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Radicalism restored? Communism and the end of left melancholia

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    See, for example, Mason (2012), Bloom (2012) and Castells (2012), as well as Time magazine’s decision to name ‘the protestor’ as its person of the year for 2011.

  2. 2.

    See, for example, Hobsbawm (1996), Geras (1987), Fraser (1995). For a critique of such narratives, see Dean (2014).

  3. 3.

    See Özselçuk (2006, p. 226) and Roy (2009) for case studies that use Brown’s formulation of left melancholia to account for a range of problems and difficulties affecting (respectively) an anti-privatisation movement in Turkey, and the women’s movement in India.

  4. 4.

    For the avoidance of doubt, Jodi Dean and I are not related!

  5. 5.

    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).

  6. 6.

    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.

  7. 7.

    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.

  8. 8.

    My understanding of hegemonic masculinity in this context is derived from the work of Connell and Messerschmidt (2005).

  9. 9.

    See also Ahmed (2012), Pereira (2012) and New and Fleetwood (2006) for accounts of how gendered and other kinds of hierarchies are operative in ostensibly egalitarian academic spaces.

  10. 10.

    I thank Tom Walker for drawing my attention to this point.

  11. 11.

    See Eschle and Maiguashca (2014) and Dean (2008) for similar lines of argument.

  12. 12.

    See Seymour (2013) for further information and analysis.

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Acknowledgements

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.

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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

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Keywords

  • melancholia
  • communism
  • feminism
  • intersectionality
  • identity politics
  • radicalism