Given the recent history of the organized Left, where even the once mammoth Italian Communist Party had to rebrand itself “Democratic” before folding completely, you might be forgiven for expressing some surprise at the recent flurry of books on the theme and contemporary relevance of “communism.” And yet since 2009 half a dozen books of political philosophy have been published in English with communism or its direct cognates in the title, books that are by or include significant established or rising luminaries in the field (Badiou 2010; Bosteels; Dean; Douzinas and Žižek; Groys; Noys; Vattimo and Zabala). To this mix we might add Žižek’s edited volume of Lenin’s 1917 writings (Lenin 2002), with its position-taking 170-page afterword, and the collection Lenin Reloaded (Budgen, Kouvelakis, and Žižek) as further evidence of a mini-boom in communist theory, with the topic of these two indicating also the kind of communism that is here ascendant.
Granted, most of these books are from the same Verso publishing stable, but it has been many years, if ever, that works on the theme of communism have been the standard fare of this New Left publisher. Any doubt about the relative size of audience for this body of work was put to rest by the conference that functioned as its public coming out, “The Idea of Communism,” held at London’s Birkbeck Institute of Humanities in March 2009 and convened by Costas Douzinas and Slavoj Žižek. Originally booked for a room accommodating 180 people, the conference was attended by 1,200.
How can we understand this development? Speculation about the causes of the renewed interest in communism has a place in these books themselves, where explanation ranges from the return of economic crisis to a sense that this revival is perhaps an overcompensation [End Page 1] in the realms of theory for the absence of its historical referent. There is some truth to both of these apparently contradictory explanations. The first can stand without elaboration, given the central place of crisis in communist thought. The veracity of the second is more partial, only the case if we understand it to be an explanation of the dominant form that communism takes in this revival. I come to this point in due course, but the article adds little more to the discussion of causes.
My aim instead is twofold: to understand the specific form of communism that is revealed or constituted in these volumes; and to consider what this theory of communism can or cannot contribute to a political understanding of our time. Let me be clear before proceeding further that I find the form of communism that is dominant in these texts to be highly suspect and not very communist at all. This form is closely associated with Alain Badiou, and so his work on communism is my principal focus here. But I approach it through what is the key or aggregating text of this body of work, Douzinas and Žižek’s The Idea of Communism (henceforth IC), the edited collection of papers from the aforementioned conference, which includes many of the authors in Verso’s communism series. This book further suggests itself for consideration in being framed as a work of intervention, a product of our time of upheaval—the “return to full-blown history” marked by the 2008 financial crisis and emerging global struggles against neoliberal capitalism (IC, viii)—and an invitation to postmodern postpolitics to “get serious once again,” as emblazoned in Žižek’s inimitable style on the back cover: “Do not be afraid, join us, come back!” As well as a volume that sets out a stall and aggregates the key authors, the book claims, then, a certain agential power in establishing the field of contemporary politics qua communism, a principled and “serious” engagement with the present. Its fifteen chapters are by no means dominated by Badiou’s approach to communism, but he is clearly the ascendant figure, his philosophy and eponymous chapter providing the book’s governing theme of the “Idea” of communism. In...