Newsletter #31: Prison Abolition and Communism, with Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Alberto Toscano, and Brenna Bhandar

By Mack Penner

Asked on the most recent episode of The Dig whether abolition might be just another way of describing communism, Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, “Totally, without a doubt. You can use that for the intro to the podcast.” So, taking a small liberty with Gilmore’s permission, I’m opening the newsletter on this point: if abolition can function as a contemporary language and practice of communism, what are the implications?

One way to approach the issue is by examining the history of communist parties. Scholars of twentieth-century communism have long emphasized that membership in a communist party was not a simple demonstration of political support for a particular agenda. You could not be a communist “on the side.” As I have written elsewhere, being a member of a communist party was “something like a way of life, a risky and total commitment made in the belief that it was possible and necessary to change the world.” People who made this commitment in the previous century contributed to great achievements and experienced incredible disappointments alike.

The total commitment to being a communist party member matched the totalizing nature of the party’s guiding ideas. Twentieth-century communists, as Marxists of one kind or another, thought and acted in the world according to principles that, they believed, implied both the necessity and the possibility of total social transformation. Convinced that capitalism was a transitory historical development, communists fought and organized for a replacement of the existing social order rather than simple repair.

Listen to this week’s episode of The Dig here.

Just as communists did in the previous century, “Abolitionists should be thinking about what kinds of social practices and political and economic configurations make it possible to know that we finally ended the capacity for some of us to designate others as enemies,” as Gilmore says in an interview included in Abolition Geography, just out from Verso. We can expect the commitment required of today’s abolitionists to be similar to the one made by so many communists in the past.

Further Reading and Listening

If you loved the episode, I bet you’ll equally love this conversation between Gilmore, Angela Davis, and Mike Davis, moderated by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.

In the Dig archives, there may be no better complement than Mike Davis’s interview from the end of 2020. On questions of organization and communism especially, check out at least the last 20 minutes or so.

I’ve got Gilmore’s Golden Gulag off the shelf and into my summer reading pile, and I’m also ordering Brenna Bhandar’s Colonial Lives of Property.