Since the onset of the 2008 economic crisis and the resurgence of various forms of transnational radical politics (the Arab Spring, Occupy and so on), several left-wing thinkers have argued that the era of left melancholia is now over. This article examines such claims, paying particular attention to the recent re-engagement with the idea of communism in contemporary critical theory. Foregrounding the recent work of Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek and (especially) Jodi Dean, I suggest that the attempt to re-invigorate and revitalise the academic left is welcome, but I question some of the political and theoretical investments that characterise this (re)turn to communism. In particular, I interrogate the new communists’ tendency to contrast a vision of a melancholic and deradicalised left beholden to feminism, anti-racism, single issue politics and identity politics with an alternative vision of an authentically radical left emboldened by the re-emergence of the idea of communism. Such a distinction is not only analytically problematic, but also reflects, and shores up, a range of inequalities and exclusions within academic left theory and practice. These elisions, hierarchies and exclusions, I argue, are testament to much of the academic left’s continued unease about, or even outright resistance to, feminism, anti-racism and queer politics. Overall, my intention is to trace some of the effects and consequences of the new communists’ claim that they offer a newly radicalised left theory and politics: in so doing, I offer a preliminary rethinking of how we narrate the contemporary history of radical left politics.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
We’re sorry, something doesn't seem to be working properly.
Please try refreshing the page. If that doesn't work, please contact support so we can address the problem.
For the avoidance of doubt, Jodi Dean and I are not related!
With the possible exception of a dismissive reference to ‘feminism’ as a key element of what ‘the State’ believes constitutes the average French citizen (Badiou, 2012, p. 73).
Indeed, see Chambers (2009) for an account of a range of productive overlaps between queer theory and the work of Jacques Rancière (2010), who has made important contributions to recent debates about the idea of communism. As Chambers points out, both Rancière and queer theory foreground a politics centred upon the disruption of socially prescribed roles and identities.
The alternative conference programme can be accessed here: http://thecommune.files.wordpress.com/2009/03/communismprogramme11.pdf. I was unable to find a copy of the ‘proper’ version anywhere online.
My understanding of hegemonic masculinity in this context is derived from the work of Connell and Messerschmidt (2005).
I thank Tom Walker for drawing my attention to this point.
See Seymour (2013) for further information and analysis.
Ahmed, S. (2012) On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, Kindle edn. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Badiou, A. (2008) The Meaning of Sarkozy. London: Verso.
Badiou, A. (2010) The Communist Hypothesis. London: Verso.
Badiou, A. (2012) The Rebirth of History. London: Verso.
Bloom, C. (2012) Riot City: Protest and Rebellion in the Capital. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Bonnett, A. (2010) Left in the Past: Radicalism and the Politics of Nostalgia. London: Continuum.
Bosteels, B. (2012) The Actuality of Communism. London: Verso.
Brown, W. (1995) States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Brown, W. (1999) Resisting left melancholy. Boundary 2: An International Journal of Literature and Culture 26 (3): 19–27.
Butler, J. (1998) Merely cultural. New Left Review 1 (227): 33–44.
Butler, J. (1999) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, (10th anniversary edn.) London: Routledge.
Castells, M. (2012) Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age. Cambridge: Polity.
Chambers, S.A. (2007) ‘An incalculable effect’: Subversions of heteronormativity. Political Studies 55 (3): 656–679.
Chambers, S.A. (2009) Jacques Rancière on the shores of queer theory. Borderlands 8 (2): 1–19.
Clifford, J. (1999) Taking identity politics seriously: The contradictory, stony ground. In: P. Gilroy, L. Grossberg and A. McRobbie (eds.) Without Guarantees: Essays in Honour of Stuart Hall. London: Verso.
Coleman, L.M. and Bassi, S.A. (2011) Deconstructing militant manhood: Masculinities in the disciplining of (anti-)globalization politics. International Feminist Journal of Politics 13 (2): 204–224.
Connell, R.W. and Messerschmidt, J.W. (2005) Hegemonic masculinity – Rethinking the concept. Gender & Society 19 (6): 829–859.
Crenshaw, K. (1993) Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review 43 (6): 1241–1299.
Davis, K. (2008) Intersectionality as buzzword: A sociology of science perspective on what makes a feminist theory successful. Feminist Theory 9 (1): 67–85.
Dean, J. (1996) Solidarity of Strangers: Feminism after Identity Politics. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Dean, J. (2012) The Communist Horizon. London: Verso.
Dean, J. (2008) Feminist purism and the question of radicality in contemporary political theory. Contemporary Political Theory 8 (2): 280–301.
Dean, J. (2014) Tales of the apolitical. Political Studies 62 (2): 452–467.
Douzinas, C. and Žižek, S. (eds.) (2010) Introduction: The idea of communism. In: The Idea of Communism. London: Verso.
Eschle, C. and Maiguashca, B. (2010) Making Feminist Sense of the Global Justice Movement. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Eschle, C. and Maiguashca, B. (2014) Reclaiming feminist futures: Co-opted and progressive politics in a neo-liberal age. Political Studies 62 (3): 635–651.
Fraser, N. (1995) From redistribution to recognition? Dilemmas of justice in a ‘post-socialist’ age. New Left Review 1 (212): 68–93.
Freud, S. (2001) Mourning and melancholia. In: J. Strachey (ed.) The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Volume XIV, (1914–1916), On the History of the Psycho-analytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works. London: Vintage.
Geras, N. (1987) Post-marxism? New Left Review 1 (163): 40–82.
Gibson-Graham, J.K. (2006) A Postcapitalist Politics. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Gilbert, J. (2008) Anticapitalism and Culture: Radical Theory and Popular Politics. Oxford: Berg.
Hall, S. (1988) The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left. London: Verso.
Hall, S. (1992) Cultural studies and its theoretical legacies. In: L. Grossberg, C. Nelson and P.A. Treichler (eds.) Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge.
Hallward, P. (2010) Communism of the intellect, communism of the will. In: C. Douzinas and S. Žižek (eds.) The Idea of Communism. London: Verso.
Hardt, M. (2010) The common in communism. In: C. Douzinas and S. Žižek (eds.) The Idea of Communism. London: Verso.
Hemmings, C. (2011) Why Stories Matter: The Political Grammar of Feminist Theory. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Hobsbawm, E. (1996) Identity politics and the left. New Left Review 1 (217): 38–47.
hooks, b. (1981) Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. London: Pluto.
Laclau, E. (2014) The Rhetorical Foundations of Society. London: Verso.
Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. (1985) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. London: Verso.
Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. (1987) Post-Marxism without apologies. New Left Review 1 (166): 79–106.
Mason, P. (2012) Why It’s Kicking off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions. London: Verso.
Nancy, J.L. (2010) Communism, the word. In: C. Douzinas and S. Žižek (eds.) The Idea of Communism. London: Verso.
New, C. and Fleetwood, S. (2006) Gender at critical realism conferences. Journal of Critical Realism 5 (1): 61–91.
Özselçuk, C. (2006) Mourning, melancholy and the politics of class transformation. Rethinking Marxism 18 (2): 225–240.
Pereira, M.d.M. (2012) Feminist theory is proper knowledge, but…: The status of feminist scholarship in the academy. Feminist Theory 13 (3): 283–303.
Rancière, J. (2010) Communists without communism? In: C. Douzinas and S. Žižek (eds.) The Idea of Communism. London: Verso.
Redfern, K. and Aune, K. (2010) Reclaiming the F-word: The new Feminist Movement. London: Zed.
Roy, S. (2009) Melancholic politics and the politics of melancholia: The Indian women’s movement. Feminist Theory 10 (3): 341–357.
Sedgwick, E.K. (1990) Epistemology of the Closet. London: Penguin.
Segal, L. (2013) Today, yesterday and tomorrow: Between rebellion and coalition building. In: S. Rowbotham, L. Segal and H. Wainwright (eds) Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism, 3rd edn. Pontypool, UK: Merlin.
Seymour, R. (2013) Left Unity: a report from the founding conference, http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/left_unity_a_report_from_the_founding_conference, accessed 30 September 2014.
Taft, J. (2011) Rebel Girls: Youth Activism and Social Change across the Americas. New York: New York University Press.
Tormey, S. (2006) ‘Not in my name’: Deleuze, Zapatismo and the critique of representation. Parliamentary Affairs 59 (1): 138–154.
Tyler, I. (2013) Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain. London: Zed.
Warner, M. (ed.) (1993) Introduction: Fear of a queer planet. In: Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Yuval-Davis, N. (2006) Intersectionality and feminist politics. European Journal of Women’s Studies 13 (3): 193–209.
Zerilli, L.M.G. (2005) Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press.
Žižek, S. (2000) Class struggle or postmodernism? Yes please! In: J. Butler, E. Laclau and S. Žižek (eds.) Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left. London: Verso.
Žižek, S. (2010) How to begin from the beginning. In: C. Douzinas and S. Žižek (eds.) The Idea of Communism. London: Verso.
Žižek, S. (2012) The Year of Dreaming Dangerously. London: Verso.
Žižek, S. (eds.) (2013) Answers without questions. In: The Idea of Communism 2. London: Verso.
I thank the editors of Contemporary Political Theory and the two anonymous reviewers, all of whom offered detailed and generous engagements with earlier drafts of the article. Similarly, I am extremely grateful to Maria do Mar Pereira and Bice Maiguashca for their helpful feedback and comments. Earlier versions of the article were presented at the conference ‘Thinking the Political: the Work of Ernesto Laclau’, University of Brighton, April 2013, and at the Political Theory Research Group Seminar, University of Leeds, October 2013.
About this article
Cite this article
Dean, J. Radicalism restored? Communism and the end of left melancholia. Contemp Polit Theory 14, 234–255 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1057/cpt.2014.45
- identity politics