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Imagining the Communist Party again as a force: Jodi Dean on left politics and the party

Jodi Dean11 February 2016

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Since the '70s and '80s, the fragmented, individualist American left has been largely cynical about manifesting change through the party form, yet parties are too important to be left to the two-party system. How do we make a party of communists seem more compelling to more of us again? In her new book Crowds and Party, Jodi Dean diagnoses an American Left splintered by individualism, but ripe for a return to one of the oldest organized political forms: the party. The following is extracted from Crowds and Party.

At the end of the nineteenth and for most of the twentieth century, parties organizing the working class held out the promise of consolidating mass power, whether into forms for its radical self- assertion or for its subordination and control. By the 1970s and ’80s, however, wide swathes of the Left had become convinced that the party form was no longer adequate to left aspirations. This conviction had multiple sources: the stagnation and authoritarianism of the party-states of the former East; the complicity and betrayals of communist and socialist parties in the former West; the failure of class analysis to address and include the politics of identity, particularly with respect to sex and race, to mention but a few. The loss of confidence in the party as a form for left politics accompanied organized capital’s attacks on unions, waged violently and directly through state power and policy as well as through corporate off- shoring of factories and changes in the technical composition of labor. The political incapacity of socialist and communist parties in the face of this onslaught—an incapacity that manifested itself in Anglo-European contexts as adaptation to the individualist, consumerist, and market suppositions of the resurgent capitalist class and failure to defend working-class political achievements— seemed a final nail in the coffin of the politics of class and party that had defined the century. In the terms that came to define the theoretical debates of the time, there was nothing “essential” about class, class identity, class politics, or class struggle.41 And, with no class politics, there was no need for a class party, that is, a party that takes as its goal the abolition of the conditions of capitalist exploitation that create classes. Instead, left politics would involve an ever-expanding array of issues and identities, the problematizing and pluralizing of sedimented practices and ideas throughout the terrain of the social, cultural, and increasingly, the personal.

All this would unfold against the background of a capitalism to which there was no alternative. Better put, any alternative (for those still interested in putting an end to capitalist exploitation— many radical democrats proceeded as if their goal were simply capitalism with a human face) would emerge not as a result of organized struggle or left strategy but immanently, organically, as a direct effect of capitalism’s own development, spontaneism now refigured as autonomy.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire captured the political atmosphere on the dispersing Left at century’s end. Hardt and Negri offered a vision of innumerable local struggles across the globe, each striking at the heart of Empire.42 These struggles may well be incommunicable, their cries and anger, goals and demands confined to their settings, but this incommunicability, Empire told us, is an advantage. Struggles are free to unfold on their own, unhindered by the discipline and constraint of larger organizations. Autonomous struggles don’t reinforce state structures. They enhance the generative creativity of multiple modes of becoming, releasing the constituent power of the multitude from Empire’s parasitic hold. Key to the appeal of the multitude concept, then, was its expression of weakness as strength. The absence of a common language—not to mention a program— didn’t appear as an indication of the actual incapacity of the Left to cohere into a discernible politics and present a viable opposition to capitalist and right-wing forces. Instead it marked a liberation from the constraints of Marxist dogma, an opening for politicizations throughout the social field.

Hardt and Negri turned left defeat into an opportunity to reimagine communist politics. This reimagining needs to go further. It can go further by highlighting division, antagonism, and political organization. Nearly forty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the wide array of politicized issues and identities enables a communism that, more fully than ever before, can take the side of the oppressed, indeed, that can make the multiple struggles of the oppressed into a side. It’s imperative that multiplicity not replace class but be understood as a class characteristic. Let me explain.

The vision of a multitude of incommunicable struggles theorized by Hardt and Negri and held up in appeals to democracy replaces the antagonism of class struggle with pluralization, creativity, and becoming, thereby flattening out and immediatizing the terrain of struggle. Such a rendering of each strike as equivalent obliterates differences in resources, histories, and opportunities, effacing the uneven development of capitalism. It obscures the dimension of time, as if struggles occurred in discrete bursts rather than building, unfolding, advancing, and retreating. And it disavows the tensions within struggles, as if histories of oppression left no trace on those who organize to dismantle the arrangements of power that continue them. In effect, the goal becomes, as in communicative capitalism itself, the production of the many, the multitude of singularities. The political effect is a failure to build a concentrated political force with the sustained capacity to confront and replace the capitalist mode of production. Instead, there are small battles, policy options, and cultural interventions, victories that can be absorbed and defeats that can be forgotten (when they aren’t fetishized as yet another instance of inevitable left failure). To the extent that pluralization—and the moves to fragment and individuate that accompany it—is a left political priority, politics becomes passionately attached to the small and weak. This gives us the shape of the Left we have in the long tail of micro-initiatives. The new cycle of struggles has demonstrated the political strength that comes from collectivity. Common names, tactics, and images are bringing the fragments together, making them legible as many fronts of one struggle against capitalism. Where the proliferation of issues and identities disperses and weakens us—inciting the snark that glorifies itself as critique even as it undermines solidarity—the crowd events of the last decade are forcing a new sense of collective power. They have pushed expectations of multiplicity into experiences of collectivity. The question that emerges from these experiences is how they might endure and extend, how the momentary discharge of equality that crowds unleash might become the basis for a new process of political composition.

The party suggests itself as a mode of association appropriate to such a process. It offers a political form that spans multiple levels and domains. Typically, parties scale across local, regional, national, and sometimes international levels. Rather than stuck in the local or confined to the abstractions of the global, the party is an organizational form operative on different scales; indeed, its success—electorally or otherwise—depends on this capac- ity. Further, parties are carriers of the knowledge that comes with political experience. Whether this knowledge is local—histories of relationships, of practices, of who knows whom, what, where, and how—or larger—knowledge of resource extraction and the structure of industry, of civil wars in far off places, of racial histories, of the challenges of social reproduction, of programming, database construction, and design—parties recognize the breadth and depth of knowledge important for political struggle and rule. Providing a body for a knowledge that exceeds what any one person can know, the party takes a position on that knowledge. It fits issues into a platform such that they are not so many contradictory and individual preferences but instead a broader vision for which it will fight. What is sometimes dismissed as party bureaucracy thus needs to be revalued as an institutional capacity necessary for political struggle and rule in a complex and uneven terrain.

The electoral success of Syriza, Greece’s coalition of the radical Left, points to the new relevance of the party form. The Greek legacy of intense party politics is a unique feature of its political culture. Nevertheless, Syriza’s initial victories stemmed in part from innovations in communist party organizing: commitment to social movements, respect for movements’ autonomy, support of local solidarity networks, and enough involvement in institutions “to seem capable of transforming the balance of forces at the level of national political life.”43 For some Lefts, particularly in the US and UK, it is this last feature that has been conspicuously absent. Hence, our actions fail to gain momentum. Crowds amass, but they don’t endure. In contrast, Syriza’s initial achievements demonstrated a dynamic relation between crowd and party: the crowd that pushes the party to exceed expectations, the party that finds the courage of the people in the haste of the crowd.

Three additional aspects of Syriza’s political opening contribute to rethinking the party today. The first concerns the limits of political victory confined to the level of the nation-state. The institutions not only of Europe but of global finance and governance restrict national governments’ range of maneuver. This poses challenges to the Left internationally, suggesting, at a minimum, the necessity of strong left alliances and coordinated institutional strategies. More maximally it directs us toward the party as an infrastructure for such alliances and strategies. The second aspect involves defeat. No party will be everything to everyone. Just as individuals are internally divided and contradictory, split among conscious and unconscious desires, so is a party—like any institution—a body that is not self-identical. Political forms aren’t pure. To expect perfection is to displace politics into an imaginary realm sheltered from difference and disappointment. Despite Syriza’s inability to deliver on its promises (or, more strongly, despite its betrayal of the very supporters who mobilized in its behalf ), it nevertheless shifted the terrain of the possible. Because of Syriza, the European, British, and North American Left have a sense of political possibility they previously lacked. Common sense has shifted, as is apparent in the political rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the US. The third aspect of Syriza’s political opening instructive for the Left con- cerns political will. Kouvelakis writes, “The Podemos experience in Spain as well as Syriza in Greece shows that if the radical Left makes suitable proposals, then it can arrive at an understanding with these movements and provide a credible political ‘condensation’ of their demands.” The making of “suitable proposals” depends on political will, a Left able to put aside its differences, organize, and think strategically about the pursuit of political power. The problem posing itself today concerns less the details of party organization (membership requirements, centralization versus networked structure, mechanisms for accountable leader- ship) than it does solidary political will. Can the Left’s wide array of associations come together in a way that will achieve a real political advance?

The supposition of Crowds and Party is that we have no choice but to answer “yes.” To help us get to yes, to make a party of communists seem compelling to more of us again, I offer an approach to the party inspired by the crowd. Faithful to the egalitarian rupture of the crowd event, the communist party holds open the gap through which the people appear as the political subject. Readers anchored in the classics of revolutionary socialism might balk at what seems at first glance to be an abandonment of Marxist terms. They shouldn’t. The “people” has a rich legacy in Marxism-Leninism-Maoism: the “people” are the revolutionary alliance of the oppressed (in contrast to the populist rendering of the people as an organic unity). Under conditions of communicative capitalism, crowds are the proletarianized many, those whose communicative engagements are expropriated from them in processes of accumulation and dispossession that benefit capital as a class. Readers inspired by radical democratic, anarchist, and post-Marxist theories might balk at a return to the party. They shouldn’t. The party is a basic form of political struggle. If innovation is necessary for finding our way out of the current political impasse, then the party, too, can be a site for experimentation and change.

Typically, socialist and communist discussions of the party gel around the themes of reform or revolution, mass or vanguard, factory or state. These discussions are too limiting. Missing is the affective dimension of the party, the way that the perspective of the party operates through different organizational terrains. The party knots together unconscious processes across a differential field to enable a communist political subjectivity. To think through these processes as the effects of collectivity back upon itself, I draw out the psychodynamics of the party. Providing a strength and direction we would otherwise lack, the party generates the practical optimism through which struggles endure.

Many eschew the party as a form for political power, decision, and organization. They fall back into the affirmation of individual autonomy, reasserting capitalist ideology. Discarding the party form, they jettison the possibility of building collective power. I demonstrate how the power the party unleashes is the power we already have to change the world.

41 See Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Retreat from Class, London: Verso, 1999.

42 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

43 Sebastian Budgen and Stathis Kouvelakis, “Greece: Phase One,”

Jacobin, Jan. 22, 2015.