It riles me up when intelligent people whose work I respect a lot say ill-considered, if not outright indefensible, things. Jodi Dean’s post arguing that communism “worked” strikes me as such a thing. I’ve provided a lengthy counter-argument on her blog, the gist of which is that the political projects that were actually carried out (rather than merely dreamed) under the flag of “communism” were colossal failures, for a whole host of reasons. This is thoroughly documented, and anyone who has spent much time in the former Soviet Union, or I imagine in China, has encountered the many levels of failure: social, economic, ecological, and, perhaps most disturbingly, a kind of deep spiritual failure.
Gilles Deleuze argues that what we need are artistic and philosophical experiments that would revive our belief in this world. (That’s what this blog has argued since its inception.) While the Soviet experiment did produce such a belief in its earliest stages — and these are worth learning from — it lost it rapidly and decisively. Whether we date that loss to the long slow decline after Khrushchev, or to Stalin’s ascent and totalitarian takeover in the 1920s (and the killing fields that followed), or to the suppression of leftist dissent (such as the Kronstadt Rebellion of 1921, or others even earlier), is all a matter for debate.
But ultimately the Soviet experiment produced the very opposite of “belief in this world”: it deadened hopes and values to the extent that most people subsisted (spiritually) by carving out a little bit of personal/interpersonal space for trusted friends, but not much else. Many recognized that the ideology was dead but that they had to pledge allegiance to it just to survive. Many resorted to alcoholism (the legacy of which is alive and well today). By the end there were very few “believers” left. Those who knew how to work the system for their own ends became the new capitalist elites once that switch was flipped.
There remain a minority of Soviet believers, mostly elderly retirees and war veterans who sacrificed themselves for the system and are aghast at what little they have been left with. But the idea of reviving Communism, in the places where it was actually tried, is a dead idea, an expired word and world.
Belief itself has not expired: religion, nationalism, and consumerism have stepped into the vacuum, awakening belief where communist/socialist beliefs had exhausted themselves. But belief in this world and in its powers and possibilities — belief in genuine political change, in the power of people to build a world that responds to their needs and desires and that melds with the larger, multigenerational and more-than-human world, an immanent belief as opposed to one yoked to transcendent signifiers of one kind or another — is scarcely to be found in the former USSR. It does arise occasionally (as during the Orange Revolution in Ukraine) — in fact, it rises up through the cracks everywhere, flowering in the most unexpected places — but these blooms have little to do with what for 70 years was called Communism.
I appreciate the efforts of those who try to re-yoke the meaning of “communism” to the possibilities of “the commons” — a tradition that would link across a long and vital beatnik history, from Gerald Winstanley’s Diggers to today’s technotopian commonwealthers (who span the spectrum from the libertarians at Wired magazine to Hardt and Negri’s imagined multitudes). But “communism,” in this country and in others, contains so many cobwebs. The very term is too fixed in the dipolar Cold War world in which the possibilities of the Left were tightly circumscribed, paralyzed by the glow of the headlights of the Soviet (and/or Chinese) ship of state. Let’s celebrate the sinking of that ship and move on into the future.
The fact that capitalism is failing in all the same ways — social, ecological, economic, and spiritual — in no way means that Communism, as it was tried, did not fail. What it means is that we still have to invent a world that works (and words to go along with it), and that the models of the past are insufficient.