“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.