We Are Not Communists—We Are "Hermeneutic Communists"

by Santiago Zabala, Gianni Vattimo


The great American philosopher Richard Rorty predicted almost twenty years ago the “election of ‘strongman’ . . . someone willing to assure [voters] that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.”[1] This is Donald Trump. But Rorty predicted a president not only with these characteristics but also one with a plan very similar to Trump’s: “One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. . . . All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet. This outlet, Rorty explained, was going to be a consequence of the Left’s tendency to give “cultural politics preference over real politics.” But what does all this have to do with Marxism in the twenty-first century and, in particular, with our weak—or hermeneutic—version of it?

Rorty’s criticism of the Left, as well as Negri’s and Hardt’s trilogy and the horrifying events of 9/11, were factors that led us to write Hermeneutic Communism: From Heidegger to Marx (2011), which the philosopher Eduardo Mendieta compared to a manifesto. Negri’s and Hardt’s texts were full of metaphysical notions (“empire,” “multitude,” “commons”) too abstract to call for practical activism, and this vacuum was exposed, beginning on 9/11. Those terrible acts did not mark a single day “that changed the world” but rather led to the intensification of military and financial policies already underway. This intensification, which we call “framing” in the book, is evident in the military occupation of the Middle East, including drone warfare, and the mass-surveillance systems that Edward Snowden revealed, as well as in certain actions of the Obama administration, which continued or expanded these policies and oversaw the bailout of massive financial institutions and the relentless use of drones against civilian targets. To a certain extent, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton embody Rorty’s characterization of “cultural politics” or the “cultural left” that lacked a leftist economic agenda; they ignored the declining economic condition of American workers that was a consequence of the globalization they lauded. With no political voice speaking to or on behalf of the concerns of labor, workers turned against the technocratic policies of the cultural elite and either opted out of politics or followed the demagoguery of right-wing populist leaders such as Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, and others. While Rorty did not call on the Left to become “Marxist” or “communist” again, we believe this is the only way to respond to the abdication of the left and political and moral bankruptcy of what were once the progressive leftist parties.

Since 2011 we are often asked, “Are you communists?” Our answer is always the same: “No, we are hermeneutic communists.” At that point, people generally look at us with suspicion and confusion—suspicion, because no one is supposed to be communist anymore, and confusion because “hermeneutics” is an alien concept for most. Until now, everyone talked about Soviet, Cuban, or Chinese communism; no one spoke of a hermeneutic communism. The difference does not simply rest in the absence of an anchoring location, because in the book we refer to a particular region (Latin America); it has to do with the nature of hermeneutics, which brings philosophical weakness to communism through interpretation. This is the meaning of the book’s subtitle, From Heidegger to Marx. Today, after metaphysics, we can return to Marx through hermeneutics, a philosophical approach that operates without the assumption of metaphysical truth and without the impositions and violence that accompany such positions. Thus, hermeneutic communism is a “weakening” of the strong structures of metaphysics, modernity, and ideology. The motto of the book, rephrasing Marx’s famous statement from Theses on Feuerbach, is, “The philosophers have only described the world in various ways; the moment now has arrived to interpret it.”

With the global triumph of capitalism after the fall of the Berlin Wall, communism lost both its effective power and any ability to justify the metaphysical claims that characterized its original Marxist formulation as the ideal of development, which inevitably draws toward a logic of war. Today, these ideals and logic based on eternal growth are what characterize and guide our framed democracies. The weakened communism we are left with in the twenty-first century does not aspire to construct a perfect state—i.e., it does not envision another Soviet Union—but instead proposes democratic models of social resistance outside the intellectual paradigms that dominated classical Marxism. Marxism has gone through a profound deconstruction that has contributed to dismantling its rigid, violent, and ideological claims in favor of democratic edification. The weakening of its scientific pretexts for unfettered development allows communism to finally unite its constituency.

The supporters of weak communism are the weak, that is, all those who are not framed within “the iron cage of capitalism,” as Max Weber used to say—those at its margins. These are the denizens of the slums and underdeveloped nations who, despite the fact they represent three-quarters of the world’s population, face existential annihilation through economic and military oppression. In response to this situation, social movements in South America in the Nineties began to fight back by electing representatives from their own class (including Morales, Chávez, and others) in order to defend the weak and apply much-needed social reforms. Although these progressive Latin American leaders never called themselves “communists,” much less “hermeneutic communists,” they put in place communist policies that proved much better at defending their economies from crises than the strategies used by any other country in the West. And they supported ethnic pluralities, such as the recognition of indigenous rights, which can be interpreted as a hermeneutic fusion of horizons.

Our endorsement of the Chávez government in Venezuela led some critics to suggest we made an error like that of Bloch, who praised the East German regime in The Principle of Hope. These critics cite the dismantling of Chávez’s reforms as evidence of our wrong-headedness, as if the fact that two political orders were both superseded by reactionary changes meant that the two had any other similarity. This argument, which relies again on assuming the metaphysical truth of progress, does not erase the nature of Chávez’s reforms any more than it can equate two radically different “socialist” governments. However, the economic and social crisis that Venezuela is experiencing under the leadership of Nicolás Maduro certainly raises a question: are we witnessing the dissolution of the Chávez myth or, on the contrary, the continuing terrible power and dominance of capitalist-framed democracies?

Chávez still functions as a myth, symbol, and reference for the global Left not only because of the successful social, economic, and educational policies he implemented but also because he supported other progressive governments in the region. One interesting example is the former president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff. As soon as Lula designated her as the best candidate to guide the Workers Party and Brazil into the twenty-first century, Chávez supported her. Now that she has been overthrown by a capitalist coup, one must speculate on the level of involvement of those framed democracies. “And such speculation,” as Mark Weisbrot recently suggested, “is not unreasonable in Brazil, where Washington intervened in 2005 in support of a legislative effort aimed at undermining the Workers’ Party government.” Dilma had also railed against US meddling in Petrobras, as revealed in the Snowden files. While we can discuss infinitely whether Chávez is a myth or a model, as we prefer to view his legacy, there is no doubt that the ongoing crisis in Venezuela and in other Latin American countries is caused by foreign intervention via economic sanctions. Independent of the recent economic and political crisis in the region, Chávez's achievements in reducing extreme poverty are unquestionable; this is one of the few subjects on which Chávez’s supporters and critics can agree.

While it might sound paradoxical, although we took Latin American progressive governments as a model for our Western neoliberal democracies, the book was not written for them but rather for us. The hermeneutic communism that we see as still developing in Latin America has not ended with the passing of its charismatic leaders or recent installation of right-wing governments in Argentina and Brazil. Instead, it began there.

What is extraordinary today for us, almost six years after the publication of Hermeneutic Communism, is that the inception of radical democracy and social initiatives has reached Europe. We are not referring to the Indignados or Occupy movements, but rather to those who transformed these movements into political parties, such as Podemos in Spain. Like the late Hugo Chávez, Pablo Iglesias has called for radical social reforms in favor of the weak and has railed against U.S. hegemony, issuing calls for Spain to leave NATO and revoke the agreement that allows the United States to keep military bases in Morón (Seville) and Rota (Cádiz). The rise of Podemos did not occur only because its leaders (Iglesias, Juan Carlos Monedero, and Íñigo Errejón) traveled to, researched, and admired Latin America and the Bolivarian revolution, but also because the Spanish Socialist Party has lost all credibility. Its recent crisis must be interpreted as the embodiment of what Rory warned against: the cultural left’s practice of giving “cultural politics preference over real politics.” Podemos proves that not all populist parties are the same. We must also not discount the significance of the election of Pope Francis. The election of a Latin American Pope who has begun a progressive reform of the Vatican is symbolic of an epoch where the “weak” might finally begin to take part in the distribution of power.

But how can hermeneutic communism help us when Trump and Farage use right-wing populism to usurp the power and focus of the workers? First of all, it is important to remember the strength of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries and interpret it as a sign of a future where the weak finally find representation once more through traditional parties. Our goal today is not to demand that the left stay away from “cultural politics.” It is to invite social movements to create or join political parties that can allow the weak to emerge and to exercise their power by uniting. Unless the voices of the weak resound from the slums of our postcolonial cities and are made to echo in the halls of power through genuine representation, it will be impossible to overcome the deadlock imposed by our neoliberal democracies. Instead of the metaphysical communism of failed and totalitarian states, we need a hermeneutic version, one that does not repeat their errors. The revival and reinvigoration of Marxism and Marxist theory we see in thinkers such as Jodi Dean and Slavoj Žižek, as well as in this Colloquy, is an invitation to reconsider its potentialities.

Gianni Vattimo is emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Turin and a former member of the European Parliament. His books include A Farewell to TruthThe Responsibility of the Philosopher; and Of Reality among others.
Santiago Zabala is ICREA Research Professor at the University of Barcelona. He is the author of The Remains of BeingThe Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy, and Hermeneutic Communism with G. Vattimo.

[1] R. Rorty, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America. Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998), 90.

Santiago Zabala's picture
Santiago Zabala is ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. He is the author and editor of over ten books including Why Only Art Can Save Us (2017), Hermeneutic Communism (2011, coauthored with G. Vattimo), and editor of The Future of Religion (2005) by R. Rorty and G. Vattimo, all published by Columbia University Press and translated into several languages. He writes opinion articles for the New York Times, Al-Jazeera, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. His forthcoming book is Being at Large: Freedom in the Age of Alternative Facts (2020).
Gianni Vattimo is emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Turin and a former member of the European Parliament. His most recent books include A Farewell to Truth (2011); Hermeneutic Communism (with Santiago Zabala, 2011); and Of Reality (2016), each of which has translated into several languages.