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20 March 2009

alberto toscano: communist knowledge/communist power 

[Here is Alberto's paper from day two of the Birkbeck Communism conference. Pictures chosen by me, of course]

For the purposes of this talk, I want to take Zizek’s opening remarks yesterday about the ‘patience of the concept’ as a license to zero in on the question of communism’s relationship to philosophy. I want do so in particular through the prism of what I’d like to call the politics of abstraction, a notion which I hope will be clarified as I proceed. As a cautionary note, this means that this paper will not address the immediate prospects of a communist politics, but simply consider what it might mean to be a communist in philosophy, and whether the idea of communism is indeed a philosophical idea. It also means that I will be engaging at various points in the quotation and discussion of Marx. This is not a matter of allegiance or authority – Marx is not a timeless standard of correctness – but stems from the need to define how philosophy was caught up in the very emergence of the idea of communism, and in what manner communism developed both from and against philosophy. This is a precondition, I think, for revisiting and possibly recasting the idea of communism today.



A philosophical consideration of communism is immediately confronted with two apparently opposed retorts. From the standpoint of its most inveterate detractors, communism is a political pathology of abstraction, a violent denial of worldly differences and customs, of the density of history and the inertia of nature. It is the doomed attempt to philosophize the world into something other than what it is. To employ Hegel’s vocabulary, communism is a manifestation of fanaticism. That is, to quote The Philosophy of History, ‘an enthusiasm for something abstract – for an abstract thought which sustains a negative position towards the established order of things. It is the essence of fanaticism to bear only a desolating destructive relation to the concrete’. In a world of differences, hierarchies and stratifications, how could an intransigent politics of egalitarianism be anything other than fanatical? Such views, which first gained momentum in reaction to the French Revolution, have continued to accompany the various instantiations of what Badiou calls ‘generic communism’. This was (...and remains) the case in the literature of Cold War anti-totalitarianism, for which the desolations and destructions of Stalinism are to be referred, in the last instance, not to the logic of political and class struggles, or to the bellicose encirclement of the Soviet Union, or indeed to the baleful mechanics of bureaucratisation, but to the fundamentally ‘ideocratic’ character of political rule in historical communism. Abstract thought is to blame – as the very notion of ‘ideocracy’ suggests. As a very minor contemporary example take these lines from the review of The Meaning of Sarkozy in The Observer: ‘So when he quotes Mao approvingly and equivocates over the rights and wrongs of the Cultural Revolution, it is hard not to feel a certain pride in workaday Anglo-Saxon empiricism, which inoculates us against the tyranny of pure political abstraction’.



But this reproach of abstraction is also – and this is my second point – internal to communist thinking itself, especially and above all in its Marxian variant. As early as his 1843 correspondence with Ruge in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbucher Marx was casting doubts on the emancipatory powers of a communism – the kind associated with the likes of Weitling or Cabet – which operated as a ‘dogmatic abstraction’. As he remarks: ‘it is precisely the advantage of the new trend that we do not dogmatically anticipate the world, but only want to find the new world through criticism of the old one. Hitherto philosophers have had the solution of all riddles lying in their writing-desks, and the stupid, exoteric world had only to open its mouth for the roast pigeons of absolute knowledge to fly into it’. This is why, as he declaims, ‘we do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles’. Is this profession of critical and political immanence a mere abdication of philosophy? Far from it. The problem for Marx, the problem of communist politics and communist theory will remain throughout that of a non-dogmatic anticipation. And this anticipation will mutate in accordance with the conjuncture.

To explore and take stock of the relationship between communism and (philosophical) abstraction, I want to begin by exploring this question of anticipation. Taking Marx’s ‘Introduction to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’ as emblematic in this respect, it is possible to suggest that the anticipatory function of philosophy is inversely proportional to the revolutionary maturity of the situation in which it intervenes. Famously, Marx’s plea for radicalisation is insistently contextualised in terms of German backwardness. What is perhaps most arresting about this text is precisely how the most generic of programmes, universal social emancipation, is meticulously and strategically situated in a very singular political predicament. Having lyrically encapsulated the results of the critique of religion, which he regards as having been ‘essentially completed’ for Germany, Marx is confronted with the obstacles preventing the prolongation of the unmasking of religious abstraction into the vanquishing of social and political abstraction, of ‘the critique of heaven ... into the critique of earth, the critique of religion into the critique of law, the critique of theology into the critique of politics’. But the retrograde character of the German situation impairs the role of critique as a productive, immanent negativity. In Marx’s acerbic words: ‘For even the negation of our political present is already a dusty fact in the historical junkroom of modern nations. If I negate powdered wigs, I still have unpowdered wigs’. Or, as we may echo today: ‘If I negate subprime mortgages, I still have mortgages’.



What is the critical philosopher to do when faced with an anachronistic regime that, as he puts it, ‘only imagines that it believes in itself’? The German anachronism is double: on the one hand, the farce of restoration without revolution in practice; on the other, the anticipation of the future in theory. It is the latter which alone is worthy of the kind of immanent critique that would be capable of extracting, from the productive negation of the purely speculative image of ‘future history’, the weapons for a genuine overturning of the status quo. In other words, the radicalism of philosophy – that is of philosophy’s existence as the self-criticism of philosophy – is dictated by the paradoxical coexistence of practical backwardness and theoretical advance. In order to be properly radicalised, the situation surveyed by Marx is thus compelled to pass through philosophy. Neither a practical repudiation of philosophy nor a philosophical overcoming of practice are possible: ‘you cannot transcend philosophy without actualising it’, nor can you ‘actualise philosophy without transcending it’. Again, it is important to stress that though these may appear as universally-binding statements, they are specified by Germany’s anomalous retardation, its odd admixture of political anachronism (its powdered wigs) and philosophical anticipation (Hegel’s Philosophy of Right as the most advanced articulation of the modern state, a state which of course does not actually exist in Germany). This anomaly even permits Marx to hint at Germany’s comparative revolutionary advantage, when he asks: ‘can Germany attain a praxis à la hauteur des principes, that is to say, a revolution that will raise it not only to the official level of the modern nations, but to the human level which will be the immediate future of these nations?’

But, notwithstanding Marx’s faith in theoretical emancipation and his conviction that theory is not a mere collection of ideas but ‘an active principle, a set of practices’, philosophy’s practical conversion appears thwarted by the absence of the ‘passive element’ or ‘material basis’ for revolutionary praxis. This basis would ordinarily be found in the domain of civil society, in the sphere of needs: ‘A radical revolution can only be a revolution of radical needs, whose preconditions and birthplaces appear to be lacking’. In other words, the ‘theoretical needs’ that emerge from the immanent critique of philosophy do not translate into ‘practical needs’. The sheer immaturity and disaggregation of the German polity means that the ‘classical’ model of partial and political revolution is inoperative. But Marx could not countenance a praxis simply determined at the level of essence or of philosophy. As he unequivocally put it: ‘It is not enough that thought strive to actualise itself; actuality must itself strive toward thought’. This embryonic version of Marx’s later ‘method of the tendency’ dictates that radical emancipation find its objective or ‘positive possibility’ in ‘the formation of a class with radical chains’, the proletariat, that the impossible become real. The point of this brief excursus is to stress that, even as critical attention shifts from the limits of the political state to the mode of production and its laws of motion, the demand of a non-dogmatic anticipation will continue to define Marx’s work, as will the need to reassert the difference between this approach and that of dogmatic anticipation, especially when the latter takes the form of ‘philosophical fantasies’ of a truth which would serve as the standard against which to judge social change – Marx and Engels’s main accusation, in The Communist Manifesto, against utopian socialism.



This figure of philosophical anticipation, initially framed in terms of actuality striving toward thought, and later enveloped and surpassed in the knowledge of capitalism’s tendencies, has important consequences, I want to argue, for our very idea of communism. The specificity of communism stems from its intrinsic and specific temporality, from the fact that, while never simply non- or anti-philosophical, it is an idea that contains within it, inextricably, a tension towards realisation, transition, revolution. I now want to briefly draw the consequences of this argument in terms of four interlinked dimensions of the notion of communism which challenge the philosophical sufficiency or autonomy of the concept: equality, revolution, power, and knowledge. You will note that in some manner these are dimensions which philosophy sometimes defines by contrast with the vicissitudes of communist politics and its associated critique of political economy. Thus, economic equality is sometimes treated as the counterpart to equality as a philosophical principle or axiom; power, especially state power, is regarded as a dimension external to philosophical questioning about communism; knowledge is juxtaposed to truth and revolution is regarded as an at best enigmatic and at worst obsolete model of emancipatory change.



Let’s begin with equality. The affirmation of equality, both as a political maxim and as a social objective, lies of course behind the age-old view of communism as a dangerous levelling force, a violent abstraction unleashed on a world of embedded customs and refractory differences. But communism – in its own words, so to speak – has also, at different times, articulated its own criticism of equality as abstraction. Consider the Critique of the Gotha Programme, and the commentary on that document in Lenin’s State and Revolution. Faced with a truly ‘economistic’ theory of justice (the social-democratic ideal, pushed by the likes of Lassalle, that equality signifies ‘fair distribution’, ‘the equal right of all to an equal product of labour’), Marx retorts – in passages whose significance for the concept of equality have yet, one might argue, to be fully assumed – that the notion of equality implied by this distributionist vision of communism is still steeped in the very abstractions that dominate bourgeois society. Speculating about a communist society that emerges from capitalist society – and is thus, not just its negation but its determinate negation – Marx notes that the abrogation of exploitation and the capitalist appropriation of surplus-value would not yet end the forms of injustice that inhere in the domination over social relations by the abstraction of value. In a nascent communist society, distribution is still ‘governed by the same principle as the exchange of commodity equivalents: a given amount of labour in one form is exchanged for the same amount in another’.

Equality in such an embryonic, transitional communism is still beholden to the domination of a standard, labour, which is itself the bearer of inequalities – of capacity, productivity, intensity, and so on. The equal right so blithely invoked by the social-democrat is thus ‘in its content one of inequality, just like any other right’, since ‘a right can by its nature only consist in the application of an equal standard’ to unequal individuals. In other words, a political and philosophical notion of equality as a right, founded on the idea of an abstract and universal measure or standard, still bears the birthmarks of a form of social measurement based on the value of labour. In Lenin’s gloss, ‘the mere conversion of the means of production into the common property of the whole of society ... does not remove the defects of distribution and inequality of “bourgeois right” which continues to dominate in so far as products are divided “according to work”’. What philosophical lessons are to be drawn from this for our idea of communism? First of all that, to the extent that communism is the determinate and not the simple negation of capitalism – i.e. to the extent that it is not a ‘dogmatic abstraction’ – the problem of its realisation is inherent to its concept. The communist problem of equality is the problem of an equality, to quote Lenin, without any standard of right – which is to say an equality that does not perpetuate the inequalities generated by the domination of social relations by the measures of value, by the labour-standard in particular, which pertain to capitalism. Such a ‘non-standard’ equality can only be thought as an outcome of revolution and transition.

From a philosophical standpoint, we could ask whether the very notion of equality is still in effect. Rather than either affirming the principled equality of human beings or promising their eventual levelling, communist ‘equality’, involves creating social relations in which inequalities would be rendered inoperative, no longer subsumed as unequal under an equal standard or measure of right. This idea of equality beyond right and value is of course in its own way profoundly abstract – but it demonstrates, first, how the philosophical contribution of communism involves a struggle against a certain type of abstraction (the kind which is derivative of the capitalist form of value and the standards the latter imposes), and second, how the question of realisation is intrinsic to the idea of communism. In effect, I think it would be more appropriate, when it comes to notions such as Marx’s view of equality to speak of a problem rather than an idea of communism, in line with Deleuze’s definition of a problem, in his Bergsonism, and with reference to Marx, as something that ‘always has the solution it deserves, in terms of the way in which it is stated (i.e., the conditions under which it is determined as a problem), and of the means and terms at our disposal for stating it. In this sense, the history of man, from the theoretical as much as the practical point of view is that of the construction of problems’.



In the case of the concept of equality, we can thus see how a communist philosophy or theory might ‘anticipate’ a communist politics, not in the sense of producing its own futurological standard against which to measure instances of communism, but by delineating the problems and lines of solution that communism calls for. As I hope to have suggested with reference to the concept of equality, while communism should not be envisaged in terms of ossified programmatic principles or anachronistic refrains, it can be usefully conceived in terms of problems that orient their own resolution. Communism, to quote a useful, rather minimal definition from Engels’s Principles of Communism, is ‘the doctrine of the conditions for the liberation of the proletariat’. Precisely because doctrine and conditions are not immobile, communism is never exempt from the need to formulate its protocols of realisation. This has important consequences, to my mind, for the philosophical debate about communism, which cannot but also be a debate about communist power. By power I mean the collective capacity both to prefigure and to enact the principles of communism. Too often, in recent discussions, reacting both to the grim vicissitudes of communist politics in the short twentieth century and to meanings given to the idea of power in the social and political sciences (from Weber’s domination to Foucault’s governmentality), there has been a tendency to think that the philosophy and politics of communism need to separate themselves from power, to think a dimension of politics removed from questions of force, control and authority. But precisely because communism cannot be separated from the problem – rather than the programme – of its realisation, it can also not be separated from the question of power.



This is a vast debate, to which I cannot do much justice here, but I think a couple of points can be made. First of all, for the problem of communism and power to be even posed without falling into the usual traps, we need to overcome the apparent antinomy between communism as the name for a form of political organisation with social transformation as its aim and communism as a form of social and economic association with social equality as its practice. It is the least that one can say that in the twentieth-century the relations between crafting the means for the conquest of power and enacting the transformation of everyday life have been immensely problematic, and that the very notion of a ‘politics of producers’, to use the Marxian formulation, has been overwhelmed by historical conflicts that have left the legacies of commune, council and soviet, with some rare exceptions, in a state of abeyance. But the problem – of thinking together these two aspects of communist practice, organisation and association – remains. To reify them in the separation between politics and the economy is deeply unsatisfactory, precisely because, as I indicated vis-à-vis equality, the problem of moving beyond right and beyond value is inextricably a political and an economic problem; indeed it directly upsets the very distinction between these. In trying to overcome the antinomy between organisation and association, between the instruments and the everyday practice of communism, we cannot but address the question of power. But we cannot merely reduce this question to the dimension of the state. The rather sterile doctrinal disputations over the evils and virtues of the seizure of state power tend to obscure the far greater challenge posed by thinking revolutionary politics in terms of the splitting of power – not just in the guise of a face-off between two (or more) social forces in a situation of non-monopoly over violence and political authority, but in the sense of a fundamental asymmetry in the types of power. This is why the problems posed by the classic notion of ‘dual power’ remain, as various political conjunctures around the world suggest, of such political, and indeed philosophical significance – despite the fact that they cannot be conceived in ways congruent to their Leninist formulation in the interim between the February and October revolutions.



The challenge of the notion of dual power lies in the asymmetry that it introduces into the concept. Power is not a homogeneous element to be accumulated, but a name for heterogeneous and conflicting forms of practice. Thus, the power wielded by the soviets is incommensurable with that of their bourgeois counterparts, however ‘democratic’ they may be, because its source lies in popular initiative and not in parliamentary decree; because it is enforced by an armed people and not a standing army; and because it has transmuted political authority from a plaything of the bureaucracy to a situation where all officials are at the mercy of the popular will, and its power of recall. With its paragon in the Commune, this power is both organisational, in the sense that it incorporates strategic objectives, and associative, in the sense that it is inseparable from the transformation of everyday life, but more to the point, because it is in and through the practice of association that the political capacity to organise is built up. The notion of a ‘prefigurative communism’ has its place here. This is especially significant today because finding the means of making the communist hypothesis exist, in Badiou’s formulation, means finding efficacious ways of fostering such a political capacity.

Perhaps the most difficult problem for a philosophy concerned, to repeat a term introduced at the outset, with the non-dogmatic anticipation of communism, involves linking this subjective demand to build power qua political capacity, with the question of the knowledge of the tendencies that traverse the conjuncture of contemporary capitalism. If – and these I think are preconditions for the intelligibility of communism as a concept distinct from those of equality or emancipation – communism is to be understood as a determinate negation of capitalism and its concrete forms of abstract domination, and as concerned with the ‘conditions of liberation’ that Engels spoke of, what role for knowledge? After all, the communist notion of revolution – regardless of the particular form it takes – lies at the intersection between, on the one hand, the idea of a political capacity and force, and, on the other, the idea that, from the partisan perspective of that organised capacity, it is possible to know and to practically anticipate the real tendencies in the world that communism seeks, determinately and determinedly, to negate. Without some such articulation of power and knowledge, the notion of communist revolution is unintelligible.



But what does it mean to demand that communist politics find or create its concrete foothold in real dynamics without, as the young Marx seemed to do, postulating an ‘inner logic’ whereby ‘actuality strives toward thought’? If a communist philosophy is preoccupied with the preparation and anticipation of politics, what relation does it bear to those forms of anticipatory knowledge – the kind of partisan knowledge that the later Marx sought to produce – which seek to delineate the contemporary field of realisation for the problems of communism? Is it the case that, as Mario Tronti has noted about Marx’s partisan epistemology, ‘science as struggle is an ephemeral knowledge’? If the idea, or the problem of communism is inseparable, as I believe, from the problem of its realisation – with the important consequences that this has for philosophy’s relationship to communism – then the question of how to connect the prospects of communism to a partisan knowledge of the real and its tendencies, without mistaking these tendencies for a logic or a philosophy of history, becomes crucial. This task is especially urgent in a world such as ours which, to recall Marx, ‘only imagines that it believes in itself’. In 1842, in the Rheinische Zeitung, Marx wrote: ‘The fate which a question of the time has in common with every question justified by its content, and therefore rational, is that the question and not the answer constitutes the main difficulty. True criticism, therefore, analyses the questions and not the answers. just as the solution of an algebraic equation is given once the problem has been put in its simplest and sharpest form, so every question is answered as soon as it has become a real question’. This is our task today, to turn the question of communism into a real question. We will then get the answers we deserve.
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