These days we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune which lasted exactly 2 months and 10 days (from March 18 till May 28 1871). After the infamous defeat of France in the war with Germany, with Germany army at the doors of Paris, the people of Paris took over and quickly organized outside the coordinates of existing state power. Once the French government forces crashed the Paris Commune (and killed many Communards in the so-called “Bloody Week”), the government organized an inquest into the causes of the uprising: “The inquest concluded that the main cause of the insurrection was a lack of belief in God, and that this problem had to be corrected immediately. It was decided that a moral revival was needed, and a key part of this was deporting 4,500 Communards to New Caledonia. There was a two-part goal in this: the government also hoped that the Communards would civilize the native Kanak people on the island, and that being exposed to the order of nature would return the Communards to the side of ‘good’.”
The contradiction is here easy to note: the decision implies the admission that France itself is corrupted, so to return Communards to the “side of the good,” they have to be isolated among (non-Christian) savages, who are presumably closer to nature; simultaneously, they would “civilize” the savage Kanaks. How? With French corruption? One can only hope that the effect was the opposite one: the exiled Communards experienced solidarity with the colonized Kanaks… And is a similar inconsistency not at work in many people dissatisfied with our corrupted civilization who seek authenticity among the less developed but in reality bring poison to them since their own notion of authenticity is projected onto the less developed?
From the privileged standpoint of hindsight, it is easy to claim that the Communards made virtually every mistake possible and that they were doomed to fail. But they mark a radically new beginning: the Paris Commune was the first workers’ government in history, the first time modern workers took over power, and this is enough to apply to it what Hegel said about the French Revolution:
“Never since the sun had stood in the firmament and the planets revolved around him had it been perceived that man’s existence centres in his head, i.e., in Thought, inspired by which he builds up the world of reality. Anaxagoras had been the first to say that nous governs the World; but not until now had man advanced to the recognition of the principle that Thought ought to govern spiritual reality. This was accordingly a glorious mental dawn. All thinking beings shared in the jubilation of this epoch. Emotions of a lofty character stirred men’s minds at that time; a spiritual enthusiasm thrilled through the world.”
However, the contrast between the two events immediately strikes the eye. The French Revolution arouse sublime feelings in publics all around Europe (recall the famous description of this effect by Kant), while the Paris Commune was mostly met with horror. After the Commune was defeated, “enlightened” writers from George Sand to Gustave Flaubert visited the trials of the Communards to see the cases of degenerated humanity, Nietzsche dismissed the Commune as the last slave rebellion, etc. The honorable exception here was the old Victor Hugo who fought for the amnesty of the imprisoned Communards.
The continuity between the French Revolution and the Commune is at another level. The reception of the French Revolution among the enlightened public was enthusiastic about the first phase of the revolution, and this enthusiasm turned into horror when the Jacobins took over. 1789—yes, 1793—no! At the level of the political dynamic, the Commune was the reappearance of 1793, albeit not a precise one. Something happened with the Commune that did not happen in 1793.
Although praised by Marx as “the form at last discovered” for the overcoming of the state and the emancipation of the proletariat, i.e., as the first taste of what the “dictatorship of the proletariat” would look like, we should note that the Commune was a surprise for Marx himself. We tend to forget that Marxists were a minority in the Commune: with his triumphant interpretation of the Commune in The Civil War in France, written during and immediately after the Commune, Marx re-appropriated an event in which his followers were marginalized by the anarchist, proudhonist and bakuninist majority. Plus, the popular base of the Commune were not just workers but also artisans, small owners, and so forth. The figure whom Communards themselves perceived as their leader was Louis Auguste Blanqui, a French revolutionary Socialist who was more concerned with the revolution itself than with the future society that would result from it. Contrary to Marx, Blanqui did not believe in the preponderant role of the working class, nor in popular movements: he thought that the revolution should be carried out by a small group, who would establish a temporary dictatorship by force. This period of transitional tyranny would permit the implementation of the basis of a new order, after which power would be handed over to the people. In short, Blanqui was a Leninist avant la lettre.
On 17 March 1871, Adolphe Thiers, acting head of the French government in the confused state after the defeat in the war against Germany, aware of the threat represented by Blanqui, had the latter arrested. A few days afterwards the insurrection which established the Paris Commune broke out, and Blanqui was elected president of the insurgent commune. The Communards offered to release all of their prisoners if the Thiers government released Blanqui, but their offer was met with refusal. Marx himself, in spite of his critique of Blanqui, was convinced that Blanqui was the leader that was missed by the Commune. Blanqui was not focused on the program of a revolution; he aimed at forming an organized group that would smash the state and take power. No wonder that Lenin himself danced in the snow in a Kremlin court when Bolshevik power lasted a day longer than the Commune! But was the Bolshevik regime a true heir of the Commune? Yes, they first legitimized their reign with the slogan “All power to the soviets (local councils)!”, but then they quickly disbanded these very councils.
So why was Marx surprised by the Commune? What did he learn from it? Before the Commune, he conceived of the revolution as a set of measures executed by a central power: nationalization of banks, free universal healthcare and education, etc. (they are enumerated at the end of the Communist Manifesto). The “surprise” of the Commune was local self-organization of the people, its attempt at a democracy, which grows from below, from local councils, with active participation of the people. The Jacobins, in turn, did not make this step which, in their case, would have meant dismantling the National Assembly – which is why they lost power by a simple vote in the Assembly.
Can the Commune still be a model for us today? When the predominant form of political representation is exhausted, can our political engagement be given new life through a direct awakening of the people? Yes, but the harsh lesson of history is that the difficult point comes afterwards, when popular enthusiasm has to be transformed into an effective political organization with a precise program.
Recall the “chaotic” leaderless and decentralized character of the Yellow Vests protests in France. One can claim that this, precisely, was their strength: they exposed the gap between ordinary experience and political representation. Instead of a clear agent addressing demands to state power and thereby offering itself as a partner in dialogue, we get a polymorphous popular pressure, and what puts those in power in a panic is that this pressure cannot be localized in a clear opponent, but remains a version of what Negri called the multitude. If such a pressure expresses itself in concrete demands, these demands are not what the protest is really about… However, at some point, hysterical demands have to translate themselves into a political program (or else they disappear). The protesters’ demands are the expression of a deeper dissatisfaction with the very liberal-democratic capitalist order, in which demands can only be met through the process of parliamentary political representation. In other words, the protests contain a deeper demand for a different logic of economico-political organization, and here a new leader is needed to operationalize this deeper demand.
The Yellow Vests in France clearly articulated an experience that was impossible to translate or transpose into the terms of the politics of institutional representation, which is why the moment Macron invited their representatives to a dialogue and challenged them to formulate their complaints in a clear political program, their specific experience evaporated. Did exactly the same thing not happen with Podemos in Spain? The moment they accepted to play party politics and entered the government, they became almost indistinguishable from Socialists in yet another sign that representative democracy doesn’t fully work.
The crisis of liberal democracy has been lasting for decades. The Covid pandemic only made it explode beyond a certain level, showing how the basic premises of a functioning democracy are more and more undermined today. The trust, on which democracy relies, was best expressed by Lincoln’s famous saying: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” Let’s give to this saying a more pessimist spin: only in rare, exceptional moments does the majority live in truth; most of the time they live in the non-truth, while only a minority is aware of the truth. And the solution is certainly not to be sought in some kind of more “true” democracy, which would close the gap between “real” people and their political representation and be more inclusive of all minorities. Rather, the very frame of liberal democracy will have to be left behind, which is exactly what liberals fear most.
The solution is also not that somehow the self-organized and mobilized civil society (Podemos, Yellows Vests…) directly takes over and replaces the state. Direct rule of the multitude is an illusion that, as a rule, has to be sustained with a strong state apparatus. One should gather the courage and accomplish here a Hegelian reversal: if no political representation can adequately capture what it refers to (the true will of the people, what people really need and want), then this permanent failure indicates that the trouble resides in this very point of reference, namely in what people really need and want.
Remember Trump’s inauguration speech in 2017: “Today’s ceremony has very special meaning, because today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people.” Till now elites were ruling but: “All that changes, starting right here and right now, because this moment is your moment — it belongs to you. It belongs to everyone gathered here today, and everyone watching, all across America. This is your day.” We should not take these words just as cheap demagoguery but as an indication of what is wrong in the very idea of the direct power of the people. In a Blanquist way, these people did try to take power by invading the Capitol in January 2021. Of course, the “people” were in this case the white middle class, whose privileges were threatened. But there was a deeper crisis of representation, the crisis, which was also clearly palpable in the French case of Yellow Vests protests. When they were invited to a dialogue with the government, this dialogue utterly failed, the two sides were simply not talking the same language.
Is the solution here some kind of return to the Commune with its vision and practice of direct democracy? Should we oppose the “false” Capitol crowd and the “authentic” Yellow Vests crowd? Maybe what we are witnessing today, with the “post-truth” politics, is the end of the entire tradition of true and authentic people’s will, which is usually manipulated and misrepresented but for the adequate representation of which we should strive. The way to beat Trumpian populism is not is not to claim that it doesn’t really stand for the people, that the real people’s will should be allowed to express itself outside this populism. The very fact that people’s will can be “manipulated” in such a thorough way signals its phantasmatic character. In a Hegelian way, the critique of representation should thus be inverted into the critique of what representation is supposed to represent.
To get this point, we should draw a parallel not between the Commune and today’s situation, but between today and the French Revolution of 1848. Recall Marx’s deservedly famous description of the political position of peasants as a class from his writings on the 1848 revolution:
“The small-holding peasants form a vast mass, the members of which live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with one another. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse. / In this way, the great mass of the French nation is formed by simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes. / They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, as an unlimited government power that protects them against the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the small holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power subordinating society to itself.”
And was it not the same in Egypt when Arab Spring protests with their demand for adequate political representation overthrew the Mubarak regime and brought in democracy? But with democracy, did not those unrepresented go to vote and brought to power the Muslim Brotherhood, while participants in the popular protests, mostly the educated middle-class youth, with their agenda of freedom, were marginalized? Today the problem of representation is exploding also in the developed Western countries. Whole strata don’t represent themselves; they even actively reject being represented since they perceive the very form of representation as fake, and when they get mobilized, it is under the banner of a populist leader.
Perhaps, this is one of the most succinct definitions of populism: the movement of those who do not trust political representation. What Marx said concerning French peasant protests of 1848 – “their entry into the revolutionary movement, clumsily cunning, knavishly naïve, doltishly sublime, a calculated superstition, a pathetic burlesque, a cleverly stupid anachronism, a world-historic piece of buffoonery, and an undecipherable hieroglyph for the understanding of the civilized – this symbol bore the unmistakable features of the class that represents barbarism within civilization” – fits perfectly the attack on the Capitol. The “revolutionary” attackers were clumsily cunning (thinking they were deceiving everyone by their rhetoric), knavishly naïve (in following Trump as the embodiment of popular freedom), doltishly sublime (evoking the great tradition of the founding fathers betrayed by the US administration), followed a calculated superstition (not really believing in the conspiracy theories they relied on), displayed a pathetic burlesque (of imitating revolutionary fervor), exhibited a cleverly stupid anachronism (of defending the old American values of freedom)… As such, they were truly “an undecipherable hieroglyph”: an explosion of anti-Enlightenment barbarism, which brought out the hidden antagonisms of our civilization.
Another name for this anti-Enlightenment thrust that characterizes our time is “post-truth era.” An incident which took place in the US legal system in March 2021 brings us to the core of this weird phenomenon. Dominion Voting Systems filed a defamation lawsuit against the pro-Trump right-wing attorney Sidney Powell over her claims that the company, which manufactured electronic voting machines used by some districts in the 2020 election, changed votes for President Donald Trump to votes for President-elect Joe Biden (plus, her claim that this same company had links to the regime of the late Hugo Chavez in Venezuela). An uncanny move was Powell’s defense against this lawsuit: in a new court filing, she claimed that reasonable people wouldn’t have believed to be factual her assertions of fraud after the 2020 presidential election:
“Indeed, Plaintiffs themselves characterize the statements at issue as ‘wild accusations’ and ‘outlandish claims.’ They are repeatedly labelled ‘inherently improbable’ and even ‘impossible.’ Such characterizations of the allegedly defamatory statements further support Defendants’ position that reasonable people would not accept such statements as fact but view them only as claims that await testing by the courts through the adversary process.”
The underlying logic is that statements are really defamatory (and one can be prosecuted for them) if they could be taken seriously by at least some reasonable people. So, if the problematic statements are characterized as “outlandish” and “improbable,” i.e., if no reasonable person can take them seriously, they are not a defamation and one cannot be prosecuted for them. One can imagine a defense of Hitler in the same terms: his idea of a Bolshevik-Jewish plot is so outlandish and improbable that no reasonable person would take it seriously… The problem is that millions died because of that outlandish idea. And something similar (though, of course, not of the same weight) holds for what Powell was saying: statements like hers mobilized millions, brought the US to the brink of a civil war, and caused deaths.
The underlying question is: when Powell was spreading her defamatory claims (and, while doing it, she must have been aware that all reasonable people would see that they were ridiculous and false), why was she then doing it? To manipulate and seduce the unreasonable crowd by way of mobilizing our irrational instincts? Things are more complicated here: yes, Powell was aware that she had no rational grounds for her defamations, she was knowingly spreading non-truths, but it was as if she fell into her own trap and identified with what she knew was not true. She was not a manipulator exempting herself from her lies: she was exactly in the same position as her “victims.”
Powell’s defamations have the status of rumors, but they are rumors elevated to public discourse. Rumors do not deal with factual truth as opposed to appearances; they are both outside factual truth (to save the appearance of dignity we are ready to keep silent about the truth). Anonymous rumors are excluded from the public space, and they remain strangely efficient even if not true. They are usually told as: “I don’t know whether this is really true, but I was told (or, rather, the impersonal “one says that”) X did that and that.” A blistering case of rumors spread in the form of disavowal was provided by one of the main Russian national TV networks, Channel One, which launched a regular slot devoted to coronavirus conspiracy theories in its main evening news programme, Vremya (“Time”). The style of the reporting was ambiguous, appearing to debunk the theories while leaving viewers with the impression that they may contain a kernel of truth. The message (shadowy Western elites and especially the US are somehow ultimately to blame for the coronavirus pandemic) is thus propagated as a doubtful rumour: it’s too crazy to be true, but nonetheless, who knows… The suspension of factual truth doesn’t annihilate its symbolic efficiency. Powell exemplifies a new era when rumors openly circulate in public space and form a social link. Her mode of fetishist disavowal is the obverse of the traditional one with regard to the public dignity of a person (“I know that our leader has private sins, but I will act as if he is without them to save his dignity”): “Although I don’t really know if these rumors are true, I will spread them as if they are true.”
Decades ago, I encountered a similar logic when I was caught in a ferocious debate with an anti-Semite who defended the truth of the “Protocols of Zion,” describing a purported secret Jewish plan to dominate the world fabricated around 1900 by the Russian Tsarist secret police. I pointed out how it is convincingly proven that the Protocols were fabricated. Already numerous factual mistakes in the text make it clear beyond doubt that they are a fake. But the anti-Semite insisted that the Protocols were authentic, and his answer to the obvious reproach that there were mistakes in the text was: the Jews themselves introduced these mistakes to make it appear that the Protocols were a forgery, so that gentiles would not take them seriously, while those in the know would be able to use them as a guideline free of suspicions.
What the crazy anti-Semite imagined, Sidney Powell is trying to sell to us as a fact. She is dismissing what she said was outlandish and improbable, not to be taken seriously, making sure that her words continue to have real effects. This is how ideology functions in our post-truth era. Today, when we are caught in the process of a gradual disintegration of the public common space, we can no longer rely on trust in the people, that is, on trust that, if we only give the people a chance to break the spell of ideological manipulations, they will arrive at their substantial truth.
Here we encounter a fatal limitation of the much-praised “leaderless” character of the French protesters, of their chaotic self-organization: it is not enough for a leader to listen to the people and formulate a program based on what they want, their true interests. Henry Ford was right when he remarked that, when he offered a serially produced car, he didn’t follow what people wanted. As he put it succinctly, if asked what they wanted, the people would have answer: “A better and stronger horse to pull our carriage!” And the same goes for a political leader that is needed today. The Yellow Vests protesters in France want a better (stronger and cheaper) horse – in this case, ironically, cheaper fuel for their cars. Yet, they should be given the vision of a society where the price of fuel no longer matters in the same way that, after the introduction of cars, the price of horse fodder no longer matters.
But this, of course, is only one aspect of being a true leader. The other, opposite one, is the ability to make tough decisions where they cannot be avoided: which group of soldiers to sacrifice on a battlefield, which patient to let die when there are not enough resources, etc. Or, as an old doctor in the TV series New Amsterdam says: “Leaders make choices that keep them awake at night. If you sleep well, you are not one of them.” Paradoxically, the excess that cannot be captured by mechanisms of electoral political representations can only find an adequate expression in a leader or a leading body, which is able to impose a long-term social and economic project and is not constrained by the narrow period between two elections. Does this sound like universal militarization? Yes – the forthcoming Communism will be a War Communism, or there will be none.[i]
This is how we should reflect on the legacy of the Commune today. Instead of getting lost in nostalgic memories, we should focus on how to imagine a popular mobilization today, in the conditions of a dispersed working class traversed by many conflicting interests. As Hegel was fully aware, a Leader (or a leading collective body) does not reflect some substantial content that pre-exists it, namely “the true will of the people.” A true Leader literally CREATES the People as a united political agent out of a confused mess of inconsistent tendencies. When, in the Summer of 1953, workers’ protests erupted in East Berlin, Brecht wrote a short poem titled “The Solution”:
“After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had distributed leaflets on the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could only win it back
By increased work quotas. Would it not in that case be simpler
for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?”
This poem is usually read as a sarcastic denouncement of the Party’s arrogance. But what if we take it as a realist description of what happens in every truly radical emancipatory process, in which the leadership literally recreates the people, “electing” another people as a disciplined political force? We have to renounce the dream or the hope that, at some point, LGBT+, feminism, antiracism, protection of minorities, worker’s struggles, freedom of expression struggles, hate speech opponents, freedom of internet efforts, etc., will join into one big Movement in which trans-feminists will march together with Muslim women protesting the prohibition to have their faces covered; in which students who feel their intellectual freedom constrained protest with workers whose wages don’t allow them to survive. Along these lines, Badiou complained that in Turkey, Egypt, and Occupy Wall Street, protesters mostly came from the educated middle classes and didn’t mobilize the silent working class. Apropos OWS and Yellow Vests in France, he goes a step further and claims that the working class in the developed Western world is already part of what Lenin called “workers’ aristocracy” prone to racism, corrupted by the ruling class, and deprived of any emancipatory potential (no wonder that many of them voted for Trump!), so that the alliance we should look for doesn’t include them. The dream of the famous scene in 1968 when students went to a Renault factory to meet with workers there is over; we should, rather, try to establish a link between jobless precarious intellectuals, dissatisfied students, and immigrants. What lurks behind these efforts is a desperate search for today’s incarnation of a true emancipatory agent that would replace Marx’s working class. Badiou’s candidate is “nomadic proletarians.”
With the loss of a substantial reference to the People, one should finally abandon the myth of the Commune’s innocence. As if the Communards were Communists before the Fall (the “totalitarian” terror of the twentieth century), as if in the Commune the dream of direct cooperation came true with no alienated intermediary structures,[ii] even if people were effectively eating rats… What if, in contrast to the obsession with how to overcome the alienation of state institutions and bring about a self-transparent society, our task today should be almost the opposite one: to enact a “good alienation,” to invent a different mode of passivity of the majority? The formula of the mobilization of a crowd is a political version of Freud’s wo es war soll ich werden: where a chaotic crowd was party organization should arise, or, as Hegel would have put it, where chaotic popular substance brews, a well-organized subject should impose order and direction. But today we should add another spin to this formula: to move from subject back to substance – to a different substance created by the subject, to a new social order, in which we can dwell with trust and pursue our lives.
[i] For a more detailed argumentation, see Fredric Jameson et al., edited by Slavoj Žižek: An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army, London: Verso Books 2016.
[ii] There were even (retroactive) rumors circulating that social life in the Commune was a time of great sexual promiscuity.