of sol­i­dar­i­ty free from dom­i­na­tion, in a lan­guage emp­tied of desire.

JB: So the book is not real­ly for kids?

BA: No, it’s not. It’s for every­one.

Of course, chil­dren read the book.  Some­times when kids start to ask com­pli­cat­ed ques­tions like, “what is cap­i­tal­ism?” or “what is a cri­sis?”, adults remem­ber the book and start to read it to them, some­times one chap­ter a day. But if it were sup­posed to be a children’s book, I would have writ­ten it dif­fer­ent­ly.

Rather, it is a book for each and every­one who enjoys a “kids lan­guage,” a lan­guage of light­ness and sim­plic­i­ty. This book is not about age. On the con­trary, it is about the avail­abil­i­ty and desir­abil­i­ty of rad­i­cal dreams. I wish it were not nec­es­sary to men­tion, but just to be to clear: if you want to change the world and dis­cuss the­o­ret­i­cal mod­els for change, you don’t have to study polit­i­cal sci­ence. And for those who are afraid of sim­ple texts, there is also a the­o­ret­i­cal epi­logue.

The book includes the words, “for kids,” in the title because it address­es every­body as kids, no mat­ter how old they are. Read­ings of the book usu­al­ly hap­pen at night, they often start at 10 and some­times I open with say­ing: “I am hap­py that you were allowed to stay up that long and I promise in com­mu­nism nobody has to go to bed ear­ly.” The book address­es the read­er as one who can dream rad­i­cal­ly and there­fore sets aside the lie that the world must stay as it is (and always has been).

JB: In the sto­ry, you describe dif­fer­ent attempts to make com­mu­nism hap­pen. What are the inspi­ra­tions for these kinds of com­mu­nisms?

BA: Most of the attempts are loose­ly based on his­tor­i­cal or utopi­an mod­els: social democ­ra­cy, syn­di­cal­ism, state social­ism, lud­dism, and some form of tech­no-hedo­nism. Each attempt fails in some aspect of the com­mu­nist dream. So peo­ple end it and sub­sti­tute it with a dif­fer­ent attempt. But here, peo­ple learn by doing. They try out and ask ques­tions: is the utopi­an mod­el a cure to cap­i­tal­ist evils? And to which ones of them? Is life bet­ter now than before, under cap­i­tal­ism? In what way? Are old evils repro­duced, do new evils occur? What sucks? In this way, dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal-utopi­an mod­els are brought togeth­er into a dia­logue. Now they can crit­i­cize each oth­er. They show their strengths and reveal their lim­its.  A new attempt is intro­duced to over­come the flaws of the one before. Of course, com­pared to his­tor­i­cal time the col­lec­tive agents here learn rel­a­tive­ly fast: the longest attempt lasts six pages.

JB: Can you give us an exam­ple of one of these episodes?

BA: Sure, here’s a pas­sage from the book itself:

“The peo­ple are now lying around the fall­en snacks, pud­dles of grape juice, and mounds of extra movie tick­ets. With great dif­fi­cul­ty, they find their feet again. Strug­gling to stand up, they try to think hard. There’s a prob­lem, though; they’re almost as dumb now as they were before, under cap­i­tal­ism. That’s why their first sug­ges­tions aren’t so good. “I got it,” some­one says. “When every­one receives the same amount of stuff, nobody has any incen­tive to work. That’s why we all got lazy. The solu­tion is sim­ple: every­body should get exact­ly as many things as they them­selves make.”

And so they – wait, not so fast! The peo­ple are com­ing to their sens­es. They remem­ber to speak out when some­thing doesn’t feel right. “This is not a good idea,” some­one squeals. “Some peo­ple can’t work as hard as oth­ers. And some peo­ple don’t need as many things as oth­ers because their needs are dif­fer­ent. Just because some peo­ple can work faster and hard­er than oth­ers doesn’t mean they should get more stuff. That’s unfair.”

“That’s right!” says anoth­er. “Besides, every­thing would still revolve around these stu­pid things; we’re obsessed with how many things each of us makes and each of us gets. Once again, we’re ignor­ing the main ques­tion: How do we want to live?” (61-62).

JB: In the epi­logue, you write that most cri­tiques of cap­i­tal­ism only focus on one aspect of cap­i­tal­ism, and thus end up strength­en­ing cer­tain ele­ments of cap­i­tal­ism against oth­er ele­ments. Can you explain this? How can this be avoid­ed? 

BA: In the epi­logue, I dis­tin­guish between a pro­duc­tivist, a cir­cu­la­tion­ist, and a con­sumerist form of anti-cap­i­tal­ism, each of which ide­al­izes a cer­tain moment of cap­i­tal­ism and pos­es it against oth­er moments. For exam­ple, I dis­cuss the form of anti-cap­i­tal­ist cri­tique that focus­es on dis­tri­b­u­tion. At first glance, it seems so plau­si­ble: to fight mas­sive eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty, we need high­er tax­es on the wealthy, a tax on finan­cial trans­ac­tions, and so on. Then the state can redis­trib­ute the mon­ey, invest in bet­ter infra­struc­ture, social secu­ri­ty, and so on.  But how does this inequal­i­ty occur in the first place, who pro­duces the wealth and who appro­pri­ates it? And would a strong state real­ly be in our best inter­est? Or would we be bet­ter off orga­niz­ing it our­selves? These ques­tions are not raised in this form of anti-cap­i­tal­ism.

Anoth­er cri­tique of cap­i­tal­ism that has become more dom­i­nant in the last decades focus­es on con­sump­tion: the cul­ture of brands, adver­tis­ing, the prob­lems of ecol­o­gy and health. This per­spec­tive is very impor­tant but it tends to indi­vid­u­al­ize and mor­al­ize social ques­tions. It often focus­es on the indi­vid­ual deci­sion of the con­sumer regard­less of class rela­tions, fam­i­ly rela­tions, and so on. House­holds are seen as some­how nat­ur­al enti­ties, as if peo­ple would nec­es­sar­i­ly always eat, shit, and watch TV alone in their lit­tle homes with big door locks. Yet anoth­er form of anti-cap­i­tal­ist cri­tique focus­es on the way we work, on alien­ation or self-deter­mi­na­tion at the work­place. This cri­tique became very strong in 1968 and in some ways it was very suc­cess­ful. Work has changed con­sid­er­ably since then: team­work, soft-skill ori­en­ta­tion, and flex­i­ble work­ing hours. Still, it’s impor­tant to point out that all these improve­ments in how we work were used as strate­gies for increas­ing prof­its. They are not used to make our lives more com­fort­able but to make our work more pro­duc­tive. Hence the ter­ror of dead­lines, CVs, projects, of burnout and depres­sion.

I would sug­gest not putting these forms of cri­tique against each oth­er as if they were mutu­al­ly exclu­sive but to bring them togeth­er. Since a bet­ter life does not mean either health­i­er con­sump­tion or cozi­er work or more equal dis­tri­b­u­tion. The cap­i­tal­ist divi­sion of the social into dis­tinct spheres is itself a prob­lem.

JB: How impor­tant is it to have a thor­ough under­stand­ing of cap­i­tal­ism in order to con­ceive of com­mu­nism?

BA: To be hon­est, I don’t think it’s  that impor­tant. Chris­t­ian Siefkes, a soft­ware pro­gram­mer and Marx­ist the­o­rist who tries to gen­er­al­ize the con­cept of Wikipedia and Lin­ux, and who invent­ed the term “com­mon based peer-pro­duc­tion,” once raised the ques­tion: “Do you have to under­stand cap­i­tal­ism in order to over­come it?” The answer was “no.” After all, one can engage in com­mo­niz­ing pol­i­tics and cre­ate social rela­tions of equal­i­ty and sol­i­dar­i­ty with­out nec­es­sar­i­ly hav­ing a com­plete and exhaus­tive  analy­sis of cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion. Think of the ear­ly bour­geoisie, entre­pre­neurs, sailors, and day labor­ers – they did not con­scious­ly set out to cre­ate a new mode of pro­duc­tion in order to abol­ish feu­dal­ism.

How­ev­er, hav­ing an analy­sis of cap­i­tal­ism and some knowl­edge of the his­to­ry of com­mu­nism and social strug­gles can help us avoid many mis­takes that have been made before which keep on reap­pear­ing. For instance, due to the rei­fied struc­ture of cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion, peo­ple who start fight­ing eco­nom­ic injus­tice often end up devel­op­ing moral­is­tic and per­son­al­iz­ing pol­i­tics. Eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty then appears as the effect of greedy, “blood suck­ing” man­agers or “evil” politi­cians and multi­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions. A seri­ous analy­sis of cap­i­tal­ism can help us see that “evil” struc­tures are not the effect of evil peo­ple, but rather that “evil peo­ple” are the effect of evil struc­tures. It helps us under­stand that it is not enough to only dis­trib­ute social wealth dif­fer­ent­ly through the means of the state, since this only address­es us as indi­vid­ual con­sumers. Instead, we can col­lec­tive­ly pose the ques­tion: Which needs do we want to sat­is­fy by which kinds of work? Or bet­ter: How do we want to live?

JB: How is the idea of com­mu­nism still rel­e­vant today, after the dis­as­ters of the last cen­tu­ry?

BA: We have to be clear: the strongest argu­ment against com­mu­nism is com­mu­nism itself. The com­mu­nism of the past stands in the way of a com­mu­nism of the future. This is true for every­body who dreams of a dif­fer­ent world: we share the lega­cy of an eman­ci­pa­to­ry dream that turned into a reac­tionary night­mare.

In 1989-1991, the author­i­tar­i­an state social­ism of the Sovi­et Union final­ly col­lapsed. This was also a defeat against world cap­i­tal­ism. The fail­ure of Sovi­et social­ism hap­pened much ear­li­er, though. In fact, there were many such fail­ures: 1968, 1956, 1953, 1945, 1939, 1937, 1927, 1921, 1917. Most of these dates con­tained the pos­si­bil­i­ty for a turn­ing point towards a more lib­er­tar­i­an, egal­i­tar­i­an, and sol­i­dar­i­ty-based com­mu­nist project. The col­lapse of the Sovi­et Union is also a result of these many missed chances to reform, to democ­ra­tize, to save the rev­o­lu­tion. By 1990, almost all of these poten­tial­i­ties were made invis­i­ble, for­got­ten, and buried in a his­to­ry of ter­ror and bureau­cra­cy. Even though the return of lib­er­tar­i­an com­mu­nism in the late 1960s was very strong across the globe, this rebel­lion too was most­ly defeat­ed by the late 1980s.

So, the pos­si­bil­i­ty for a dif­fer­ent world came down to two options: rot­ten state social­ism or neolib­er­al cap­i­tal­ism, the lat­ter of which often wore the mask of social democ­ra­cy at the time. This is why for many peo­ple who lived under the iron cur­tain, cap­i­tal­ism plus lib­er­al democ­ra­cy seemed like a valid alter­na­tive. Seen from the oth­er side: there was no alter­na­tive left to neolib­er­al cap­i­tal­ism. Mar­garet Thatch­er got it right, pre­cise­ly because true alter­na­tives were erased from his­to­ry. In the last few decades, the illu­sion that cap­i­tal­ism could func­tion as an end to his­to­ry and improve the lives of the many has become obvi­ous. Where cap­i­tal­ism was “civ­i­lized” it was pre­cise­ly because of strug­gles against it – very often sim­ply because of the exis­tence of the Sovi­et Union (which often worked as an invis­i­ble third social part­ner in the West). It’s not nec­es­sary to repeat the hor­rors that cap­i­tal­ism brings to our present lives on an every­day basis. But as soon as peo­ple start to real­ize the con­nec­tion between their mis­ery and their form of eco­nom­ic and social repro­duc­tion, as soon as they start to look for alter­na­tives, the specter of com­mu­nism comes haunt­ing again. The desire to orga­nize life togeth­er as equals in sol­i­dar­i­ty is not so crazy: not indi­vid­u­al­ized as strangers and com­peti­tors, scat­tered in struc­tur­al scarci­ty, but shar­ing in the form of a com­mune. Yet with the desire for com­mu­nism also comes its real his­to­ry, its dis­ap­point­ing her­itage. And we have to deal with this. You can’t make his­to­ry by turn­ing away from it.

JB: What has your work focused on since you first pub­lished Com­mu­nism for Kids in Ger­man in 2004?

BA: The task of Com­mu­nism for Kids was to rein­vent the future dur­ing the end of his­to­ry. When real­ly exist­ing cap­i­tal­ism seemed with­out alter­na­tives, we had to reopen a utopi­an per­spec­tive. A trick was need­ed in order to find the courage to dream big. That is, big­ger than indi­vid­u­al­ized life plan­ning and some reforms here or there. But as soon as the future is brought back into the ever­last­ing present of cap­i­tal, the past comes back as well. Fear, like hope, is pro­ject­ed into the future, but at the same time it derives from the past. Will tomor­row be a repro­duc­tion of yes­ter­day? Will anoth­er attempt to over­come cap­i­tal­ism end again in author­i­tar­i­an state social­ism? Will the next rev­o­lu­tions repeat the mis­takes of their pre­de­ces­sors? In the 19th cen­tu­ry, these ques­tions were not as urgent as they are today. Lenin, Stal­in, and Mao have changed Marx for­ev­er. We will nev­er be able to dream as inno­cent­ly of a bet­ter future as in the 19th cen­tu­ry. After the expe­ri­ence of the 20th cen­tu­ry, if the mass­es fear rad­i­cal change, is this real­ly false con­scious­ness or maybe a right one?

Com­mu­nism for Kids ends with these ques­tions. Is it pos­si­ble to fight for a post­cap­i­tal­ist world, for com­mu­nism, with­out tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for the lega­cy of Stal­in­ism and its vic­tims? State social­ism is implic­it­ly crit­i­cized but only very short­ly, and not on the decid­ing field of prax­is. Just like the syn­di­cal­ist exper­i­ment that depends on the mar­ket, the state social­ist attempt ends with the peo­ple say­ing: “no, no, this is not com­mu­nism.” But what is the pow­er of these words? For more than half a cen­tu­ry, author­i­tar­i­an social­ist states cov­ered one-fifth to one-third of the earth. They were not com­mu­nist, but they were also not not-com­mu­nist. With my fol­low­ing book, Past Future: On the Lone­li­ness of Com­mu­nist Specters and the Recon­struc­tion of Tomor­row (first pub­lished 2007, sec­ond edi­tion in 2011), I went deep­er into these ques­tions. The book is a per­for­ma­tive and polit­i­cal work of mourn­ing. It con­fronts the past in order to find a future that is buried with­in it. It starts with the Hitler-Stal­in Pact and then goes back­wards, to the Great Ter­ror of 1937-9, to the fail­ure of the left to stop the advent of Nation­al Social­ism, to Stalin’s rise to pow­er, to Kro­n­stadt and final­ly to 1917. It tries to retrieve a com­mu­nist desire by work­ing through the his­to­ry of its cor­rup­tion. It rais­es ques­tions that we pre­fer to avoid.

My next two books will be pub­lished in Ger­many for the 100th anniver­sary of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion. In them, I try to answer these ques­tions, and so I pose the ques­tions more pre­cise­ly: could the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion have suc­ceed­ed? And how? What is a rev­o­lu­tion? How is it per­ceived in the dom­i­nant rev­o­lu­tion­ary imag­i­nary? Does this per­cep­tion sup­port or obstruct the suc­cess of rev­o­lu­tions? I crit­i­cize a rev­o­lu­tion­ary fetish and a utopi­an fetish that was also present in the first edi­tions of Com­mu­nism for Kids. I sug­gest a recon­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of both terms: what should the rela­tion between trans­for­ma­tion and utopia, between rev­o­lu­tion and com­mu­nism, means and aims look like? In my next book, 1917 and 1968, the old left and the new left are put in a rela­tion of mutu­al cri­tique to over­come both their lim­i­ta­tions and cre­ate a more inte­gral con­cept of com­mu­nism. The book advo­cates a the­o­ry of rela­tion­al rev­o­lu­tion, a pol­i­tics of sol­i­dar­i­ty, and a queer-fem­i­nist com­mu­nism.

JB: How has the finan­cial cri­sis of 2008 and euro cri­sis of 2010 affect­ed Ger­many, par­tic­u­lar­ly Berlin, where you live?

BA: Since the world eco­nom­ic cri­sis, glob­al cap­i­tal has been des­per­ate­ly look­ing for ways to invest. Since inter­est rates are low and new invest­ments are dif­fi­cult to find, land and real estate appear as safe havens for all this sur­plus cap­i­tal. In Berlin, this is par­tic­u­lar­ly notice­able through the con­stant pres­sure on rent. Gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, dis­place­ments, and evic­tions have become a cen­tral field of social strug­gles in the city. These strug­gles have an imme­di­ate ant­i­cap­i­tal­ist dimen­sion since they artic­u­late the con­tra­dic­tion between exchange-val­ue and use-val­ue. Who can and should make deci­sions about a house – those who hold the prop­er­ty title or those who use it and live in it? The move­ment against gen­tri­fi­ca­tion in Berlin, espe­cial­ly in Kreuzberg, has become very strong and has proven that resis­tance pays off. While there have been very few new occu­pa­tions – espe­cial­ly by the refugee move­ment – many dis­place­ments have been pre­vent­ed by activists.

Here again, we con­stant­ly encounter forms of moral­is­tic, abbre­vi­at­ed or even anti­se­mit­ic, fas­cist kinds of anti-cap­i­tal­ism. But, at the same time, we see a strong aware­ness of these cor­rupt forms of cri­tique. More impor­tant­ly, we wit­ness again that the strug­gle itself changes the city, the rela­tions between its inhab­i­tants. Neigh­bors who used to live indif­fer­ent­ly next to each oth­er start­ed to get to know each oth­er and to orga­nize togeth­er. This is very impor­tant to under­stand. Sol­i­dar­i­ty is not just an instru­men­tal means of social change – divid­ed we fall, unit­ed we stand – but also the goal of eman­ci­pa­tion, of com­mu­nism.

JB: Has the rise of right-wing nation­al­ism over Europe and the Unit­ed States spread to Ger­many? How do you think one should go about fight­ing it?

BA: Across the world, maybe espe­cial­ly in the Unit­ed States, Ger­many is often seen as pro­gres­sive – in regards to sex­u­al, eco­log­i­cal, and social ques­tions. This is the result of decades of pub­lic rela­tions cam­paign­ing that focused on the pol­i­tics of mem­o­ry and his­to­ry. Peo­ple who get to know Ger­many bet­ter are often sur­prised that this image is not true at all. In recent years, it has  dis­guised the role Ger­many played in the world eco­nom­ic cri­sis, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Europe. Ger­many is the most pow­er­ful econ­o­my in Europe and one of the strongest in the world. With its pol­i­tics of defla­tion, hard cur­ren­cy, low wages, and export ori­en­ta­tion, it has large­ly con­tributed to the cri­sis and rich­ly prof­it­ed from it. Angela Merkel might appear as a rel­a­tive­ly lib­er­al leader but she man­aged to export the cri­sis in Ger­many to south­ern Euro­pean coun­tries where the lives of so many were wors­ened dras­ti­cal­ly. Still, Merkel is not part of this new and grow­ing inter­na­tion­al of right-wing nation­al­ists, pro­gram­mat­ic racists and neo­fas­cists – the mon­sters the cri­sis gave birth to. In only a few years, antifas­cism has become a major task in world pol­i­tics, maybe even the major task.

After the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump, Merkel has been called the true leader of the free world. But we have to be clear: in times of cri­sis, there is no mere defense of the sta­tus quo. This is pre­cise­ly the his­tor­i­cal les­son Hillary Clin­ton remind­ed us of. Against fas­cism, the super­hero nar­ra­tive does not work: the superhero’s task is to stop a supervil­lain who has a very cre­ative plan to dras­ti­cal­ly change, or destroy, the world. The super­hero sim­ply thwarts this plan, in the last minute. A hap­py end­ing … and the world goes back to being as shit­ty as it was before. That can’t be it. Social democ­rats, new labor, con­ser­v­a­tives and neolib­er­al pol­i­tics in gen­er­al made the rise of the right pos­si­ble. In order to fight neo­fas­cism, we can­not defend the soci­ety it osten­si­bly oppos­es; we have to fight for a dif­fer­ent one. If you want to save the world, you need to rad­i­cal­ly change it.

Com­mu­nism for Kids by Bini Adam­czak, trans­lat­ed by Jacob Blu­men­feld and Sophie Lewis, is out now with MIT Press.

Authors of the article

is a Berlin-based social theorist and artist. She writes on political theory, queer politics, and the past future of revolutions.

is a translator and writer living in Berlin. He is very close to finishing his PhD in philosophy at the New School for Social Research.