HARVARD £25.95 (448pp) £23.36 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop : 08430 600 030 / VERSO £7.99 (157pp) £7.59 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop : 08430 600 030

Commonwealth, By Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri
First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, By Slavoj Zizek

In the Bolshevik cabaret

One of history's most discredited ideologies is having a comeback - not as a political force but as a commodity in the marketplace.

No longer confined to dingy meetings of ageing Trotskyites or the longueurs of the academic seminar, communism has been reinvented as a kind of intellectual cabaret act. The 20th century's biggest mistake is being marketed as high-end entertainment, with a modish neo-Bolshevism promising the jaded consumer an exciting experience of forbidden ideas.

Commonwealth is the last in a trilogy of books co-authored by Michael Hardt, an American professor of literature, and Antonio Negri, an Italian academic and political activist arrested in 1979 for alleged involvement in the kidnap and murder of the former prime minister of Italy, Aldo Moro. Those charges were dropped but others led to Negri spending years in exile and in jail. The first volume, Empire (2000), was something of a publishing sensation, welcomed as a radical new version of Marxian theory. In fact the book owed more to the facile theories of globalisation in vogue at the time.

According to Hardt and Negri, a new international system had emerged: a borderless cosmopolis in which sovereign states were obsolete. It is a view reminiscent of Thomas Friedman's fantasy of the flat world presented in The Lexus and the Olive Tree, published in the same year as Empire. Like Friedman, Hardt and Negri equated globalisation with Americanisation and never imagined that the process could stop or break down. The supra-national governance coming into being was the American Revolution writ large. A new multicultural proletariat was being formed worldwide, they argued in Multitude (2004), with the power to realise Marx's dream of communism.

Commonwealth, the last volume in the series, adds very little to the previous two. There are a couple of sections purporting to deal with the collapse of American hegemony but nothing that addresses its real impact, which is to recreate a decentred world of several great powers competing with one another much as the great powers did at the end of the 19th century.

The style remains a mix of strangulated jargon and toe-curling uplift. "The notion of social becoming," the authors inform us, "suggests the possibility of moving out of the anti-modernity of indigenism in the direction of an indigenous altermodernity". Moving from intra-academic obscurity to bad poetry, at the end of the book they write: "The process of instituting happiness will constantly be accompanied by laughter... While we are instituting happiness, our laughter is a pure as water."

This is radical theory in the idiom of Monty Python. The painful quandaries of politics are wiped away, and all that remains is feelgood blather dressed up as neo-Marxian analysis. It is a relief to turn from this pap to Slavoj Zizek's First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, a book which for all its faults makes clear that revolution necessarily involves large doses of suffering and coercion.

A Slovenian philosopher, psychoanalytical theorist and film critic, Zizek has become a gadfly of the left establishment, a prolific provocateur whose principal aim seems to be to confound his tender-minded readers. His target throughout this book is not the right but the soft, democratic, meliorist left, which imagines that the egalitarian goals of communism can be realised by non-repressive, liberal means.

Zizek is savagely scornful of this view, writing sharply that "One of the mantras of the postmodern left has been that we should finally leave behind the 'Jacobin-Leninist paradigm' of centralised dictatorial power. But perhaps the time has now come to turn this mantra around... Now, more than ever, one should insist on the 'eternal Idea of Communism' - strict egalitarian justice, disciplinary terror, political voluntarism, and trust in the people."

In other words, dictatorship is indispensable to the communist project. Mass coercion and terror are not departures from a humane vision, brought about by tyrannical leaders acting in backward conditions. Lenin and Stalin were genuine masters of revolutionary strategy, who knew that without organised terror their goals would never be achieved.

In this if in nothing else, Zizek is unquestionably right. In the real world, communist revolutions are not achieved by rhetoric; they require firing squads, secret police and gulags. This is as near as Zizek ever gets to the realities of revolution, however. He passes over the fact that systematic terror has nowhere realised the utopian goals of communism, but instead created new and worse forms of tyranny while killing millions of people.

When applied to contemporary conditions, his much-vaunted Leninism is comical. First As Tragedy, Then As Farce differs from the pap dispensed by the authors of Commonwealth chiefly in virtue of the gleeful enthusiasm with which Zizek defends the necessity of terror. But no more than Hardt and Negri can Zizek identify any social force that actually wants communism. For all his insistent tough-mindedness - "If you can get power, grab it", he declared in an interview the other day - he is at the furthest possible remove from anything that could be described as serious politics.

The essential frivolity of this latter-day Leninism is a pointer to the true reasons for the revival of radical leftist thinking at the present time. The global financial crisis has left many people frightened and confused. Faced with the failures of capitalism, they look around for alternatives - and here capitalism itself comes to the rescue.

A feature of the hyper-capitalism of recent years is that it abolishes historical memory. The squalor and misery of communism are now as remote to most people as life under feudalism. When Zizek and others like him defend communism - "the communist hypothesis", as they call it - they can pass over the fact that the hypothesis has been falsified again and again, in dozens of different countries, because their audience knows nothing of the past. Hence the appeal of Zizek's works, which are being avidly consumed by young people across much of Europe and beyond.

Whether as Hardt and Negri's embarrassing rhetoric or Zizek's parodic Leninism, the intellectual revival of communism is best understood in terms of capitalism's ability to produce compensatory spectacles.

The media-confected communism of the present time has as little connection with everyday life as does reality television - possibly even less. But precisely because of its unreality, the neo-Bolshevik spectacle has a definite function in contemporary society. The clowning cabaret of 21st-century communism does what entertainment has always been meant to do. It distracts those who watch it from thinking about their problems, which secretly they suspect may be insoluble.

John Gray's most recent book is 'Gray's Anatomy: Selected Writings' (Allen Lane)

***

Revolution, exile and jail: Toni Negri

Born in Padua in 1933, Antonio Negri became a professor at the city's university. From 1969 he took a leading role in the revolutionary groups Workers' Power and Workers' Autonomy. In 1979 he was arrested and later cleared of involvement in Aldo Moro's murder, but separate charges of 'instigating' violence brought a heavy sentence. In 1983 he fled to France and taught there, but returned to Italy in 1997 to serve time in jail until 2003. 'Empire' (2000) began his trilogy of treatises with Michael Hardt

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?