Commentary  Busting through the Iron Curtain

The clichés of the Cold War still blind us today

Last week, The Daily published an editorial about the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (“Let’s rethink the Cold War,” November 9). The piece asked us to consider the politics of remembering and urged us not to forget the dire problems we face today. However short in length and modest in scope, the piece is a significant movement in the right direction – a gesture that needs to be taken up and carried even further, moved beyond simply rethinking the Cold War to examine the possibility of a political project in its wake. I’m asking, in other words, what is the most urgent task facing the Left 20 years after state communism’s collapse? My answer is without irony: the task is to rethink communism, the common name for radical emancipation and the call for what truly appears impossible.

Popular memorializing of the Cold War obscures our understanding of present conditions and current struggles between ideologies and from within the present ideological system. Images of denim-clad youth alongside mothers and their children, all with hammers in hand, picking and kicking at the crumbling wall remain common in today’s iconography of democratic struggle. Even the fantastic video footage of David Hasselhoff performing in a crane high above millions of excited Berliners at the peak of the movement conjures up a euphoric sense of celebration. It’s as if the history of revolution and struggle culminated at this very moment, with the Wall as a stand-in for global divisions. “It’s the end of history,” they joyously told us.

Of course, the Left customarily reacts to such images and slogans with a slightly arrogant smirk: “They demanded freedom in those days, and look at what they got – nothing but rampant capitalism!” This is not only a fashionable, academic critique, but also a recurring sentiment among many former citizens of the Eastern Bloc who live in Germany today. We shouldn’t be too dismissive of the truth contained within such criticism – we need only look to the reality of the past 20 years, since the supposed defeat of oppressive and grand political ideologies, to understand why this typical response to post-Cold War life is, in fact, completely appropriate.

Yes, the oppression and violence of an authoritarian regime was heroically overcome by a committed grassroots movement and powerful international interventions. Yes, liberal democracy has become the global imperative, with developing nations moving only in the direction of this ideology, and not toward Soviet-style communism. We must ask, however: can we really ignore the misery and social malaise that continues all over the globe, always tinged with the sharp pain of betrayal and deception? This bitter realization bubbles up in post-Soviet nations whose economies have only worsened, with unemployment, poverty, and corruption running deeper with each new free election. But of course we know this! Even those brainwashing mainstream media-types love to talk about the problems with liberal capitalism – or capitalism “run unchecked” – and a precious democracy taken for granted, as they say.

In a sense, the core of this historic ideological battle did not disappear with the Berlin Wall. The ghost of the Cold War, lingering at every crisis moment in capitalism, still asks us, “Can we honestly abandon posing liberal capitalism against a global alternative? Can we really go beyond the division between communistic forms of life and those of capital?”

The short answer is no. If liberal democratic capitalism persists, reaching into deeper aspects of life but growing increasingly unstable, so too will the desire to organize collectively, to produce in co-operation, and to govern autonomously, however disparate these goals might appear at first glance. This project – the open system of struggles united against inequality and for liberation – has a common name: “communism.”

Capitalism has indeed triumphed – not just as an economic system but as a socially-structuring principle, a form of governance, and yes, as an ideology. Soviet-style socialism has suffocated itself, though in China it supposedly endures, in hyper-capitalist, statist form. As The Daily points out in the aforementioned editorial, the world is no longer ordered along the lines of “Communist states” and capitalist liberal democracies. The false choice between these two modes of life finally failed to make sense once the Cold War officially ended. There must be no illusions about the Soviet era, which is accompanied by a kind of nostalgia for its monumental revolutions and an erasure of its perversity. It has been defeated, and the fall of the Wall marked a possible turning point in progressive politics. Despite this celebratory moment, an undying spectre still haunts the world: capitalism’s polar opposite, its practical and theoretical negation, that remains a joyous, communistic hypothesis.

It is here, with this counterintuitive return to a despised term, that the possibility for a truly progressive politics in the wake of the Wall can emerge. This is why the Left needs to take up and re-pose the regressive ultimatum pushed on the world during the Cold War: capitalism or communism? The promise of freedom and democracy must no longer go hand-in-hand with capitalism or liberalism, nor with cynical Leftist projects that don’t name capitalism as an obstacle, seeking rather to change its façade. The aim must not be to carve out temporary spaces of liberation within capital, but to discover its alternative. Perhaps the failure to establish real equality around the world is not because capital is managed poorly, or because liberal democracy is taken for granted, but because the production of exploitation and subordination is actually internal to these systems, inextricable from their values and practices.

The fall of the Berlin Wall should not only force us to reflect on the crimes of oppressive regimes and American imperialism – realities we need to confront and let illuminate existing problems. The memory of the Cold War and those 20 years of “bliss” afterward must also signal an injunction in the present to rethink communism, the common name for radical global emancipation. We should not fear this word. It is already at play when philosophers such as Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Slavoj Žižek, and Alain Badiou use it openly to describe and redefine an entire movement’s demands. It’s also in use when activist communities here in Montreal work to animate its legacy as they establish a network of informal connections, fighting against the racism of borders and multiculturalism, while also creating spaces for subordinated sexualities and genders. It’s employed when workers in the U.S. organize against the precariousness of their livelihoods, shutting down sites of production and taking control of their workplaces.

What’s lacking here, however, is not direct unity in their campaigns, or that each movement does not directly fight against economic exploitation proper. What’s missing is the recognition that each is struggling against the ever-changing totality of liberal capitalism: what’s missing is the recognition of a common project, which is always in the direction of a fundamentally communistic experience.

Now, more than ever, we must view our situation after the fall of the Wall, during an economic crisis, according to the idea of communism. It is from this political standpoint, the “communist hypothesis,” that remembering the Cold War and its legacy in the present will finally remove our proverbial blinders to offer wholly new possibilities.

As Marx wrote in the German Ideology over 150 years ago, “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.” Let’s return to this idea, not to fill an empty shell that was improperly executed by the Soviets and the Chinese, but to retrieve this revolutionary kernel and make it real again in today’s common struggles.

Derek Lappano is a U3 Philosophy and Cultural Studies student. Show him some solidarity at