Reading The Communist Horizon

I recently picked up a copy of Jodi Dean’s The Communist Horizon, which has been getting a good deal of publicity and generating interesting debates on the blogosphere (and in my Facebook feed, for that matter). Dean’s book can be situated among a number of other works ushering in a resurgence of a revamped theoretical communism, including titles by Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, and Bruno Bosteels published by the stylish folks over at Verso. Since I’m participating in a reading group organized around this book, my next few posts will be meant as a running commentary. Thus far I’ve only read the Introduction and chapter one, “Our Soviets.”

Why “the communist horizon”? Dean writes that the term horizon indicates a dimension of experience that is Real (in the Lacanian sense) because it is both impossible to ever reach and actual. It “shapes our setting” and is “a necessary dimension of our actuality” (p. 2). Taking up from Badiou’s similar “Idea of Communism,” Dean theorizes communism as an imperative that “impresses upon us the necessity to abolish capitalism and to create global practices and institutions of egalitarian cooperation” (11). For her, a return to this notion is necessary in contrast to the pluralism, playful aestheticism, and obsession with the local and particular that has come to define the radical Left today – for example, as evidenced by the horizontalist tendencies of the Occupy movement.

“The premise of communism,” Dean writes, “is that collective determination of collective conditions is possible, if we want it…The power of the return to communism stands or falls on its capacity to inspire large-scale organized collective struggle toward a goal” (16, 14). Yet Dean, like Badiou, Zizek, and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, rejects the key Marxian idea that the proletariat, taken as an “empirical social class,” needs to be emphasized as the historial agent to bring about the transformation of capitalism into communism. In its place, Dean claims to look at proletarianization – the “process of exploitation, dispossession, and immiseration” (18) – that maintains existing class divisions. As a result, instead of class analysis, she offers the radical democratic notion of “‘the people as the rest of us,’ the people as a divided and divisive force” (18). Communism here is clearly functioning not as an economic, but a political concept.

This turn away from socio-economic analysis and toward a radical democratic metaphysics characterizes much of the contemporary revival of communist theory, inspired as it is by the catching on of Badiou’s argument that communism is an eternal Idea akin to the Platonic form, rather than a historically conditioned, emancipatory philosophy whose ideological roots can be traced to specific historical developments, for example the rise of the bourgeois public sphere (Habermas’s Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere). However, within this circle of authors all calling for a revolutionary universal egalitarianism, Dean takes issue with both Badiou and Hardt and Negri for their rejection of Party and State. Instead she sides with Bosteels and Zizek that the organizational form of the Party is precisely what gives politics its political character.

“The party is a complex, adaptive system. Its end is proletarian revolution, that is, the destruction of the capitalist system of exploitation and expropriation, of proletarianization, and the creation of a mode of production and distribution where the free development of each is compatible with the free development of all” (20).

On this note ends the Introduction. So far so good. However, the next chapter, “Our Soviets,” makes a series of questionable assertions and distinctions that problematize Dean’s argument even further.

There she begins by pointing out the symbolic relationship that existed between the US and the USSR, insofar as each entity needed the existence of its rival as the Other against which to validate itself; in particular, the triad of communism-Soviet Union-Stalinism took on a key role in the American imaginary. I think Dean’s point on this is largely true, and she draws on the research of Susan Buck-Morss, whose book Dreamworld and Catastrophe explored the superpowers’ similar commitment to a kind of cultural high modernism. But instead of leaving it at that, Dean feels the need to push the argument even further by taking on the problem of Stalin, arguing that critiques of Stalinism are more a legacy of the Cold War than an accurate investigation of history (29), and that most of the histories we have of the period were written under the conditions of a “hegemonic anticommunism” (33). The Cold War certainly did give rise to an anticommunist ideology, which permeated not only public discourse and politics but also academia. But Stalinism is a historical problem that cannot simply be explained away by pointing to the ideological biases of American scholars.

Put differently, the problem can be understood as one of historicity and the supposed necessity of a revolutionary party structure to turn in upon itself by becoming a conservative organ of domination. Dean has three objections for those who take the communism-Soviet Union-Stalinism triad as one of a necessary connection: 1) Objectivity has been absent from historical studies of communism thus far; 2) The problems of historical communism have not been treated as the results of contingencies; and 3) History is not a static structure but one that possesses its own historicity. The result, she argues, is that the liberal, democratic, capitalist, and conservative appeal to history (for her these terms are essentially interchangeable) as a way of discrediting the communist legacy is profoundly conservative in its outlook and mission. Its goal is to justify the liberal-democratic order, and it does so by approaching communism as “impossible, invariant, constant, and unchanging” (36), thereby disconnecting communism from its own history.

Yet if the history of communism as told by liberals should not be confused for the History of communism, how should we think about the latter? Perhaps the most important philosophical implication of the first two chapters is the distinction between theory and history that Dean takes up from Badiou. As she writes of communism’s critics,

“Responding to challenges regarding the exclusion of class struggle, proletarian revolution, collective ownership of the means of production, and the smashing of the bourgeois-democratic state from political theory, they invoke history as their ground and proof…Yet as Alain Badiou reminds us, “at bottom, it is always in the interests of the powerful that history is mistaken for politics, that is, the objective is taken for the subjective.” (32)

Hence Dean, Badiou, and others take up theory in response to the invocation of history by communism’s critics. Although Dean qualifies her reasoning toward the end of the chapter by juxtaposing Badiou’s Idea of an eternal communism to Bosteels’s seemingly more nuanced position of joining “tactical ahistoricism” to “a new writing of history” (37), considering Dean’s critique of the historical approach just a few pages earlier, at the moment this does not seem like a substantial difference. On the whole, the argument of The Communist Horizon seems much more inclined toward reviving a theoretical communism, not about the possibility of communism in this historical moment.

This tension between history and theory has been at the heart of debates in Marxism for quite some time. One may argue that Dean’s strategy in this book is not that different from Marx and Engels’s own approach in the Manifesto, insofar as they too wrote of communism as the specter haunting Europe – that theoretical Other latent within the present structures of society. For them, to the extent that communism represented the future of humanity, it needed to be brought about through organization and struggle, but also through the empowerment of the working classes by making them see themselves as a world-historical power – in other words, by bestowing upon them a common identity as communists, and thereby uniting them into a fledgling basis for a Communist International. The Manifesto thus had value as a performative, rhetorical tract equally as much as a theoretical-historical analysis of the situation in 1848.

Is that the case with The Communist Horizon, though? Dean’s brushing away of history – not only of the ambiguous legacy of the Soviet Union, but also of the myriad of transformations undergone by Marxist parties across the world throughout the 20th century – already makes me wonder what remains here of the complicated tradition of the Marxist left. It seems to me that part of the reasoning leading Dean to treat communism as if it existed in a historical void is her theoretical predisposition to an essentially subjectivist and voluntarist understanding of politics. We are told that communism must be conceptualized as “the politics of a militant subject” (35) rather than as a linear process, and, looking once again at the Badiou quote above, that a “subjective” politics needs to be counterposed to an “objective” history.

This is potentially a huge problem. One of the qualities that makes historical materialism such a convincing theory is its ability to explain history as the working out of earlier contradictions in society, and the contextual insights it can bring to bear on particular historical moments. For this reason, communism needs to be seen as a historical problem and possibility that is dependent upon the objective structural, material, and social conditions of the present moment. To approach it as a possibility equally available under all conditions and at all times so long as the militant subject is there, which is what I take to be the implication of Dean’s argument, means to regress from the nuanced analysis that historical materialism provides us the tools for to a kind of empty, formalistic, wishful thinking.

Pardon the quip, but it raises some red flags.

Wright and Therborn on the Class Situation Today

I want to highlight two pieces I’ve read in recent days.

The first is an interview with Erik Olin Wright, Analytical Marxism and Real Utopias. The University of Wisconsin sociologist was one of the central figures of the analytical Marxist movement, which arose in the 1980s as an attempt to clarify and sharpen historical materialism into a social scientific mode of analysis. In Wright’s words,

“The central elements on this approach are a commitment to conventional scientific norms, an emphasis on the importance of systematic clarification of concepts, a concern with very fine-grained specification of the steps in theoretical arguments, and a concern with linking micro-analysis of individuals and their motivations to macro problems.”

Although the movement has died down, Wright has remained one of the most prominent social scientists working with a focus on the changing dynamics of class in Western, developed societies. Today he is best known for his Real Utopias Project, which focuses on discovering and explicating the latent elements of emancipatory social practices within capitalist societies. These include participatory budgeting, worker co-ops like the Mondragon model, and the idea of an unconditional basic income.

The second piece is Goran Therborn’s “Class in the 21st Century”. For Therborn, economic stagnation and the unfulfilled promises of neoliberalism have led to an uneven development in today’s geopolitical picture. “Europe can no longer provide a global perspective for emancipation, development and justice,” he writes; “For now, such visions are lacking even for the continent itself.” The struggle between the masses and the middle class will take place elsewhere. The Left’s success now depends not on the organization of the working classes in the Western industrial democracies, but on East Asia and Latin America.

I hope to blog further on this topic – namely the emancipatory potential of new institutions and organizational practices in light of the changing global dynamics  – at greater length in the near future. In the meantime, enjoy the articles.

The Forgotten (Pluralist) Legacy of Bolshevism

Simon Hardy’s article in The North Star, titled “Bolshevism and Revolutionary Organization: Forgotten Legacies” is worth reading. Hardy argues that there is a tendency, both among scholars and in the popular imagination, to read the authoritarian centralism and suppression of a plurality of views backwards into the early history of the Bolshevik movement when it was still the RSDLP. To counter this reading, he provides evidence that the Bolshevik faction allowed a substantial amount of dissent and a plurality of opinions among its membership, albeit with the expectation that members still remained loyal to the movement and shared a common opposition to parliamentary reformism. Only after 1921, with the onset of war communist policies, did the Bolsheviks begin to suppress internal dissent and dictate the organization of communist movements internationally. Yet there is reason to believe that Lenin was unsure of this approach, remarking at one point that it was “too Russian” – meaning that it reflected the particular needs of consolidating a revolution in Russia, but was not necessarily the right approach under other national conditions.

I also recommend Hardy’s Marxist Theory website.

Science and Marxism

Continuing somewhat with the subject of my earlier post about Kuhn and social science, I want to highlight this interview with Helena Sheehan on dialectics in science. Sheehan is Professor Emerita at Dublin City University and the author of Marxism and the Philosophy of Science – which is on my reading list, although I haven’t gotten to it yet.

Although the Stalinist legacy has resulted in Marxism now being seen as a political ideology incompatible with the logic of discovery and the process of free inquiry held as the ideals of science, I think Sheehan is correct in arguing that dialectical reasoning can provide for a more nuanced and contextualized understanding of the relationship between us and the world that we study.

On the tension between humanism and determinism:

There is a tension in Marxist philosophy between its roots in the history of philosophy and its commitment to empirical knowledge. For the best Marxist thinkers, certainly for Marx and Engels themselves, it has been a creative interaction. However, some of those pulling toward German idealist philosophy, particularly that of Kant and Hegel, have brought into Marxism a hostility to the natural sciences, influenced by the Methodenstreit, an antagonistic conceptualization of the humanities versus the sciences, which has played out in various forms over the decades. The critique of positivism has been bloated to an anti-science stance. The tendency of some to counterpose a humanistic Marx to a positivist Engels is not supported by historical evidence, as I have demonstrated at some length in my book.

Regarding Marxism and epistemology:

Marxism also addressed questions of scientific method. There is an elaborate literature dealing with epistemological questions from a Marxist point of view. There have been many debates, but the mainstream position would be critical realism. What is distinctive about Marxism in this sphere is how it cuts through the dualism of realism versus social constructivism. Marxism has made the strongest claims of any intellectual tradition before or since about the socio-historical character of science, yet always affirmed its cognitive achievements.

Regarding Popper’s falsification criterion as a demarcation between real science and non-science:

There is a need for criteria to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate claims to knowledge. The positivist and neo-positivist traditions contributed much to the formulation of such criteria. They did so, however, from a base that was too narrow, employing criteria that were too restricted, leaving out of the picture too much that was all too real, excluding historical, psychological, sociological, metaphysical dimensions as irrelevant. Marxism agrees with the emphasis on empirical evidence and logical coherence, but brings the broader context to bear. It synthesizes the best of other epistemological positions: logical empiricism, rationalism, social constructivism.

Socialist Politics in Zola’s Germinal

Scene from Germinal (1993)

Last night I finished reading Zola’s Germinal (1885). I picked up this book, widely acknowledged as a masterpiece, upon a friend’s recommendation and worked through it over the course of the last ten days or so. Set in 1866-67, Germinal is the story of a miners’ strike in northern France near the Belgian border, and part of Zola’s larger, twenty volume chronology of life in the Second French Empire. The main protagonist of the story is twentysomething Etienne Lantier, who arrives at the fictional town of Montsou looking for work and settles into an occupation as a miner. There he works long hours under miserable conditions, all the while gaining a sense of the unhappiness of his fellow laborers and of the unjust ways in which their toil is exploited by the well-to-do bourgeoisie owning the mine. Eventually he begins organizing the workers and reading voraciously (including Proudhon and Lasalle, before moving on to Darwin), until his autodidactic pursuits leave him in a halfway place, with the cultivation of a bourgeois and the sympathies of a proletarian.

I do not want to recap the plot here, but instead to focus on the way that Zola worked to incorporate the radical theories of his 19th century contemporaries to present a picture of Etienne’s intellectual development. Initially we’re told that Etienne read “technical treatises on political economy, some anarchist pamphlets, which made his head spin”, and outlines of co-operative societies “about a universal exchange system which abolished money and based the whole of social life on the value of labour.”

All of these materials are lent to him by Souvarine, a Russian anarchist who fled his native land after a failed assassination against the Czar and who winds up playing a crucial role in the plot. Here Zola presents a contrast to Etienne’s humanistic collectivism, which is sincere in its moral outrage but theoretically flimsy and naive in its desire to overthrow the exploitative society through a spontaneous act of revolt. On the other hand, Souvarine is a hardened cynic who dismisses the potential of the strike as “nonsense” and, we are told, would rather see all of civilization razed to the ground if it meant the realization of freedom on earth. Yet he is also the much more studied on the two, at one point making casual reference to the iron law of wages.

Two other politically conscious characters play smaller roles. One is Rasseneur, a former worker at the mine who runs a pub that acts as the setting for some of the scenes where the clashes of ideologies take place. Unlike Etienne and Souvarine, Rasseneur sees to better the miners’ stake through gradual improvements and appeals to the bourgeoisie, and disavows political agitation as counterproductive. Fittingly, his views resemble the reformist, electoral politics of the “possibilist” movement, otherwise known as the Federation of the Socialist Workers of France (founded 1879). The other figure is Pluchart, a traveling organizer for the First International, who appears in Montsou upon Etienne’s invitation to provide the miners with membership, linking their cause to the larger movement. Pluchart, with his oratorical skills and political connections, represents the epitome of the revolutionary intellectual that Etienne wishes to become.

The International looms in the background of the narrative, with numerous characters referring to it as the savior of the workers’ cause and the definitive step toward a socialist utopia on earth. Yet while both Etienne and Rasseneur are members, Souvarine rejects it as “nonesense,” albeit with the qualification that “only one man could have turned their organization into a truly fearsome instrument of destruction” – Bakunin. “Under his leadership the International will have crushed the old order within three years.” At another point, Souvarine mentions that the politics of the International will be righted now that the anarchists are coming into power. This is a bit of artistic license on Zola’s part, since the novel is set some six years before the clash between the Marx-led socialists and the Bakunin-led anarchists at The Hague in 1872, and the Bakunists’ taking over the de facto leadership of the now-powerless International the following year.

On the whole, Zola’s portrayal of the 19th century mining community is utterly realistic, and   openly represents the difficulties that it would take for a mass-based socialist movement to organize the workers into a political force. Their wretched poverty has degraded them to such an extent that they have little concern for the lofty programmatic visions of a Proudhon or Fourier. For that reason, political discussion and the depiction of the clashing of different ideologies is rather limited, occurring in a few scenes and never unfolding in a satisfying way. None of the characters seem particularly fit to act as mouthpieces – Etienne is too unrefined, Souvarine too taciturn, Rasseneur too vain and self-absorbed. And whatever discussion of these ideas does occur stays within the walls of the pub, never being directed toward the laboring masses.

Yet Zola is unambiguous about the way history is headed. Even though the workers have little care for revolutionary political theory, the immediate circumstances that have led them to strike – reduced wages, dangerous working conditions, hunger – created the conditions under which their class consciousness could develop. And despite the failure of the strike,  their continuing grievances and this political awakening would lead to a new stage in the movement toward equality, up to the Paris Commune and beyond.

Social Science and Scientific Revolutions

Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, arguably the most influential work in the philosophy of science of the twentieth century, turned fifty this year. The anniversary is commemorated over at The New Atlantis with a good essay about the continuing importance of Kuhn for how we’ve come to think about science as an essentially social and disjointed process of discovery.

I won’t waste time here recapping Kuhn’s argument. Instead, as a social scientist in training, I want to briefly ruminate on whether his notion of science as an enterprise that proceeds in terms of paradigms and paradigm shifts can be applicable to our own field. In Structures Kuhn limited his historical examples to paradigm shifts in physics and chemistry, and did not provide much evidence for us to think that the search for paradigms in the social sciences (namely political science, economics, and sociology) was a worthwhile endeavor.

To quote the article:

What Kuhn noticed was that competing paradigms in physics never coexist for very long, and that progress in normal science occurs precisely when scientists work within only one paradigm. But the social sciences are a special kind of science, because they cannot set aside fundamental philosophical concerns as easily as the physical sciences. Moreover, the social sciences are defined by multiple paradigms that are sometimes mutually contradictory. Kuhn pointed out that some social sciences may never be able to enter the paradigmatic stage of normal science for that reason. Unlike physical scientists, social scientists generally cannot in the face of a disagreement revert to an agreed-upon exemplary solution to a problem; their controversies are precisely about what the exemplar ought to be.

And furthermore:

The social sciences could never hope to meet the high standards of empirical experimentation and verifiability that the influential school of thought called positivism demanded of the sciences. But Kuhn proposed a different standard, by which science is actually defined by a shared commitment among scientists to a paradigm wherein they refine and apply their theories. Although Kuhn himself denied the social sciences the status of paradigmatic science because of their lack of consensus on a dominant paradigm, social scientists argued that his thesis could still apply to each of those competing paradigms individually.

In my own field – political science – the question of the search for a paradigm has been one of the most important meta-theoretical issues looming in the background. Whether a paradigm had already been settled upon, was in the process of being discovered, or was impossible to find depended on who you asked, of course. Nevertheless, Kuhn’s idea in many ways became foundational for the self-image and self-representation of the social sciences.

But how can we speak of paradigms if the history of the social sciences tells us that competing and incompatible paradigms can coexist? Recall that the very idea of a paradigm shift in Kuhn’s sense of the term involved the replacement of one old paradigm by another when it could no longer answer the questions brought before it through the research process. Over the years a number of social science theories aspiring to the comprehensiveness of paradigms have come and gone (Marxism, systems theory/functionalism, neo-institutionalism, historical institutionalism, etc). Some have increased in popularity while others have fallen out of favor. Yet instead of discrediting each other outright, as Newtonian physics did to Aristotelian physics, or Darwin’s theory of natural selection to Lamarck’s theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, they continue to coexist in a sort of pragmatic truce, each looking at the same social phenomena through different points of view and thus providing different explanations.

Part of the reason for this willingness to put the ontological debate aside is that the theoretical controversies about differing approaches and assumptions regarding the causes of social change are not resolvable in and of themselves. Each taken alone can provide an internally consistent explanation of a particular phenomenon. Today, rather than debate the viability of one paradigm over another, the discipline of political science has settled for an eclectic, “mixed bag” approach, without truly resolving the ontological conflict that, in the modern social sciences, is based on the clash between neo-positivist and hermeneutic accounts of social reality. In other words, the suspension of the debate about paradigms has been one of practical necessity, in order to allow for research and the accumulation of knowledge to advance, rather than of philosophical certainty.

If this is the case, though, why use Kuhn’s language altogether? According to him, the accumulation of knowledge characteristic of “normal science” occurs after the shift in paradigmatic thinking. Yet if political scientists today have not settled on a paradigm, and look increasingly incapable of doing so, then to what extent can we say that knowledge accumulation is truly occurring? On one hand, we are certainly generating more and more scholarship explaining political and social phenomena. At the same time, we lack natural scientists’ abilities to test our findings through applied practice, since the social world is fundamentally mediated by language, making it responsive to any effort on science’s part to hermetically isolate particular phenomena for the purpose of developing parsimonious, “clean” theories. While aerodynamic engineers can easily gain concrete evidence that their theories are incorrect when the plane they design does not stay in the air, social scientists and policy-oriented researchers can never approach that degree of clarity about “what works” and what doesn’t.

Therefore, it seems that the appropriation of Kuhn’s theory into the social sciences resulted more from the latter’s desire to imitate the natural sciences and ground its own disciplinary status more firmly, rather than a careful understanding of Kuhn’s (admittedly evasive) argument. The fact that competing paradigms can exist and thrive alongside each other should be reason enough for us to be cautious about seeking to grasp the social world with the same ontological assumptions held by natural scientists. While the replacement of one paradigm with another in the natural sciences can indicate a progression of knowledge – at the very least in the sense that we can more effectively control the world around us through technology – the fact that we in the social sciences have not even reached consensus on a paradigm, and indeed have to bracket away this question in order to develop our research agendas, raises serious doubts about whether the social sciences can ever be thought of as paradigm-friendly fields of study.

C. Wright Mills and The Power Elite revisited

The New Left Project recently ran a series of articles revisiting C. Wright Mills’s life and writings, especially focusing on his 1956 classic The Power Elite. Included are new contributions from Steven Lukes and Stanley Aronowitz, as well as old ones by Ralph Miliband and Mills himself.

I first read The Power Elite as a first-year grad student at The New School. Back then I was inspired by Mills’s effortless and shearing analysis of American society, even while having reservations about some of the more theoretical assumptions behind his approach (for example, arguably his reliance on Weberian elite theory rather than Marxian class analysis).

With that book, Mills also made a significant contribution to the debate on power within the social sciences, in contrast with the reductive behavioralism dominant in the academy at the time. Although this was not made explicit in the book, in order for his theory of the power elite to hold, the exercise of power could not simply be understood as visible coercion. Instead, the power of the elites permeated American society in a much deeper way, manifesting itself covertly through influence, status, and ideology. In this way, Mills anticipated the arguments about the “third face of power” made by Lukes nearly twenty years later.

Even more admirable, though, was Mills’s commitment to the notion that intellectual activity was not simply a good in and for itself, but had a role to play in public life. He was one of the last great American men of letters – a public intellectual who rejected the conservative, consensus-driven politics of the early Cold War years in favor of a radicalism that could be put to use in deepening democracy. It is a shame that he did not live just a few years longer to see it come to life in the spirit of 1968.

Richard Wolff and David Harvey on the capitalist crisis


Predictably, at one point Rose tries to take the debate into red baiting territory, pressing Harvey on whether he thinks Cuba is the political-economic ideal he is striving for, talking over him and barely letting Harvey explain his position. Still, it is great to see some of the alternative ideas represented in Wolff’s and Harvey’s work receive some time in the national media spotlight. Now if only the folks at MSNBC came calling…