Gabriel Kuhn Reviews “The Communist Necessity”

communistnecessityfrom the Alpine Anarchist website:

Those who visit this site more regularly will have noticed that for an anarchist project we have devoted a fair amount of attention to publications stemming from other leftist traditions. There are several reasons for this: 1. We have always seen ourselves as part of a broader left. 2. We’re convinced more than ever that a united left is necessary to combat the threats of neoliberalism and neofascism. 3. Despite often grandiose rhetoric, there simply isn’t all that much exciting anarchist material out there when it comes to the crucial question of how to actually transform society in radical ways. So, the latest addition to our articles exploring the anarchist/communist boundaries is a review of J. Moufawad-Paul’s book The Communist Necessity, published by the great folks at Montreal’s Kersplebedeb and equipped with a subtitle that leaves no concerns about false modesty: “prolegomena to any future radical theory.” Right on!

Essentially, JMP’s 160-page treatise is a scathing critique of “movementism”, which he reckons has been dominating the activist milieu in the global North since the late 1990s and which he describes as “the assumption that specific social movements, sometimes divided along lines of identity or interest, could reach a critical mass and together, without any of that Leninist nonsense, end capitalism” (9). Heading in a different direction, JMP demands a clear commitment to communism. Make no mistake, though: not as a “hypothesis” (Alain Badiou) or a “horizon” (Jodi Dean), but as a “necessity”, meaning “the need to organize in a manner that goes beyond the infantile methods of movementism” (12). What is at stake is “to ask the most important question … which is a question of necessity: how do we find our way back to the road of communist revolution?” (66)

Against movementism

There is plenty to appreciate in JMP’s account:

  • The critique of a “movementism” that still uses the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle as a mythological reference point, that celebrates weaknesses as strengths, and that indulges in a euphoria that is as self-referential as it is misguided, is mandatory.
  • It is encouraging to have someone take the big intellectual figureheads of the recent communist revival to task by pointing out the “refusal to reclaim communism in more than name” (20), as it is demonstrated by writers ranging from Slavoj Žižek to the Tiqqun collective. (It is also nice to see a non-anarchist confirm that the approach of these folks “tells us nothing more significant than what anarchists have been preaching since Bakunin” (87) – something we have addressed on this site before, even if from a different angle.)
  • Contending that many of today’s radicals “are willing to settle for reformism and pretend it is revolution” (10) summarizes the main problem of contemporary activism.
  • It is more than justified to call out First World activists for largely ignoring the mass uprisings that have occurred under the name of communism since the fall of the Iron Curtain two-and-a-half decades ago, most notably the Maoists rise to power in Nepal. In JMP’s words: “Why self-proclaimed communists become annoyed when some of us speak of these actual revolutionary movements, complaining that they have heard enough about people’s wars, and yet become excited with every doomed uprising or moribund populism, should make us wonder.” (147)
  • Finally, the book contains some real literary treats, like the following observation about the oh-so-popular notion of intersectionality: “Theories of ‘intersectionality’ were most often banal, merely a recognition of the fact that multiple moments of oppression and exploitation, including economic class, intersect. Simply noting the possibility of intersection, though, is not an analysis; it is an ineffectual truism.” (79)

As far as JMP’s critique goes, the only problem I have concerns a certain reductionism with regard to poststructuralist theory. While it is true that such theory has a) become increasingly popular since the supposed “end of communism” marked by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and that it has b) taken on forms that are intellectually as embarrassing as they are politically irrelevant (or worse), it must not be forgotten that poststructuralist theory was originally developed as a response to the failure of France’s orthodox left to seize the revolutionary moment of 1968 (that is, long before the end of the Soviet Union), and largely by folks who were not just academics but militants in left-wing political struggles (Guattari, Foucault, Lyotard, and others). Besides, both Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus and Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy were crucial contributions to a radical analysis of capitalism – which remains underestimated even among those who champion their work, as they are usually more interested in throwing around big words than in radical analysis.

For the Revolution

Admittedly, I have more concerns when it comes to the alternatives to movementism hinted at by JMP. The following are the main ones.

1) The Communist Necessity

Despite JMP arguing passionately for communism, we never get to know what he actually means by it. We learn that “communism is … a necessity produced by the logic of capitalism” (26), that “communism as a revolutionary tradition never did go away” (21), and that “the word communism remains and will always be re-proclaimed and reasserted as long as capitalism remains” (23). None of this, however, tells us much about the society that JMP envisions.

Unfortunately, JMP’s understanding of the term “necessity” remains equally unclear. It is not enough to point out that Engels already spoke of “necessity” in the Anti-Dühring to present a convincing argument. It is also odd to stress that communism “is a necessity because otherwise capitalism, due to its intrinsic logic, will devour existence” (25), while at the same time claiming that the communist necessity “is more than an ethical necessity: it is an historical and material necessity” (26). Either it is a necessity whether we like or not, or we need to make it one. It appears that JMP gets trapped in the traditional conundrums of historical materialism. This might explain why he retreats to the rhetorical hyperbole of postmodernism here, despite castigating it otherwise: “We must speak of a necessary communism grounded in the unfolding of history, a communism that is simultaneously in continuity with and in rupture from the past, a communism that is always a new return.” (23) This is peculiar language for someone demanding theory that aims at “arming the masses with an ideology capable of producing revolution” (89).

While “communist necessity” does indeed beat notions such as “communist hypothesis” or “communist horizon” by shifting the focus from the comfortable and boring realms of academia to struggles on the ground, it, too, is little more than a rhetorical figure if not filled with material substance. After finishing JMP’s book, the question I have is the same I have every time I read Badiou or Dean: “Yes, this stuff about communism is all fine, but how on earth are we going to create it!?

2) People’s Wars

Throughout The Communist Necessity, JMP stresses the need to liberate communism from the sphere of pretty fairy tales and return to the real world: “To speak of communism as a necessity … is to focus on the concrete world and ask what steps are necessary to make it a reality.” (31) JMP rejects writing that will never “matter to the masses” (71) and that is “alien to those people, the wretched of the earth, who are still fighting for the end of capitalism” (87). He demands texts “representing the world from below” (73).

This sounds promising. Unfortunately, I don’t find too many traces of concreteness in JMP’s book. A handful of movements are named that have launched “people’s wars” since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but I’m afraid I don’t find these examples very convincing.

The first reason is minor, but I do get confused about the timeline. The Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) in Peru, the Naxalites in India, and the Communist Party of the Philippines launched their campaigns well before the end of the Soviet Union, and the Communist (Maoist) Party of Afghanistan’s is still only a prospect. This seems to leave the Nepalese Maoists as the only genuine sample. But even with a generous interpretation, I’m not sure how these five movements would ever constitute “a storm of people’s wars that began in 1988” (143).

More importantly, the list is so short that it recalls exceptions confirming the rule rather than any “storm”, no matter the timeline. It is particularly curious that, while eagerly pointing out the existence of “contemporary people’s wars” (13), JMP makes no mention of the fact that even “at the peripheries of global capitalism” (where he locates these wars, 99) their number has declined dramatically since the 1960s and 1970s. Why? It seems that a book trying to drive home the point that “communism has remained a vital necessity for individuals and movements living at the margins of both the world system” (21) would need to account for this.

Most importantly, we lack any critical engagement with the term “people’s war”. Such an engagement might not be required by Maoists, but if JMP wants to reach anyone outside of his circles, it would be helpful. Most contemporary wars launched in the name of the people are based on outright reactionary ideologies rather than on emancipatory ones. Of course, it’s easy for Maoists to say that these wars lack a defining characteristic of a people’s war, namely the support of the people. However, is it really any different for the examples used by JMP, particularly those outside of Nepal? Proclaiming a people’s war and fighting one is not the same. Furthermore, does any people’s war really guarantee steps towards a world “in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”, as the Manifesto of the Communist Party professes? There are bigger dangers involved in revolutions failing than us being “catastrophically wrenched back into the nightmare of the present” (155). The outcome of a poorly timed and ill-prepared revolution can be an even more catastrophic return to fascist and barbaric regimes.

There are many questions that need to be addressed when speaking of “people’s wars”: Is communist rhetoric used as a front, or are communist values implemented in practice? Are the movements corrupted by internal power struggles? How do they differ from the many nominally communist liberation movements in the colonized nations of the past that, upon victory, did anything but implement communism? None of these questions – and similar ones – are raised in the book.

3) Dinner Parties

There is a tendency in JMP’s writing to measure the success and failure of revolutions simply by whether they were able to seize power or not. It’s as if neither the process nor the consequences of seizing power matters. I assume it is implied in JMP’s reasoning that any critique of this equals liberal moralism, but I guess I just have to take the risk.

In a section entitled “Puritanism”, JMP states that “there is a reason that the Zapatistas have received sainthood while the Sendero Luminoso has not” (46). His conclusion is that the Zapatistas “did not walk the same path of revolutionary necessity that is often tragic and brutal” (47). Be it as it may, it can’t be denied that the Zapatistas have made a conscious decision not to walk this path. They reckon that the tragedy and brutality involved might not be worth it, unless a better future is guaranteed; or that, in fact, a better future can’t be guaranteed precisely because of the tragedy and, especially, the brutality involved. Now, even if you don’t agree, you can’t simply accuse those embracing such principles of having “a desire for a political purity free from the taint of necessity”. (47) Despite all of its possible weaknesses – and despite the Zapatistas functioning as a projection surface for modern-day First World revolutionary romantics – it is a rationale serious enough to at least deserve acknowledgment.

But let’s return to the “revolutionary necessity” embraced by the Sendero Luminoso. According to JMP, this entails embarking on a path “where there will always be mistakes, where the problem of differing class morality produces ethical confusion, where failure is more spectacular with each heightened level of struggle” (47). This might be true, but it doesn’t mean that all mistakes are justifiable. Yes, if you dig in the ground you get your hands dirty, but that doesn’t mean you can’t wear gloves or wash from time to time. Heading down the right path – if that’s what it really is – doesn’t ensure that you’ll travel heroically, and an offhand remark about Mao suggesting that “revolution is not a dinner party” (31) doesn’t change that. In the worst case, it can easily be interpreted as a free moral pass. I think it’d be good to at least also reference the numerous passages in which Mao and other theorists of people’s wars stress the necessity of revolutionary discipline and of preventing moral degeneration. Any revolutionary movement has to take these tasks seriously.

One more thing: I understand that you can counter the argument that portraying the revolution as “tragic and brutal” doesn’t necessarily make it attractive by stating that people just need to face reality. I’m not sure if it’s a good argument, but it can be made. However, why would you accept it from someone who also says that “the act of making communism a reality is generally unpleasant – but so is reality” (30)? I mean, honestly, when it comes to creating a better world, do you want to put your trust into the hands of someone who declares reality to be unpleasant no matter what? Call me a hippie, but if it’s all gloom anyway, why bother with communist necessities and people’s wars? We might as well hold hands and light candles.

4) Ortho-Communists

In the chapter “New Returns”, JMP states the following: “Many of us can easily recall those ortho-communists who frequent activist demonstrations, actions, teach-ins, and panels. Missionaries of a communism that belongs to the first two decades of the 20th century, these tragic individuals deliver the same interventions and denunciations at every event where they are permitted to speak” (110). These ortho-communists are also referred to as “fringe dogmatists” (110) and “marxist conservatives” (112). Meanwhile, JMP clarifies that The Communist Necessity “is not arguing for a return to a communism that is unaware of the developments of social and theoretical struggle that have taken place since the end of the 1980s” (108), that “we should not fetishize the possibility of perfect repetition” (109), and that there is “no pure communist theory” (109).

I assume that this is JMP’s way of clarifying that he is neither a missionary nor dogmatic or conservative. That’s good to know, and I wouldn’t have assumed otherwise. Then again, given that I hardly know any radical who readily claims any of these qualities, it doesn’t say all that much. Just like in the case of a commitment to communism, a bit more substance is needed to make the declarations meaningful. For example, how exactly does JMP’s vision of “anti-revisionist communisms” (72) differ from “an old return to communism as a return that is ultimately conservative” (111)? I don’t think it helps when JMP condemns an “obsession with an imaginary stalinism” (68) or “every lie promoted about the late Soviet Union or the pre-Deng Communist China and their supposed crimes against humanity” (98). Even though I understand the urge to oppose simplistic theories of totalitarianism that put an equals sign between everything outside of the capitalist-parliamentarian order, I’m not sure if using phrases such as the above contributes to shedding the image of “tragic communist conservatives” (112). I’m also not sure whether JMP doesn’t fall into the traps of postmodern discourse once again when explaining his own, non-dogmatic, approach: “The concept of necessity explains why this is the case: encounters with historical necessity demand that we establish ruptural truths in continuity with an unfolding truth procedure.” (109) Nebulous Badiou instead of scientific Engels after all?

5) Ideological Lines

In a section entitled “Sectarianism”, JMP dismisses “the shibboleth of sectarianism” as “one of the common excuses for endorsing the most banal forms of movementist praxis” (51). He underlines the need to draw “ideological line struggles”, since “the maoist is not identical to the trotskyist; the marxist is not identical to the anarchist” (57). Fine. However, this is as much an “ineffectual truism” as the insistence on everything being connected with everything else (see above). Yes, a Marxist is not an anarchist, but the question is: what are the consequences of emphasizing this? To draw ideological lines can mean to sort out one’s differences in order to enable constructive collaboration. It can also mean to get one’s rifles in order to start shooting each other. JMP doesn’t spell out what he has in mind, but he makes it clear that “part of the communist necessity is to draw political lines of demarcation and to understand, in this moment of drawing, the forces of revolution and counter-revolution” (57-58). But isn’t the necessary revolutionary brutality usually unleashed against the agents of counter-revolution? So where does this put, for example, “anarchists from middle-class suburbs” (62)? Or any anarchist, for that matter? It’d be an exaggeration to say that I’m afraid of JMP (after all, we live on different continents), but, being caught in the wrong mood, martial announcements like these can leave me feel a little uneasy.

Conclusion

As stated above, here at AAP we readily admit that anarchism has no answers to the most pressing political questions of our time. This is why we enjoy looking at the suggestions coming from other leftist traditions. Sometimes, we discover things we consider interesting and inspiring, like JMP’s spot-on critique of movementism. Other times, we don’t. At the end of the day, we are all searching. What seems crucial is not to give in to postmodern cynicism (here I wholeheartedly agree with JMP), but to engage in what truly is a necessary debate if we refuse to give up the quest of destroying capitalism. The Communist Necessity is an important contribution to this debate, and anyone interested in the revolutionary potentials and pitfalls of our time should read it and join in. Even if nothing else comes of it, it is always good to know which side of the ideological line to stand on when the shit hits the fan. Better safe than sorry!

Gabriel Kuhn
(Sep 2014)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *