How do communists party?

Vanguard Party

Vanguard Party

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

Among the key figures in a resurging communist current, Jodi Dean stands out for the consistency, accessibility, and force with which she has made the argument that, in order to break out of the melancholic loser’s slump the Left has been in for the past few decades, we need to (re)create something like a new communist party.Dean’s (2015) argument for the party is pitched not so much as a defense of a particular political form but as a defense of the necessity and possibility for communist revolution as such. Her call is a defense of thinking big, of organizing on a mass scale (especially in an era where mass culture and politics have become fragmented and atomized), and of mobilizing people to consciously confront the root contradictions of the system—all against the idea of settling for what appears “realistic” within the current coordinates of twenty-first-century capitalism. We need to constitute a revolutionary subject, she insists; we need to overthrow the logic of the entire capitalist system, not (just) to construct resistant or alternative niches in its seething pores and margins. And so we need to develop a coherent strategy and coordinated approach that is up to this task—locally, nationally, internationally. We need to construct a new Communist party!

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.

Notes

 

1 I would distinguish this notion of communist partying from Stephen Healy’s (2015) notion of “communism as a mode of life.” The chief difference would be that the praxis I envision is to be understood as politically and overtly antagonistic to capital, whereas Healy’s appears to be primarily economic and alternative. Of course, a key question would now be: What is the relationship between the antagonistic and the alternative to it? Between the movement that abolishes the current state of things and the enclave that incorporates or encourages modes of life that differ from the dominant one? One of the goals of such communist partying could and perhaps should be to work out in concrete praxis the correct way of relating these two poles of activity: zones that, while different, need not necessarily be conceived as opposed and may in certain contexts be brought into mutually enriching alliance.

 

2 Dean’s key point here—one that (re)connects with Badiou’s Theory of the Subject—is to emphasize the difference between organizing “working-class interests” within the field of capital and rupturing this field altogether, organizing workers and the otherwise oppressed not according to particular interests but as the harbinger of a radically new society, creating a new field of desire and possibility, a communist horizon. It is an important point, albeit one I don’t have space to address here.

 

3 In his recent book, The Rebirth of History, Badiou (2012) refers to this incipiently communist shaking off of the division of labor—in the crucible of a “riot,” which may or may not become a subject-anchoring Event proper—as the “lightning displacement” of people from their usual places within the existing order. I would add here that one of the things that was so exciting and promising (as well as practically empowering) about Occupy itself was just this displacement: the way that, for a time, people from very different backgrounds, locales, job descriptions, and economic status, with different experiences, social networks, and skill sets, were able to come together at the level of practice, place, and basic ideas (the 99 percent versus the 1 percent), at least for an extended moment.

 

one of the things that was so exciting and promising (as well as practically empowering) about Occupy itself was just this displacement: the way that, for a time, people from very different backgrounds, locales, job descriptions, and economic status, with different experiences, social networks, and skill sets, were able to come together at the level of practice, place, and basic ideas (the 99 percent versus the 1 percent), at least for an extended moment.

 

References

Badiou, A. 2012The 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.

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One thought on “How do communists party?

  1. A few points. First, I know what it means to overthrow a government, but I’m not sure what ‘overthrowing a logic’ entails. If it means the arguments that capitalists make in their defense, fine. But I think something is meant beyond that, and I’m not sure what is meant.

    Second, communism to me has always meant a classless society, one where all classes, including the working class, have been abolished or whither away. It’s the North Star, giving us some direction, but socialism is required, both as the next order and the period of transition from class society to classless society. I don’t see that conception here. Socialism seems to disappear. Am I wrong?

    Third, I wouldn’t under-estimate capitalism. The problem is that it can meet some needs, at least for a time, and thus presents us with the difficult problem of working for reforms in a revolutionary way, not just claiming that they can’t happen.

    Finally, we have a dual task, not just finding a form to unite a militant minority. To unite the many to defeat the few, we also need forms that can unite a progressive majority, the one history has placed before us, not simply one we hope will arise down the road a ways.

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