Monday, December 30, 2013

Book Review: The Communist Horizon by Jodi Dean

After being impressed by Jodi Dean's performance in this Occupy Wall Street era panel discussion, I decided to pick up one of her recent books, The Communist Horizon.  While I think she makes plenty of essential points in this book, I don't think the arguments she forwards necessarily lead to her conclusion of the present necessity for a Leninist vanguard party.  But, in general, I mostly agree with her framing of the issues, which is needed to break out of the contemporary brain-dead mainstream rhetorical shackles regarding communism.

Jodi Dean frames communism as "the basic principle [of] from each according to ability, to each according to need" (15) and believes that "The premise of communism is that collective determination of collective conditions is possible, if we want it."(15-16)  Not only is this economic and social alternative desirable and possible, she argues, but necessary given the current crises: "the absence of a common goal is the absence of a future [other than apocalyptic ones]." (15)

Given the clear and attractive alternative that communism provides, Dean observes, it is notable that "capitalists, conservatives, and liberal-democrats... premise political discussion on the repression of the communist alternative." (6-7)  She draws the line between communists and these others by the standard of believing that "any evocation of communism should come with qualifications, apologies and condemnations of past excesses." (7)

A useful chapter in the book ridicules the simplistic appeals to history to discredit the idea of communism.  First, Dean points out that the equation of "communist = Soviet = Stalinist" (31) eliminates discussion of the "wide array of other [really-existing] communisms." (29) The oft-recited slanders of "communism - Soviet Union - Stalinism - collapse" (32) and "if Lenin, then Stalin; if revolution, then gulag; if Party, then purges" (34-35) elicit Dean's ire: "The oddity of this position is that communism is unique in its determining capacity, the one political arrangement capable of eliminating contingency and directing action along a singular vector." (35)

Perhaps it is true that communism per se inevitably results in nightmarish consequences, but that is a much more involved argument than pointing out that it happened once in particular historical circumstances.  Questions such as What is communism?  Was the USSR communist?  What other communisms existed?  What "went wrong" in the USSR's historical development?  Why did the USSR collapse? What other communisms could possibly exist? deserve to be debated seriously rather than brusquely brushed off with a false narrative of capitalist triumphalism.

Dean reserves some of her best barbs for others on the Left, who can't seem to put two and two together: "Left melancholics lament the lack of political alternatives when the real political alternative is the one whose loss determines their aimlessness -- communism." (54)  She also opines that "for leftists to refer to their goals as a struggle for democracy is strange.  It is a defense of the status quo, a call for more of the same." (57)  Dean comes to the conclusion that "As long as it restricts itself to the conceptual vocabulary of individualism and democracy inhabited by the Right, as long as it disperses collective energy into fleeting aesthetic experiences and procedural accomplishments, the Left will continue to lose the battle for equality." (60)

The book loses steam in the middle in the midst of academic debates with other leftist thinkers.  It is clear that Dean views the book, at least in part, as an intervention into contemporary academic debates about communism.  As such, she cites a number of writers (Zizek, Lacan, Badiou, Agamben Ranciere, Hallward, Hardt, Negri, Lukács...) to stake out her positions. However, this detracts from both the readability of the book and, in my view, the relevance: Dean spins her wheels battling opponents on esoteric points rather than tightly advocating for the relevance of communism as an idea.  Her reverence for Zizek and her desire to bring psychoanalysis into her argument produce horrors such as, "In a close engagement with Catherine Malabou's discussion of severe brain injuries, Zizek discusses the logic of dialectical transitions: 'After negation/alienation/loss, the subject 'returns to itself,' but this subject is not the same as the substance that underwent the alienation -- it is constituted in the very movement of returning to itself.'" (202)  This book was about communism, again, right?

Dean next examines the "communicative capitalism" of the current era.  She writes, "Networked information technologies have been the means through which people have been subjected to the competitive intensity of neoliberal capitalism." (124)  As evidence, she cites "the freedom of 'telecommuting' quickly morphed into the tether of 24/7 availability, permanent work" (125) and the fact that "ever more tasks and projects are conducted as competitions" (139) as well as noting a distinct shift "from wages to prizes" (140).  In a statement that should ring true for anyone on Facebook, Dean opines that "Demands on our attention, injunctions for us to communicate, participate, share -- ever shriller and more intense -- are like so many speed-ups on the production line." (142-143)

Dean ends the book with some well-considered critiques of Occupy and a less thought-out advocacy of the Leninist party.  She praises Occupy for the accomplishment of making the Left say "we" again (212) but cautions that an "ideology of leaderlessness breeds suspicion." (228)  She laments the "delegation without delegation" (236) that results from the perception that no one is in charge.  Dean is uncertain "that autonomy, fragmentation, and dispersion can substitute for solidarity" (236) and pans Occupy rhetoric that causes people to "lose confidence in anything but the local and the community-based." (238)  She mocks the movement's claims to "openness," believing it to be a euphemism for the "refusal of divisive ideological content." (208)

The last ten pages are spent discussing the Leninist party -- "a vehicle for maintaining a specific gap of desire, the collective desire for collectivity." (207)  While I agreed with much of Dean's writing up until this point, the consideration of if a party is necessary and, if so, what kind of party it should be, is rushed.  Clearly this question deserves major contemplation, and indeed there have been, historically, many points of view on the party.  In fairness, I doubt Dean considers her book the last word on the subject.  I also wonder what party Dean herself is a member of, or advocating for, or if instead she is only intellectually endorsing the idea of a Leninist party.

In sum, psychoanalysis and esoterica aside, Dean's book critically inveighs against cartoonish ideas of communism, held both by the mainstream and the non-communist left.  An openness to the consideration of the idea of communism is the first step to actually implementing it as a system.  These debates are especially pressing, now that "the future of capitalism is [] highly uncertain -- and for capitalists, grim." (52)

(One interesting data point Dean mentions is this 2012 Pew poll: "Rising Share of Americans see Conflict Between Rich and Poor")

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Book Review: The Fall of Paris by Alistair Horne

I recently flipped through Alistair Horne’s The Fall of Paris: The Siege and The Commune 1870-71 to brush up on an important epoch in revolutionary history.  The siege, which came at the end of the Franco-Prussian War, and the Paris Commune which grew out of the siege’s aftermath are significant for a number of reasons.  First, the Commune was a decisive influence on Lenin and the Bolsheviks.  In Horne’s words, “Without the lessons and legends derived from the Commune, there would probably have been no successful Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.” (15)  Second, it migrated the center of power in mainland Europe from France to the newly created German Empire -- consecrated at Versailles during the siege -- with the German victory passing Alsace-Lorraine into its hands.  Third, the Commune is a notable data point in urban revolt and socialist governance.  Fourth, the civil war that would eventually destroy the Commune and much of Paris was a shockingly bloody event.

Horne provides the following narrative to make sense of the destruction:

In purely military terms, Paris fell twice in the space of six months; first to Bismarck, secondly to the French Government forces under Thiers.  But she also fell in more than one sense; pride, as well as her traditional role of being the prime centre of European power, were involved (the latter never to be restored), and finally there was the grim fall of morality that accompanied the repression of the Commune. (xviii)


Certainly no nation in modern times, so replete with apparent grandeur and opulent in material achievement, has ever been subjected to a worse humiliation in so short a time. (14)

The impressive Great Exhibition of 1867 that opens the book demonstrated the heights of grandeur from which Paris fell.  At the time France and Paris were rapidly modernizing: industrializing, urbanizing, and implementing Haussmann’s urban plan for Paris (which was partially intended to minimize the risk of future urban revolts).  

All this would be temporarily interrupted by the Franco-Prussian War, which Emperor Napoleon III (aka Louis-Napoléon) was goaded into declaring on Prussia by Prussian Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck, who wanted a war to bring about German unification.  The dispute arose from an insult contained in the Bismarck-edited Ems Telegram; Horne quotes a French historian as commenting, “Never had an international cataclysm been unleashed over such a futile pretext.” (37)

France seriously underestimated the capability of Prussia’s military, and quickly found itself on the defensive.  After the decisive Battle of Sedan in which Napoleon III was captured, Paris mobs enraged at the news of the defeat swept into action on September 4th, 1870.  They stormed first the legislative building and then city hall to seize power; the Second Empire ended and the Third Republic began.  Trochu, popular with the public for his criticism of the French army before the war, accepted the post of President.

The new government prepared for the inevitable siege.  One fateful measure was conscripting and arming the Paris National Guard, which swelled to 350,000 members.  The government “trained them and armed them insufficiently to be of any military value, but just enough to constitute the most potent revolutionary threat the nineteenth century had yet seen.” (229)  The National Guard would become the “storm-centre of the Left,” (92) participating in much agitation throughout the next few months.

After several tense demonstrations in front of city hall in October, on the 31st a spontaneous demonstration erupted in the same location.  The crowd, furious at the triple disasters of Le Bourget, Metz, and news of an armistice proposal, thrust Blanqui, Flourens and other Left leaders into a chaotic scene inside city hall.  After protracted negotiations, the government agreed to hold immediate elections and to not retaliate against the demonstrators, ending the standoff peacefully.  The government partially reneged on the deal by rounding up several Left leaders / demonstrators shortly thereafter.  This betrayal, along with the elections eventually producing an ultra-conservative government and January 22nd’s government massacre of demonstrators in front of city hall embittered the Left.

The new government and its President, Theirs, further inflamed the passions of Paris by allowing the triumphant Germans to march through the city and by passing financial laws “as cruel as they were stupid.” (260)  At this point Parisians took matters into their own hands.  The National Guard seized a store of cannon and organized a Central Committee which began to openly defy the government.  When Theirs ordered the army in to recoup the cannon on March 18th, his regulars fraternized with the National Guard and eventually ended up executing two of their own generals.  Theirs and the government fled to Versailles while Brunel unfurled a red flag from the city hall belfry.  Thus, “For the first time since ‘93, revolutionaries were the undisputed masters of Paris.” (276)

On March 26th, Paris voted the Commune into power.  The Commune, as Horne puts it, initially “was little more than a slogan with no ideology, no programme, constantly glancing over its shoulder to 1793.” (294)  Composed mostly of Jacobins (headed by Delescluze) and Blanquists with a sprinkle of Internationalists (Karl Marx’s followers) and others, the Commune pursued policies that were a “mixture of incredibly irrelevant trivia and genuine attempts to right social injustices.” (330)  Splits developed over the Jacobin formation of a Committee of Public Safety, which the Internationalists opposed.  Some members also were aghast at the excesses of Prefect of Police Rigault (“An Eichmann or Beria born before his time” (299)).  Despite the revolutionary rhetoric and social reform, Parisians “were agreeably surprised at how normal life in Paris still seemed to be.” (304)  However, the Commune consistently avoided the issue of the crushing peace terms meted out by the Germans. (332)  One of the Commune’s “most memorable, as well as most pointless” (349) acts was the tearing down of the Vendôme Column.

After commencing a second siege of the city, Theirs’ army entered Paris on May 21st.  The Communards at the barricades were no match for the regulars, and the Commune was ruthlessly crushed during the “Bloody Week.”  Much of Paris burned during the reconquest, and the body count eclipsed either the Reign of Terror or the 1917 Revolution (380) clocking in at about 25,000 dead.  Horne comments that “[The Bloody Week] provided a terrible example of how swiftly a civil, urban conflict can become degraded into such unbridled ferocity.” (418)

The Commune’s experience captured the imagination of Marx who chronicled it in The Civil War in France.  Lenin would study the lessons of the Commune, believing its two great mistakes to be the failure to seize the Bank in Paris (thus allowing Thiers’ army to be financed, among other consequences) and the failure to crush the Versailles-based government immediately after it fled Paris, when it was most vulnerable.  In short, “To Lenin and his followers, the supreme lesson of the Commune was that the only way to succeed was by total ruthlessness.” (432)

To me, the greatest mistake of the Commune, and of the French of 1870-1 generally, is the inability to appreciate new developments in technology and society and the consequent refusal to abandon past strategies and tactics as antiquated and ineffective.  Paris’ ideas that the French could repel foreign invaders by a levée en masse style attack of a century previous, or that barricades and muskets wielded by flaky amateurs can defeat professional soldiers with rifles and artillery moving along grand boulevards proved to be dreadfully wrong -- courage is no substitute for competence.  

On the other hand, the Commune got a lot of things right.  It rode a wave of popular discontent to power, had wide legitimacy as the result of democratic elections, capably administered a city in wartime, pursued admirable social reforms, collaborated relatively well given the diverse political philosophies present and the absence of likely leaders (such as Blanqui, who was in prison), kept repression to a minimum and inspired with its proclamations and actions.

Horne’s writing assumes decent background knowledge of French language, French history and French geography, so understanding the details of the narrative can sometimes be difficult (and provides a chance to brush up on one’s French).  He clearly has expertise in French/German conflict history, given the multitude of references to other French events and personalities, but all of the foreshadowing and name-dropping can border on irritating.  A parallel he often, helpfully, invokes for comparison is the Siege of Leningrad.  Horne also takes many extended excerpts from first-person accounts.  Clearly he has done research that he wants to show off, but this can break up the flow of the reading.  All things considered, it is a decently written work of history.