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March 14, 2011


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C. DiDiodato


"The communism fail meme has got to go. It's a myth". No, it's not a myth: it's a fact. The travelling "intellegentsia" with safe ideology for the masses have to learn to separate myth from reality, for once!Your cry to oppose captalism in the commons, on Wall St,in the textbooks, etc ring hollow compared to the real Tunisian Bouazizi-type street revolutions happening all around you, spurred and developed by a real media activism. It was the Internet that began and threatens to complete the overthrow of history's last vestiges of brutal nation-state ideology: it was the "outraged" poet heart of a street vendor that brought real revolution to Tunisia, and set the path of overthrow of dictatorial regimes in Egypt, Libya.

The cry of revolution must work (as even Marx fully understood) within the already growing networks of global capital and exchange. When will you understand that? There's no standing 'outside' the loop; you're in it and your job is to work through it in a more just, equitable and ultimately globally responsible manner. The old school Marxist tirades you hurl daily are comically unresisting and unchanging,even in the face of globalization.

Maybe you should listen to the "young" audiences out there, for once: rather than talking more "theory" at them and offering revisionist apologies for failed communist dictatorships("The Soviet experiment succeeded", indeed!Even Zizek won't say that without a lot of qualification) "outraged" and "unleashed" powers don't come from academics reading comfortably at their podiums, addressing captive audiences of undergraduates: they originate in real people caught daily in the 'globalization' squeeze.

Robert Allen

I couldn't disagree more. I hear that "communism failed" stuff all the time; it is only the manifestation of Marx;s "ruling ideas are those of the ruling class" maxim, The problem is the opposite-- "brutal nation state ideology" indeed, there is but one ideology, the capitalist one, and it is failing right now. The facebook stuff is all BS, look at John Mcain's blather about Mark Zuckerberg being some kind of hero- the guy who invented that fascist snitchfest known as Facebook. I went to Madison last weekend, it was a great start but only a start- there is still too much faith in bourgeois electoralism and Jeebus to save us, we need Marxist theory AND revolutionary practice more than ever, whether it comes from academia or wherever. I am a real person caught daily in the squeeze of globalization (read capitalism), and I think media activism is crap. Nothing is new under the bourgeois sun. Real people change when they are in struggle, it changes them and makes them communists whether they are conscious of it or not.


I agree completely with Robert. However, I have a different take on the issue of how communism "failed." I grew up in New york city during the 70's 80's. There were alot of immigrants from the Soviet Union, and they had many complaints: the Jews had been the victim of institutionalized anti-semitism, all complained of the lack of free speech and the inability to move freely both within the country and overseas, the constant fear of surveillance, the shortages of basic necessities like meat and toilet paper. The list goes on but you get the idea. These things weren't trivial - now we may run off a list of issues in the United States that may be comparable, but self-avowed communists cannot ignore the issues of really existing communism.

As a communist you have to face the question as to whether (or how) you tolerate dissent - do you make common cause with progressives whoe may share some (or most) or your goals, but are not communists? Or at least do not subscribe to the name?



This is where I think your, Zizek's, Badiou's, et al's cries sound hollow to me (and I'm sure to others) and somewhat disconnected from documented reality. A lot of the world has tried "communism" in various forms (the USSR and China being a lot of the world already, and that's not to mention places like North Vietnam, Cambodia, etc.). Their failures extended over decades; their sacrifices (human) number in the many millions, and when you add ecological and other costs, disputing its failure amounts to willful blindness. That capitalism is also failing does not mean that communism somehow succeeded. Is our imagination so limited as to be unable to envision anything different?

Re the specific arguments you present:

"the first involved mobilized struggles by the people, which means that the USSR was successful enough to produce subjects capable of acting and organizing, subjects who were more than passive consumers"

How did the USSR "produce" these subjects? Were there no subjects capable of creating the (1918) revolution in the first place, before "communism" took root? They were anarchists, socialists, democrats, anti-royalists, fed up peasants, and many others. The only kinds of subjects the USSR actually produced (I've met so many of them, and the accounts and analyses are readily available) are the kind that were left incapable of believing in any kind of political progress, the ones who sold out, resorted to alcoholism, etc. To the extent that positive change has occurred in the former Soviet countries, it's because of people too young to have been subjected to Soviet subjectivity, or because their imaginations got fired up by western rock music, styles, and consumer possibilities. (That's an overstatement, but it's certainly more accurate than crediting the Soviet system with creating the desire to tear it down.)

"They went further at eliminating economic inequality among their citizens than the US, UK, and Germany have ever done."

Had they done this, then it wouldn't have been so easy for the well-positioned elite to carve up the spoils once they turned the switch to "capitalism." The economic inequalities simply got politicized. If you were in the in-group (a Party member, one of the ruling collective farm clique, etc.), you got rich (but didn't flaunt it, since it was against the official ideology). If you weren't, you didn't. It's true that both the USSR and Communist China tried and managed (at times) to provide basic necessities to everyone. But then so have a lot of countries. (Again, why compare only with the US?)

"Or maybe the claim that communism failed is meant to refer to the Gulag. If that's the measure of failured, then the US has also failed."

How many millions of political and cultural activists were sentenced to life, or death, in labor camps in North Dakota and Alaska? How many nations' entire cultural intelligentsia was utterly destroyed (as was, say, Ukraine's, which rivaled many others in film, theatre, and literature in the 1920s, but was completely shattered, mostly dead, some by their own hand, by the late 1930s)?

It was an awful system. The seeds of Stalin were present well before he took control (why else, e.g., slaughter the anarchists at Kronstadt?). There are countless documents and living testaments to all of that, and the same goes for Maoism and the Cultural Revolution in China. Both countries' "communist" histories had their soft spots and "thaws", but the authoritarian centralism never allowed any of the thaws to turn into anything worth celebrating. When that possibility appeared on the horizon (as with the Prague Spring), it was squashed. Control was simply too important an imperative. It's true that that imperative seemed necessary as a counter-weight to its capitalist global enemy, but that manichean worldview was built into Communism from its inception.

The real question is whether we should call those experiments "communism" or something else (authoritarian socialism, state socialism, communo-fascism, etc.). But they called themselves that, and thereby discredited the term.

Redefining "communism" as something to do with "the commons" is a useful exercise for intellectuals with time on their hands, but it won't fly with the broader public (in the time that we have for making change). Instead of getting bogged down with the past -- a past in which the Left was sorely divided, paralyzed in fact by its stunned incapacity to get beyond and outside the frame being offered by the USSR (and/or China) -- why not create new concepts, new visions, new images?

Adrian Ivakhiv


Adrian, I am sympathetic to your criticisms. But where I would differ, or at least have a concern, is regarding your conclusion: "why not create new concepts, new visions, new images?" For better or worse, communism is still part of the lexicon in the United States when discussing progressive politics, or an alternative to the status quo. As soon as anyone brings up collective solutions to problems, they are accused of being a communist. Even just proposing modest reforms like subsidies to purchase private health insurance is labeled communist or socialist. My point is that one cannot articulate an alternative in the current environment and ignore to word of idea of communism. You can criticize intellectuals for navel gazing but it is also a practical issue as well.



I'm not sure I follow this... Are you suggesting that because the rabid right accuses others of being communists, that we should, in effect, reclaim the label (as "queers," "witches," et al.) have done? Wouldn't that just add fuel to a fire that's a sideshow distraction at best?

I think a lot of the left in the US feels proud of being "progressive," and there's a long history we can point to of making important contributions to US society under that label. The history of the term "communism" in this country includes some positive moments, but also a lot of cobwebs, wishful thinking (on the part of USSR-lovers), and McCarthyite silliness. I'm not sure that it's worth reviving those particular skeletons or the divisiveness they have carried in the past. Young people, in particular, seem psyched by events like the Egyptian revolution, which didn't carry any such labels but felt genuinely new.


Jodi Dean

Folks--thanks for the comments. This is just a short response and I'll come back later with more detailed responses.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of communism is its capacity to return, throughout history, as an aspiration, even in the face of counter revolution, active hostility, defeat, war, etc. Communism is irreducible to the conflicts of the 20th century. I think the reason is that "from each according to ability to each according to need" is an axiom of working and living together with undeniable power.

It's odd to me that people use the fact that there is opposition to a view as an argument for rejecting it; it makes me think of arguments that use the fact that some people are against affirmative action as arguments against affirmative action. Peter Hallward's discussion of anti-slavery struggle in the US is excellent here--for decades it was said that abolishing slavery was impossible, unimaginable. And the abolitionists did the impossible.


I have to say I have a mixed response. I am sympathetic to Jodi in pointing out how shallow the "communism didn't work" meme can be, especially when it comes to obfuscating the tremendous civil and technical projects they managed and the role of privatization in the final years of the USSR. I can't say "it not only failed, it succeeded!" though, because the regimes did fall or else failed to reproduce/reform themselves. The issue here is the meaning of the failure of those regimes and what the fuck the "success" of capitalism is to mean, and there I think Jodi is right to push against the cynicism.

I'm a young person too (24) and quite averse to theory over concrete analysis. In fact, I sometimes think I wasted half my time in college taking (graduate-for-undergrad-credit) seminars on it. After that, I spent time working in a Kroger deli, and then for a corporate linguistic analysis company that did quality-control on search-engines, and more recently in a small hunger-relief nonprofit. I also do unpaid work as an engineer/producer for KBOO 90.7FM here in Portland. I do unpaid work for the county library and the tool-library in my part of the city (we have a few). In that time I have become more convinced of the power and JOY of PEOPLE over that we attribute to money and the making/spending/redistributing of it. This is what I take from Jodi, the fundamental role of organized people saying everything is not for sale, we will not live our lives cultivating or at least dependent on cash-crops (whatever their brand).


A little more here: http://blog.uvm.edu/aivakhiv/2011/03/14/belief-in-expired-worlds-in-worlds-to-come/

Of course, I have to kick myself sometimes for reacting to things I disagree with, when I agree with most of what the people in question say. And think I can appreciate the sentiment, too (despite the disagreement).


Adrian, my point is simply that in the United States the left is stuck with it, whether we like it or not. This isn't 1930 or even 1964, where being a liberal or a progressive wasn't a pejorative description. Young people can be inspired by what happened in Egypt, but Fox news is telling everyone that what is happening in Madison is being perpetrated by hippie communists. You cannot even be pro union and not be accused of being a socialist/communist. And I use both words interchangable because that is what the right does. We cannot pretend that it is otherwise.


I don't quite understand the hostility in some posts directed at 'theory' and 'academics' Jodi's work is not overloaded with jargon, and when she does use a term suchas for example, 'jouissance' she defines it in a way that is easy to grasp (see her book on Žižek). If anything Jodi's work proves that she is one of the foremost 'organic' intellectuals working in the United States today. Having said this the anti-intellectual current in North America is particularly fierce and getting more so with the advent of the Tea Party with their of populist scapegoating. I enjoy Jodi's more 'theoretical' pieces and her innovative work on 'communicative capitalism' is unmatched. I hope she continues to pursue her intelligent and insightful work on 'drive'. I think this is crucial.


I like this part of Jodi's response:

"Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of communism is its capacity to return, throughout history, as an aspiration, even in the face of counter revolution, active hostility, defeat, war, etc. Communism is irreducible to the conflicts of the 20th century. I think the reason is that "from each according to ability to each according to need" is an axiom of working and living together with undeniable power."

If every creed or faith has its core statement of principles, and if this is communism's, then it's a very appealing one. Whether it's realistic is another matter, but, as a vision, I agree it's worth preserving.

If our students graduated with a string of appealing visions - communism's ("from each according to..."), Christianity's ("love your neighbor as yourself"), Buddhism's (suffering is what unifies us all, but it can be reduced and ended by cutting away at the threads of illusion that produce it), Adam Smith's capitalism (everybody do what you're best at, and let others do the same, and things will work themselves out), Darwinism (from the struggle to survive arises the whole universe of wondrous living things), etc., then our universities would be doing a good job.

To do a great job, they have to also teach us to compare ideals with realities. They've actually been better at this critical task, and not as good at the visionary task. So I would go along with visionary communism: upholding that vision is good and useful, maybe even necessary. But the vision shouldn't substitute for the historical record. We need to know and acknowledge both.

Jasper Bernes


It's possible to defend communism -- and its workability -- without defending the "success" of the Soviet Union, a losing proposition in my view.

Indeed, as I'm sure you know, there is a long history of a communist, left opposition to the Bolsheviks. I tend to find that these people have a much more practicable, clear view of what communism is and what it looks like. In retrospect, I don't think the Soviet Union was communist in any respect -- it was Lasallean state capitalist modernization under socialist pretenses, at least from 1923 on (and Lenin admitted as much in his late writings, when it seemed impossible to do much more). The Soviet Union featured money, competition, compulsory labor, income differentials, extreme division of labor. None of this is communist -- it doesn't even resemble the so-called "lower" stage of communism as described by Marx, if one goes in for that line.

In any case, a communist revolution in a post-industrial society will look almost nothing like Russia in 1917, so it's unclear that we have much to win or lose by defending the USSR. I suspect that those who say "the USSR wasn't communist but I'll tell you what is" will have much more success convincing others than those who say, "well, the USSR wasn't that bad, really."


nicely done, i have been waiting for a post on this, seriously. i can't tell you how many times i have had this absurd argument with people.

i think you make many good points, Jodi, that i will certainly add to my mental files as i have this conversation with people. I, in contrast to Jasper, absolutely think it is worthwhile to point out the ways in which the Soviet Union made great social strides within the context of "communism". I think part of this anxiety over the word communism, (in addition to everything Jodi pointed out, especially what i recognize as a fear of our radical freedom, in the hegelian, zizekian sense) has a lot to do with the desire for the purity of the word or purity of the idea. isn't communism as complicated as any other human idea, project, identity, desire? and so, while i definitely get Alain's point about the Left being castigated with terms like "socialist" or "communist", at what point do we use that logic to invert the understanding. someone brought up the use of the term, "queer". i think something like this is possible for communism. i think part of the difficulty with this issue is that we are getting hung up on the "essence" of the word, as if there were an essence. i think this is the vestige of liberalism, haunting us with its mandates and circumscribing our imagination.

also, i find the anti-intellectualism, anti-academic mantra disconcerting. as if "working people" or "the young" aren't intellectual or academic. again, as if "the people" have some predetermined, simplistic essence. as if we don't need deep study and discipline if we are to foment rebellion and change because after all no revolution has ever come without those things.



"What are leftists afraid of?... Maybe it's a fear for one's own privileged--an outraged people is unlikely to stop at the university gates." yes, precisely.

The Mathmos

I couldn't agree with you more. I've had this failure argument thrown at me in a great many political debates, and it never goes any farther than classic capitalist realism (to take Mark Fisher's phrase).

People, intellectuals even, haven't only delegated all legitimate force to ruling authorities, they've done the same with radical thinking : while we hum and haw about collective alternatives, the ruling classes get away with what are essentially little manifestos for the purest cruelty and injustice against the majority.

Within capitalist realism, only capitalists are allowed to revolutionize anything (notice the constant neoliberal lingo of "sacred cows", "old dogmas", "third way", "new solutions").

Jodi Dean

Thanks for the comments, folks, I really appreciate it. My sense is that recognizing the achievements of the USSR and China under Mao is necessary to open up a space for serious reconsideration, reworking, reformatting of communism for us. It's a way to stop the regressive argument that says communism failed and should not be considered (as a number of you already point out in your comments). The militant version of the same idea would be: no more concessions!

Jasper gives the following list: "money, competition, compulsory labor, income differentials, extreme division of labor. None of this is communist." This is an interesting--which aspects definitely render a society "not communist"? In what ways does the label "not communist" risk installing the kind of purity that Jocelyn warns against? On income differentials, for example. In an ideal communist system, would there be no differentials at all? Would there be slight ones, perhaps based on length of time in a service or number of hours worked? Or would work be disconnected completely from one's share of the common provision of food, shelter, health? To me it makes sense to disconnect work from one's share of the common. Yet what about after that? What if some folks choose not to work and produce in common with everyone else and others choose to do a lot of work. Does the change anything? Or is the reward of working its own reward (along the lines Joe suggested)?

Nicholas Roberts

regarding China, try the academic Minqi Li

these Communist regimes where brutal, oppressive, corrupt, totalitarian... but in very important measures like health, education, work, for very basic criteria, for ordinary people, they got it right, even with total war against the capitalist imperialist world

for instance, Cuba has roughly equivalent health care to the USA, with approximaley 5% the expenditure

C. DiDiodato


wasn't Lenin a big fan of Taylorism and didn't Mao adopt Western capitalist modes of production? And China today: capitalist or communist? Does it really matter what to call it? When communist regimes got it right, wasn't it after some (if culturally-politically modified) form of the U.S.-dictated "disciplinary model" (from Hardt and Negri's "Empire")?

I do recall,however, the distinguished literary critic George Steiner praising (in a tv lecture in Canada) the Communist model because, as he said, the Soviets put their best teachers not in the universities but in elementary grades. He also used to go about how the future Nobel prize winners would always come from cafes in Eastern Europe: a shot at the more Westernized 'creative writing classes' or MFA models. I'm not entirely averse to those purer sorts of "communist" educational practices. By impure I mean indoctrination, of course.


So, Nicholas, you think that the word "communism" is synonymous with the word "perfect"; is that right?

Taylorism in itself improves productivity; where that surplus labour goes after that depends on the type of economy. With the fSU, it went to the state; with bourgeois relations, it goes to the owner; with communism, I imagine it would largely go back, ultimately, to the workers themselves.



Jodi said:

"In an ideal communist system, would there be no differentials at all?"

People've talked about this over at Lenin's Tomb a bit. The consensus seems to be that there's nothing inherently wrong with different pay-scales (how different we didn't really talk about) so long as they're balanced out by a progressive income tax.

Nicholas Roberts

ask yourself this, if you are a peasant or a factory worker in China or Russia, would life be better or worse for you now ?

no doubt if you are a global-oriented professional, things are much better, you would be doing great, making good money and enjoying luxuries and freedoms... but if you are one of the majority, working away, your conditions would be worse, perhaps much worse...

its the same story all over the world...

I am not saying Communist is synonymous with anything...

watch and read Minq Li, he is Chinese and once was a democracy and markets guy, and spent 2 years in prison for it... now, he has a much more interesting view of the world


Nicholas said:

"if you are a peasant or a factory worker in China or Russia, would life be better or worse for you now?"

Compared to when? Pre-revolution? Early post-revolution? And whose experience? A peasant's experience likely wasn't comparable to a factory worker's?

Things were better for peasants and factory hands for a while, post-revolution in Russia (I haven't seen stats for China): there was a definite improvement in their standards of living. Then things really got bad for most people when the fSU took a definite turn towards capitalism.

"I am not saying Communist is synonymous with anything... "

I beg your pardon: I mistakenly attributed your name to DiDiodato's words. I withdraw my charge and turn it to C. DiDiodato instead.


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