This essay responds to the exchange between Jodi Dean and Stephen Healy at the 2013 Rethinking Marxism International Conference. By shifting ever so slightly the debate about “whether or not we need a communist party” to the question of what such “communist partying” actually entails, it seeks to focus attention on the question of communist method, practice, and responsibility. What does it mean to “party” like a communist? What are the key tasks that a communist party needs to take up, and which of them can we—as individuals and as members of existing organizations and networks—take up where we are now? How can we transform our praxis, our organizations, our audiences, and ourselves in advance of the formation of a formal communist party? This article is originally published in Rethinking Marxism, a journal of Economics, Culture & Society, Vol. 27 Issue 3, 2015.
By JOSEPH G. RAMSEY
Pending the establishment of such a party, I want to propose that we find ways to party like communists.
It may be useful, I think, to shift our thinking so that party is understood not just or not primarily as a noun (a thing) but as a kind of verb (a mode of being, acting, and organizing). Not as simply a matter of affiliating with a particular structure or form of organization but as a method of political praxis, a way of orienting theory and practice across diverse locations and organizations in light of a common communist horizon.1 Such a verbal shift (playfulness aside) has the immediate virtue of foregrounding not just the question of what communists or communist parties were but what they did (both with success and with failure). Not just the question of who or what we should form or join but what we should do and how we should do it. What are the tasks that need to be accomplished today, and how can we go about accomplishing them? What would be the things that an effective mass communist party would do (and that other parties have done, or failed to do, in the past)? What features would distinguish party work?
In short, how should communists party today, in (and beyond) the United States?
Dean’s recent work has helped foreground some of these key party tasks, tasks that, she argues, have been neglected by most of the contemporary Left (including, alas, the Occupy movement, despite its great promise). Among these necessary party tasks are the following: Demonstrating to the masses the fundamental inability of capitalism to meet the needs of the common people. Providing long-term vision and strategic direction to activists to counter the pull of “capitalist realism.” Encouraging and enforcing discipline and accountability while (on that basis) building trust among comrades (and between comrades and the people). Organizing in ways that can endure and that can scale as well as coordinate beyond the spontaneous and the local. Creating accessible structures that give the newly activated or curious a way to plug in and get involved. Collectively summing up political experiences and experiments: immediate and historical, local and distant and making those summations widely available. Institutionalizing political memory so that lessons can be passed on from place to place, struggle to struggle, generation to generation. Cultivating the desire for communism—that is, for a new order of beingand not only a reformist improvement in present-day particular interests (pressing as these often are). Countering isolation, individualism, sectarianism, and the entrepreneurial “small-business mentality” that divides and demoralizes the Left. Building networks of solidarity for the defense of those in the crosshairs of capitalist assault. Giving our disparate struggles a name in common so that essential points don’t get lost in the cloud of competing codes and enemy propaganda.
Who could deny the necessity of these tasks without giving up on radical egalitarian social transformation altogether?
But a question I would like to ask here is this: Can’t we in some ways begin taking up these party-like tasks now, where we are, even prior to inaugurating or announcing (or waiting for someone else to found) some new formal organization? Aren’t there tasks that we can integrate into our current praxis where we now stand? Can’t we begin to party like communists even before joining (or being invited to join) an official communist party (with formal leadership, a platform, a strategic plan, etc.)?
Another virtue of the verbal shift to communist partying is to hold a mirror to those who call themselves communists (or revolutionary leftists) and to prod us to ask ourselves and one another, honestly and concretely: where and with whom do we “party”?
Here I am uniting with Dean when she pointedly asked Stephen Healy, the RM audience, and academic radicals more generally, “Whom is the [theoretical] work [we do] for?” In a way, her call for the formation of a party is a call for transcending (if not exploding altogether) the cloistered and isolated nodules of existing left academic and activist “communities” and for finding ways, in theory and in practice, to engage those who live beyond the bubbles of conferences and seminar rooms, suffering if not drowning in the seething seas of this society. What are we doing, concretely, to make sure that our ideas connect (or at least have a chance of connecting) with the struggling masses of this planet—to connect not only through how we speak but how we listen and respond? What are we doing to assure that emancipatory ideas are (or at least have a chance of) being taken up, tested, and transformed by actual masses of people and that we in turn are responding critically and collectively to the lessons of this praxis? Dean reminds us, as communist intellectuals, of our responsibility not just to “get it right” theoretically but to connect with the people, to help the people get it right practically, and to have the people help usget it right theoretically. Without this, politically speaking, little else that we do matters. Even the most astute Marxist analysis or humane communist ethos will not become a material force of history unless and until it is given a form that can be taken up by the people as their own tool and their own weapon.
In closing, I want to also sharpen a point Dean makes regarding what communist praxis should consist of today. Dean describes the essence of communist activity as “the expansion of voluntary cooperation” (to be understood as different from the forced cooperation of working-class subjects compelled by the domination of capital).2 But what I would like to restore here is precisely Dean’s emphasis on audience and on the need to stretch or even burst the bounds of existing left self-segregation and isolation. For lack of space here, let me simply rewrite her definition/directive as follows: Communist praxis consists of the strategic expansion of voluntary cooperation that abolishes the present division of labor, (creating a new and emancipatory division of labor) with an eye on the communist horizon.3
To emphasize the key aspect, we must find ways to meet the masses where they are at and to entice them to meet us where we are at. We must extend a party invitation to the people. We must get outside our comfort zones, break through our conference and seminar walls, and subvert the leftist subcultures that guarantee our continued (self-)marginalization and irrelevance. We must transform not only the people but also ourselves, abolishing the division of labor inherited from capitalism while constructing a new division of labor that is oriented toward the horizon of communism. “The educators must be educated!” Or to rephrase it dialectically, there are great teachers everywhere; we had best be doing all we can to learn from them.
Badiou, A. 2012. The rebirth of history: Times of riots and uprisings. London: Verso.
Dean, J. 2015. The party and communist solidarity. Rethinking Marxism 27 (3): 332–42.
Healy, S. 2015. Communism as a mode of life. Rethinking Marxism 27 (3): 343–56.