Has the concept of communism in history failed
Three critical intellectuals are debating the word “communism” and its current meaning. The term is passionately controversial because it is historically and politically charged and yet it remains a reference - for some even as an identity - of many supporters for human emancipation in France.
For our magazine, Patrick Coulon and Chantal Delmas - both management members of Espaces Marx - called the three together and asked each of them what the word “communism” means to him and how he connects it with ideas of alternatives and emancipation. They debated whether the term is still usable and how they assess the fact that those who profess it have failed almost everywhere on earth, and what ultimately they see as possible solutions for gaining ground in the sense of socially liberating transformation.
The word “communism” is inseparable from a story. It inevitably refers to a set of historical events, to the history of the regimes and the political forces that invoked communism. This historical experience largely determines the sense in which this term and the word itself are viewed today. It is massively marked by the failure of the Soviet-type regimes. And it also creates problems for the view of regimes that continue to invoke communism, such as the one in China.
On the other hand, engagement in its sense in a country like France - which has not experienced a communist regime - still corresponds to a will to fight against injustice, a fight that enriches and broadens political life experience and becomes a commitment to human emancipation . That means against everything that alienates people. Communism is practically what leads to questioning the existing order, namely the capitalist system itself and ultimately all forms of exploitation and domination. So there is a hiatus, a chasm, and even a profound contradiction between what has made and continues to move tens of thousands of men and women into such engagement and the way in which society in general, by and large, comprehends that word. Basically, the generally socially bestowed sense of the word is in contradiction to that which the confessing comrades-in-arms for this cause cherish. This is a major political problem in France today.
In other countries where communism has been compromised because history has negatively charged its meaning, the word itself has been excommunicated. The problem is that it has not been reinstated in its positive sense. In political life, the word contains the project of overcoming the capitalist system and striving for human emancipation. And it integrates this project into a conception of the real, a conception of history, namely that of the class struggle. It is politically inseparable from this question of classes and, consequently, of their self-confidence. At the center of political life it places the demand for the unification of the proletariat and thus for the union of the exploited and the oppressed. The word “communism” contains a specific goal (human emancipation) and an understanding of the necessary path to emancipation (the class struggle). But on the political level no other word has so far been used in this place, as a replacement, so to speak. The reservoir of words has to a certain extent run out. This is one of the dimensions, or one of the symptoms, of what is called the crisis (or death) of ideologies.
I add: If the meaning with which the word is burdened is a product of history, then every political force that professes it has its share of responsibility. In France, the former relations of the Communist Party with the Soviet-type regimes, the hesitant and even until 1991 not unconditional criticism of these regimes - as far as this had to go beyond the condemnation of Stalinism - have had a major impact on the image of the FKP and the Communism impacted. In any case, there is political work to be done: not only to criticize the experiments that invoked communism and continue to appeal to them, but also to do the same with regard to the reasons for which we French communists failed or hesitated , to do that.
Communism “by and large merges with the old justice and freedom movement. Like Jacques Bidet, I would like to say: “for equality” because, contrary to the neoliberal Vulgate, it is so impossible to think of equality and freedom separately. For the meaning of this struggle one can obviously go back very far to times before the word “communism” was used. However, “communism” has changed its structure since the middle of the 19th century, when capitalism became the dominant socio-economic system and the universally formative form of social relations. At that time, communism began to see itself as a radical criticism of the ruling system and to function as a global political movement. It becomes a workers-based movement that is critical of capitalism and enters the political arena in particular when it was founded in 1848 and with the “Manifesto of the Communist Party”.
At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, “communism” describes a special political form that crystallized after 1917 in the form of an explicitly communist movement. The Bolshevik model is becoming a widely recognized benchmark, a theoretical and practical model for the constitution of the “communist parties” of the 20th century.
From 1917 and even more obviously from 1945 onwards, “communism” finally presented itself as a firmly established conception of the governance of the economy and society. With the numerous special forms of Sovietism, it becomes a model of society. For several decades communism was then equated with this model of society. Communism is all of that. To be a communist today means above all the decision to step into a history with all its dimensions. Communism is neither an idea nor a vague ideal from which to derive a reality. It is a historical political movement, the nature of which can ultimately be summed up in four statements. The first claim is that capitalism is not the end of history, but only a specially developed form of society of exploitation and domination. A historical, thus ephemeral form; ergo you have to think about overcoming it radically. To be a communist means first of all to believe that it is right and realistic to stand up for the perspective of a society that functions according to different norms, different rules, different logics than those of ruling capitalism.
The second claim is that it would take a revolution for this alternative social dynamic to take hold. Equality is not possible within the system. You don't adapt to the system; one has to get out of it and think of a beyond this ruling system. The form of this revolution / abolition / overcoming has yet to be specifically defined; it does not result mechanically from its necessity, but that necessity is a fundamental fact.
The third claim: none of this happens in the realm of ideas. In order to change the world one needs capable material and spiritual forces. Modern political communism has been shaped since the 19th century on the basis of the idea that this material force arises in the historical large-scale form of industrial work, that is, from the space of the workers. The revolution does not come “from above”, but from the people; the modern people are structured around their proletarian base, say Marx and Engels.
And finally, as a final assertion: all of this must be shaped in the political arena. This means that if communism wants to have an impact on the world at a given point in time, it must constitute itself as a political force, as a “communist party”.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, communism is just as relevant, and even more relevant in some ways, than it was a century and a half ago. I therefore continue to acknowledge this historical rootedness of thinking about social struggle and active emancipation. But at the same time, despite all the recognized relevance, it cannot be tacitly ignored that the 20th century was the one of attempts to make communism a concrete - not just imagined - alternative to the existing world order and the order of capital. And that is why the current decision for communism is obviously inconceivable without starting from the historical failure of this concrete attempt at realization, which was expressed in particular in the emergence and establishment of Sovietism. Communism has assumed a dominant form in the twentieth century, including a conception of society and its overthrow, of the revolutionary form, and of the form of the communist party itself. This conception held for a time that is over. The world in which we find ourselves is on the one hand the same and at the same time radically different from that which saw the emergence and modern development of communist thought of Marxist origin a century and a half ago.
I cannot separate the assertion of lasting relevance from the assertion that there is an urgent need to find the forms under which the communist resolution reckons with the real existing order. I am even inclined to think that we have reached one of those points in the history of communism where its relevance cannot be imagined otherwise than in the form of a break with its previously dominant form of existence. There is no possible future for political communism unless it breaks with the historical pattern of communism.
Contrary to recurring temptations, the break cannot take the form of a "return to ...". It was not enough to return to Lenin to overcome Stalinism; it is not enough to return to Marx to overcome Bolshevism. The fundamental decision in Marx's time remains intellectually correct if and only if it is fully and completely newly justified. To justify oneself completely anew means, in due course, to bring to the concept the intellectual foundations, the practical driving forces and the organizational forms under which the communist contribution to the general struggle for emancipation becomes conceivable in the new framework. We have to redesign the framework of an emancipation movement that can no longer be narrowed down to reference to the revolutionary labor movement, or even to anti-capitalism. I think it makes sense to consider a specifically “communist” contribution to this general emancipation movement. A contribution is not nothing - and yet not everything.
First comment: I fully agree with an idea put forward by Patrice and Roger: communism is history, concrete history. One cannot distinguish between the communist ideal and what has happened. Calling yourself a communist first means enrolling in a lineage. Second remark: There is, as Roger observes, a persistence in the modern history of communism: the capitalist regime is not the end of history. Liberalism can be defined as the opposite political option: all possible freedom is achieved with representative democracy in the western style, with the freedom of the market, the capitalist form of production organization and the control of the world by the West. At most one can perfect this result, set up a multi-party electoral system in Iraq instead of the dictatorship, promote the development of peoples in such a way that they “catch up” with the western nations in terms of consumption, normalize the world economy by targeting all situations where "free competition" is in question, etc. According to the liberalist option, any attempt to advance in the history of human emancipation will be reversed and lead to regression in freedom. Liberalism bases its influence on a very solid argument: the concrete attempts to beat that end of the story were by no means convincing, especially in the matter of freedom. For this reason, the liberal postulate is approved very massively, albeit often against the will. Third remark: I think one of the great weaknesses of our communist lineage is that apart from the historical failure of Sovietism, the relative character of our heritage has not yet been thought through, that it continues to be the only perfect, universal, and only legitimate form of the human Emancipation was the order of the day. The rationally seen reality is more modest and perhaps more beautiful. Men and women, especially men, especially workers in one part of the world, the West, are moved by the desire for emancipation in a period of Western history, that of industrialization, and they encounter a concrete alienation, a concrete barrier that lies across the path - the universalization of capitalist power. This gives you reason to think:
We will free ourselves from these alienations that concretely rise before us. And they are making progress. To do this, they invent organizational forms. They develop far-reaching theoretical structures, for example Marxism, which offers a brilliant analysis of capitalism and the oppression it engenders. They create institutions and political processes that seem to be able to break through these barriers. They bring values to life, especially those that radiate from the idea of “commune” and lead to the idea that going beyond the liberal end of history means advancing freedom in communalization, in equality. And we all see that liberalism actually stops the history of freedom where it begins to produce equality. All of this means that one can blatantly say: This emancipation story, which was pursued by a predominantly masculine white working class and inscribed in Western history and culture, can really contribute solid ingredients when it comes to restarting the adventure of freedom today . For this reason alone, however, communist history cannot present itself as the universe of emancipation. She has to accept to enter into conversation with others. One can take the very illuminating example of feminism, which will produce very different types of theory and forms of organization than those produced by the Western working class in its struggle with capitalism. You have a story that represents real land gain for emancipation, but does not fit into the communist legacy, although it often overlaps it. The same applies to the massive non-Western lineages of emancipation that are becoming more visible due to globalization. There is a multitude and diversity of emancipation Poles, because there are always concrete human communities that rebel against different restrictions on their part. The communist community of heirs has long decried and fought against the theoretical structures and forms of organization that did not want to submit to their suzerainty. Many of their wrong turns have to do with this delusion.
In order for the communist influx to become positive again or to continue to do so, in my opinion it must accept that it is only one of several lineages of the emancipation movement. Oriented in this way, his story can, in my opinion, have real elasticity, but it will obviously turn out considerably different. I am adopting the communist identity because I specifically belong to this line of heirs and because it makes sense to put your inventions in the common pot. But I see in it only one of the tributaries to a broader movement, the striving for emancipation, for autonomy, and so on. The communists share this political desire with others who encounter concrete oppression and want to reduce it. To this end, they bring in the emancipatory legacy of the Western working classes committed against capitalist oppression. Your point of view can claim to offer a certain overall view of our world and its emancipation in the optical sense. But it is not the only possible standpoint for emancipation, for other observation posts are located in different places.
Communism as a concrete political history is deep in crisis. This crisis received great impetus from the failure and even the collapse of the experiments that invoked communism. More broadly, however, this crisis results from the aging of the (Bolshevik) pattern that should give them guidance and support.A (theoretical, ideological, political) pattern, which in turn came from a social condition. The political history of communism today is inseparable from a period - the 20th century and especially its first half - which was marked by the development of the working class. I use this word in a precise sense, that of the men who (incidentally more numerous than the women) did material work as operators of machine tools. There are no class struggles without classes, that goes without saying. And in that period this working class was at the center of the struggle. And when I say “class” I am by definition not speaking of a “soci-professional category” but of men and women who are aware of the commonality or convergence of their interests in the face of opposing or contradicting interests of other social categories. The ideological pattern of twentieth century communism is wholly tied to the existence and development of this class, to the conception it could have of itself, of its becoming (namely, the movement of the overwhelming majority) and of its role. The struggle was organized around the essential interests of this class, which was primarily confronted with capitalist exploitation at work, so that the relationship between capital and labor (instead of the totality of the dimensions of the struggles required for human emancipation) became the hard core of the communist struggle . This gave rise to a conception and representation of social transformation, the structure of which was determined by the interests of the working class, the party of the working class, the role of this party as a vanguard and a conception of social transformation through revolution, including the role of the state and the administered economy, etc.
Now, as it turns out, this pattern has not withstood history. There was not only the crimes of Stalinism, the extremely statist regimes and the encroachment on the freedoms of which Roger was speaking, but also a change in the reality on which this conception was based. Work has changed, society has changed, the international division of labor has changed, capitalism has become financial, globalized; there was the so-called information revolution, etc. Direct exploitation by capital is experienced by more and more social groups, so that these certainly represent more than 90% of society, at least in a developed country like France or other European countries, but class consciousness has sunk deeply . The enormously different situations also in the working class and especially among the wage earners as a whole have produced differences and even contradictions between the interests of French and foreigners, unemployed and employed, precarious or otherwise, etc. Hence the political Working to unite and unite the victims of exploitation and domination has become infinitely more complicated. From this profoundly changed reality follows, beyond the weal and woe of the experiments that invoked communism, the need for an outspoken break with the conceptions derived from the Bolshevik pattern. To give communism a future as the bearer of boundless hope means to work on the prerequisites for a new class consciousness in the political sphere - where ideas are connected with real movements and mobilizations. So this means starting from the new forms of exploitation and rule in order to enable women and men to become aware of their interest groups and to unite politically.
This can no longer only concern the relationship between labor and capital, even if labor remains one of the main places of exploitation and domination. It can be said - as in the thesis of Jean-Louis - that communism takes up this relationship between capital and labor because that is its history and that it is therefore one of the tributaries to the great stream of struggles for human emancipation. Like Roger, one can ascribe to him the calling to consider and organize all current dimensions of the struggle for emancipation. I will not say, "It is not that important" because the words - especially such weighty words as "communism" - are important in political life. So it is of paramount importance for a political debate to ask about the use of the word. But I will say: The main thing, the focus of our difficulties today, is the question of how the men and women who are specifically exploited and controlled can be brought together and united and the conditions are to be created so that they can become aware of their common interests so that they can go against to fight the capitalism of today, the finance-driven, globalized ... and more and more militarized capitalism.
In the twentieth century, a special conception of communism dominated, a self-contained conception of social dynamics, revolution, revolutionary transformation and the political form that makes this transformation possible through revolution. That means from one party, “the Communist Party”, probably even “the Party”. I think that every form of communist thinking today has to start from the idea that this dominant form is obsolete. Twentieth-century communism is irretrievably dead today, and it is no good to try to make people believe that it can be continued or allowed to return. That is the starting point. Any thinking about communism is thinking about emancipation. One cannot think about communism today if one does not take stock of the failed emancipation concepts as comprehensively as possible. There are concepts of emancipation that failed in the twentieth century. And in particular two emancipation concepts that set up some kind of preconditions for emancipation. These two preconditions were, in particular, the attainment of political power and the transfer of property. Now it is the experience of the twentieth century that it is not enough to do the opposite of capitalism in order to overcome it. For example, with unchanged expropriation logics, the transfer of property does not generate emancipation, but ultimately super-domination and sometimes even despotism. A logic, the logic of gaining political power without undermining political power and radical dismantling of statism - as Marxism always theoretically announced but never put into practice ... or, to be more precise, forgot every time it did Power came - does not produce emancipation, but despotism. So that violates the logic of emancipation in due course, and it forgets the possibility of overcoming capitalism. It is not enough to abolish or reverse capitalism to produce real human emancipation. We know this. So you have to reconstruct. Justify anew, and do it thoroughly.
In order to reconstruct, I believe that one has to break away from a way of thinking that I will typically call “essentialist”. It is not useful to ask what communism is in general in order to then consider the concrete modalities of its existence. It can actually be assumed again on what the communist decision is based. The guideline is the requirement, the desire for emancipation: What does a policy of complete emancipation of individuals as autonomous persons and solidarity, that is, as a human community, as humanity consist of today, in the twenty-first century? The most important thing is to rebuild emancipation projects in the knowledge that this continues to assume breaking with any logic of adjustment to the ruling capitalist system. There can be no emancipation in this system. Wasn't the twentieth century able to produce equality and thereby break out of this system? It has also shown that, in the long run, justice cannot be obtained simply by trying to conform to the norms of capital and free, undistorted competition.
At the political level on a European scale, the most important strategic question today is whether it is possible to act in such a way that the decision for consistent emancipation - and consequently to break with the logic of adapting to the system -, i.e. whether the decision for emancipation, for radical social transformation in which left of Europe and the world set the tone. In due course, will the logic of transformation take hold of the entire left and thus the entire political field of Europe? That is the question of the questions.
In that framework ... and I say very well: in that framework ... is there room for a lineage that would expressly be of communist origin? In my mind I tend to say “yes”. It also makes sense to consider an independent communist lineage that can work through what was a story of creativity and isolation, of noble achievements and murderous tragedies on its own basis. All of this has to be dealt with, criticized, overcome, but not forgotten. Turning your back on a story does not undo it.
Does that require that this line be constituted separately in the form of separate organizations, of separate communist parties? I don't think so anymore. The communists have to constitute themselves as a thinking and acting community and in this respect are to be seen as a “communist party”. But nothing says that this “communist party” is not conceivable within a more comprehensive political movement, where it exercises the functions of a party, but today unites different sensibilities, traditions and currents. The left of social transformation is required to constitute itself as a political force. In this power there is room for the communists as such; it is not absolutely necessary for them to assert themselves in the form of a separate party structure.
For centuries, the pursuit of autonomy has no longer viewed God, princes, the nature of things, or any other heteronomous power as empowered to dictate what model to live by in society. For centuries people have been united in asking the political question: In which society do we want to live, what kind of people do we want to be? The emancipation point of view points in one direction: I want to be a freer person, I want to live in a more independent society.
All other considerations, and especially the questions of organization, are subordinate to the meaning, the concrete content of emancipation. For example, I believe that we shouldn't define ourselves by our anti-capitalism or any other “anti-”. We want to continue the history of freedom and we encounter a concrete obstacle on the way, capitalism. He traps our time in forms of subjugated activity. He reserves freedom of access to goods for the rich. He steals the fruit of our labor from us. He chains our minds to the fascinations of consumerism, etc. And we who liberate human activity, create free access to goods, become masters of the riches we have produced, want to free ourselves from the alienation caused by the character of the commodity, we address this obstacle and we invent the liberating institutions or movements that could take its place. To say that capitalism is inherently evil seems pointless to me. If that were true, it would "in itself" be liberating to destroy capitalism. There is several historical evidence to the contrary. Even the old communists recognized that capitalism, while bad for the exploited, is desirable for the class that profits from it. It must go further and recognize that capitalism and liberalism today correspond to a strong majority political desire; To contest it therefore means to oppose another wish and then politically convince the overwhelming majority that this alternative wish is a possible and desirable way of living together.
In order to determine the correct organizational form of the communists or, more broadly, the emancipation movement, it must first be clarified up to which limits emancipation is possible or freedom can be achieved beyond the liberalist barriers. The word communism itself once stood for far-reaching libertarian goals that are almost forgotten today but are still amazingly stimulating. Against subordination through wage dependency and the exploitation of work: abolition of wage labor, liberation of human activity. Against state coercion: withering away of the state, freedom. Against the heteronomous powers: free association. Against the fetish character of the goods: serene use of the goods that are supposed to please us. But the inclusion of these goals in the "real movement that abolishes the existing state" is full of contrasts. One saw the communists in the first row of the actions for the shortening of the given working hours (cf. abolition of the wage labor), the resistance against the extreme armed coercion of the Nazis (cf. with the death of the state), the new social regulations, the access to free medical treatment (see: "Everyone according to his needs."). But one also saw that the states they had built up exercised strong coercion, society suffered shortages and allowed the religion of work to be celebrated. It is therefore not enough to determine the limits of possible and desirable emancipation. In addition, there must be a radical criticism of the beliefs and practices that have led to the liberating goals of communism being turned into their opposite. We have to work out the political, ideological and organizational conditions for actual emancipation. I have dealt with this essential aspect in detail in the second part of the text "Émancipation" (see marginal note). Without leading this work to the end, the evidences produced by the liberalist option cannot be shaken.
Will the communist lineage continue? Today it exists and is alone able to bring the rich and contrasting legacy of its history to the emancipation movement. She plays along and I see nothing that could cause her to be thrown out in the interests of emancipation. Will it last forever? If she believes that, it is as if she thinks she is God, and she will then fall back into the old cart tracks if she can still move. If she doesn't believe it, which is likely, it remains for her to make herself useful for today and the times to come. She has shown many times that she can.
Translated from the French by Joachim Wilke (Zeuthen)
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