The Party and Communist Solidarity

Jodi Dean. Rethinking Marxism. Volume 27, Issue 3. 2015.

In this essay I defend the idea of the party by setting out the conditions that make it necessary. I am not imagining a national, mass-electoral party but rather a solidary, militant, international organization. Against left realists who claim that the party is an outmoded or “fully saturated” political form and that we are relegated to momentary acts of resistance or small reforms that leave the capitalist system intact, I argue that our conditions push us to rethink and renew that form of political organization through which communists think collectively about political power, act together in order to generate it, and inspire one another to use it for the collective determination of the world we produce in common. Capitalism pushes us apart. Left politics should not do the same. Instead of emphasizing difference, it should assert and build commonality. The party is a form for this assertion.

For over two decades, scholars associated with Rethinking Marxism have developed new ways to think about economic activity, production, distribution, and accumulation. They have investigated multiple micropractices in a variety of domains, expanding our sense of what is economically possible. Yet whom is the work for? I do not mean this cynically. My point is not about getting tenure or rising in the academy. In my experience, most of us doing radical, Marxist, and communist work are disciplinarily marginal. I ask whom the work is for because it appears to me to be for “anyone who wants it,” for “anyone who wants to try something new.” Creative economic alternatives are rendered as choices for small groups, initiatives some might take. They are thereby depoliticized into lifestyle choices and are therefore difficult to disentangle from a fetishization of the local that, in its repression of commonality, is simply a lower-cost version of the 1 percent’s privatization, personalization, and enclaving. There are good ideas on the Left. When they are disconnected from organized militant politics, however, they become absorbed into the flows of communicative capitalism—in Mimmo Porcaro’s (2012, 94) words, into “an indeterminate mass of contradictory affirmations.” They are not oppositional; they do not provide an alternative. Without political power behind them, they are just possibilities without possibility, just something else for consumers to choose.

Over the last thirty odd years (at least since 1989), a “left realism” has taken hold of a certain northern, western, U.S.-European Left. At the site of a rethought humanist, culturalist, and poststructuralist post-Marxism is the foreclosure of revolution and the reduction of politics to critique, resignification, subversion, reform, resistance, and work on the self. Underlying continued aspirations for equality and real opposition to imperialism, racism, sexism, and homophobia is the sense that our working class is privileged, included, complacent. Radical politics involves other places, other subjects. Thus, during the same period that neoliberalism consolidated itself as a political-economic formation (or in Foucault’s terms, a “governmentality”), most activists and intellectuals associated with the Left rejected not just specific Communist parties but the very idea of the party as a form for radical political action.

Although some of these rejections repeat arguments against centralism found already in the split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, as part of a councilist or ultraleft political current, others situate themselves in a line of criticism prominent in the late sixties and early seventies. Rightly frustrated with a system whose components buttress rather than undermine capitalism, various voices on the Left began to amplify one another as they targeted their critical energies on the mediating institutions of capitalist society: family, union, party, university. Insofar as these institutions made capitalism possible—that is, secured for it an adequate workforce and compliant citizenry—their abolition made seeming sense as a revolutionary goal. The party is but one of the institutions through which political energies are co-opted into the maintenance of the status quo—a critique leveled at the Communist Party USA during the years of the Popular Front and also directed toward the French Communist party in 1968, to give but two examples.

Now, in the second decade of the new millennium, the mediating institutions of civil society have changed significantly. More people live alone than in any time in U.S. history (Henderson 2014). Fewer U.S. children live in two-parent families (Livingston 2014). Because of decades of antisexist and antihomophobic struggle, even the mainstream accepts a wider array of living arrangements than were permitted thirty years ago. Union membership in the United States is at its lowest level in a century (Greenhouse 2013). Wages have correspondingly stagnated and declined, decreasing the likelihood that blue-collar, service-sector, and minimum-wage jobs can lead to a middle-class standard of living. Left political parties have either collapsed or compromised. Max Elbaum’s (2002, 293) account of the new communist movement of the seventies tells this story particularly well as it documents the setbacks facing U.S. party builders at the time, with their inability to regroup in the eighties and the broadly demobilizing effects of the end of state socialism on activists who had been “anchors of popular movements.” The situation of the university is less easy to summarize, although it is clear, first, that as political commitment to public education (education as a recognized social good) has declined, student debt has soared, and second, that education is a key front in today’s class war.

Our current conjuncture differs from that of the sixties and early seventies in that individuals are now more likely to encounter state and market directly, without the protections of mediating institutions. Instead of what liberalism renders as the force of law, individuals encounter force as law, whether directly as police or directly as market. Communicative capitalist ideology presents this immediacy as direct conversations between individual and company, as entrepreneurialism, as flexible contract-based work. It mystifies immediacy as personal responsibility, choice, DIY, “prosumption” (the producer as consumer), and as the opportunity for creative input. Privatization, offshoring, precarity, and the decline of unions have contributed to the loss of working-class jobs capable of sustaining a middle-class quality of life. An effect has been the dismantling of the wide array of associations formerly part of working-class culture. Not only is the working class not a revolutionary class, in the United States it is barely conscious of itself as a class—a result, paradoxically, of the success of organized labor in fighting for collective bargaining and higher wages.

U.S. culture is no longer mass culture. From personalized networked media to eight-hundred-channel cable television to the proliferation of sub- and microcultural consumption opportunities in the “long tail” of music, video, and writing available on the Internet, communicative capitalist culture offers multiple and innumerable possibilities for expression, increasingly few of which register to any significant degree (Dean 2009). Our politics is likewise no longer mass politics. Mainstream electoral politics focuses so exclusively on fundraising that the more poor people support a policy the less likely their representatives are to support it (Hacker and Pierson 2011, 111). Left politics has also shed the mass dimension of the twentieth century. Configured through contemporary capitalism’s push to customize, specify, and individuate, left issue and identity politics reduces action to raising awareness in the hope of generating an emotional response intense enough to inspire people to find out more for themselves, get involved, and make their opinions known. The Left has mimicked and repeated in its politics the fragmentation, localization, and pluralization crucial to neoliberalism’s dismantling of the welfare state. Even as capital has consolidated its class power and pursued a long-term strategy hostile to the rest of us, the Left has accepted and augmented its own dispersion into singularized individuals. The few categories that make “belonging” explicit have attempted at the same time to disavow collectivity: the consumer over the producers, the taxpayer over the public.

Commenting on a text he wrote with Félix Guattari in the mideighties, Antonio Negri notes that the new organization of capitalist production in the late seventies produced a subjectivity “locked in an insuperable contradiction, for social cooperation was more and more violently in opposition to the structures of capitalist control” (Guattari and Negri 2010, 104). He observes as well that even as he and Guattari recognized the importance of new technologies in networked communication, they didn’t push their analysis far enough, and they should have detected new possibilities for rebellion. I would add that they should have identified new forms of capture and subjection (see Andrejevic 2007). Social media resolves and displaces the contradiction between social cooperation and capitalist control. Interacting through personalized, ubiquitous media, we leave traces that can be archived, searched, sold to advertisers, and turned over to security forces. We can connect with others, share our hopes and dreams, and reinforce capitalist control with the same clicks and links, likes and shares. We can be networked revolutionaries, courageously forwarding videos to all our friends. We can work on-demand from home. Our mediated sociality affirms the structures of capitalist control more deeply and completely than the institutions of civil society ever did—especially under circumstances that amplify injunctions to individuality.

Rather than the mythic “rugged individualism” of American frontier ideology, “individuality” is an economic element of communicative capitalism. Getting a job, a contract, or an opportunity requires that one demonstrate that one is uniquely qualified in what one knows to be a dense and competitive field (Lane 2011). As the market for middle-class jobs contracts, one has to stand out from the pack, show that one is both a team player and capable of thinking outside the box, creative yet “one of us.” This entrepreneurial relation to self (as well as to others whom we see in the idea of “social entrepreneurs”) enhances the likelihood of education-related debt as well as credit card debt accrued in order to look the part, to project the appearance of success, and to support work done for free (internships, volunteering). Capitalism’s contradictions are interiorized in the form of the unique individual who is one of a multitude of singularities.

Mainstream culture describes the structural effects of this amplified competition, which underlies the injunction to uniqueness, as the winner-take-all or winner-take-most character of the new economy, as the 80/20 rule, or (inversely) as the long tail. The basic idea is that any system characterized by free choice and preferential attachment will generate extreme inequality. Moreover, the larger the system, the larger the inequality (the lottery is a good example: the bigger it is, the less the likelihood of any one ticket to have the winning number). The stimulation of the production of uniqueness, of individualities, produces the field in which the individual dissolves so that a “one,” a winner, can emerge to claim the prize or get the job. And even as there is a long tail—that is, a vast majority of losers (those who are much closer to each other than they are to the one)—communicative capitalism produces these losers not as a mass but as a multitude of singularities, each holding on to its difference as its most valuable attribute despite its fundamental devaluation with respect to the system.

The genius of the slogan “We are the 99 percent” is that it grasps this basic fact, names it, and occupies it. The 99 percent is an idea that recognizes the winner-take-all character of contemporary capitalism and makes it a crime, a wrong. In the face of dispersion, it asserts collectivity. Rather than the continuation of a left politics premised on cultivating a wide variety of issues and perspectives and then building affinities between them, Occupy asserted the economic division between the 99 percent and the 1 percent as the basis for a new movement.

Although the amplified individualism of communicative capitalism is a change from a society of mediating institutions, it isn’t new. Marx and Engels (1994, 142) note already in The German Ideology that “competition isolates individuals, not only bourgeois but even more the proletarians, despite the fact that it brings them together. It takes a long time before these individuals can unite.” Rosa Luxemburg (1999) similarly observes that the problem of social democracy in Russia was the atomized condition of the proletariat. Bourgeois society hadn’t “instilled in the working class the rudiments of political solidarity.” It hadn’t provided the working class the proper raw material—that is, the institutions, capacities, and expectations that would enable workers to combine politically. Our conditions are also atomized, but differently. Ours is atomization as personalization, the atomization of the mobile, singular, and uncollected. In some ways we have a surplus of raw materials for organization: rights to free speech and assembly, communication technologies, a modicum of literacy. The cost of the overproduction of the means of communication has been a foreclosure of solidarity in the sense that too many of us seem to think that solidarity is neither desirable nor necessary. In the United States, we cling to individualism even as our ongoing proletarianization solidifies the gap between the 1 percent and the rest of us. We have individuality without political subjectivity (which can only ever be collective).

In 2008, the Left failed. There was a major crisis of capitalism inviting urgent response, but the Left was a no-show. The consequence has been more than bank bailouts and austerity. It’s been the rise of the extreme Right as the most visible opponent of neoliberal governmental policies. The same crisis continues to deepen such that in the United States, UK, and EU there is now both a new normal of intensifying inequality and a fundamental uncertainty as to the terms and conditions of this new normal. We don’t know what this new condition that exceeds the political-economic settlements of welfare state and neoliberal state will be like, but this nonknowledge, this openness, is the opportunity for action, the space where we can push for one future over another if we have the collective political will to do so. Is our setting one that can only produce ongoing cuts and austerity? Rising immiseration, reactive protest, and intensified police violence? Or can there be a collective steering of a world we create, use, and inhabit in common?

The crumbling of capitalist realism—that is, the conviction that there is no alternative—has enabled ever more of us to see capitalism as a system of production through exploitation for the benefit of the few. But then what? It now seems that it’s easier to imagine the end of capitalism than it is an organized Left. Left realists insist that collectivity is undesirable and impossible. It’s undesirable because it excludes possibilities, effaces difference, and enforces discipline. It’s impossible because we are so individuated, so singularized in our needs and ambitions, that we can’t ever come together; coming together, we are told, is itself an illusion, a myth some use to manipulate others into fighting for their interests. Thus, today, amid the uncertainties of late neoliberalism, even when we are fully conscious of our own exploitation and the deep inequity of the system in which we find ourselves, we either don’t feel like we can do anything about it or we find ourselves participating in individuated, localized, or communicatively mediated activities without momentum, duration, or a capacity for political memory. People are immiserated and proletarianized and practically confront this immiseration and proletarianization alone.

We have to keep in mind, though, that isolation, immiseration, and political disorganization also characterized the early decades of radical socialist movement. Marx, Engels, and Luxemburg all emphasize how competition means that workers tend to remain isolated, to lack solidarity, and to take a long time uniting. Left realists one-sidedly emphasize the objective dimension of our capitalist setting, failing to acknowledge the subjective dimension always part of the Marxist tradition.

There are nonetheless significant differences between our time and that of the early years of revolutionary socialism. Rather than a period of working-class advance, ours is one of defeat. In our extreme capitalist setting, the rollback of the achievements of organized political struggle means austerity and privatization—particularly privatization accompanied by increases in brutality and exemption, as practices formerly under public authority are turned over to personal power and the market. For us, authoritarianism is less that of centralized state power than it is of power decentralized, dispersed, and extended via private contracts, interbank and interagency cooperation, and the extensive network of treaties, agreements, and provisions enabling capital flow and global trade. National states act as the police force protecting the global capitalist class. So we encounter the fragmentation, dissolution, and decomposition of some elements of the state and the concentration and intermeshing of other elements of states and markets, as with finance, security, and media. Capital as a class has worked to smash the bureaucratic state machine for us, to convince us that it is useless, even as it strengthens parts of that machine for its own ends.

We confront an uneven mix of centralizing and decentralizing forces in various combinations of state use of the market and market reliance on the state. The state’s operation as an instrument of class rule is tempered less by concessions forced on it by working-class struggle than it was forty years ago (although the social-democratic class compromise was itself not without political cost). Capital, resurgent, has reclaimed a great deal of ground, but that doesn’t erase the fact of the prior struggles. Indeed, our situation is particularly difficult because there has been a time in which basics such as housing, education, health, food, and work were understood and treated as rights. Unfortunately, now is not that time.

Although the Left failed in 2008, new possibilities emerged as academics and activists turned again to the idea of communism. These possibilities have been amplified by the new cycle of struggles we’ve seen in Wisconsin, Canada, Egypt, Spain, Greece, Turkey, and with the Occupy movement. Part of the new appeal of the idea of communism is that “communism” is the one word we have that bodes no compromise with capital and that also asserts a powerful alternative. Linked to class struggle, the smashing of the bourgeois state, and the abolition of capitalists as a class, communism is more than social-democratic compromise, poststructuralist pluralization, and anarchist insurrection. Instead of a politics thought primarily in terms of resistance, playful and momentary aesthetic disruptions, the immediate specificity of local projects, and struggles for hegemony within a democratic milieu, the horizon of communism impresses on us the necessity of eliminating capitalism and creating global practices and institutions of egalitarian cooperation. It turns us away from lifestyle changes, general inclusion, and momentary calls for awareness and toward militant opposition, tight organizational forms, and coordinated strategies for securing the people’s control of the means of production. In contrast with anarchism’s insistence on individuality, communism prioritizes solidarity.

For Marx, “proletariat” names capitalism’s self-creation of what destroys it. This “what” that destroys capitalism is a collective subject, a force no longer dispersed in individual and local acts of smashing, sabotage, and disruption but concentrated in solidarity. But how does this collective subject abolish capitalism? It can’t be through destruction alone. The normal operation of the capitalist system is characterized by “uncertainty and instability,” “a series of periods of moderate activity, prosperity, over-production, crisis and stagnation” (Marx 2008, 275). Contemporary capitalism has refined its capacity for wealth destruction: over $34 trillion of market value was lost in the financial crisis of 2008. In the course of the recession that followed, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer: the top 1 percent captured 121 percent of the income gains made between 2009 and 2011 (Kavoussi 2013). Not only was the 1 percent better able to weather the crisis than the rest of us but it was also able to increase its share.

According to Marx, the capitalist cycle of creative destruction is brought to an end by the proletariat, but not by the working class organized as workers—they are already organized as workers in the factory, which enables them to become conscious of their material conditions and the need to combine into unions. The abolition of capitalism depends on the organization of the class as a party, a solidary political association that cuts across workplace, sector, region, and nation. The working class, as a class, is implicated in the success or stability of capitalism; capitalism configures its struggles with the bourgeoisie. The party, however, takes as its horizon capitalism’s superseding by communism. The party is necessary because class struggle is not simply economic struggle; it’s political struggle.

Consider the famous passage from The German Ideology: “We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of affairs” (Marx and Engels 1994, 120). How should we understand this? Not as immediate insurrection or as prefiguration but rather as the expansion of voluntary cooperation. I say this because Marx explains that “the conditions of this movement [we call communism] result from premises now in existence.” The premises he is discussing involve the multiplication of productive force through the cooperation of different individuals as this cooperation is determined by the division of labor and not as an effect of people’s own united power. Abolishing determination by the division of labor is a matter of self-conscious collective action wherein cooperation is not forced—is not out of our control—but is instead willed commonly. Cooperation and concentration become self-conscious and willed rather than unconscious and determined. As the movement that abolishes the present state of affairs, communism expands voluntary cooperation.

In capitalist society this expansion of voluntary as opposed to compulsory cooperation happens through the party. An organization premised on solidarity, the party holds open a political space for the production of a common political will, a will irreducible to the capitalist conditions in which the majority of people find themselves forced to sell their labor power. Where work is obligatory and determined, membership in the party is voluntary, the willed formation of united power. Among its members, the party replaces competition with solidarity.

That class struggle is political means that it exceeds the affirmation of people as workers with particular interests and extends to the critical assessment of this position as itself the result of inequality and exploitation. Differently put, the working class is a subject of capitalism. It is constrained within a field or discourse configured by and for capitalists as a class; it gets its position from within this field. So it might refuse and resist, sabotage and strike, but all these actions are still confined within a field given by capital, configured for its interests and on its behalf. To be another kind of subject—the subject of another field, discourse, or politics—requires a break or twist, a shift to another field, the field of the party.

The party is more than an outgrowth or extension of labor unions (this much at least should be uncontroversial, given the importance of the peasantry in Communist parties as well as the wide variety of groups founded by Communist parties). The party is a form for abolishing capitalism and ushering in communism; it occupies the place of division, holding it open for a new collective political subject (for classical Marxism this was the proletariat; in The Communist Horizon I argue for “the people as the rest of us”—in each instance, though, subjectification is a possibility, not an empirical given). At different points over the past hundred years, the party has attempted to abolish capitalism and usher in communism in various ways: by the revolutionary seizure of the state, participation in parliamentary processes, the training of cadres, and the education of the masses in order to be prepared when the time comes. The Communist party has never been an organization for simply achieving a set of economic reforms aimed at restraining capitalism’s extremes and providing workers with welfare guarantees. That this is the case is clear when we note the justified sense of betrayal voiced by communists when their parties have compromised and retreated. They feel betrayed because the party gave way on communist desire.

The party is necessary because the people are split. We are split by the way we are given—positioned—within capitalism. We are situated within a field that tells us who we are and what we can be, that establishes the matrix of our desire (Žižek’s definition of ideology), but that represses the truth of this field in class struggle. The party asserts this truth: it speaks from the position of this truth and offers another field of possibilities, a discourse for another subject (Žižek 2002, 187-9). In contrast and in opposition to capitalist desire, the party opens up a terrain for the desire of another subject—a collective, political subject. The party doesn’t know everything; it provides a form for the knowledge we gain through experience and that we analyze from the perspective of the communist horizon.

This is rather abstract and probably pretty unsatisfying to people who want to know what the kind of party I have in mind will look like, how it will be organized, and how such organization could in any way be adequate to our circumstances, given the way global capitalism is organized as a global financial system. Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin (2013) are helpful here, as they make explicit the inextricably political dimension of our current tasks: we can’t change the world without taking political power. All we can do is pursue small experiments, the left version of the 1 percent’s gating themselves off. We can’t take political power if we lack political form. For the most part, our problem is less one of organizational details than it is solidary political will. As the will emerges, people will figure out the structure in light of the challenges we face: expanding militant pressure in ways that inspire and educate cadres while at the same time straining the resources of the state and breaking the confidence of the financial sector; abolishing private property and the capitalist banking system while advancing international coordination in an uneven environment; increasing popular support and developing a program for addressing common concerns over the environment, health, transportation, communication, food, housing, and education. A five- or ten-year plan for getting from here to there could be helpful. An alliance of the radical Left or, better, a new Communist party could grow out of the concentrated forces of already existing groups, from militants skilled at direct action to artists adept with symbols and slogans to parties experienced at organizing to issue groups knowledgeable about specific areas of concern. Such a concentration would provide people who want to be engaged in radical politics but who aren’t sure what to do with a place to go, a place to start.

At a minimal level, if we are to have a chance of taking power, of reformatting the basic conditions under which we live and work, we have to share a name in common as a fundamental marker of division. If not, our names will be given to us by capital, which will seek to fragment and distract us. In the movements of the last few years, we’ve seen recognitions of the power and the need for a name in common as a marker of division—Occupy is a clear example, yet across the spectrum of the Left, people disavow it.

In addition to needing a name in common, we need to know whom we can trust, and we need to extend the bonds of trust beyond local ties and small networks. An absence of solidarity may be the biggest challenge right now insofar as without solidarity a common will cannot emerge. Defeat, betrayal, and fear as well as ongoing patterns of sexism, racism, and homophobia have made us deeply suspicious. One way a party helps deal with this is by explicit criteria for membership and by expectations for its members. Another way is through a cellular structure that ensures that each person is connected to a known group of others to whom she or he is accountable. And still another way is to acknowledge different skills and expertise by delegating tasks—we don’t each need to know what every other person is doing. Trusting others’ skills and knowledge is essential if we are to form ourselves into a political force capable of addressing global capital. This suggests the utility of working groups in multiple locales and issue areas—groups with enough autonomy to be responsive and enough direction to carry out a common purpose, which itself would have to be hashed out and to which all would have to be committed.

I have suggested a name in common and some basic structural components involving a membership organized in cells, the delegation of tasks, and the following of a common purpose. The idea behind this rudimentary sketch is that the party is a political form of commitment, a solidarity that requires of members a willingness to put aside endless self-assertion and to admit that pulling together is more important than insisting on one’s own uniqueness.

To conclude, here are questions that the party form forces us to answer:

  1. How do we imagine the world? Are we doomed to continue down a path determined for us? Do we take refuge in a left realist view that tells us the time is not right? Do we conform to communicative capitalism’s promise that another world is possible through a cool new app? Or do we embrace uncertainty and do the impossible, with recourse not to pure voluntarism but to the recognition of the ultimately open character of the world in which we participate?
  2. How do we imagine politics? Do we take for granted the political systems we have and position ourselves within them, repeating time and again the small moments of rebellion that let us sleep at night?
  3. What do we want? Do we want an end to exploitation, the abolition of private property, a system of shared responsibility for production and distribution? Or have the last thirty years sunk in too deep, filling us with doubt and making us suspect that, yes, it’s true, there is no alternative to capitalism, let’s just make it not so bad for people like us?
  4. What is the relation between means and ends? What is the relation between the actions we design, the events in which we participate, the texts we write and circulate, and the world we want to bring into being? What is the plan, the end game, the relation between actions over space and time?
  5. Do we dare to avow power, to enact a political association that does not imagine itself as the whole of community or as idealized friendship but that instead rests on fighting side by side for an emancipated and egalitarian political, economic, and social formation?