I can’t remember a time since the fall of the Soviet Union when the terms ‘communism’ and indeed ‘Marxism’ were so much a part of everyday political discourse. Indeed there’s something rather bewildering about the return of these terms from the margins for someone like me whose politically formative years coincided with an era (the Fukuyama-Giddens-Blair mini-Ice Age) in which even to call yourself a ‘socialist’ was to invite incredulous laughter and was taken to announce an other-worldly disconnect from reality. It wasn’t even hostile scorn as I remember. Much worse than that, it was scorn accompanied by a kind of patronising head-patting and an ‘awww bless, it’s so lovely that people still believe in all that stuff’. Conservatives weren’t scared of socialism. They thought it was funny and cute because it was to them obviously and definitely very dead. It has been strange, then, to watch these terms steadily encroach again into mainstream political debate both as positively embraced markers of political orientation and, equally, as really abject and dreaded features of the bourgeois political imaginary.
To a large extent the return of these terms to the everyday political lexicon reflected the rise of various leftist formations across Europe and the United States in the post-2008 era of austerity and permanent capitalist crisis – Syriza, (Unidas) Podemos, the Left Bloc, the movement that coalesced around Jeremy Corbyn within and outside the Labour Party and the movement that cohered in the Bernie Sanders electoral insurgencies. While none of these formations, of course, pivot(ed) on communist or Marxist politics as such, the return of a (relatively) radical left challenge in the context of a deeply shaken status quo permitted a certain disinterment of these previously half-buried terms whether in the form of bourgeois histrionics about for example a communist intention among the Labour front bench to ‘nationalise sausages’ or in terms of opening up an ideological space for young people to begin to explore new-old left horizons.
What’s harder to explain, however, is the continued currency of these terms in mainstream political discourse beyond the defeat and/or incorporation of these electoral insurgencies. While you might expect a certain hangover of interest and identification with these terms among swathes of the newly radicalized (and re-radicalised), you might also expect that the current definite and unmistakable ebbing of the leftist electoral insurgency (capped by the electoral defeat of ‘Corbynism’ after a long period of strangulation, and the smothering of the Sanders presidential campaign*) would produce immediate relief and a rapid forgetting of previous anxieties on the part of conservatives. But why, then, would Boris Johnson defend his recent ‘New Deal’ (lol) plans for post-covid state intervention with the statement, ‘My friends, I am not a communist’ – a headline-grabbing quip, yes, but a quip that implies a certain preoccupation with a sort of shadow Other, too close for comfort, with which he wishes to disassociate himself.
To some extent the BLM insurgency has inserted itself within the space recently vacated by leftist electoral challenges – and indeed to the extent that it can mobilise mass anger and direct confrontation with the state on the streets it represents, embryonically at least, a challenge to the status quo that potentially runs much deeper than, say, the Sanders presidential campaign. Certainly the right are terrified of it – but it’s not immediately clear why it should be seen, as the right seem to see it, as contiguous with (a sort of continuation and Phase 2 of) the ‘Marxist’ plot to put Sanders in the White House. Why for example, should the Republican Senator, Matt Gaetz tweet ‘Black Lives Matter is a Marxist movement’? The Reds, it seems, are still very much under the bed in conservative nightmares.
The disjunction between these nightmares and reality is all the more stark given the extent of the current disarray on the left. It’s not just that a series of leftist electoral challenges were contained and defused, it’s that their defeat clearly revealed the feet of clay on which leftist organizing has been built for many years. As Sai Engelbert has recently argued in a widely read article, the ultimate failure of socialist politics to resonate widely at a time of ‘systemic crisis, mass disillusionment with ruling class representatives and institutions, and regular as well as rapid popular (often, if not always, class based) explosions of discontent’ is testament to the fundamental weakness of the left.
Indeed the current covid-19 crisis – which shines a very clear light on the ‘long-term systematic contradictions and injustices of global capitalism’, which has at least temporarily punctured the neoliberal TINA narrative and unmistakably revealed the enormous mobilizing capacities of the state and of powerful collective solidarities too cohering (often from the ground up) on widely shared commitment to some more or less egalitarian idea of the ‘common good’ – has been, for many on the left, the moment when the penny finally dropped. If the left cannot even intervene effectively to shape the political narrative in relation this crisis – which cries out for leftist solutions and opens up a clear window of possibility for radical reconfiguration of the economy and polity – then this very clearly indicates a condition of extreme enfeeblement.
As Engelbert suggests, one by one, the historical exhaustion of the major traditions on the left has been revealed. The ‘vanguardist’ tradition embodied most obviously in Trotskyist and semi Trotskyist organisations has clearly fizzled out – their de facto irrelevance becoming abundantly clear with their effective sidelining in relation to the various (broadly) left populist surges that saw radicalizing young people flock, for example, to the movements around Corbyn and Sanders while completely bypassing the various Leninist groups. Neither have these groups appreciably capitalized on the collapse of these left populist projects. The old CPs are dead or zombified. The bizarre explosion of ‘Marxist-Leninist’ cosplaying on twitter is testament to this really – it could only really take off as a kind of semi-ironic pastiche in Europe and the US in the context of the historical wreckage of actually existing ML parties. It’s from the various strewn fragments and pieces of this wreckage that virtual identities can be constructed and played around with online, conveniently divorced from any obligation to actual ML party discipline. And of course, the defeat of Corbyn and Sanders looks very much like the final curtain for social democracy, after (what we can now perhaps admit was) a last ditch one-off attempt at a sort of Kamikaze resuscitation on the part of a coalition of forces largely to the left of social democracy – much to the enragement of most soi–disant ‘social democrats’ (read social liberals) embarrassed by the partial reanimation of the not-quite-corpse they had long since deserted during and after the collapse of the post-war settlement.
So what is going on here? Given that the right must also be aware by now of their own political hegemony and the desperate condition of the organized left why does their nightmare fear of ‘communism’ seem to persist?
On re-reading the Communist Manifesto to prepare a couple of lectures recently I was struck by several things that I’d either not noticed or forgotten from previous readings. One brief line that resonated with me in a new way for example was the famous remark (one of a few phrases drawing on imagery of necromancy and alchemy) that bourgeois society ‘has conjured up such gigantic means of production and exchange’ and ‘is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells’. This image functions to illustrate with a certain memorable literary flair the main line of argument in the text of course which is that the developmental logic and trajectory of capitalism tends to undermine itself in the long run in terms of the immensely disruptive crises it constantly throws up and in terms of the majority class that it produces – the proletariat – in whose interest it is to abolish that system and in whom, moreover, capitalism unwittingly but increasingly vests the strategic capacity to do so.
But there’s also I think the suggestion of a psychological dimension to this too – in particular, something hinted about the collective psyche of the supposed masters of the system. Doesn’t this image suggest a certain hubristic terror on the part of the bourgeoisie – as if it recoils in fright and regret at the dark and uncontrollable forces it has unleashed?
Certainly there are other passages that suggest the bourgeoisie is itself terrorized by the remorselessly monstrous logic of a system that it simply cannot control – a system that indeed subjects the bourgeoisie to a certain kind of domination and unfreedom. The celebrated sequence of paragraphs laying bare the in-built tendency for capitalism to rapidly spread out overseas, linking areas of the world together in tightly enmeshed structures of investment and trade (what until a few years ago we used to call ‘globalisation’), for example, begins with this striking formulation: ‘The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe’. Note that the bourgeoisie is chased – almost as if it tries to flee in desperation and horror from a pursuing monster that always follows and is always-already present in its shadow.
Indeed we should remember that the famous imagery of the ‘spectre’ that all ‘the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise’ in the preamble to the Manifesto refers not so much to any (as yet) real, material forces of communism but precisely to a phantom – a largely imaginary fear that the old powers project onto the figure of what they take to be ‘communism’. Indeed, Marx and Engels’ frame their task in the Manifesto in these opening lines as precisely to dispel this ‘nursery tale of the Spectre of Communism’ – not that the analysis they present is exactly designed to allay bourgeois fears of course because they go on to present the bourgeoise with good reason to tremble. But the point is that at the time Marx and Engels were writing the Manifesto the processes in and through which capitalism was working to undermine itself set out in the text were very much in their infancy. Certainly in 1847-8 the proletariat did not yet consitute the majority of the population across Europe, large areas of the globe had yet to be firmly enmeshed within the developing world market and no communist movement as such really existed – the First International was more than a decade and a half away from formation and even that, of course, (briefly and unstably) cohered only small and scattered forces. It is interesting then that the Manifesto should begin with this reference to an as yet imaginary terror on the part of the ruling classes in Europe that frames the whole text, and that references to a psychology of barely repressed horror and anxiety on the part of the bourgeois in relation to the society they have created run through the narrative.
Could it be then that this narrative rests, in part, on the suggestion that a certain collective inner torment is a constitutive element of bourgeois thought and behaviour – as if the drive to accumulate, to grow, to expand and so on is at least partially determined by a repressed (and self-defeating) desire to escape from the terrifying, destructive and uncontrollable forces they have themselves unleased and are condemned to reproduce? Perhaps there is even the suggestion that they know, at some level, that the social order they have conjured up is unsustainable, headed inexorably toward disaster and that the instability of their system will make them, ultimately, as the Manifesto puts it in passing toward the end of Chapter 1 ‘unfit to rule’ – ‘unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society’. In fact, going further, doesn’t the tormented, haunted psyche of this ruling class imply a secret yearning for release from this hellish order? In this sense isn’t the ‘Spectre of Communism’ a projection that both conceals and expresses a repressed longing for the thing that will free the bourgeosie from its torment?
So, back to the post-2008 context and a system beset by permanent and constantly deepening economic and political dysfunction, lurching from one crisis to another. Perhaps we can see current obsession with ‘communism’ on the part of the political representatives of the bourgeoisie as intensified expression of these long-running nightmare-desires. If the bourgeoisie has at some level always secretly desired release from the forces it is condemned to reproduce and has always suspected that it is simply ‘unfit to rule’, how much more strongly must it feel the weight of this repressed terrible knowledge at a time when the exhaustion and indeed necrosis of a system that has more and more clearly reached its limits – that seems to offer little now other than further descent into climate crisis and a continuing death-spiral toward nastier and nastier forms of right wing authoritarian government – has become clearly apparent.
Indeed, might we see the increasingly grotesque and buffoonish guises of its chief political representatives – utterly absurd smirking clowns like Trump and Johnson – as a sort of disguised cry for help? The clown show at the White House and in Downing Street expresses a deep self-loathing and a kind of pleading to be put out of its misery. The ruling class no longer has any respect for itself. It wants to be relieved of the terrible burden of its authority. It sees ‘communism’ everywhere because it wants to see it everywhere because it secretly longs for an end to capitalism and its own abolition as a class.
The great trajedy, of course, is that the left is in no position to grant them their desire.
*The Left Bloc and Unidas Podemos had greater success in terms of reversing the austerity agenda – the former in ‘confidence and supply’ support for a social democratic minority government in Portugal and the latter in continuing government coalition with the PSOE – but they hardly look like radical leftist insurgencies any more if they once did.