What's wrong with communism

The inner workings of American communism

The communist stands at the crossroads of two ideas: one ancient, one modern. The ancient idea: Man is a political being. Our disposition towards the public, our orientation towards the outside world mean that we cannot be thought of as separate from the polis. Even if we try to hide our vices, we need - like one of the characters in Plato'sCountrynotes - the support of "secret societies and political associations". This is how present we are to other people, that is how present they are to us.

(The text was published in December 2020, Merkur # 859.)

The modern idea - that of work - presupposes other values. Here Weber probably offers a better guideline than Marx. For the communist, work means loyalty to the task, a desire to stick with it, which demands clarity of purpose as well as perseverance in the face of resistance or challenge and the rejection of all distractions. It is about more than just the instrumental application of physical strength to the material world or the rational adaptation of means to the ends (for Aristotle these were so unworthy activities that the worker in politics was almost out of the question for him). A calling, a self-revelation. The communist adds the methodology of modern labor to the public life of the ancients. Be political in everything, says the communist, be productive in all political things. Everything below that is vanity. Like the ancients, the communist looks outside, but the imperative to only do things with effect comes from within. Effectiveness is an affirmation of one's integrity. The great sin of intellectuals, according to Lenin, is "that they begin everything under the sun without finishing anything". This failure is symptomatic of their character - their "sloppiness" and "carelessness", their inability to remain true to the cause or cause to which they are committed. The communist does it better. It just does the job.

At their best, the communists were the most political and conscious of the people. This often made them the most terrifying, capable of acts of violence of unimaginable proportions. Despite its nefarious purposefulness - and perhaps precisely because of it - communism contains many lessons for us today. A new generation of socialists, most born after the Cold War, are discovering the difficulties of parties such as movements and the implications of engagement. So the archive of communism, especially American communism, becomes relevant again.

As well as two comments on this archive: Vivian GornicksThe Romance of American Communism, First published in 1977 and now published again, and Jodi DeansComrade.1 I haveRomance of American Communism first read in summer 1993. Gornick already had her widely acclaimed memoir by thenFierce attachments and published many critical essays. At that time, however, she was primarily a writer who was known among colleagues in a rather small circle of enthusiastic readers. I was one of them. I was a PhD student in political science and lived in Tennessee with my friend, who was also a PhD student. She was working on a dissertation on communities in the Appalachians that - often unsuccessfully - allied against factory closures. It then amounted to a meditation on political failure. I was doing a PhD on the political theory and practice of fear from Hobbes to McCarthy and the Cold War.