The French translation of this article was published in: L’idée du communisme 2, ed. par S. Zizek et A. Badiou (P.: Lignes, 2011).
“Communism” is a concept that, from its very emergence in the present meaning at the period of the French revolution, was meant to be a more radical and also more down-to-earth alternative to the idealistic and idyllic slogans of the Jacobins (liberty, equality, fraternity, etc.). Unlike the former, “communism” includes a reference to economy and more precisely to a society without private property. This materialist content was later reaffirmed by Marx who, after a period when he had rejected the concept altogether, expressed allegiance to it only with the caveat that “Communism [was for him and Engels] not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself” and that they called “communism” “the real movement which abolished the present state of things.” . I emphasize here the “abolished”: a good Hegelian, Marx accepted communism not as an ideal but as a real negation, a force opposed to the established state of things which is latent or “spectral” as yet.
Communists, with their “criticism of the Earth” belong to the revolutionary branch of the Romantic Movement that aspired to reverse the usual spiritualist orientation of humanity away from the Earth to Heaven, to redirect it into the depths of Earth, towards the depth of matter and the prose of life.
Thus, Hölderlin – who belonged to German Jacobins and mentioned, this being one of the very first usages of the word, a need for the “communism of spirits” -- notes in his “Remarks on Antigone”, that the tendency of the Moderns, in contrast to that of the Ancients, is the tendency from the sky down to the soil, because the Ancients still “had” this soil, while the Moderns have yet to institute it. Hölderlin names this tendency a “cathegorical revolution [Umkehr]” – before Marx and like him, he insists that the “materialist” tendency goes here along with the reverse, negative orientation of the movement.
In France, this tradition is followed by another left-wing romantic, Jules Michelet. He writes in his “History of the French Revolution:”: “One has to dig deeper than Dante and to uncover, inside the Earth, the deep foundation of people on which the colossus [of monarchy] is built”.
The same tendency is continued by hundred years later during the bolshevik revolution
in Russia. One of its early supporters, the poet Alexey Gastev, wrote:
“We will not aspire to these heights that are called “heaven”. Heaven is a creation of
the idle, lazy, and timid people. Let us rush down! Together with fire, metal, and gas, and steam, let us dig mines, let us drill the largest tunnels in the world, let us empty in the bowels of the earth the untouched old layers”.
The tradition was later continued by the younger friend and disciple of Gastev, Andrey Platonov whose work we will discuss below.
All of this is important to emphasize against the dominant liberal-conservative perception of Soviet communism as one more ideocratic dictatorship. If it was an Enlightenment educational regime, it was one only for the reason that it emerged out of a materialist struggle against idealism - the only properly idealistic philosophical state is, of course, a liberal state.
Nevertheless, the ambiguity of the concept between a vision and an ontological statement, remained, even in Marx himself who certainly had a certain vision, even though vague, of a future communist society, where “where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me … to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner” and where “the free development of each” would be “the condition for the free development of all”.
This ambiguity already caused trouble in the Marxist theory of the early 20th century, when the materialist side of communism as a real process was understood in a positivistic way as being governed by objective laws, and many communists were forced to distinguish between the “scientific” and “ethical” trends of Marxism.
Today, in the early 21st century, we return to the same ambivalence that lies at the heart of the concept and of the movement. Since a long time, serious Marxists have recognized that Soviet Union was far not only from the communist utopia (which it promised for the future), but, in most cases (because of the role of bureaucracy) also from communism as a process. However, the initial vagueness of the utopian aspect of the teaching prevented most of them from seriously exploring the notion of communism.
It is therefore by the time that the Soviet and pro-Soviet Marxism died “in itself” that there emerged, perhaps for the first time since Marx, serious attempts to conceive “communism” at the level of contemporary philosophy and of the today’s political–economic condition. First of all, because of the need of a counter-argument against the victorious liberal state in which, after the disappearance of communist utopia, the properly democratic elements started dying out giving way to the victory of the expert-driven managerial authoritarianism. Second, because of the chance of projecting the notion of communism into the open future, not associating it with an actual historic regime.
Indeed, after the victory of the liberal vision of society, communism sounded once again as the only viable alternative to the idealistic models of human togetherness: whether understood as the representative state, rule of law, social contract combining individuals into a whole, etc. This idealistic liberal unity remains relative; it hypostasizes an individual who originally exists by itself and only then enters a society. Excesses of this model are the melancholic and moralistic individualism of the bourgeois subject and the crushing “general will” of the Rousseauist republic, not speaking of nationalism as a collective egoism which unites individualism and collectivism as they exist in the bourgeois society and ideology.
There should be a way to conceive a stronger totality, which would not involve a transcendent principle of unity (like God) but would nevertheless allow for an infinite relationship of a member to the whole which it would “run through”. When Marx described the effects of the bourgeois revolution, he noted that this “political revolution dissolves civil society into its elements without revolutionizing these elements themselves”. The goal of a new revolution would thus be a chemical or even nuclear dissolution of the social fabric which would allow it setting off from the fixed opposition of egoism and idealism and which would strive for a new kind of unity.
In such a totality, elements would interweave and interpenetrate, would be free in the sense of a “virtuosity” (Virno) and free play, not of freedom within pre-set boundaries. Clearly, it was already Hegel who expressed something like this with his concept of “absolute” (the bacchanalian revel, where not a member is sober; and …[at the same time] the revel is just as much a state of transparent unbroken calm”) - he, however, thought that he revolution had been superseded by the organic state and was rightly accused of conservative tendencies. His followers, the young Hegelians, primarily Marx, looked for such an absolute from the side of the substance (underestimated, as they thought, by Hegel), and emphasized its negative, dissolving force which they reoriented against Hegel’s own philosophy.
It is important to note that, unlike the recurrent bourgeois apologies of solidarity (communitarianism in USA, fashion on “civil society” in the recent sociological and political discourse), communism, even if it is aimed against private property, is not a univocal “collectivism”. Both Marx and the recent theorists of communism actually emphasize its negative predicates, oriented at least at the dissolution of the already existing social units. Communism is a vision of society which gives justice to the forces of social dissolution which act in every society, and liberalism uses them as an argument for its dualism of individual and state. But, in the context of communism, these forces are seen as revolutionary, as social forces of auto-dissolution that bear energies of collective liberation. The totality/commonality that “communism” promises proceeds not only from the positively defined goal of an activity (here, a unitary collective subject would suffice) but rather as a negative unity of the suspended, dissolved multitude who are co-ordinating, so to say, “by default.”
To return to our own time – in the end of 1980s, almost simultaneously there emerged, in the French school of post-metaphysical philosophy, two philosophical concepts of communism. I am speaking of Jean-Luc Nancy and Alain Badiou. Both of these philosophies are obviously created in the wake of Soviet communism and oppose to it a new vision of communism not having to do with a party state organization of power or with the socialist state capitalist economy.
Here I will just very briefly remind of these approaches. Nancy insists on the ontological character of community, as a transcendental predicate of the being itself, which is by definition plural. This philosophy is thus a philosophy that reproduces transcendence and “extasy” within the immanence of human (and not just human) interrelations. Nancy openly speaks against the understanding of a community as strictly immanent, because in this case, it would form one unitary subject (“people”, “nation”), prepared to rationally organize and distribute objects. While Nancy’s ontological communism is often criticized for its unpractical, not revolutionary concept, in fact, the value of his approach is the insistence on the subversive “ecstatic” nature of communism and community, against the naively idealistic liberal and socialist apologies of solidarity.
A. Badiou, in his Being and Event, gives a political and metaphysical interpretation of the theorem of Paul Cohen – theorem that constructs a “generic” set: a subset that escapes, “runs through” any positive determinations, identifications, available within a given set. For Badiou, this mathematical form can help conceiving the task of a militant subject: the latter, being loyal to a certain emancipatory event, has to gradually form a generic set, “selecting” things and occurrences that, in his view, are linked to the indescribable and unidentifiable event. The event, in its turn, is an explosion of an unrecognized multiplicity (“singular” elements) within an orderly world of mathematical sets. In his more recent work, Badiou speaks of communism as an “idea” (in the Kantian sense of an orienting principle): what already happened in mathematics and philosophy should now be further tested and proven in the political praxis.
Now, note that in all their political proximity and the defense of what is commonly though as a vain utopia, the theories have opposite tendencies: Nancy, like Marx, points at the ontology, which we cannot change, and which provides a certain angle from which to view the current social reality. For Badiou, communism is, on the contrary, a modus operandi of a subject, an image or an idea of what we can and should do, even though he also cannot escape an objective (ultra-ontological) justification, which is the Event (which in itself is not yet “communist” – rather, revolutionary - in its content).
It is noteworthy that both authors describe communism in negative, almost apophatic terms (transcendence or “extasy”, in Nancy, escape of existing categories, in Badiou). In a recent text on communism, Nancy adds that communism only enters the agenda in the periods where the existing communities are being dissolved. This is a very important development of his own theory. As for Badiou, the case is more complex: he emphasizes that, even though the descriptions of the event and of the generic procedure are negative, their actuality is always an effect of an affirmation: they are thus “subtractive” and not simply “destructive”. Such denial of the substantiality of the negative in Badiou is problematic, firstly because, the force that would “abolish the present state of things” is absent in his account, which can lead to the coexistence of the newly recognized event with the whole repressive apparatus it subverts by its appearance. Moreover, this event may well be dependent on such apparatus. Secondly, the missing negative force is needed to revert and return to the event from the positive forms that intervention and fidelity establish in its name. Badiou mentions that event should remain in an intermediate state between being and non-being, but he does not demonstrate what subjective movement makes this possible.
Apart from the two French philosophers, we need also to mention the Italian leftist thought, in particular the work of Paolo Virno. Virno, also a proponent of communism from the philosophical (and practical) point of view, also gives communism an ontological status, in a different vein than Nancy. For Virno, communism is immanent, not transcendent, and he understands by it the fundamentally social nature of thinking and/or working. For Virno, communism is already there, but one must emancipate it from the domination of capitalist governance and rationality, make it “public” and democratically used. More than Nancy, Virno cares about the subjectivity of communists. Nevertheless, like Nancy and unlike Badiou, he makes communism into an ontology and thus presents an overly organic vision of the future transformation.
In today’s world, like in Marx’s time, it is capital that is the most fervent creator of communism. Virno speaks in this context of a “communism of the capital”, which is based on the “general intellect” and “common places” indispensable in today’s economy. It is within capitalism that the new technologies are invented that seem to exclude complete private property, patenting, etc. The form of property of the means of production is not factually private anymore. The flexibility of labor seems to question the division of labor. Leisure activities take more time and attention than work. But this “communism” remains subordinate to the laws of market and profit, compatible to them. The ideology of this factual communist remains liberal, that is, the actual communism is presented as a result of artificial contractual relationship, while a free individual which, in Virno’s persuasive conception, is still to be formed and cultivated qua personality, is presented as a default pre-condition. Only a revolutionary event could invert this way of life and thought.
Such an event is not always directly envisioned by those who conceptualize communism. For Nancy, communism is a general matrix, and for Badiou, the event itself is always unpredictable and surprising, but our current task is to be faithful to the events of the past, such as the Parisian Commune and the revolution of the 1968. Italian post-operaists, Virno and Negri, are more practically oriented, but even they avoid speaking of revolution: they rather insist on negative strategies such as “exodus”. This predominance of negative forms is in line with the infinite and indefinite kind of totality that communism represents, in opposition to democracy and nation-state. But Negri and Virno explicitly deny that exodus is important because of its negativity: they follow Deleuze in insisting on the inherent positivity of any event, which leads them to think that the task of a revolution consists in giving full freedom to the already existing creative force of the multitude. Against this claim, we should perhaps look for the revolutionary resources in the social negativity itself, as in the unconscious collective form of dissolution. Communism is revolutionary not as a supposedly positive form of society that must be affirmed, against all others, but a condition intimately tied up with the destruction of the status quo.
These ideas revive the old Marxian dilemmas of communism. If Soviet communism was wrong, if communism, as Badiou suggests, is a “hypothesis”, a theorem yet to be proven (realized in practice), then it risks to seem one more ideal. If communism is an ontological condition of humanity (even an “extatic” one), then it escapes historical determination and does not very much inspire insurrectional activity. If, finally, it is a progressive tendency within capitalism, then how can it destroy its own presuppositions (namely, the capitalism)? To escape this dilemma, we have, first of all, to find a political definition of communism, second of all, to find in the actual reality something that would “destroy the present condition” – precisely something that we do not see in Nancy, Badiou, or Virno.
2. “Communism” of the past and communism of the future.
The aforementioned philosophical debate leads us straight to the more specific historical condition of the Central/Eastern European communism. If this was no communism, then (so liberals say), communism remains a utopian fantasy. If this was communism, then it certainly was an unpleasant outdated socio-political regime, a poor and authoritarian country with an excessive push for collectiveness, which “goes against human nature”. The latter opinion is more widespread, and normally one speaks of the state of contemporary East and Central European European societies as “post-communism”, assuming that communism had already taken place. Ironically, for citizens of Soviet Union and other socialist countries themselves, communism had always remained a utopia or a project to realize in the future. Thus, strangely, communism, at least in Soviet Union, was first in the future, then in the past, never making it into the future (B. Groys even says, jokingly, that the making of communism into a fait accompli was the goal of “perestroika”).
Thus, there are two common-sense perspectives: one, that communism was an unrealistic utopia never achieved, and second, that the only possible realization of communism was Soviet-style socialism, that is to say, “totalitarianism”.
But there is a third perspective, and it is shared by several interesting authors who have written on communism in the recent years. From this perspective, communism did really exist (and perhaps still exists), but it did not at all equal the Soviet style state socialism. I already mentioned the argument of Paolo Virno who emphasizes the “communism” that is inherent in the capitalism, but subdued by its logic. But some analysts of “really existing socialism” also believed that communism existed under this regime, although it did not coincide with the official ideology or the accepted form of property. In Russia, it was already Alexander Zinoviev who held this view, a Soviet dissident philosopher and an émigré, an author of an important treatise on Marx’s dialectics who then turned to formal logic and, at the same time, to the violent critique of Soviet regime expressed in semi-fictional satiric essays.
In his essay “Communism as a reality” (1980), Zinoviev stated that communism really existed in Soviet Union, that it was not a politico-economic regime alternative to capitalism but a more profound societal regime of what he called “communality” – an excessively collective life of man which, he claimed, had been normally reduced in the West by “civilization”. The rest was a violent critique of the “communism” which vividly reminded of the Western conservative theory of “masses” in the spirit of Le Bon, Tarde, and MacDougall. Zinoviev, logically enough, was skeptical about the perspectives of transforming the Soviet communism, and this may explain his spectacular U-Turn in the 1990s, when he sided with the reactionary and chauvinist “Communist party of Russian Federation” in its critique of the Perestroika and of the liberal-democratic reforms. He became apologetic of the Soviet society, emphasizing that “it made the historical being of the people meaningful”, that in it, “citizens are guaranteed jobs, free medicine, retirement and other social goods”, along with “powerful police forces and the military power to protect the country from a foreign attack”. At that time, Zinoviev tentatively called the Russia regime a “communist capitalism”.
In his youth, Zinoviev developed an interesting epistemology of the “elevation from the abstract to the concrete”.  Based on the reading of Marx’s “Capital”, it consisted in moving from an original idealization towards new and new relationships of a “complex, multilateral, differentiated, dynamic” object, where the original idealization, under certain concrete circumstances, could be falsified but not thereby refuted. As he writes later in his political work, “a concrete judgment may contradict an abstract one, but there is no dialectical contradiction there. In fact we have the following couple of judgments: 1) if one abstracts from certain factors, an object will have a quality “A”, 2) if one considers these factors, the object will have the quality “Y”. … The dialectical method of thinking emerged at a certain time as a set of logical techniques similar to this one, and not as a doctrine of general laws of being which, by the way, do not exist.” Note that we are talking of the contradiction not of opposition which Zinoviev thus evacuates from dialectics. The result is a method which allows fixing a certain historical reality forever, not recognizing its internally contradictory structure which would be thus subject to historical overcoming. This “sin” of Marx’s Capital (which risks essentializing capitalism) is transposed by Zinoviev at the reality of Soviet communism. Interestingly, this method which ousts negativity from dialectics leads, in Zinoviev’s sociological and literary work, to the entirely “negativist” picture of reality, in the sense that it derides and castigates any current reality, be it Soviet communism, Soviet intelligentsia critical of communism, or Western capitalist society. Negativity is evacuated into the solitary transcendental subject (beautiful soul?), to which it allows freely moving from the rejection of one opposite to the rejection of another.
Zinoviev’s disinterest in negativity and opposition as tools of reality analysis, and his “organic” thinking, are characteristic for the whole tradition that we are now discussing. In the West, it has some striking similarities to the views of Deleuze and his followers, in Russia, it influenced a number of thinkers who refuse to analyze contemporary Russia in terms other than “totalitarian” or “communist” and perceive any changes (including the change of politico-economic regime!) as superstructural. This includes orthodox liberals, such as Yuri Levada (who used his sociological survey data to illustrate Zinoviev’s concept “Homo Sovieticus”), Lev Gudkov (author of the book “Negative Identity” which describes the post-Soviet subject as rigidly non-liberal, resentful and aggressive, thus presenting him as a reservoir of negativity, a privation of the idealized West), Mikhail Ryklin (who keeps describing the inescapable totalitarian heritage calling to the good old values such as free speech and representative democracy), as well as more complex (but also liberal) authors such as Valery Podoroga - a reader of Adorno and Deleuze, disciple of Zinoviev’s friend and disciple Merab Mamardashvili. Podoroga, one of the most influential Russian philosophers, insists, in his various public statements, on the irreducibly special character of Russian, Soviet, and then post-Soviet culture which is not describable in the terms of Western metaphysics, not easily translatable into it. Podoroga’s original work, mostly dedicated to the close readings of literature and of philosophy-as-literature, depicts a nightmarish non-anthropomorphic world of “psychomimesis”, decribed via the naming of various affects of terror, madness, experience of death, etc.: affects we would usually treat as “negative” but which Podoroga treats positively or even naturalistically as “mimetic”, affective bodily forces. In the same tradition, one should mention Podoroga’s disciple Oleg Aronson who, as we will see below, borrows Zinoviev’s concept of communism with a reverse sign and makes out of it an apology of ahistorical prosaic “masses”.
A view partly similar to that of early Zinoviev was held by yet another soviet dissident philosopher and émigré, Boris Groys. From his works of the Soviet period up to the recent Communist Post-Script Groys emphasized the substantively peculiar character of the Soviet regime which did not coincide with socialism per se, but consisted, according to him, in the ideocratic and mythopoetic power of this state, which was thus different from the more down-to-earth materialist Western societies. For Groys, communist regime was “dialectical”, by which he understands the ability to incorporate any reality into its ideological outlook and to behave in an entirely unprincipled way. This caricature of dialectic (which bears traces of an attentive reading of Kierkegaard) has an obvious similarity to the “dialectic” of early Zinoviev. But, symmetrically opposed to Zinoviev’s prosaic understanding of communism as “communality”, Groys dismissed the socialist aspirations of the Soviet regime and emphasized, instead, its avant-garde aestheticism. This approach of his, which started already with Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin, remains highly influential in the post-communist studies: one of the most interesting developments of the same argument has been the work of Evgeny Dobrenko who applies to the Stalinist Soviet Union the theory of Baudrillard and claims that it produced an imaginary that fully replaced the material reality.
In the same line of argument, one has to mention a more recent work by Oleg Aronson (mentioned above) who combines the arguments of Zinoviev and Groys with the philosophical communism of Nancy and with late Benjamin’s apology of mass culture. Aronson, an erudite connoisseur of film, claims that the Soviet cinema (as well as the Western mass cinema) created a certain “sensible” communism, which consisted in the making-common of image, not of material things. Aronson thinks that a poetic of “cliché” which is characteristic of mass culture, is paradoxically more “communist” than the authorial techniques of many art house films. Thus, “perception of cinema becomes immanent to the type of commonality where it remains not word and not silence but a communication (relationship to the other that proceeds from the insufficiency of Ego)”.
In contrast with the essentially conservative outlook of both Zinoviev and Groys, Aronson means his socio-aesthetic philosophy in a populist-liberal way: there is a deep communism in the mass culture, in the life of masses, which is superior to any ideologies of communism, to any political and social institutions and which reflects a normality of life which the state should not infringe upon. In fact, this apology of mass culture ignores the fact that the “shock” which Benjamin detected in it survives inside the habit which trivializes it: a Hollywood image does not only stamp the “innocence” of sense with a morally meant statuary figure, but also keeps reproducing the extreme violence: the violence that expresses and at the same time suppresses the general will and need to transform or even question reality. Theories that idealistically identify the sensual experience of art with the practical experience in other regions, ignore the violence with which art “stamps” the resistant reality of social practice. Benjamin, same Benjamin whom Aronson uses to prove his doctrine, ends the essay on the “mass reproduction of art” with the description of war as a scene of mass destruction, the last spectacle available to the humanity which want to express rather than act. On the contrary, the “communist” energy of films like Vertov’s, consists in its liberation from the power of a cliché: like realist paintings, they show something invisible and unseen, their power thus being a revelatory revolutionary force, not just an education of senses. Zizek, who also uses Vertov’s film (and theory) to illustrate “communism” notes something that Aronson does not: the fact that Vertov’s “cinema eye” (in the “Cameraman”) shows us the cameraman himself, even though this particular image is not marked or accentuated, the subject remains an element of the flow of things, both a subject and an object of vision. Zizek does not further comment on this detail. But it is crucial in this debate: the image of the cameraman involves reflexivity and subjectivity, and plays a negative role: it is a way to actively liberate the field of vision from the transcendental subject, not to affirm one. But this is the operation of cinema as a critical and revolutionary art which “mass” culture does not and cannot operate and thus cannot be seen as communist.
While all of the described theories of communism are certainly interesting, in any case more interesting that the Soviet official philosophy or the Western theory of “totalitarianism”, they may and must be criticized from the left. All of them dismiss the emancipatory socio-political nature of the regime which achieved what it did, not by setting free some age-old chaotic energies of the masses but through a wide-range destruction of the institutions of private property and through a democratic revolutionary mobilization of the society. It is clear that many of the phenomena that are deemed to be “communist” by the aforementioned “real communism” tradition are in fact the result of the large-scale destruction of the social link, which allowed a communist questioning of traditional forms. It is, on the other hand, the negativity of the decrowned (but continuous) past and of the open (but imagined and represented) future, which allowed for the epoche of the “massified” image à la Aronson, and for the occasional victories of social imaginary à la Groys and Dobrenko. It is important, however, not to fall into fetishism of image and to be attentive to this negativity which was and is a virus of a negative and therefore politically active communism.
To understand the “communism” of Soviet society, we need to be attentive to its peculiar negative, melancholic character and, moreover, to the negative condition of the extatic “communality” which ultimately led to the regime’s destruction. Moreover, it is at the background of a movement, be it a collective purposeful activity, an expectation, or mourning, that humans become apparent as ground and not figures (cf. the famous example of Sartre with the expectation of meeting Pierre in a café whose inhabitants move into the foreground as a result of this (frustrated) expectation).
Paradoxically, any talk of the “communality” or “communism” of Soviet society should start from the consideration of the most non-communist phenomena possible. Russian people today are among the most atomized and egoist in their values and attitudes. They value individual happiness above all, they do not care about charity, they are apolitical, they almost never take collective action. Everyday communication among strangers is extremely alienated: a contemporary Russian will rarely excuse oneself if s/he kicked you in the crowd, would not say “hi” if s/he leaves next door in your stairwell, etc. If one is on the way of another person, s/he would silently push you or your body part away without saying a word. Russians live in cosy apartments, but usually their stairwells are rotten and unrepaired. Against an obvious objection that this situation is a product of the rogue capitalism of the 1990s, one must immediately rejoin that these traits have existed throughout the conscious life of our generation (born in 1970s) and appear as rigid behavioral patterns that the new Western-oriented culture politic tries in vain to revert. It is just that in the late Soviet society they coexisted with the intensely communal elements which were subsequently denigrated and, while still existent, are now regarded as an obstacle and residue of the past, while in fact, ultra-individualist values are a residue of the past to an even larger degree. What we have to look for instead, is an intermediary space or a phenomenon, in which communal life is not brutally opposed to individualism, but enters into it, so that a community exists at its strongest in the modus of its own dissolution, while at the same time an individual affirms and values itself only when s/he is reaffirmed and repeated in its sheer singular existence, by a collective.
Realistically, the a-communality of today’s Russians may be explained by the extreme zeal with which Soviet state placed families into packed “communal apartments” (without regard for the mutual standing of the tenants) and by the fact that it removed many of them into private apartments in the 1960s and 1970s, thus creating conditions for a modest but zealous embourgeoisement. Communism seen as unilateral collectivism reinforced, with time, its suppressed side, the atomistic competitiveness. Thus, the post-communist Russian middle class is a mirror-image of the Western educated class: the latter are atomized by law but strive for some idealistic solidarity, the former consciously defend and institute the newly acquired individualism.
Is this a proof that Soviet socialism was “totalitarian”, not truly communist? But maybe this excessive alienation points to something else, and hides a “positive”, attractive side.
In the Soviet Union, public space used to be a space of anarchic freedom, and the complete alienation was a guarantee of non-appropriation. The attractively deserted character of Soviet space well shown in Soviet art, most famously in Andrey Tarkovsky’s film “The Stalker,” with its estranged but mystically utopian industrial ruins as a space where a deep communication becomes possible. But long before Tarkovsky the same poetic was elaborated by Andrey Platonov (1899-1951), the greatest Soviet prose writer of the revolutionary generation. There were other theorists and writers who, under the Soviet regime, produced apologies of communism as an ecstatic utopian force that destroyed identities and deliberately created chaos (before Tarkovsky, one can mention Lev Vygotsky and Mikhail Bakhtin) – we can even speak of a communist anti-communist canon of people who preserved in their thought and imagination the constituent power of communist revolution.
In many Platonov’s allegories of communism (builders of a foundation pit, premature attempt to build “communism” in a small town called Tchevengur, emancipation of a small Turk tribe “Dzhan” wandering in a Central Asian desert), people are shown in alien deserted spaces, in extreme poverty, fatigue, and solitude. Communism, for Platonov, in opposition to Marx, is the regime of poverty and negativity – and at the same time, as it is clear biographically and textually, he was a staunch supporter and participant of the Soviet project, whose probably deepest internal analyst he became.
Tchevengur, right in accordance with Badiou’s doctrine, is a town where communism is organized by the “prochie” – the unaccounted “rest” of society. Wandering of the Dzhan people ends in their dissolution, they depart one by one in all directions. Platonov sees communism as both solitude and community , but these two are presented not as an organic development (as conceived by Virno in the concept of individuation) but as a dialectic. For instance, a very characteristic diary note from 1931: “The mystery of prostitution: union of bodies implies a unity of souls, but in the prostitution the unity of souls is so absent, and it is so apparent and terrible, that there is no love, that from surprise, from the fall, from fear – “unity of souls” starts to emerge.”. At the same time, Platonov presents human sociability on the basis of a literary trope which Olga Meerson called the “non-estrangement” but is in fact a counterestrangement – presentation (and perception by characters) of weird and surprising events (such as bear working as a blacksmith) as normal occurrences, not accentuated or marked within the otherwise realistically looking narrative. It is a special sociability that grows from alienation and dissolution and takes the others for granted.
Thus, Platonov’s universe, this collective solitude where humans relate to each other non-thematically, as to ground rather than to figure, appears as a utopian communism of senses close to what describes Aronson. However, it is clear that in Platonov, against Aronson’s theory, such communism exists in the framework of radical subjectivization – which implies the questioning of traditional, fixed subjectivity. His characters are obsessed with finding out who is doing what they are doing. One of them says, in a latent polemic with of Descartes: “I don’t exist here. …. I only think here”. Another one calls himself with an inexistent word “dubject” (a split, and idiotic, subject). And yet another says: “In spite of my self-consciousness as a right-winger, left-winger, and a reconciliatory quietist, I am still sad, and consider this statement of mine to be insufficient, to be a typical démarche of a class enemy”. This latter phrase is a parody of the “self-criticism” which was required at that time of Soviet citizens. But it is, for Platonov, a genuine movement of subjectivization: a performative self-refutation which is a performative manifestation that the revolutionary subject exists. Same is true of Platonov’s image of a “eunuch of the soul” – a powerless internal observer in each of us. Valery Podoroga, whom we mentioned above, treats this figure as a modernist technique of estrangement, a phenomenological eye that only sees the external, non-subjective and non-psychological, thus providing for the “absurd” reality of Platonov’s novels. But in fact, literally, this eunuch is a castrated part of the soul, a product of self-mutilation by a divided subject who is constantly in struggle against him/herself and who at the same time successfully produces his/her own desire as powerless. It is the self-criticism and self-subversion that are responsible for the paradoxical solitude of communist subjects on which Platonov insists – and we deal not with the solitude of an individual, but of an abject part, which, as such, enters a community with other such parts, and parts of others. To the eunuch of soul, there correspond characters who metaphorically represent the lonely phalluses, such as the eternal wanderer Luy, from Platonov’s Tchevengur.
All of this is indicative of the meaning of sadness and solitude in Platonov: they are affects of self-destruction which is needed in order to retroactively create a subjectivity for the ongoing Soviet project. A revolution conceived by intelligentsia for the sake of the “proletariat” had then to build this proletariat, to grow its own roots: and this required a regressive, destructive approach. This is the meaning of the metaphor of the “foundation pit”: the joyful optimistic construction of the future means nothing, without all the mourning that it redeems and that needs to be constantly reconstructed.
The inattention and aggression in Russian streets and apartment buildings may simply mean that Russian citizens take other people for granted, as a foreground. It is a complete opposite from the Western European normal behavior vis-à-vis strangers, where an encounter produces a shock of almost a disbelief, and the exaggerated rituals of politeness meant to hide the embarrassment of the encounter itself. As we already mentioned, Paolo Virno suggests that communism is a way from the assumed collectivity to “individuation.” This is an organic version of the coexistence and passage between these two opposites. Alas, in Russia we have a gloomier scenario: a move from the assumed commonality to egoism and cynicism. It still serves as a manifest proof of the pre-existing being-in-common. But, as elsewhere, the newly formed “subjects” do everything to suppress and destroy the premise of their existence – the ground sociability.
Thus, the Soviet party-state, presumably “totalitarian”, in fact did produce a common space in the virtue of its very alienating force: state property was considered nobody’s property: this did not help economic development, but maintained a paradoxical sense of belonging and commonality, not immediately, but via the relationship to this ruined state property. This, in a strict sense, is associated with what “common” really means: “res communis omnium,” in Roman law, was distinct from the “res publica” or “res nullius”, because it was a good which belonged to no one (including the Roman people, etc.), but which could not be appropriated (as res nullius could be). One may say that res communis is a mediator between res nullius and res publica: in a sense, it also belongs to nobody but this very non-belonging is protected by the public.
In the Middle ages common land could belong to a feudal lord, but he did not have complete sovereignty over it: property, in such cases, did not exclude the right of usage by others. This is also the case with the public property in today’s Western countries. But, the fact that this is property of people, allowing for usage, brings with it the policing: prohibition of making fires, drinking, and smoking, installation of cameras, etc. In the case of the res communis omnium, the legal rule was rather closer to the Schmittean right of exception: law excluded a territory from the regime of property.
Now, how do we conceive of this communist anti-communism in the Soviet Union? There are at least two obvious explanations.
One, that Soviet socialism was a weird way to block the modernization of social relations in the spirit of bourgeois Enlightenment and, being unable to suggest anything new, managed to freeze a certain pre-Modern sociability: a mutually suspicious crowd and the family-like networks of kinship and friendship, using clientelist networks for economic activity and living in a perpetuous communion of feast and alcohol. This version is close to Zinoviev’s “communality”, except that the features in question are not collectivist: Soviet society was on the everyday basis less communal than the Western society (where, for instance, the regular co-habitation of “roommates” or other previously not acquainted individuals, exists as a normal institution for young people and does not cause a large social problem and a dissident discourse, as in the case of Soviet communal apartments).
Second, a paradoxical one, is that the cunning of history made the quasi-theocratic Soviet party-state a placeholder for the profane sacrality of a terra and res nullius which was at the same time, strangely, a res communis. This version would be close to Groys’s and Ryklin’s theological parallels, except that it is the negative, apophatic elements of religion that are emphasized.
In both cases, there is a danger to take this situation for granted, ignoring its eventful, catastrophic coordinates, or to dismiss it as archaic.
In fact, communism is not necessarily anything “nice”, and even not necessarily anything “collectivist”. Both its utopian force and its force of a real movement build both on the possibility of immediate solidarity and on the power of disrupting and dissolving the social body, exposing humans to each other in their extreme solitude. It is this power that makes communism into a threat and a hope for the status quo: there is a potential of revolution and subversion, and at the same time an idea of a society which would not correspond to any model or idealist definition, and would actively destroy any such model, building instead both the structures of social dissolution and the structures of aleatoric sociability. The current non-being of solidarity in post-communist countries may well correspond to the temporal non-being of communism which remains a “specter”, having passed away without having ever been there. A thing quite natural for the negativity, which is always unstable and fleeting but which, at the same time, returns in its very repression. The culture of collective solitude, formed in the authoritarian environment may also be used, in an inverted way, to invent an alternative to the bourgeois sociability.
Now, to conclude, it is important to treat communism politically and subjectively, and to maintain it as an alternative and a liberating abolition of the existing state of affairs, even though we can admit that in some sense we are all already communists. Political institutions play an often complex and indirect role for the development of communist society. But without political subjectivization, communism remains an ambivalent process which is ethically neutral and which can lead, politically, not only to self-management, but sometimes to the authoritarian destruction of social link or even to the fascist-like hyperidentification of a collective. This said, the political institutions of communism should somehow be themselves “negative”: foster the destruction of identities and the invention of new unclassifiable entities.
One may draw a parallel between the concept of communism and the concept of “democracy”. Claude Lefort famously argued that democracy is a regime where the place of supreme power is left empty, and a special care is taken to regularly empty it out. It is analogous with communism: at least for some crucial spheres, private property should not just be forbidden, but should be actively resisted as an informal social institution. One may criticize the partiality and ideality of the concept of democracy, which subordinates life to law, covers up for authoritarianism in a corporation or in dealing with non-citizens, as well as serves to demobilize people and consider them only as passive bearers of interest. However, we see that in today’s world there are democratic states (like France or Italy) with constant mass illegal or informal protests led by a non-systemic opposition and directed against the existing regime. These states certainly do not encourage them to do so, but there is something about their liberal “democracy” that provokes some to go against it in a “democratic” way. Jacques Rancière, an influential apologist of Western democracy, uses precisely this argument: democracy starts where there are new unrecognized subjects (les “sans-parts”) to emerge and to contest the status quo. In this sense, what we mean by communism is a more radical and less formal version of the same thing that the left-wing understanding of democracy entails: a regime which is constantly capable of self-overcoming.
There must be ways to preserve the subversive ecstatic character of communist constituent power, even at the price of its potential destructiveness. The current socio-political situation shows, furthermore, that there is a need for constantly educating citizens, for democracy or communism (which is its stronger formulation): not assuming that egoism and private escapism is human nature we nevertheless see that the dominant ideology successfully imposes it on people. Moreover, the very negative dissolving force of communism risks producing apathetic “last men,” at the moment when it is stopped. An effort must be done to make evident the communist background of the current atomization and apathy. But - any educational posture will inevitably produce a counter-effect and an overturning of the educators. So perhaps a communist government should be truly dialectical (as opposed to the pseudo-dialectical liberal state, as well as to the ideocratic dogmatism of the Soviet state to which Groys falsely attributes a dialectic - by which he understands “nonsense”). Such government should be harsh – and plastic at the same time, constantly preparing its own downfall.
 By Restif de la Bretonne, then by German Jacobins : see Grandjonc Jacques, . Quelques dates а propos des termes communiste et communisme. In: Mots, octobre 1983, N°7. Cadrage des sujets et dérive des mots dans l'enchainement de l'énoncé.. pp. 143-148.
 Karl Marx, Communism and the Augsburg Allgemeine Zeitung, in: Marx and Engels, Collected Works Volume 1, pp. 215-221.
 Marx and Engels, “German Ideology,” in Collected Works Volume 5, p. 37.
 Marx and Engels, “Contribution to the critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” in Collected Works Volume 3, p. 177.
 Friedrich Hölderlin, « Le communisme des esprits », trad. J. D'Hondt (L'Herne, Paris, 1989), p. 239-241.
 Friedrich Holderlin, “Remarks on Antigone,” in: Essays and Letters on Theory, ed. T. Pfau (NY: SUNY Press, 1988), pp. 109-116, cit. pp. 113-114.
 Jules Michelet, Histoire de