Monday, 28 July 2014

Is the idea of communism potentially emancipatory?

Fezeka Mbatha

In this essay I will argue that communism is potentially emancipatory as it has the elements of a truly emancipatory project if it is conceived of in a slightly different way from the way it was in the past. Moreover, communism needs an amalgamation of elements, such as an Idea, a general will and desire to be emancipated.

The meaning of emancipation and the link it has to communism

Emancipation, according to Ranciére, is when a person is able to break away from a situation of minority (2010: 167). By “minority” the author means a situation in which a person is treated as if they have no capacity to act, hence, the person needs guidance in order not to make the wrong decisions (Ranciére, 2010: 167). Emancipation is where there is an opportunity for an infinite number of possibilities and a space where the impossible becomes the possible. I do not agree that emancipation should follow a pedagogical process, where the enlightened lead the ‘ignorant’ to towards equality (Ranciére, 2010: 167-168). A fully emancipatory project should be one that begins with equality and not a project that begins with inequality with a promise of eventual equality (Ranciére, 2010: 168).

The Haitian Revolution is an example of where the ‘impossible’ was made possible.  Society could not conceive of the fact that slaves had the ability to fight for universal freedom. The Haitian Revolution was a sequence event that followed the French Revolution, where the ‘universal’ principles of liberty and equality affirmed in the French Revolution were truly tested (Hallward, 2004: 4). The French colonial lobby, to keep the slavery system in place, is parallel to the logic in the present global division of labour (Hallward, 2004: 4). Certain people are seen as not having capacity thus the universal principles that should apply to all humanity do not extend to certain groups. The status quo is that rules that apply to ‘us’ cannot reasonably be made to apply to ‘them’ without resulting in detriments to investments or terror (Hallward, 2004: 5). The achievement of Haitian independence is important as it is indicative of the fact that politics does not always need to proceed as ‘the art of the possible’ (Hallward, 2004: 5).    

Moreover, a truly egalitarian project does not have divided intelligence where people are seen as having an aptitude for only particular things; the intelligence of an artisan should not be seen as different or inherently inferior to the intelligence of the legislator or the student (Ranciére, 2010: 168). An emancipatory project would view intelligence as intelligence that is not specific to positions in society, instead, it is the intelligence which is unified and acknowledges the potential of the equality of intelligence (Ranciére, 2010: 168). Emancipation means the “communism of intelligence” where people who are seen as ‘incapable’ and ‘ignorant’ have the capacity to learn by themselves (Ranciére, 2010: 168).

At this point, it is important to understand that emancipation can be transmitted from individuals to individuals as anybody can be emancipated and emancipate other individuals with the end result being the composite world of emancipated individuals (Ranciére, 2010: 169). However, a society can never be emancipated (Ranciére: 2010: 169). This means that emancipation needs to start from the individual and from there a collective realisation of emancipation can be attained. One cannot simply, begin to ‘emancipate’ a society through the implementation of a blanket approach such as laws that come from the state. A top-down approach to emancipation is not an effective one as it still results in a hierarchy being created.   

In order for communism to be thought of differently, we need to reconceptualise it by looking at certain facts (Ranciére, 2010: 167). Communism is not only its history i.e. social movements and infamous state powers of the past; moreover, it is not a name that has a bad connotation that is in need of great and risky efforts in order to claim-back the meaning of emancipation (Ranciére, 2010: 167). “The communist hypothesis is the hypothesis of emancipation” as communism is a form of universality that is shaped by emancipatory practices (Ranciére, 2010: 167).

Plato argues that people with iron in their souls (workers) cannot be communist; only people with gold in their souls (legislators) can and must let go of the gold category and live, as communists, on the production of non-communist workers (Ranciére, 2010: 170). A communist worker is one that makes his/her presence felt through asserting his/her capacity to be part of the conversation and common affairs instead of ‘merely doing his/her job as a ‘useful’ worker (Ranciére, 2010: 170). These Platonic categories need be broken through and made non-existent in the fight for emancipation. The communism of intelligence needs to be asserted in order for an emancipatory project to be successful. The heterogeneity of the logic of emancipation and the existence of a hierarchal social order tends to remove the premise of emancipation which is the affirmation of the “communism of intelligence or the capacity of anybody to be where s/he cannot be and do what s/he cannot do” (Ranciére, 2010: 171).   

The repression of the golden communist by the iron worker and vice versa has been done by all communist state powers (from the New Economic Policy to the Cultural Revolution) and accepted by Marxist science and leftist organisations (Ranciére: 2010: 172). Ranciére rightfully states that this conception is something that needs to be forgotten to be revived under the name of communism (2010: 172).  Above that, the history of communist parties and states has relevance today as it can teach us how to avoid making the same mistakes and to build strong organisations and how to assume and keep state power (Ranciére, 2010: 173).

Additionally, the communist moments throughout history need to be joined together in order for something to be reconstituted under the name of communism (Ranciére, 2010: 173). This is fundamentally important as we understand the tradition of communism as a number of moments where ordinary people and workers exercised their agency by fighting for the rights of everybody to be part of the political space, such as in administration and in schools (Ranciére, 2010: 173). This reconstruction is dependent on the revival of the ‘hypothesis of confidence’ in that agency and capacity of people as it has been made non-existent by the “culture of distrust in the communist states, parties and discourses” (Ranciére, 2010: 173, 177). This confidence is important as this plays a fundamental role in what Hallward calls the ‘will’ and ‘general will’ (as will be further discussed below).       

The importance of the Idea of communism

Apart from needing to think differently about communism as an emancipatory project it also needs more than that to accomplish emancipation. Badiou elucidates the Idea in terms of communism to have three basic elements that are needed for its operation, namely, political, historical and subjective (2010: 1). An Idea is “the possibility for an individual to understand that his or her participation in a singular political process (his or her entry into a body-of-truth) is also, in a certain way, a historical decision (Badiou, 2010: 3). The person takes his or her place in the struggle for emancipation and fully commits him/herself to the movement by understanding that they are a new Subject through incorporation and no longer see his/her own selfish desires as a priority (Badiou, 2010: 3).

It is in the existence of an Idea that an individual is able to find the capacity to exist ‘as a Subject’ (Badiou, 2010: 5). Badiou asserts that “the Idea exposes the truth in a fictional structure” (Badiou, 2010: 5). In the case of the communist Idea, it is functional when the truth it deals with is an emancipatory political sequence (Badiou, 2010: 5). Which means that communism exposes the sequence in the symbolic order of History, it looks retroactively at what communism has done in the past in order to create truths in the present time, and it exposes its faults and successes and affects the reality of the present political world (Badiou, 2010: 2, 5). The Idea is ideological and it gives a sense of direction to the emancipatory project which is needed in order for it fulfil its aim.
However, Badiou argues that it imperative that “‘communist’ can no longer be the adjective qualifying a politics” as a century of incidents, good and bad, resulted in certain phrases that flowed from the disconnection between the real and the Idea being misconstrued, phases such as the ‘communist party’ or ‘communist state’ (Badiou, 2010: 5). The problem with such an oxymoron is that communism is used in a system that somewhat resembles what communism wants to be emancipated from. It is still within the confines of the state yet is claiming to be communist and for the people. This is a challenge that the reconfiguration of ‘communism’ is faced with.

The South African Communist Party (SACP) is an example of such an oxymoron, the party says it is a national liberation movement and is a leftist organisation. Contrary, the SACP illuminates the problems with communism that have been discussed so far, it believes in a vanguard or a group of enlightened people who can lead the rest i.e. iron workers, to equality. It also is premised on inequality with the promise of eventual realisation of equality. It is too closely related to the state (the African National Congress- ANC) as opposed to challenging the state; it says to its followers that they must wait for the ‘right’ time. Waiting for the ‘right’ time is problematic as Hallward’s argument will show.

Badiou believes in the ‘event’ as something that paves the way for the possibility of the strictly impossible (2010: 6-7). An event is “a rupture in the normal order of bodies and languages as it exists for any particular situation” and “a creation of new possibilities” (Badiou, 2010: 6). The State, for Badiou, is the limiting factor as it limits the possibility of possibilities (2010: 7). “The State is always the finitude of possibility, and the event is its infinitisation” (Badiou, 2010: 7). This is why it is important for an emancipatory project to be separate from the State. The State is a hindrance to what communism, in the true sense, can achieve. That is why parties such as the SACP have, in the post-apartheid state, failed to realise universal emancipation.

Institutions, such as the army, the police and the capitalist economy, constitutional form of government, property and inheritance laws i.e. State apparatuses and what Althusser called the ‘ideological State apparatuses’ have one goal (Badiou, 2010: 7). The goal is to prevent the communist Idea from designating a possibility; this is done through the State organising and maintaining the distinction between what is possible and what is not (Badiou, 2010: 7). Therefore, an event for Badiou is something that can occur only if it is separated from State power (Badiou, 2010: 7).  For the state anything that is not in keeping with the ‘common goal’ is disorder and the only way tame it is through the use of the language of ‘order’ by stating that the ‘disorderly’ conduct is criminal. The Marikana incident is an example of such an event that was sometimes portrayed by the media as something that unexplainably went too far when there are other lawful and ‘orderly’ avenues to voice concerns or grievances.

The need of will and general will when fighting for emancipation

Hallward, unlike Badiou, argues that in order for the Idea of communism to be realised it requires that we should strive to achieve it at once without waiting for the opportune moment or compromising (2010: 112). Active and conscious action needs to be taken to convert the impossible into the possible, and break the barriers of what is considered to be feasible and what is not (Hallward, 2010: 112). Communism is “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things” (Hallward, 2010: 113). I agree with Badiou and Hallward that the emphasis on the Idea of communism invites a free and reckless thinking about communism; a thinking of communism as a project or possibility that is independent of the legacy of formerly existing communism (Hallward, 2010: 111).

Communism is an emancipatory project that aims to, through voluntary action, universalise the conditions for voluntary action (Hallward, 2010: 117). This means that communism seeks to make every space a space where people are free to engage in politics and not to be encumbered because the ‘universal’ right to engage in the political sphere has not been extended to them. For Hallward, it is the ‘communism of the will’ that can realise the Idea through bringing together revolutionary theory and revolutionary practice (Hallward, 2010: 117).

Hallward disagrees with Badiou that a successful emancipatory project requires there to be an event and faithfulness to the event. Instead he echoes, the sentiments of Paulo Freire that “a communist assumes that if there is no way, we make the way by walking it” (cited in Hallward, 2010: 117). I agree with Hallward and Freire in this sense, because in order for communism to be an effective emancipatory project it should not to play the waiting game. There needs to constant contestation and people asserting their presence in a particular space at this present moment as opposed to waiting for a grand event that may never come. Hallward’s suggestion gives people the opportunity to be “authors and actors of their own drama” and make their own history (2010: 117).     

General will is fundamental in order for people to assert their presence in a space. It is important in the mobilisation of any collective force that wants to assert and sustain a fully common, inclusive and egalitarian, interest (Hallward, 2010: 121). This is important not only for political emancipation but economic as well. The reason is that the will is able to command a voluntary and autonomous action that is able to transcend through a system if sustained and collectivised (Hallward, 2010: 122). The will of the people cannot be limited to, as Machiavellian thought believe, to passive expression of consent (Hallward, 2010: 122). Contrary to that, it is a process where people are always being engaged and where the people participate in the process of actively willing or choosing a particular trajectory over another (Hallward, 2010: 122).

Kant’s argument is in support of the need of will in order for communism to be emancipatory as he states that active willing is what dictates what is possible and what is right and subsequently what makes it so (cited in Hallward, 2010: 123). This happens because, according to Kant, “will achieves the practical liberation of reason from the constraints of experience and objective knowledge” (cited in Hallward, 2010: 123).

Political will involves collective action and direct participation which Rousseau calls a ‘general will’ as each person agrees to put him/herself and his power in common to be under the control of the supreme general will (Hallward, 2010: 123). The general will is what is most favourable, equitable and just to the public interest (Hallward, 2010: 123-124). It is important at this point to understand that, in an emancipatory project, disagreements about the direction to be taken to realise emancipation are bound to happen. To solve this problem the general interest exists only if the will to pursue it is stronger than individual interests (Hallward, 2010: 124). It means that negotiations and debates between different wills can happen but the end result would be the prevailing of the general interest and the acceptance of that general will by all (Hallward, 2010: 124). Participation in the general will is acceptance that it is better to be “wrong with the people rather than right without them” (Hallward, 2010: 124).

The national liberation movement, the ANC, demonstrates the non-existence of the mantra that should be present: it is better to be “wrong with the people rather than right without them” as in recent years it has experienced a splinter party forming. The Congress of the People (COPE) was formed in 2008 because particular interests could not accept the prevailing of the general interest (this is not to say that the split was bad and that the COPE founders were self-interested, instead, it is to illustrate a point). This is what brings about problems in fulfilling an emancipatory goal, if there is infighting that does not get resolved. Debates are important in consecrating the active and not the passive interest of the greatest number of people (Hallward, 2010: 124). General will is not promoting a form of vanguardism, where a group of elites lead the way for the rest; it is mobilisation (Hallward, 2010: 124). It is the people working to “clarify, concentrate and organise their own will” (Hallward, 2010: 125).

In keeping with the Marxist and Jacobin thought, general will is a matter of actual material power and active empowerment of people, first; and a matter of representation, authority or legitimacy after that (Hallward, 2010: 125). Therefore, it is ineffective to wait for objective conditions for emancipation to mature as this opportune moment may never come (Hallward, 2010: 126). Had the post-apartheid shack-dwellers’ movement in South Africa, Abahlali baseMjondolo, decided to wait and give the state a chance to fulfil their constitutional mandate of every person having a house then nothing concrete would happen.

This is because a particular group in a society is expected to be quiet and to know its place in order for that group to be safe as a poor group of people can be (Zikode, 2009: 22). Zikode calls this “the politics of those that do not count” (2009: 22). In order for those who do not count to defend their territory they should not speak, instead they should be led, they should not question, instead they should just accept the particular services that the state deems fitting for them (Zikode, 2009: 23). The acceptance of this reality in the hopes that the right time to assert ones right to be in the political space and for economic independence is approaching one day does not guarantee emancipation. Proponents of ‘living communism’ suggest that an inclusive popular politics must begin with an unqualified proclamation of the humanity of every human being in order for it to be successful (Hallward, 2010: 126).

General will and collective agreement can only take the communist movement to certain point; a political association also needs to be disciplined and indivisible as a matter of course (Hallward, 2010: 127). This means that the organisation has implicit power through each person’s commitment that anyone who does not accept the general will shall be forced to do so by the entire body (Hallward, 2010: 127). Collective freedom will be a going concern as long as people can “defend themselves against division and deception (Hallward, 2010: 127). Rousseau and the Jacobins named this defence ‘virtue’ and this means to privilege collective interests over individual interests and to ensure that society is governed on the basis of the common interest (Hallward, 2010: 127).

More than having a general agreement of the will within the organisation; will also means the strength to continue despite resistance or constraints (Hallward, 2010: 127). There needs to be an understanding that ‘to stop before the end is to perish’ (Hallward, 2010: 128). This will takes communism as an emancipatory project to the next level as there is a difference between mere wishing and the practical exercise of will (Hallward, 2010: 128). A free collective will is “a will that wills and realises its own emancipation” (Hallward, 2010: 128). Emancipation requires those who are silenced to be willing to emancipate themselves and sustain it. This is what Badiou would call the body-of-truth as it a commitment, wholeheartedly, to the emancipatory project. The silenced need to take cognisance of the fact that it is the oppressed that empower their oppressors as the oppressor can only harm to the degree that the oppressed allows them to do so (Hallward, 2010: 129).            

The benefits of returning to the common in communism

An effective shift of the meaning of ‘common’ would be a momentum that changes the balance and reconfigures the universe of the possible (Ranciére, 2010: 173). Hardt (2010) speaks of the common at a more economic level of emancipation than the other writers. This is important, as economics and politics are inherently linked. For this reason, communism is able to achieve emancipation at both these levels. As stated before, emancipatory politics is the possibility of the impossible. Therefore, it is important to explore another possibility, other than private property of capitalism and public property of socialism (Hardt, 2010: 131). This alternative is the common in communism (Hardt, 2010: 131).

Hardt argues that many central concepts in the politics have been corrupted to such an extent that they are unstable (2010: 131). Concepts such as communism, democracy and freedom have come to mean something different to what it initially meant (Hardt, 2010: 131). In practice, communism has come to mean its opposite, which is, that the state has absolute control over economic and social life (Hardt, 2010: 131). Hardt echoes the sentiments that I have already eluded to in this essay; he argues that it would be more valuable to restore or renew the meaning of these concepts as opposed to disposing of them as they have with them a “long history of struggles, dreams and aspirations” (2010: 131).

In order to renew communism, there needs to be an analysis of the forms of political organisations that are possible in the contemporary world (Hardt, 2010: 131-132). This, however, requires an investigation into the contemporary economic and social production (Hardt, 2010: 132). Marx’s main critique of the political economy is private property therefore communism is the positive expression of the abolition of private property (Hardt, 2010: 132, 139). For the author, ‘positive expression’ is the distinguishing factor of genuine communism from false or corrupt understanding of the concept (Hardt, 2010: 139).

Marx states that the meaning of communism is the “positive supersession of private property as human-estrangement, and hence the true appropriation of the human essence through and for [human]; it is the complete restoration of man to himself as a social” (Hardt, 2010: 140). The return to the common would give people a sense of their own subjectivity, creative and productive powers in the political space as there is no dependence on a provider (Hardt, 2010: 141). This is linked to this notion of ‘human production of humanity’ or bio-politics (Hardt, 2010: 142). The common also affects social relations. The ultimate goal of the capitalist mode of production are not the commodities, instead, it is social relations or forms of life that the system produces (Hardt, 2010: 142).  That is why in order for communism to be emancipatory it needs to also needs to transcend the capitalist mode of production.

There is a close and significant relationship between the Idea of communism and contemporary capitalist production that is important for emancipation (Hardt, 2010: 143). Hardt argues that capitalist development is not necessarily creating communism and that bio-political production does not directly result in emancipation (2010: 143). Instead, through the increasing centrality of the common in contemporary capitalist production, “the production of ideas, affects, social relations and forms of life, are emerging the conditions and weapons for a communist project” (Hardt, 2010: 143).
For example, in countries such as South Africa and India, where people used to traditionally fish at a particular place and are now seen as poachers because new laws have been introduced to regulate fishing and only licenced individuals and companies are allowed to fish in a space that was previously self-regulated as it was a common. This is as a result of capitalism. However, new forms of economic life bring about new forms of commons and communing. Digital commons such, as Wikipedia, is self-regulated and is for free use with anyone with an internet connection. It brings about new forms of life that challenges software such as Microsoft that require people to pay. Communism is defined not only by the abolition of property but also by the affirmation of the common (Hardt, 2010: 144). This affirmation is the affirmation of “open and autonomous bio-political production, the self-governed continuous creation of new humanity” (Hardt, 2010: 144). It is also a form of challenging a particular space and asserting ones Subjective existence in the political realm.


In sum, we see that communism is indeed a potentially emancipatory project. There needs to be a conceptualisation of communism that is willing to create new possibilities and to break through the shackles of oppression. This can be done by having an Idea and being faithful to it. This Idea does not have to wait for the ‘right’ time in order to be successful; it does not necessarily have to be a grand event, it just needs to be an entry into a space and doing the impossible. Above that, there needs to be general will in order for emancipation to be universal and successful. In the reconfiguration of communism there needs to be a return to the pre-capitalist mode of thinking that brings back the logic to the future, essentially, there needs to be a return to the common.

Badiou, A., 2010, ‘The Idea of Communism’, The Idea of Communism, Ed. Costas Douzinas & Slavoj Zizek, Verso: London.
Hallward, P., 2004, ‘Haitian Inspiration’, Radical Philosophy, No. 123
Hallward, P., 2010, ‘Communism of the Intellect, Communism of the Will’, The Idea of Communism, Ed. Costas Douzinas & Slavoj Zizek, Verso: London.
Hardt, M., 2010, ‘The Common in Communism’, The Idea of Communism, Ed. Costas Douzinas & Slavoj Zizek, Verso: London.
 Rancière, J., 2010, ‘Communists Without Communism’, The Idea of Communism, Ed. Costas Douzinas & Slavoj Zizek, Verso: London.
 Zikode, S., 2009, To Resist All Degradations and Divisions.