Communism has been conceived in numerous ways. Marx and Engels famously described communism as a specter or ghost (Gespenst) that haunted the ruling classes of Europe, and burst forth with astonishing force in that revolutionary springtime of 1848. Modern reactionary philosophers (like Derrida) see communism as a myriad of dwindling specters and legacies to be “deconstructed” and learned from through cold literary analysis. Others, in an idealistic tradition that stretches from Plato to Kant to today, see communism as an un-corruptible, eternal idea, a categorical imperative and regulative idea that serves as a moral compass to one’s political actions. A few see it as the mechanically determined outcome of economic developments. Others still have replaced communism with more limited demands for “commons,” “social justice,” and the like, believing that these demands can somehow prefigure a “better future” that has no name, needs no utterance, and requires no daring action on its behalf. Communism is indeed, in one way or another, many of these things. Yet it is something much more profound, active, and creative. It is an unfolding “spirit,” locked up in the hungry heart of humanity, seeking to educate itself, seeking to realize itself in the hopeful practices of history’s oppressed classes, and receiving its final expression in the dreams of the proletariat, in the philosophy of Marxism, in the objective possibilities forged by contemporary capitalism, and indeed in that ineffaceable word, Communism.
To perceive communism as a “spirit” is not to spiritualize it. Nor is it to transform communism into a mystical idea through which to escape from oppressive reality and sublimate both hope and anger into vain abstraction. No, communism is a form of “spirit” much in the way Hegel and Marx used the word: It permeates both the subject and object of thought, develops through and within both, and is finalized when idea and reality become one and the same at the end. Communism is thus a mindset, a set of common ideas shaped by and in turn shaping historical epochs. It is more than the mere “Kingdom of God within” us, but the striving for an eternal Kingdom in the midst of us that is forged through imagination, revolutionary praxis, and the education gained in drawn out battlesagainst class oppression over the course of human history. Communism is the “spark of the end” that has lighted the way for revolutionaries from the beginning. It was present at the beginning, carried by brave souls through the course, transmitted to posterity, developed, warmed, and matured, to be placed in the hands of the emancipating class who now have the material means to set the world on flame.
The road to communism is long and wearisome, and often the only power goading downtrodden humanity forward has been that burdensome mix of hope and anguish. Yet even at the beginnings of this unpredictable journey, so many prophets and rebels have envisioned that end: A source of wonder and inspiration for the revolutionaries of today. Isaiah, in the darkness of captivity, prophesied a coming salvation in which “They,” the chosen, “shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat….and mine elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands.” Spartacus, by resisting slavery and defying an empire, conceived long ago the possibilities of a society with neither slavery nor empire. The first Christians held all their belongings in common, knowing that one cannot render unto God and Community what justly belongs to them in a world where all must be rendered unto Caesar. The peasant rebels of 14th century England and 16th century Germany were imbibed with the communist spirit, and both John Ball and Thomas Muenzer offer up a powerful storehouse of radical rhetoric to today’s revolutionaries. Engels himself said that the first concrete “anticipation of communism” can be found in the writings of Muenzer, composed long before communism was concretely possible. Such anticipatory illuminations are also found in the 17th century English communist, Gerrard Winstanely, who anticipated Marx’s materialism when he wrote: “The inward bondages of the mind are all occasioned by the outward bondage that one sort of people lay upon another.” Even at the tempestuous height of the French Revolution, Gracchus Babeuf could write and know in his heart of hearts that “The French Revolution is just the precursor of another, more magnificent revolution which will be the last.” Thus Marx spoke justly when he said in 1843 that “It will be shown that the world has long possessed in dream form something of which it need only become conscious in order to possess it in actuality. It will then be evident that it is a question not of a great theoretical gap between past and future, but rather of realizing the ideas of the past.”
With the advent of Marxism and the rise of the proletariat, we see the opening up of the dream of our unconscious hunger into the realm of conscious thought. But consciousness is shaped by the “ensemble of social relations” of the existing society in which thought is a reflection of reality containing possible realities. The dream, then, has an unfolding existence within reality itself, and the class which can catch that dream, ignite that old spark, has come into being by a violent process of enslavement, dispossession, and industrialization that only adds anger to aspiration. The spirit of communism is thus today more “real” and less “spiritual” than it ever has been. Though it is indeed beaten down by lies and delusions—the “inward bondages” resulting from “outward bondage”—the spark is still there, as are the imaginations that kindle it. The old society is crumbling, as most are beginning to perceive, and the possibilities of the new are eager to emerge. We can, as Marx wrote, “finally imagine for a change, an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many forms of labor power in full self-awareness as one single labor force.” The spirit is there; it needs only be stirred by revolutionary fervor, concretized by revolutionary forms of organization, and actualized by revolution. We need only seek answers to the ponderous questions posed elusively by that revolutionary poet William Blake: “On what wings dare we aspire? What the hand dare seize the Fire?”