The “Naive” Conception of Communism: Communism as Process and End
I risk straightaway a formulation: there are often two ways of talking about communism and its possibility: what I will call the “naive” idea of communism, and what I will call the “Marxist” (note the quotations) concept of communism. The “naive” idea is what everyone is familiar with as regards the most standard conversations about communism: “it is nice in theory but it cannot work in practice,” “it has been tried and it didn’t work,” “human nature guarantees that it inevitably leads to totalitarianism.” These are anti-communist arguments, but it is around these that the quotidian conversation about communism tends to revolve, the pro-communist almost always in the position of defense.
The most sophisticated responses to these kind of anti-communist arguments tend to problematize the type of discourse itself. This is in general the “Marxist” line of thought. It can be summed in a concise formula by Marx himself: “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things” (my emphasis).
In other words, the sophisticated Marxist view is that communism is actually not even a state of affairs that is supposed to be “tried out” in the first place. The whole discourse surrounding “communism was tried” or “it can’t ‘work’” relies on a misconception, not only of what “communism” means, but as to the the nature of history itself as what could possibly lead to communism. We are dealing with a difference or a confusion between process and end; on the one hand communism in its “naive” discourse is a state of affairs to be definitively achieved or not achieved (implied whenever it is a question of whether or not it “can work”), and the sophisticated Marxist idea of communism existing solely in the process itself (let’s say communism as truly only ever “communization”).
But some problems arise. First of all, even Marxists have never stopped thinking of what they are doing as a real attempt to “get to communism” to actually achieve a communist society. And Marxists shouldn’t stop thinking this way. In order to affirm the reality of communism, we must affirm that the point of communization is to create communism. On top of this, isn’t it paradoxical to be aiming for a goal but only in so far as that goal is already there, already achieved in the very process of aiming for it? How can we aim for something we already have?
In my view, either Marxists find themselves forced by their own rigor into the purely processual theory of communism, or they find themselves caught in an ambiguous mix between the two discourses where it is actually no longer totally clear how to refute the opponent (although this discursive ambiguity also makes it unclear how the opponent would refute the Marxist).
We should on the contrary assert that there is an intuitive and legitimate force to aspects of the “naive” discourse while also affirming the scientific, materialist conception of historical transformation that Marxism has always defended.
The thinking of Alain Badiou will serve here, not necessarily as an achieved model of this thinking, but as a jumping off point. In Badiou, we have the convalescence of communism as both process and end, of its scientific and “naive” dimensions. Badiou thinks of communist revolution as a “truth procedure,” a process arising from a certain material/social rupture and which begins to change the coordinates of the situation. He affirms that “justice” is really the happening of this process itself, that is, in accordance with the the conception we already explained, it is truly in the mobilized demand for justice that justice already exists. In other words, he thinks, in the sophisticated “Marxist” fashion, after Marx’s famous formula about “the real movement of history,” communism as process, as communization.
However, Badiou also uses terms that seem very similar to the naive conception. Badiou calls communism both a “hypothesis” and an “Idea.” An hypothesis suggests the thought “I hypothesize that a communist, equal society is possible, so now its necessary to ‘try it out’ and see.” While an Idea suggests that communism is a theory, a conception, or a thought, in other words an idea that may or not “actually work in practice.”
How do these two conceptions of communism link up in Badiou, the one the idea of a material process of transformation, the other as a hypothesis or abstract Idea? The key is to see how the Idea “meets” matter; how the Idea in this case is not the opposite of the material world, but that which arises through it and expresses it.
This tight relation between the Idea and matter can be affirmed through grounding the Idea in what Badiou calls the Event. The Event is a rupture in a given social situation, made possible by various antagonisms and inconsistencies that the usual structure and course of things does not know how to resolve. The rupture produces a genuine difference in the system, such that absolutely new and unexpected things can arise. In particular, for Badiou, it is exactly that which was “invisible” or hidden by the system, which suddenly appears in full force, nonetheless representing the system in its totality while demanding its fundamental transformation. This is exactly the role that the proletariat can and has had played in history: deprived of direct political representation in the capitalist system (“invisible”), but all of a sudden rising up, affirming that it in fact speaks for the system (“we are the people”), and demanding a fundamental structural change.
On the basis of the Event, the “truth procedure” begins, that is, the process where by the system is changed. But for Badiou this process can only be understood under the aegis of the Idea; the Idea is its very illumination. Why?
In all revolutionary situations, the process of transformation is anarchic. Its path is undetermined, its fate uncertain. Such is of course the nature of the radically new, which has not yet sedimented itself and determined its own logic of development. This anarchic quality is in a certain sense also a decomposition of the previous structure: the whole field is now open, impregnated with a fundamental difference that earlier this structure had repressed and constrained. Now, Badiou’s insightful thought is that this decomposition has an organic link to equality. A decomposition of the structure can mean nothing else than the decomposition of its hierarchical groupings, those embedded relations of power that define the maintenance of a system qua system, as a consistent, organized, and articulated structure. As such, there is no Event, organically linked as it is to the decomposition of the system, without the advent of equality.
So how does this conception unite process and end? The Idea must be understood as the Idea of Equality. Equality is a fundamental component of a revolutionary process in its material reality (the decomposition of the social structure in the possibility of constructing new). Yet, because equality functions as such at the most basic structural level, this equality can be said to have at the same time a kind of a-historical force, for it is in fact the very nature of evental decomposition itself, truly an Idea in the Platonic sense, while nevertheless revealing itself in given processes.
The Idea of communism is the Idea of Equality as it can occur in the material world, suspended from the revolutionary Event: the idea of material equality between people, not of course in that “everyone has the same things” but in that material domination and hierarchy disappear.
What we should note is that this disappearance of material domination was always understood in the Marxist tradition as the disappearance specifically of economic class. The point at which Badiou’s approach needs to be built upon is where the notion of class in fact tends to fall away in his specific discourse. This is also the point at which process and end are not yet entirely resolved. For Badiou, the Idea appears in and illuminates the material process, but it also has an independent eternal/platonic status which acts as the end we are aiming for. Yet, if the Idea is outside of history in this second sense as end (as a pure, generic form), can the end actually be instantiated, at least fully? Or are we rather endlessly and asymptotically approaching it?
I affirm that the real possibility of achieving communism in fact rests in understanding class structure. It rests in understanding that it is through the disappearance of material need, the high level of communicative and technological organization, and the social control of the means of production, that communism can be achieved in its basic form: in other words, it means the dissolution of class. This is because not only is communism a material process, but it is a material process with its own material conditions of possibility.
Communism must be all of the following:
- a material process of communization arising from a revolutionary event
- the pure Idea of Equality that illuminates itself in a given material process of communization
- the material achievement of communism on the basis of the dissolution of class, i.e the realization of the Idea of Equality on earth.
In returning to the “naive” discourse on communism through Badiou, we also find our way back, in an inverted circle, to Marx.