Why so many communist philosophers?

by Santiago Zabala, July 12, 2016.

Photo: EPA

The destructive nature of neoliberalism has prompted many philosophers to reconsider communist ideas.

Reading and writing about Karl Marx does not necessarily make you a
communist, but the fact that a number of distinguished philosophers are
reevaluating Marx’s ideas certainly means something.

After the autumn 2008 global economic crisis, new editions of Marx’s
texts returned to our bookstores accompanied by a large number of
introductions, biographies, and new interpretations of the German

While this resurrection was undoubtedly caused by the financial meltdown allowed by our democratic governments, Marx’s revival among philosophers is not as simple a consequence as many believe.

After all, in the early nineties the great French philosopher Jacques Derrida anticipated this return as a response to Francis Fukuyama’s (self-proclaimed) “neoliberal victory” at the “end of history”.

Against Fukuyama’s predictions, the Occupy movement and the Arab
Spring demonstrated that history calls once again for a new beginning
beyond the economic, neoliberal, and international paradigms we live in.
A number of renowned philosophers (Judith Balso, Bruno Bosteels, Susan
Buck-Mors, Jodi Dean, Terry Eagleton, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Ranciere,
and others), led by Slavoj Zizek, have began to envision how such
beginning would look in communist terms, that is, as a radical

This took place not only at successful conferences in London, Paris, Berlin, and New York
(which were attended by thousands of academics, students, and
activists) but also through such best-selling books as Toni Negri and
Michael Hardt’s Empire, Alain Badiou’s The Communist Hypothesis, and Gianni Vattimo’s Ecce Comu.
Although not all these philosophers consider themselves communist – at
least, not in the same way – the fact that communist thought has been at
the centre of their political research permits us to ask why there are
so many communist philosophers today.

The Marxist revival

Clearly, at these conferences and in these books, communism was not
proposed as a programme for political parties to repeat previous
historical regimes but rather as an existential response to the current
neoliberal global condition.

The correlation between existence and philosophy is constitutive not
only of most philosophical traditions but also of politics in its
responsibility for the existential well-being of humans. After all,
politics is not supposed to be simply at the service of everyday
administrative life but also to provide a reliable guide for everyone to
fully exercise existence. But when these and other obligations are not
met, philosophers tend to become existentialist, that is, to question
and propose alternatives.

This was the case at the beginning of the last century when Oswald
Spengler, Karl Popper, and other philosophers began to warn us of  the
dangers that come from a blind rationalisation of all human realms and
an unfettered industrialisation of the world. But politics, instead of
resisting such human industrialisation, followed its logics with
devastating consequences, as we well know.

But today, things are not that different if we consider the latest
effects of neoliberalism – apart from our current financial crisis, 
where differentials in material well-being have never been so explicit –
slum populations are growing by an shocking 25 million people a year,
and the devastation of our planet’s natural resources is causing dire
ecological consequences throughout the world, and in many cases it is
too late to correct.

Because of this, a recent UK Ministry of Defence report
predicted not only a resurgence of “anti-capitalist ideologies”,
possibly linked to religious, anarchist or nihilist movements, but also
to populism and the revival of Marxism”. This revival of Marxism is a
direct consequence of capitalism’s existential annihilations.

What is ‘communism’?

Although the word “communist” has acquired innumerable different
meanings throughout history, in today’s public opinion it is not only
considered a remnant of the past but also imagined as a political system
where all cultural, social, and economical components are controlled by
the state.

Although this might be the case in China, Vietnam, and North Korea,
for most philosophers this meaning is not only outdated but also stands
in sharp contrast with their existential justifications for its revival.
As Zizek put it, if state communism didn’t work, it’s primarily because
of the “failure of anti-statist politics, of the endeavour to break out
of the constraints of State, to replace statal forms of organisation
with ‘direct’ non-representative forms of self-organisation.”

Communism, as the antistatist realm for equal opportunities, today
has become the best idea, hypothesis, and guide for nongovernmental or
stateless political movements, such as those that arose from the
protests in Seattle (1999), Cochabamba (2000), and Barcelona (2011).

Although each of these movements fought for different specific causes
(against injurious economic globalisation, the privatisation of water
supplies, and harmful financial policies) their enemy was the same:
democracy’s system of property distribution through capitalism’s private

As the increasing poverty and slum populations demonstrate, this
model has left behind all those who do not succeed within them,
generating new communists.

Communism and democracy

In sum, while Negri and Hardt see in the “common
(ie, where private and public immaterial property can be held in
common) and Badiou in insurrectional experiences (as that of the Paris Commune), the possibility of nonstate “forms of self-organisation”, that is, of communism, Vattimo (and I) have suggested looking to the new democratically elected leaders of Venezuela, Bolivia, and other Latin American nations.

If these leaders have managed to enact communist policies without
violent insurrections, it isn’t because of their theoretical or
programmatic strength but rather their weakness.

Contrary to the “scientific socialism” agenda, weak (or hermeneutic) communism has embraced not only the ecological cause
of degrowth but also the decentralisation of the state bureaucratic
system in order to permit independent counsels to increase community

It should not come as a surprise if many other philosophers, now made
communist by the destructive actions and life-destroying policies of
neoliberalism, also see the alternative
this region offers, especially because the Latin American nations have
demonstrated how communist access to power can also take place through
the formal rules of democracy.

SOURCE: Al Jazeera