Review: Bini Adamczak’s Yesterday’s Tomorrow

Clinton Williamson

Bini Adamczak’s Yesterday’s Tomorrow: On the Loneliness of Communist Specters and the Reconstruction of the Future is available from MIT Press.

The remembrance of communist desire has long been a means of renewing revolutionary aspiration. Given the critical acclaim and popular success of Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism, republished by Verso in 2020, it would appear that nostalgia for that desire is on the rise. Gornick’s 1977 compendium of profiles of members of the Communist Party in America portrays what it felt like to be a communist in the 1940s and 1950s. Take, for instance, the testimony of former communist Selma Gardinsky, who talks of feeling at home within the day-to-day activities of the party in ways that she could not be in her marital or familial relationships: “Whatever else we were or were not as Communists,” Gardinsky says, “we were not lonely. This disease that’s slowly killing off everybody today, that’s killing me, this disease was unknown to us as Communists.” This sentiment appears again and again throughout Gornick’s work. The loneliness encountered in the private sphere in the 1970s had been held at bay by joining together in a collective—by sharing the same vision for liberation—during the 1940s and 50s.

Striving for communism laid the foundation for a mutual sense of purpose that these participants struggled to recapture after the collapse of the party. Paul Levinson recounts that he “felt an intimacy with them I also know I’ll never feel again with anyone else.” Dick Nikowsski claims that “if it wasn’t for Communism [he] would never have loved anybody in his life.” And Norma Raymond says:

“People now long for community, they’re dying for lack of it. Community can’t be legislated. It’s an organic sense of things that comes up out of the social earth. It’s a commonly shared ideal. That’s what it is. Nothing else will ever create community. And we had it. We had it in every conscious as well as unconscious response to ourselves, to each other, to the world we were living in, and the world we were making. Right, wrong, errors, blind pro-Sovietism, democratic centralism, the lot notwithstanding. In our lives, as Communists, we had community.”

Like Selma Gardinsky’s invocation of loneliness as pestilence, Raymond too describes alienation as a deadly force, casting social isolation as a result of privatization which the community of communists had managed, for a time, to fend off. This testimony suggests that to have been a communist within the movement was to have experienced something like the collectivization of selfhood. These reminiscences capture the fact that the world for which these communists struggled could be felt in the movement itself.

Despite this sense of collectivity, there were those who felt they gave and had been given something that could not be replaced; they found themselves betrayed by seeing the dream go unfinished. The incompleteness of the communist project left behind a communist desire that could not be easily fulfilled elsewhere, and the humanity (re)discovered in the communities around the party structure created unfillable gaps when the party could no longer hold together as a defensible coalition. As Gornick describes it:

“…the ideology set in motion the most intense longings, longings buried in the unknowing self, longings that pierced to the mysterious, vulnerable heart at the center of that incoherent life within us, longings that had to do with the need to live a life of meaning. These longings haunted the Communists, arising as they did out of one of the great human hungers, a hunger that finally had a life of its own; so that while at first the Communists fed the hunger, at last the hunger fed off them.”

How should people understand a tradition which could entirely make over one’s relationship to others, but could just as easily encourage an unflinching dogma which construed any deviation as a threat? How do communists now position themselves in relation to this past without succumbing to a simplistic narrativization of its history? And, most importantly, what kind of redemption can the present offer to those incomplete dreams of freedom that are contained in the past?”

Originally published in German in 2007, Bini Adamczak’s newly translated work Yesterday’s Tomorrow: On the Loneliness of Communist Specters and the Reconstruction of the Future addresses these questions by arguing that any attempt to prepare the ground for a future communist movement must inevitably confront history. Written before the resurgence of the left that followed the global financial crisis, the text stands as a kind of prelude to the political maneuvers of the last decade. Yesterday’s Tomorrow poses questions about conceiving of a communist future that remain unanswered. If anything, the work appears even more timely now, given the compounding uncertainties about how to move forward amidst the limited gains (and often severe losses) of this period.

Adamczak undertakes a thorough reading of how revolutionary communism failed, attending not to 1989 but instead moving in chronological reverse, tracing the slow death of the revolution from 1939 to 1938 to 1936 to 1924, all the way to 1917. “If we do not engage with the history of attempts at revolution,” Adamczak cautions, “there will be no more desire for revolution.” In an attempt to reinvigorate and recapture that desire, Adamczak weaves her way through this history to argue that the only way to move forward in acting on this desire is to face what went awry in the past.

Sitting somewhere between theory and history, speculative reimagining and archival testimonial, Yesterday’s Tomorrow is perhaps best understood as an elegy. The text mourns hope that turned against itself, all those revolutionaries left broken, and all those moments when the power of the state ultimately stymied the unfolding of a more utopian (or at least less repressive) communist project. Whereas Gornick’s text outlined the interior lives of those American party members who found a wholeness within the party (only to feel even more alone and disheartened when again facing the world outside of it), Adamczak’s encourages communists to extend themselves into the past to proffer comradeship to those communists persecuted by the revolution itself. Until their thwarted dreams are remembered and addressed, the past will continue to disallow a future communism from coming to fruition: “For them, there will never be any communism. There is no communism for them. There is no communism without them. There will never be any communism without them.” Communists of the present must give succor to these figures’ loneliness, lest they misunderstand their own desire for remaking the world—lest the next attempt fail as well.

Yesterday’s Tomorrow opens onto a fictionalized scene of a train ride to the Russian border, contemplating what the vistas may have looked like for those on board: the time of day, whether the skies were cloudy or clear. The occupants of the train are communists, Jews, and anti-fascists being deported from the Soviet Union to Brest-Litovsk, to be collected by agents of the Gestapo waiting on the other side of the border. Between 1935 and 1941, the Soviets deported several hundred of these German émigrés to the Nazi regime. Many were members of the German Communist Party (KPD) and the Austrian Schutzbund who had fled to the Soviet Union before ending up victims of an “expulsion of communists by communists, a gift to the Nazis from the hands of the Nazis’ mortal enemies.” It is the continuance of their faith that Adamczak remarks upon, noting that it must have been extraordinary “to go on disbelieving, after years of imprisonment and forced labor, in the crime about to occur.” They wanted to return to Germany as soldiers; instead, they made the journey as prisoners.

Their deportation and their deaths constitute the past that Adamczak suggests contemporary communists must grapple with. As she writes:

“But how are we to remember them? How do we remember those of whom there is so little left to remember? And above all, with whom do we remember them? To whom do we raise the alarm, who do we warn or turn to for help? Who do we call to in the name of a justice deferred, past due, of zealous partisanship for those the party betrayed? With whom do we mourn the lost, the murdered, the abandoned revolutionaries… With whom to share their loneliness? At least that. At least to offer companionship, imaginary, belated companionship.”

These are the lonely specters of the title: all those communists who found themselves suffering under the decisions of a party no longer building communism, for whom the revolution will remain forever unfulfilled. They deserve to be mourned, Adamczak insists, but the work of mourning them has been largely co-opted by anti-communists, who use these betrayals as evidence of communism’s fundamental malevolence and unworkability. Anti-communists claim to mourn the dead only to further solidify the victory of capitalism. Instead, Adamczak advocates for communist mourning: a mourning that begins to confront this past in order to begin reconstructing the future.

There are two leftist formations which Adamczak identifies as incapable of communist mourning. The first are what she calls the “communists of the past,” who “take the side of the party that liquidated their standard-bearers, position themselves behind the murderers who buried the revolution along with the murdered revolutionaries.” These communists of the past obstinately defend every decision made by nominally communist states, claiming that their wrongs were justified to stave off anti-communism’s march—which they failed to hold back anyway. The second are the “communists of the present,” who abandon the name of communism and see themselves as starting anew. “Uninterested in the revolution’s victories,” Adamczak writes, “lionizing only those revolutionaries who perished before they could make it far enough, they confirm that all they want is to dream, not to triumph.” Communists of the present miss the opportunity to take lessons from how the revolution actually succeeded, if only in part. They abandon history for a dream of ushering in another future that is somehow free of the pitfalls of the past. Whereas communists of the past refuse to mourn by claiming that the deaths of their historical comrades were justified, communists of the present do so by pretending their ghosts do not still haunt us.

For Adamczak, communist mourning recognizes that the specters of Marx always carry the scars of Stalin. Here, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, in which the Soviets and the Nazis committed to non-aggression and the partitioning of Poland, is pivotal. In its wake, party members did not know what to make of this about-face, the betrayal of anti-fascism. In Brandenburg penitentiary, for instance, we see the beginnings of a split. Future GDR chairman Erich Honecker recounts that the prisoners hailed the pact as a diplomatic success, while communist Heinz Brandt’s memoir speaks of “sharp divisions following the pact, a fatal rupture of solidarity that had once united the prisoners against the prison system.” Adamczak claims that this split helps explain how after Molotov-Ribbentrop, “anti-fascist plays and films… are banned, and after the Border Treaty even Nazi newspapers suddenly are on display.” When the linkage between communism and anti-fascism was broken by the backroom deals of state diplomacy, a wedge was driven into the international communist movement.

Adamczak envisions the difficulty of leaving for those who remain with the party, knowing something is irreparably amiss but unable to tear themselves away. Those communists, already displaced, had left their families and friends and countries behind for their belief. Some escaped imprisonment for their activities, only to find themselves imprisoned by a party that no longer embodied their past dreams. They had made every second of their lives into a political project. “How then are they supposed to say goodbye to this last friend,” Adamczak asks, “to the great promise that loneliness would have an end?” Many remained in the party, unable to turn away from Stalin. They remained in stasis, beholden to not only a faith in the revolution but also to their entire way of being in the world, of relating to their own histories, of maintaining belief in a coming redemption.

This hope was irrevocably marred by the Great Terror, that internal purge of phantom anti-communists and dissidents from the party, that mass murder of comrades which resulted in the spectacle of heroes of the revolution reading false confessions. For Adamczak, Stalinism hurts so badly—and still hinders visions of a communist future—because it marks “the first and paradigmatic link in an unbroken chain of disappointments that could only be so devastating because they were based on a hope unknown to earlier generations.” To know this hope could be materially manifested, to feel it imminent, only to have it torn asunder was an incommensurable tragedy. Adamczak contends that the communist movement brought with it the real possibility of an emancipatory politics that could demolish capitalist hierarchies and undo the pernicious correlation between the production of value and the destruction of life. That the Stalinist era undermined this movement and ultimately brought an end to the revolution forces us to mourn for a future that never came to pass. This loss makes “even the slightest injustice grow greater, and the greatest pain hurts exponentially more,” because it both produced and defeated a theretofore impossible hope. This wound continues to fester.

In the final chapter, Adamczak turns to events that preceded Stalin’s reign to examine the forces that would eventually result in the foreclosure of the revolution’s promise. Repression found its initial justification in the ostensible necessity of defending the communist future. She turns, ultimately, to the Kronstadt rebellion (as all anarcho-communist interventions into Soviet historiography ultimately do). For three weeks in 1921, an insurrection of sailors, soldiers, and workers—previously hailed as the saviors of the revolution in 1917—would demand power be returned to the councils, and that the party power structure be abandoned. They denounced the centralized leadership of the Bolsheviks and the Taylorist inflections of their industrial production. “Never, since October 1917,” Adamczak writes, “has the revolution been so true to itself, never again will the Soviet Union come as close to the goal of a union of Soviets, a communism of councils, as in these three short weeks of March 1921.”

This motley crew of rebels came mostly from rural lands that were largely an afterthought in the industrial priorities of the Bolsheviks (aside from the forced requisitions imposed upon them). They believed they would find support from the masses and overthrow the centralized bureaucracy. Tens of thousands gathered together and refused all assistance from the parties, refused to be helped by counterrevolutionaries. They refused higher wages than their comrades. They retook the committees themselves. They tried to enact the dream of another revolution, one more push for the realization of a communism that would do away with the old bourgeois form of the state.

Yet the state did what states so often do: it neutralized the threat to its authority through violence. Bolshevik forces crushed the rebellion and killed thousands of the Kronstadt rebels. For Adamczak, this marked a transitional point in the revolution, when its need to defend itself against counterrevolution remade it into something else entirely. This concept of “counter-counterrevolution”—a defensive posture made necessary by the sheer difficulties of displacing a capitalist order—remains a key consideration for any future movement. How can the transition from revolution to revolutionary self-defense avoid a retrenchment of the structures of the past? Those Kronstadt sailors, who refused to shoot at those they considered comrades and were ultimately slaughtered, found themselves in an impossible position: either assault those they believed shared their dreams, or let themselves die as martyrs. For Adamczak, the counter-counterrevolution marks a limit point at which the revolution can dream no further.

It is to “a Kronstadt of the future” that Adamczak then turns her attention, insisting that “the solution of the riddle is itself a condition, one condition, at least, for the success of the revolution—the coming revolution.” Central to her argument is the contention that we cannot merely insist that it will be different next time. Instead, she believes, thinking through and accepting these failures is the only way to ensure a different outcome, maintaining the collective development of the communist future:

“The future today cannot simply be located in the moments of the present that point beyond it—there is no latent communism, no new society slumbering within the old—but instead must first be dislodged from the moments of the past in which they are anchored. Lines broken off. In the gaps between the compulsory historical context exist vanishing points whose vectors point in other directions.”

Though Yesterday’s Tomorrow at times overemphasizes the role of the Soviet Union in this desire’s manifestation (mistaking how much longer that history really is), it correctly identifies a need to engage with the fatal errors of the past. Such engagement cannot be allowed to be dominated by anti-communists, who have no dreams, but rather linger in the waking nightmare of capital. For Adamczak, the communist desire of the present must be linked to those broken lines of the past, where the only way to rectify these lonely hopes is to build a future that expands upon them.

The imperative to build such a future is of particular import now, in this moment of profound societal and climatic destruction. Capitalism alienates us all from the future, disallowing the autonomy to build it collectively. Its relentless, centuries-long project of enclosure (of land, of work, of life) is destroying the last vestiges of our common inheritance. One of its many privations is its assault on the capacity to dream in the key of omnia sunt communia, to conceptualize what the everyday could be in a world turned upside down.

But even as capital consumes all of our tomorrows today, the revolutionary pasts of communism still promise us that we can build our lives in common. Our desires to abolish the police and the prison, the pipeline and the refinery, wage labor and private property, have also been the desires of those before us, who too have dreamed of other possible worlds. Those desires link us to traditions of revolutionary hope, joy, and faith, as well as defeat, disillusion, and pessimism. They offer the concrete possibility of a mutual creation of our history.

The prospects for a communist future rely upon an obligation and responsibility to that history. In particular, the future depends on developing a genuine comradeship with past communists and continuing their unfinished work, which sought to expand what we can hold in common, what we can know as ours together. This is as much a crucial lesson of Adamczak’s book as it is of Gornick’s, as the latter tells of the communists who found themselves alone after the party collapsed. But this need not continue. Joining with the past to collectively dream of our future not only offers a way of combating our loneliness in the present, as the communists of Gornick’s work did more than half a century ago. It also allows us to begin to mourn the future they lost.♦

Clinton Williamson is a Ph.D candidate in English at the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in 19th and 20th century American literature.

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