Attacking Marxist humanism’s reliance on the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Louis Althusser wrote, “We do not publish our own drafts, that is, our own mistakes, but we do sometimes publish other people’s.” Jodi Dean does. Hopefully it leads to something productive.
I assigned some reading, though I know some of the class just watched the movie. What follows may be unintelligible without doing either first. The gist of Dean’s thesis is the Left needs serious reformation, revolutionary theory and an all together different perspective on social change. She covers way too much ground for me to respond in full. Instead I’ll focus on her views on left-wing organization — including our shared pining for “the Party” — and the general strategic orientation of the Left.
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t first contest the most inflammatory of her pronouncements, rooted in what appears to be some undigested Stalinism. Early on in her denser “The Communist Horizon” draft, Dean offers a provocation. To define who’s a “liberal democrat,” she suggests we single out those who “think any evocation of communism should come with qualifications, apologies, condemnations of past excess.” This amnesia reoccurs throughout Dean’s work. And what she presents as a good way to identify liberals, is actually a good test of sanity. Here’s a general rule: make no argument in New York that you wouldn’t make in Warsaw.
Dean’s tone sounds rote and mechanical, but this doesn’t make her points impotent. While Old Left dogma about the importance of organization isn’t exactly original, the same can be said about my “Why We Loved the Zapatistas” piece. If you listen to the agonizing Q&A portion of the lecture, you’ll see Dean’s once conventional thinking widely criticized. It may just be the hipster-laden Brooklyn audience, but her old truisms appear “avant-garde” and “provocative” again. A sign of the times?
But what’s really striking about Dean’s approach, beyond conflations like that of anarchism with localism, is her lack of historical grounding. One cannot presume to discuss what Lenin wrote in 1901 or the history of left-wing organization without considering the German Social Democratic Party of the Second International period.
Nor does Dean clarify what interpretation of “Lenin’s own party” she’s referring to. Before 1917, the party was vibrant and democratic, with internal factions and open debate. Lars T. Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered and subsequent writing, his latest Jacobin essay for example, have revolutionized how we contextualize What is to be Done? Any talk of Lenin needs to take into account how much of that text was rooted in the commonsense of the contemporary social democratic movement adapted to Russian conditions.
Rather than slug through this record, Dean uses “the Leninist Party” as a vague floating signifier, a deus ex machina that can solve all the Left’s problems and free us from the legacy of defeat that characterized the last century. She needs to be clearer.
She also ignores the existing Left — both the relevant parts of the “Official Communist” movement in Portugal and Greece and the smaller Trotskyist groupings elsewhere. If Dean’s solutions are different from those of, say, the Socialist Workers Party she needs to critique them and differentiate, not just pretend they don’t exist. It’s easy to attack localist straw-men. Anyone can see that hosting a fair trade fashion show isn’t going to change the world. But what should we make of the experience of the New Anticapitalist Party’s formation in France or the contradictions of Die Linke in Germany?
Any discussion of “the Party” and organization needs to examine the historical record. Many smart people have already walked down these roads and had similar thoughts and left behind works we can study without Lacanian platitudes.
Another unfortunate feature of Dean’s “horizon” is her attack on the “language of democracy,” something she counterpoises to “communism.” She begins her taped lecture by identifying three forces that made our present “Tea Party moment” possible — democracy, anarchism, and liberal individualism. As mentioned before, Dean’s critique of anarchism isn’t in good faith. There’s a difference between lifestyle and social anarchism. And like Alain Badiou in The Meaning of Sarkozy, Dean can’t separate parliamentarism from democracy. Socialists seek not the effacement of democracy but its radical extension into the social and economic realms. Our politics cannot be pitched in any other way.
Hostility to all manifestations of individualism will not serve a future Left well, either. As Jacobin writers and our co-thinkers have consistently argued, the Left cannot cede the language of “freedom” to the Right. Our goal is a society that goes radically beyond the limits of “bourgeois” individualism, one in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”
There’s a host of other problems with Dean’s drafts that I don’t have time to delve into. To touch on a few; her “communicative capitalism” formulation does not seem relevant. The replacement of “capitalism” with “neoliberalism” in the discourse of the anti-globalization movement was bad enough. It seems indicative of a narrow-minded focus on the shifts that may be occurring in the West. Globally, the working class is bigger than ever and capitalism is still exploitating labor and accumulating surplus in the old-fashion. In this context, I’m not sure how relevant the “cultural production” I engage in when I post pictures of my dog wearing birthday hats on Facebook is.
Dean’s willingness to question the “proletariat” part of the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” but not the Soviet-style “party state” is also worrying. As with her citation of the “Leninist party,” her reference to the “dictatorship of the proletariat” could benefit from an examination of the term’s contested meaning and the debates between Lenin and Kautsky on this topic. (See chapter seven of Politics of Marxism: The Critical Debates by Jules Townshend.)
Along these lines, some of the rest of Dean’s commentary on finance capital and the gap between “Wall Street” and “Main Street” disorient by conflating socialist and populist discourses. This is a topic I may revisit later.
I’d like to think that the solution to the humorless micro-sect is more centralization, not less. Instead of a million different “parties” with a million different lines, how about a genuinely democratic and vibrant Party that allows for permanent factions and debate. I can’t shake my inner Leninist despite my disgust for “Leninism.”
I think about the October 2nd “One Nation” rally in Washington DC or any anti-war demonstration we have in the city. A young activist is confronted with dozens of different papers, dozens of different messages; all oozing with marginalization and failure… it’s confusing and a waste of resources and a projection of ineptitude and marginalization.
It might be a bit naive to think that a platform of reunification would do much for the Left. The project basically means bottling up the contradictions that formed the splits in the first place and hoping that in a condition of free debate the “right” line will win out. But still, I can’t help shake the feeling that SP-USA and Solidarity and FRSO, for example, do pretty much the same thing and shouldn’t be wasting paper or money printing three newspapers….
The Left could desperately use a coherent “oppositional pole,” an organization hegemonic enough that other leftists would be forced to orient their politics around it, an organization hegemonic enough to be a flag for the newly politicized. I’m straying from your question a bit, but I was just wanted to make clear that I don’t call for a revolution in consciousness, or in the culture of the Left, without significant structural change.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a blueprint, but I refuse to churn out the old leftist cliche about not “believing” in blueprints. I do know that this is the primary political problem facing the Left today and the good thing about political problems is that they can be resolved. There just doesn’t seem to be that much debate and discussion going on now. Even mentioning “revolutionary strategy” at the present conjuncture seems a bit absurd for a lot of people.
I’m glad the new social movements exist, but they can’t replicate a revolutionary party. So I guess I’m an “egg” man. Whereas, a lot of people on the Left argue that by supporting struggles from below we’ll reach a point where a party will emerge naturally from a new political environment, I think it might be necessary to talk seriously about a re-foundation of the Left today. There’s no reason why the members of the Left broadly subscribing to the same politics shouldn’t be in the same political formation. This might sound be “vanguardist,” but I think it’ll be a catalyst and at least create a pole hegemonic enough for anti-capitalists in North America to orient their politics in relation to.
We need the organizations in place to make gains when objective conditions change. We need organizations that don’t duplicate each other’s efforts. I look at England, where there was an admirable student upsurge and some momentum against austerity, but the left has sort of squandered this energy by having each tiny socialist party set up their own “front group.” Why exactly does the Socialist Party of England and Wales need to have their own group to compete with the Socialist Workers Party’s one?
It’s still going to yield a marginalized, largely irrelevant Left in the short-term, but that’s a step up from marginalized, fragmented, and largely irrelevant, right? And after that we need to be patient. There are no short-cuts. The name of the game is overthrowing class cleavages, a fixture of human society since the Neolithic Revolution… this is a multi-generational project and we have a long way to go to even get back to where the movement was a century ago.
A drunk, rambling thought, but one I generally stand-by. A key to this orientation is patience and a willingness to build a radical opposition in all sectors of civil society, while contesting for majoritarian support on an international basis.
Other people have made more thoughtful interventions on the subject. Mike Macnair’s Revolutionary Strategy is a flawed, but interesting contribution. He also attacks those who look for “short-cuts” and grounds his study in the historical record. Those of us who consider re-organization on the Left a worthwhile pursuit would do well to consider existing contributions like Macnair’s. And don’t listen to the crazy Frenchman I quoted. It’s good to publish “mistakes” from time to time.
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