Books | Review: “Hermeneutic Communism: From Heidegger to Marx”

In 'Hermeneutic Communism', Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala offer a radical recasting of Marx’s theories that openly challenges calls, such as those by Negri and Hardt, for a return of the revolutionary left. Lev Marder argues this could be a Communist Manifesto for the 21st Century.

Books, Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Sunday, March 18, 2012 20:18 - 1 Comment

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Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala, authors of Hermeneutic Communism (Photo: Manuela Rana)

The great French philosopher Claude Lefort once wrote that the condition for democracy is the “dissolution of the markers of certainty”. He was not exactly referring to the situation of those who are pushed into the widening margins of the world or those who already find themselves in the margins in 2012. How are people to respond to statements made by those in power—those who try to convince citizens around the world to tolerate the sacrifices demanded of them based on a violent, apocalyptic version of truth? The fact that they have to put so much effort into persuasion betrays the questionable credibility of their words. It is enough to mention here the rhetoric leading up to the invasion of Iraq and the 2008 bailout of U.S. banks.

Some recently published works recognise the blatant failures of state leaders to sell their lies and, unsurprisingly, recommend that lies should be told more effectively. And then, of course, there is Hermeneutic Communism co-authored by two distinguished Italian philosophers: Gianni Vattimo (who is also a member of the European Parliament) and Santiago Zabala. While it is for Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek a “book that everyone who thinks about radical politics needs like the air he or she breathes!” for Brazilian investigative Journalist Pepe Escobar it is a “kick-ass manual of radical politics… Occupy Wall Street could also use”.

In essence, Vattimo and Zabala offer a refreshing alternative to the hegemonic discourse, a breath of fresh air from the violent imposition of “metaphysics” by those in power. The book does its best to open the reader’s eyes to the glaring shortcomings of the rhetoric disseminated by the “winners” who have been writing history after the fall of the Berlin Wall:

“In a debate over the end or return of history, Fukuyama and Kagan have engaged in an attempt to present framed democracy as the only legitimate and legitimizing force, regardless of the administration in the White House…It should not be a surprise that [they], together with other establishment intellectuals, forget, neglect, or ignore the oppression caused by neoliberal capitalism. And if they ignore such economic oppression, it is because they themselves sustain it: their condition is also an effect of such oppression.”

Such theories are intended to make other choices harder to see while reinforcing what Vattimo and Zabala call “framed democracy”. They define this framing as being within a discourse of objectivity, metaphysics, and truth. As such, the alignment of “framed democracy” by its proponents with this discourse is intended to preserve the status quo by speaking about it as if it is outside of history—and hence beyond reproach. It is worth acknowledging that with Barack Obama’s election in 2008, a hope existed for change from inside the “framed democracy”. However, after over three years and waves of occupy movements, Vattimo and Zabala write what many in the West are thinking; namely, about how: “within our democratic system change is almost impossible and also how the oppressive effects of capitalism are predicted to increase”.

The alternative the authors offer is lucidly laid out in their revolutionary manifesto for those who feel powerless, that is, the 99% currently, or soon to be, living in the slums. Their call is  a simple and powerful one: Let us abandon the fight for absolute truth, let us reject the terms within which the struggles are framed by those in power, let us embrace interpretation and thus collectively resist on our own terms.

Of course such thinking can be perceived as a retreat, or worse as surrender of territory to the financial institutions that dictate the rules, the governments that claim truth, and the bureaucrats who inhumanely enforce the policies. Yet the genius of these two thinkers is in asserting that for those who are weak, those who are discharged by the system in their words, hermeneutics or weak thought is the alternative. Those in power are the winners and write history while those who are weak “do not possess a different history but rather exist at history’s margins”. If the weak fight by the oppressor’s rules, all kinds of courses of action are precluded and hence “Hermeneutic Communism” lays the fertile ground for practical action on the basis of concrete alternatives.

After thorough criticism of “framed democracy” in the first part of the book, Vattimo and Zabala effectively highlight both the democratising features of interpretation and the hermeneutic features of communism in the second part. By complementing each other, both communism and hermeneutics are weakened to the point where neither theory nor praxis can claim priority; and yet, when combined, they offer a potent alternative for the weak. For Vattimo and Zabala:

“the fact that communism is often presented as tyrannical and hermeneutics is reduced to pure nihilism by their critics is not an indication of their dangers but rather of their ineffectiveness for today’s bearers of power. While the winners of history want the conservation of the world as it is, the losers demand a different interpretation, that is, hermeneutic communism.”

By sketching out a broad agenda in their manifesto, the authors admirably avoid patronisingly prescribing “standardised” actions to those who are weak. Had they done so, they would have merely replaced one oppressive model of “reality” with another. Instead, with modesty and intellectual cogency, the manifesto opens the possibility of weakening the structures that support and enforce oppression. The sense of justice underlying weak thought comes with a repeated relinquishing of the ambition to ever become strong thought.

In Vattimo and Zabala’s words, “weak thought does not become strong once it weakens the structures of metaphysics, since there will always be more structures to weaken, just as there will always be subjects to psychoanalyze, beliefs to secularize, or governments to democratize”.

The authors certainly do not make a weak argument for abandoning old foundations in the 21st century pursuit of these projects and instead giving consideration to Hermeneutic Communism.

Hermeneutic Communism: From Heidegger to Marx
Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala
Cloth, 264 pp
Columbia University Press (October, 2011)

Lev Marder

Lev Marder is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the University of California-Irvine.

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Hermeneutic Communism | Path to the Possible
Mar 22, 2012 17:07

[…] has a review of Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala’s new book, Hermeneutic Communism.  Looks like an […]

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