By Shaunna Rodrigues
This note is going to follow the question that Bernard Harcourt posed in his blog for the 8/13 Praxis Seminar. How do we explore communism’s ideal form through doing rather than through theory? There were many moments in the seminar which touched upon this question. I will focus on three of these moments here.
First, let me draw attention to Eduardo Cadava’s proposal to connect the idea of ‘going back to the beginning’ to the relationship between reading literature and doing political work. Cadava argued that it was important to do so because, (I) following Angela Davis, there is no straight line between political acts and what we seek to accomplish, (II) following Walter Benjamin, reading can help us to transform our understanding of the past so that the future is not a repetition of the past. Given this, the task of ‘going back to the beginning’ cannot be one of mere repetition, nor can it be one of complete erasure where we can ignore the contingencies of history, especially the history of various attempts to realize the idea of communism. Rather, it has to be one which is mediated by both our experiences of political acts, given (I) and reading, given (II).
Why should reading literature be a transformative exercise, especially when it comes to praxis? I want to look at this question by focusing on the form of the Novel and propose that a novel can enable a kind of praxis which learns from ‘going back to the beginning’ in three ways. (A) the novel can walk its reader from a point of beginning to an extreme point, demonstrating what an idea can do when pushed to its extreme in a way that praxis may not be able to do. (B) The novel can contain within itself a description of a whole world, unfolding its relational and structural dimensions while also doing (A). This is something praxis requires an awareness of but cannot necessarily acquire without dedicated communication and association with a large set of people, objects and institutions. (C) The novel can evoke political emotions at different levels of intensity for its reader. It can do so by enabling an accompanying sense of distance from its reader, which the proximity to the immediate concerns associated with praxis cannot do. For example, a common and constant political emotion that drives and sustains demonstrations, protests, and activism, is that of anger and outrage at an act, or system, of injustice. The novel, however, can urge the person undertaking praxis to experience sadness, anguish, shame, or desperation, without these emotions being directed by anger/outrage. These three aspects of the novel help its reader to ‘go back to the beginning’, through the novel, to acquire and accumulate understandings, possibilities, and emotions which could lend a deeper significance to her praxis.
The second moment from the 8/13 seminar that this note wants to focus on is Rosalind Morris’ question on the ‘cult figure’. In her piece on the Shinawatras, Rosalind Morris critiqued Badiou’s call for cult figures of communism as ‘representations of representation’ by arguing that the presence of ‘cult figures’ within a system of political representation presumes that there is a perfect adequacy between the rule of these cult figures and the desires of the people they represent (The Idea of Communism 3, p221).
However, acts which make individual personalities into cult figures are not necessarily those which represent their rule per se. Rather, cult figures seem to be created by political actions which are deviations from regular acts of ruling itself. It is through these deviations that cult figures seem to fulfill the desires of the people they represent. Mao’s long swim in the Yangtze at Wuhan, or Gandhi’s long Salt March to Dandi, were not just acts of publicity (which is also important to consider), but also acts of creating a disjuncture for the represented from the repetitive world of representative politics. The aim of this disjuncture is often to bring the singular political figure in close proximity to those they claim to represent. Even if we were to separate these acts of disjuncture from the machinery which makes them into the performative events they are remembered as, they can be understood as acts which succeed in ‘closing the gap between ‘the Included and the Excluded’ because they deviate from the regular representative politics of the parties and claim proximity to the represented.
Given this, a relevant question would be the following: what kind of praxis separates cult figures of communism from the cult figures of populism? Is the answer to this based on (1) a kind of political action which enjoys a greater moral authority and/or (2) a kind of political action which can reduce, as much as possible, the chance of cooption and compromise? Both these kinds of political action have the capacity to be transformative, both of these have to rely on ‘going back to the beginning’ in order to be transformative. While (1) would have to fall back on a series of values – for e.g. equality and justice, which are also valorized by a variety of ideologies besides communism, (2) holds the possibility of giving these series of values a radical (revolutionary) direction. However (2) also holds the risk of being ‘exclusive’, i.e., undermining not just those who do not want to pursue communism as a regulative ideal, but also those who may hold different ethical considerations while maintaining communism as a regulative ideal. The final discussion of the 8/13 seminar between Jack Halberstam and Rosalind Morris, which focused on thinking of the ‘series of values’ comprising communism through the body rather than through normative conceptions of justice raised such an ethical dilemma with regard to political actions which value (2) over (1).
This brings me to the third point, which is that of justification. In his talk, Aristides Baltas made an interesting comment: Time, he said, is one of the biggest constraints of political praxis. A practitioner of politics does not have time to understand issues fully before he can organize a theoretical answer to them. Therefore, the practitioner has to find some kind of justification, one which is not always carefully or theoretically assessed, for why he takes certain decisions (of governance).
However, taking communism from an interpretation of a norm (explicated through a conception of a ‘series of values’) to an idea which demands to be integrally carried out, that is, as an imperative prescription, would require careful justification. How else are we to separate communism from other kinds of populism, socialism or some other kind of moral order? It is in this process of justification that communism comes to be imbricated with ethical concepts.
This is where, perhaps, identifying features of the world which makes certain ethical concepts both right and realizable is necessary. A moral order, like one defined by a ‘series of values’ which communism claims to uphold, defines not just what is right, but what is sensible to strive for, given the context. A moral order which strives for equality might provide a ‘quick’ justification for political practitioners, but in a moral order that is defined through what Rosalind Morris calls ‘equal access to inequality’, developing a justification for communism would require a far more complex questioning of how justification itself must proceed.