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Ideas of the 21st Century

Ideas of the century: The-End-of-Communism Event (18/50)

Simon Glendinning continues the series from our special 50th issue

tpm cover art by Felix Bennett

tpm cover art by Felix Bennett

Attending to the wave of self-congratulatory pronouncements from Western political leaders and media pundits concerning what took place in 1989, Jacques Derrida, in his book Politics of Friendship written in 1990, discussed not an event as such, but an event as it had been packaged for popular consumption, an event-as-understood: the “fall-of-the-Berlin-Wall” event, the “end-of-communism” event. With this “event”, he suggested, the “parliamentary-democracies-of-the-capitalist-Western-world” would seem to have found themselves “without a principal enemy”.

I want to recall that besides the Fukuyama-type pronouncements which hailed the “end-of-communism” event in terms of a messianic narrative of “good news” concerning the coming arrival (not here yet, Fukuyama constantly emphasised) of the end of history, other commentators were far less sanguine.

For example, also writing in 1990 but clearly wanting to keep a Marxist flame alive, the historian E.P. Thompson insisted that it was precipitate to suppose that the end of Soviet communism in the East was spelling or will spell a final victory for the capitalist liberal democracies of the West. He suggested we would do better to think of the scene as comparable to one where we see a wrestler being thrown off balance “when his opponent slips”. One wrestler may fall before the other, and in that moment we might expect victory for the one still currently standing, but soon enough both are flat out on the canvas. The specialist of Cold War international relations Fred Halliday developed the wrestling analogy in a different way, suggesting against Thompson that in truth the bout was simply over: at issue was not just a “slip” but an event in which one wrestler has completely “thrown down” his opponent. The West “has not lost its antagonist, it has subjugated it”.

And yet, in the light of a text that has taken its time to come to us, it is clear to me that neither Thompson nor Halliday hit the nail on the head. While the former was conceptually acute he was historically adrift; the latter, on the other hand, was historically honest but conceptually confused. Halliday was surely right about the history: one side had decisively defeated the other. On the other hand, however, Thompson was surely right about the dialectic: the one still standing might not, precisely as a result of the sudden collapse of his opponent, be so secure himself.

What happens when one comes to the view that one’s enemy in a current conflict has effectively ceased to pose an existential threat? The text I had been reading would insist that, at this point, conceptually speaking, the enemy effectively disappears as an enemy – in the throw, through it, the other who had been the principal antagonist (there he is, the old antagonist, just lying there, as Halliday implies) no longer provides the resistance of an actual antagonist. In subjugation, in defeat, he is transformed.

The victorious wrestler by contrast is not fundamentally transformed by his victory at all. On the contrary, for the winner, the whole fighting regime is still in place. The wrestler, qua wrestler, was made to wrestle. Everything still works – the martial machine still has its intentional directedness – but now, with the former principal antagonist no longer offering any effective resistance, that is, with the effective disappearance of that antagonist qua antagonist, this martial intentionality has lost its Bedeutung (its objective reference). The wrestler flails around like a half-wit, lunging at the empty space, grappling the air, groping about there where once there was an enemy. The one thing needed: a new enemy.

The disappearance of the principal antagonist of the West led many who were happy to see the back of Soviet communism to rejoice in a wave of Fukuyama-type pronouncements of a Hegelian end of history. But others – others who were just as pleased, honestly delighted, to see the collapse of that totalitarian nightmare – others who were beginning to take seriously the philosophical ideas of the German jurist and professor of law Carl Schmitt, anticipated no such coming end. Instead, as Derrida foresaw in 1990, what one could see coming was that “this West will be driven to seek to pose itself anew – and thereby find repose in itself again – through opposing still identifiable enemies.” But who? asked Derrida in 1990. “China? Islam?”, he wondered aloud.

In 1990 Derrida was not able to cite the new name, the new event, through which the Western political collectivity would “find repose in itself again” in opposition. Nevertheless, Derrida’s text also reveals that it was already on the horizon: “we could say a great deal today…on the [specific] choice of the example [of the enemy] in Schmitt: Islam.”

If we could already say a great deal only a year after the “fall-of-the-Berlin-Wall” event, how much more in the decade after the “9-11” event?

What all this suggests to me is that the idea from philosophy that has shown itself to be the most important over the last decade as we have actually lived through that time belongs to a figure who is (perhaps not coincidentally) only now beginning to penetrate discussions in the mainstream of philosophy in the English-speaking world. It belongs to Carl Schmitt who in his astonishing, challenging and profoundly troubling text The Concept of the Political (written in 1927 but translated into English only in 1976) identifies the specific and irreducible political distinction, the distinction of opposition itself, as “the distinction between friend and enemy”.

Further reading
Rogues, Jacques Derrida (Stanford University Press, 2005)

Simon Glendinning is reader in European philosophy at the London School of Economics and director of the Forum for European Philosophy

Read all fifty ideas and more in the special 50th issue of tpm


6 comments for “Ideas of the century: The-End-of-Communism Event (18/50)”

  1. That would be Carl Schmitt the leading jurist of National Socialist Germany then. I’m all for taking his ideas seriously, but let’s be clear where the chap is coming from.

    Posted by Stephen | August 23, 2010, 9:56 am
  2. “I found this a frustrating piece, but it got me thinking about a part of history I was hoping would just go away, viz. the present. The frustrating part is the mention of
    Carl Schmitt who you say is “beginning to penetrate discussions in the mainstream of philosophy in the English-speaking world.” With an introduction like that I had to Google him, and what I found, including the context in which he used “the distinction between friend and enemy” bit, was a philosopher who helped give philosophical structure to Nazism. Aside from that I thought he sounded a little like Machiavelli. How do you work him in with where the democratic liberal governments find themselves now?

    How could anyone say the Soviet, or now Russia, was ever subjugated? It still possesses the power practically to do away with the world. Strange kind of subjugation. So now, Russia, more streamlined, without the drain of all the Soviet satellites and a very questionable economic system has positioned itself to becoming a world leader-power again, this time by using capitalism in a very capable, albeit disturbing, way. In a sense, the Soviet along with communism was defeated and Russia rid itself of both for its reformation.

    Posted by Ralph Sabella | August 23, 2010, 11:03 pm
  3. I think Schmitt’s concept of the political implies that it is rooted in the will, either of a decision maker or a community. There must be some kind of objection along the lines that the intellect is primary, at least one a community is established where different voices can be heard and issues debated. If so, we (the debaters) wouldn’t need enemies as such, we’d just need to encourage people to engage in debate with us.

    Posted by Stephen | August 24, 2010, 8:32 am
  4. On the other hand, maybe Schmitt has a point and we should just invade Poland again! Let’s face it, Stettin is the natural port for Berlin, Gdansk is really Danzig, Wroclaw is really Breslau… Any objections?

    Posted by Stephen | August 24, 2010, 10:54 am
  5. Thought not… I’m pleased that there seems to be a critical literature on Schmitt on the Continent, though I’ve not seen much in English yet. Hopefully the Americans will catch up before they start taking it all seriously.

    Posted by Stephen | September 7, 2010, 11:47 am
  6. I tell a lie - there is actually quite a lot on Schmitt in English, sounds interesting a lot of it too.

    Posted by Stephen | September 7, 2010, 11:56 am