Bernard E. Harcourt | Introduction to the Idea of Communism

By Bernard E. Harcourt

The “Idea of Communism”: The place to start Praxis 8/13, naturally, is to underscore the distinctly Platonic resonance of the expression itself and of our object of study. To discuss the “Idea of Communism”—with a capital “I” no less—is to explore communism’s ideal form, its essence, unsullied by the faulty and illusory human experiences we have had with it. It is to leave behind the shadows, to emerge from our cavernous history, to resume the search for the truth and true ambition of communism. This is the platonic orientation of Badiou and his “communist hypothesis”—namely, the effort to explore, beyond Marxist theory of the nineteenth century and Leninist and Maoist practices of the twentieth century, the guiding ideal or norm or “regulative Ideal.” It is what gave rise to the many interventions by political philosophers and critical thinkers, such as Slavoj Zizek, Étienne Balibar, Bruno Bosteels, Peter Hallward, Rosalind Morris, Claudia Pozzana, Alessandro Russo, and others collected in the multiple volumes, The Idea of Communism (Verso). It is what motivates Aristides Baltas’s reflections in his introduction to the edited volume, The Names of Communism?

But how does “the Idea of Communism,” with its distinctly platonic edge, fit in a series on “praxis,” such as Praxis 13/13? The platonic method, perhaps more than most philosophical approaches, tends toward the pole of theoria: It is contemplation and knowing thyself—gnothi seauton—that achieve the highest form of praxis. So is the method wedded to a platonic outcome, one that might tell us more about ideal republics than how to get there, or can it be plied to a more engaged and robust praxis?

What work does it do, in effect, to focus on the “Idea of Communism” for an inquiry into praxis? Let me sketch a few possibilities, drawing on our readings—and urge us to address this question more fully during Praxis 8/13 on Wednesday, January 23, 2019.

First, exploring the Idea of Communism can liberate us from History—or more specifically, from its history and from the contingency of history. This is at the heart of Zizek’s démarche in his essay “How To Begin From the Beginning” in the first volume of the collection. Zizek argues there that we need to begin by rethinking communism from scratch, following Lenin’s recognition, in 1922, that the only way forward is to start again and again from the beginning. “[W]e definitely have to ‘begin from the beginning’, that is, not to ‘build further upon the foundations’ of the revolutionary epoch of the twentieth century (which lasted from 1917 to 1989), but to ‘descend’ to the starting point and follow a different path.”[1] In this, Zizek accompanies Badiou who also urged us to hold on to the “communist hypothesis,” but to rethink entirely its modality and expression. In fact, to even rethink its core elements, including property and the state. By turning to the idea of communism, and liberating ourselves from its experience, we can begin anew to reimagine its modalities, and propose entirely new “political experimentation,” in Badiou’s words, taken up again by Zizek.[2] It invites, as Peter Hallward suggests, “a certain amount of free or ‘reckless’ speculation, a reflection on communism as a project or possibility independent of the legacy of formerly existing communism.”[3]

Second, it focuses our analysis on particular dimensions of the communist ideal in productive ways. That was, in part, the motivation behind the first philosophical encounter, which set the agenda for the series, namely: “to discuss the perpetual, persistent notion that, in a truly emancipated society, all things should be owned in common.”[4] (Incidentally, that was also precisely the topic that we discussed at Praxis 5/13 with Étienne Balibar, Camille Robcis, and Mikhaïl Xifaras, a seminar that, we might say, demonstrated the payoff.)

The method can indeed be very productive. For Zizek, for instance, the antagonisms surrounding the idea of “the commun” motivate his analysis. They define the present historical conjuncture and risks. At the same time, they help identify what is distinctly communist. In effect, in a roundabout way, they end up both defining and offering ways out of our current crises.

In his contribution, Zizek identifies four contradictions—what he calls “antagonisms”—within contemporary capitalism that, he tells us, will ultimately bring its downfall:

  1. Climate change (note the proximity to Bruno Latour’s latest book, Down to Earth which we discussed in Praxis 6/13);
  2. Intellectual property and its tension with the idea of private property (note the proximity to Hardt & Negri’s work, which we discussed in Praxis 5/13);
  3. Biotechnologies and their socio-ethical implications; and
  4. New walls and slums as new forms of apartheid (note here the tragic resonance with President Donald Trump’s obsession with building a wall on the US-Mexican border).

For Zizek, the first three of these contradictions articulate three different aspects of the notion of “the common”—what he calls external, cultural, and internal dimensions.[5] Zizek argues that in all three cases (external, cultural, and internal), the global grab for the common and unremitting privatization risk total apocalypse—what he calls “the self-annihilation of humanity itself.”[6] It also produces goes hand in hand with a fragmentation of the working class into three sectors: the intellectual creators, the manual laborers, and the marginalized unemployed. The chasm between these three segments then further empowers the state. It also allows Zizek to radicalize the notion of the proletariat, arguing that we all have become the proletariat in the condition of potential annihilation—of potentially losing everything. “This triple threat to our entire being makes us all in a way proletarians, reduced to ‘substanceless subjectivity’, as Marx put it in the Grundrisse.”[7]

[Beyond this, Zizek also warns against what some of us have called “neoliberal penality.” Over and above the four aforementioned antagonisms, Zizek tells us, there is a broader and more deeply embedded contradiction in what he calls “post-modern” capitalism that drives our current inequalities and must eventually lead to political change—it must, he says, or it will defeat us all. This is the contradiction between the increasingly “deregulated” state of post-modern capitalism and its increasing policing functions necessary to extract rent. “Perhaps therein resides the fundamental ‘contradiction’ of today’s ‘postmodern’ capitalism: while its logic is deregulatory, ‘anti-statal’, nomadic/deterritorializing, etc., its key tendency towards the ‘becoming-rent-of-profit’ signals the strengthening role of the State whose (not only) regulatory function is ever more omnipresent.”[8] In effect, since capitalism is gradually becoming an economy of rent seeking—of rent profits off intellectual labor in the digital age—the state is actually increasing its power and policing, rather than disappearing.]

Only the idea of communism pays attention to the fourth contradiction: apartheid inequality, or what he calls “the gap that separates the Excluded from the Included.”[9] This is what makes communism unique. All other politics can address the first three antagonisms in reformist ways. Only a politics that takes the fourth into consideration will be emancipatory: It alone will focus on the problem of inequality. This is the core of the idea of communism—and it shed light on the path forward: to unite the three separate factions of the working class. As Zizek explains, the condition of post-modern capitalism has split the working class into three, with very different ideologies—“each part with its own ‘way of life’ and ideology: the enlightened hedonism and liberal multiculturalism of the intellectual class, the populist fundamentalism of the working class, and the more extreme, singular forms of the outcast fraction.”[10] The strategy, then, must be to reunite the three. Zizek closes the essay: “The old call ‘Proletarians, unite!’ is thus more pertinent than ever: in the new conditions of ‘post-industrial’ capitalism, the unity of the three fractions of the working class isalready their victory.”[11]

For Balibar too, the “Idea of Communism” allows him to synthesize and define communism. On the one hand, to define who “we communists” are—that is, for Balibar, those of us who “desire to change the world in order to become transformed ourselves.”[12] In Rosalind Morris’s words, with a “relentless commitment to our shared goal of radical equality.”[13] On the other hand, for Balibar, also to identify its praxis. Only by reaching toward the abstraction of the Idea of Communism is it possible to isolate what it is precisely that characterizes communist action or praxis. And what Balibar proposes here is that “they/we [communists] are participating in various ‘struggles’ of emancipation, transformation, reform, revolution, civilization; but in doing that we are not so much ‘organizing’ as ‘de-organizing’ these struggles.”[14]

Third, the idealist approach underscores the urgency of the enterprise. It encourages us to proceed despite the fact that some or many of the building blocks are still incomplete. This is true of other ideas, such as, for instance, the idea of prison abolition. Prison abolition is so urgent and compelling that we cannot wait to embrace it until we have figured out every aspect; our duty is to move forward even though doubts and uncertainties remain. “[A]n idea, like the idea of communism, or equality, or justice,” Hallward writes, “commands that we should strive to realize it without compromises or delay, before the means of such realization have been recognized as feasible or legitimate, or even ‘possible’. It is the deliberate striving towards realization itself that will convert the impossible into the possible, and explode the parameters of the feasible.”[15]

In this vein, Zizek offers a passionate defense of popular and communist revolutions—from Robespierre to 1917 to Mao’s Cultural Revolution[16]—ultimately pushing his ideal of communism into a Jacobin-Leninist direction: “the time has come to turn this mantra around and admit that a dose of this ‘Jacobin-Leninist’ paradigm is precisely what the left needs today.”[17] He calls for the four strict invariants of communism: “strict egalitarian justice, disciplinary terror, political voluntarism, and trust in the people.”[18] And he ends in militant Leninist fashion:

  1. “There are numerous cases in which representing (speaking for) others is a necessity.” (Vol. 3: 256): Zizek does not abide by contemporary practices of “stepping back.”
  2. “Permanent political engagement has a limited time-span: after a couple of weeks or, rarely, months, the majority disengages, and the problem is to safeguard the results of the uprising at this moment, when things return to normal.” (Vol. 3: 257) The task is the second revolution – like Tariq Ali and Lenin’s Spring Theses.
  3. Resist the satisfaction of uprising, which only feeds into conservatism. “No wonder conservatives like to see from time to time sublime explosions—they remind people that nothing can really change, that the next day things return to normal.” (Vol. 3: 257)

In the hands of a philosopher like Zizek, then, the platonic method, the Idea of Communism, entails reflection on a revolutionary emancipatory praxis—a “new emancipatory politics” in his words.[19]  It entails a direct relationship between critique and praxis, a call for action. Without putting words into our guest, Aristides Baltas, one can discern a similar sensibility in his introductory essay to The Names of Communism?, which also navigates from the concept of communism to the practice of it, and contains rich reflections on the decisions, actions, and judgments that must accompany the concept.

In the end, then, and for Zizek for sure, the Idea of Communism may be its praxis.


[1] Zizek, Vol 1, p. 210.

[2] Badiou, Sarkozy, 2008, quoted by Zizek in Vol. 1, 211.

[3] Hallward, Vol. 1, p. 111.

[4] This is noted on the back cover of the first volume.

[5] Zizek uses the plural term, “the commons,” in this work, whereas Hardt & Negri use the singular to differentiate their idea of the common from that of the town square and the paradox of the commons.

[6] Zizek, Vol. 1, p. 213.

[7] Zizek, Vol. 1, p. 213. In this, we have become homo sacer, Zizek tells us, borrowing here from Agamben. (Vol. 1: 214)

[8] Zizek, Vol. 1, p. 224.

[9] Zizek, Vol. 1, p. 214.

[10] Zizek, Vol. 1, p. 226. And he notes or adds: “Identity politics acquires a specific form in each of the three fractions: postmodern multicultural identity politics in the intellectual class, regressive populist fundamentalism in the working class, half-illegal initiatic groups (criminal gangs, religious sects, etc.) among the outcasts. What they all share is recourse to a particular identity as a substitute for the missing universal public space. (Vol. 1: 226).

[11] Zizek, Vol. 1, p. 226. In this regard, for both Zizek and Badiou—and I might add myself, as I wrote in Critique & Praxis, though I use the term legal liberalism rather than democracy—the real enemy today, the real hindrance to revolutionary transformation is the illusion of democratic reform: “It is the ‘democratic illusion’, the acceptance of democratic mechanisms as providing the only framework for all possible change, which prevents any radical transformation of society. In this precise sense, Badiou was right in his apparently weird claim: ‘Today, the enemy is not called Empire or Capital. It’s called Democracy.’ It is the ‘democratic illusion’, the acceptance of democratic mechanisms as the ultimate frame of every change, that prevents the radical transformation of capitalist relations.” (Zizek, Vol. 3: 243)

[12] Balibar, Vol. 2, p. 14.

[13] Morris, Vol. 3, p. 239.

[14] Balibar, Vol. 2, p. 14. Balibar comes back to this notion of “de-organizing” rather than “organizing,” emphasizing in a lengthy passage at the end of his essay: “But they are not building any organization of their own, not even an ‘invisible’ one—they are, rather, de-organizing the existing organizations, the very organizations in which they participate: not in the sense of undermining them from the inside, or betraying their friends and comrades in the middle of the battles, but in the sense of questioning the validity of the distances and incompatibilities (very real, most of the time) between different types of struggles and movements. In that sense they essentially perform a ‘negative’ function in the form of a very positive commitment.” Balibar, Vol. 2, p. 34. The negative dialectics of Adorno seem to loom over this passage, and I am not entirely sure what to make of it or whether I agree. We might want to explore this in the seminar.

[15] Hallward, Vol. 1, p. 112.

[16] Zizek, Vol. 1, p. 216-217.

[17] Zizek, Vol. 1, p. 217.

[18] Zizek, Vol. 1, p. 217.

[19] Zizek, Vol. 1, p. 213.