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  • Communism at Birkbeck
  • Steven Shaviro
Conference Review: “On the Idea of Communism,” Birkbeck College, 13–15 March 2009

The conference “On the Idea of Communism” took place at Birkbeck College, in the University of London, on 13–15 March 2009. There were twelve speakers, and nearly a thousand people in attendance. The conference, which was organized by Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou, was intended, as Žižek said in his opening remarks, not to engage in discussion of actual political programs, or to intervene in the harsh realities of day-by-day social and political struggles, but to consider how the philosophical idea, or ideal, of communism might be revitalized and made useful in the twenty-first century. Žižek said that the time for guilt over the crimes of the twentieth century was over, and that today we need to reclaim the name of “communism” from the ill repute into which it has sunk. For my part, I think that this impulse is altogether correct. Many crimes were undoubtedly committed by Communist parties, or in the name of communism, throughout the twentieth century. But capitalism, too, is guilty of many crimes. And where communism has been thoroughly demonized, capitalism still refuses to acknowledge its own crimes or to show any repentance for them. Given the increasingly untenable situation in which we live today, exacerbated by the current financial disaster, communism may well be an idea whose time has finally come.

Of course, part of the appeal of events such as this conference is [End Page 147] simply that they give us an opportunity to see academic superstars in action. From this perspective, “On the Idea of Communism” did not disappoint. Slavoj Žižek was in fine form, manic and excited, and so full of a kind of outward-directed energy that I didn’t really mind his overbearingness. Gianni Vattimo, whom I had never seen before (and of whose works I have read only a little) was quite a charmer, in a humorously self-deprecating way. Terry Eagleton reveled in the role of the lone British commonsense empiricist in a room otherwise full of Continental dialecticians. Antonio Negri was warm and animated, while Jacques Rancière was admirably meditative. Alain Badiou served as a sort of éminence grise, dominating the proceedings as a central reference point even when he wasn’t on stage.

The main question that the conference raised for me was not “What is communism?” nor even “How can theory be tied to practice?” but rather “What does it mean to explore the mere idea of communism, as opposed to the actuality of capitalism?” The idea of communism is to a large extent a negative one in that we don’t really know what a communist society would be like; we can only say that it would mean the emancipation of people, and the establishment of forms of life that are repressed, oppressed, and denied an opportunity to flourish today. Terry Eagleton’s talk was the only one that endeavored to give anything like a positive sense of what communism might be like, that tried to imagine it as an actual state of being rather than just as the negation of what we have today. For Eagleton, communism means abundance and leisure; it is much closer to the life of aristocrats (or, rather, to our imagination of aristocrats’ lives) than it is to anything like the oppressive actuality of working-class experience. He explained this sense of actual communism by quoting copiously from Shakespeare and other great canonical authors. The unintended effect of this “blast from the past” was to suggest, in a symptomatic way, the limitations of any attempts to imagine utopia. It didn’t really convince. I appreciated Eagleton’s citations of The Tempest in the same way that I appreciated other speakers’ invocations of Plato and Hegel, but, all in all, Eagleton seemed to me to be a bit too vague and too fussily “literary,” in an old-fashioned way; he spoke a bit too much as though it were still the “good old days,” when horrible things like movies and TV and the Internet didn’t yet exist.

Eagleton’s talk, together...


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