Das Interview führten Olga Montseny & Radim Kucera
When we, as political activists, read your texts we can recognise ourselves in them. When we hand out leaflets we suddenly find ourselves in a historical situation next to Lenin, or at least that’s how it feels. What does that mean? Do you think that only political activists can really read your philosophy and really understand what it means to be in a procedure of truth?
I think you know that to be a political activist, by itself, is not something of philosophical nature for me because first of all, I see politics as a condition of philosophy and not exactly the other way round. However, in the case of politics, it is not enough to say that politics is a condition of philosophy. We must also have a measure for the presence of philosophy inside politics, because it’s a tradition ranging from Plato to today. There is a specific relationship between philosophy and politics. It’s not the same relationship between philosophy and art or philosophy and science. It is very remarkable that Marx, Lenin, Mao and many others wrote philosophical books. When they do that it’s a political act but also a philosophical one. So I think that when you are a political activist today you have a specific relationship to philosophy, because there is a form of internal relationship between philosophy and politics and not a purely conditional one. And what is this relation? I think it’s fundamental due to two points. First, modern politics has been in close relationship with the general problem of dialectics. In politics we have a very important question of the relation between affirmation and negation, construction and destruction and so on. Second, to be a political activist prescribes a subjectivity, not only a definition by the word, the consequences and so on, but a subjectivity as such. It’s formed by a general conviction , a conviction, which is not a strict specialization in a small corner of your life. It’s something more important and general. For all these reasons, I think there is a specific relationship between being a political activist and knowing something about philosophy. And probably the use you can have of philosophy in your subjective existence as a political activist, is to have a sort of stabilisation of subjectivity. The subjectivity is then not completely dependant on concrete situations and is able to continue even if the situation is really bad. In fact, if politics would be reduced strictly to politics, strictly to its process, and if this process would disappears — what can happen — the subjectivity would be completely dissolved. I think, paradoxically in some sense, that philosophy has the power to create a stabilisation of a political subjectivity, especially in a moment when politics is weak. That is why philosophical discussions are much more important when politics is weak. When politics is very urgent its easier and you can have every day political discussions concerning what is to be done.
You mention the weakness of politics at the moment-we too see a retreat of proper communist politics from reality. Could one interpret your philosophical determination of communism as an idea, a hypothesis, or as a symptom of the absence of communism as a real movement in the world of today as Marx still understood it? Could your ontological thinking be interpreted as a result of a historical development which reduces communism to an idea instead of a real movement?
Yes! It is the consequence of what I was saying just before. I say that communism is an idea today because the idea itself can disappear. If communism would be a complex process, active, occupying millions of people, there would be no necessity to say that communism is an idea. I think the idea is a sort of possible subjective mediation between a theoretical and practical individual and the future political process, it is not an idea in the sense of something immovable and without consequences. However, I am afraid to see that the idea itself, that is to say finally the whole existence of a possibility for the world, which is not the world as it is, which is not the globalized capitalism of today, is practically disappearing. It is an warning, if you like. There are very serious consequences of the complete disappearance – of what? Of the Two finally! Of the idea that, in the end, there exists in our society a crucial choice between the pure acceptance of everything that exists (even with some negotiations and transformations of details) and something else, that is, the idea that we must have the positive desire of a new possibility concerning the social order, the organization of power, the question of disappearance of nationalism, fascism…. The communist idea or its hypothesis is, on the whole, the conviction that something else is possible. In the philosophical jargon, one can say that the idea is a sort of transcendental, the subjective possibility of the possibility. And so, I agree, it’s possible to say that it is in some sense a defensive position. But we are in a defensive position. That’s the point. We must accept that sometimes we are obliged to retreat, but retreat without giving up our conviction.
That the idea of communism these days is only kept alive by saying that there exists an idea, solely by this performative act of articulating it, is indeed linked to our experience. We became communists by talking about the possibility of communism with other communists. Is this what we have to do now: talk to other people about communism?
First, you have to be prepared to do that. And to be prepared to do that is to anticipate the question of people in general, concerning the word communism. First the word itself poses a problem. What is necessary? You need to be able to explain why you still use the word communism, after practically one century of experiences concerning precisely communism. Many people will immediately say that communism was a failure, a disaster, a bloody state, etc. etc.. But we have to explain that democracy, too, means imperialism, colonial wars and so on. So we have to be prepared to propose our proper vision of the past. This point is important, because a part of the risk of the disappearance of the communist idea is the disappearance of the conviction that something real is possible, which is not the world as it is. I always say: if you have a better name- OK. But there is no better name. Because to have a better name means always the acceptance that inside the idea itself something was wrong, something one has to change. You must not assume the complete discontinuity of history. Communism was a word of Marx, of Lenin, of revolutionaries of different kinds. That is not a decisive objection. Like everything, communism has been divided. We assume that in this division you have both, a bad or a false way, and a continuity. You have to use all means to defend the choice to speak of communism. That means that you shouldn’t have the feeling that you are vanquished on this point. I often say that the great victory of the reactionary forces in the world has precisely been to create among us a sort of fear to speak of all that. We have to identify this fear as the presence of the enemy inside our thinking, because the question of the enemy is always, to begin with, the question of the presence of the enemy inside our thinking. The external enemy, OK, we know that. But the question is: where is the enemy inside us? I think that the enemy inside us is precisely our fear of pronouncing the word communism. The word communism is corrupted by the enemy and if we accept that, it’s not a good thing.
Now you mention history. For us, as historical materialists, history plays an important role, but it is not immediately evident how to interpret it. We would no longer say, like Hegel, that history is the development of the idea of reason and freedom. Marx already objected that and said it has so far been a blind process: the development of class struggle and the productive forces. However, due to the events of the 20th century one is forced to add a bit more dialectics and say that it was always also the development of the destructive forces. In that case, if history is not the development of the idea of reason, the question of the relationship between history and reason remains or between history and the idea. How do you interpret this relation?
The relationship between politics and history is not a structural relationship. We have a sort of failure of a structural interpretation of the relationship between politics and history. That has to do with the concept of class struggle, the only concept finally of politics. Politics is always in relation to three terms and not two. The first vision of politics is that you have the class struggle with two fundamental terms: proletariat and bourgeoisie, and you can interpret all the political facts inside this duality. That is the case for the state. The state is a bourgeois state or a proletarian state. However, if a proletarian state exists, what is the signification of the progressive disappearance of the state? It is a really complex problem, because we cannot understand clearly the distinction between the proletarian and the bourgeois state if the proletarian state is supposed to last forever. Normally it is in relation to something which organises the disappearance of the proletarian state. Therefore I think that the new communist politics, in the end, have to work with three terms. We have a fundamentally historical term inside politics, it is the mass movement. The mass movement cannot solve political problems directly. It is what we observe today. For instance, we had the Arab Spring, but after that came El-Sissi and the army. It is a cycle and the mass movement is in this cycle. Why? Because the mass movement has been an historical fact, but has finally not been articulated to politics as such. The mass movement and the state are two terms that are in a contradictory relationship, and politics has to be the third term.
You speak of the relationship between history and politics, but what is the relationship between history and reason, or rather- thinking?
You always have to understand a situation and your goal in it. I am a Leninist: concrete analysis of the concrete situation. But we cannot understand a situation without history. What is a situation? It is the result of a sequence. Generally you have to have a minimal periodization of history to understand the actual moment. For instance : I proposed to say that Sarkozy in France was a symbol of the end of the post-war sequence, because that sequence was a mixture of Gaullism and communism. With Sarkozy comes something completely different. It is a rupture in the Right itself. If you admit that there is a specific thinking in politics, that politics is not a blind action but a realisation of concepts, visions and thinking, you necessarily have to think something about history itself. I think „true“ history has always a relationship to politics, because if it is not in relationship to politics, to understand clearly the present situation becomes in some sense only an academic disposition. That is not vivid thinking. But if you mobilize a form of thinking of history in the direction of the complete understanding of the concrete situation and eventually to organise your political thinking and actions in the present situation, I think that then you will have a really close relationship between thinking in its political destination and history. When I say in some books that history does not exist, it is a provocation. After that, pure Marxists say: you are not a Marxist, Marxism is the science of history, historical Materialism and so on. So the provocation worked. I only say that if you think of history as such, without saying what sort of history and what sort of destination has your thinking about it, you have certainly the big academic history, but from the point of view of real thinking this does not exist. I didn’t say that history does not exist as an object or as a discipline. But it is non-existent from the point of view of a strict reduction of history to history. It remains a purely academic narrative, even if you put some drops of Marxism in it.
The idea of communism you describe in „The Communist Hypothesis“ is somehow underdetermined, even empty. You say that there is no such thing as the adjective „communist“, that there is no communist party because there are no characteristics of communism. How does the communist idea protects itself from being taken by the wrong persons, if it is without any characteristics?
The final identification of communism as a name for politics is not simple. The communist hypothesis is necessary but not at all sufficient to determine politics as communist politics. You can assume the communist hypothesis and make perfect reactionary politics. It is paradoxical but absolutely possible. The idea of communism is a sort of subjective necessity to produce inside the concrete situation something like an orientation for the second and third step. I return to Marx when he says that the communist in a concrete situation is first of all a part of the movement. But then the communist has new means to understand the necessity of the second step, so the communist organizes also a new thinking of the relationship between politics and history, because the communist inscribes the presence into something which is a little bit more than the pure presence. We can have something more of the presence when we have also something more of the past. The knowledge of the present situation inscribed in history is something that goes to the future in the light of the communist idea. Naturally, in the end, the political engagement itself is the real thing the communist hypothesis cannot be only a subjective determination. We can generally say that the communist hypothesis is reduced to some principles, and principles are different forms of a strategic orientation in a present situation. Without something like that, without some principles, we are in danger of getting disoriented. For example, at one point in „The Communist Manifesto“ Marx writes: “Finally, everything I have written can be summarized in one sentence: destruction of private property.” [Reference to: „In this sense, the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.“ / „In diesem Sinn können die Kommunisten ihre Theorie in dem einen Ausdruck: Aufhebung des Privateigentums, zusammenfassen.“ MEW 4, S. 475]. You can say that it is an absolute abstraction. In a really complex situation — think of the creation of the International, of the relationship to Bakunin and so on — to abolish private property would be a very poor political program. But in some sense it is the first principle. If what you do is to consolidate the private property, it is bad. So you need to be clear about the consequences of what you do, even during a long period of time and not only see the possible victory at the present stage. To know about the second step is the heart of politics, also for Marx himself. That is why the definition of communism works only with two terms. The first, is the abolition of private property, and the second is internationalism. You should never keep the political determination locked inside the national determination. These two principles are absolutely true today. We have to keep that in mind.
You speak about subjective determinations, but we were wondering about the objective determinations. For example, Marx defines communism as classless society. In that case communism is the direct negation of capitalism, of class society. Why can´t we find much about capitalism and class society in your texts? We have the impression that the formulation of the new in the given situation is more important for you than the analysis of the old. The whole Hegelian idea of ‘Aufhebung’, which Marx re-adapted in order to realise what is already inside capitalism seems to be missing from your thinking. Is this intentional?
That is because the second aspect, the aspect of the principle of subjectivity concerning the future, is lacking today. The weakness is not on the side of the objective analysis of capitalism. We have excellent analyses of capitalism everywhere. Capitalism proposes very good explanations of itself, because it is all that remains inside the common determination of society. We know that a bit of Marxism is now inside capitalism itself. When I was young the critique on Marx was that he gave too much importance to economy. But today, that’s all over. Everybody assumes that the economy is the determination of the situation. Our governments are always Marxists in that sense. They are repeating that economy is the final determination. As true Marxist we have to say the opposite- that there is much more than economy in the determination of politics. When I insist on the subjective vision of the future it is not at all because I forget the objective determination. Today we know quite precisely the objective determination, but this sort of knowledge cannot determine by itself even the pure possibility of the communist subjectivity. We have to affirm this possibility and then check, if this affirmation can make sense in the concrete situation. Without this check it would be purely idealistic. That is my principal contradiction with Negri, because Negri has the idea that we can find the communist movement inside the new development of capitalism. I think that is not true, already factually. For example, when you say we have more autonomy because of the immaterial economy – it is a pure fiction! If you discuss that with an employee he or she would say exactly the contrary: that he or she is a slave to the computer, that he or she is controlled by the computer, that the computer is a spy, that the boss knows everything, that the boss comes and says „you sent a mail which is not useful„ and so on. You have seen that sort of new, big office like a box with hundred peoples in one big room, It is exactly the contrary of what Negri thinks, it is the proletarianization of the intellectual workers. Today nothing in the movement of the capital is of emancipatory nature. The concentration of the capital is more and more radical. So the big tendencies, which Marx observed, are all exact today. There is no revolution at all within the capital. Two examples: First, the concentration of capital. The concentration of capital, which is a law of capitalism, is at a scale which would be extraordinary for Marx, though predictable. The second example is also radical. For a long time, one objection made against Marx was that the introduction of capitalism in the agriculture was not possible. But during the sequence which began in the 50th and 60th of the last century, the capitalization of agriculture has been extraordinary and the reduction of the number of peasants has been radical. Marx’s prediction that the concentration of capital will eventually succeed also in agriculture and not only in industrial production has indeed been realized in modern times. I think that all that – the secret communism of modern capitalism – is a dangerous fiction. Our weakness lays not in the precise knowledge of the objective economic situation, but in the illusion concerning the emancipatory nature of capitalism itself. That is the error of Negri. On the other hand, there exists also the illusion concerning the possibility of finding some completely different subjective principles than the communist principles which we know. But we must repeat their absolute necessity today because we are in a situation where in some sense we have had for many historical and political reasons a sort of provisional victory of globalized capitalism at the scale of the world itself. It is a fact that subjective determination is of great importance in the current development of the class struggle, but that was the case already when Marx wrote the Manifesto. Marx also said that a communist is defined by subjective characteristics and that it was necessary to inscribe this subjective characteristic into the process of what he named the general movement of workers. It is exactly the same today. We observe that some movements exist. We have to be inside them, naturally, but inside them we have to be communist in the sense of Marx. It is not so difficult after all.
Is it then a theoretical decision to exclude economy as a truth procedure from your philosophy? Is that something you might share with other French philosophers like Balibar or Rancière and which separates you from theoreticians like Antonio Negri?
To answer your first question: The full title of Capital is „Critique of Political Economy„ and not „Political Economy„. Marx’s question in the Capital is not “economistic”, i.e. to deduce “economy” as the true science of the real, because for him in the end the secret of history was not economy as such, but rather class struggle determined by a substructure of economical nature. I think Marx would agree to place more weight in politics than in economy. Through politics we can clarify economy, not the other way round. Of course economy can explain the existence of classes, but the true way of history, the existence of communism and so on is in relationship to politics, although politics must understand capitalism. So, to come to your second question, in a way Marx contradicts Negri here: the secret of emancipation lies not in economy. What is behind Negri´s economistic interpretation? It is the mechanistic idea, dream or hope, that the law of the concentration of capital will work for us, that history will in the end lead to communism. In my opinion, we should be very sceptical here and even ask the question of “socialisme ou barbarie”: maybe capitalism works for the destruction of humanity and the end of it. And since Marx the situation has changed! If we look at the objective facts, the question of the possibility of communism is depends no more on workers but on the billions of superfluous people everywhere, which is partly the question of the refugees. The classical question of the class alliance between workers and peasants has been substituted by the fundamental, difficult and obscure question, the question of the “Lumpenproletariat”.
You´re talking about class alliances, strategy and politics, which sounds a bit “old school” to us, as if our task was to overtake the state, to replace the bourgeoisie, to construct a communist state and so on. Aren’t you actually reducing communist politics to the question of seizing power?
Not at all! That would indeed be an old fashioned way of thinking politics. We must be very suspicious concerning the question of seizing power. We can learn here from what happened in Greece. What was Syriza’s Agenda? Something like this: first we unify our existing organized forces and give it a name: “Syriza”, after that we take the power by ordinary means, i.e. elections and after that… we do nothing. Seriously, they do nothing. My friends in Greece tell me, they did and do nothing at all and that is not because they are bad or wrong or corrupted, but because their sole agenda is to keep the power, to stay at the head of the state.. They have the minimal idea of “after all we are better than the others” and, as we see, it’s a total disaster. So what went wrong? After the people´s “No” in the referendum, there has been an historical moment where Tsipras could have associate with the people, refused the authority of the EU and ended the logic of the state, but he found it more important to keep the power, to be pragmatic and so on. Tsipras has had the chance to declare, “I am with the people, even if it means losing power”, a situation that would have frightened Europe, because it would have meant a form of anarchy. But Syriza made the wrong choice and chose to stay in power by all means, which is exactly why now they cannot do anything at all: they are prisoners of the state. It is false to say that Tsipras is under Merkel’s dictate. No! He is under the dictate of the state and that is his own failure. This is really a pure example, positive as well as negative. To take a revolutionary decision means to be able to lose the power and to go with the people. Maybe Tsipras didn’t do it because he thought that his alliance with the people was not strong enough.
Our next question is a bit more abstract: You write that you painfully had to let go of Hegel in opposition f.e. to our comrade Slavoj Zizek. What is actually your problem with Hegel?
I have no problem with Hegel, I am not an anti-Hegelian. One should not oppose materialism and idealism as Althusser did – that is a step back to a scientific, if you like to use the word, “vulgar”-materialism. I am actually completely Hegelian in some sense and would fight for a renewal of Hegel. However, what is wrong with Hegelianism is this tendency to trust history as I said earlier. Negri is a good example, with a subtle analysis he wants to find communism already in the present situation. That is of course wrong. And it’s Hegelian in the sense that it is a Hegelian idea to find the Absolute at work in the present situation. We have see here the difference between Hegel´s and Marx´s dialectics – that would be my point concerning Hegel. And I think the difference lies in the relation between history and politics. For Hegel politics was only a subdominant part of the history of consciousness and after that he identifies politics with the state. In the end, for Hegel politics is the Prussian State, so the historical definition of politics leads to the domination of the question of the state. That is of course a result one would not want to have as a Marxist, because Marx was the thinker of the vanishing of the state. So Hegel leads to Lenin: Lenin´s obsession was to answer the question of “How can we be victorious?”, which is exactly the question of the state. Lenin solved the problem, but it was only the problem of power he solved. The real problem came afterwards and his failure was to solve the second problem with the old methods of seizing power, i.e. violent contradiction, extermination of enemies and so on. And the consequence is Stalin, for Stalin’s state was a state of permanent civil war. In some sense, the true Hegelian is Stalin with his glorification of the socialist state as the final result of history, thinking history would justify everything. One could say that Stalin answered Hegel: “It was not the Prussian state, Hegel, it’s the Soviet Union!” So maybe Althusser is at least right concerning one point: Hegel was guilty – guilty of inventing Stalin, because Stalin is a magnificent example for the thinking of the victory of history in the form of the state, much better than Frederick II.
That brings up another question: What is your position regarding the critical theory of Horkheimer and Adorno? Would you, due to the reasons you just gave, deny the existence of philosophical truths, whereas critical theory may claim the opposite: real truth is only in philosophy?
I give “truth” a very specific meaning, which is probably the first difference, because for me “truth” doesn’t have a philosophical meaning. In opposition to that, critical theory affirms the German tradition in claiming truth is a philosophical concept and in saying that the general structure of our thinking is of normative nature. In such a conception “true” is the name of the right choice or of good orientation of our thinking. My technical definition of truth is completely different. In a way my resulting understanding of philosophy is totally Hegelian, because for me philosophy comes at the end of the day, whereas for Adorno critique is clearly at the beginning. I am with Hegel here: philosophy takes place in the dawn, as the final synthesis of the historical moment of thinking and under the condition of truth, but philosophy is not truth itself. Philosophy organizes the truth procedures, f.e. politics, which means that it must assume that politics exist. The existence of truth, or, to remain with the example, the possibility of politics, is a necessary condition for philosophy. However, that’s only one side of the dialectical relation, because on the other hand we have effects of philosophy in politics which are of course not immediate, but come afterwards, after a philosophical meditation. What does that mean today? Given that today politics is very weak or maybe even inexistent, the philosophical position to that can appear political, as it must refer to politics of the past: what is a condition for philosophy today is the history of communism from the beginning of the 19th century through its complete failure in Stalinist state and the collapse of the Soviet Union until today. It would be wrong to say that the non-existing politics of the presence were not determining our philosophy today: we are exactly determined by this present absence of politics. But it would also be wrong to conclude from the absence of politics during the last thirty years that its absence should last for ever. Given that the long sequence of revolution started in the eighties of the last century, the last thirty years are not a very long time…
You Probably thought of this interval of non-existing politics at the end of your speech at the conference when you called for a corruption of the youth: young people should reach for the sky, instead of following the logic of the capitalist world. We were wondering if you were not talking the language of the enemy here, if capitalism isn’t commanding today exactly this: to break all laws and reach for the sky. Didn’t you indirectly quote Steve Job´s “Stay Hungry – Stay Foolish”? Wouldn’t real corruption of the youth today may mean a new form of asceticism?
Of course we cannot corrupt the youth with the Lacanian command to “Enjoy”. Which was the accusation against Socrates? To subtract the youth from the dominant order! A corrupted youth is not in search for a good place in the existing world, but is questioning the dominant order in its principles. It is not really radical for example to claim free sexuality, to do what you want, to live your life and so on. I am not against all that, but our task today is a bit more than that: to come out of the Platonian cave which surrounds us, because there is light. To corrupt the youth is to fight against the temptation to take side with Western modernity, not because it means capitalism, but because it means modernity! The choice between tradition and modernity is a false choice: of course modernity has dissolved all roots of the tradition, but it has not dissolved the oppression. The all-existing “change” in globalized capitalism is very oppressive. Maybe there is another modernity. If there is, its name must be communism.