Renowned literary scholar and political theorist Bruno Bosteels spoke to the Occupy Boston encampment on Tuesday evening as part of the Free School University’s Howard Zinn Memorial Lecture Series. Bosteels’ talk built off of his recent work on the possibility of a reinvigorated communism and the significance of the Occupy movement to a new collective politics. The lecture was followed by a lively discussion with his audience.
Bosteels, a professor of Romance Studies at Cornell University, is best known for his translations of the French philosopher Alain Badiou, who raised the prospect of resuscitating communism shortly before the 2008 financial crisis. Bosteels and several other thinkers responded by beginning to explore what “communism” might look like after the fall of the Soviet Union and major reassessments of Marx’s thought.
One result of that exploration was Bosteels’ recently released book The Actuality of Communism, which argues that an emancipatory politics must base itself on the construction of a unified “we” that avoids the abstract arguments of “speculative leftism.” Bosteels finds that many radical leftists today are distracted by theoretical debates with little bearing on everyday life. He maintains that a “new communism” would confront today’s economic and political realities while avoiding old debates about the work of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and other communist thinkers.
“My goal,” Bosteels said Tuesday, “was mainly to see if those theoretical texts could be made more relevant to the events of today.”
In his talk, Bosteels used this perspective to analyze the Occupy movement and its construction of an alternative model of politics. He began by addressing America’s historical relationship to communism and the need to learn from our experiences of socialism, anarchism, and other radical political movements.
“As soon as someone mentions those words, one thinks they’re totalitarian or that they’re foreign imports — which they’re not,” Bosteels said, adding that only by honestly confronting history can we hope to move forward.
The relationship between theory and activism is a primary concern for Bosteels, especially given his commitments both to academia and to collective politics. He criticized the philosophers of the 1980s and 1990s who dismissed collective action as utopian and authoritarian. Rather than supporting individual freedom, Bosteels said, this line of thought makes any form of militancy impossible. If no one is allowed to speak for anyone else, he argued, no political gains can be won for a group.
In this way, he noted, the Occupy movement’s General Assembly model — in which each participants speaks only for him- or herself — might inadvertently weaken the movement’s unifying potential.
“It’s a simple question: to what extent is it possible to have collective action in a specific place with a time of its own . . . so as to create a ‘we’?”
Bosteels quoted the poetry of Chilean writer and communist Pablo Neruda as an example of the positive use of a collective voice. Describing Neruda’s poem “Canto General” as an instance of public expression, Bosteels argued that the poet, rather than co-opting the people for his own use, was instead offering a space for the otherwise mute masses to speak.
For Bosteels, the Occupy movement’s slogan “We are the 99%” is just such a space. The idea of the “99%” creates a collectivity that can speak politically as a unified force. Without such a collectivity, he maintains, there is little hope of effecting change.
Questions of representation dominated Bosteel’s final remarks and the informal discussion that followed. While Bosteels recognized that representational politics had largely failed in the West and that the Occupy movement’s model of horizontal democracy has been a positive one, he argued that some sort of “speaking-for” is necessary for an emancipatory politics.