While you were sleeping, Žižek wrote about a book. Here it is reviewed in New Statesman by Benjamin Kunkel:
Imagine, in any case, a society whose productive assets are, in one way or another, the property, as Marx said, of “the associated producers”. Such a society might also entail, let’s say, strict depletion quotas for both renewable and non-renewable natural resources; welfare guarantees not only for workers but for people too young, old or ill to work; and democratic bodies, from the level of the enterprise and locality up to that of the state, wherever it hadn’t withered away. These institutions might or might not be complemented by the market. For now, however, to rule markets out of any desirable future while saying next to nothing else about its institutional complexion is to reproduce the intellectual blockage that Žižek and others ascribe to a capitalism that simply can’t imagine how another kind of society might “function”.
It is commonplace, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, to hear the events of that time described as miraculous, a dream come true, something one couldn’t have imagined even a couple of months beforehand. Free elections in Poland with Lech Walesa as president: who would have thought it possible? But an even greater miracle took place only a couple of years later: free democratic elections returned the ex-Communists to power, Walesa was marginalised and much less popular than General Jaruzelski himself
This reversal is usually explained in terms of the ‘immature’ expectations of the people, who simply didn’t have a realistic image of capitalism: they wanted to have their cake and eat it, they wanted capitalist-democratic freedom and material abundance without having to adapt to life in a ‘risk society’ – i.e. without losing the security and stability (more or less) guaranteed by the Communist regimes. When the sublime mist of the ‘velvet revolution’ had been dispelled by the new democratic-capitalist reality, people reacted in one of three ways: with nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ of Communism; by embracing right-wing nationalist populism; with belated anti-Communist paranoia. The first two reactions are easy to understand, and they often overlap (as in today’s Russia). The same rightists who, decades ago, were shouting ‘Better dead than red!’ are now often heard mumbling ‘Better red than eating hamburgers.’ The nostalgia for Communism shouldn’t be taken too seriously: far from expressing an actual wish to return to a grey Socialist reality, it is a form of mourning, of gently getting rid of the past. And nationalist populism, far from being peculiar to Eastern Europe, is a common feature of all countries caught in the vortex of globalisation.
The conference was happily free of dogmatism. No one on the stage was there to represent a particular party or doctrine. There were disagreements, but at heart was a simple proposition. Communism is an idea that has been with us in different forms for thousands of years, as Terry Eagleton pointed out. The task is now to think what the concepts of egalitarian voluntarism, self-organisation, common ownership of common means of production, abolition of class-structured society, and freedom from state power can mean today.
It’s a bold statement, declaring oneself a communist. The cultural revolutions of 1968 were the beginning of the end of the party-state, when programmatic communism was replaced by a more postmodern, abstract idea of “the left”. Freedom of thought and nomadic thought undid the old certainties of Marxist political knowledge. No one has quite figured out how to replace them, and this perhaps more than anything else can account for the current weakness of the left, even as capitalism is in crisis: what is to be done?
First, the question of the role of the state and the economy remains open. While Judith Balso, Toni Negri and Alain Badiou insist on creating new political movements at a distance from the state, Zizek and Bruno Bosteels point to the experiences of Bolivia and Venezuela as contemporary proof that by taking power, a progressive radical movement can survive even against overwhelming reactionary forces. For Zizek, to reject the idea of a revolutionary state in the absence of a clear alternative is a cop-out.
However, such considerations all seem to beg the question of how to organise. It is difficult to imagine a new Communist party, but without one, the idea of communism remains just that: a quasi-religious article of faith. This was perhaps Eagleton’s point when he observed that it is not so difficult to imagine a communism of scarcity, foisted upon us by disaster rather than rapture. Continue reading →
Here’s an interesting article about the Communism Conference in London this weekend from The Socialist Worker by Alex Callinicos, “Slavoj Zizek’s Ideas need to link with reality.” I’ve pasted the full text below. Callinicos raises some interesting questions about some contradictions revolving around the relationship between theory and practice and the 100 pound entrance fee, ahem.
Nearly a thousand people will be attending a conference this weekend on “The Idea of Communism” in central London. In itself, this isn’t a big deal. Left wing conferences take place regularly in central London. The Socialist Workers Party’s annual Marxism event attracts several thousand participants every summer.
There are two things that are different about this particular conference. The first is that it isn’t being organised by a political organisation or journal, but by Birkbeck College’s Institute for the Humanities. Secondly, the conference is attracting an unusual amount of media attention. The Financial Times devoted a full page of its weekend edition to an interview with the director of the Institute for the Humanities, Slavoj Zizek, headlined “The modest Marxist”.
It is presumably Zizek, one of the most dazzling figures on the intellectual left, who has succeeded in attracting as speakers at the conference some of the best known continental philosophers – notably Alain Badiou, Toni Negri and Giorgio Agamben, along with, among others, Terry Eagleton and Peter Hallward. The emphasis indeed seems to be on philosophy. “From Plato onwards, Communism is the only political Idea worthy of a philosopher,” the conference publicity declares. Continue reading →
In 1928 the Soviet Union proposed the establishment of an autonomous socialist Jewish republic in the far eastern reaches of Russian territory. In Birobidzhan the eternal search for a Jewish homeland would be realized and Jews would possess their own institutions, which would function in Yiddish. A “new” Jew would be created, emancipated, and rejuvenated. Although the project was eventually revealed to be a fraud, thousands of left-wing Jews in Canada and the United States passionately supported it and campaigned on its behalf – some even emigrated to Birobidzhan.
The Canadian Jewish Communist movement, an influential ideological voice within the Canadian left, played a major role in the politics of Jewish communities in cities such as Montreal, Toronto, and Winnipeg, as well as many smaller centres, between the 1920s and the 1950s. Jerusalem on the Amur looks at the interlocking group of left-wing Jewish organizations that shared the political views of the Canadian Communist Party and were vocal proponents of policies perceived as beneficial to the Jewish working class. Focusing on the Association for Jewish Colonization in Russia, known by its transliterated acronym as the ICOR, and the Canadian Ambijan Committee, Henry Srebrnik uses Yiddish-language books, newspapers, pamphlets, and other materials to trace the ideological and material support provided by the Canadian Jewish Communist movement to Birobidzhan.
By providing the first account of the rise and fall of Communism in the Jewish community of Canada, Jerusalem on the Amur makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of twentieth-century Jewish life.