Nearly a thousand people will be attending a conference this weekend on “The Idea of Communism” in central London.
In itself, this isn’t a big deal. Left wing conferences take place regularly in central London. The Socialist Workers Party’s annual Marxism event attracts several thousand participants every summer.
There are two things that are different about this particular conference. The first is that it isn’t being organised by a political organisation or journal, but by Birkbeck College’s Institute for the Humanities.
Secondly, the conference is attracting an unusual amount of media attention. The Financial Times devoted a full page of its weekend edition to an interview with the director of the Institute for the Humanities, Slavoj Zizek, headlined “The modest Marxist”.
It is presumably Zizek, one of the most dazzling figures on the intellectual left, who has succeeded in attracting as speakers at the conference some of the best known continental philosophers – notably Alain Badiou, Toni Negri and Giorgio Agamben, along with, among others, Terry Eagleton and Peter Hallward. The emphasis indeed seems to be on philosophy. “From Plato onwards, Communism is the only political Idea worthy of a philosopher,” the conference publicity declares.
Fortunately, Zizek is incapable of being anything but concrete. His writing and speeches irresistibly mingle high philosophy with political commentary, film criticism – and jokes of varying degree of dirtiness.
Sometimes Zizek can be politically absolutely spot on. He wrote a superb piece, “Use Your Illusions”, after Barack Obama’s election victory. In it he insisted both that the celebrating crowds were absolutely right to see this as a real historical break and that “the true battle begins now, after the victory – the battle for what this victory will effectively mean”.
In much of his interview with the Financial Times, Zizek makes plenty more good points. Thus he argues that “the financial crisis has killed off the liberal utopianism that flourished after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991” but also stresses the importance of “the ideological battle over how to interpret the financial crisis”.
Alas, where Zizek gets shifty is over the question of Stalinism. Pressed about the relationship between the idea of communism and what is sometimes called “historical Communism”, he ducks and dives. Fortunately, he doesn’t repeat some of the really silly things he has said on this subject in the past.
For example, he wrote in The Parallax View (2006): “If we really want to name an act which was truly daring, for which one truly had to ‘have the balls’ to try the impossible, but which was simultaneously a horrible act, it was Stalin’s forced collectivisation in the Soviet Union at the end of the 1920s.”
Zizek isn’t a Stalinist. He was a dissident in his native Slovenia under the old Communist Party dictatorship. But he seems to think that the only way to prove that he isn’t a liberal is by refusing to renounce the crimes that defenders of capitalism try to tie round the necks of Marxists.
This isn’t just a really badly mistaken approach. It reflects a disengagement from political practice. Zizek’s conference is about the “Idea of Communism”. But if he is as concerned as he says he is with challenging right wing interpretations of the crisis, he will have to step out of the realm of the Idea and start thinking about how the Marxist left can connect with real social forces.
The indifference of the Birkbeck conference organisers to political practice is reflected in the outrageous entrance price of £100 they are charging. This helps right wingers like John Lloyd to dismiss the conference as a bunch of ageing professors peddling “an academic illusion”.
This is a pity. Those participating in the conference as both speakers and audience are serious people who have been brought together by a shared concern to challenge capitalism. But those who want to do this can’t escape the problem Marx posed all those years ago – how to unite theory and practice.