Hedging communism

Yesterday Interccect hosted a lecture by Jodi Dean over her new book The Communist Horizon. It was my first time meeting Jodi in person after many years of online interaction, but more importantly it was a great lecture.

One thing that came up frequently in the Q&A was the issue of how we can know that advocating communism won’t lead straight to the worst excesses of Stalinism. She had addressed this question already in the lecture — saying, for instance, that the very existence of the question shows that we “know better” at this point and that there’s no reason to assume that history will repeat itself in exactly the same way — but she also admitted that part of her theory is that there can be no absolute guarantees in politics, so that tyrrany is always a danger to some degree in any political formation.

I was pretty satisfied with her answer, but the insistence of the question made it clear that some people needed more. That’s why I am announcing an exciting new financial product that will provide peace of mind to those who are interested in advocating communism but worried about the risk: Stalinism Insurance. In the event that a totalitarian dystopia emerges, the policyholder will get a generous payout to help them escape. We also offer a “Get Out of the Gulag Free” certificate to be presented to the authorities in the event of a purge, and we are currently cultivating relationships with literary agents to help our policyholders sell their memoirs.

Please do not hesitate to contact me about setting up a payment plan.

17 thoughts on “Hedging communism

  1. I’d sign on if we could guarantee access to mustache wax in this new People’s Republic of Adam—not that I have a mustache, but I might one day and I need to make sure my individual interests are covered in advance.

  2. saying, for instance, that the very existence of the question shows that we “know better” at this point

    We always know better than to repeat the mistakes of the past, but this time it’s actually necessary that we do X, Y, or Z, plus we couldn’t possibly be on the road to tyranny—we know better!

  3. It might be at least as helpful to pitch communism as insurance against capitalism, which despite nominal success has a far more robust history of colossal failure, hood-winking about said failure, and more failure.

  4. There are plain and clear reasons for the totalitarianism that grows out of past revolutions. There are specific rational steps that can be taken to ensure the implementation is not botched. This is a question of research and planning in advance for the aftermath, instead of allowing consolidation of paranoia and power at the top. This specific subject is addressed in my political novel, Nine Inch Bride, among a host of other questions.

    But I do think we can and and should joke about this, as a way to lighten up on fears of repeating the past, which effectively chills the very word socialism, never mind communism.

  5. That was a satisfying answer for you? “We” have “known better” about a lot of things, including Stalinism, and not managed to resolve those issues simply by having experienced them previously. And that “there is always a risk of tyranny” in politics, well… perhaps she elaborated on that a little bit, but that’s really not satisfying for me.

  6. It seems bizarre that people for whom avoiding Stalinism is an important goal would be irresistably led to Stalinist tactics and then seamlessly rationalize them (as Ben seems to envision). “The very fact that you want to avoid Stalinism dooms you to a repetition of Stalinism!” — that’s clever, but actually makes no sense.

  7. Hey, what? I don’t think that someone’s wanting to avoid Stalinism dooms him or her its repetition nor that a group for whom it was an important goal to avoid Stalinism would irresistibly be led to repeat them. That would be silly. I do think, however, that preservation of the group sense of the importance of avoiding Stalinism, and the preservation of a lively sense of what Stalinism comes to (since it obviously isn’t just a catalogue of particular things done by Stalin), or liveliness to the sorts of things that would conduce to a weakening of the former two things, is likely to be very, very hard to do, and one of the things that would make it hard to do would be widespread acknowledgement in everyone’s mouth that of course Stalinism is bad and must be resisted etc. I mean—I think the impulse to some kind of tyrannical centralization of power is likely to be pretty damn insidious. (Plus I had just been reading “The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg”.)

    One of the things I was put in mind of by my own comment (if I can comment so ridiculously) was an earlier post of yours from when talk of the possibility of an imminent Constitutional crisis was more current, which suggested that we just couldn’t have a Constitutional crisis—not because such a thing couldn’t come to pass, but because it couldn’t be acknowledged to come to pass; the consequences of openly admitting it would be too grave—graver than the consequences of the crisis itself! This is admittedly not parallel—I don’t think that following the Civil War, or Roosevelt’s court-packing, or whatever you might want to pick, Americans generally appreciated the importance of, and resolved to avoid, Constitutional crises, and this general set of mind therefore enabled some people who didn’t care so much about it to do whatever. Cf. more directly, perhaps, the syllogism that runs from “America must not torture” through “America has done X, Y, and Z to its prisoners” to “it’s not torture when America does it”.

  8. An ascendant political force is bound to attract people who don’t particularly care about preventing tyranny in general, too. That is, of course, not peculiar to Communism, and I’m not sure why peculiarly Communists need to be concerned about this kind of thing—but the fact that it’s not peculiar to Communists is one reason that I’m puzzled by the “but we know now” response. Didn’t we know, too, prior to Stalin? Couldn’t one have cited, say, the Terror?

  9. I agree with you that her answer was satisfying, I wish she had been a little more clear on the reason why the party had to seize state power, however. I was pretty much on board with her analysis of what a party/collective might be, but I was not able to follow why politics are necessarily statist. I think that’s where the crux of the question of ‘tyranny’ lies. Maybe this will be the topic of her next book!

  10. I don’t think her position is “statist” in some conceptual way — to me, it’s much more opportunistic. State apparatuses exist, they’re powerful, and we should use them while we’re trying to build something else. I don’t see what is supposed to be wrong with this.

    To me, wanting to keep one’s hands clean of the state as much as possible is just as “statist” as those who would preserve the state as an end in itself, insofar as you’re still defining yourself in relation to the state.

  11. I don’t think the answer “we know better” is satisfying at all, but I agree that of course there can be no guarantees of anything. Was Stalinism really a “mistake of the past” in a way that we could now “know better”? This makes the problem of Stalinism seem like one of bad leadership or poor choices – something to simply be avoided next time. But the degeneration of the revolution into the Stalinist bureaucratic state was completely bound up with serious objective factors, like the failure of the German revolution. Why was it Stalin, a much lesser Bolshevik figure, who ended up in power? It wasn’t because there was no one who knew better about opportunism and accommodationism. The idea that now “we know better” gives short shrift to Lenin, who was quite aware of the danger of counterrevolutionary reaction if the Russian revolution should end up isolated, and the left opposition, who knew better until the Soviet state had them put down.

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