Like many academics, I attend a lot of conferences. When you’re first starting out, there’s a certain glamor to these affairs. In a line of work in which infantilization rules—imagine yourself as a 40-year old graduate student anticipating your first good paying job, while your college friends have two kids and a summer house on the shore—traveling on planes to other cities and staying in hotel rooms on a university department’s dime can feel very adult indeed.
Eventually the excitement fades. After a few trips on Southwest, a few nights spent sharing hotel bars with salesmen from Buffalo, and one or one hundred panels on Elizabeth Bowen or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, the luster begins to dull. If you are the sort of academic who tries to make his or her work something more than scholarship—something that bears directly on political life—you are bound, usually quite quickly, to encounter a fundamental conundrum. So we can quote Milton on the freedom to publish, and talk about the effects of late capitalism on literary form. Our papers, we tell ourselves, are incisive critiques of the status quo. But how intimidated is the status quo by a rigorous Marxist analysis of Philip Larkin’s “Whitsun Weddings” anyway? It doesn’t help that Power, despite our repeated invitations, rarely shows up at events like “Rethinking Modernities” to suffer our blistering remarks.
If any conference could break this mold—the underlying specter of uselessness and anonymity found in academic intellectual life—I would have thought it would be the one I attended last week at Birkbeck College in London called “On the Idea of Communism.” Conceived in the months after the fall of Northern Rock in the UK and the earliest intimations of the collapse of the US housing bubble, the conference took place amid rapidly increasing unemployment and the shrinking of the global capitalist system. If ever there was a time to make a bold statement about another way of doing things, this seemed to be it. And the Left seemed ready. The speakers at the conference were, in academic terms, about as stellar as it gets: Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek, Antonio Negri, Terry Eagleton, Jacques Ranciere, Peter Hallward, and other key (albeit mostly male and entirely European or American) players in leftist philosophy and theory. Their admirers responded in kind, packing the nine-hundred-seat lecture hall for the entirety of the conference, leading some to claim that the conference had sold out far faster than Michael Jackson’s farewell tour at the O2 Center. There was something surreal about seeing press photographers scramble for pictures of Žižek while mainstream papers ran articles about the conference and the “resurgence of interest” in Communism.
But my primary concern remained, for lack of a better word, academic—I was pleased to hear the BBC utter the “C-word,” but what I really wanted to know was whether intellectuals and academics could bring themselves, finally, again, to use the word confidently, that is, with insistence and without apology. Prior to any question of what communism might mean as a concept, what alterations or refinements might be suggested, I was eager to hear how the word would be said—with belief or embarrassment, as an immediate object of aspiration or as a utopian fantasy or historical relic, as merely an academic concept or something that was on the verge of rematerializing as a going concern in the world.
In his opening remarks, Badiou seemed to share my concerns, stating that the goal of the conference would be to find a way, in the wake of what he called the “obscure disasters” of the twentieth century, for “communism” to again be a “new positive word” in philosophy and political thought.
I’m not certain that goal was met. Despite the billing of the conference, and despite the fact that the papers presented were almost to a one solid pieces of philosophical work, I think it’s safe to say that nothing groundbreaking, or even all that unexpected, happened. The speakers routinely erred on the side of contrition and caution. When Marx was cited, which was often, it was apologetically, rounded off with disavowals of dogmatism. When presenters engaged with the current economic situation, they were strident in proclaiming that change was necessary, but defensively so, as if they were still talking themselves into the idea—a holdover from the era of the bubble, when the “rising tide that lifts all boats” wrong-footed leftists for more than a decade.
Perhaps the clearest sign of a new sort of confidence would have been to see the presenters driven off their usual talking points. But the papers largely circled around the same conceptual axes that we would have expected five or ten years ago. The deployment of such familiar keywords as the “commons” (that is, places and objects owned collectively, if “owned” is even the right word for things as disparate as medieval grazing fields and open-source computer applications) and “immaterial labor” (work that manipulates information, feelings, or sensations rather than producing solid goods and materials) endowed the proceedings with an air of roteness, of business as usual.
Above all, what was most frustrating was the near-complete absence of consideration of constituency building, of public organization, education, or even how “the idea of communism” would be sold. While we heard from Negri that the communist must set herself or himself in opposition to the state, and from Hallward that the key moment is the moment when we decide to be communists, we heard very little about what any communism to come would look or feel like to live in: how it would be arranged, how it might work, and why it would appeal.
There’s a phrase from the afterword to the second edition of Capital that appeared in paper after paper about not writing recipes for “the cook-shops of the future.” By this Marx meant that the purpose of social theory is not to sketch blueprints for what shape a possible revolution would or should take, but to elucidate the present situation and analyze the contradictions that inhibit or promote change.
The point is well taken, but on the other hand it is difficult to imagine selling anyone on political practices without a vividly rendered advertisement of the world that the practices might bring into existence. Otherwise the intellectual is either useless or some sort of vanguard, tracing out revolutionary possibilities without a thought for the constituencies that could make these possibilities real. To dream of a political transformation that takes place without the prior endorsement of the people whose lives will be transformed, a revolution made in books that almost no one except the academic elite will or even could read, is to fall into a trap that should be utterly avoidable, the one thing we know from the start that we do not want to repeat. The halting but persistent efforts to reevaluate the reign of Stalin and the Chinese Cultural Revolution only underscore this fact.
But sadly, there was a distinct way that the conference itself—the conference not as a set of papers delivered, but as a performance, a situation—materialized this problem. Unlike more conventional academic gatherings, which only very rarely attract the non-academic spectator, conferences on leftist politics have a tendency to draw in people from outside the ivory tower. Mixed in with the professors and writers and students are activists, used-bookstore autodidacts, members of obscure political parties, and other “amateur” leftists of one sort or another. At conferences, and the one at Birkbeck was no exception, these extra-academic leftists have a tendency to ask questions. Lots of questions. Occasionally the questions are very good, but often they are unhelpful, quasi-questions, barely veiled credos that rely robotically on the axioms of some charismatic cult-of-personality type. (Bob Avakian, chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party in the US, is a popular choice.)
If you’re a teacher, you understand the dynamics of this problem. You tell your students “there are no stupid questions,” knowing full well there certainly are. It takes finesse to handle a classroom at times. Where does one cut a rambler off in mid-ramble? How can the interests of the class as a whole be preserved while making space for individual “issues” and “queries”? These problems are tricky, but when things go really wrong in a classroom on this score, it generally has less to do with the students—who are, after all, usually just trying their best—than with a failure of confidence on the part of the instructor, an overreaction to a perceived threat to her or his authority or competence.
Things went wrong at the conference in this respect. The questions were not good. I’ll admit to that. But instead of working through them—trying to elevate the questioners’ points without being condescending to them—the panel chairs grew increasingly snarky, adding ever more stringent warnings to questioners to be brief, concise, and effectively brilliant. Some cut questioners off, or resorted to insults. One young questioner asked whether the proper political ground of philosophy wasn’t in fact capitalism rather than communism was informed by one of the panelists that his boldness was admirable, that it’s a brave thing as the ship of capitalism is sinking to lock yourself in your first-class cabin and tap away at your dissertation on the Critique of Pure Reason. The audience reacted in kind, moaning and grunting in response to almost every question that was asked.
I don’t claim to be perfect in this regard. The truth is, when I see a Socialist Worker Guy out and about, peddling his obscure agit-prop, I don’t raise a comradely fist. Instead, I cringe; I step away; I stop conversation before it starts. His entire approach smells a bit like fanaticism, a personality disorder, a soft form of madness. I am not proud of my reaction, especially because I know it can be reduced to a simple word: elitism. I know I can praise this everyman in print, but that for me political engagement often means envisioning a book deal with Verso or a tenured chair. I am embarrassed, in short, on behalf of the speakers, but even more ashamed of my embarrassment: the speakers are well-paid academics, the questioners are not, and it is only fair that the former respond with equanimity, rather than defensive anger. At a conference devoted axiomatically to the idea of radical equality, the domineering high-tone on the part of the speakers was, to say the least, disturbing.
But the contradictions and antagonisms may have been unavoidable. No one is saying it’s easy to devote yourself to what is untimely, obsolete, utopian. The media attention afforded the event was nice, but ultimately fleeting. Communism, for the moment, remains a distinct longshot. The anger that the less eloquent questioners provoked may well be a symptom of this fact: after all, the years spent in the ideological desert of the end of history weren’t very long ago. For this reason, it was important to uphold the “celebrity” status of figures like Badiou and Žižek: a movement with superstars has staying power. After all, there wouldn’t have been eighty people in the audience, let alone eight hundred, if it weren’t for these celebrities, a fact that speaks to one of the more troubling contradictions in the current world of ideas: that though theory was ostensibly about rejecting priority and hierarchy, origin and personality, patriarchal organization and filiation, no field or discipline is so thoroughly defined by a system of stars and acolytes, great men and those who would be great men, as theory is today and has been for quite awhile.
In the waning moments of the conference something amazing and depressing happened. After giving one of the more impressive papers at the event, Žižek attempted to get the audience as a whole to put their mouths where their money was (the conference fee was £100 for the employed) and join together in a rendition of a song whose title, he said, had more than ten letters, started with an “I” and ended with an “E.” He wanted us to sing, in short, the “Internationale.” The idea, as I saw it, was refreshing, designed to remind everyone that this was more than simply an academic conference, and that we were more than simply academics. Still, while a few diehards in the audience snapped out of their seats, most of us, myself included, looked to our neighbors a bit nervously. Did we even know the words? Would we sing it in English or French? Was he kidding? But just at the crucial moment, just as we began, ever so sheepishly, to rise to our feet, Costas Douzinas, director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, grabbed the microphone away to say that time was up, we absolutely had to leave now, the conference was over and that, comrades, was that.