There has been a fair amount of commotion, online and off, over the English edition of Communism for Kids by Bini Adamczak that the MIT Press published last month. Marc Lowenthal, the book’s acquiring editor, has agreed to address some of the questions and misconceptions that have arisen over the past week around the book, and to do so in a Q&A format that reflects the one utilized in the first section of the book.
How did the MIT Press come to publish this book?
The translators, who had already translated the text into English in close collaboration with the author, approached me and another editor here with the project. I read it, was immediately hooked, and we moved on from there.
Why did the MIT Press come to publish this book?
So what exactly “hooked” me? The MIT Press publishes two sorts of books: books that advance research and knowledge (within disciplines or across disciplines), and books that synthesize knowledge—and ideally in a well-written, accessible manner—for a broader, non-specialized readership. The epilogue to Communism for Kids falls more into the former category, but the portion of the book garnering ire is of course that which falls into the latter category of book, and in that regard I don’t think one could ask for a clearer explanation or description of such things as reification, alienation, or what causes a marketplace crisis, than what this book offers. But the manuscript was also executed with humor and charm, and I thought it made a heartfelt effort toward imagining and embracing the possibility for a different political and social future (a different one from the dystopias currently capturing the popular imagination).
Finally, it had already been clear to me, along with everyone else, that there is a broad readership out there, young and old, thirsty for books and ideas concerning alternatives to capitalism right now. Bernie Sanders captured and spoke to a previously under-recognized political audience in this country last year, and I felt this would be a perfect pocket-sized paperback for such readers.
How does it fit the press’s list?
Apart from it offering a counterpoint of sorts to a lot of the titles in our economics list, the book makes for an obvious complement to some of the books published by the press we distribute, Semiotext(e), whose political and polemical Intervention series was inaugurated in 2009 by The Coming Insurrection, authored by The Invisible Committee, which had met with a similarly heated right-wing furor at that time. Though that was a bit before such social media outlets as Twitter came to dominate public discourse—a recent shift effectively analyzed in another little book we just released this season, In the Swarm by Byung-Chul Han, who regards such digital technology not just as a “narcissistic ego machine,” but a threat to civil society (and who also points out in that book that “waves of outrage often occur in response to events of only meager social or political relevance”). I could also point to authors in our catalog such as Slavoj Zizek, who left the Communist Party of Slovenia a while ago but remains committed to communist ideals, or Antonio Negri, who was one of the founders of the group Potere Operaio (Workers’ Power) and the Operaismo (workerist) Communist movement, which eventually evolved into the Autonomia Operaia Organizzata (Organised Workers’ Autonomy) movement.
But the touchstone in my mind (and more directly tied to the MIT Press’s list) is the defunct Studies in International Communism series that we used to publish in partnership with the MIT Center for International Studies back in the 1960s. Mainly because it offers an interesting and not irrelevant anecdote: an article by Geoffrey Wolff in Book Week at the beginning of February 1967 (“Governmental Book Control”) had addressed the scenario of governmental agencies, particularly the CIA and the USIA, secretly funding the writing and publishing of books to “influence opinion.” Given the plethora of books published by (or under the name of) politicians for political campaign purposes—both then but increasingly so today—the practice isn’t in itself so shocking, but the issue at hand was in defining the thin line between political discussion and covert propaganda, and the hidden ties to authors (ghost writers or not) that could make what they had to say inappropriately biased. The USIA had instigated a classified Book Development Program, the existence of which was only revealed under questioning by Congressman Glenard Lipscomb. The MIT Press and the CIA-funded Center for International Studies were cited in that article as one case of such a practice (a claim that was then repeated in The New Republic a few weeks later). I will cite what the MIT Press director at that time said in reply to this:
To infer that any funding agency, government or otherwise, dictates the selection of titles published by this, or any other, university press confuses the support of research with the privilege of publication. Funding agencies support research of their choice. University publishers publish scholarship of their determination.
It’s interesting to me that we’re currently in a period that is echoing such charged claims from the 1960s. While back then, the accusation was that we were publishing books on communism that effectively acted as propaganda for our (capitalist) government, now the charge from the right is that we are publishing a book on communism that is propaganda but for an opposing purpose. Which leads to the next question:
What is the purpose of the book? Is it an argument for Communism over Capitalism?
The purpose of the book is to understand what communism has been, what it is, and what it could be, and which idea of it (for there have been a number of communisms throughout history) is best, or—as proves to be the case in the book—if communism rather needs to be reinvented altogether. To get to that, though, the book first offers an understanding of capitalism and how it has made some people suffer.
Since the author defines communism as the society that gets rid of all evils that people suffer under capitalism, she argues for a “true” communism over capitalism. But she makes it quite clear that she does not see this communism as a cure-all and is well aware that there are evils in this society that have to addressed in a different sphere than that of economic organization. But this is the basis for the different attempts at communism that the characters in the book undertake, and the measuring stick by which they determine whether they are successful or not: are these forms of communism in fact better than capitalism? Do the attempts fall short of hopes and expectations? Do they reproduce certain miseries? The book argues that if a society reproduces a defined set of miseries typical of a capitalist society, then that society is not a desirable communist society.
I know some people hold the belief that if someone experiences misery in this society—be it the result of income inequality, racism, prejudice, lack of access to healthcare, education, etc.—then they have more or less inflicted it upon themselves; to be poor, for example, is the result of life choices. And everyone allegedly has “access” to necessities today that would make their life better, even if having the economic means to acquire such access is a prerequisite. This book regards such misery as something that needs to be addressed collectively, not as individuals.
The author is presenting a series of contradictory communisms—libertarian communism, authoritarian communism, socialism, anarchism, etc.—and each time the book’s characters try one of these communisms out, they come to the repeated conclusion that the results weren’t what they had imagined or had wanted communism to be. Therefore, the book isn’t an argument for Communism with a capital “C” (which by definition would stand for the former U.S.S.R.) over Capitalism with a capital “C,” because state communism is one of the first trials in the book that fails. So to my mind the book is ultimately an argument against returning to the past and instead for working toward a new political imagination.
As to some of the anger expressed over the notion that there might be “evils” in capitalism, or that communist regimes have been responsible for an untold number of deaths and, by implication, capitalist systems haven’t: people have absolutely every right to condemn the terror that has been wrought upon humanity in the name of communism. But there needs to be an acknowledgment of the hypocrisy involved in then defending capitalism in the same breath and in the same terms, while refusing to recognize what that system has also brought about: colonialism, imperialism, endless wars, and even fascism and national socialism.
I was struck by self-proclaimed performance artist Alex Jones’s complimentary remark regarding MIT in his initial round of outrage over the publication of this book:
MIT produces some of the most brilliant graduates in the world, who go on to make countless contributions to the global marketplace through inventions, research, and startups. It’s an engine of entrepreneurship. It’s estimated that if all the companies that were started by MIT graduates were one country, it would be the 17th largest economy in the world.
MIT’s contribution to the world as something quantifiable by economy gets at one thing I think this little book tries to address: how can we start imagining a society where Alex Jones might have instead mentioned MIT’s efforts toward environmental sustainability, saving lives through developments in medicine and technology, or more broadly, just building a better world where “better” was defined by humanistic goals, not only by profit-oriented economic ones? Capitalism is currently giving us an administration that has openly pledged to change our current health care system in such a way that many people would lose their health insurance (which would lead to deaths that could be averted through preventative health care); or that is already rolling back regulations (the implementation of new silica regulations, for one recent example, which were created to protect workers from silicosis)—regulations created to protect human beings, but which are being measured and assessed in dollars and cents and dismantled because of that form of measurement.
Does it acknowledge the repressive history of Communism that critics of the book have been invoking?
Given that in this book Adamczak examines and discards all the formulated historical versions of communism from the past century and a half, I think that that in itself is a form of acknowledgment. But she goes beyond that, and it would be best for me to just quote from the book:
It’s not just the end of history that weighs like a nightmare upon the desire for communism. Even more so, it’s the end of revolution. Not just 1991, but also 1939, 1937 and, subsequently, 1924, 1921 all the way to 1917. After all the failed attempts to realize a communist society in the twentieth century, can we still respond in good conscience with silence to the question of what communism should look like? Should we discuss communism without any reference to history? Can we so naively leap over the barrier between generations by seeking immediate, untainted access to Marx’s original manuscripts? Can those who coyly refuse to take responsibility for the legacy of Stalinism and its victims still be allowed to call themselves communists today? The cheap promise that ‘it will be more democratic next time’ is just as empty as the claim that nothing can or should ever be said about what communism is to look like.
It is not without some historical justification that liberal theorists of civil society cast suspicions of “totalitarianism” on the aim of comprehensively changing or democratically redesigning the social order of capitalism. Since they do not wish to characterize their ideals of equality and freedom as inherently bourgeois or capitalist, however, such theorists remain incapable of grasping the mediations of circulation in other spheres of the capitalist economy. In so doing, they reproduce all the relations of domination that uphold the sphere of circulation.
It needs to be stated that Stalinism, which a lot of online voices right now seem to be equating with communism per se, essentially introduced the fascist concept of totalitarianism into a communist society. To equate Stalinism and communism is wrong, and just a way of shutting down any radical critique of capitalism. And as Adamczak has demonstrated in her other work, it is also an insult to all the communists, anarchists, and Jewish socialists who were betrayed and erased by the Stalinist regime.
Is the book intended for kids, as the title suggests? If not, who are the intended readers?
I’ve been surprised by the fact that this actually needs to be stated: The MIT Press is not a children’s book publisher, and we categorized this book as politics, not as children’s literature. The far-fetched notion of us even publishing a children’s book was one of the things that made the title amusing to me (especially since we are known in the book world for how academically challenging many of our books are). The author had asked me at one point earlier on if people in the US might be misled by the title into thinking it was a book for children, and I explained to her that the idea of an MIT Press children’s book was absurd enough to be taken as very tongue-in-cheek, that the word “communism” hasn’t been employed as a scare tactic or signal to engage in hysteria in the US since the McCarthy era (when the fears over a specific “seduction of the innocent” was primarily in regards to horror comics, not political ideology), and that finally, given the recent social and political climate, my guess was that if people were going to get outraged without actually reading or spending any time with the book, it would probably be over the book’s gender-bending drawings. And when the book was first written about in The National Review a couple of years ago (when it was originally going to come out from another publisher under another title), all of the negative online comments were clearly anticommunist (and occasionally anti-Semitic and/or sexist), but not really concerned about children and fairytales. Needless to say, I certainly miscalled that one. Perhaps further outrage over the book’s drawings and their depictions of femininity is yet to come, but it would require someone who would be outraged by such a thing to actually open the book, which (judging by the criticism that has been come in so far) hasn’t happened and isn’t likely to happen.
Not to give too much attention to the more rabid responses to the book floating out there, but when one reads online that “it’s not even a very good children’s book. It’s apparently riddled with academic jargon and references to political movements that no child would understand,” one has to wonder why the next logical conceptual step isn’t taken: maybe children had never been the intended readers! The use of the word “apparently” in that quote to my mind pretty much defines all the right-wing reaction to the book this past week, including the Amazon reviews which have been getting cited and reiterated in the media. In fact, of the 111 reviews currently posted there as I write this, only 7 of them are “verified purchase reviews.”
I do find the question raised by this furor over the book to be an interesting one, though: is it possible for a book to brainwash someone, at any age? (One of the memes that started circulating online was that this book was an attempt at brainwashing children.) I read Ayn Rand’s novel Anthem when I was in sixth grade, without knowing anything at the time about the ideology she espoused (and as a side note: if a publisher were to attempt to indoctrinate readers, it would be covertly, not by announcing it in a book’s title). I read it in the same way I read other science fiction novels at that age, discussed it with my mother who had also read it, and then with my grade-school teacher, because I had chosen it for an assignment at school. I did not subsequently grow up to be a proponent of laissez-faire capitalism, have never identified as an Objectivist, and feel utterly unable to relate to Paul Ryan. So how did I avert indoctrination at such an early, vulnerable age? I think indoctrination only becomes possible through a lack of access to knowledge and ideas, and—I would say this even if I didn’t work in the publishing industry—through a lack of access to books. Something that Albrecht Koschorke points out in another little book we published this season on the story-telling employed by Hitler’s Mein Kampf, is that one of the qualities of that “most dangerous book of the twentieth century” that made it so effective (and still the most successful example of the lineage of the “dictatorial book” that it launched) was that it is an unreadable book: bloated, badly written, obscure, and unbearably boring. It is that which made it something to be read and utilized selectively, and to function as a cult book that involved initiation rather than comprehension.
Which is to say that I think a truly dangerous book is an unreadable book: one that a reader isn’t allowed to or able to read. And that this should be kept in mind when a call for a book burning goes out (which I understand to have been the most shared of the tweets around the publication of Communism for Kids over the last week or two).
So who is the intended audience, then, especially given that part of the book is in fact written in a children’s storybook manner? The answer is: the same audience that the German edition has been reaching over the past decade, which is to say, students, activists, and general readers between the ages of 20 and 80 (though the majority of the German audience has been between the ages of 20 and 40). The phrase is infantilizing to my ear, but one could say: “kids or people of all ages.” I’m fond of books like this that forgo a lot of the opaque terminology often found in books of political theory and instead seek a different language—but the book is not about “dumbing things down” for a grade-school audience. As Adamczak explains in the epilogue, the language is utilized artistically in order to create a desire that has been buried under present conditions and too much specialized language. I am sympathetic with the notion that if we are to start imagining a different kind of future for ourselves (be it in our own lives or as a society) we need to think and imagine in new ways, and there’s no more classic form of storytelling than the storytelling we engage in as children for opening up our imagination and our desire to dream of a different life from what we have.
I don’t personally identify as a communist or have any predilection for children’s books, and if you were to pull the book apart into its separate elements, I don’t know if any of them on their own would have caught my attention. But when the book’s elements all come together, it becomes a book that doesn’t resemble any other one I’m aware of, and that in and of itself always signals to me a book worth a closer look.
How has it been received in its German edition?
It is something of a cult classic in Germany, and has sold well since it originally came out in 2004: a book one buys for a friend or family member if not for oneself. It is published by a publisher in Münster named Unrast whose catalogue is devoted to such topics as antifascism, antiracism, feminism, gender studies, and social theory, as well as books on German colonialism and anti-Semitism. They started out as a collective, and from what I understand still operate as one. They published an anniversary edition of the book in 2014; a Greek edition came out in 2013, Korean and Spanish editions have been licensed but are not out yet, and I know that Turkish, Chinese, French, and Swedish publishers are currently considering editions in those respective languages. The anger and furor over our edition has come of something of a surprise over in Germany (which I imagine might be a surprise to some people here in the US, given that the current center of German publishing is in Berlin these days, where a Communist history is visually and culturally inscribed into everyday life). Political discourse takes very different forms and tenor from country to country, of course.
Was it peer reviewed?
MIT Press peer reviews its books the same way that our journals peer review their articles. With translations, though, it’s worth making a distinction: for a book in translation, what I have peer reviewed is the translation, not the book. If you license the English rights to a book published by another publisher, there is always a clause in the contract guaranteeing that the licensor’s published translation will be a faithful and accurate representation of the original book. Peer reviewing of the original content of a book happens with the book’s original publisher. A translation is in a sense a reprint, but in a different language.
An example of when such fidelity doesn’t get respected brings up a different book that we also published this season, Homo Sovieticus: Brain Waves, Mind Control and Telepathic Destiny by a very interesting scholar, Wladimir Velminski (and which was also translated from the German language), on the little-known history of Soviet pseudoscientific experiments in mind control. A Russian edition was to be published this same season and when it came off press, copies were sent to the German publisher and the author, but with the last chapter deleted, something done out the Russian publisher’s concerns regarding possible censorship for violating Russian anti-pornography laws (the last chapter of the book includes a photograph that depicts male genitalia). The Russian publisher was asked why they didn’t just delete the photograph instead of the whole chapter, but there was no response, and instead the edition subsequently vanished from their web page, and the entire print run of the book was pulped before it could be released to the market. My understanding is that the Russian publisher was so worried that they would get into trouble with the book’s release that they chose to destroy it and cut their losses rather than run the risk of having their entire seasonal list get censored. For all I know, the copies sent to Germany may be the only ones left.
That is in capitalist Russia, mind you, not Communist Russia, but it is also a roundabout anecdote on why one should never tamper with a book in such a manner without the approval of its original publisher.
Who is the author? What is her background?
Bini Adamczak writes and works on political theory, queer theory, and feminism. She studied philosophy and sociology in Frankfurt, but she is also involved in the art community in Berlin, and has worked and performed in the theater. Her other published book, not yet translated into English, is Past Future: On the Loneliness of Communist Specters and the Reconstruction of the Future.
Would you publish a book on Capitalism for Kids? Fascism for Kids?
At the risk of overkill, I don’t acquire actual children’s books, and have no interest in doing so (and am quite confident that the MIT Press isn’t looking for me to do so). But we live in a capitalist society—a society so capitalist right now that we’ve elected a businessman to lead the country, who in turn has filled his cabinet with businessmen. So the repeatedly suggested title of a Capitalism for Kids antidote to Adamczak’s book echoes, to my ears, the question every child inevitably asks their parents: if there’s a mother’s day, and a father’s day, why isn’t there a children’s day? Because every day is capitalism day here in the USA. But that obviously shouldn’t stop anyone from writing such a book if they want to. As to whether I would want to publish it, the book already exists, published by Bluestocking Press in 2005, and from all appearances (and in contrast to our book), does in fact appear to be intended for “younger students” (between the ages of 10 and 17 according to their website).
As for Fascism for Kids, which has been another false equivalent getting thrown around online: fascism by definition “exalts nation and often race above the individual and stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation and forcible suppression of opposition.” So, no, certainly not. People are quite right to regard Stalinism as the horror it was. But to describe communism as a “murderous philosophy” is simply ignorant, and to then link it to an actual murderous philosophy like fascism is irresponsible. And to do so is to insult the memory of the true communists: Stalin’s use of anti-Semitism in the 1950s is in stark contrast to the early Bolsheviks, who were fierce enemies of anti-Semitism in Russia. The level of misunderstanding in some of the comments and language being tossed around in social media and elsewhere around Communism for Kids right now can only lead me to recommend more people read the book. Bini Adamczak is a scholar who does a good job of clarifying such matters, and she does so in this book in a way that should be accessible to any reader who is actually interested.
What other controversial books are in the pipeline?
This question is sort of impossible to answer before a book is actually published, and I wouldn’t want to say anything that might imply the readers of our books aren’t able to come to their own conclusions as to whether a book is or should be controversial or not. And in the case of Communism for Kids, which has proven to be controversial in the US and uncontroversial in Germany, one can never say with any confidence what is going to be controversial and to whom. I’m sure that our lead title this season, Gravity’s Kiss by Harry Collins (on the discovery of gravitational waves) must be controversial to creationists. And the word from some of our international sales representatives is that the lead title in our new fall catalog, The Chinese Typewriter by Thomas S. Mullaney, may not be available for sale in China because of State censorship. Science itself is controversial today when our current US Secretary of Energy has argued that it is a belief system on par with religion, and the current Administrator of the EPA denies the science behind climate change. As a publisher that acquires in such fields as the physical sciences, environmental science, and STS (Science, Technology, and Society), The MIT Press and other academic presses have entered a strange point in time in which anything that we publish, however fact-based or peer-reviewed, could be deemed offensive by someone out there.