THE CREATIVE POTENTIAL OF THE SUBJECTIVE WILL: the revolutionary party as avant-garde [Part A]
“At one end, reification of the proletariat and the communist party, selfishness that hoists this banner to justify fleeting necessities as common interests. At the other, the lethargic plea to reduce our sights to the partial, to abandon the noble task of an exploitation free world since it is a mere myth. Maoism cuts through this vicious circle. The leading role of the proletariat and the vanguard position of its communist party are potentialities contained in historical circumstances. They can only be realised through creative intervention in the historical moment of a specific society.” (Ajith, On the Maoist Party)
The revolutionary party of the advanced guard: this is a concept that should be a truism but remains a site of controversy in the left discourse at the centres of global capitalism. Whereas the name communism is becoming less controversial, and the end of history narrative propagated by capitalism is losing its hallowed aura, the hypothesis of a communist party is only just returning to the zone of controversy. Before that it was banned to the outer regions; any discussion of its validity was stifled by charges of orthodoxy, dogmatism, and sectarianism. To be fair, it did not help that it was a concept that was kept alive by innumerable micro-sects and fallen movements; but at the same time the fact that it was barely controversial for the left in the global peripheries (where the majority of the world’s people live and the most radical anti-systemic movements emerge) should have at least alerted first world anti-capitalists to their myopia.
Thus there should be no grandiose declarations about reclamation. Just as most of the world’s radicals did not dismiss communism when the imperialist metropoles declared that capitalism was the end of history, the rejection of the concept of the communist party was normative only amongst the left in these same metropoles. Hence we will speak only of an excavation, an archaeological relearning, that is only required at the centres of capitalism where the truism of the party was until recently forbidden and now has returned to the realm of controversy.
Those of us raised on either the movementism or the over-valorized anarchism that followed the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, those activists and organizers weaned on anti-capitalist resistance since 1989, have learned a cliched conception of the revolutionary party: authoritarian, top-down, disconnected from struggle, sectarian, dogmatic, violently illiberal, intrinsically Stalinist or at least boringly Trotskyist, and just plain old-fashioned. But in a context where the same left that despised the concept of the communist party eventually celebrated reformist party projects such as Syriza or Podemos, the reasons for dismissing the possibility of a revolutionary party lack logical consistency. That is, if the same left that dismissed communist parties as being outdated also promoted party projects that were not communist then on what basis could they maintain the same distance? Only on the basis of rejecting revolution in favour of reformism.
The truth, then, is that the notion of the communist party was rejected by the mainstream left at the centres of global capitalism only because this rejection was expedient. Outside of the cliches inherited from an end of history discourse and the elevation of movementism there was no rational reason to banish the party axiom to the margins of acceptable discourse. As I have argued elsewhere such a banishment was its own kind of orthodoxy, and the dogmatic disavowals of “Leninism” that ideologues such as Wayne Price proffer are paradigmatic of the dishonesty that tails religiosity, the bad Leninism that is straw-personed to become the basis of an authoritarian nightmare. Indeed, Jodi Dean has precisely echoed my long-standing claim regarding this anti-party orthodoxy: “[e]ven as ‘dogma’ has been uniformly qualified with ‘party,’ dispersed yet ubiquitous left dogmatism has turned the so-called obsolescence of the party form into the primary tenet of its catechism.” (Dean, 251)
Therefore, it might be worth re-investigating the meaning of the “vanguard party” in a context where the concept has been emptied of meaning and simultaneously recoded to mean authoritarian terror. Since the charge of “vanguardism” is a slur for some it should be demystified. More than demystifying the concept, however, it is worth thinking of it in ways that are neither cliched nor tied to the stale explanations and practices of a bad faith Leninism. The point of this meditation on the party is to revalorize the concept.
The revalorization of the communist party is already happening; the popular radical thinkers whose counterparts rejected it even a decade ago are engaged in bringing it back into the debate in ways that are not stale — that are not buried in specialized Marxist journals where the establishment left talks in circles around the question of organization — but are instead intended to demonstrate why the concept is vital, necessary, and far from old-fashioned.
Jodi Dean’s recent book Crowds and Party is a good example of this attempt to open a fresh discussion on the significance of the communist party. Although I plan to engage with this book in more detail later, a few words need to be said here about Dean’s contribution. In The Communist Necessity I critiqued Dean’s engagement with the concept of communism by arguing that her invocation of Lenin was still tied to a movementist sensibility, much like the modern articulations of Draperism, and thus was reducible to a Leninism of “form without content — a better organized Occupy, something that emerges spontaneously from Occupy… a defanged leninism that will invent processes as it spontaneously develops [and where] the revolution can only be deferred; her horizon remains distant.” (Moufawad-Paul, 60) Although I think that this reading of Dean’s position regarding the party (movementism with Leninist costuming) is still correct, I also think that her recent interrogation of the party form is significant in that it is another necessary salvo fired at the shibboleth of anti-party dogmatism.
With Crowds and Party Dean: i) does indeed point out the necessity of a communist party in opposition to the limits of social movementism; ii) critiques the ways in which post-modern identity politics undermines a unified revolutionary project. Since The Communist Necessity was intended as a prolegomena that would demarcate the terrain of radical theory (i.e. point out what any radical theory needed to address, foreclose on theoretical approaches that didn’t understand the terrain and its stakes), Dean aptly demonstrated that her project in fact corresponded to at least part of my demarcation (and in fact said many of the same things I wrote a year and a half before her), particularly her attempt to force the necessity of a unified party project over and against dispersed sites of resistance. While I remain convinced that the way in which she talks about the substance of the party is still trapped within the boundaries determined by movementism (either a quasi-Draperite spontaneous generation of the party from the crowds or a refoundationalist project), all arguments for the necessity of the communist party in the face of anti-party orthodoxy — particularly ones made outside of the dry debates in leftist academic journals — will contribute to the transformation of the organizational narrative.
In any case, while I will return to Dean and the significance of what she has written on the concept of the communist party later, I also want to make it clear that I am not interested in writing another version of what she has written. Although I will draw on Dean, and though her recent book was one of the inspirations of this extended essay, I am not planning to argue explicitly for the necessity of a unified communist project. After all, I have already done so in The Communist Necessity. Moreover, I have worked out what a “new return” to the communist party should look like in my upcoming Continuity and Rupture: I spend some time trying to making sense of the Maoist party of the new type. Thus, in the following pages, I will take as a starting point what I argued in that book: the Maoist party formation though continuous with the Leninist variant is also a rupture from this conceptualization — the revolutionary party of the new type––and if the reader is interested in what that means then I would urge them to purchase a copy when it is available. (This extended essay, after all, is partially intended to promote the book from a different angle.)
Beginning from the premise that the communist party is a necessity for both the reasons I have outlined elsewhere and Dean has recently demarcated, and that the determination of this party is found in its Maoist articulation that I have also outlined, I want to revalorize it along these lines. The aim is to project a heterodox Maoist sensibility back upon the conceptualization of the party so that, rather than appearing stale and orthodox, it instead resembles something progressive, vital, fresh, and indeed a forward thinking “avant-garde” notion of organization much like the best movements in avant-garde art are always progressive critiques of a mainstream art praxis overdetermined by bourgeois sensibility. More than a rigorous defense or explanation of the revolutionary party of the new type, this extended essay will be a fun reflection on the concept (if you find this kind of thing fun), a creative and non-rigorous intervention.
We need to recognize that the communist party, far from being an orthodox fossil as some proclaim due to their own orthodox assumptions, is a living option in the Jamesian sense. On the one hand it was always a living option for radicals in the global peripheries, on the other hand it is emerging again as a living option for radicals at the privileged imperialist centres. As Dean writes, echoing my demand for a “new return” to the party concept, “we need to consider the party form unfettered by the false concreteness of specific parties in the contingency of their histories.” (Dean, 5) Unlike Dean, however, I do not agree that the histories of specific parties — especially those embedded in world historical revolutions — are necessarily contingent, that there isn’t something concrete we can learn from their particular instantiations. While it is necessary to examine the party form in a new way, without the clutter of cliched definitions, the moment we speak of ejecting the concrete history that developed this concept is the moment that we have nothing to speak about, that we render the processes behind our own understanding invisible: the concept was theorized because of significant historical reasons; it is not a Platonic ideal.
In any case, by pushing debates of the party concept back into the realm of controversy, and by articulating it in new ways, those who would disparage it should be forced to grapple with their own commitments to its supposed obsolescence.
one: the crowds necessitate the party
A thorough and critical assessment of the anti-capitalist sequence that defined activism in the imperialist metropoles from the late 1990s to the early 2000s ought to lead us towards rethinking the necessity of the communist party. When we are faced with a movement fragmented into innumerable groupings incapable of launching the kind of militant counter-offensives that were common in the 1960s to early 1980s then we should ask precisely what went wrong. Blaming it on the global consolidation of capitalism is question begging since it is the ideology produced by the end of history narrative that, as one of the premises behind the rise of movementism, led us to decide that communism was “the god that failed” and that fragmentation rather than unity was a strength. Disunity also existed in the New Communist Movement (often it was horrendously sectarian), and we need to recognize that there will be heterogeneity in the broader movement, but at least some of the different groups in that period were able to embark upon their own unity-building campaigns, rather than wallowing in disunity, and produce larger (though still temporary) and more effective (though not permanent) revolutionary attempts. Hence some of the main questions I raised in The Communist Necessity: how can a movement that takes disunity to be its strength ever produce the kind of solidarity required to overcome capitalism, how can we treat an organizational approach of disunity as a strength when capitalism prefers that the masses are disunified? These are questions that imply the necessity of a party project.
Since I am of the opinion that anyone who looks critically at the sequence of anti-capitalist agitation in the first world, from the anti-globalization movement to Occupy, cannot avoid recognizing the same problems I highlighted, I wasn’t that surprised that Dean would make a similar assessment in Crowds and Party. If anything I was surprised that it was made by Dean, particularly since I had critiqued The Communist Horizon as part of the same movementist problem. Perhaps my initial assessment was not entirely fair. Whatever the case, I think it is significant that an intellectual of Dean’s stature is making an assessment almost identical to the one I made a year and a half earlier, refusing to ignore the conclusions imposed by an honest reading of the movementist sequence.
Indeed, Dean’s assessment of the movementist sequence that demands the necessity of a communist party is largely similar to what I described in The Communist Necessity though it doesn’t use the term “movementism”. [Here I should qualify that my assessment of movementism was influenced by the PCR-RCP’s analysis in How We Intend to Fight.] “By the 1970s and ‘80s,” Dean writes, “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.” (Dean, 22–23) Similarly I began by pointing out the same anti-party conviction, later arguing that what Dean calls “the failure of class analysis” to address other sites of oppression was in some ways “the penalty of the sins of dogmatic and chauvinist communism,” and that there was a missed “necessity to take these other concerns into account, to understand how they possibly determined social class.” (Moufawad-Paul, 78–79)
Dean goes on to state that “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.” (Dean, 23) I argued pretty much the same with respect to movementism and identity politics. I also argued that this was mediated by the end of history discourse imposed by the defeat of actually existing socialism, as does Dean: “[a]ll of this would unfold against the background of a capitalism to which there was no alternative.” (Ibid.) Moreover, similar to me, Dean identifies the organization and strategy of movementism as symptomatic of the end of history discourse, targeting Hardt and Negri’s theory of the multitude as an “expression of weakness as strength,” an attempt to make “left defeat into an opportunity to reimagine communist politics.” (Ibid., 24) Correctly noting that such a reimagination is impossible, Dean instead argues that it is “imperative that multiplicity not replace class but be understood as a class characteristic” (again, one of my long-standing points about how to conceptualize class) and on the following page describes this imperative as the party necessity. (Ibid.)
The problem, though, is that the “multiplicity” Dean argues should be treated “as a class characteristic” is an insight that is never followed to its logical conclusion. As we shall see this recognition of heterogeneity within class is more descriptive than programmatic; she appears to prefer the solidarity enforced by a big tent socialism and I would like to suggest that this is motivated by her refusal to think through the meaning of “vanguard party” — a qualification of the communist party she refuses to discuss, except when she’s indicating its worst articulations, in the interest of defending a general and unqualified conception of the term. Despite this problem, which I will discuss at the end of this chapter, Dean’s pursuit of the party concept forces yet another opening in the edifice of anti-party dogma that is commonplace in the imperialist metropoles.
One of the most interesting aspects of Dean’s Crowds and Party is her contribution to the debate surrounding the theory of the subject, where she inverts the Althusserian equation by claiming that the subject is interpellated as an individual: a collective subject is “enclosed”, transformed into an individual. Since this contribution to philosophy is not the focus of this essay, however, I will not be examining Dean’s theory of the subject in much detail. Here I’m more interested in her discussion of how crowds reveal the collective subject that occasionally defies enclosure and how the limits of this subject should point towards a party consummation rather than individualization. Whereas the collective subject is enclosed when it is interpellated into bourgeois individuals, it is operationalized through the party.
Dean’s investigation of crowd theory is particularly interesting. By examining the work of Gustave Le Bon she is able to reveal something interesting about collective subjectivity that this reactionary understood because it offended his retrograde sensibilities. “Lamenting that the ‘divine right of the masses is about to replace the divine right of kings,’ Le Bon decries the way association, far more than universal suffrage, is making the masses conscious of their strength.” (Dean, 94) Being a 19th century reactionary, Le Bon was terrified by the ways in which the masses associated as a crowd and saw this as a challenge to the regime — a potentiality where the order of the great and worthy were dragged down by the unenlightened and unwashed hordes. Le Bon, of course, is not alone in this attitude: it is the prerogative of every ideologue of an oppressive state of affairs to rail against the angry masses gathering in dissent — barbarians at the gates, the tyranny of the majority, etc. Nietzsche worried about herd mentality and the slavishness of the masses. Mill, who supported universal suffrage to an extent, worried about the rabble gathering at the doorstep of the capitalist (his “corn dealer” example). Today the fear of the masses is expressed by everyone invested in the state of affairs: language about “mob mentality” and the psychologization that comes from Le Bon and his ilk is employed to denounce every small rebellion.
So on the one hand Le Bon understands something significant about the crowds he despises: they possess a compelling power (a “divine right”), association makes them conscious of their strength, may sweep away a regime of enlightened individuals. The fact that he is a thoroughly backwards thinker, however, leads him to a particular understanding of the crowds he despises: he reads them as degenerating the existing order, pulling down the great people who deserve to rule, so that the herd replaces the individual; “he sees the force of crowds expressed in races, castes, classes, nations, juries, parties, and parliamentary assemblies… [that] can override individual judgment and opinion, eliciting effects that exceed what an individual would rationally decide to do on his own.” (Ibid., 104)
Dean then uses Freud’s response to Le Bon to argue that the crowd in fact precedes the individual since the unconscious is a crowd. For Freud, the emergence of crowd mentality is not a new development that signifies the downfall of civilization but is in fact a manifestation of something primal. And yet Freud mythologizes the collective subject according to a narrative of “the primal horde” and “works to prevent these processes from rupturing the individual.” (Ibid., 104–105) By attempting to recast crowd theory according to psychoanalysis, Freud succeeds in revealing that there is a collective subject that precedes individuation while at the same time missing the point of this collective subject due to a logic of containment:
Le Bon’s fierce and powerful crowds ready ‘to pillage a palace, or to die in defense of a stronghold or a barricade’ are diminished and truncated, enclosed in the bourgeois sites of boarding school and concert hall, the ferocity of collective power turned inward as identification through love for a shared object. Collective desire becomes nothing but common frustration. (Ibid., 108)
The point, then, is to recognize that the crowd not only indicates a primary collective subjectivity, but that this subjectivity can and should resemble the crowds described by Le Bon. Of course a reactionary will see crowds prepared to pillage palaces or die defending barricades as insufferable because reactionaries seek to preserve moribund regimes. Those of us who believe that the masses make history, and that the motor of history is driven by the pillaging of palaces and the manifestation of barricades, would not find Le Bon’s descriptions of his despised crowds repellant. It is, rather, bourgeois subjectivity that rushes in to divide the masses into individuals with opposed interests, thwarting the creative power of mass action so as to redirect crowds into manageable avenues. Individual judgement and opinion are not only limited but are the result of ideological interpellation; mass action can and should exceed what the constructed individual “would rationally decide to do on his own.”
After establishing this argument regarding political subjectivity, however, Dean is careful to not fall back on the most obvious movementist moment of capture. While it is correct to recognize that “the crowd illuminates attributes of political subjectivity distinctive to the contingent, heterogeneous unity of collectives, attributes missed in mistaken characterizations of the political field as consisting of individuals,” (Ibid., 115) she also notes that the baseline fact of collective subjectivity is not enough to determine revolution. The fact that the collective subject precedes the individual, and the latter is a moment of ideological capture, only reveals that, as the Maoist slogan goes, “it is right to rebel.” The movement of masses eclipses the movement of constructed individuals, valorized by bourgeois ideology, but if these movements are disorganized they can easily become captured and repurposed by the class in command. Dean states:
The crowd is a necessary but incomplete component of political subjectivity, the opening cut by the concentrated push of many, the disruptive power of number. Whether this push will have been an emancipatory egalitarian expression of the people as a collective political subject depends on the party. The crowd is not the people. The crowd is not a political subject. Rather, the people appear as the subject of politics when the rupture of the crowd event can be attributed to them retroactively as an effect of and in fidelity to the egalitarian crowd discharge. (Ibid., 115–116)
Let’s extend the Maoist slogan: it is right to rebel but it is better to make revolution. The crowd itself, with all of its spontaneous rebellion, can easily be contained, redirected along those routes that seem to be collective but also isolate the collective subject as multiple individuals, and the best evidence of this is found in the over-valorized “social networking” and “crowd sourcing” practice. Social networking tactics seem collective but are also controlled by the ruling class, designed to promote as much disunity as their supposed unity. The Facebook activists turn inward, arguing with each other; the Twitter activists tweet pithy statements that are necessarily incomplete; the bloggers converge and diverge. If it is better to make revolution then something more than the rebellious crowd is required: the party.
That the crowd event necessitates the party is Dean’s main point, and there is a lot she has to say in this regard. She moves on from her analysis of crowds to a discussion of Badiou’s theory of the subject, connecting it back to her own development on the theory and reinforcing the claim that the party is necessary to provide a political subject for the rebellious crowds. She points out, by engaging with analyses of the Paris Commune, the ways in which theories of the carnivalesque, pure rebellion, the “beautiful moment” of crowd chaos, are all insufficient for a productive politics since, without a party project, these crowd moments are easily absorbed and indeed promoted by what she calls “communicative capitalism.” In her quite brilliant intervention with Kristin Ross’s anarcho-communist analysis of the Paris Commune (that, following the Situationists, celebrated the carnivalesque aspects of the rebellion while rejecting the politics of the mature Marx) Dean concludes:
Ross positions the ‘half-real, half-fantastic’ crowd as an alternative to a politics rooted in the well-defined interests of the class. It’s not an alternative. The beautiful in-between of infinite potentiality can’t last forever. People get tired. Some want a little predictability, reliable food sources, shelter, and medical care. Others realize they’re doing all the work. Without a politics that targets capitalists as a class, the rest of us continue to be exploited… Common work, knowledge, achievements, and resources are expropriated from us and channeled into the coffers of the very, very few. (Dean, 142)
Hence the party becomes the necessary moment that produces the political subject of the collective, that declares meaning on an event. Without it there is transitory rebellion that lacks revolutionary direction. The party “is a form for the expression and direction of political will. It concentrates disruption in a process in order to produce political power: these acts are connected; they demonstrate the strength of the collective. It endeavors to arrange the intensity unleashed by the crowd, to keep it present as fervent desire.” (Ibid., 158)
But it is here, despite all the excellent arguments Dean has made for the necessity of the party (I particularly like her notion of “enlarging the world”), that we reach an impasse. Indeed, rather than continue with a summarization of Dean’s arguments regarding the party’s necessity that remain firmly ensconced within theoretical debates about the concept (which admittedly possess their own importance) I want to step outside her discussion of the party’s necessity and political subjectivity so as to ask: what does this party look like concretely? This is a question that Dean cannot answer satisfactorily.
First of all, she treats the party’s relationship to state power as a non-issue, or at best an issue that is not immediate. Barely dealing with Lenin’s arguments in State and Revolution, despite her use of Lenin elsewhere, she claims that “[t]o worry about our seizing the state, then, is a joke, fantasy, and distraction from the task at hand… What matters for us here and now is the galvanization of political will.” (Ibid., 150) But the galvanization of political will without a revolutionary strategy (and a revolutionary strategy always has to do with the question of state power) transforms any party politics into a sequence without a destination. We’re catapulted back to the problems caused by her conception of “the communist horizon” and expected to believe that these will solve themselves without a partisan strategy. But as T. Derbent and others have pointed out, any and every revolution movement must think the problematic of revolutionary strategy far in advance or it is disqualified as a revolutionary force.
Which leads to the second problem: without bothering to think through the problem of capturing or not-capturing state power, but instead delaying this problem until a time when we are ready (when we have galvanized the political will), Dean in fact ends up implicitly endorsing the revolutionary strategy of insurrectionism without thinking it through. [This was, of course, my argument in “Quartermasters of Stadiums and Cemeteries” and Dean’s Crowds and Party has confirmed my earlier critiques.] We cannot help but be struck by the ways in which she describes the insurrectionary logic imposed on the Paris Commune and derived from the October Revolution as fundamental to her description of crowds necessitating parties and parties giving meaning to crowd rebellions. Indeed, she valorizes the insurrectionary moment where the military sides with the people, as if this is not an option foreclosed in modern capitalist modes of production where the military has become something different. (Ibid., 128–129) The trajectory is linear and its dialectic is one dimensional, a single line snapping back upon itself: crowds emerge, necessitate a party, a party either emerges or a pre-existing party is consummated, and in retrospect the meaning of the crowd event is ordered according to political subjectivity. Party elements might precede a rebellion; they give this insurrection a political dimension and then declare the meaning of the rebellion in fidelity to the event. But what about other movements of crowds that are not found in Occupy and the rebellions touted by the very social media networks Dean problematizes? What about people’s wars that can unleash multiple and disparate crowd events, claim still more, double-back, spiral, blossom a growing circumference of counter-hegemony while also growing a party core? But such a strategy is one that ties organization to the capture of state power in a different way than the theory of insurrection, and it is the latter that Dean assumes is normative while simultaneously decrying any discussion of state capture.
The third problem, then, is that Dean’s consideration of the party is that it is more idealist than materialist. While it is indeed important to point out the ways in which the party is not about membership, and is in fact a significant theoretical concept (which, to be fair, is what my essay is also about), there are points where Dean seems to imply that the growth of party cadre is less important than the party as an idea: “Marx describes the Commune as a glorious achievement of ‘our Party.’ This is not a descriptive empirical claim regarding membership in a political organization. It is the point from which he responds to the subjectivization effected by the Commune event, positioning it within a process oriented to justice.” (Ibid., 149) Although it may be the case that crude empiricism should be avoided, and that the meaning of the party concept should be preserved over and above a role call of party members, in concrete terms there can be no effective party without dedicated party cadre. Unless we are to imagine that the party is just an idea that will impose itself on the collective will of crowds in revolt, party membership is required. Dedication to such political project will make it sustainable beyond each and every revolt; the party (or parties) cannot exist as a one time event or it will collapse the moment the rebellion from which it was imagined also collapsed.
Fourthly, when she does engage with concrete examples, Dean tends to seek justification for the communist party’s necessity in the business of revisionist parties. It is in fact truly bizarre that in the fifth chapter of Crowds and Party (Ibid., 209–250) Dean attempts to find the meaning of party political subjectivity in the experience of Communist Party-USA cadre in the 1970s. This was a time when the anti-revisionism of the New Communist Movement temporarily eclipsed the stale party politics of the CPUSA, along with its contemporaries throughout the world, so as to demonstrate that political subjectivity was being mobilized in other party projects. In this period it was not a partisan of the CPUSA, devoted to the peaceful co-existence with capitalism thesis, that was communicating with rebellious crowds but in fact those engaged in projects such as the RU/RCP-USA and other anti-revisionist eruptions. [To be clear, I am not arguing that we should support the RCP-USA now which, in my opinion, has degenerated into a Marxist cult.] In 1977 in the US the meaning of the CPUSA partisan was made clear: an individual outside of struggle, unable to declare meaning upon any crowd event, a depressing fossil. The brief moment of anti-revisionist struggle was in fact a transitory opening of party necessitation because it had penetrated further into the masses by communicating with the crowd struggles unleashed in the 1960s. But maybe Dean’s temporary flight back into the arms of a moribund party project is telling; it informs us that, as she herself warned at the outset of her book, she is not necessarily interested in defining the communist party as vanguard. If the qualification of vanguard is unimportant, then one might as well treat the CPUSA as significant in a period where its previous claim to vanguard status was ameliorated: they are no more or less important than those party projects eclipsing them, briefly pulling in the more advanced activists of the working class.
[In fact, Dean seems to be unaware of the New Communist Movement in that she sees “the shift in radical politics” where the concept of the party was replaced with movementism as “marked by ‘1968’.” (162) But the end of the New Left in 1968 actually resulted in nearly twenty years of a return to the party form with the anti-revisionist movement that erupted throughout the world. Indeed Wang Hui recently wrote of the significance of 1968 in terms of the Cultural Revolution and its effect on the worldwide radical movement. Hence, the “turn[ing] away from party politics” happens in the mid-1980s when the NCM collapses, not as early as Dean suggests.]
Fifthly and finally, Dean’s refusal to endorse a vanguard conception of the party has to do with an attempt to shoe-horn every disparate struggle into a vague communist project. She complains about a “left realism” that is fragmented into “an ever-expanding array of populist, liberal, progressive, trans, pluralist, green, multiculturalist, anti-racist, radical democratic, feminist, identitarian, anarchist, queer, autonomist, horizontalist, anti-imperialist, insurrectionist, libertarian, socialist, and communist persuasions.” She treats this fragmentation as “symptomatic of such a realism… [that is premised on the assumption] that collectivity is undesirable and that collectivity is impossible.” (Ibid., 67) Her desire, as opposed to this identity politics of difference and separation, is solidarity; but we should ask what this solidarity means. There is, after all, a reason why the revisionist parties were rejected in the 1960s-70s by the anti-revisionist movement: the solidarity they demanded was a solidarity with the peace of capitalism, a refusal to grasp the explosion of new and rebellious movements. Dean is correct to recognize that a politics that begins by focusing on difference rather than solidarity will be doomed to failure, but it is also correct to recognize that a project of solidarity must begin by drawing clear lines of demarcation in the realm of politics and deciding upon what must be excluded from this basis of solidarity. Beginning with a big tent socialism of the 99% will ignore all of these distinctions that will, if forced into a false unity, produce the most cynical form of solidarity: my comrades are not imperialists, racists, homophobes, TERFs, misogynists, etc. And any movement that attempts to enforce a solidarity between all of these contradictions, thereby ignoring the material fact of actual oppression and exploitation, will possess the most cosmetic unity and collapse under the weight of its multiple contradictions, incapable of generating actual solidarity.
Therefore, while it is correct to note the ways in which a politics of difference and identity function to undermine solidarity and promote the disunity promoted by the end of history discourse, it is simultaneously incorrect to ignore this difference in the interest of cosmetic solidarity. The differentials produced by various histories of oppression are material realities; heterogeneity is a fact that is not easily overcome.
The orthodox method of dismissing the heterogeneity of oppression is to blame it on a ruling class conspiracy by claiming that racism, sexism, etc. are ideological aberrations designed to split the working class. Although it is true that the working class is indeed split by racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and other histories of oppression, this splitting is more significant than a ruling class conspiracy. For example, the development of capitalism in the US is invested in a material history of slavery and segregation. Similarly, the enclosure of the commons in Western Europe — a process that produced the working class subject — was accomplished through processes such as the witch hunts that led to the construction of the zone of reproductive labour. (See, for example, Sylvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch.) We can thus locate the construction of the proletariat upon axes that are profoundly indebted to other sites of oppression. The working class emerges as fundamentally split; its heterogeneity is not imposed later by a conspiratorial bourgeois clique.
Any party project that ignores these differences in the name of solidarity will be incapable of producing a unified movement because it will be internally divided between oppressed and oppressor working class participants. Oppression will be reified within the organization; people from oppressed backgrounds will be asked to ignore whatever chauvinism they face in their day to day life and in their own organization in the interest of a bad faith solidarity.
Just as the communist party draws a line between proletariat and bourgeoise, so too must it demarcate itself from a politics that enshrines the latter at the expense of the former since the former is also a composite of multiple experiences of oppression. If the communist party’s strength is in its solidarity, then this strength must be determined by a political line that gives this solidarity real meaning — that allows the oppressed to flourish by being non-oppressive. As Ajith has pointed out, an absolutization of an unqualified conception of proletarian leadership and working class solidarity “would certainly lead to reification” since it derives from “mechanical equations where proletariat = revolution and communist party = vanguard.” (Ajith, On the Maoist Party)The problem for Ajith, though, is not that the above equation is completely wrong, only that its universality derives from concrete circumstances rather than an abstract formula. On the one hand it is indeed correct to recognize that “economist impulses often seen in the upper strata of the proletariat, social passivity engendered by revisionist, reformist politics that strengthen this economism, and changes seen in the nature of labour and work places, have given rise to views that abandon the proletarian leadership concept. Carried away in the tide of identity politics, they believe that, in the future, these movements will give leadership to social change.” (Ibid.) On the other hand “[e]very form of exploitation and oppression must be ended. Thus the emancipation of the whole of humanity becomes a precondition for the liberation of this class. The leading role of the proletariat derives from this objective social position. It obliges the proletariat to continue the revolution all the way up until realising a world rid of exploitation.” (Ibid.)
So on one side there is the “reification of the proletariat and the communist party,” which is what Dean’s unqualified conception of the party implies, resulting in a “selfishness that hoists [the communist party] banner to justify fleeting necessities as common histories.” (Ibid.) But on the other side there is the error that Dean has rightly criticized: “the lethargic plea to reduce our sights to the partial, to abandon the noble task of an exploitation free world since it is a mere myth.” (Ibid.) Ajith’s solution is the Maoist reconceptualization of the revolutionary vanguard party that “cuts through this vicious circle. The leading role of the proletariat and the vanguard position of its communist party are potentialities contained in historical circumstances. They can only be realised through creative intervention in the historical moment of a specific society.” (Ibid.)
Of course, Dean partially shelters herself from Ajith’s critique by refusing to qualify her conception of the communist party as avant garde. Indeed, she has also argued against a bad faith vanguardism by correctly asserting that “[t]he role of the party isn’t to inject knowledge into the working class.” (Dean, 5) At the same time, however, by refusing to recognize the significance of demarcation produced by the party-as-vanguard she ends up endorsing a mechanical “party = solidarity” without even the vanguard qualifier to give meaning to this solidarity. If Ajith is correct in recognizing that even so-called vanguards fall into the trap of dismissing other struggles against oppression in the interest of an abstract working class, Dean’s position is different only insofar as it refuses to endorse a premature vanguard arrogance regarding this class reductionism. The dilemma, however, is precisely what Ajith indicates: it is only a particular type of vanguard party that is capable of escaping the “vicious circle” formed by workerism and identity politics. In order to grasp what he means, it is worth re-examining the meaning of vanguard.