THE CREATIVE POTENTIAL OF THE SUBJECTIVE WILL: the revolutionary party as avant-garde [Part C]
[This is the third part of a serialized extended essay that is intended, in some ways, to be a promotion for my upcoming book, Continuity & Rupture. A reflection on the concept of the party form, it is a tangental exploration of some of the concerns of this book’s fifth and sixth chapters and a bridge between it and The Communist Necessity.]
three: establishment left consensus and anti-revisionist counter-hegemony
The established intellectual left within and recognized by the global metropoles — both the academic and popular variants — functions to establish a general theoretical consensus amongst the left as a whole that makes it difficult for particular left tendencies that fall outside of this consensus to thrive. Let’s be clear: there is no moralistic argument to be made, here; no complaint about big church leftism and the valorization of the excluded heretic because exclusion and “heresy” does not immediately make something correct. I’m merely describing a phenomenon that, like ideological consensus in the rest of society: i) happens to exist; ii) is not a conscious conspiracy; iii) is not necessarily malevolent; iv) might not always be negative. Moreover, I am primarily interested in the ways in which this establishment left has set the terms for any discussion or debate on the communist party. Before examining how the theory of the communist party is discursively contained by the first world establishment left it is worth spending some time examining its loose ideological consensus.
The general contours of this ideological consensus can best be described as a heterogeneous collection of Trotskyist, anarchist, and anti-Leninist communist commitments. None of this is to say that academic and popular left intellectuals deemed “acceptable” by this consensus of “common sense” (in the Gramscian sense) are necessarily Trotskyists/anarchists/non-Leninist communists, but only that as long as they abide by the terms of this consensus they are part of this micro-establishment, or as long as they’re keeping their differing politics confined to historical studies and vague pronouncements they won’t fall out of favour. The consensus is of course also determined by internal contradictions. For example, those who proclaim fidelity to Trotskyism or post-Trotskyism are going to brush up against those anarchists or non-Leninists (and by non-Leninists I mean Marxist scholars who like to think of Marxist analysis outside of Marxism-Leninism or any other ism as well as anti-Leninist Marxists) who dislike the fact that Trotskyists tend to talk about Lenin. Such contradictions are usually dissolved by the immanence of the consensus as a whole and so a domesticated Lenin is permitted: a Lenin that was ruined by Stalin but redeemed by Trotsky, a discourse that simultaneously valorizes the Trotskyist narrative of the Russian Revolution.
There are of course multiple characteristics of this consensus that are laudable for a general anti-capitalist ethos, particularly in the context of an embattled left intelligentsia attempting to instantiate a micro cultural hegemony against the normative liberal (and sometimes conservative) currents that otherwise define mainstream intellectual discourse. In general, it functions to sequester and salvage an anti-capitalist narrative in the face of an insidious end of history ideology, demarcating a territory of teaching, lecturing, publishing, etc. where anti-capitalist ideology can be defended. The struggle to achieve spaces in academia where anti-capitalist scholars can persist and teach — or multiple spaces in the publishing world where anti-capitalist ideology can be printed and distributed — is obviously an uphill fight against multiple attempts to silence those voices that would challenge the state of affairs. A certain level of heterogeneity is indeed permitted, which is why particular debates in these spaces erupt and are encouraged as long as they do not transgress the boundaries of the consensus. A laudable homogeneity in the commitment to anti-capitalism simultaneously persists: the closing of ranks against open racists, apologists of imperialism, and confirmed social democrats. Indeed, when some members of, and on the outskirts of, the establishment left supported NATO-backed forces in Libya and Syria, the establishment left necessarily (and thankfully) set itself against the Gilbert Achcars and Louis Proyects, rightfully labelling them “cruise missile socialists.” Moreover, when it comes to how the Marxist aspect of the establishment left functions within its interior territory of this broader established geography, we should also be able to appreciate the necessary marginalization of those who break with the labour theory of value.
There are also key aspects of this establishment consensus that need to be challenged because they function to exclude radical praxis. First of all, a position on the Soviet Union and other socialist revolutions that is largely indebted to the Trotskyist analysis about Stalin and Stalinism. The fact that this position dove-tails, and thus was deemed acceptable at the centres of capitalism, with the cold war discourse is what provided it with discursive strength. Secondly, a healthy suspicion of any Leninist project, following the first point, is treated as laudable and indeed critical. The fact that such a suspicion might be its own orthodoxy is rarely interrogated because orthodoxy is defined as anything that takes its cue from Leninism. Thirdly, as a corollary from the first two points, a militant commitment to a politics that is not a general anti-capitalism that steps out of the realm of theory in an attempt to constitute itself in practice is branded, tout court, as intrinsically sectarian.
Such a consensus, of course, also pushes orthodox Trotskyists to the margins. Despite the significance of the Trotskyist narrative regarding the “errors” of actually existing socialism, even Trotskyist-influenced establishment intellectuals seek to distance themselves from ultra-sectarian groups like the Spartacist League or even silly Trotskyist projects like the International Marxist Tendency (with its strange statements about parascience and colonial chauvinism), without throwing out their love of general Trotskyist theory (i.e. permanent revolution, the critique of the Soviet Union, etc.)… Post-Trotskyism, then, is more acceptable. The Ted Grants of the world are not publishing manuscripts with recognized presses or teaching at university posts in large numbers.
At the same time, however, the Maoist discourse is also and necessarily excluded. Unless you are an Alain Badiou who was already established as a significant intellectual, or unless you are a dead but important scholar (i.e. Mao himself, Althusser who was not really a Maoist, etc.), embracing the Maoist turn in Marxism means to operate from the position of exclusion. Badiou, in fact, demonstrates the strictures of the establishment left discourse. Despite refusing to shy away from his former fidelity to a kind of Maoism, and laudably rejecting all attempts to misrepresent the Cultural Revolution, it is interesting to note that his work became chic in a period when he was simultaneously distancing himself from his previous politics; his post-Maoism has placed him within the boundaries of the establishment consensus. Badiou’s former Marxism-Leninism is treated merely as prefiguration of his current, his shift in theory enabling him to become a recognized thinker. As Bruno Bosteels writes in the translator’s introduction to Theory of the Subject, there was a time when reading Badiou’s Maoist work in academic circles was “tantamount to declaring [oneself] either insane or fanatical, if not both at once.” (Theory of the Subject, viii)
In such a context, where violation of the discourse is a priori determined as “insane or fanatical,” it becomes very difficult to even generate work when you are dealing with multiple misconceptions, and boundaries drawn to enforce these misconceptions, about what your theoretical commitments even mean. Any intellectual labor performed in such circumstances will still have to deal with its position of exclusion: it is performed in near isolation from the rest of the intellectual left establishment, its militants need to work harder to find other isolated allies and fellow travellers. While seemingly lamentable, this state of affairs is simultaneously and possibly an excellent opportunity for those isolated within intellectual circles to locate militants who are not part of the establishment, encounter the masses that are not part of the endless performance of the left talking about the left to the left, and become less lazy in their thought. Even still, on the level of ideas and thought, they will have to struggle against those who are the recognized authorities.
The establishment left has in fact produced a few gate-keepers who can speak in the name of Maoism due to their past as anti-revisionists in the New Communist Movement, functioning as “experts” who possess the right to determine exclusion. It doesn’t matter that there are other communists who have not renounced this history and who tell a different story; they have not become part of this establishment and are not, because of this fact, currently in the position to decide what is intellectually salient. Thus, when a well-known former member of the New Communist Movement makes throwaway inaccurate statements about Maoist theory and supports Jung Chang style anecdotes about Mao’s life, it carries more weight than everyone who argues the opposite because it fits with an acceptable discourse. Or when another former member of the New Communist Movement declares that this movement was completely minor (as someone did in response to The Communist Necessity) it also doesn’t matter that there is counter-evidence produced by others (such as Dunbar-Ortiz’s claims in her memoirs, or the recent Heavy Radicals historiography) because they have the establishment authority to rely on personal anecdote.
The point, here, is that the gate-keeping that helps enforce consensus is rigged, and even the former anti-revisionists collaborate in this rigging: they are the voices that justify the rigging, that are branded with authority because they lean on a past experience that is forbidden to those who, despite also having a past experience, do not accept the establishment consensus. For it is the ideology that is produced by this consensus that is foundational: these authorities would not be authorities, and would thus be unable to reinforce the boundaries of the ideological consensus, if they did not already accept it as correct in the first place. Therefore, when we see that a book about the Chinese Revolution and Maoism is published by a well-known left-wing publisher, and that its authority is secured with the advanced praise of the usual suspects who react allergically (and without any good arguments) to anything that breaks the ideological consensus of the established left, we may be observing damage control.
Any philosophical declaration of militant commitment to a political line that falls outside of the consensus will necessarily be resisted — particularly declarations about revolutionary communist parties. Such resistance will be inversely proportional to amphibology: the more ambiguous the work, the less passionate the resistance; the clearer the commitment the greater the rejection. The significance of Dean’s recent book on the concept of the communist party is its attempt to overstep the consensus by declaring the party universal while simultaneously demonstrating that all attempts to reject it are dogmatic; its failure, though, is that it cannot completely break from the consensus strictures. Clear and militant party projects are less important to Dean than a bland and over-generalized communist party concept that can also mean “big tent socialist” projects or even reformist parties such as Syriza or Podemos, or the Bernie Sanders movement.
Hence, amongst the intellectual left establishment clear commitments to political projects such as Maoism are generally foreclosed. While a clarity in the realm of questions such as transition, the labour theory of value, so-called “primitive accumulation”, capitalist reproduction, and other theoretical operations are encouraged (and in these areas one’s militant commitment to something that falls outside of the consensus can be tolerated as long as it is not the primary subject of one’s intellectual production), clarity in the theory of practice, organization, and strategy remains underdeveloped. This is because many Marxist and anti-capitalist academics and intellectuals, especially if they have tenure, practice their politics in ways that do not undermine their ability to reproduce their existence as academics or popular intellectuals. If they are involved in struggle it is most usually with their professional associations, activist projects they control or at least influence, publication nodes, and conferences.
When arguments regarding particular styles of radical commitment are raised (arguments that are not movementist, arguments that claim we should commit to ideology x and adopt a theory of strategy and organization that is mobilized by ideology x) we encounter the strongest knee-jerk reactions. While it is appropriate to be clear when it comes to the generalities of anti-capitalist theory, and it would be inappropriate to respond emotionally to someone whose understanding of the labour theory of value is different from yours, multiple emotional reactions are permitted once someone expresses an ideological commitment forbidden by the consensus. Of course such foreclosure is necessary, I would argue, in the case of reactionary politics or reactionary politics dressed up as “left” (condemning Zionists who declare themselves Marxists or anarchists, or condemning anti-semites who pretend to be anti-imperialists) because there is no reason to tolerate reaction. But even partisans of an anti-capitalist political project that functions outside or at the borders of this consensus, especially if it is too clear and too committed, are immediately branded as orthodox and dogmatic. Campaigns of inoculation are launched; fallacious engagements are permitted; the offending texts will be straw-personed, their arguments dislocated from their context and attacked without attention to the overall claims.
It is within this context that those of us who attempt to push a militant conception of the communist party will encounter difficulties. Although there are indeed a number of militantly dedicated Marxists who are truly “dogmatic”, “sectarian”, and “out of touch”, it is also the case that their existence often justifies the boundaries of the establishment left’s ideological consensus regarding party militancy: they are the ready-made straw-persons of party militancy. Clear claims regarding organization and strategy that defy what is taken as normative are thus necessarily treated as anathema when they are erroneously compared to cult Marxism. Due to this anathematic nature, the guardians of Marxist academic respectability will be permitted to misconstrue arguments that defend a militant conception of the communist party, dismiss historical relevance, work to shut down acknowledgment of useful criticism. A common strategy, as I noted in the introduction and one that even Dean critiques, is to paint the argument for a revolutionary party as dogmatic from the get-go, simply because it takes a militant position about the party form, and rest on the laurels of a critical Marxism that might itself be overdetermined by its own and unexamined dogmatism.
Take, for example, Jeff Noonan’s critique of some small aspects of The Communist Necessity which is paradigmatic of this establishment defense mechanism. Noonan claims that my attempt “to resurrect vanguardism” [as if it wasn’t a vital practice in the global peripheries, a claim conveniently ignored] leaves my argument “strangely, and sadly, disconnected from the concrete demands of the present conjuncture.” (Noonan, 98–99) Noonan of course assumes that he understands the concrete demands of the present conjuncture, though his understanding is immediately limited by the ideological consensus of which he is a part and his own subjectivism.
Noonan’s first criticism is to argue that any proclamation of revolutionary “science” is misguided because historical materialism does not look like the hard and natural sciences, a point I already defused (and he doesn’t think through despite having cited it) when I began with a definition of science that rejected this conflation. (Ibid,. 102–103)
Noonan’s second criticism is to claim that I am guilty of class reductionism, and he hastens to remind the reader that economic class cannot account for all of reality “as feminists, anti-racist activists, indigenous rights movements, queer theorists, and movements for accessibility led by people with disabilities have been arguing for four decades.” (Ibid., 103) [Part of me wonders if Noonan is being disingenuous here. As the external reader of my doctoral thesis, which was on anti-colonial theory, he should have been aware precisely how I understood class in relation to anti-racist and Indigenous struggles. The fact that I hold national self-determination to be essential, and to also be part of a larger class struggle, is something he should have known.] The fact that I refused to use class in an essentialist manner, and instead argued for it as the site of intersection rather than an identity, is something he glosses over. Of course he is entirely correct that an orthodox conception of class — where one’s class position is treated as an identity rather than a social relation and thus at the end of the day necessarily excludes these other sites of oppression — is no longer acceptable. Since he comes from a Trotskyist background, however, where class was indeed grasped in this essentialist manner, he is incapable of seeing it as anything other than this reductionist phenomena. On the other hand, for someone who talks about “the concrete demands of the present conjuncture” it is unacceptable to court identity politics when there are always clear class questions involved in every site of oppression.
Here again is where Dean’s intervention regarding the party and class struggle is extremely salient: Dean classifies the emergence of resistance crowds, composed of multiple identities in solidarity, as class struggle; she argues that class solidarity, understood in a non-dogmatic way, is necessary to avoid the pitfalls of identity politics atomization. Moreover, when it comes to the global terrain, economic class (broadly understood) very much determines capitalism and anti-capitalist structure. Yes it must, as a category, be expanded to take into account all of these other struggles (this was the failure, I argue in both The Communist Necessity and Continuity and Rupture, of the anti-revisionist movement), but it also needs to be recognized that billions of people are hideously exploited — they are worked to death in sweat shops, mines, and new plantations, they are exported to the metropoles as cheap productive and reproductive labour — so that capitalism can reproduce itself. If such exploitation stopped overnight capitalism’s basis for existence would be undermined… And these masses of super-exploited people are by-and-large not white cis males.
Finally, Noonan argues that I miss “the actual lessons that political history over the past forty years has taught.” (Ibid.) But what lessons did I miss, what lessons were actually taught? The strictures of the establishment left contract and Noonan provides the same story of “failure” that I had also discussed in the book he is reviewing, without engaging with any of my arguments as to why this narrative was one that was made in bad faith. The Soviet Union and China fell, other “vanguard” projects were ameliorated: yes indeed, I already pointed this out, but what else did I argue? My point was that we needed to recognize the other side of the dialectic as well, the ways in which they were successful and established the possibility of truth procedures. “[I]f the Leninist and Maoist traditions could solve our problems,” Noonan proclaims, “they would have — they had seventy years to work.” (Ibid.) Seventy years? How about twenty years because this is precisely the time period since the initiation of Maoism-qua-Maoism and, in that time, we’ve seen a variety of people’s wars and theoretical blossoming. Moreover, the initiation of the Maoist sequence and its conception of the party occurred in the face of a doctrine of the end of class struggle (of history itself!) and a conjuncture of revolutionary decline. More importantly, though, Noonan’s over-generalization missed one of the main points of the polemical argument made in The Communist Necessity: in all of the years of the sequence that formed revolutionary party projects, there have indeed been successes. Simply because they did not establish communism once and for all is not grounds for their dismissal; they were always more successful than where their opposite, the lack of theoretical and practical unity, attempted to make revolution. But the main argument Noonan missed was the following: while the framework of party unity needs to be grasped in order to successfully struggle against revolution, of course we must also supersede the erroneous limits of the past that were indeed revealed as failures. Rather than grasp this nuance and rightfully wonder what I meant by it (because I only posed it as a question in The Communist Necessity), his gambit is to reduce the argument to the most cliched conception of vanguard orthodoxy.
“Whatever criticisms need to be made about philosophical communism,” Noonan concludes his critique, “they need to be made in the historical context which helps explain its emergence.” (Ibid., 104) But I explained this emergence — a failure of communism to account for other sites of struggle, the real failures of actually existing socialism, and the emergence of the “end of history narrative” — and so did Dean, a year and a half after I wrote The Communist Necessity, in similar terms. The fact that Noonan could miss all of this speaks more to the strictures imposed by the ideological consensus of the establishment left than my spurious and polemical prose: the counter-arguments were present in the text he was critiquing but, because this text spoke of a party form that was too militant for him to digest, straw-personing was necessitated. Demands for a “new return” to the party project were conflated with “old returns” and the critic was quarantined from the reality of the very conjuncture he claimed to understand concretely. Let us be clear: a concrete analysis of a concrete situation requires that the analyzer be aware of all of the international struggles outside of those promoted by mainstream first world discourse — those that take into account the global population as a whole — and so why are the masses engaged in revolution globally (not just those in the Arab Spring that were shut down by the military coup, those that looked like first world movementism regardless of what the leftists within these movements were actually saying) pursuing their revolutions according to concepts of the party that such a critic deems orthodox? They are the manifestations of the theoretical terrain that speaks to the current conjuncture — the global contradiction is between imperialism and the oppressed masses — and their struggles are concrete.
Although a return to the party concept is becoming more acceptable to the first world establishment left as a whole than it was several years ago, Dean’s recent book being a sign of the times, concrete expressions of party-building that are not refoundationalist projects will remain just outside the realm of decency. It is less offensive to tolerate the conceptual need for a party than to accept what it would take to make a unified revolutionary machine.
There is something quite offensive in the notion of a vanguard, no matter how this vanguard is conceived, and the establishment left tends to unleash a variety of quarantine strategies so as to sequester itself from the contamination of imaginary orthodoxy. If these vanguard impulses do not resemble some form of Trotskyism (and they generally do not) then that part of the establishment left that takes its cue from this dead-end Marxism will dismiss them as Stalinist. Otherwise we are faced with a condemnation of vanguardism and parties that is characteristic of the kind of crank leftism found on libcom.org.
A particular problem that confronts the mainstream left at the imperialist metropoles is the desire for new terms, metaphors, and symbols that will provide fresh perspectives on concepts supposedly weighted down by the detritus of history. To be fair, there is no reason to deny that there is a need for new ways to talk about significant theoretical topics; sometimes, after a particular name of a concept has been repeated over and over by multiple tendencies and intellectuals, its meaning becomes suffocated in hackneyed and cosmetic interpretations that do not excite the people for whom the concept is meant to serve. As we know, Mao argued against stereotypical speech and book worship; we should be trying to develop new ways to talk about revolutionary theory.
At the same time, however, much of the desire to change all of the old Marxist language and link the same concepts to new words is produced by the legacy of anti-communism where we automatically assume that the masses will oppose overtly communist sounding language so we must instead resort to semantic trickery. A theoretical tradition accrues set concepts that are given particular names (and synonyms) and unless we want to rewrite everything precious in this tradition according to our new semantics, and forbid ourselves from sharing the works in this tradition until they are translated, it makes no sense to eschew the terms we have inherited. We might as well call capitalism something else and force the ruling class to rewrite their own ideological language so it accords with ours. And what do we do when our new translations lose their freshness, as they certainly will? Rewriting entire libraries every decade is clearly absurd, and not the practice anti-capitalists should waste their time with when there are better things to do. Moreover, such absolutist attempts to twist around language we assume is outmoded could easily lend itself to a syntactic nihilism where the endless renaming of every concept approaches the event horizon of symbolic meaninglessness.
A more worthwhile approach is to retain the significant terms of the theoretical terrain while simultaneously granting them new synonyms and metaphorical interventions, retain the old and recognizable symbols while connecting them with new representations. Such an interplay might even result, if it’s connected with practice, in the further development of a concept. More importantly, though, new concepts (which will be far more fresh and unique than old ideas that are recostumed) will only come about through revolutionary movements, as they did in the past, and we aren’t going to achieve this ruptural newness by spending most of our time pursuing a semantic update.
At every world historical revolutionary conjuncture we discover the eruption of new concepts; these conjunctures were not produced by forcing reality to conform to a new language. Rather, reality was forced to conform to a revolutionary sequence that resulted in this new language. None of this should prevent us, to be clear, from thinking this new language now — by explaining our conceptual history in different and exciting ways — but it should at least grant us the sobriety to realize that we cannot force a new conjuncture with some new words and metaphors. Translation can be cheap: look at the RCP-USA, for example, and its “new synthesis” that, in imagining a new conjuncture, invents the blandest new language to enunciate old ideas. A new theoretical synthesis will only emerge from the next world historical revolution, but we might be able to prefigure some of its aspects by breathing new life into the concepts we have inherited.