21st Century Communism — On Three Reinventions

by Comrade Z of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp on September 17, 2012

What Should “Communism” Mean Today?

     If your response to this question is along the lines of “but communism was a horrible failure, the idea has run its course; let it die!” then you should stop reading now. (Is not republican and/or parliamentary democracy also a failure, corrupted by corporate cash, existing mainly to give a good face to imperialist war machines?)

We live in a world where the inherently broken nature of capitalism (in short, economies structured by owner/worker relations, driven by the profit motive, and mediated by money) becomes ever-clearer, and where resistance to its expansion (“globalization”) has itself been globalizing, at an accelerating pace no less! The main radical ideology driving this rapidly spreading resistance has been anarchism, whose influence can best be seen in the rise of “horizontal” political organizing, born out of the protests in Argentina in 2001 as horizontalidad: “horizontality” or “horizontalism.” Old school (“vertical”) Marxism–building a Party to take power–lives on in various ways, clinging to its bare life, refusing to be reborn.

And yet such a rebirth is happening. As Paul Mason puts it in Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, it is now relatively easy to find (young) self-described communists who disavow traditional, Leninist forms of hierarchical or vertical organizing in their work (in other words, communists who have no problem with the principle of horizon-talidad).

In this pamphlet, I will focus on what I think are three notable reinventions of communism to appear in the last 10 years–the “anti-socialist” communism of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek; what I’ll argue is the “conservative” redefinition of communism by anarchist anthropologist David Graeber; and the communism of the French collective The Invisible Committee, best known through their text The Coming Insurrection–as bases to elaborate what “communism reinvented” means, what 21st century communism might look like.

We start with Žižek as he comes from an old school Marxist background–raised in Communist Yugoslavia–and thus can help us understand the lessons of 20th century communism. Because of his view of philosophy (neither asking questions nor providing answers, but specifically reframing questions and/or problems in a new way), his work points in multiple, often contradictory directions: sometimes he supports fairly traditional Leninist strategy (up to more Stalinist institutions such as secret police); at other times he describes what one could call anti-socialist communism. “Anti-socialist” is meant in a precise Marxist sense, recognizing the lesson of 20th century communism in the failure of the notion of socialism as the transition between capitalism and communism. This lines up with some of Marx’s descriptions of communism, where he emphasizes its nature as the name of a movement (as opposed to when he describes [post-socialist] communism as the utopian end-stage of human History).

This, then, was the failure and is the lesson of 20th century communist revolutions: a full-fledged socialist or “revolutionary” state will always tend towards corruption, towards stabilizing itself into a new ruling class. To put it pointedly, the state will never “wither away,” as Engels argued; it must be smashed. Žižek, moreover, would describe this as a properly Christian point, insofar as (one of) the lesson(s) of Christ is that “the leader must die”–the state must be smashed–in order to be reborn as the Holy Spirit: the ties of Love which bind together the revolutionary community, “beyond” the state. This anti-socialist position, then, is a dismissal of old school Leninist strategy, as its hierarchical institutions (particularly the Party), and its creation of a “revolutionary” state, inevitably lead to the hampering of the revolution itself, preventing it from revolutionizing its presuppositions. This, then, is how revolution “always strikes twice,” as Žižek might put it: first, there is the revolution of presently-existing society, its disruption by the uprising of the people; second, there is the revolution of the revolution itself, the refusal to allow it to sediment into a new status quo while it still bears the form of the pre-revolutionary society, such as organization around state institutions. We can see how this points our thinking of communism in a(n apparently) more anarchist direction.

David Graeber, meanwhile, defines “communism” in a rather unorthodox way, as a name for the underlying, naturally communal way that human beings interact. His example is two people fixing a pipe together: one asks the other to pass a wrench, and the other simply passes it along. The point is that this situation is profoundly anti-capitalist, for a capitalist would never simply pass the wrench, but would ask, “What do I get in exchange?” (A more everyday example would be passing the salt at dinner.) This lets Graeber paradoxically define capitalism as a “very bad way of organizing communism.” As interesting and potentially useful as this definition of “communism” is, we must ultimately reject it as “conservative.” Why?

Conservatism, as the most general name for right-wing ideology, has as its political gesture one of “returning to the roots,” identifying the present situation as a compromised version of the past: “if we just get rid of the [usually secular-atheist] decadence of modernity we can return to the golden age of traditional society…” Graeber’s redefinition is thus “conservative” in that it posits communism as the essential form of human social relations, which capitalism (and/or the state) obfuscates and corrupts, and which should be returned to through the destruction of capitalism (and/or the state). This critique of anarchism is not new, but is in fact the basic philosophical critique that Marx made of Mikhail Bakunin (his anarchist contemporary in the International Workingmen’s Association, aka the First International). Bakunin’s philosophy takes a similarly conservative form, positing the state as a secondary structure that restricts the essentially free nature of human beings, thus also implying that anarchism is an attempt to “return to our roots.” (Incidentally, Noam Chomsky could be subjected to a similar critique; see his debate with Michel Foucault from the 70’s, of which you can find some video on Youtube, and a transcript on Chomsky’s website.)

The Marxist rebuttal is that such an essential human nature does not exist, that such an underlying “communism” does not exist. (For Marx, “human nature” is not an eternal essence, but something reborn with each shift in humanity’s material conditions: “human nature” is different in each form of society. For example, capitalism generates the notion of “inherent human greed,” a reflection of the way it, as a social organization, makes people [appear as “naturally”] greedy.) More precisely, it is not that we cannot identify such interactions as “communist,” per se, but that these interactions, rather than pointing downward to an underlying communism (as a state of things), instead point forward to how communism (as a movement) should reorganize society.

This brings us to the communism of The Coming Insurrection. The text, while mostly a critique of society, does loosely outline a new communist ideology, notable in its explicitly anti-Marxist and anti-anarchist position. (As they put it, “organizations are obstacles to organizing ourselves,” anarchist organizations included!) Their main justification for calling their ideology “communism” seems to be their advocacy of the creation of “communes” (Žižek would term them “liberated territories”), autonomous zones free of the influence of capitalism and the state. (“All power to the communes!” The reference is, undoubtedly, to the Paris Commune.) Against wide-spread, unified organization (into a Leninist party), they describe communists “finding each other,” forming communes which in their very existence challenge the domination of our communities by capitalist social organization, challenging the transformation of human interactions into commodified exchanges. Thus they endorse Max Stirner’s (another anarchist contemporary of Marx) distinction between revolution and insurrection: a revolution replaces one state with another, while an insurrection smashes it at every opportunity, however small. (We could say, then, apropos the above notion of “revolution striking twice,” that insurrection is another name for the second moment of a true revolution.) They advocate, among other things, the use of fraud and theft and subterfuge to survive in capitalism while creating new social relations, based not on money and commodities and exchange, but on sharing–or, as Žižek might put it, on Love.

Thus, we return to our initial question: what should “communism” mean today? First, we should distinguish between our anti-socialist (or anti-statist) communism and anarchism: while we are everything anarchists are not (we are not statists, or capitalists, or racists, or (cis- or hetero-)sexists, or…) we are also not anarchists, insofar as anarchism is too broad a notion, too easily operating according to conservative logic (see above, or, the proliferation of “libertarians” and “anarcho-capitalists” and “free market anarchists”). Second, we should correct the notion that communism is a form of “collectivism,” privileging society over the individual. If anything, socialism is collectivism, not communism. To put it another way, we should distinguish between society and community: community is not society over-against the individual, but the common unity of the two, the bridging between “unity” (the individual) and the “common” (society). Communism thus aims for a world where both society and individual are “privileged,” where the individual flourishes not at the expense but at the benefit of the society, and vice-versa. Thus, we do not support the individualist-capitalist notion of freedom as freedom-from, as a lack of restraint, but recognize that certain limitations are necessary for freedom (to use Žižek’s example, humanity is only free to flourish insofar as we respect certain “natural” limitations; otherwise, our environment will collapse around us, as is happening now), and that, moreover, freedom at its most basic is the ability to do what we don’t desire to do (say, to abandon the pleasures of capitalist society for a new social organization that, while perhaps not as “enjoyable”–with less entertainment enticing our passive consumption, for example–is nevertheless more fulfilling, and more just).

If this all seems rather abstract, that is because it needs to be. I can’t tell you what the world that 21st century communism strives for will look like without abstract-ions. To do so would be to repeat the “vanguardist” logic of 20th century communism, i.e. the logic of the enlightened revolutionary vanguard leading the ignorant masses to the truth of History, etc. I can only insist on my view that, from a certain perspective (based on a leap of faith, to be sure), it does appear as though all human History has been leading to our moment–but not in the way that classical Marxists believed (that the Revolution was inevitable). Rather, this moment is, in keeping with the nature of time itself, open, yet to be claimed or decided one way or the other (though it’s tending towards the worse). This moment of crisis can be described in many ways; one is: will we allow climate change, the climate crisis, to become “unmitigatable,” irreversible? Or will we accomplish the necessity of revolution, of radical change? A member of a Marxist group I cannot stand said something to me months ago that I cannot disagree with: the peculiarity of our revolution is that we are fighting for less, because our insatiable desire for more has led us to the precipice of our own destruction and doom.

To finish with a quote, from the introduction to The Coming Insurrection:

“Communism then, as presupposition and as experiment. Sharing of a sensibility and elaboration of sharing. The uncovering of what is common and the building of a force. Communism as the matrix of a meticulous, audacious assault on domination. As a call and a name for all worlds resisting imperial pacification, all solidarities irreducible to the reign of commodities, all friendships assuming the necessities of war. COMMUNISM. We know it’s a term to be used with caution. Not because, in the great parade of words, it may no longer be fashionable. But because our worst enemies have used it, and continue to do so. We insist. Certain words are like battlegrounds: their meaning, revolutionary or reactionary, is a victory, to be torn from the jaws of struggle.”

[Direct quotes from authors are italicized; non-italicized quotes are scare quotes.]


David Graeber — Debt: The First 5000 Years

The Invisible Committee — The Coming Insurrection

Paul Mason — Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The            New Global Revolutions

Slavoj Žižek — First As Tragedy, Then As Farce

Slavoj ŽižekLiving In The End Times

Recommended reading:

Kate Khatib, Margaret Killjoy, Mike McGuire (ed) — We Are Many: Reflections on Movement Strategy From Occupation to Liberation

Richard D. Wolff — Capitalism Hits the Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to Do About It

Richard D. Wolff — Contending Economic Theories: Neoclassical, Keynesian, and Marxian 

Richard D. Wolff (with Stephen A. Reznick)  Democracy At Work: A Cure for Capitalism

Richard D. Wolff (with David Barsamian)   Occupy the Economy: Challenging Capitalism 

Slavoj Žižek (editor) — Mapping Ideology 

Click here to download this pamphlet as a PDF.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Arthur September 17, 2012 at 11:19 am

“…the peculiarity of our revolution is that we are fighting for less, because our insatiable desire for more has led us to the precipice of our own destruction and doom”

Yes, that’s very peculiar. Breakig with this overtly reactionary doom and gloom is an essential pre-requisite for any communist movement.

We ought to be way ahead of the Communist Manifesto by now. But we’re not and starting from that analysis would be a far sounder basis than the various viewpoints discussed here.


Brian S. September 18, 2012 at 8:35 am

An interesting piece which I think relates to something that should be on our agenda, if not necessarily at the top of it: how to formulate a vision of the world that we would like to move towards, and how to fashion/refashion our political vocabulary and discourse so that we can both talk about these things coherently among ourselves and persuade others that our project/s offer a valid solution to the barreness of capitalism.
I this context I’m not sure which of the terms “communism” or “socialism” offer the best encaptualisation of our vision – I rather lean towards the latter, but I realise there has been a recent revival of interest in the former, as expressed in this post. I find the term “anti-socialist communism” an odd one – not helped by the fact that the understanding of “socialism” here is not clearly explicated. It refers to “the notion of socialism as the transition between capitalism and communism”. But what does the rejection of that mean? That there is to be NO transitional social form between capitalism and communism? or is what is being rejected here the idea of a STATE form as part of the transitional process?
The former seems to me untenable (it puts us back in the world of the Utopians and blocks any prospect of formulating a strategy for transforming the existing social order.) The latter is more clearly focused and worthy of discussion: but to talk about it properly we need to move away from seeing the issue as an exclusivity – state / no state – but as a choice of alternative locations on a spectrum: possible types and degrees of “stateness”. I also think we need to disentangle the notion of “state” (seen asa repressive institution – “bodies of armed men” ) from that of POLITICS (determining social choices, organising collective resources, AND mediating social conflicts.)
On the point Arthur raises, I agree that its not useful to say “we are fighting for less” (its not just bad PR – its fundamentally false): we are fighting for “DIFFERENT”. That is, we are seeking to build a social world founded on the realisation of our social/natural “species-being” – one in which individual human satisfaction derives not just (indeed not primarily) from personal sensuous pleasures but from participating in the achievements and pleasures of our (global) neighbours and in our relations with the natural world of which we are a part. For me, the concept of “socialism” captures this vision better, because it places the social component of our human being/nature at the centre, whereas “Communism” seems to imply a focus on the subsidiary issue of property forms. (Although of course such a concept can be historically re-valued.)


Arthur September 18, 2012 at 11:56 am

A problem with the word “socialism” is that even in 1847 it had already come to refer to a bourgeois movement.

“Yet, when it was written, we could not have called it a socialist manifesto…. in 1847, socialism was a middle-class movement, communism a working-class movement. Socialism was, on the Continent at least, “respectable”; communism was the very opposite. And as our notion, from the very beginning, was that “the emancipation of the workers must be the act of the working class itself,” there could be no doubt as to which of the two names we must take. Moreover, we have, ever since, been far from repudiating it.”

Preface to the 1888 English Edition.

Same problem now with “communism” (plus connotations of an anti-democratic movement).

But the Communist Manifesto still defines an outlook that conveys something a lot more definate and that makes a lot more sense than the alternatives being offered.


Cameron James September 19, 2012 at 1:03 am

Marx in Das Capital saw communism as a classless social formation. He defined class as a social relation or the process of the pumping out of surplus-value, wherein wage laborers are coerced into selling their labor-power to capitalist owners who then consume that labor-power in the production process which produces value exceeding the payout of wages. This surplus-value is legally appropriated by the non-laboring capitalist thereby constituting the primary characteristic (sin) of capitalist society – the theft of human productive labor. Marx did little speculating about the precise form that communism might take, however, he was crystal clear that if anyone but those who labor to produce the society’s surplus appropriates it — it cannot qualify as a classless or communist social formation.


David Berger September 19, 2012 at 7:55 am

The term “communism” is inextricably tied to Stalinism. Using the word as self-identification is foolish and sectarian. This ain’t 1847. In 2012 the working class nature of “socialism” is clear enough. In any event, we’ll see in the future what kinds of actions so-called communists engage in as opposed to socialists.

More later.

David Berger


Cameron James September 19, 2012 at 11:21 am

According to Marx’s analysis Stalin’s state was not communist — the state itself supplanted the private capitalist as the appropriator of the surplus produced by soviet workers thereby modifying but not abolishing the exploitation of labour. Marx’s communism must allow for the producers themselves to collectively decide how the surplus is distributed. Worker’s councils organized soon after the overthrow of the Czar serve as a more accurate model of Marx’s communism.


David Berger September 20, 2012 at 2:06 pm

I am not talking about the actual nature of the USSR and its kindred spirits. I’m talking about terminology. In my experience, the use of the term “communism” is foolish and an attempt of some kind of purism which no one cares about but purists.


Cameron James September 22, 2012 at 10:56 am

To me it is more foolish to allow core meanings to be distorted. Discarding the term “communism” because others distort it, instead of struggling to restore its actual meaning is a step toward failure.


David Berger September 21, 2012 at 12:11 am

FROM Comrade Z: I can only insist on my view that, from a certain perspective (based on a leap of faith, to be sure), it does appear as though all human History has been leading to our moment–but not in the way that classical Marxists believed (that the Revolution was inevitable). Rather, this moment is, in keeping with the nature of time itself, open, yet to be claimed or decided one way or the other (though it’s tending towards the worse).

REPLY: I have read dumb stuff in my life, but this one is really in a separate class from most dumb stuff. Just for starters, are you really putting forward, as a Marxist, “a certain perspective (based on a leap of faith, to be sure)” in a serious way? This is basically a religious statement.


Leave a Comment

{ 2 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: