Wednesday, 27 January 2016 09:06

Ghostly Communism - Provocative Documents for Thought

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Several pieces on both the arts and culture hubs express, creatively and critically, what communism might mean. It's touched on in the poetry of Salena Godden, David Betteridge and others; the articles by Roland Boer on religion and by Andy Croft on poetry; and in the art of Ai Wei-Wei and others in the visual arts section. In this outstanding article, Andrew Brown picks up on the theme, and contributes a stimulating discussion of the notion of 'ghostly communism', and also some photographic images which illuminate the text in true Blakean fashion.

So long as humans live under conditions of the capitalist economy they remain fundamentally mute because their fate does not speak to them. If a human is not addressed by his or her fate, then he or she is incapable of answering it. Economic processes are anonymous, and not expressed in words. For this reason one cannot enter into discussion with economic processes; one cannot change their mind, convince them, persuade them, use words to win them over to one’s side. All that can be done is to adapt one’s own behaviour to what is occurring. Economic failure brooks no argument, just as economic success requires no additional discursive justification. In capitalism, the ultimate confirmation or refutation of human action is not linguistic but economic: it is expressed not with words but with numbers. The force of language as such is thereby annulled

(Boris Groys, The Communist Postscript, Verso Books).

Today, when words have lost their material base—in other words, their reality—and seem suspended in mid-air, a photographer’s eye can capture fragments of reality that cannot be expressed in language as it is. He can submit those images as a document to be considered alongside language and ideology. This is why, brash as it may seem, Provoke has the subtitle, ‘provocative documents for thought’

(Manifesto of the “Provoke Group” (1968) signed by Kohi Taki, Takuma Nakahira, Takahiko Okada, Yutaka Takanashi, and Daido Moriyama)


As someone involved in left politics in one way or another since my mid-teens in the late 1970s, one of the most disturbing realisations of recent times is, as Boris Groys observes, to see how the force of language has been annulled. Once upon a time I was able to converse and argue with all kinds of people in the public space about ideas concerning human life and our fate; today, wandering through the cultural and social wreckage of neoliberalism’s stealth revolution, I find I am “fundamentally mute” because the economization and financialization of everything has occurred. I, and my friends, comrades and even old adversaries, have found to our cost that “one cannot enter into discussion with economic processes; one cannot change their mind, convince them, persuade them, use words to win them over to one’s side. All that can be done is to adapt one’s own behaviour to what is occurring.”

Like everyone else I have been forced to adapt my behaviour—though, as you’ll see, not in the way neoliberalism would like. This is because I am all too aware of how the language of politics, the language of the demos (as in democracy), now no longer has the power effectively to encourage people in any significant numbers critically to examine what is happening in our lives and how our fate is so tightly held in the hands of those who are driving along the neoliberal agenda. Try as I like, whether in my role as a political activist or as a minister in a radical, free-religious, democratic tradition, I find it impossible to persuade people, as a whole, to rise up against their chains as a neoliberal homo oeconomicus and become, once again, homo politicus. I may point to the cry in the Communist Manifesto that the “proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.” but the genius of the neoliberal stealth revolution has been to make its chains appear flower-decked. I may be able to point out, along with Marx, that neoliberalism’s flowers are “imaginary” but, what I cannot do at the moment, being fundamentally mute, is to persuade my fellow humans the value of “throw[ing] off the chain[s] and pluck[ing] the living flower” that is a genuine democracy.

This is a tragedy because, as Wendy Brown observes in a recent interview:

Democracy requires that citizens be modestly oriented toward self-rule, not simply value enhancement, and that we understand our freedom as resting in such self-rule, not simply in market conduct. When this dimension of being human is extinguished, it takes with it the necessary energies, practices, and culture of democracy, as well as its very intelligibility.

It is here that, for me, photography enters into the picture. Recognising that my words have lost “their material base—in other words, their reality—and seem suspended in mid-air” the Japanese Provoke movement’s 1968 manifesto came to me as an epiphany and began to inspire my own work, some of which you can see in this piece. Their insight suddenly offered me a way to continue the struggle for socialism and against barbarism in a very different way. They helped me see that, yes, it might be possible as a photographer to “capture fragments of reality that cannot be expressed in language as it is” and that the images I captured by my lens could be submitted as documents “to be considered alongside language and ideology”—photographs could be “provocative documents for thought” in a way that, at this moment in our culture’s life, our old political (and religious) words cannot.

I’ll return to the photographs found in this essay in a few paragraphs but, firstly, it is important to address the commonly expressed feeling that my words above may seem to express a typical leftist, defeatist attitude. However, two things can be cited to show this is not, I think, the case. The first is a parable told by Lenin and the second is the conception of a “weak” or “hermeneutic” communism as envisaged by Gianni Vattimo.

Man lying in sun 800x800

In 1924 Pravda (No. 87, April 16, 1924) published a short piece Lenin had written two years earlier at the end of the hugely destructive Russian Civil War called Notes of a Publicist that bears as one of its subtitles: “On ascending a high mountain.” In it Lenin imagines a man “ascending a very high, steep and hitherto unexplored mountain” who has “overcome unprecedented difficulties and dangers and has succeeded in reaching a much higher point than any of his predecessors, but still has not reached the summit.” The problem is that the mountaineer has got himself into a place where he can go no further and, if he is to succeed, he must turn back and seek another route. But, as is so often the case, descents prove to be more dangerous and difficult than any ascent. As Lenin notes,

. . . it is easier to slip; it is not so easy to choose a foothold; there is not that exhilaration that one feels in going upwards, straight to the goal, etc. . . . one has to move at a snail’s pace, and move downwards, descend, away from the goal; and one does not know where this extremely dangerous and painful descent will end, or whether there is a fairly safe detour by which one can ascend more boldly, more quickly and more directly to the summit.

To the people looking up at the climb from below, this descent causes them to shout all kinds of abuse “with malicious joy” about to the foolishness of the whole attempt to reach the summit. In Lenin’s parable he notes that,

Happily, in the circumstances we have described, our imaginary traveller cannot hear the voices of these people who are “true friends” of the idea of ascent; if he did, they would probably nauseate him. And nausea, it is said, does not help one to keep a clear head and a firm step, particularly at high altitudes.

Alas, as we descend from our first attempt to scale the mountain and, thereby, achieve socialism, the malicious joy of voices around us are today only too audible. Nauseating though this may be the important point to hold on to with a clear head is that even the great hero of the Russian Revolution saw there are moments in any struggle where you have no choice but radically to retrace the route you initially chose. In truth, this is always highly likely to occur because the mountain has not yet been conquered; you have absolutely no way of knowing beforehand what is going to be the successful route to the peak.

Reflection 530x800

It is clear that, due to external contingent circumstances, and too often our own foolishness, folly and occasionally brutality, we find ourselves in a place on the mountain that require us to retrace so many of our steps by undertaking a dangerous and very risky descent.

One person who has, to my mind, bravely and successfully done this to reach a place where we may have genuine hopes of mounting a more successful, gentle and humane attempt on the summit (though it is a very different kind of “summit” than the one imagined by Lenin and the kind of communist thinking he inherited) is the Italian leftist thinker and philosopher, Gianni Vattimo.

What appeals to me about Vattimo’s thinking is his feeling that, were communism to have any chance today of contributing to the improvement of world in healing, healthy and creative ways, then it needed to be in the full-time business of weakening all dogmas and ideologies—including, of course, its own. This idea of weakening all dogmas and ideologies may seem strange to many traditional leftists, but think about it. History has surely taught us that all strong totalising ideologies (whether religious, political, economic or financial) are deeply problematic and ultimately destructive as well as being profoundly anti-revolutionary. All such ideologies—including those once held by communists—fail properly to see that the world is always-already way more anomalous, complex, rich and revolutionary than can be dealt with by any single, totalising world-view. As Vattimo says in his highly influential 1983 essay “Weak Thought”, today it is possible to see clearly that:

. . . the world plays itself out in horizons constructed by a series of echoes, linguistic resonances, and messages coming from the past and from others (others alongside us as well as other cultures).

In other words, there is never going to be an end (a peak or summit) to the ongoing complex, multi-layered conversation between people and ideas and, therefore, there is also no such thing as ideological purity and certainty. Our world is, through and through, ceaselessly dialectical and this always means that new and revolutionary interpretations and insights are constantly being showing-up—there are theses and antitheses, yes, but there is no final, stable synthesis towards which we are ineluctably moving. The single, simple “summit” of the mountain Lenin and the early communists thought we were climbing disappears in Vattimo’s thought (and “weak” communism) to be replaced by a much more complex, shifting and interesting landscape that requires us always to flexible in our thinking and action. Perhaps this is also what John Storey is hinting at in his article 'What Do We Mean By Culture and Why Does It Matter?' elsewhere on the site: that to hold with absolute certainty any predetermined single ideology or doctrine, to be ideologically pure, is nothing less than to close oneself up to life itself.

With this thought of a life of ever-unfolding conversation we come to the nub of the matter, namely, what is now the best strategy available to us to change ourselves and the world for the better? How might we be truly true to the original revolutionary communist ideal with all its transformative energy and vision?

Well, we can start with Marx’s famous words “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it.” As we know most of these grand attempts to change the world were rooted in strong ideologies and doctrines and, without exception, they unfolded in some very, very bad ways. As Vattimo says in his 2010 essay “Weak Communism” this means that:

Thinking about a weak communism means rejecting not only Marx’s message, but also Lenin’s definition of communism as ‘soviet power plus electrification’ (assuming it was ever like this).

In consequence, in their recent book, “Hermenutic Communism”, Vattimo and his colleague Santiago Zabala feel, and I agree with them, that, today, Marx’s eleventh thesis should be rewritten thus:

The philosophers have only described the world in various ways; the moment now has arrived to interpret it.

Related to this thought, in a 2002 interview Vattimo notes that:

In a strong theory of weakness, the philosopher’s role would not derive from the world ‘as it is,’ but from the world viewed as the product of a history of interpretation throughout the history of human cultures. This philosophical effort would focus on interpretation as a process of weakening, a process in which the weight of objective structures is reduced.

The claim being made here is that the best way to affect change the world is firstly (and primarily) to change our interpretations of the world. In “Weak Communism” Vattimo states that to do this

We need an undisciplined social practice which shares with anarchism the refusal to formulate a system, a constitution, a positive ‘realistic’ model according to traditional political methods: for example, winning elections (who believes in them any longer?). Communism must have the courage to be a ‘ghost’ — if it wishes to recuperate an authentic reality.

A strikingly similar idea was expressed in the British context by Eric Hobsbawm who, in an interview towards the end of his life, suggested that the communism of the 21st century must become first and foremost

. . . a critique of capitalism, a critique of an unjust society that is developing its own contradictions; the ideal of a society with more equality, freedom, and fraternity; the passion of political action, the recognition of the necessity for common actions; the defence of the causes of the poorest and oppressed. This does not mean anymore a social order as the Soviet one, an economic order of total organisation and collectivity: I believe this experiment failed. Communism as a motivation is still valid, but not as programme.

Supermarket 27 March 2015 800x800


All of which allows me, finally, to turn to the photographs in this piece. They are “weak” images in the sense that they do not express any substantive political content but, for me, they do function as strong “provocative documents for thought.” Looking at them I am provoked to ask many questions, such as whether these laughing children are leading better and more fulfilled lives than their forebears or not?; whether the man sunbathing is engaging in a moment of resistance (bunking-off from exhausting and underpaid work for a while) or is he simply enjoying a well-earned and happy retirement?; whether the man reflected in the shop window surrounded by dozens of other reflections celebrating the omnipresent consumer culture through which he walks is elated and improved by this, or is he merely being crushed and erased by it?; whether the man in the supermarket is delighted by this huge range of commodities on the shelves before him or merely weighed-down by pointless choice?

As I say, these are just a few of the questions one might ask about these images and they all serve to keep me fully engaged in a political dialectic that will not be silenced by the neoliberal status quo.



For me taking these photos is part of my continuing activism as a “ghostly communist”, as someone still able to be engaged in resistance even though it is a kind of “spectral resistance” (a la Giorgio Agamben). Taking them helps me find a way of haunting every nook and cranny of the neoliberal culture in which I find myself mostly made mute. But, for all that I still have faith and hope that, along with my many ghostly comrades, we can ensure that the spectre of communism will continue to haunt not only Europe, but the whole world, our common home and treasury.
Read 33482 times Last modified on Wednesday, 16 November 2016 13:59
Andrew Brown

Andrew Brown is a religious naturalist, Unitarian minister in Cambridge, hermeneutic communist, jazz bass player, photographer, cyclist and Thoreauvian walker.

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