Communism? by any other name…?

16 Mar

(The dawn of SPRING BREAK (woo!) signals that )I’m about halfway done grinding through a seminar on Marxism. To supplement the all primary source course readings, I kept a copy of Tariq Ali’s wide-reaching and powerfully written little book, The Idea of Communism, by the toilet for the month of February and got through it roughly 1.5 times. (I don’t welcome speculation on what this says about either my reading speed or the health of my bowels.) Anyway, the question of whether “communism,” both as word and concept, can any longer be an effective rallying point for leftist radicals seeking to supplant capitalism with something more sustainable, democratic and humane has come up repeatedly in conversations with classmates and fellow activists alike over the past few weeks. And I often find myself referencing a passage Ali quotes from Lucio Magri (pp. 5-6), though I’m not yet certain what I really think of it. Here it is, plus the subsequent paragraph from the original piece.

At one of the crowded meetings held in 1991 to decide whether or not to change the name of the Italian Communist Party, a comrade posed this question to Pietro Ingrao: ‘After everything that has happened and all that is now taking place, do you still believe the word “communist” can be used to describe the kind of large, democratic mass party that ours has been, and is, and which we want to renew so as to take it into government?’ Ingrao, who had already laid out in full the reasons for his dissent and proposed that an alternative course be taken, replied—not altogether in jest—with Brecht’s famous parable of the tailor of Ulm. This 16th-century German artisan had been obsessed by the idea of building a device that would allow men to fly. One day, convinced he had succeeded, he took his contraption to the Bishop and said: ‘Look, I can fly’. Challenged to prove it, the tailor launched himself into the air from the top of the church roof, and, naturally, ended up in smithereens on the paving stones below. And yet, Brecht’s poem suggests: a few centuries later men did indeed learn to fly.

Ingrao’s reply was not just witty but well-founded. How many centuries, how many bloody struggles, advances and defeats did it take for the capitalist system to reach—in a Western Europe that had initially been more backward and barbaric than other parts of the world—an unprecedented degree of economic efficiency, and for it to acquire new, more open political institutions, a more rational culture? What irreducible contradictions were to mark liberalism over those years, between the solemn ideals—common human nature, freedom of speech and thought, popular sovereignty—and the practices that constantly belied them: slavery, colonial domination, expulsion of peasants from common land, wars of religion? Contradictions whose social reality was legitimated in thought: the idea that freedom could and should only be granted to those who, by virtue of property and culture—even race and colour—were capable of exercising it wisely; and the correlative notion that ownership of goods was an absolute, inviolable right which therefore precluded universal suffrage.

–Lucio Magri, The Tailor of Ulm


Edit: Watch video of the talk Mr. Ali gave last November to promote The Idea of Communism at the Harvard Bookstore here. Dude kind of snubbed me when I went to get my book signed, but we’ll forgive our grumpy elder comrade.


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