by Makasa Chinyata
This essay will argue that the idea of communism is potentially emancipatory. It will therefore attempt to build on Alain Badiou’s claim that “the communist hypothesis is the hypothesis of emancipation” (Badiou as cited in Ranciere, 2010:167). Communism has quite generally been thought of as an oppressive mode of politics. This particular misconception is largely due to the fact that communism generally tends to be conflated with the Soviet Union. As a result of this, the failure of the Soviet Union (apparent long before its eventual ‘defeat’ in the Cold War) is generally thought to signify the failure of communism – hence its relegation as a form of politics that is largely spurious. This essay will therefore attempt to portray illegitimacy of claims that view the Soviet Union as representative of communism and argue that the Soviet Union was in fact contradictory to the idea of communism. Secondly this essay will argue that communism is potentially emancipatory. In order to argue the latter, this essay will be based on Sylvain Lazarus claim that “there is no politics in general, only specific political sequences [and that] politics is not a permanent instance of society” (Neocosmos, 2009:13). This claim renders possible the argument that communism as a political idea, can be traced in particular political sequences that have occurred over the course of history with varying success. Alain Badiou’s concept of communism being above all else the exemplification of an “egalitarian society which, acting under its own impetus, brings down walls and barriers” (Badiou, 2010:60) will therefore be applied to specific political sequences (or ‘events’ - in the philosophical sense of the word): the Haitian revolution and the Paris Commune. In doing so, this essay will attempt to postulate the validity of conceiving of the idea of communism as potentially emancipatory.
2. Characteristics of Emancipatory Politics
It would be remiss to even attempt to discuss the emancipatory value of communism without first exploring the general characteristics of an emancipatory politics. There are generally two core concepts that underlie emancipatory politics: the practice of the latter at a distance from the state and the assertion and exemplification of anyone and everyone’s capacity to think.
To practice a politics at a distance from the state means that an emancipatory politics must be conceived outside of statist parameters – political consciousness must not be confined to state logic. The state refers, within this argument, to “the system of constraints that limit the possibility of possibilities” (Badiou, 2010:7). It then logically follows from this conception that the system of restraints will not be identical in every political sequence. For example, in Haiti, the institution of slavery as well as enlightenment values prescribed what was possible; black slaves were therefore expected to continue working under the harsh conditions of slavery in spite of the French Revolution values of freedom, brotherhood and equality taking root in the Western world (applicable only to those who were considered more human than others due to the dominant ontological assumptions of the time). Similarly in the Paris Commune, the French Government of National Defence with Adolphe Thiers as Chief Executive prescribed what was possible i.e. the Surrender of France to Germany (entailing French occupation) and the workers passively accepting this occupation (James, 1946:1). The commonality here is that in each case there was a limitation of what was considered possible. It is therefore outside of these limitations that an emancipatory politics should be situated. The character of Paula in Badiou’s L’Incident d’Antioch (2010:28) articulates the necessity for liberatory politics distancing itself from the state:
“For such a long time, the impasse was that politics was centred on and represented by
the state alone, so I am telling you to get out of that impasse and to prove that the political truth circulates endlessly in a people”.
Secondly, an emancipatory politics must be founded on the basis of everyone’s capacity to think. The ability to think politically should not be thought to be solely the sphere of experts. Such a politics must conceive of “people who think becoming agents through their engagements in politics” (Neocosmos, 2009:7). This can again be applied to the two political events that shall be discussed as embodiments of the emancipatory potential of communism in this essay. In the case of the Haitian revolution, the slaves on Saint Domingue were thought incapable of conceiving of an alternative to slavery; Trouillot (1995) demonstrates this in citing La Barre, a French colonist, who wrote, just months prior to the revolution, “there is no movement among our Negroes…They don’t even think of it; revolt among them is impossible” (Trouillot 1995:15). Therefore an emancipatory politics should be founded on this very capacity for thought; one Abahlali BaseMjondolo activist, as quoted by Neocosmos (2009) captures this notion quite succinctly: “We think. People must understand that we think” (Neocosmos 2009:1).
Any potentially emancipatory politics must therefore necessarily be founded on these two characteristics. The political sequences through which the exemplification of the idea of communism will be traced will therefore be shown to be moments in which political consciousness was exercised beyond what was possible (as prescribed by the state).
3. The Soviet Union as a Contradiction of the Idea of Communism
The Soviet Union tends to be people’s primary source of reference as to what communism entails, in part due to neoliberal political discourse largely portraying it as such and also due to the fact that the Soviet Union masqueraded under the label ‘communist’. However, the actual functioning of the Soviet Union shows above all else that it was anything but communist – its totalitarian nature is proof enough of this. If neoliberal discourse continues to perpetuate the conflation of the Soviet Union and communism it is no wonder that the latter is viewed as being in no way emancipatory. Thus there is a need to expose the contradictions of the Soviet Union. In order to do so, we need to conceive of the Bolshevik revolution as the origins of the Soviet Union and understand the abandonment of the ideals of the former and the gradual degeneration of the latter into unmasked authoritarianism.
3.1.1 The Bolshevik Revolution
The Bolshevik revolution should be conceived of as a political sequence. We can alternatively, refer to it as an ‘event’. An event is “what brings to pass something other than the situation, opinions, instituted knowledges; the event is hazardous […] and vanishes as soon as it appears” (Badiou, 2002:67). The Bolshevik revolution was therefore an even in as much as it brought about something other than Tsarist rule. In as far as it occurred at a distance from the state and was an exemplification of operating outside of the modes of thought that limit the possibility of possibilities, it could be said to have been emancipatory. One could claim that while the Bolshevik revolution had emancipatory potential, it was a lack of fidelity to this event (Badiou, 2002) that resulted in the absolutism of the Soviet under Stalinist politics. However, it seems necessary to call attention to the fact that it conceived of the working class solely as a revolutionary force (thereby excluding peasants). This is therefore inconsistent with the conception of emancipatory politics outlined above.
Secondly, the Bolshevik revolution appears to have been guided by the view that vanguards were necessary if a revolution was to be at all successful. This violates the second characteristic of emancipatory politics that is outlined above: the capacity of anybody and everybody to think. As will be shown later in this essay, this violation is also at odds with the idea of communism as posited in the introduction of this essay: “an egalitarian society […] acting under its own impetus” (Badiou, 2010:60).
3.1.2 The Soviet Union as Distinct from the idea of Communism
The Soviet Union itself functioned in a decidedly authoritarian manner that was founded on Stalinism rather than communism. Trotsky (1995) in fact described the Soviet Union as a Stalinist Bureaucracy. In light of this, the proletariat dictatorship in fact became a party dictatorship merely reproducing state structures of domination and exclusion. Workers remained workers under particular power structures that they were largely excluded form. The dictatorship of the proletariat thus turned into a party dictatorship. There was no platform for political engagement, suggestions of alternatives to the existing situation were constructed as illegitimate and criminal and were treated as such. As a matter of fact, Badiou (2010) argues that the idea of communism renders obsolete Leninism because via its focus on the party, it “continues to subordinate politics to its statist deviation” (Badiou, 2010:69). This again goes against the above stated nature of an emancipatory politics. It therefore becomes necessary to distance the Soviet Union – to the greatest possible extent – from communism.
4. The Idea of Communism
As has been stated in the introduction of this essay, the idea of communism is being used to refer to an emancipatory mode of politics that has as its foundation individuals asserting their capacity to think politically and creating alternatives to the state’s prescriptions of what is possible – “a reconfiguration of the universe of the possible” (Ranciere, 2010:173). Therefore, as one of its main goals, the idea of communism seeks to shatter established structures of domination and exclusion. To be able to fully apprehend this, it is necessary to distance communism from Marxist thought. Unlike the latter, class and the party are not the main foci of communism. Rather, communism refers to popular politics unimpeded by the social position one occupies.
If we allow for the view that politics refers to “specific political sequences [rather than] a permanent instance of society” (Lazarus, cited in Neocosmos, 2009:13), then we must tailor our notions of communism to fit this. Therefore, rather than view communism as a ‘situation’ we must conceive of “communist moments [constituted by] the disruption of state powers and state instituted powers” (Ranciere, 2010:173). If communism is then taken to refer to moments, it then logically follows that these moments vanish. We can conceive of these moments as ‘events’ – they bring into existence something other than the situation and vanish almost as soon as they appear. As such, the idea of communism makes no claims as to the organisation of society in the aftermath of the event but posits loyalty to the event itself. In accordance with this, Ranciere (2010) poses the question as to how “the anarchical principle of emancipation [can] become the principle of a social distribution of tasks, positions and powers” (Ranciere, 2010:169).
In light of the above, it is logical to conclude that communism operates outside of state logic as it is entirely collectively autonomous. Thus, communism should not be reduced purely and simply to free market capitalism. The focus here is not merely a shift from private property to nationalised property (as was one of the foundations of the Soviet Union) as this would not actually be conceiving of a politics outside of state logic. This is particularly so if we conceive of the state in Lockean terms (i.e. the state instituted solely for the protection of private property) as the concept of property itself would then be inherently statist. However, it is necessary to bear in mind the reign of the market in the sense that it is this from this neoliberal logic that communism is considered a reassembling of the possible. The latter is necessary if we view communism as moments in which systems of power, domination and exclusion are overcome.
There are three particular aspects of the idea of communism that demonstrate its emancipatory potential. These aspects are: equality as a departure point rather than an end goal, people asserting themselves politically (thereby finding ways out of situations in which they constitute a minority) and finally communism as a political truth. These aspects will then be applied to the specific events that have been mentioned in the introduction of this essay in an attempt to show that these events, in as far as they were loyal to the ideals of the idea communism were inherently emancipatory irrespective of what the aftermath of these moments was.
4.1.1 The Element of Equality in the idea Communism
Equality, in every sense of the term is a core feature of communism; it is an intrinsic element of the latter – necessarily so as it seeks to overturn particular power dynamics. This manifests itself in the complete upheaval of society that characterises communist moments. Ranciere (2010) argues that an egalitarian maxim underpins the idea of communism. The first principle of this maxim is that equality is a departure point and not an end goal. The second principle is that “intelligence is one” (Ranciere, 2010:168) – in essence, this equates to a communism of intelligence. The latter refers to the view that anyone and everyone have the capacity to think politically – the capacity for intelligence is not determined by the particular position that one holds in society. This latter conception is fundamental to the idea of communism as it is through exercising this that an individual begins to exist politically.
4.1.2 Communism and Political Agency
The idea of communism allows individuals to fully exercise their political agency – we can include popular political empowerment as one of the many facets of the idea of communism. The exercise of political agency “leads individuals out of situations of minority” (Ranciere, 2010:168) and this can, in itself, be seen as emancipatory. Situations of minority can be defined as situations in which individuals exist materially (in terms of their actual physicality) but not politically (they are denied any political agency by their systematic exclusion from political spheres within particular situations). Within communist moments, the state no longer prescribes legitimate spheres of politics – therefore within these moments, individuals assert themselves politically. Badiou claims that communism as an emancipatory politics is essentially the politics of the “anonymous masses […] of those who are held in a state of colossal insignificance by the State” (Badiou, 2010:9).
This recognition of the agency of everyone allows for another feature that further distinguishes communism form Leninism – it ensures that a politics is irreducible to individuals. In the case of the latter, these individuals were the intellectuals. The idea of communism thus does not allow for vanguards because there is no overseeing, directing authority – there is discipline but there is also a demonstration of the capacity for self-management. In terms of the recognition and exercise of political agency, we can add another dimension to the idea of communism: moments in which “simple workers and ordinary men and women proved their capacity to struggle for their rights and for the rights of everybody by collectivising the power of equality of everyone with everyone” (Ranciere, 2010:173).
4.1.3 Communism as the exemplification of emancipatory political sequences
As has been expounded above, the word’s function “can no longer be that of an adjective” (Badiou, 2010:13). It must be taken to refer to a moment, to be an exemplification of active politics in which individuals assert and verify their political agency; moments in which individuals refuse to be limited solely to the possibilities prescribed by the state. For Badiou (2010) these instances are only possible if individuals have an Idea as an Idea “asserts that a new truth is historically possible” the Idea here would be that of communism (Badiou, 2010:12). Communism therefore, as an Idea, signifies “an operative mediation between the real and the symbolic” (Badiou, 2010:8). This serves to reiterate what has been stated above that communism refers to moments and not a particular way of organising a society or a state.
4.1.4 Communism: the Idea, the Event, the Truth and the facts
The idea of communism as defined above then needs to be seized upon by individuals in a particular situation. Badiou argues that the Idea exists between the event and the fact. The fact here refers to the consequences of the existence of the state (Badiou, 2010:5) – the fact could therefore be different in different situations. In Haiti, the fact was slavery, in the Paris Commune the fact was the repressive regime of the French Government of National Defence and German occupation as a result of France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian of 1871. In the case of Haiti, the event was the massive slave rebellion and the refusal to be pacified. Likewise in the Paris Commune the event was simultaneously the establishment of the Paris Commune and the refusal to be subordinated to state logic. In both cases the events were undoubtedly emancipatory regardless of the aftermath of these events.
Within this conception, the truth refers to “an on-going organisation, in a given situation, of the consequences of an event” (Badiou, 2010:7). The masses involved in an event become part of this truth (constituting its material body) and help in the creation of a new political truth. In Haiti, the material body of truth was the black slaves the new political truth was the creation of a reality that was diametrically opposed to the reality of their situation. In the Paris Commune, the material body of truth was the working class joined by soldiers who defected from the National Guard. In each case, these collective bodies came to constitute a new collective Subject. This collective Subject then comes to share in the creation of a new political truth. In line with the concept of politics as sequences, a political truth here refers to: “a concrete, time specific sequence in which a new thought and practice of collective emancipation arise exist and eventually disappear” (Badiou, 2010:2). To apply this concept to the two events being used, the new political truths were the Haitian revolution (and the type of political consciousness which surrounded it) and the Paris Commune.
5. The Idea of Communism and the Haitian Revolution
The Haitian revolution is generally considered one of the most successful slave rebellions. It saw the establishment of a state by individuals who were considered as lesser humans. In order to appreciate the magnitude of this revolution and understand why it constitutes an event, it is necessary to elucidate the manner in which slaves on Saint Domingue were construed and the way in which they were politically invisible prior to the revolution.
The slaves on Saint Domingue were viewed as incapable of envisioning freedom (an ironic view especially in light of the fact that freedom had formed one of the core driving forces behind the French revolution) and incapable of organising themselves into a rebellious group because while freedom was desirable for some types of humans (hence the principles of the French revolution), it was not desirable for all humans. In essence, this ontological understanding undermined the agency, whether political or otherwise, of these slaves as well as their capacities for reason and rationality. In this way, French rule of Saint Domingue prescribed what was possible – the impossibility specific to this situation was freedom and the right to self-determination for the slaves.
The slave revolt in 1791, beginning at the signal of Dutty Boukman eventually led to the abolition of slavery in Saint Domingue, the establishment of the Haitian state and blackness as a political identity rather than a physical characteristic. The notion of communism as the shattering of particular structures is particularly relevant here if one considers the strict social classifications (based on physical appearance): grands blancs, petits blancs free people of colour and the black slaves.
The Haitian revolution saw the creation of a new political truth and the emergence of a new political Subject. Black slaves and free people of colour were for the first time politically visible in the moment that they decided to assert their capacity to think. Most importantly, as regards communism as potentially emancipatory – the slave revolt saw the emergence of politics at a distance from the state. Thought during the revolt was not limited to state logic but rather operated beyond it. It saw the seizure and assertion of a possibility that was beyond the scope of what the state had prescribed as possible. The assertion of the capacity of anyone and everyone to think (demonstrated in the upheaval of previously held assumptions, characteristics and structures) and the fact that this revolt occurred outside of statist parameters renders this event emancipatory.
Similarly, the Haitian revolution can be defined as an exemplification of the Idea of communism. The departure point of this revolution was equality – all the slaves (and free people of colour) fighting for freedom for everyone and anyone. Equality, assertion, the refusal to be limited and irreducibility to specific individuals, and a refusal to be limited to the fact of the state characterise the Haitian revolution. As an event it therefore conforms to the Idea of communism. It may be argued that the Haitian revolution is oftentimes reduced to figures such as Toussaint L’Ouverture. However, the masses acted upon their own initiative, their thought was not directed by any specific individuals – they exercised political agency autonomously seizing for themselves the ideals of the French revolution. Therefore, as regards the Haitian revolution, it is possible to argue that the Idea of communism is potentially emancipatory.
7. The Idea of Communism and the Paris Commune
The Paris Commune saw the assertion of the capacity of the working class. This particular event saw the establishment of municipal councils comprising of workers and soldiers who had defected from the National Guard. The event in question saw the open defiance of the working class against the French Government of National Defence. Particularly relevant in this case is the manner in which the working class reorganised society in a way which overcame the structures of domination and exclusion that had been present in Napoleon III’s regime. Even more relevant is the way in which the soldiers and the working classes asserted themselves politically when they had been consistently overlooked and marginalised by the power structures of both the Second French Empire and the Government of National Defence.
As with the Haitian revolution, the Paris Commune was immensely distanced from the state and state logic. The Commune saw the abolition of conscription, the dissolution of a standing army and the enrolment of all citizens capable of bearing arms into the National Guard (James, 1946:1). It sought to end the systematic exploitation of members of the working class by practicing collective emancipation an element of which was democratisation. It therefore sought to act upon and enforce possibilities not limited to those defined by the state. Again here, this aspect of the French Commune renders it emancipatory. The assertion of the working class’s political agency – demonstrated in the formulation of the Commune itself; the working class’ affirmation of their capacity to think politically and in infinitely more democratic terms is also a signification of the emancipatory nature of the French Commune.
As an event, the Paris Commune also corresponds to the Idea of communism. The political assertion of the working class was founded on the notion of equality – not just of French citizens but of individuals is general. This is evident in the way that even foreigners were elected to the Commune because the “flag of the Commune [was] the flag of the World Republic” (James, 1946:1). A communism of intelligence is also evident in this event as the capacity to think was not applied selectively but indiscriminately. As with the Haitian revolution, the Paris Commune saw the emergence of a new material body of truth, a new Subject that became militants of the new political truth they were creating. The collectivity, assertion and recognition of political agency, the active nature of the politics exercised and the sequential nature of the Paris Commune also serve to show that the Idea of communism does hold emancipatory potential.
This essay has attempted to argue and demonstrate the emancipatory potential of the Idea of communism. The two events that have been focussed on, namely the Haitian revolution and the Paris Commune show that if we understand politics to be sequential then we can speak of communism as emancipatory. The exclusionary regimes that were instituted in the aftermath of these events, particularly in the case of France, cannot be said to be demonstrative of the Idea of communism as a failure to be emancipatory. The fact that the Idea in question does not prescribe a model of a particular kind of global organisation of emancipatory does not limit its emancipatory potential. Conversely, it causes us to seek for moments in which power structures that are largely exclusionary and exploitative can be overturned. It allows individuals to seek and create possibilities not limited to the states’ conception of what is possible. Lastly, if fidelity to an event is maintained, then the impermanence of the particular political sequence need not be considered inconsequential because it can lead to a situation in which individuals can make prescriptions on the state.
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