In her stupendous Yesterday’s Tomorrow, Bini Adamczak provides nothing less than the definitive account of what one cannot but call the ineradicable, absolutely authentic, Communist desire, the Idea of a society which fully overcomes domination:
“Unlike the slaves, who only wished to be as free as their masters, unlike the peasants, who wanted to give the lords a tenth of their crop instead of a fifth, unlike the bourgeoisie, who only wanted political freedom, not economic freedom, what the workers demanded was a classless society. What the Communists promised was the abrogation of all domination. And as long as they are remembered, their promise remains.” (80)
This desire is “eternal” in the simple sense that it is a shadow that accompanies all hitherto history which is, as Marx and Engels wrote, the history of class struggle. What makes Adamczak’s book unique is that she detects this desire through a very close analysis of the failures of the (European) Communist movement in the twentieth century, tracing them backwards from Hitler-Stalin pact to the brutal suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion. The details she describes make it clear that, say, the Hitler-Stalin pact cannot be accounted for just in the terms of brutal realpolitik (Stalin needed time to prepare for the war that loomed on the horizon). Weird excesses disturb this image, like the fact that in 1940 guards in gulags were forbidden to shout at prisoners “Fascists!¨” not to insult the Nazis:
“What remains incomprehensible, because irreducible to any calculation of power politics, is Beria’s order forbidding the guard stuff in the gulags from disparaging political prisoners – antifascists in the majority, frequently convicted of ‘Trotskyte-fascist deviations’ – with the epithet fascist”(34).
Adamczak’s focus is double, as the subtitle of her book makes it clear: “On the Loneliness of Communist Specters and the Reconstruction of the Future.” The absolute loneliness is that of the Communists who were purged but continued to believe in the Communist Idea embodied in the Party that liquidated them, i.e., to put it in Lacan’s terms, the Party remained for them the only big Other. The deadlock they faced is that the way out for them was not to insist on the purity of the Communist dream against its betrayal by the Party: this dream of the future itself had to be “reconstructed.” Most of them (just recall Arthur Koestler and Ignazio Silone) failed in this task, contributed to the liberal (or even conservative) critique of Communism, and produced writings in the style of “God that failed,” rejoining the anti-Communist Cold War warriors. As Adamczak notes, the absence of the Communist desire explains why, when European Communism disintegrated around 1990,
“the jubilant cries of the Cold War victors were so unconvincing: they lacked all joy. Instead of relief at averting looming danger or shared joy at the newfound fortune of the former oppressed, it expressed something resembling embittered malevolence: the schadenfreude those who stayed at home feel for their siblings drowned at sea.”(79)
Adamczak turns around here the well-known anti-Communist motto that those who do not want to talk about Stalinism should also keep quiet about Communism: “But what can be said about Stalinism by those who refuse to hear about Communism? Those who wish to write the history of this past without writing about the history of that future that was buried in it?”(80) Only Communism establishes the highest standards, by which it must be judged and critically rejected, which is why “the first reproach against anticommunism must be that of downplaying the crimes of Stalinism. Not because an idea was murdered alongside the people in the gulags – how cynical – but because Communism alone brought forth into the world the historically actionable demand to accept no disenfranchisements, to tolerate no more degradation.”(82) That’s why the worst thing a Communist can do is to half-heartedly defend Communist states in a modest comparative way:
“Communists react defensively to the (anticommunist) critique of Communism – not everything about Communism was bad – with parries – that wasn’t even Communism – or by attacking – criticism of the crimes of communism only serves to legitimate the crimes of the enemies. They are right on all counts. But what does it say about Communism to state that National Socialism was worse, that capitalism has been just as bad? What kind of verdict is it for Communism to say not everything but instead only almost everything was bad?”(140)
Just recall a similar defense of Cuba: yes, the revolution was a failure, but they do have good healthcare and education… And do we not hear a similar argumentation from those who “show understanding” for Russia, although they condemn the invasion of Ukraine: “the criticism of Russian crimes in Ukraine only serves to legitimate the crimes of the liberal West…”?
Adamczak also dismisses the “postmodern” Left which criticizes Communism for its focus on economy, while ignoring as “secondary” feminism, the struggle against sexual oppression, and all other domains of “cultural Marxism.” Such a critique comes all too close to comfortable historicism, which ignores the “eternity” of the Communist Idea. When an injustice happens, its historicist relativization by way of evoking specific circumstances (“he lived in another epoch when it was normal to be a racist or anti-feminist, so we shouldn’t judge him by today’s standards”) is wrong: we should do precisely that, measure the past wrongs by today’s standards. We should be shocked by how women were treated in past centuries, by how benevolent “civilized” people owned slaves, etc.
The actual Communist power is not only fighting its capitalist opponents; it is betraying the emancipatory dream, which brought it into existence. This is why a true critique of actually-existing socialism should not just point out that life in a Communist state was mostly worse than life in many capitalist states. Its greatest “contradiction” is the antinomy in its very heart, not just the stark contrast between the Idea and reality, but the less perceptible change in the Idea itself. The idealized image of the future promised by the Communist power is incompatible with the Communist Idea. In the last act of The Tempest, Prospero says to Caliban: “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.” Every Communist has to say something similar about Stalinism, the largest “thing of darkness” in the history of Communism: in order to really understand it, the first gesture is to “acknowledge it as mine,” to fully accept that Stalinism is not a contingent deviation or misapplication of Marxism but is implied as a possibility by its very core… But does Hegel not say something similar in his famous lines on the French Revolution?
“Never since the sun had stood in its firmament and the planets revolved around him had it been perceived that man’s existence centers in his head, i.e., in thought. /…/ 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, as if the reconciliation between the divine and the secular was now first accomplished.”
Note that Hegel says this a quarter of a century after the French Revolution, and also decades after he showed how the freedom the French Revolution wanted to actualize necessarily turned into terror. And we should say exactly the same about the October Revolution after experiencing Stalinism as its consequence: it also was “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…” We have to endure fully this antinomy, avoiding both traps: the dismissal of Stalinism as an error due to contingent circumstances, as well as the quick conclusion that Stalinism is the “truth” of the Communist desire. This antinomy is brought to extreme in Lenin’s State and Revolution, a book whose vision of the revolution is definitely grounded in the authentic Communist desire: as Lenin writes, with the revolution,
“for the first time in the history of civilized society, the mass of the population will rise to take an independent part, not only in voting and elections, but also in the everyday administration of the state. Under socialism all will govern in turn and will soon become accustomed to no one governing.”
This properly Communist dimension is condensed in Lenin’s famous formula “Every kitchen maid should learn to rule the state,” which was endlessly repeated through the 1920s as a slogan of women’s emancipation. However, it is worth taking a closer look at the precise context of Lenin’s justification of this slogan which, at first sight, may appear extremely utopian, especially since he emphasizes that the slogan designates something that “can and must be done at once, overnight,” not in some later Communist future. Lenin begins his line of argumentation by denying being utopian: against anarchists, he asserts his utter realism. He is not counting on “new men” but on “people as they are now, with people who cannot dispense with subordination, control, and ‘foremen and accountants’”:
“We are not utopians, we do not “dream” of dispensing at once with all administration, with all subordination. These anarchist dreams, based upon incomprehension of the tasks of the proletarian dictatorship, are totally alien to Marxism, and, as a matter of fact, serve only to postpone the socialist revolution until people are different. No, we want the socialist revolution with people as they are now, with people who cannot dispense with subordination, control, and “foremen and accountants”. This subordination, however, must be to the armed vanguard of all the exploited and working people, i.e., to the proletariat. A beginning can and must be made at once, overnight, to replace the specific “bossing” of state officials by the simple functions of “foremen and accountants”, functions which are already fully within the ability of the average town dweller and can well be performed for “workmen’s wages”.”
But how to do this? Here comes the key moment of Lenin’s argumentation: “the mechanism of social management is here already to hand” in modern capitalism—the mechanism of the automatic functioning of a large production process where the bosses (representing the owner) just give formal orders. This mechanism runs so smoothly that, without disturbing it, the role of the boss is reduced to simple decisions and can be played by an ordinary person. So, all the Socialist revolution has to do is to replace the capitalist or state-appointed boss with a (randomly selected) ordinary person.
To illustrate his point, Lenin uses the example of postal service:
“A witty German Social-Democrat of the seventies of the last century called the postal service an example of the socialist economic system. This is very true. At the present the postal service is a business organized on the lines of state-capitalist monopoly. Imperialism is gradually transforming all trusts into organizations of a similar type, in which, standing over the “common” people, who are overworked and starved, one has the same bourgeois bureaucracy. But the mechanism of social management is here already to hand. Once we have overthrown the capitalists, crushed the resistance of these exploiters with the iron hand of the armed workers, and smashed the bureaucratic machinery of the modern state, we shall have a splendidly-equipped mechanism, freed from the “parasite”, a mechanism which can very well be set going by the united workers themselves, who will hire technicians, foremen and accountants, and pay them all, as indeed all “state” officials in general, workmen’s wages.”
What Lenin advocates here is “the transformation of public functions from political into simple functions of administration.” So where, in this depoliticized administrative machine, is the place for popular feedback of those who are supposed to obey “iron discipline”? Lenin’s solution was an almost Kantian one: freely debate at public meetings during weekends, but obey and work while at work! The Bolsheviks must
“stand at the head of the exhausted people who are wearily seeking a way out and lead them along the true path, along the path of labour discipline, along the path of co-ordinating the task of arguing at mass meetings about the conditions of work with the task of unquestioningly obeying the will of the Soviet leader, of the dictator, during the work. /…/ We must learn to combine the ‘public meeting’ democracy of the working people ‒ turbulent, surging, overflowing its banks like a spring flood ‒ with iron discipline while at work, with unquestioning obedience to the will of a single person, the Soviet leader, while at work.”
It was often noted how Lenin gradually narrows the field here: first, it is the majority, the exploited mass of people; then, it is the proletariat, no longer a majority (remember that in Russia at that time more than 80% of the population were peasants) but a privileged minority; then, even this minority becomes a mass of confused “exhausted people” who have to be led by “the armed vanguard of all the exploited and working people”; and, as expected, we end with the unquestioning obedience to the will of a single person, the Soviet dictator. A Hegelian would immediately raise the question of mediation here: we have three levels, the Universal (working majority, “all”), the Particular (party, the “armed vanguard” that holds state power), and the Singular (leader). Lenin automatically identifies them, ignoring modes of mediation where the political struggle proper is taking place. This is why, as Ralph Millband noted, there is no debate on the role of the Party when Lenin described the functioning of the socialist economic edifice. This absence is all the stranger if we take into account the fact that the focus of Lenin’s political work is the struggle within the Party between the true line and different revisionists.
This brings us to another one of Lenin’s antinomies: in spite of his total politicization of social life (for example, for him, there is no neutral “justice” in the courts: if judges are not on our side, they are on the side of the enemy), his vision of socialist economy is deeply technocratic. The economy is a neutral machine, which can run smoothly whoever is at its head. The fact that a kitchen maid can be at the head of a state means precisely that it doesn’t matter who is at its head. The kitchen maid strangely resembles the role attributed by Hegel to the monarch: she just gives a formal “yes” to proposals prepared by managers and specialists…
But why dwell of this old topic, which is today obviously outdated? Because it is not outdated at all: the latest trends in corporate capitalism provide a perverted version of Lenin’s dream. Let’s take companies like Amazon, Facebook, or Uber. Amazon and Facebook present themselves as just mediators: they are well-functioning algorithms, regulating the commons of our interaction. So, why not just nationalize them, cut off the head, which is their owner or boss, and replace him with an ordinary person who will care that the company will serve the interests of the company, i.e., that the machine will not be twisted into serving particular commercial interests, which made the previous owner multi-billionaire? In other words, can bosses like Bezos and Zuckerberg not be replaced by people’s “dictators” imagined by Lenin? Plus, take Uber: it also presents itself as pure mediator bringing together drivers (who own their cars, their “means of production”) and those who need a ride. They all allow us to keep (the appearance of) our freedom; they just control the space of our freedom. Do phenomena like these not justify Karl-Heinz Dellwo, who invokes “domination without subject”: today it is “reasonable to speak no longer about masters and servants but only about servants who command servants”? Servants who command servants: is this not what Lenin envisions in his slogan that “every kitchen maid should learn to rule the state”?
Are elements of post-party politics not already visible here and there in today’s developed capitalism? Take the case of Switzerland. Who knows the names of the ministers in its government? Who knows which party is in power there? Decades ago, a Communist was repeatedly elected as the mayor of Geneva, the city which stands for big capital, and nothing changed… (But one should also mention that Switzerland is really run by a half-secret elite board of twenty men who decide everything.)
So, yes, we have to accept the fact that it is impossible for Communism to win (in the same sense that Ukraine cannot win over Russia), i.e., that, in this sense, Communism is a lost cause. But, as G.K. Chesterton put it in his “What’s Wrong With the World”: “The lost causes are exactly those which might have saved the world.” What can we do once we are fully aware of this antinomy?
In the last pages of the book, Adamczak plays with two extreme solutions. What if Communist revolutionaries, knowing they will bring a new terror, capitulate in advance to counter-revolution to keep their morals and prevent their own counter-revolution? Her example is Salvador Allende who renounced armed struggle against the military putsch. But we should add at least the debate in the Soviet Union in the early 1920s when, after it became clear that there will be no European revolution and the Bolsheviks realized they had no chance to begin to build socialism, some among them proposed that they should simply surrender power… Adamczak’s other extreme solution is that, after winning state power, the Communists should fight the terrorist temptation by using terror against themselves, consciously accepting the need of their own purge, of the liquidation of the first-generation revolutionaries. (But did in a way Stalin not do exactly this – liquidated the first generation of revolutionaries which won power?) What if the only imaginable solution to this antinomy is a weird short-circuit: taking power, Communists themselves organize a “counter-revolution” against their rule, shaping a state apparatus, which limits their own power?
 See Bini Adamczak, Yesterday’s Tomorrow, Cambridge: MIT Press 2021. After reading this book and trying to select quotes from it, I was overwhelmed by a weird feeling that the entire book should be quoted. Numbers in brackets are from this book.
 G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, New York: Dover 1956, p. 447.
 “The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government,” in Collected Works, Moscow; Progress Publishers 1972, Volume 27, p. 261. Non-accredited quotes that follow are from this book.
 Karl-Heinz Dellwo, “Subjektlose Herrschaft und revolutionaeres Subjekt. Friady for Future?”, a talk in Leipzig on January 12, 2021. (Quoted from the manuscript.).