Why Conservatives Are Panicking Over a Short Story About Communism
The recent publication of Bini Adamczak’s Communism for Kids1 has the entire spectrum of conservatives in the U.S. seething, from the radio host Alex Jones and the darling of the “alt-right,” Breitbart News—led until recently by Trump’s Chief Strategist Steve Bannon—to establishment magazines like National Review, and even a congressman from South Carolina. That congressman, Garry Smith, accuses Communism for Kids of turning “deadly ideology into a fairy tale.”2 Referring to Adamczak’s self-description as someone who writes about queer politics, Breitbart claims “her special type of communists” don’t understand “they’d be among the first up against the wall.”3 The National Review says it’s a “creepy” book “from the fever swamps of the Occupy movement.”4 Alex Jones, the id of the far right who now has Trump’s ear, calls it a “textbook” to teach elementary school kids about “enslaving humanity and Satanism.”5
Originally published in German as Kommunismus: Kleine Geschichte, wie endlich anders wird [Communism: A short story about how things finally change] in 2004, Adamczak’s little book is divided into three sections. The first briefly introduces, in illustrated, storybook prose, the concepts and histories of communism, capitalism, work, markets, and crisis. Discussing the origins of capitalism, the author writes:
The princesses cared little about what happened to the peasants, since they only had eyes for the merchants’ fancy swords and gigantic jewels. And so the princesses sent their soldiers to kick the peasants off the land where they had always lived and worked. The soldiers were rude and hurt the peasants a lot. (14)
Concepts in hand, the fantastical, round-faced characters populating this text launch into a series of experiments, implementing different notions of communism, in order to learn which one “gets rid of all the evils people suffer under capitalism.” (36) These trial runs constitute the book’s middle section, which concludes with the characters directly telling the narrator to get lost: “Stop telling our story! We decide what happens next. Because this is our story now, and we’re making history ourselves.” (69) Adamczak rounds out Communism for Kids with a theoretically informed epilogue that discusses anti-capitalist critiques focusing on production, circulation, or consumption as well as the obligation to work through the tragic histories of anti-capitalist experiments. The epilogue fulfills this obligation within her book. Stories about a radically different world and a call for the cultivation of new, communist desires are paired with considerations of past failures and a legacy of terror.
Despite its allegorical structure and amusing illustrations, Communism for Kids was never intended as a children’s book. Adamczk prefers to describe the book as intended for everyone, including children.6 The English title was the choice of the publisher, which has since acknowledged underestimating the critical response. As one MIT editor said in response to the controversy:
The author had asked me at one point earlier on if people in the U.S. 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 U.S. since the McCarthy era.7
Anti-communist sentiment, however, continues to be a motivating force on the far Right, albeit as more of a racialized form of domestic critique. In this popular discourse, communism and socialism often serve as code words for what aggrieved whites view as the unjust redistribution of white wealth (taxes) to people of color. These racist views may be expressed as such in private, but they tend to become economic critiques or platitudes about freedom in public. It’s the privately held views, however, that explain why whites fight so passionately against their own economic interests. Studies show, for example, that Tea Party groups—purportedly concerned about taxes and government overreach—are an “an outlet for mobilizing and expressing racialized grievances.”8 These folks tend to identify more with white capital—and therefore Trump and the big banks—than with unions, public education, or public healthcare, which they fear benefit non-whites as well.9
This sentiment doesn’t sufficiently explain the numerous and alarmist responses to Communism for Kids—which has brought librarians to its defense10—since books about communism are fairly common. Verso, for example, has recently published several books revitalizing communist thought without controversy. Branding it as a children’s book, however, definitely exacerbated conservatives’ fears, as did the frequently noted fact that Adamczak writes about “queer politics” (always put in quotes). That MIT is the publisher confirmed the Right’s distrust of academics, but it was also mixed with a particular sense of betrayal. MIT is in part an extension of the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD)—its DOD Lincoln Laboratory received nearly $1 billion in funding last year11—so it had until now earned the grudging respect of even anti-intellectual conservatives.
The current disarray of conservatism is also fertile ground for a controversy. Despite recent electoral successes, long-time internal divisions persist among conservatives. Neo-fascists, Evangelicals, Tea Party libertarians, and Goldman Sachs neoliberals are battling each other for the helm, while the dwindling ranks of moderates adjust to their demotion. As the opposition, this patchwork of reactionaries was held together by a shared authoritarian personality defined by a profound sense of victimhood. “Prejudiced subjects generally tend to feel themselves ‘forgotten,’ the victims of injustice who did not ‘get’ enough of the things they deserved,” writes Else Frenkel-Brunswik in The Authoritarian Personality (1950). “They thus tend to resent other people […] whom they readily conceive as unjustifiably threatening.”12
Until recently, the unifying threat stabilizing this fractious Right was the Obama administration, which many white, male Christians felt had victimized them. With Obama gone, so too is their cohesion. Conservatives are frantically seeking a new Other against which they can define themselves—but no clear replacement has emerged. China, which was “raping America” not long ago, is now an ally. Russia, a long-time adversary, is now viewed by a majority of conservatives as a friend. Terrorists play the role of the despised Other for so many across the political spectrum that anti-terrorism cannot effectively define the Right. Immigrants, Muslims, and journalists certainly animate significant minorities, but perhaps none unify a plurality. In this time of uncertainty for conservatives, Communism for Kids triggered a wave of outrage that, however momentarily, satisfied an old desire for a common enemy.
The virtue of Adamczak’s book is the way it entices the reader to resist the pull toward the reproduction of the old and the repetition of the past, and instead to cultivate desires for another world. Although playful, it is not innocent, at least not in the sense of being naïve or ahistorical. It calls upon the reader to rethink, rather than to forget, and to return to fundamental concerns. This makes it an appealing introduction to radical thought and imagination. As the author writes in her epilogue, “communism needs to be imaginable in order to be desirable.” (73) With neoliberalism experiencing a legitimacy crisis and authoritarianism on the rise, there is little doubt that we urgently need to think, desire, and act anew. For this reason, the Left would do well to pay as much attention to Communism for Kids as the Right has done.
- Bini Adamczak, Communism for Kids, trans. and (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2017).
- Tweet by , April 25, 2017.
- Colin Madine, “MIT Press-Translated ‘Communism for Kids’ Ironically #1 Amazon Seller in ‘Children’s Government Books,’” , April 17, 2017.
- Paul Crookston, “German Book Communism for Kids Translated into English by MIT Press,” , April 12, 2017.
- Alex Jones, “MIT Pushes Plan To Literally Teach Children Communism,” , April 13, 2017.
- Jacob Blumenfeld, “,” Viewpoint Magazine, May 16, 2017.
- Editors, “,” MIT Press, April 28, 2017.
- Daniel Tope, Justin T. Pickett, and Ted Chiricos, “,” Social Science Research 51 (2014), 12.
- Ian Haney López, “,” Moyers & Company, March 5, 2014.
- Robert Fernandez, “,” Intellectual Freedom Blog, The Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association, May 12, 2017.
- 2017 MIT Facts, , accessed May 17, 2017.
- Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford, The Authoritarian Personality (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1993 ), 348.
CHAD KAUTZER is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Lehigh University and the author of Radical Philosophy: An Introduction (London: Routledge, 2015).