“This Tale Is About You!”: On Bini Adamczak’s “Communism for Kids”
By Ross WolfeJune 27, 2017
Communism for Kids by Bini Adamczak
Part of the confusion about the book’s intended readership is due to the English version of its title, which was chosen by MIT for promotional purposes. First published back in 2004 as Kommunismus, the book was split into halves of around 35 pages each. While the first half unfolds in a fairly standard manner — with chapters dedicated to work, capitalist crises, the market, and primitive accumulation — the second half proceeds by trial and error. Having established the issues at stake, Adamczak guides readers through a series of attempts to answer Chernyshevsky’s and Lenin’s perennial question, “What is to be done?” Kommunismus, Adamczak’s debut, proved a surprise success. Unrast Verlag reissued it 10 years later, along with a 30-page epilogue added by the author. Adamczak uses this afterword, more essayistic in tone than the original text, to sketch a few subtler theoretical points.
Communism for Kids is a translation of the updated 2014 rerelease. Jacob Blumenfeld and Sophie Lewis have rendered a great service by making it accessible to Anglophone audiences. Reception of the book thus far, however, has been frantic, to say the least. Elizabeth Harrington of The Washington Free Beacon accuses The MIT Press of trying to corrupt the youth “with a new book that teaches children the tenets of Karl Marx with fairy tales.” Breitbart’s Colin Madine, meanwhile, laments that “[Marxists] haven’t yet figured out that their ideology leads to nothing but ruin.” But there’s hope. If Glenn Beck inadvertently gave The Coming Insurrection “the best […] review it will ever receive” a decade ago, then perhaps Alex Jones’s insane rant about Satanism, British intelligence, and commie indoctrination will do the same for this book. Liberal outlets are hardly better, with Ron Capshaw sarcastically commenting in The Daily Beast that “[a] Berlin-based author and MIT have published a kid’s book making the case for Communism using fairy tales — minus all the mass murder, of course.”
One wonders if any of these reviewers actually read Communism for Kids before passing judgment, or even bothered to thumb through it. If they had, they would know that Adamczak rejects calls to “leap over the barrier between generations by seeking immediate, untainted access to Karl Marx’s original manuscripts.” She doesn’t flinch before the troublesome image of the past, not simply disavowing the failed revolutions of the last two centuries, no matter the stigma, but forcefully criticizing “those who coyly refuse to take responsibility for the legacy of Stalinism and its victims […]” Gestern Morgen, her 2007 study of Soviet history, deals precisely with this theme. Moreover, she refuses to romanticize precapitalist forms of life: “People suffered a lot before [capitalism], too, although for different reasons.”
And yet the criticism persists. The likely crux of the matter, as far as the general public is concerned, is the very word “communism,” which still conjures up grim memories of totalitarian regimes. Adamczak insists several times in the course of her text (four, to be exact) that “communism names the society that gets rid of all the evils people suffer under capitalism.” And indeed, for many contemporary Marxists, the word recalls evocative passages from Marx and Engels’s early writings: “communism” as “the riddle of history solved,” “the real movement abolishing the existing state of affairs,” and so on. At the same time, “communism” represents a discrete political model, which distinguishes itself from “socialism,” “anarchism,” and other modes of nominally anticapitalist politics. It has been used in this latter sense for going on a hundred years, since the renaming of the Bolshevik party in Russia and the foundation of the Comintern in 1919. Many regard the subsequent years as decisive; to them, the word is all but irredeemable. Mark Fisher, the late author of Capitalist Realism, may have been right that it is “forever tied to the nightmares of the 20th century.”
In that light, Adamczak’s attempt to rescue the precepts of communism is admirably fearless. And the central precept she considers is the role of commodity fetishism, or reification, in capitalist society. “It’s called capitalism,” Adamczak writes,
because capital rules. This isn’t the same as saying that capitalists rule, or that the capitalist class rules. In capitalism, there are certainly people who have more power than others, but there isn’t a queen who sits on a throne high above society commands everybody. So if people no longer rule over society, who does?
Adamczak admits that “[t]he answer may sound a little strange. Things do.” Indeed, it is a strange, abstract sort of rule. “Of course we don’t mean this literally, since things can’t do anything, least of all rule people. After all, they’re just things. And not all things have this power; only special things do. Or to put it better, only a special form of things do.” This “special form” Adamczak alludes to is none other than the commodity-form discussed by Marx in the first chapter of Capital (i.e., goods produced for exchange).
Adamczak also touches on Marx’s characteristic procedure of inversion. “[Commodities are] just the things that people create to make life easier, to serve them,” she explains. “Strangely, over time, people forget that they made those things, and soon enough, people begin to serve the things!” Or, as Marx puts it, “the rule of the capitalist over the worker is the rule of things over man, of dead labor over the living, of the product over the producer.” Ventriloquizing through a couple of nameless protagonists, Adamczak drives this point home in a subsequent chapter: “You know what? It’s all these things! We make them in order to serve us, but […] we end up serving them […] It’s these dumb thingamajigs, this damned thinga- … thinga- … thingification [Verdinglichung].” This “thingification” is, of course, better known to Anglophone Marxists as “reification,” from the Latin res. Elegant and engaging as Adamczak’s explanation is, her most brilliant analogy really throws the occult properties of capitalism into relief:
To play the [Ouija] game, a group of people sits in a circle around a board with a glass in the middle. All the letters of the alphabet are written on the board. Everyone puts a hand or finger on the glass, and because everybody is unconsciously trembling a tiny bit, the glass begins to move, as if pushed by an invisible hand, slowly, from one letter to the next. The people don’t realize that they moved the glass themselves, because their individual trembling could never have moved it alone. Instead, they think it was a spirit channeling some kind of message through them.
The Ouija board illustrates pretty well how life works under capitalism. As a matter of fact, the people playing the game are pushing the magically moving glass all by themselves, although not one of them could do it alone. The glass moves only because people act together rather than separately. But they don’t even notice they are cooperating. Their own cooperation happens secretly, behind their backs, so to speak. If those people instead consciously came together to think collectively about what they actually wanted to write, then the outcome would probably be very different. At least, there wouldn’t be any uncertainty about who wrote the text, that’s for sure. With the way things stand now, though, the text seems to be written by an invisible hand.
Later, Adamczak returns to this analogy, after her characters have conducted a sequence of communist experiments. Society, Adamczak says,
[is] just like the Ouija board. There’s no magic without the glass [dead labor or constant capital], but there’s even less magic without us [living labor or variable capital]. The glass didn’t move because of an invisible hand but rather because we cooperated together […] We made everything ourselves […] All these things are as much a part of us as we are a part of them. That means we can change them whenever we want.
Historically, human beings have participated in a process much bigger than any one of them could alter or truly apprehend. “Men make their own history,” Marx once observed, “but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”
Engels expanded on this motif in 1881: “With the seizure of the means of production by society,” he claimed, “the extraneous objective forces which have hitherto governed history pass under the [subjective] control of men themselves. Only from that time will men, more and more consciously, make their own history.” This dovetails neatly with Adamczak’s image of the Ouija players deciding together what to write, rather than just letting the message be written for them. From that day forth, they will write history as they deem fit. Communism for Kids thus borrows a page from the Communist Manifesto: “In bourgeois [capitalist] society, therefore, the past dominates the present; in Communist society, the present dominates the past.”
In the middle of the book, Adamczak presents six “trials” to demonstrate how certain past attempts to achieve this goal had fallen short. Adamczak explores state-administered redistributionist schemes, self-management, and technocratic utopianism, which views automation as a cure-all. These and other strategies of reducing labor-time — a prerequisite of communism, expressed by Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue as the “right to be lazy” — just end up reproducing the same old patterns of capitalist labor. “No, no, no,” goes the refrain. “This isn’t communism.” Her characters move on to the next trial.
Adamczak suddenly breaks this off with a quote from Horace, which Marx had used in the first preface to Capital: “De te fabula narratur!” [“This tale is about you!”] An angry crowd bursts through the bottom of the page. “Stop telling our story!” they yell at her. “We decide what happens next. Because this is our story now, and we’re making history ourselves.” Here Adamczak encourages readers to finish her story, since it belongs to them. El Lissitzky began his own 1922 Soviet children’s parable About Two Squares, in which a pair of intergalactic rectilinear shapes fly down from outer space to sweep away the ancien régime, with the injunction: “Don’t read this book. Take paper. Fold rods. Color in blocks of wood. Build!” A black square symbolizing pre-Revolutionary avant-garde art (namely, Kazimir Malevich) provides the destructive impulse, while a red square symbolizing communism supplies the constructive impulse, but the story closes on an open-ended note. Lissitzky’s elliptic last line (“So it ends, further on …”) is meant to spill off his pages onto the pages of history. This coda could just as well be appended to Adamczak’s book.
My one quibble with Communism for Kids concerns the section on “communist desire” [kommunistischen Begehren]. Over the last 20 years or so, this phrase — or rather, its Italian equivalent, desiderio comunista — has sporadically appeared in books by Antonio Negri and interviews with Étienne Balibar. Jacques Broda has written articles on désir communiste for major French newspapers, while Jodi Dean has given the most comprehensive account in any language. But the notion that radical social transformation can only take place when motivated by “desire for revolution,” or that desire itself is somehow revolutionary, derives from philosophers and psychoanalysts such as Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and Jean-Paul Dollé. “Despite what some revolutionaries think about [it], desire is revolutionary in its essence,” argued Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus. “[It] does not ‘want’ revolution, [but] it is revolutionary in its own right […] Revolutionaries often forget, or do not like to recognize, that one wants and makes revolution out of desire, not duty.” Adamczak accepts this premise, stating, “If communist criticism aspires to move beyond its habit of bitter negation, then it needs to add a blueprint of desire to its toolbox of analytic scalpels and rhetorical dynamite. It needs to generate desire — communist desire.”
The crucial reference for Adamczak is Deleuze’s colleague, Michel Foucault. She quotes him as saying that “the role of intellectuals today must be to restore the same level of desirability for the image of revolution that existed in the 19th century.” Foucault wavered on this, though, unsure if revolution was really so desirable after all (citing Horkheimer’s doubts). He told Bernard-Henri Lévy that “something quite different is at stake in Stalinism [than the viability of revolution]. You know very well […] that the very desirability of the revolution is the problem today.” Asked whether revolution was something he desired, Foucault refused to commit himself. Regardless of Foucault’s wavering, traditional Marxism frames revolution not in terms of desire, but of objective class interests and universal needs. Revolution is a historical necessity, and Marxism is the consciousness of this necessity. Communism is more than just “the riddle of history solved”; it also “knows this to be the case.” By advancing desire as a cause of revolution, Deleuze, Guattari, and their followers put the cart before the horse. “Whether a desire [Begierde] becomes fixed or not,” Marx pointed out, “depends on whether material circumstances […] permit the normal satisfaction of this desire and, on the other hand, the development of a totality of desires.” Only successful revolution will lead to “conditions that allow for the full development of all our potentialities.”
Revolution will not result from merely wanting it more, and the idea that it will is usually a sign of desperation. Daniel Bensaïd, the French Trotskyist, recalled in his Memoirs:
[I]n a climate of renunciation, denial, and repentance, revolution tends to be reduced to a matter of desire […] Vaguely post-1968, and falsely juvenile, this emotional desire for revolution gave off the bitter fragrance of flowers scattered on a tomb. Mere desire is all that remains when the initial élan and fervor are exhausted: a wishfulness without will, a greed without appetite, an erotic caprice or a phantom of freedom — a subjectivity enslaved to an impractical sense of the possible.
Adamczak’s book demands that desire itself become desirable, when what is really required is an understanding of necessity. Luckily, Communism for Kids offers abundant insight into this necessity. For the moment, Adamczak is relatively unknown outside Germany. Communism for Kids will change this. Readers of the world, rejoice!
Ross Wolfe is a writer, historian, and architecture critic living in New York. His work has appeared in publications such as Metropolis, Mute, e-flux, Radical Philosophy, Cambridge Literary Review, The Advocate, and Platypus Review.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.