JMP: The Communist Necessity
“The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer, he comes as the subduer of the Antichrist. Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”
—Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”
JMP’s The Communist Necessity is a fine example of what we can call agitational literature. Cast as both a polemic against fragmentary post-Cold War political practice and as what the author whimsically calls a “prolegomena to any future radical theory,” the book’s primary rallying cry is for a new return to a scientific revolutionary theory that can bring communism into being. In other words, it’s a work of creative destruction as well as an almost literal call to arms. After marking down some preliminary evaluations of the book, I want to use the book to pose questions about the value of historical interpretation as practiced professionally and its potential alliance with historical theory and the practice of historical materialism. Primarily, I want to ask professional history writing the same questions Althusser posed to philosophy in Lenin and Philosophy: in the wake and now the shadow of the new science of history, what is the role of historical narrative writing in the communist project? First, however, we need to establish the book’s precise relationship to history in order to orient the remarks concerning that grand, dusty discipline.
The book’s title is a play on Alain Badiou’s Communist Hypothesis and Jodi Dean’s The Communist Horizon, recent works that have made the name communism respectable and even fashionable again in certain academic circles. JMP does not, however, want communism to make a return in name only, and so foregrounds the concept of necessity throughout the book. To briefly elaborate, he argues we should not idealize communism or fix it as a mythic and distant narrative. Rather, the concept of communism should be articulated as a demand, a collective human need generated, as he says, by the logic of capitalism itself.1 This is a crucial point, since it establishes a firm link between radical theory and a notion of social-historical development that produces structural problems that need to be resolved. And, of course, being a consistent materialist, JMP does not neglect to tell us that these problems cannot be resolved in thought alone but in the practice of history, in its conscious remaking through politics.
Movementism appears in the book as one model of how that transformation should be carried out. In brief, movementists are those who theorize revolutionary politics as the work of an ideologically disunited aggregate of interest groups and popular movements.2 It mostly functions as a general term for any anti-capitalist group that rejects ambitions for state power or the vanguard party, an instrument for seizing control of the state. In the author’s interpretation, this chaotic fragmentation and ineffectiveness is partly attributable to theories that neglect communism as a necessity. Rather, Badiou, Dean, and others participate in “language idealism,” fanciful theorizing that remains speculative because it is not rooted in the necessities already embedded in history. These discussions are worthy of close attention despite their polemical character because they provide an unflinching, if incomplete, articulation of the need for a new return to a unifying project. From the perspective of a newly politicized Marxist like me, it’s apparent that the bewildering array of social movements active in my city have had little success in opposing the monolithic power of capital, which continues to reshape the world according to its own designs.
These ideas touch on a similar vein as that of David Harvey’s Rebel Cities, where the venerable British geographer discusses the urban spatial context for many of these scattered movements and their apparent failure to stitch together a common, effective program and implement it. JMP does not speak in such concrete terms about these movements and the particular temporal and spatial reasons they might have emerged in the way they did. In short, though the history of movementism we find in The Communist Necessity is certainly one of failure, the same is true of the New Communists of the 1970s.
JMP largely evaluates the failures of the movementists according to their lack of a revolutionary theory. This, in turn, he explains by invoking the privileged status of labor aristocrats and student social activist populations in the centres of capitalism. The necessity of communism appears in a more obscure fashion further from the burning edges of the capitalist world where accumulation by dispossession is the norm and large armed movements like the Naxalites and Nepalese Maoists, among others, have shaken bourgeois power over large territories. The book does not go into the problems of the built environment or the nature of the modern city, wherein most of these new urban movements have found their home. Instead, the book remains at a fairly abstract level, rightly criticizing vague and toothless theories but offering little material explanation for why they arose and why the author believes they may be on their way out in favor of a New New Communist Movement that can unite the hard core of the proletariat with other mass movements to produce a revolution in North America.
One peculiar passage illustrates some of the difficulties I have as a historian with the language of historical necessity and how it’s elucidated here. For most of the book, necessity is a kind of unbending reality to which politics has to conform. Recognizing it is the key to producing real advances in the science of history and furthering its revolutionary goals. Yet in evaluating the New Communist Movement, JMP writes,
“Although many of these anti-revisionist militants were once trained in the discourse of the New Left…they attempted to discard the limitations of this discourse in the face of revolutionary necessity. Thus, when judged against the standard of revolution, the New Communist Movement should be considered significant, though also limited by historical necessity.”3
Here the ambiguities of the word “necessity,” the tension between the mechanical and the more historically useful definitions of the word, come into conflict. Though the author makes special efforts to ensure that necessity does not entail inevitability, he also appears to be ascribing hard limits on the New Communist Movement’s ability to achieve revolution. Whereas a recognition of revolutionary necessity provoked these anti-revisionists to surpass the mainstream and academic New Left, historical necessity constrained them. Not to split hairs too much, but this provokes a number of problems we need to pose in order to understand how historical science establishes itself in continuity-rupture with the theory from which it launches its investigations and experiments. What historical necessities constrained the New Left that enabled the New Communists? What is the importance of theory in potentially transforming necessity from an encumbrance into a means of furthering revolution? On the one hand, it seems, necessity operates as a historical choice––revolution or death––and the logical subsequent questions we have to ask about constructing socialist societies on the rubble of capitalist ones. In the second instance, it appears to represent a hard historical limitation on human agency. Given that JMP has elsewhere articulated a need for a dialectic of continuity and rupture with past theories and practices, and with Marx’s quote about the masses making history but not on their own terms, I think this tension is a necessary albeit dangerous one, and it would have been prudent to spend more time discussing this question in the book.
Overall, The Communist Necessity is a promising beginning for a Maoist philosopher, even if it’s difficult at this moment to speak of a Maoist philosophy in the West. It contains for the reader a pressing summary of the left’s failures in the last two decades, gets some distance toward an interpretation of this failure, and moves boldly to propose how to change this. One of the best ways the book does this is in introducing to a wider audience the stratagic writings of the PCR-RCP in Canada, a promising fledgling Marxist-Leninist-Maoist party that has been expanding its party and mass presence through the last eight to ten years or so. If communism is to gain a material foothold among the masses as a necessity, rather than merely among dreamers and philosophers as a horizon or hypothesis to be tested, it needs to creatively engage with new articulations of Marx’s revolutionary science wherever they might be found. As an attempt to recapture the heritage of Marx and instrumentalize it for revolutionary purposes, however incomplete, this is a fine book. I hope that upcoming manuscripts from JMP and other Maoist intellectuals will continue to clarify and elaborate on some of the ideas presented here, given the grave situation of international capitalism throughout the world.
1 JMP, The Communist Necessity, 28
2 Ibid, 9 and 65
3 Ibid, 119.