eipcp News
09 2009

Inventing the Transversal Intellect. Crisis, Transition, Communism

Translated by Aida Loncarevic

Gerald Raunig

Gerald Raunig


Aida Loncarevic (translation)




The old face of Communism, based on the will and voluntarism of an avant-garde, and on the paranoid expectations of a New Totality was defeated at the end of the 20th century and will never resurrect. A totally new brand of communism is going to surface as a form of necessity, the inevitable outcome of the stormy collapse of the capitalist system. The communism of capital is a barbarian necessity. We must put freedom in this necessity; we need to make of this necessity a conscious organized choice.

Francesco Berardi (Bifo)

Even if the subtitle above might suggest it, this essay will not be a matter of evoking the old thesis of a linear revolutionary sequence to a socialist paradise. “Crisis”, “transition”, and “communism” instead name three divergently problematic concepts whose relations must be investigated anew.

1. 1989/1

The date 1989 is traditionally code for the fall of the Berlin Wall, for the collapse of the remains of an eroded state socialism, for a more or less organized self-abandonment of the Warsaw Pact. From this perspective twenty years of transition are twenty years of a uniform, capitalist-bloc fantasy without alternatives, of a homogenous and normalizing bloc that no longer antagonizes the dichotomous exterior, but instead uses its immanent abnormalities to feign economic and political progress. The current “crisis” has put a definitive end to this idea of transition. Or better yet: the crisis has made the (re-)colonization of many countries in Eastern, Southeastern and Central Europe more conspicuously visible than had already become evident more than a decade ago.

The lasting effects caused by the normalizing dominance on its new colonial advance towards the East on both the economic and political levels, can be seen more clearly now than before. Even if we do not consider the horrors of war on the ex-Yugoslavian territories in the nineties to be a consequence of the colonial desire of the “West”, the effects of a neoliberal/neocolonial politics speak clearly through the medium of crisis: less than two decades after the system change, the becoming-Capitalist of many countries in Eastern, Southeastern, and Central Europe has nearly driven them to bankruptcy.

The economic transition in any case proves to be not a passage from state socialism to the capitalist consumer paradise, but a passage to bankruptcy, extreme precarity, impoverishment; the political ”transition” proves to be not a passage from dictatorship to democracy, but an insecure adventure tending towards an endangered future – endangered by forms of self-government unknown to socialism, by a general decline of the middle class, by forms of resurgent nationalism, by a more and more repressive immigration politics, and by proliferating micro-fascisms (and some as well that are not “micro” at all).

This is one side of the coin, but even from the perspective of the so-called “transition countries” there is a facet which makes the developments of the “transition” and the “crisis” appear at least ambivalent: when neoliberal capitalism, so soon after the erosion of state socialism and before the eyes of its new subjects, turns out to be a regime of instability, when the painful transitional phase turns out to be an empty promise, when the great narrative of transition comes to an inglorious end, then it might become possible to look out into an open past and an equally open future for the forms of social organization, articulation, concatenation. In the countries of the Warsaw Pact and in ex-Yugoslavia, this gaze into the open probably is not to be expected under the trademark of communism; but why not, by reclaiming all possible theorems and practices that made this trademark in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century a manifold and promising signifier?

2. 1989/2

Indeed, from an entirely different perspective, 1989 can become a pivot for reflection on the possibilities of new social concatenations. While state socialisms in Eastern, Southeastern, and Central Europe eroded in the eighties, a time zone of post-repressive depression spread through “Western” Europe. After years of political movements around and after 1968 and diverse lines of radicalization in various left-wing contexts in the seventies, what then dawned were the anni di piombo or “years of lead” (to cite Margarethe von Trotta’s influential film title) – or (in Félix Guattari’s formulation) the années d’hiver or “winter years.” After the “leaden time”, a period of criminalization and state repression against not just the terrorist left, but also broader circles of activists, academics, and intellectuals of various political origins, came a time of hibernation of the collective production of desires and social movement.

From this perspective 1989 is code for a breakup, but one that doesn’t introduce the decline of “communism” as state socialism and the radical turn to neoliberal experiments, but just the opposite, a becoming-possible and the first attempts of actually testing a new communism. A multitude of new molecular revolutions and social movements emerged in the early nineties and after, and these not on the basis of a disintegrating state socialism, as its clandestine succession, but simultaneously with its decline, as an immanent opposition. Or better: as a movement of flight beyond that transforming and at the same time self-closing form of normalization that is still and simply called capitalism.

The Zapatista uprising, the new action forms of Reclaim the Streets, the manifold streams of the anti-globalization movement with its climaxes from Seattle through Prague and Genoa to Heiligendamm, the World Social Forums, the Euromayday as a line of flight from the precarization of work and life, all these and many more movements and micropolitical practices brought new forms of concatenation into play. Molecularity, diffusion, transversality are their components, and from this perspective the two decades since 1989 have turned out to be a gold mine of constituent practices, as traces of a new oppositionality, less Marx’s image of the burrowing mole, perhaps, than one of a many-headed monster.

3. The Potency of a New Communism

But what can be learned from these two genealogical strands of the “East” and the “West” after 1989; how can their particularities become components of a possible new communism? And above all, what can “new communism” mean in the context of a time of manifold crises?

First, a few incompatibilities have to be pointed out with regard to the term communism and the family of concepts around the community, the common and the commune. To begin with, the apparent incompatibility of the new forms of concatenation (which were not only developed in the global North) with the geopolitical contexts in Central and Eastern Europe: in most of the countries of the ex-Warsaw Pact neither the activist practices of the anti-globalization movement nor the theoretical currents emerging around them (above all Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s blockbuster books) were well received. Only marginal groups on the left in these countries were able to welcome or accept them. In wider circles, the practices and theories developed contemporaneously with the “transition” were perceived as “not applicable” to the Central and Eastern European context or were just slandered as colonial figures.

The geopolitical incompatibility of the nineties and the recent years points to a next, historical incompatibility. From a deep distrust of the Central and Eastern European left towards all superficial emphasis of communism and from the basis of this mistrust in real experiences of Stalinism and state socialism there is something to be learned: a communist new beginning should certainly not be conceived as a non-critical renewal of 19th and 20th century politics. When we want to learn from the historical experience of the Paris Commune of 1871 or the “Discourse Lenin” of the years between 1905 and 1917 – or indeed from the early anarchist and communist textual tradition – we must free ourselves from bondage to dogmatic interpretations of historical practices and texts.

But also the more general theoretical issue of the phantasmatic reception of the discourses of the commune has to be considered carefully. Communitarian theories in all their varieties lean towards right essentialisms, identitarianisms and fascisms. Various new theorizations of community on the left – those for example of Jean-Luc Nancy, Giorgio Agamben or Roberto Esposito – have tried to abstract the community concept from its essentialist connotations and to test its left orientation. But in their vague insistence on a commune as common, even these attempts are probably not useful for new forms of concatenation The community form, in its more complex contemporary overlap with the form of the state apparatus, is in fact to be considered as an all-inclusive and totalitarian form in its co-action with the state form that rigidly striates and stratifies social space. In this interwoven regime of striating state and all-encompassing community, the commune becomes an ideal conceptual vessel for neoliberal self-government and machinic enslavement.[1]

All this weighs in favour of inventing a new name for the new. Early this year Franco Berardi (Bifo), who also shares this background of the historical primacy of the totality of the common over the singularities, gave his text on the question of a “new communism” the title “Communism is back, but we should call it the therapy of singularization”[2]. When we follow this Deleuzo-Guattarian idiom, the question of the quality of the singularization becomes our central interest. Singularity, here, is not reducible to developments of individualizing self-government, of the erosion of solidarity, and of opportunism, spreading in the last decades in a new dimension. Bifo rightly doubts that the rule of modern capitalism (that well-being is to be identified with property) will hold in the unstable period now beginning. The good life of today and tomorrow must for the most part depend on a different form of singularity, and on a different form of concatenation of singularities as well.

When we want to discuss this necessity beyond abstract normativity, there is the question: how and where can singularization and concatenation be developed and tested? From my point of view the answer is clear: on the flight lines of the historical left movements, as well as in every concrete contemporary social concatenation. And if the idea of a new communism is precisely about the connection between the evident power of invention in the new concatenations and the most productive lines of the struggles in the 19th and the 20th centuries, then this concept should break with one-sided historical (and contemporary) denotations and should consider not only the manifold communist genealogy in the narrower sense, but also – and perhaps above all – the experiences of the anarchist currents.

To bring the best of both worlds to an exchange could be a key to the development of the new forms of concatenation. The communist genealogy should be understood in a way that does not deny or suppress questions of organization and institution but subjects them to a critical reflexion in a continuous process of instituting and organizing – a continuous becoming-orgiastic of the structures and state apparatuses, a becoming-monster of the institutions, an emergence of monster institutions. At the same time, the early anarchist experience can become productive when it comes to the concatenation of the non-representable, of the molecular, the diffuse- a concatenation however, that does not mean appropriating the singularities[3].

4. transversal intellect

In the phases of the Cold War and the dual bloc system up to 1989, two specific modes of subjectivation of artists and intellectuals were dominant in the European scene. In the “East” it was the mode of dissidence and forced retreat of the political into the private sphere. The model that emerged in the “West” pursued the privatization of the political in a completely different way, as indivualizing and monopolizing opinion in the figure of the media intellectual. In this spectacular model the intellect is not much more than an instrumental function of the mass media: intellectuals serve as spectacular suppliers of the media who comment when prompted about every possible topic. Their subject position is characterized through a narcissistic and insatiable desire for representation in the media. This form of spectacular intellectuality in the media is a perversion of the old intellectual formation that Michel Foucault denoted and critically challenged through the concept of the universal intellectual. But while the universal intellectual as an advocate and a public man interpreted, if not saved, the world from a neutral place of universality, the media intellectuals pretend that they are the world, and they privatize, popularize, and spectacularize the political.

After 1989, beyond both forms of privatizing the political, new emergent conceptions of a specific and not exclusive intellectuality carry on with Foucault’s reflections on specific intellectuals, in opposition to the universal ones, and thus go beyond the individualistic model of intellect as a thinking, writing and public subject. Their specific competences are not imagined merely to be at the disposal of traditional knowledge workers, but are conceived as an experience basically developed in co-operation in the in-between of social intellectuality. This is an actualization of the post-Marxian theorems of post-operaismo and cognitive capitalism that are based on Marx’s concept of the general intellect from his “Fragment on Machines” (in the Grundrisse). The general intellect also features as a central and very concrete figure in Bifo’s text, and in the context of crisis Bifo assigns to it the following tasks: “fleeing from paranoia, creating zones of human resistance, experimenting autonomous forms of production based on high-tech-low-energy production – whilst avoiding confrontation with the criminal class and the conformist population.”

But there are two problems inherent in this concept of the general intellect. The first arises from the above-mentioned problem of the quality of singularities: the singularities, the specific competences must be connected in a different way – not “generally”, not sublated in a universal unity. Since Marx already noted that the general intellect exceeds the knowledge enclosed in the machine as a technical apparatus, a contemporary actualization of the concept must not be imagined as homogenous and uniform. Secondly, concerning the question of recomposition, the general intellect cannot be understood merely as a technical composition or a pre-individual precondition of all humanity. It is much more the political form of recomposition that has yet to be invented and established.

The intellect, if it is not avant-garde, not dissidence, not propaganda or provocation, not narcissism, not spectacle, not just an advocate or authoritative author of appeals to the masses, not a media intellectual, who owns and explains the world to the people, but a social intellect that creates worlds, this intellect will be transversal, a transversal intellect emerging in the struggles, in the constituent practices, in the social movements.

Published in: Maska


[1] cf. Raunig, Tausend Maschinen, Vienna: Turia+Kant 2008, above all the last chapter “Abstrakte Maschinen“.

[2] cf. http://www.generation-online.org/p/fp_bifo6.htm.

[3] cf. my interpretation of the Paris Commune as an orgiastic state apparatus and at the same time an organized war machine in Gerald Raunig, Art and Revolution, New York: Semiotext(e) 2007, 67-96.