THE CREATIVE POTENTIAL OF THE SUBJECTIVE WILL: the revolutionary party as avant-garde [Part D]
[This is the final instalment of my extended essay series intended to promote my upcoming book by reflecting on a problematic connected sideways to its contents.]
In conclusion, it might be worth reflecting on what it means to think the party in the order of the Real: that is, what it means to be part of building a party project. Although it is necessary to defend the party in theory there is a problem when such a defense remains at the level of philosophical discussion or thought experiment. The reason why I argued in The Communist Necessity that Dean’s discussion of the party in The Communist Horizon was movementism dressed up as Leninism was because it expressed the error that most academic arguments devoted to defending a party form of organization commit. Such academic ruminations on the communist party conclude that it is necessary but fail to explain how this necessity can be approached in concrete terms; most often they are prophetic suspensions, where the party becomes something that can and will appear — spontaneously or at least beyond the efforts of the author — at some unexplained time when the masses are ready. Rightly wary of the (supposed) Leninist-qua-Leninist axiom that the party manifests the movement, another error is made: the movement manifests the party.
But why can we not state that the party manifests the movement inasmuch as the movement manifests the party? On the one hand the party is that which consciously emerges from the overall anti-capitalist movement since “mass struggles exist independently from communists” Any communist formation “that isn’t intimately linked with this movement — that doesn’t use all occasions to convince, through the proletariat’s own experience, the interests that divide the proletariat from the bourgeoisie — will never be able to create the conditions to overthrow capitalism.” (PCR-RCP, It Is Right To Rebel) On the other hand, though, the party should be that which also creates new movements once it consciously emerges from the limits imposed by the broad and spontaneous anti-capitalist movement. The revolutionary party should manifest fronts, mass organizations, united fronts, and coalitions. According to both perspectives, though, the party should emerge as a conscious formation due to the limits encountered in the broad, spontaneous movement while also contributing, as it becomes more coherent, to this broader movement:
In a certain way, each communist originates from the spontaneous movement; a majority amongst us took their first steps towards communism by taking part in the mass movements — we shared their aspirations and also their fragmentary consciousness. The movement is a sane thing, a necessary and universal passage. For some, however, this first step becomes the whole thing and is treated as a permanent stage: they recognize the spontaneous movements but deny the active role of consciousness and its materialization, the Communist Party. (Ibid.)
Manifesting the party from the mass movement, then, is not something that we should leave to chance — to the superstitious hope that it will happen spontaneously — but something that those of us have participated in this mass movement should consciously engage in due to its very necessity. Such a conscious act of party building can take a variety of forms: it could mean joining an already existing party formation whose programme we broadly agree with; it could mean, in the apparent absence of a party formation that does not provide a concrete analysis of a concrete situation, beginning the process to found a new party project; but it should never mean waiting until the mass movement as a whole magically manifests the party as a completed form.
(There is not enough time, here, to examine the reasons why a new party project should be founded as opposed to joining an existent formation. All I can say is that either option could be chosen for erroneous reasons. First of all, there is the error of initiating a new party sequence simply because you and your small group of comrades wants to start your own thing and, because of this, you focus on a number of minor differences between your interpretation of reality and another formation’s interpretation that is otherwise close to your own… The explosion of multiple ML groups during the New Communist Movement was often mediated by this error; sometimes a new party formation should not exist because it would be better off joining its closest version and engaging in line struggle over the perceived differences. Secondly, however, there is an error in joining a party project that possesses a programme you and your comrades by-and-large disagree with in the interest of cosmetic unity: ideologues of the old revisionist parties imagine that they are principled when they argue that anti-revisionists should just join the traditional parties––whether they be the Communist Party Canada, the Communist Party USA, the Communist Party India (Marxist), etc.––and engage in “line struggle”… But we should already know that the line struggles that initiated the first great wave of anti-revisionism were such that joining these parties, or even treating them as valid, are now foreclosed. The point, then, is whether or not the principle of organizational unity is antagonistic or non-antagonistic.)
Another problem emerges, however, once we grant that the party should be consciously pursued: the strange habit at the centres of capitalism of immersing oneself in a “pre-party” process that is as potentially eternal as Dean’s communist horizon. To be fair, the logic of this approach is based on sober Marxist principles. A small emergent formation should seek to make itself relevant by engaging in social investigation and mass work so as to not declare itself a party ahead of time with a programme that is cosmetically applied to the concrete reality. But there is also the danger of losing oneself in this pre-party process because social investigation and mass work can never be completed by their very nature: these are practices that can and must continue for even a party that has become strong enough to initiate a revolution.
Hence, although there is good reason to suspend the claim of being a vanguard until one’s project actually emerges as the de facto advanced guard, those who focus on a pre-party process that aims to conclude itself the moment it has achieved such vanguard status tend to fetishize a process that pushes the coherence found in a party project into a distant future that might never be reached. The pre-party fetishization, then, is a practice that is premised on social investigation and mass work that will somehow succeed in establishing potential cadre at all levels of society so that, at one glorious moment, the process can conclude with a completed and massive communist party. A programme that includes revolutionary strategy is dismissed as premature; the assumption is that such a programme will emerge if and when the long march of pre-party agitation succeeds in a vague vanguardist aim. Lack of a programme and thorough centralization tends to promote ideological irresponsibility: anything can be said about anything, positions can change according to the latest fashions, and pre-party cadre can dismiss their previous erroneous positions as one step in a long process of social investigation. While positions can and should change, lack of a programmatic framework (that can also change) beyond the basic contours of a tendency permits ideological drift.
As an older and experienced comrade of mine once argued, though, the moment you assume that you are engaged in a process that will terminate with a party is also the moment that you assume, despite what you might profess, that the party is a telos that is not itself a process. In this sense it prevents you from developing a programme from your social investigation and mass work which is potentially endless; it gives you an excuse for doing nothing but “building towards” a possible party formation without anything but the most general political line. Why can’t we imagine instead — and this is why the analogy of the artistic avant garde is significant — a party project established earlier in the social investigation sequence that is daring enough to draft a programme while willing to reinterpret it through struggle and development?
There is a problem, then, in conflating the potential vanguard party with the actual vanguard party. The pre-party fetishization, in its hope to establish the actual vanguard immediately and once and for all, fails to understand that such an establishment will not happen without a process that begins with a potential vanguard that may or may not succeed. Rather, we need a unified party project that seeks to become the avant garde, far in advance of succeeding, so as to work towards this goal in a manner that is theoretically and practically unified. No actual party vanguard will emerge without a potential vanguard party working towards this goal; the avant garde does not manifest without a process that is programmatically orientated towards its emergence. Let us return to the analogy of avant garde art so as to grasp that the recognized periods of the avant garde did not happen without processes determined by programmatic aims (Dada, Surrealism, Futurism, etc.) while simultaneously accepting that other would-be avant garde movements ended up in the dustbin of history.
Although it is indeed crude for tiny left grouplets to declare themselves the vanguard without becoming militant comprehensive parties at the heart of a revolutionary counter-hegemony — we should always be critical of premature vanguard declarations — it is also erroneous to avoid an avant garde project due to an assumption that the masses aren’t ready. Such assumptions are often justified by an appeal to a mass-line ethos due to the fact that the masses are not gravitating towards the raising of the red flag. They produce further assumptions: revolutionary slogans should be watered down, symbols inherited from the history of struggle should be hidden, militancy might alienate those who are not ready. Such a mindset produces pseudo social investigation, where the prevalence of the ruling ideas of the ruling class are accepted as normative and a crude empiricism is used to justify tailism. When it is presupposed that the masses are opposed to a communist ethos, a particular type of social investigation is used to justify this presupposition: we discover what we hoped to discover from the masses because we were providing nothing to these same masses.
An avant garde project, however, refuses to tail such presumptions about mass work; it proposes a rupture and locates its possibility in this proposal. This does not mean that such a project ignores social investigation. Rather, it should use this investigation to inform a project that is located at the threshold of what it has uncovered so as to force a revolutionary break with business as usual.
One of my favourite parts of Dean’s Crowds and Party is how she conceptualizes the revolutionary party as “an affective infrastructure that enlarges the world.” (Dean, 210) Her point here is that the party provides an opening to its cadre where their world is enlarged by solidarity, where they are transformed into a collective subject rather than an individual limited by their own particular subjectivism. Rather than treating the party as a gloomy but necessary site of ironclad discipline (though she does point out that discipline is necessary), she wants to understand it in the way that its militants have understood it historically: it is exciting, it is enlarging, it is a project where one can become empowered in multiple ways.
When one is not engaged in a party project, no matter how critical they believe their analysis of capitalism might be they will always be limited by their own subjectivism. Their decisions on history and society, their analysis of reality as it is, will be incomplete. This is mainly because the motion of history and society is class struggle and if one cuts themselves off from fully participating in this movement (i.e. being part of a coherent class struggle project) then one will lack the means to understand the concrete circumstances. They will be stuck with the fractured ideas of disunity filtered through their singular, atomized consciousness.
While it is indeed the case that it is better to be an isolated left critic than part of those party projects that provide a pseudo enlargement of the world (i.e. those extremely sectarian and dogmatic groups that function more like religious cults than communists), and while we should think through what makes one party project better than another (as I will do in Continuity and Rupture), I simply want to point out that subjectivist declarations on the meaning of history and society — particularly the history of the left to date — should be treated as less significant than those made by organizations, and the cadre of these organizations, that are attempting to enlarge the world. A concrete analysis of concrete circumstances is the business of the party programme; it cannot be fully consummated by a single left individual because it requires the kind of mass-line social investigation that only a coherent collective can produce. Indeed, our class enemy understands this: the think tanks designed to promulgate bourgeois ideology by gathering statistics are not organized according to the unique thoughts of disconnected intellectuals, even though bourgeois ideology promulgates this myth, but by multiple organized researchers whose social investigation is intended to help the ruling class know what the masses are thinking and doing.
The bourgeoisie is enlarging its warped version of the world through its parties; the proletariat requires the same infrastructure if it hopes to overcome the capitalist nightmare.