What is the communist hypothesis? It is defined by three axioms.
Firstly, the egalitarian idea. The commonplace pessimism, again dominant in these times, is that human nature dooms us to inequality.
Yes, it’s a shame that things are like this, but it’s essential that, once we’ve shed a few tears over it, we persuade ourselves that this is how things are and accept it.
Communism’s response to this is not exactly to propose equality as a programme, as if to say, “let’s realise the fundamental equality immanent in human nature”; rather, it declares that the egalitarian principle allows us to distinguish, within any collective action, that which is consistent with the communist hypothesis and thus really valuable, from whatever contradicts that hypothesis and leads us back to an animalistic vision of humanity.
Secondly, there is the conviction that the existence of a separate, coercive state is unnecessary. This is the thesis, common to both anarchism and communism, of the withering away of the state. There are societies without a state, and it is rational to postulate that there could also be others.
But, most importantly, we can organise popular political action without subjecting it to the idea of power; of representation in the state, elections, and so on. The liberating constraint of organised action can be exercised outside the state. We have very many examples of this, including recent ones.
The third axiom: the organisation of labour does not imply the division of labour, the specialisation of tasks, and in particular the oppressive differentiation between intellectual and manual labour. We should, and we can, aim at an essential polymorphy of human labour. This is the material basis for the disappearance of classes and social hierarchies.
These three principles constitute not a programme but maxims for orientation; maxims that anyone can adopt as operators for evaluating what they do and say, personally or collectively, in relation to the communist hypothesis.
A third phase of the communist hypothesis
The communist hypothesis has known two great stages, and I would propose that we are now entering into a third phase of its existence.
It first established itself on a major scale between the revolutions of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871, when its dominant themes were those of the workers’ movement and insurrection.
Then came a long interval, extending over four decades between 1871 and 1905, which corresponded to the apogee of European imperialism and the organised carve-up of many regions of the globe. The second sequence of the effectuation of the communist hypothesis extended from 1905 to 1976 – the end of the Cultural Revolution in China. Its dominant theme was that of the Party, with its greatest (and incontestable) slogan: “Discipline is the only weapon of those who have nothing.”
The years from 1976 up to today have been a fresh period of stabilised reaction. This period, which we are still living through, notably saw the collapse of the single-party socialist dictatorships that had been created in the second sequence.
I am convinced that a third historical sequence of the communist hypothesis is going to open up, different from the two preceding sequences, and yet paradoxically closer to the first than the second.
Indeed, as in the sequence that prevailed in the 19th century, at stake will be the very existence of the communist hypothesis, which is today the object of a massive denial. We might define what I, along with others, am trying to do as preliminary work for the re-establishment of the communist hypothesis and the unfolding of its third age.
A provisional morality
As we are at the very beginning of the third sequence, we need a provisional morality for this disoriented time. That means minimally holding on to a substantial subjective figure, even without the support of the communist hypothesis, which has still not been re-established on a large scale. It is important to find a real point that we can hold on to, come what may; an “impossible” point that cannot be inscribed in the law of the situation. We have to hold on to this real point and organise its consequences.
Today, the key witness to the fact of our societies’ evidently inhuman character is the undocumented foreign proletarian. He is the marker, immanent in our situation, of the fact that there is only one world.
The specific task devolved to the “minister of national identity”, who disposes of his own police force (the “border police”), is precisely to treat the foreign proletarian as coming from another world.
To assert, against such a state mechanism, that each and every undocumented worker is from the same world as ourselves, and to draw out the practical, egalitarian and militant consequences of this, is a typical example of a provisional moral and local orientation consistent with the communist hypothesis, even amid the global disorientation. And only the re-establishment of this hypothesis will be able to make up for this disorientation.
Courage as a local virtue
The main virtue we need today is courage. This has not always been the case. In other circumstances, and at other times, other virtues may take priority.
Thus, in the era of the revolutionary war in China, Mao promoted patience as a cardinal virtue. But today, it is incontestably courage. Courage is a virtue that manifests itself through endurance of the impossible, regardless of the world’s laws.
It is a matter of holding on to the impossible point without having to give account of the whole situation. In so far as it is a matter of treating this point as such, it is a local virtue. It corresponds to a situated morality, and its horizon is the slow re-establishment of the communist hypothesis.
This is a lightly edited extract from ‘Greece and Reinvention of Politics’, published by Verso.