A specter is haunting the academy—the specter of the “New Communism.” Astonishingly, a worldview recently the source of immense suffering and misery, and responsible for more deaths than fascism and Nazism, has made a comeback.
The leading proponents of the New Communism are the “academic rock-star” Slavoj Zizek and the philosopher and ex-Maoist Alain Badiou. Other leading figures are Michael Hardt, Gianni Vattimo, Bruno Bosteels from Cornell University, Alessandro Russo, Judith Balso, and Alberto Toscano.
All spoke at “The Idea of Communism,” a conference held in London in 2009 that attracted nearly 1000 people paying more than 100 pounds each. Since the conference, a little publishing industry has grown up, making the “New Communism” respectable on campus.
Of course, since the crash of 2008 it is not surprising that intellectual alternatives to global capitalism are undergoing a revival. The scandal does not lie in the insistence that a global alternative to the present system be held open, but that communism, of all things, is being proposed as that global alternative.
A democratic critique of the New Communism must focus on three defining features. Each marks it out as a theoretical disaster.
First, the New Communism is a spiritualised voluntarism unconstrained by strategic compass, ethical limit, or what Marx called, simply, “circumstances not of our choosing.” “Revolutionary politics,” Zizek tells us, “is not a matter of ‘opinions’ but of the truth on behalf of which one often is compelled to disregard the ‘opinion of the majority’ and to impose the revolutionary will against it.” He invites us to embrace “a destructive negativity, which does not end in a chaotic void but reverts (and organises itself) into a new order, imposing it on to reality.”
Second, the New Communism is a cult of force expressed as a politics (a cult of the leader), a metaphysics (magical thinking about the transformational power of revolutionary violence and expropriation), and what the late Italian socialist Sebastiano Timpanaro once called a “brutal ethics of force” (i.e., might is right).
Zizek urges us to adopt the “insight” of the Baader-Meinhof gang that “[i]n an epoch in which the masses are totally immersed in capitalist ideological torpor ... only a resort to the raw Real of direct violence ... can awaken them.”
Alain Badiou, a more serious thinker than the Zizek, and the real architect of the New Communism, offers an apologia for left-wing terror. “Terror is a political tool that has been in use as long as human societies have existed,” he claims. Therefore, it should “not [be] submitted to infantilizing moral judgment.” Badiou is pitiless: “As for the love of the Other, or, worse, the ‘recognition of the Other,’ these are nothing but Christian confections.”
Third, the New Communism is profoundly elitist, rehabilitating the Jacobin notion of the “educational dictatorship.” Zizek argues that the mistake of the left was to accept “the basic coordinates of liberal democracy (‘democracy’ versus ‘totalitarianism’)” and what we need to do now is “fearlessly to violate these liberal taboos: So what if one is accused of being ‘anti-democratic,’ ‘totalitarian’ …”
The New Communism matters not because of its intellectual merits but because it may yet influence layers of young Europeans in the context of an exhausted social democracy, austerity, and a self-loathing intellectual culture. Tempting as it is, we can’t afford to just shake our heads and pass on by.
For we know where this all ends up if it gets any traction. As the democratic socialist Eduard Bernstein argued at the turn of the century, once you go in for an “almost incredible neglect of the most palpable facts,” you end up soon enough at “a truly miraculous belief in the creative power of force.” And once you start doing violence to reality in theory, you end up doing violence to people in practice. What distinguishes the New Communism is that its leading partisans are fully aware of that dynamic, but then embrace it as a strategy. As Zizek puts it:
The only ‘realistic’ prospect is to ground a new political universality by opting for the impossible, fully assuming the place of the exception, with no taboos, no a priori norms (‘human rights,’ ‘democracy’), respect for which would prevent us from ‘resignifying’ terror, the ruthless exercise of power, the spirit of sacrifice … if this radical choice is decried by some bleeding-heart liberals as Linksfaschismus [left-wing fascism], so be it!