To get rid of evil or to be rid of class? A review of Bini Adamczak’s ‘Communism for Kids’

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Bini Adamczak has written a very clever little book. It is no mean feat to make communism as a concept intelligible to all, while at the same time reviewing – in brief and simplified form – the numerous failures of the movement. One could do worse than to begin here. The question of what communism is, as acknowledged by Adamczak, remains “contested”1. Communism as a word “names a field of political conflict”2 not only in the wider political sense, but one involving critique between “communisms and other socialist utopias in a struggle over the future”3. The origin of these “many communisms” to Adamczak was “one communism”4. The progenitor goes unnamed. It could be interpreted to refer to communism’s modern form conceptualized by Marx and Engels, referred to as “Traditional Marxism”5, but this would be a mistake. Adamczak is very clear about what constitutes this “one communism” and why “other communisms”6 and utopias have failed. The first two parts of the book deal with the trial and error of a series of communisms as well as answering basic questions, like ‘what is capitalism?’ The third part, the epilogue, was added in 2014 by the author to reflect on its 10th anniversary7, and discusses both the content of the book and the author’s views on the future of the communist movement, the latter of which – in true communist form – should not be accepted uncritically. While Adamczak has performed an admirable service in penning such an accessible and clear introduction to a contested movement, the conclusions she has drawn in the epilogue are, at times, disquieting.

Adamczak’s book draws a sharp dividing line between what the communist movement is, and is not; therefore, what communism is emerges out of this negative critique. The first sentence of the book presents in plain language what Adamczak considers the core of the movement. “Communism names the society that gets rid of all the evils people suffer today in our society under capitalism”8. As Ross Wolfe noticed, this is repeated no less than four times9. Fortunately, she is quick to assert this does not mean the elimination of all evils: “it’s no cure-all. It’s only a remedy for the evils caused by capitalism”10. Walking the reader through the essentials of life under capitalism, she eventually arrives at a critical juncture. “[T]he best kind of communism is the one that can get rid of the most evils”11. This and the opening line are eventually repeated together on the final page of the first part12, highlighting their central importance. Immediately preceding this repetition is a defining section:

The people now know two things. First, they know that capitalism doesn’t make them happy, and second, they know that communism does. So they decide to try communism. But it’s not so simple. Since true communism has never existed in the entire history of humankind, no one has any clue what it looks like. What the people do have are various ideas of what a communist society should look like13.

Its true significance is revealed through exploring the trials of the people as they attempt communism. In an interview with Viewpoint Magazine, Adamczak labels these “social democracy, syndicalism, state socialism, luddism, and some form of techno-hedonism14. Unmentioned by her is the sixth and final trial, what might be considered the beginning of “true” communism. The main clue is the illustrated people rising up against the narrator and asserting that, now, they are “making history ourselves”15, recalling a line from Engels’ Socialism: Utopian and Scientific that, in communism, “[t]he extraneous objective forces that have hitherto governed history pass under the control of man himself”16. Adamczak believes the “main question” that communism as a movement addresses is “[h]ow do we want to live?”17 It is this question that “other communisms” ignore; undermined, in the main, by their focus on things over relations between peoples. Louis Menand, in his 2003 ‘Forward’ to Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station, asserts that the “deeper attraction” to communism, especially in its Marxist form, “was the discovery of meaning, a meaning in which human beings might participate, in history itself”18. History “holds the key to the meaning of life”19 and thus the answer to Adamczak’s question. Nonetheless, what this answer means remains obscure; it has to be worked out amongst all peoples. “No one really knows unless they try it out”20, and of the previous attempts none achieved the elimination of all the evils of capitalism suffered in society today. Neither did they abolish class.

Adamczak reflected that the book “started as a theoretical exegesis of Karl Marx’s ideas on the future”21 and that much shows, with one notable exception: class struggle is completely absent. The great strength of this book is its focus on capital – “it’s called capitalism because capital rules”22 – but the price of its insistence that “people no longer rule over society”23 is the disappearance of the bourgeoisie and their opposite, the proletariat. Throughout the first part it is the factories, not people, who speak “with [their] own special voice”24 – illustrating the operation of value production in capitalist society. It is the factories who “tell us how we should produce, what we should produce, and how much we should produce”25, and it is also the factories who decide “how much everyone should get in return for doing all this work”26. There is “a boss person who makes sure everybody does what the factory wants them to do”27, yet they are no more in control of this process than the workers. The book acknowledges the existence of state bureaucrats – “pot people”28 – while the role of the bourgeoisie and their position in class society are conspicuously absent. The outcome is Adamczak ignores the existence of class itself, which is why it is not the proletariat attempting to build communism in the six trials, just people. This is a deliberate choice on her part. “[T]he problems of surplus value production and the reproduction of classes… are not touched on here at all”29. Without the exploitation of one class by another, class itself disappears from view; without class, a fundamental antagonism of capitalist society is absent. Adamczak frames each trial as “introduced to overcome the flaws of the one before”30 in the absence of class struggle. The effective denial of class struggle, and its importance in the history of communist failures, demonstrates that while she started with Marx’s ideas she did not follow through entirely. This has the result of robbing the book of any kind of narrative power, the overcoming of collective exploitation through solidarity in class struggle. Whether Adamczak omitted the bourgeoisie for the purposes of simplification, or to keep the focus on capital as the evil to be rid of (not capitalists), the book consequently lacks any real sense of urgency or danger as people calmly and methodically work their way through trial-and-error communisms. In that sense, Adamczak has presented a true fairy tale.

Communism for Kids was written during a specific period of time where, according to Adamczak, “we had to reopen a utopian perspective”31. The book’s “task” was “to reinvent the future during the end of history”32, the “narrative” of which “gave expression to a certain undeniable reality”33 – “instead of hope for a better future, there’s only a totalizing fear of a worsening present”34. To counter this, she urges “a form of desire capable of jamming images of a better world into every fracture of daily life”35. Refashioning the utopian impulse into a communist desire “against every compromise”36 goes hand-in-hand with the historical defeat of communism on the field of class struggle. As Wolfe remarks, “[r]evolution will not result from merely wanting it more, and the idea that it will is usually a sign of desperation”37. Appropriately, Giorgio Agamben argued that “[a]ny radical thought always adopts the most extreme position of desperation”38. Adamczak asserts that her book “is about the availability and desirability of radical dreams”39; in other words, utopias. She is not the only one advancing utopianism as the vanguard of a rehabilitated communism. Žižek laments that “rare are those who dare even to dream utopian dreams about possible alternatives”40, while Fredric Jameson’s An American Utopia41 acts as a provocation to take the construction of positive utopias seriously. Žižek frames Jameson’s utopianism as “to change society one should begin by changing one’s dreams about an emancipated society”42. Adamczak similarly writes, “[p]erhaps some kind of prophetic prosthesis is required to transform the desire for communism into a communist desire43. Jameson argues we are experiencing “a political time in which politics must again begin by igniting individual fantasies”44; more than that, “the task of utopianism today is rather to propose more elaborated versions of an alternate social system than simply to argue the need for one”45. For Jameson, anti-utopianism is potentially synonymous with anti-communism, as the concept of utopia itself “has again changed its meaning and has become… a virtual synonym for socialism or communism”46. This is the terrain in which Adamczak treads when she writes a book that “addresses the reader as one who can dream radically”47 rather than one who can engage in class struggle. The regression of the communist movement back into a speculative utopianism closes the circle which began with Marx and Engels’ critique of the utopian socialists who had preceded them. Perhaps this resurgence of utopianism will, in turn, give rise to a new ‘scientific critique’. The only hope is, this time, we manage to escape Marx’s dictum “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”48.

In retrospect, the utopian tone was set by Adamczak’s very first sentence, and reinforced by her assertion that the communist movement revolves not around the contradictions of capitalism and their negation, but the construction of a communist desire: a dream of how we are to live. She is well aware, however, that whatever dream that emerges from this utopian desire “cannot truly be the thoughts, ideas, and images of a different reality, a different organization of society”49. Critiquing previous critiques of capitalism as various forms of anti-capitalist utopianism – including Marx’s critique, which she labels “productivist anticapitalism”50 – she concludes that “our only possible standpoint lies in the future”51.

The hope is that the absurdity and unnecessary brutality of capitalist society will leap out to the people of future generations, the same way that the binary gender system or flatness of the earth seems crazy to us today52.

One is reminded of Kafka’s expression that there is plenty of hope, infinite hope—but not for us. This is a position that denies the possibility of struggle, here and now. It is with no small amount of irony that Adamczak advances

[t]he paradox that the eternal standpoint cannot be taken up and yet must be taken up protects us from fetishizing our own criticisms, and thus saves us from the illusion of utopianism: the fantasy that we can already show, here and now, what a liberated society looks like. In short, the unattainability of the communist viewpoint guards it from occupying capitalist ground53.

But the only ground communism as a movement has known is capitalist ground. The entire critique emerged out of the development of capitalism and its struggle against the feudalism which preceded it. Utopianism is not only a fantasy but an eternally unattainable standpoint, one which constantly reinvents itself in order to construct a positive image of the future. Adamczak acknowledges she seeks a “place of no-place in capitalism”54. What “saves us” from the utopianism of “ideals” – “[a]n image of the future becoming a model for the future”55 – is an intrinsically utopian communist viewpoint. Ultimately, Adamczak does present a paradox – critiquing communist illusions with a viewpoint completely detached from capitalist social relations – but not the one she first proposed. A better position would be recognizing, as Terry Eagleton argued, that “[t]here is no need to struggle out of your skin in order to make fundamental criticisms of your situation”56. Furthermore, Marx already identified the role of critique itself in preventing the fetishism of any particular standpoint: “if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists”57. A negative critique and the construction of a positive, constantly mutating utopian desire seem distinctly at odds; indeed, this is the point. Adamczak wishes for “communist criticism… to move beyond its habit of bitter negation”58. Having critiqued various anti-capitalisms as “latently capitalist”59 she ignores how desire has been fetishized as having qualities capable of resisting capture by the capitalist present. Unfortunately, utopian desire undermines communist critique, especially if Jameson’s suggestion that anti-utopianism equates to anti-communism is taken seriously.

Within Adamczak’s ‘utopianism of the desire’ lies not a movement but an Idea. Žižek, explaining the concept of desire from a Lacanian perspective, notes “that the question of desire, its original enigma, is not primarily “What do I want?” but “What do others want from me?””60 In other words, the question is not so much “how do we want to live?” but “how do others want me to live?” This is a far more difficult question to answer than the one first posed by Adamczak. Revisiting the concept, Žižek argues that “[d]esire is always a desire for its own nonsatisfaction: its ultimate aim is always to reproduce itself as desire… i.e., desire is a gap, a void, in the heart of every demand”61. Adamczak’s desire is ultimately a demand: “Communist desire: the desire that misery finally comes to an end”62. This is a direct contradiction of her early assertion that communism is only a remedy for the evils of capitalism, not misery itself. What’s more, the desire at the heart of this demand is insatiable, at least according to Žižek’s view, transforming communism into something “eternal”, a “Platonic Idea”63, rather than a movement contingent on the negation of bourgeois social relations. Adamczak’s “critique of critique(s)”64 is thus undermined by her misplaced fear of the material bedrock of capitalist social relations and her subsequent utopianism. A provisional answer to the aforementioned question (“how do others want me to live?”) becomes complicated by the need for the desire of others to end misery for people in general, not only themselves. The Idea of communism is swiftly “passing into absurdity”65. It has become emptied of what should be its “real content”, argued by Engels as “the demand for the abolition of classes66, not the end of capitalist evil then extended into the end of misery, which is necessarily precluded by the insatiability of desire. Constant self-criticism cannot overcome this particular impasse67. Eagleton once asserted that “[t]he role of the prophet is not to predict the future, but to remind the people that if they carry on as they are doing, the future will be exceedingly bleak”68. He also argued that “imagining a more just future may confiscate some of the energies necessary to achieve it”69. In Adamczak’s case, much energy will be spent constructing and self-criticising an individual’s or group’s utopian (yet still communist) desire. The great strength of the communist movement has been its clear aims, articulated on a class basis, not a politics of desire that diverts the attention of those who can struggle.

The current fascination with utopia will hopefully run its course and prove only to be a product of that moment in history which drove Adamczak to write Communism for Kids. It may seem slightly absurd to write such a lengthy critique of a very short book. By no means is this an unimportant book, however, especially with its translation into English. It is a book written to address a specific zeitgeist, and its conception of communism, due to its accessibility, is one that could serve as a beginning for many young communists today (their children too). Brevity is also no barrier to the kind of theoretical sophistication that Adamczak demonstrates in writing it, especially the epilogue. It is hard not to admire the fearlessness with which she has pursued some very difficult questions. The quality of her answers, however, is something which must be examined, and a critique of those is what this review has attempted to accomplish. It has hopefully been demonstrated that, while Adamczak has an understandable frustration with the popular inability to imagine a world beyond capitalism, the foray into utopianism and a politics of desire will not fundamentally change anything. In fact, it leads down a blind alley, confronting not the emancipatory potential of desire but its devouring insatiability; an insatiability that finds greater kinship with that she wishes to undermine, capitalism. For capitalism “has a Faustian horror of fixed boundaries, of anything which offers an obstacle to the infinite accumulation of capital”70. An insatiable desire confronts accumulation without boundaries. Utopianism offers no barrier, either: “Materiality is what gets in it way. It is the inert, recalcitrant stuff which puts up resistance to its grandiose schemes”71. What is needed is something more fundamental, which Adamczak has purposefully excluded. The kind of solidarity she imagines as “not just an instrumental means of social change… but also the goal of emancipation, of communism”72 has to be found in a renewed class struggle.

Endnotes

[1] Bini Adamczak, Communism for Kids, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2017, p.78.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. p.85.

[6] Ibid. p.78.

[7] Ross Wolfe, “‘This Tale Is About You!’: On Bini Adamczak’s ‘Communism for Kids’”, Los Angeles Review of Books, June 27, 2017; https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/this-tale-is-about-you-on-bini-adamczaks-communism-for-kids/; last accessed mid-July 2017. Archive link: https://web.archive.org/web/20170716180938/https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/this-tale-is-about-you-on-bini-adamczaks-communism-for-kids/

[8] Adamczak, p.1.

[9] A minor quibble: it could have been better presented without a certain redundancy. “Communism names the society that gets rid of all the evils people suffer today under capitalism”. In fact this redundancy is eliminated in later repetitions (e.g. p.36), making it a frustrating choice on the part of the translators.

[10] Adamczak, p.1.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. p.36.

[13] Ibid. pp.35-36. Emphasis original.

[14] Bini Adamczak and Jacob Blumenfeld, “‘Communism for Everbody’: An Interview with Bini Adamczak, author of Communism for Kids”, Viewpoint Magazine, May 16, 2017; https://www.viewpointmag.com/2017/05/16/communism-for-everybody-an-interview-with-bini-adamczak-author-of-communism-for-kids/; last accessed mid-July 2017. Archive link: https://web.archive.org/web/20170715193729/https://www.viewpointmag.com/2017/05/16/communism-for-everybody-an-interview-with-bini-adamczak-author-of-communism-for-kids/

[15] Adamczak, p.69.

[16] Frederick Engels, “Part III: ‘Historical Materialism’”, in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, 1880, Marxists Internet Archive; https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/soc-utop/ch03.htm; last accessed mid-July 2017.

[17] Adamczak, p.62.

[18] Louis Menand, ‘Forward: The Historical Romance’, in To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History, auth. Edmund Wilson, New York: The New York Review of Books, 2003, p.xiii.

[19] Ibid. p.x.

[20] Adamczak, p.36.

[21] Adamczak and Blumenfeld, “‘Communism for Everybody’”.

[22] Adamczak, p.5.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid. p.19.

[25] Ibid. p.21. Emphasis original.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid. p.26.

[28] Ibid. p.51.

[29] Ibid. p.81.

[30] Adamczak and Blumenfeld, “‘Communism for Everybody’”.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Adamczak, p.71.

[34] Ibid. p.72.

[35] Ibid. p.74.

[36] Ibid. p.75.

[37] Wolfe, “‘This Tale Is About You!’”.

[38] Jordan Skinner, “Thought is the courage of hopelessness: an interview with philosopher Giorgio Agamben”, Verso, 17 June, 2014; https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/1612-thought-is-the-courage-of-hopelessness-an-interview-with-philosopher-giorgio-agamben; last accessed mid-July 2017. Archive link: https://web.archive.org/web/20170602163943/https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/1612-thought-is-the-courage-of-hopelessness-an-interview-with-philosopher-giorgio-agamben

[39] Adamczak and Blumenfeld, “‘Communism for Everybody’”.

[40] Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, then as Farce, London: Verso, 2009, p.77.

[41] Fredric Jameson, “An American Utopia”, in An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army, ed. Slavoj Žižek, London: Verso, 2016, pp.1-96.

[42] Slavoj Žižek, “Forward: The Need to Censor Our Dreams”, in An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army, ed. Slavoj Žižek, London: Verso, 2016, p.vii.

[43] Adamczak, p.75. Emphasis original.

[44] Jameson, p.41.

[45] Ibid. p.43.

[46] Ibid. p.42.

[47] Adamczak and Blumenfeld, “‘Communism for Everybody’”.

[48] Karl Marx, “Chapter I”, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852, Marxists Internet Archive; https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm; last accessed mid-July 2017.

[49] Adamczak, p.74.

[50] Ibid. p.85.

[51] Ibid. p.90.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid. pp.90-91.

[54] Ibid. p.89. It is, however, rhetorically framed as a question.

[55] Ibid. p.74.

[56] Terry Eagleton, After Theory, London: Penguin Books, 2004, p.61.

[57] Karl Marx, “Marx to Ruge: Kreuznach, September 1843”, in Letters from the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, Marxists Internet Archive; https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/letters/43_09.htm; last accessed mid-July 2017. Emphasis original.

[58] Adamczak, p.73.

[59] Ibid. p.89.

[60] Žižek, First as Tragedy, p.64.

[61] Slavoj Žižek, “The Seeds of Imagination”, in An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army, ed. Slavoj Žižek, London: Verso, 2016, p.283.

[62] Adamczak, p.94.

[63] Žižek, First as Tragedy, pp.125-126.

[64] Adamczak, p.89.

[65] Frederick Engels, “Part 1: Philosophy, X. Morality and Law. Equality”, in Anti-Dühring, 1877, Marxists Internet Archive; https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/ch08.htm; last accessed mid-July 2017.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Adamczak argues that “by making use of our broadest historical knowledge and deepest theoretical criticism, we have to constantly ask ourselves how such desires might lead to impasses that could be avoided”, p.75. Emphasis mine.

[68] Eagleton, p.175.

[69] Ibid. p.100.

[70] Ibid. p.118.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Adamczak and Blumenfeld, “‘Communism for Everybody’”.
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