ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: "Le communisme est mort, vive le communisme!"
by Lucien Dugoy Olivier Mayer
Translated Monday 10 December 2007, by
To French Marxist philosopher Lucien Sève, the crisis that currently affects the French communist party (PCF) demands that the vertical party-form be given up in favour of a horizontal movement-form: Lucien Sève recommends setting up fully-empowered militant workshops.
L’HUMA: What’s your approach to the recent political episode in this country?
SEVE: With the death of what was so improperly called communism, history has entered a new phase. In view of the limitless freedom that capital enjoys today, we are in for boundless catastrophes. While on the left there still is no effective political alternative, not even a mental set of opposable political references. All our woes stem from this void. The task of those who follow in the wake of Marx today is therefore clear: for years we have been talking of inventing a communism for the 21st century. Now, at long last, the time has come to do it. We have had enough talk on the subject.
L’HUMA: In a text that you recently made public you take a clear stance in the current debate within the PCF. How important is this debate to you as a philosopher?
SEVE: I wrote this text ( “Communism” is dead: long live communism!) not as a philosopher -though I am one to be sure- but as a militant aware that what is now at stake in France is the survival of communism. And believe me I had compelling reasons for publishing a text that long. To me, the way the question is put is deceptive. All the contributions I have read assume a false dilemma: the only alternatives open to us would be either to dissolve the PCF and become a mere component force in a new, prospective anti-global movement, or to blow life into it in some hoped for attempt at innovation, without the word being if only vaguely defined. The choice before us would be either to allow the communist identity to die out or to keep it alive by clinging to the party-form now in terminal decline. But that leaves out another possibility. And I am not alone in rejecting both these alternatives as being equally disastrous.
What I propose is a different solution which has long been considered and should not now be swept under the carpet. The aim being to bring out the full, autonomous communist identity, let’s do away with the old party-form: it’s counter-productive now. I am not turning a deaf ear to those that object to the communist label as being heavily weighted. Still, any communist candidate that doggedly “ploughs the field” in his or her constituency can get many votes and even get elected today despite the label. Our dismal 1.93% share of the vote in the presidential election should not be put down to the label but to an altogether different fact. As one of those self-styled “homeless communists” so opportunely interviewed by "L’Humanité" in the November-18th issue put it, “When the PCF decided to put up its own national secretary as a presidential candidate, the survival of the ‘shop’ was set above the general interest.” And that’s the short of it. What we are paying for now is our clinging to a party-form that people find repulsive.
L’HUMA: Would you say that to some extent this contribution modifies the findings you developed in your previous book "Marx and Us", in which you talked of the “Shakespearian tragedy of Marxism and communism”?
SEVE: That reflection has its root further back than "Marx and Us". I have been fighting for the communist horizon (ambition/aim) for twenty-five years when all the talk in the PCF was only about socialism. I saw how mystifying was the anti-Marxist theory that considered socialism as the antechamber to communism, for the two horizons(ambitions/aims) are wide apart. Communism implies the end of the class-based State (though not of public agencies) while socialism has always implied the predominance of the State. That is why Marx and Engels called their manifesto “communist”, not “socialist”. But the PCF shows far too little interest in theoretical research into those questions.
L’HUMA: You are saying both that communism is dead and that communism (in italics) remains a possible horizon(ambition/aim) for our time. If the former statement is based on facts, the latter seems rather to stem from a personal faith or belief. What would you say to this?
SEVE: What is dead is what the dominant ideology calls “communism”. I put the word in inverted commas because its occurrence here is abusive. The USSR never was a communist country in the real sense of the word, and the French communists themselves have seldom used the word communism in its full sense in their political activity. As insurrection to seize power is now ruled out in France, we have been content with staking our all on electoral battles. And so the PCF has come to be viewed as an ordinary party except for the fact that it had no prospect of really coming into office. Hence the terrible credibility gap even though a communist activity still survives in some places. But what kind of “life” is it for a party that sets itself the aim of transforming the world when its national average share of the vote remains under 5%?
Communism in the full sense of the word implies far more, namely moving beyond mankind’s main historical sources of alienation, empowering all human beings to the full in their social capacities, giving each their right and access to property, knowledge and power. Against the ubiquitous privatization promoted by capitalism, communism proposes pooling all the social dimensions of life, not as an ideal but as a real dynamics, to be promoted even as the contradictory effects of capitalism multiply communism’s objective prerequisites. That’s a crucial point (though little understood, I am afraid). For instance the role that is now demanded of workers in production demands that they be given a say in management. And that is true in all fields, wherever new possibilities, which are shamelessly discarded, open up new horizons. If we follow this idea through, a coherent set of initiatives can right now be taken with communist appropriations as accessible targets. This requires no act of faith. All that it requires is to start from the real facts and never renounce any single possibility. That is why the reference to communism is crucial: it is the only word that defines what we propose replacing capitalism with.
Some, I know, consider that the word communism is definitively discredited. But supposing that we stopped struggling to rehabilitate it, can it be really supposed that the enemy would have any scruples about pinning the infamous label on any anti-capitalist force that pitted itself against it? For all its efforts to the contrary, the new anti-global German party still labours under the negative image of the “Eastern Commies”. You simply cannot solve an issue by evading it.
L’HUMA: Is it not a paradox that a few individuals excepted, those that had an active part in the “death” of communism were those activists who stood to benefit most from the construction of a society free from exploitation?
SEVE: The paradox might well be what a friend of mine, one of those “homeless communists”, calls the “Brezhnev syndrome”. A would-be communist activity takes place within an organization in which the precedence given to organization itself produces the very opposite effect. All things being equal, what is now slowly stifling us might well be something similar.
L’HUMA: But couldn’t you find in Marx, and beyond Marx, in all those that have devised theories about the communist revolution, the original causes that can explain this failure? Why go back to Marx against the odds?
SEVE: Of course Marx was wrong on some points. It may be said that he underestimated the disastrous impact of the dictatorship of the proletariat on the communist movement. Or that, being concerned solely with economics and politics, he failed to see the importance of the symbolic and societal dimensions. But he has analysed the dynamics at work in capitalism with such penetrating insight that his works throw light on our present time as effectively as ever. He anticipated science’s new role in production, the unprecedented rise in productivity, the phasing out of the exploitation of wage-earners and the objective foundations that capitalism has been laying down for the advancement of communism. We have now reached that point. Precisely, Marx’s communist vision was so ahead of his time that the revolutionary movement promoted socialism instead, the all too terrible limits of which appeared all too clearly in the twentieth century. It is only in the face of today’s capitalism that communism appears in its true light. But it needs to be totally redefined for our century.
L’HUMA: The PCF has been saying that for a long time now – that communism is not an ideal but the movement or struggle against the alienations that result from the capitalist social order in their ever-changing forms. Is there some kind of misunderstanding on this point?
SEVE: The formula is bandied about but I don’t see that practice has changed accordingly. It is urgent to make the brunt of our political activity bear on all the fields of social transformation. But that re-centring cannot be effected from the top. Only the grassroots militants can change this. So let the full responsibility lie with them! Just imagine what would follow if the activists in each branch could decide what important initiatives they might take, or choose those that motivated them most, with workshops being set up, and left free to set their own courses, to exchange their experience with other workshops working for the same objectives elsewhere, to mutually enrich their analyses, and set up joint projects – so that any initiative might eventually be shared by a group of workshops, and take on a national, or even an international dimension - so that each workshop might become a nursery of competence and contribute to social transformation on the most efficacious scale - more significantly than any communist cell has ever done ! Might not this foreshadow a political movement, let us hypothetically call it communist, that would manifest a novel form of active politics and put an edge on the whole gamut of class conflicts (by bringing back into sight the real issue at stake)?
L’HUMA: The exercise and conquest of power are also a major source of alienation. And yet you are not suggesting that the movement of social transformation could do without a proper organization or without a communist party. Isn’t that somewhat like wanting to revive what is dead?
SEVE: It is necessary of course to have an organization. But a communist activist may be relied upon to disconnect the organization from the exercise of power. The old class prejudice is that there can be no order without bosses. That just is not true. The human brain is like a marvelous orchestra that has no need for a conductor. The world abounds in coherences that have not been decreed from the top but that have evolved horizontally. The historical mould of the Party is vertical in essence, having come into existence at a time when coherence had to be built into the proletariat from the outside. But the present extraordinary atomization of individuals has definitively rendered this form obsolete. It is easy enough to dangle the hope that the PCF can recover the vigour of youth all over again, but no one could say how – and no wonder. Let’s be plain about it: verticality is anti-communist. The Communist Party-form is an unsurpassable contradiction, since the aim is for all to seize power in society at large while the communists themselves are denied the right to do so within their own party by their bosses. It is not surprising that once in office the communist party-form should have brought about autocracy instead of democracy.
That is what we must do away with, by passing from the vertical party-form to the horizontal movement-form. That does not preclude the existence of central bodies provided these do not set themselves up as agencies of domination. All that remains to be thought out but the theoretical research that is needed has not even started yet.
L’HUMA: How can this new organization be set up? How would that affect our common political references –to elections, institutions etc.?
SEVE: The great argument for keeping the PCF as it has always been is fear of the void. But we need not take a leap in the dark. Let us now settle in favour of an experiment where motivated communists, whether card-carrying members or not, would set up workshops with specific objectives everywhere about the country, working horizontally in networks, to which would be added ad hoc, yet subordinate bodies to meet the demands of institutional life, like general elections. Learning from this experiment, we shall be able to draw the lineaments of the communist movement our congress might change the party into by dissolving it then, and only then. All that this requires is to give the green light to an experiment, so that this experiment can effectively be carried out, not in order that it should fail, but in order that it may succeed.