An interview with Franco “Bifo” Berardi on the Paris Commune of 1871 and its present resonances.
Originally published by the Planetary Commune.
Niccolò Cuppini (Planetary Commune ): We would like to take advantage of the 150the anniversary of the Paris Commune to open a reflection on the Commune without any celebratory or hagiographic intentions, but rather with a spirit that tries on the one hand to rethink the Commune as a political form even beyond the single Parisian experience (thinking of the various other Communes in space and time), and at the same time to think with the Commune in the future, as a possibility for the future. However, I would start from the specific historical event, the irruption of a new event that has triggered many reflections. What is your point of view on the significance of this historical event?
Bifo: You have rightly used the word event several times to refer to the Commune. Event in the sense that it is a conjunction of actions, projects, conflicts and tragedies (in the end the Commune was a tragedy) that were neither foreseen nor predictable within any theoretical configuration. It is the emergence of a new scenario, this is the Commune. Marx says, speaking of June 1848, that on that occasion for the first time the two decisive classes in modern society were released onto the scene in conflict: the working class and the bourgeoisie. It is true that in 1848, in the political disposition of the city of Paris, in the mass demonstrations, in the conflicts of those months, the working class, the workers, for the first time manifested itself with its own particular interests. But in reality it was in 1870-71 that this divergence and this autonomy of the workers’ interest was fully manifested. Marx dedicates a text to the Commune, written in the months immediately following (The Civil War in France), and in this text Marx emphasises precisely what is specifically workers’ interest that emerges. The demand for a guarantee of wages and the decision to reduce or limit working hours. In this sense, with the Commune, not one claim of one class among many emerges, but the fundamental distinction of the following time, of the 20th century, emerges. It emerges in a very organised form in the management of the Commune’s days, but without a conscious, unifying, strategic political subjectivity, so to speak. This is the problem that emerges with the Commune. How is workers’ subjectivity organised in the Commune? This is the problem from which the International and the first successful revolutionary experience, the Soviet revolution of 1917, started. Lenin started from the Commune but tried to transform it, to transform the workers’ conflict into a project for another society, another model. For this reason, with the Commune, a new strategic socio-political geography emerged, which would develop over the course of the 20th century.
Niccolò Cuppini: Connecting to this, I would ask you for your reading of how that Commune-event propagates, develops resonances in later times. The anecdote of Lenin dancing in the snow in Red Square when the Bolshevik revolution outlasted the Commune is well known, but the Commune reverberated for example in French ’68, in Shanghai, in Oaxaca, and beyond. What importance has the propagation of this subversive memory of the Commune had in the following decades in characterising the strategies and the political imagery of subversive, revolutionary movements?
Bifo: 150 years later we have to attempt an evaluation, to ask ourselves: but did the Commune win or lose in the long run? This is a brutal and stupid way of asking questions; in history, winning and losing are words that mean little. In the historical process we are not faced with a problem to which we have to find the solution, because while we are looking for the solution the problem is constantly changing. So evaluations cannot be made mechanically by referring to what the government project was and so on. No, we have to ask ourselves, point one: has the problem of the municipality disappeared or does it remain? Point two: was there a project within the Commune that could become a majority and change the course of history in a coherent way? These are two separate questions. In the first one I ask myself: but has the Commune vanished into thin air today? Are we talking about something like the Punic Wars? Or is there an actuality of the Commune? The second question is more historical. I start here, and once again refer to Marx. He spoke of the Commune in tones of total adherence and deep enthusiasm, the struggle between classes emerging for the first time as such an evident phenomenon. But we know that in Marx’s thought the revolutionary process, the process of transformation, is not defined in terms of a subjectivity that breaks the continuity of the social process. When Lenin in 1917 succeeded in transforming the revolt of the Russian proletarians into a victorious revolution, Gramsci wrote an article in L’Avanti defining Lenin’s revolution as a revolution “against capital”, with a double expression: against capitalism of course, but also against the book of the old Marx, against Das Kapital, because Marx avoided defining revolution as a process of subjective rupture of politics that breaks the continuity of social conflict. He never said “it is the party that leads the transformation”: Marx never elaborated a theory of the party and all things considered he did not even elaborate a theory of revolution, perhaps the word revolution itself comes from the past of bourgeois history. Of course there was the French Revolution and the 19th century was a century in which the word revolution had a promising meaning, so we have as it were inherited the word revolution in the 20th century without much thought. But what is this revolution? It is a break in the process of constant social transformation. Marx rather thought that the process of social transformation produces as from within itself the liberation of life time from the form of wage labour. 150 years later I would say that Marx was right. He saw that we are dealing with a process that is essentially evolutionary. It is well known that Marx had great respect and admiration for Charles Darwin. It is strange, we are used to thinking of Darwin as a thinker who is very manageable in a neo-liberal sense. The neo-liberal thinking of the 1970s and 1980s was intimately linked with an idea of social Darwinism whereby whoever wins is the strongest, and neo-liberalism said that the strongest is the entrepreneur capable of transforming the world for his own profit, for the action of capital, for the action of his private property of capital. This is what neo-liberalism has said, interpreting Darwinism in its own way. But I believe that there is another way of understanding evolution, which is probably the one written within the pages of Marx. The strongest is not the entrepreneur, not the owner. Yes, he is stronger in the current confrontation, than the one that in the course of modernity has been determined in the form of the class struggle between workers and the bourgeoisie, but in the long time of human history, of modern history, the winner does not win anything, the winner destroys everything. And the only winner that can be identified with the progress of human history is in fact labour that frees itself from the wage form. In my opinion, Marx meant this: the strongest are the workers, not as a kind of disciplined army, but as the force of invention that emancipates itself from the slavery of wage labour. This is the propositional, planning, visionary content that I derive from Marx’s thought. The Commune was a very strong subjectivation and very rich in content, but it was a story that could not win by force of subjectivity, by force of revolutionary explosion. I believe that we have come to understandlittle by little this poverty of subjectivism. In the last fifty years, and today fully faced with the catastrophe of all forms of political subjectivity. And so I come to the other question: is the Commune still relevant? And I answer myself: more than ever. Not as a political and subjective modality, but as the presence, very heavy and very evident, of a contradiction between the collective and universal interest and the form of private property. I speak at a time when, in the year 2021, two gigantic phenomena are demonstrating that only the priority of the common can save mankind. These two events are before our eyes: one is the one concerning the Coronavirus vaccines. We are discovering in these days that the public system has financed the private pharmaceutical system so that large private pharmaceutical corporations could produce a common good but in the form of private property, in the sense that society must pay for the good that is indispensable for collective health, it must pay twice: first by financing private research and then by buying the vaccine at a high price. I believe that we have come close, as if we had put a noose around our necks, and Pfitzer etc. are pulling the rope. This is the result of forty years of privatisation of the health system, research, public education, etc. The other similar phenomenon is what we discovered the day Twitter and Facebook prevented the US president (who is a fascist pig, but that’s not the point) from having the floor. They prevented him, by the way, after allowing him to speak for four years, but when Trump lost everything (we hope), at that point the big media corporations took away his speech. But the point is that the floor is taken away from the losers, it will be taken away from anyone the big corporations don’t like. This is the result of forty years of privatisation of the global tele-communication system, forty years of privatisation of public speech, which has been progressively privatised. And here too we find ourselves with a noose around our necks, with Facebook, Twitter, Google having the possibility of pulling this rope. So the core, the problem posed by the Commune, is still here. As a conflict between public interest and private interest, and here the possibility of work (and only work) to become a subject, to set in motion a process of liberation of the noose around the neck of humanity.
Niccolò Cuppini: You used the public-private dichotomy as a progressive shift of the axis in recent decades to the private. At the same time historically in modernity public tends to be associated with state, in a political theory that aims at liberation processes it seems to me that this point poses problems to be solved. The Commune tended to break up the constituted state. How can we think today about this public-private-commune relationship within perspectives that are certainly not simple or immediate, but with a view to opening up spaces for liberation?
Bifo: The reduction of the concept of the common, or if you like also of the public, although the two things are not identifiable, but in short of collective interest to the mediation of the state. This reduction is the effect, the responsibility of the communist movement of the 20th century, indeed of the official workers’ movement in all its forms. The idea that the state has the task, the possibility of becoming the representative of the interests of labour, that is, of overall human activity, that is, in short, of the interests of humanity (the interest of humanity is identified with the capacity of labour to produce what is necessary for humanity), and above all is identified with the capacity of the subjects of labour to free themselves from the oppressive forms, of exploitation in which labour is historically determinated. Thus the interest of society has been reduced to the capacity of the state. This has never worked, in any of the forms in which the labour movement has experienced it. Not even the Leninist one, in which the state becomes the actor of the process and in this way replaces the spontaneity of the social movement. But even in the reformist experience, both the socialist experience and that of the Italian communist party for example, the Italian experience from this point of view seems to me quite exemplary. In the 1960s and 1970s an exemplary cultural and political conflict was expressed. The conflict between the PCI and the autonomous movements had precisely this as its goal: should we hope or believe that thanks to the forms of representative democracy the state can become the expression of society’s interests, or should we think that only the self-organisation of social sectors is capable of setting in motion a process of transformation of the relations of production and distribution? In this clash, which had its crucial moment, I would say, in the Italian seventies, we realised that the path taken by the workers’ movement throughout the century was leading us to depower the social movement and to attribute absolute power to the state-form. It is clear that the state has always continued to function as… it used to be called the “business committee of the bourgeoisie”. The question is much more complex in reality. It has functioned as an equaliser of the different interests of a model based on growth, accumulation and exploitation. That was the model to be safeguarded, perhaps even democratised at times. But the state has never been able to break it. Not even in the Soviet Union, mind you, where the primacy of productivity over social interests continued – admittedly in much more dramatic conditions – to arise. The great theme that has been avoided is that of social pleasure, i.e. the reduction of the time in which society is forced to reproduce itself. So the workers’ movement was never able to emancipate itself from this dependence. Then in reality this is not true, there have been many local experiences of self-organisation that have re-proposed the Parisian model of 1871. The liberated zone: the creation of a space where the law does not apply, where the state does not rule, but where society experiments with the best ways to survive, reproduce itself and invent the new. But these were, after all, exceptional, marginal movements in the great upheavals of the past century. If we look at ourselvesfrom the point of view of today, I believe that the collapse we are experiencing, which we have experienced, and which we will continue to experience for a while, is not only the result of the pandemic, but of the set of specific collapses we have witnessed in recent years (environmental, economic, the psychic collapse which is the greatest systemic phenomenon of our time, and finally the health-pandemic collapse). This collapse puts us in an extreme condition, that of the extinction of human civilisation, but I believe that we will not emerge from this stranglehold with the force of politics, with the command capacity of the state, but with the capacity for self-organisation of certain fragments of society. This is why the content of the Commune is reappearing, and I do not believe that it will have the heroic and unifying form that we have always attributed to emancipatory moments since the Commune. I think it will have a much more nomadic, molecular, viral character I would say if the word had not acquired an obscure meaning.
Niccolò Cuppini: I would link to how you closed this reflection. On the occasion of the anniversary of ’77 a few years ago you spoke of future communism and evoked the Commune as a dynamic, as a possible theme of a future communism. In recent years, your reflection has been characterised by a thought of the future that, within a tragic dimension, at times also includes this view of a future that also involves rethinking the issues we have discussed here. I would ask you for some final thoughts on a future commune, on possible communism, thinking through the commune about humanity to come.
Bifo: I don’t think we are able to fully imagine the disruptive, unhinging effects that the collapse will have on the economic, geopolitical and psychic systems. But I have the impression that some hinges have been blown off. I will limit myself to a specific field, that of the relationship between profit and exchange. In the months since the pandemic broke out, the world’s financial agencies, both state and private, the banks, etc. have all of a sudden loosened their purse strings. Deficit stopped being a problem, debt stopped being a problem. But how? Five years ago it was said that if Greece didn’t pay its debt they would kill them all, and in practice they have killed them politically and morally. But no, we have suddenly discovered hot water, that money does not exist. That it is a semiotic statement, a convention on the basis of which we decide that we can or cannot spend or exchange. But at the same time we have had the impression that perhaps we don’t need money to the full, we need a few billion ampoules of vaccine, and we don’t have them, we need masks and respirators, we need non-centralised communication environments, we need things that don’t exist or no longer exist because, for example, we need a lot of doctors and instead for many years there has been a closed number in medical schools, spending on education has been drastically reduced, on health, on creating, producing… What has happened? The predatory aggression of finance over the last 15 years has enormously impoverished society, not of government, but of things, of profit. I have the perception that the theme of the useful is returning for many reasons, not only economic but also psychic, arising from the mutation that our daily lives have undergone in the last year. A sort of discovery, perhaps forced, and here lies the sad part of the matter, of frugality. We are now forced to calculate what is really useful, and we will be more andmore so in the coming period. The word useful in Marx’s thought and in the whole history of the workers’ movement is the central word, even if we have sometimes forgotten it. The fundamental battle is between the accumulation of the abstract and the production of the useful. This is what communism is all about. It is the focusing, the putting at the centre of profit and pleasure, not of exchangeability and the abstract. This question during the pandemic transition in my opinion tends to become the fundamental question. We are now witnessing this gigantic financial intervention, at least in the West, to get society moving again. I don’t know how things will unfold, I hope that rationality will prevail, but the point is not how much money the state or the financial system puts into society, but what useful energies do we manage to mobilise and in what conditions, in those of precariousness, misery, fear, inequality? It will not work. Here it becomes inevitable, necessary and indispensable, what we have been saying for so long but has never turned into a prevailing trend. Now either the common, communism, equality and frugality become the aggregating force, or this happens, or I expect nothing good from the near and distant future.