Three critical intellectuals, Patrice COHEN-SÉAT, Roger MARTELLI and Jean-Louis SAGOT-DUVAUROUX, talk about the word and the concept “communism”. This term is the object of much controversy and passion, being as it is historically and politically highly charged and remaining an important reference for many of those who are active in movements for human emancipation in France – for some of them it is represents a fundamental identity. For our journal, Patrick COULON, with the help of Chantal DELMAS1 met with the three and asked each of them what they understand by the word communism and how they connect it to conceptions of alternative and emancipation.
They went more deeply into the question, asking the three whether they thought the concept is still operational, how they analyse the nearly global failure of those who relate to it, and whether they could outline the approaches to solutions they envisage in the area of social and emancipatory transformation.
Patrice Cohen-Séat: “The Historical Account” The word “communism” cannot be separated from an historical account. It necessarily refers to a collection of historical events, to the history of political regimes and forces that claimed to be communist. This historical experience dominates the current meaning of this concept, for the way the word itself is perceived nowadays. It is massively coloured by the failure of Soviet-type regimes. And it also refers, in a problematic way, to regimes like that of China, which still calls itself communist.
On the other hand, in a country like France – where there never was a communist regime – the engagement of those who claim to be communist always responds to a desire to fight against injustice, a struggle which was enriched through political experience, finally to become an engagement for human emancipation, that is, against everything that alienates human beings. Practically, communism is that which leads people to question the existing order, the capitalist system itself, and finally all forms of exploitation and domination. Therefore, there is a break, and even a deep contradiction, between that which led, and continues to lead, thousands of men and women toward this kind of engagement and the way the society generally now, globally, takes in the word. Fundamentally, there is a contradiction between the meaning of this word in society in general and the meaning given to it by activists who identify with it. This is a major political problem in France today.
In other countries, because communism has been compromised, because its sense has been negatively loaded by history, the very word has been excommunicated. The problem is that it has not been substituted by another word retaining its positive sense. In political life, the word is the bearer of the project of overcoming the capitalist system and of the ambition of human emancipation. And it inscribes this project in a representation of reality, in a representation of history which is the history of class struggle. Politically, it cannot be separated from the issue of social classes and consequently from the consciousness they have of themselves. It places in the centre of political life the need to unify the proletariat and therefore to gather together the exploited and dominated. The word “communism” connotes a particular objective (human emancipation) and carries with it a representation of the necessary path of emancipation (class struggle). However, on a political level no other word has assumed this position: one could say that there is a breakdown of words. This is one of the dimensions, or symptoms, of what is called the crisis (or death) of ideologies.
I would add that if the meaning has been heavily burdened, the word is a product of history, and every force claiming to be communist has its share of responsibility. In France, the relationships the Communist Party had with Soviet-type regimes, the delay and, until 1991, even hesitation, in criticising these regimes, and in going beyond the condemnation of Stalinism, played a great part in the public image of this party and of communism itself. In any case, here political work is necessary: not only thoroughly to critique the experiences which once claimed to be communist and those that continue to do so, but also to critique the reasons why we French Communists were so slow and reluctant to do this work.
On one hand, “communism” is globally associated with the old movement for justice and freedom. I would like to say, as Jacques Bidet did, the movement for “equaliberty”, because it is impossible, unlike in the liberalist vulgate, to think of equality and liberty separately... With this struggle in mind, it is possible, of course, to go way back in time, even before use of the word “communism”.
On the other hand, “communism” takes on another sense, in particular from the middle of the 19th century, when capitalism became the dominant social-economic system, the matrix of the universal organisation of social relations. From this moment, communism begins to act like a global political movement, claiming to be a radical critique of the dominant system. It becomes a movement critical of capitalism, with a worker base, inscribed into the terrain of politics in particular with the founding moment of 1848 and the Manifesto of the Communist Party.
At the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, “communism” designates a special political formation, crystallised after 1917 in the form of an explicit communist movement. The Bolshevik model becomes a massively recognised point of reference, the theoretical and practical matrix for the constitution of 20th-century “communist parties”.
Finally, from 1917, and of course even more after 1945, “communism” presents itself as an comprehensive conception of economic and social management. It becomes a social model, through the various avatars of sovietism. For decades then, communism comes to be identified predominantly with this social model.
Communism is all that. To be a communist today means first of all to choose to inscribe oneself in a specific history in all of its dimensions. Communism is not an idea or a vague ideal from which a reality could be deduced. It is an historical political movement whose originality could be summed up in four affirmations.
- The first affirmation is that capitalism is not the end of history, but only a particularly sophisticated form of exploitative and oppressive society. A historical, hence transitory, configuration whose radical overcoming must be actively conceived. To be a communist is first of all to think that it is at once just and realistic to adopt the perspective of a society operating according to other norms, other rules and logic different from those of capitalism.
- The second is to say that for this alternative social dynamic to emerge, a revolution is necessary. No equaliberty is possible inside the present system. One cannot adapt to the system: one has to escape from it and think “beyond” the prevailing system. The shape taken by this revolution
- abolition-overcoming has to be concretely defined; it cannot be mechanically deduced from its necessity, but this necessity is a fundamental given.
- The third affirmation: none of this happens within the realm of ideas. To change the world, material and spiritual forces able to do it are needed. From the 19th century on, modern political communism is based on the idea that this material force is created in the major historical form of industrial labour, that is, it is rooted in the realm of workers. Revolution does not come from “above” but is made by the people; the modern people is built on its proletarian base, so said Marx and Engels.
- And finally, the last affirmation: all of this needs to be constructed inside political space. That means that if communism wants at any time to affect the world, it has to constitute itself as a political force, as a “communist party”.
At the dawn of the 21st century, communism remains as relevant as ever – and even, in some respects, more relevant than it was century and a half ago. Therefore I continue to claim these historical roots in order to think through the social struggle and the work of emancipation. But at the same time, this relevance cannot hide the fact that it was in the 20th century that attempts were made to transform communism into a concrete – not only imagined – alternative to the existing world order and the order of capital. And thus one cannot think about the current premise of communism without starting from the historical failure of this attempt at a concrete realisation, illustrated in particular by the emergence and establishment of sovietism. Twentieth-century communism assumed a dominant form, which included a conception of society and its subversion, of the form assumed by revolution and of the form of the communist party itself. This conception was valid for a period that is now over. The world in which we now live is the same as, and yet drastically different from, the world which saw, one and a half centuries ago, the modern emergence and formulation of communist thinking on a Marxist basis.
I cannot separate the affirmation of a persisting relevance from the conviction that it is absolutely necessary today to discover the forms that will allow the communist premise to implant itself in the actually existing order. I am even inclined to think that we have come to one of those historical moments in which, for the history of communism, its continuation cannot be thought of other than in terms of a break with its formerly dominant form of existence. Political communism has no future unless it breaks with the historical matrix of communism.
Contrary to the recurrent temptations, the break will not occur by “going back to”. It was not enough to go back to Lenin in order to overcome Stalinism; it is not enough to go back to Marx to overcome bolshevism. The founding premise of the Marxian moment remains intellectually relevant if, and only if, it is able completely to refound itself. A completely new re-foundation means rethinking, at any given moment, the intellectual foundations, the practical driving forces and the organisational forms which allow us to conceive today, in the new framework, the communist contribution to the common struggle for emancipation. We have to rethink the framework of an emancipatory movement that can no longer be reduced to the reference to a revolutionary labour movement or even just to anti-capitalism. I believe it useful to conceive of a genuinely “communist” contribution to this general emancipatory movement. A contribution is not nothing ... but it is not everything.
A first remark: I completely agree with an idea expressed by Patrice and by Roger: communism is a history, a concrete history. We cannot separate the communist ideal from what actually happened. If someone calls himself a communist, he is, above all, part of a lineage.
Second remark: as Roger said, there is a conviction continuously expressed in modern communist history: capitalist rule is not the end of history. We can define liberalism as the exact opposite political option: whatever liberty is possible is obtained only through western representative democracy, freedom of the market, the capitalist form of organising production, and western governance of the world. At best, it is possible to complete this success, lead Iraq to an electoral, multiparty system, promote the development of peoples such that they “catch up” to western consumption levels, standardise the world economy by detecting any threat to “free and fair” competition, normalise the world economy by hunting down any situation in which “free” competition is challenged... In the liberalist view, every attempt to accomplish a step forward in the history of human emancipation turns to its opposite and diminishes liberty. Liberalism bases its influence on a very solid argument: all concrete attempts to overcome this end of history have been completely unconvincing, especially as far as liberty is concerned. For this reason the liberal postulate is massively shared, often even regretfully.
Third remark: beyond the failure of sovietism, I believe that one of the major weaknesses of our communist lineage is that it was not able to see its relative character, that it saw itself as the unique, universal, legitimate form of human emancipation.
The full reality is more modest and perhaps more beautiful. Men and women – mostly men, mostly workers living in a part of the world – the West – at a certain time in western history, the moment of industrialisation, are moved by the desire for emancipation and they come up against a concrete obstacle blocking their path, a concrete alienation: the universalisation of capitalist power. They then think: we are going to free ourselves of these alienations which confront us concretely. And they go further. They invent organisational forms for this. They work out high-level theorisations, for example Marxism which offers a luminous analysis of capitalism and the oppressions it engenders. They build institutions and political processes which seem to be able to break through these constraints. They make values come to life, especially those radiating from the idea of the “common”, creating the idea that escaping from the liberal enclosure of history means pushing liberty forward to what is to be commonly shared, that is, to equality. And, indeed, we all see that liberalism puts a stop to the history of liberty at the very point where it begins to produce equality.
All of this means that we can say without hesitation: this history of emancipation, led by a white, mostly male, working class inscribed within western history and culture offers something really solid to put into the common pot if we want today to reopen the adventure of liberty. Nevertheless, the communist story cannot present itself as the universality of emancipation. It has to be ready to speak with others. We could take the enlightening example of feminism, which produces theory and organisational forms completely different from those invented by the western working class in opposition to capitalism. There we have a history that is an authentic step forward for emancipation, yet not inscribed in the communist lineage, even if the two often cross. The same could be said of the massive appearance of non-western emancipatory lineages, which are more evident now with globalisation. The centres of emancipation are plural and diverse because it is always concrete human collectivities which face constraints that are themselves also diverse. For a long time, the communist lineage fought against theorisations and organisational forms which did not accept its supremacy. Many of its aberrations are linked to this blindness.
In order to allow the communist contribution to become positive again, or continue to be, it seems to be that it needs to accept the idea that communism is only one of the lineages making up the emancipatory movement. In my opinion, this orientation could be a real tonic for this history, but it is clear that it will considerably alter its further course.
I wear the communist identity for the concrete reason that I belong to this lineage and because it is useful to throw one’s own innovations into the common pot. But I consider this lineage only one of the currents of a broader movement, the trend toward emancipation, the trend to autonomy… Communists share this political conviction with others, who run up concretely against oppression and want to reduce it. Communists bring to this movement the emancipatory heritage of the western working classes engaged against capitalist oppression. Their point of view, in an optical sense, may claim to bring a certain wide view of our world and its emancipation. But, it is not the only possible view of emancipation, because other look-out posts have been set up in different places.
Communism, as a very concrete political history, is in a deep crisis. One of the major causes of this crisis is the failure, and even the collapse, of the experiences that claimed to be communist. But, more broadly speaking, this crisis results from the obsolescence of the (Bolshevik) matrix which inspired and supported them, a matrix, (theoretically, ideologically, politically), which was itself the result of a specific state of society. The political history of communism today cannot be separated from a period – the 20th century, and specifically its first half – shaped by the development of the working class. And I use this word in a precise sense: the men (more than women, it must be said) who performed material work tied to the machine tool. There is no class struggle without classes, obviously. And it was during this specific period that this specific working class was at the heart of the struggle. And if I say “class” I am by definition not speaking of a “socio-professional category”, I am speaking of men and women who have access to the consciousness of the community or a convergence of interests in the face of opposing or contradictory interests of other social categories. The ideological matrix of 20th- century communism is totally linked to the existence and the development of this class, to the representation this class could have of itself, of its future (it was to be the movement of the immense majority) and of its role. The struggle was therefore organised around this class’s main interests, above all in relation to the way it confronted capitalist exploitation, the capital/labour relation (and not all the other dimensions of the struggles necessary for human emancipation) becoming the hard core of communist militancy. Thus there emerged a conception and representation of social transformation structured by the interests of the working class, the party of the working class, this class’s vanguard role, and a specific conception of social transformation: revolution, the role of the state, planned economy...
However, this matrix was not in fact able to stand up to history. Not only were there the crimes of Stalinism, the hyper-statist regimes and the infringements of liberties of which Roger spoke; the reality itself on which this conception was built changed. Work was transformed, society was transformed, the international division of labour was transformed, capitalism became financialised and globalised; the so-called computer revolution occurred... The social categories directly exploited by capital became broader to the point that they represent nearly 90% of society in a developed country like France and other European countries, but class consciousness was profoundly weakened. The huge variety of situations, even within the very working class itself, and all the more so in the whole complex of wage earners, created differences in interest and even contradictions: French citizens/foreigners, unemployed/employed, precarious or otherwise, and so on... Thus, political work aimed at unifying and gathering together the victims of exploitation and domination has become immeasurably more complicated. It is in this deeply transformed reality, beyond the fortunes and misfortunes of the experiences which claimed to be communist, that we locate the necessity of a real break with the conceptions stemming from the Bolshevik matrix.
Giving a future to the immense hope associated with communism means working in the political sphere – the area which connects representation to real movements and mobilisations – in conditions of a new class consciousness. That means basing oneself on the current forms of exploitation and domination so that women and men become conscious of their communities of interest and come together politically. This can no longer be limited to the working class. It can no longer solely concern the capital/labour relation, even if work remains one of the central sites of exploitation and domination.One could say – as in Jean-Louis’s thesis – that communism, because that is its history, concerns this capital/labour relation and that, therefore communism is one of the tributaries of the big river of all the struggles for human emancipation.
One could – as Roger does – assign to communism the role of thinking and organising all the present dimensions of emancipatory struggle. I won’t say “it makes no difference”, because words do have great importance in political life – especially those as weighty as “communism”. Therefore, investigating the use of this word is a political debate of the greatest importance. But I would say that the essence, the core of the difficulty which we are confronting today, is to ask how we can come together, how we can unify, and thus create the conditions for the consciousness of a community of interest of the men and women who are concretely exploited and dominated, in order to allow them to struggle against today’s capitalism, which is financialised, globalised and increasingly militarised.
The twentieth century was dominated by “one” specific conception of communism, the conception which integrates social dynamics, revolution, revolutionary transformation and the political form that makes possible this transformation/revolution. That is to say the party form: “the communist party”, or simply “the party”. I think that today any communist thinking should start from the understanding that this direction is foreclosed. Communism of the 20th century is irremediably dead, and it is useless to make believe that it can continue or be revived. This is the starting point.
All thought of communism is a thought about emancipation. It is not possible to think of communism today without evaluating as fully as possible the emancipatory conceptions which failed. There are certain emancipatory conceptions which failed in the 20th century and, in particular, two such conceptions that established prerequisites, as it were, for emancipation. These two prerequisites were seizing political power and the transfer of property. However, the experience of the 20th century teaches us that it is not enough to do the opposite of capitalism to overcome it. For instance: the transfer of property, without changing the logic of dispossession, does not engender emancipation, but possibly creates over-domination, even at times despotism. A logic that is the logic of taking political power, if it does not subvert political power and does not accomplish a radical destruction of state domination – as Marxism always said in theory without ever having implemented it practically … or more precisely, forgot each time it took power … – produces despotism, not emancipation. Therefore, at a certain moment, this logic contradicts that of emancipation, and contradicts the possibility of overcoming capitalism. It is not enough to abolish or to reverse capitalism to produce human emancipation. We know that. Consequently, we must reconstruct, i.e. refound in a profound way.
To reconstruct, I think that we must leave behind a kind of thinking I would call “essentialist”. It is useless to ask the general question: “what is communism” and then go on to envisage its modalities of concrete existence. In fact, it is best to start from what underlies the communist premise. The central thread is the demand for emancipation; what could be meant today, in the 21st century, by a politics of comprehensive emancipation of all individuals, as autonomous individuals and as solidary individuals, i.e. as a human collectivity, as humanity? The most important thing is to reconstruct emancipatory projects, knowing that this means breaking with any logic of adaptation to the dominant capitalist system. There can be no emancipation within this system. The 20th century was unable to exit from this system while producing “equaliberty”. It also showed that there is no lasting justice possible within simple accommodation to capitalist norms and those of free and fair competition.
On a political level, the best strategy today on a European scale is to make viable the premise of consistent emancipation – meaning the break with any logic of adaptation to the system. Will the premise of emancipation, of radical social transformation, prevail or not on the left, in Europe and in the whole world? Will the logic of transformation, at a certain moment, penetrate the whole left and thence the European political area? That is the question of questions.
Within this framework – I repeat: within this framework – is there a place for a lineage that would be explicitly communist? I am inclined to think that there is. It remains useful to envisage a genuinely communist lineage which is able, on its own basis, to assimilate what has been a history of creativity and stagnation, noble conquests and mortal tragedies. All those things can be assimilated, critiqued, overcome, but cannot be forgotten. Turning one’s back on history does not annul it.
Does this mean that this lineage should be structured in separate formations, taking the shape of separate organisations, of separate communist parties? I don’t think so anymore. Communists should be organised inside thinking and acting collectives and consequently see the whole as a “communist party”. But there is nothing to prevent this “communist party” today from being thought within a larger political movement, in which it assumes the functions of a party, but brings together diverse sensibilities, traditions and currents. Inside this force, communists have their own place as communists; they do not necessarily need to assert themselves in the form of a distinct partisan structure.
For centuries, a tendency to autonomy has denied God, the prince, the nature of things or any other power the role of imposing a model of our societal life. For centuries, human beings have come together to ask themselves the political question: in what kind of society do we want to live, what kind of human beings do we want to be? The emancipatory point of view indicates a direction: I want to be a freer human being. I want to live in a more autonomous society.
All the other considerations, in particular questions of organisation, are secondary to the meaning, the concrete content, of emancipation. For instance, I believe that we should not define ourselves by “anti-capitalism” or by any other “anti”. We want to continue the history of liberty and we come up against a concrete obstacle on our route: capitalism. Capitalism imprisons our time in subjugated forms of activity. It grants the rich free access to goods; it steals the fruit of our labour; it chains our minds to a consumerist thrall, etc. And we, because we want to free all human activity and create free access to goods, be the masters of the wealth we produce, free ourselves from commodity alienation, we confront this obstacle and invent emancipatory institutions or movements likely to replace it. The assertion that capitalism is bad by its very nature seems senseless to me... If this were so, destroying capitalism would “in itself” be emancipatory. There are several historical examples illustrating the contrary. The early communists had already recognised that capitalism was certainly bad for the exploited, but very desirable for the class that profited from it. We have to go further, to recognise that capitalism and liberalism today correspond to a political conviction held by the absolute majority of the people, and that to contest capitalism and liberalism means presenting an opposing conviction, and then politically convincing as many people as possible that this alternative conviction outlines a way of living together that is possible and desirable.
To determine the appropriate organisational form for communists, or more broadly for the emancipatory movement, we have first to identify the frontiers where some degree of emancipation is possible, where some liberty is attainable, beyond the liberalist enclosure. The communist lineage has much to bring to this critical work. Once, the very word “communism” was identified with very ambitious libertarian goals which are now nearly forgotten but remain astonishingly evocative. In the face of the subordination of wage-earners and the exploitation of labour: abolition of the wage system, liberation of human activity. Against state coercion: withering away of the state, liberty. Against power from above: free association. Against commodity fetishism: unencumbered use of the goods we would like to enjoy. However, this contrasts to the way these aims are inscribed into the “real movement that abolishes the current state of things”. We have seen communists in the first ranks of activism around shortening of obligatory work-time (cf. abolition of the wage system), of the resistance against the extreme armed force of the Nazis (cf. withering away of the state), of the struggle for free access to medical care (cf. ”to each according to his needs”). However, we have also seen them building very coercive states, governing societies characterised by great paucity of goods or celebrating work as a religion.
Therefore, identifying the frontiers where emancipation is possible and desirable is not sufficient. We need to add to this a radical critique of the beliefs and the practices which led to turning emancipatory aims into their opposite. We have to discern the political, ideological and organisational conditions of effective emancipation. I have addressed this essential aspect at length in the second part of the text “Émancipation” (to appear in La Dispute 09/08). It is impossible to weaken the common sense produced by the liberalist option without following our work to its conclusion.
Will the communist lineage survive? It still exists and it is the only sector that can bring to the emancipatory movement the rich and varied heritage of this lineage. It is a player in the game and I cannot see any benefit to emancipation if it is pushed out. Is it eternal? If it believes this, it means it takes itself for God and then it will fall again into the same rut again, where it will stay as long as it lacks the strength to move. If it is not eternal, as is probable, it has to be useful today and in the years to come. It has often shown that it was able to accomplish this.
Translation from French to English by Nora Pettex (Paris)