Reviewed by Solange V Manche
Facing the failure of capitalism, the ever-more rapid succession of social movements and the inevitability of economic crises followed by austerity policies, the left is looking back upon its own theoretical legacy. There is a growing realisation that the most radical thinkers featured on universities’ syllabi for decades might in fact not have been that radical at all (Christofferson 2004; Dean and Zamor 2019; Lordon 2019). Was Foucault tempted by neoliberalism? Were Deleuze and Guattari merely advocating for escapism? Is post-Marxism just a synonym for reformism? Isabelle Garo’s Communisme et stratégie places itself within this self-reflective moment characterised by a strong desire to overcome the left’s revolutionary impasse.
In many respects, Communisme et stratégie can be seen as the sequel to her book Foucault, Deleuze, Althusser & Marx (2011), picking up where the latter left off, both chronologically and in its aims. As its title suggests, Foucault, Deleuze, Althusser & Marx is concerned with the period stretching from the 1960s until the 1980s. Communisme et stratégie begins a generation later, looking into the thought of Alain Badiou, Ernesto Laclau and the notion of the commons, primarily but not exclusively, in the work of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt. Even as the book offers a critical reading of the political significance and potentials of this generation’s critical thinkers, Garo’s work does not seek merely to criticise or give a simple overview of contemporary Marxist French philosophy. On the contrary, she sets herself the challenge to combine a contextualised analysis of Badiou, Laclau and Negri with a political rereading of Marx’s idea of communism, in order to re-politicise the current state of theory and to propose a strategy for building towards a long-term alternative that is radically democratic and resolutely anti-capitalist (267). One of Communisme et stratégie’s greatest merits is its demystification of common conceptions about Marx’s political activism and thought whilst relating it back to today’s political and economic landscape, overall more focused on the case of France but not limited to it. It is this mix of the evaluation of the present and the analysis of the past that constitutes her hopeful narrative for the possibility for radical change.
Her refusal to become the mouthpiece of ‘there is no alternative’ discourse does not stem from some belief in the performativity of positivity but is deeply related to her interpretation of Marx as a political thinker and her reconsideration of capitalism’s contradictions. Going against the common assumption that Marx upheld a teleological understanding of capitalism’s inevitable collapse and that he would have devised a blueprint for its replacement by communism, Garo shows how the centrality of workers’ struggle throughout his writings in fact contradicts this critique. In the Communist Manifesto this would be the case because of the text’s pedagogical aims for political and militant organisation (199). If Marx’s work does indeed demonstrate that there are inherent contradictions within capitalism itself, they should not be understood to lead to their own end, but rather to open up a space for revolutionary action (210). Garo thus argues that capital’s contradictions should not merely be understood from an economic standpoint, but as an incapacity to reify existence in its entirety (218). Even in Capital, Marx’s argument would be that although capital is dependent on the transformation of the labour force into commodities, (93) there’s a fundamental impossibility of its full realisation for the simple reason that people are not commodities (276). This fundamental contradiction would reveal itself in today’s increasing number of social movements against neoliberal reforms, of which the French context is perhaps one of today’s prime examples with the recent yellow vest insurgency, Nuit debout and numerous strikes in both the public and private sectors.
The Critique of the Gotha Programme is often cited to prove that Marx would have had a deterministic view of history and a programmatic idea of communism. Garo’s reading of the text, which verges upon literary analysis, undermines that habitual reception, which had become characteristic of the Third International and Lenin’s interpretation (235; 242). In the Gotha Programme, Marx sketches a smooth transition to communism in two phases, brought about by institutional and legal reform, thereby opening up a path for the justification of a top-down political agenda that can turn a blind eye to popular demands and revolts. What is suggested in the text is that equal redistribution would be sufficient a vehicle for a transition to communism.
Garo reminds us that this reading forgets the specific context in which Marx had written the piece, as a direct response and criticism of the unification programme of the General German Workers’ Association (ADAV) and the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Germany (SDAP) which would later become the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Addressed to the social democrat Wilhelm Bracke, the text was meant for internal discussion and adopted the viewpoint of the programme, presenting itself as an immanent critique (236). Indeed, written not long after Marx’s observations of the Paris Commune (1871) and its violent repression, how could he have given up the idea of class struggle and the question of the means of production? Why would he simply embrace a proposal for equal redistribution that doesn’t challenge capitalist social relations as such? Taking this context into consideration, Louis Blanc’s statement, reiterated by Marx in the Gotha Programme, ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs’ appears to mock his correspondents. Garo thus argues that, in its form of immanent critique, the Gotha Programme should above all be considered as a text that stresses the importance of the question of transition and political mediation.
So, how should we understand Marx’s conception of communism, if the Gotha Programme does not offer any direct solutions? Garo’s answer might feel unsatisfactory to some readers, as she, too, provides no fixed solution. On the contrary, she wants to revive the question because of both its historical indeterminateness and Marx’s maintained openness as regards to its actualisation. First used in late eighteenth century France, the term ‘communism’ appeared alongside those of socialism and anarchism, and subsequently spread through networks of international workers’ organisations in the 1840s (165-9). Although not denoting some fixed political agenda, it was already clear from its inception that what distinguished socialism from communism was a certain degree of radicality (168).
Throughout Marx’s oeuvre, Garo argues, communism is primarily seen as a militant act (172). Revisiting another oft-cited statement, ‘to be radical is to grasp things by the root’, she recalls how Marx describes radicality to be that of critique itself. To be radical would be to accept the consequences of a stance you decide to take.
Yet, communism is not a completely empty signifier. It is a refusal of what is given and an active search for an alternative that is not predetermined (174). It is therefore a movement and not an end goal, which nonetheless has as its aim to build an emancipatory society that it prefigures in its strategy (222-3). It is a reappropriation of the self through the means of struggle and taking back control over the mode of production, which serves the self-determination of individuals and the collective. This understanding appears to be a rather standard reading, but what distinguishes Garo’s approach is exactly her stress upon communism as an ongoing movement that should always emerge from popular movements and uprisings, as was the case in 1871. This is equally the reason why Garo welcomes workers’ self-management. Departing from examples such as the 1973 occupation of the French watch factory Lip (290), as well as from the more recent gain in appeal of autonomist activism, Garo calls upon the need to rethink strategy so as to overcome the ephemeral and purely local character of these forms of resistance (291): a horizon that would be achievable by adopting an intersectional approach and unifying the diversity of social movements that fight against the oppression of women, LGBTQ+ people, racism and fascism. Not shying away from the fact that these struggles have been ill received by Marxism and in the workers’ movement, seeing them as parasitical at best (321), Garo considers them as the expression of neoliberalism’s generalised regression and need for violence to sustain itself in times of crisis (322). The strategy that the radical left would need to adopt is to unite these struggles, without abolishing diversity and avoiding their commodification. This is ultimately the reason why she calls for the need to rethink mediation as a dialectical movement of becoming, which isn’t about the repression of difference, but rather about its unification in collective consciousness (298-90).
Advocating for a renewed understanding of communism as strategy, it might not be entirely clear why Garo starts her book with the more scholarly activity of interpreting Badiou, Laclau and Negri’s work. In part, this is related to the historical narrative that she sketches, which puts forward the idea that we’re at a turning point, an opportunity for radical change that needs to be seized by the left. This account harks back to a comparison between the 1990s generation of thinkers addressed in Communisme et stratégie and those philosophers generally considered postmodern – e.g. Foucault (370-5). Without rejecting the political significance of postmodern philosophy, recognising that it opened up a diversification of critique, she equally acknowledges that this period in French thought was characterised by an end of the belief in the possibility of abolishing capitalism (364-5), following the failure of actually existing alternatives (7). Going against the victory of a liberal democracy script, Garo argues that the fall of the Berlin Wall made it possible again to disassociate the term communism from that of totalitarianism, as had been the norm during a period of anti-Marxism that took off in the mid 1970s and that gained strength with the rise of neoliberalism (9-10). According to Garo, although indebted to the generation that preceded them, Badiou, Laclau and Negri would express a renewed concern with social change that shows itself in their strong belief in the radical potentials of theory (11). Overtly returning to the question of property relations (Negri and Hardt), communism and the state (Badiou) and political strategy (Laclau), their approach reaches a practical impasse as it limits critique to the domain of theory and does not entertain the possibility of a radically different and anti-capitalist future. Despite being the inheritors of the defeat of the left, Garo sees their theoretical ambitions to have revitalised a discussion on Marx and Marxism (23).
Overall, Isabelle Garo’s Communisme et stratégie is a book that gives hope for the possibility of radical change. Rejecting the pessimism of the Frankfurt School (277) and denouncing theory’s fetishism for doomsday narratives, her work stands out in capturing a crucial moment that is demanding a better future. Grounding her positive outlook in a thorough analysis of Marx’s political thought, she does not seek to affirm that we simply need to take his word as law, but that his political vision is valuable exactly because it takes into account the historical conjuncture it is inscribed in.
22 July 2020
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