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Let's Make Communism Hip

As much as we all like to complain about hipsters (including so-called hipsters), hip trends tend to insinuate themselves in every context.  Academia, for example, whose participants imagine themselves beyond the common hipster culture of clothing fashion, is not immune to this problem.  Theory tends to develop in cycles of hipness, and one can chart the development of various journals and institutions––what is being published, what projects are considered worthy, who is getting a job––based on what is in at a given time and place.

Having been a part of academia for a decent amount of time, I've had the opportunity to observe and sometimes dabble in a variety of chic theoretical fashion currents.  And though my general concerns are mostly such that I have doomed myself to being "left behind" by the tides of fashion, there are a few moments where my concerns have happened, luckily or unluckily, to overlap with what happens to be in fashion, or a few years out of fashion, to at least perceive these cycles of theoretical hipness.

When I was doing my undergraduate degree Baudrillard, for some reason, was fashionable––maybe a little bit of Debord if you were feeling slightly "transgressive" and wanted to give academia the finger without really giving it the finger.  Then there was Deleuze and Guattari, intersected with some Hart and Negri––right when Empire was all the rage.  Another trajectory of Butler and Spivak was strong enough to get some papers published and some careers solidified, if you acted quickly.  There was also that dead-end of Carl Schmitt that I never understood (I really didn't see how the insights of a fascist were useful) but that some people are still pursuing.  Following this there was Agamben, still a viable pursuit if you're running in the right circles.  Yet another direction: Nancy, who is still blossoming as a theoretical fad if you have the stomach for that kind of thing.  And then there is Zizek, Badiou (who I do happen to follow because he most directly concerns my discipline), Ranciere…

Theory as fashion, academic work following hip trends, is unavoidable in academia.  Suddenly one day everyone who wants to be everyone is reading the same work, or at least referencing the same theorist, just like whatever is the normative fashionable look these days.  Ten years ago everyone who was everybody was carrying a copy of 1000 Plateaus; today they are carrying around something by Zizek or Badiou (but usually not, when it comes to the latter, Being and Event or Logic of Worlds which aren't really all that much fun); tomorrow it will be something by someone else––the shelf life on what is hip is only a few years.

I can't really complain about this because I am part of this very problem, and the desire to be part of what is hip is, unfortunately, quite unavoidable.  After all, the abstract hipster is defined as hipster by avoiding, critiquing, and trying to outrun the very problem of hipness that s/he rails against: "you think you're hip, well I'm avoiding your hipster real altogether by doing something so beyond cool it is the essence of the new cool!"  Academic theory is no exception, and we all want to be fashionable because we all want our work to matter and the only way we can understand its mattering is in terms of what is currently fashionable.

This is why I have always found every joke about hipsters, no matter what the context, somewhat suspicious.  If someone complains about hipsters, and disparages what these hipsters are doing (whether it be in the realm of banal fashion or the realm of academic fashion), then I cannot help but feel that what they really want is for themselves to be accepted as the true measure of coolness.  Indeed, every critique of hipsters, which is a rather vague category of being if it is even a category at all, emerges from the very context that is being critiqued.  Only hipsters complain about hipsters because who the hell else cares about what or what is not fashionable enough to waste time complaining about it?  Television shows such as Portlandia are a perfect example of the hipster disgust of hipsterism.  And in the context of academia we have the graduate student who complains about everyone studying Badiou because s/he is certain that only s/he can understand Badiou because s/he was reading it "before it was cool" and thus has a truer grasp on the material.

So rather than try and avoid the problem of hipness, why not try to make a radical politics that spills beyond the theory that is currently hip fashionable again?  Why not make revolution hip?  Why not make communism hip?  Why not make People's Wars hip?  That is, rather than complaining about how nobody in academia is following revolutionary movements in the world because they are two misguided by their pet theoretical concerns––rather than complaining about how the popular fashionistas don't give a shit about class revolution––why not try and make these things take on the veneer of a hip coolness that will only become "uncool" when the petty-bourgeois as a class realize that they are being sent down to the countryside and it is too late to embrace another fashion trend?  Maybe I'm being tongue-and-cheek, suggesting something similar to what I once wrote about branding communism, but it is worth considering.

To be honest, I'm getting tired of people complaining about hipsters and academics complaining about hip theoretical trends when these things seem to be unavoidable.  You cannot escape this kind of popularization because you are not an isolated individual unaffected by what is or what is not popular.  And since the ruling ideas of the ruling class produce, in every historical context, popular values, one way to fight this is to struggle to make a counter-politics also popular.

I mean, do we really want communism to remain at the margins of popular culture, to be forever branded as unhip (although thanks to the work of some "hip" theorists there is some reversal to this trend), and ourselves as unique (but secretly and "truly" hip) militants to a cause that will always remain alternative and underground?  It's not hard to get the feeling that some marxists want communism to retain its unhip hipness, so that they can be the true and unrecognized "cool" struggling against the mainstream and thus feel superior to everyone else.  This is a pretty uncommunist way of being communist: we should be struggling to make it hip so that people want to rally to its banner; we should be struggling to popularize its hipness so that it eventually becomes mainstream.

To be fair, the problem of hipness is a problem that only emanates from a certain sector of first world society thanks to the imperialist-derived "culture industry".  But those of us who are communists at the centres of capitalism, because we cannot escape the vicissitudes of the culture industry, should find a way to make some of its aspects work in our favour rather than just opting-out and pretending that we can avoid this problematic.  If we want to produce a counter-hegemony than we have to struggle to make communism hip, but in a decidedly non-ironic way, so that it is no longer seen as some throwback to cold war politics.  And if we want to avoid the perceived problems of culture industry hipness, we also have to make a revolutionary communism seem cool rather than an anything goes movementist communism that lacks the means to actually build communism.

I mean, back during the cold war, anti-communist reactionaries at the centres of imperialism were terrified by the possibility that communism would be perceived as more cool than capitalism, that everything that defied conservative fashion was a secret communist plot.  Maybe we need to give them this plot again so that they are terrified that the communist monster is hiding under every cultural bed.


  1. This is never going to happen. What you see is what you will continue to get; namely, vaguely Marxist-inspired 'progressivism' and identity politics masquerading as liberalism with no real sense of intellectual direction whatsoever. The clusterfuck of 20th century communist regimes has damaged the 'brand name' of communism forever... That's why its intellectual heirs prefer to identify as representatives of particular grievance classes (feminists, gay rights activists and so on) instead of actual communists. Further, communism, with its emphasis on solidarity and violent struggle (Marx being a huge proponent of an ARMED proletariat) is too masculine and not useful for those who seek to divide, rule and pacify. Incoherent, anti-revolutionary liberal progressive identity politics: it's what you see, it's what you'll continue to get.

    1. First off, this was a mainly tongue-and-cheek post. But since many of the points you make smack of defeatism and result from a lack of social investigation…

      Secondly, there are multiple communist movements outside of the centres of capitalism, and PWs that have been launched since the 1980s, that demonstrate communism has not been damaged by the failure of the two world historical revolutions in Russia and China respectively (which, by referring to them wholesale as simply a "clusterfuck", demonstrates a bit of a simplistic take on history). The fact that we have problems at the centres of capitalism speaks more to other problems of which identity politics is partially a symptom, namely the way in which class has been affected by the historic concession between labour and capital which has to do with imperialism. Simply put, the preponderance of the labour aristocracy.

      Thirdly, I have written a lot about the problems with identity politics but have also argued that there ways in which these kinds of anti-oppression struggles are radicalizing and can communicate to a revolutionary politics. Since your post sounds as if it was written by someone who does not organize, and whose activism is limited to interventions online (I might be wrong), then I can share you my experience: we have organized in such a way that people who were originally bound up in identity politics are now in communist-affiliated organizations, are open with their communism, and have discovered ways in which their experience of oppression is answered by communist theory rather than post-modern what have you.

      Fourthly, calling armed struggle (and if you had bothered to read anything else on this blog you would realize I'm a proponent of the theory of protracted people's war) "masculine", I'm assuming, is an ironic reference to some aspects of identity politics. But if it's not, there really is no reason to use that term because it is gender essentialist. Moreover, women's militias have been a hallmark of people's wars for a while and the women in these militias would have nothing but scorn for people who called them "masculinist" because it would result, as Hisila Yami pointed out, in effectively disarming them.

      Fifthly, organizing is not a spectator sport. What you see is what you'll get if you continue to do nothing, the colloquial self-fulfilling prophecy.

  2. Here are the facts of the matter. The aims that the communist movement embodies and the means through which they seek to attain those aims are the only practical solutions to the social problems we face today. It is not relevant whether we call ourselves communists or teletubbies because the bourgeois will still try to distort the realities of the matter and paint us as utopian idealists or archaic sociopaths for seeking those same things. We will either develop popular support in the first world or face the eventual emergence of a fascist bloc.


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