Derek R. Ford
The Left is often ridiculed for its fragmentation, but at the same time-and often in the same breath-fragmentation in activism is celebrated, understood as a victory of heterogeneity and singularity. We have been liberated from the totalizing logic of modern (left-wing) politics, each of us free to choose our own projects and interventions, free to develop our own political line and identity. Why is it, then, that capital and the state have grown more and more powerful, more and more violent? Jodi Dean’s latest book, Crowds and Party, pivots around this knot of the subject, political organization, capital, and the state, and it provides an urgent and compelling answer to this question: We are kidding ourselves. We are losing, and we are perversely praising the conditions and causes of our loss, trying desperately to form them into a politics. Written clearly, forcefully, and passionately, Dean gives us-the Left-not just a diagnosis of our defeat but, more importantly, a way out: the communist Party.
Toward the end of her 2012 book, The Communist Horizon, Dean noted that “our political problem differs in a fundamental way from that of communists at the beginning of the twentieth century-we have to organize individuals; they had to organize masses” (196). Her new book begins here, with a theoretical and historical examination of this contemporary subject of politics. The prominence of individuality results from an assault on collectivity. One of the strange ways in which we embrace this assault is when we turn to “do-it-yourself” politics, which, Dean writes,
is so unceasing that “taking care of oneself” appears as politically significant instead of a symptom of collective failure-we let the social safety net unravel-and economic contraction-in a viciously competitive job market we have no choice but to work on ourselves, constantly, just to keep up (31).
Dean looks at the rise of individualism since the 1970s and demonstrates how this is tied up with the rise of “communicative capitalism,” which “depends on cultivating and monetizing the new and different” (141). The Left, too, has turned to the individual, believing that “the task of changing the world [is] preceded by that of understanding oneself” (53). Politics have to match up with my personal desires if I am to participate, if I am to feel welcome: ” if I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution” (71).
The individual subject-form is hegemonic, not airtight, and it’s contradictory, too. Social media is a good example. We take to social media to connect with others and to feel that connection, but at the same time through our participation we constantly express our own uniqueness, providing our own commentary on news articles we share, and so on. Communists have something to offer this desire: a history of building and enacting solidarity.
To get at this solidarity, Dean takes us through crowd theory and the crowd event. The crowd animates forms of political subjectivity that militate against individualism. In the crowd we feel our individual barriers slip away, we feel others press in on us, we become something greater than ourselves: we become subject to something greater than ourselves. Drawing on Elias Canetti, Dean writes that the crowd is formed by an “egalitarian discharge,” an ecstatic state of equality. Once formed, the crowd wants to increase, expand, and persist, and in order to do this it needs direction. Too often, the egalitarian discharge of the crowd is taken as an end in itself, and Dean repeatedly polemicizes against this, which she calls the “politics of the beautiful moment.” No, for something to be political it has to have an orientation. “There is no politics,” she notes, “until a meaning is announced and the struggle over this meaning begins” (125). This struggle necessarily exceeds the life of any crowd formation.
A rupture with the present order isn’t enough. The crowd isn’t politics, it “isn’t an alternative political arrangement; it’s the opening to a process of re-arrangement” (142). There is nothing inherently political or progressive about the crowd or the revolutionary rupture. The task of politics is to organize the beautiful moment, to give the crowd an orientation, to direct it. The Party names the organization of the crowd into a revolutionary politics that can institute a new social order. “This is the role of the party: concentrating and directing the energies of the people. The party shapes and intensifies the people’s practical struggles” (152).
Dean theorizes the Party in the abstract, as Party qua Party, not as this particular party at this particular juncture. She doesn’t get bogged down with evaluating and understanding the specific policies of historical parties. While there is definitely value in these debates, engaging in them would restrict her audience (I’ve never been asked my position on post-1956 CP organizing or the Sino-Soviet split by anyone not already on board with the Party-form). Moreover, they aren’t relevant to her main contribution: the theorization of the party as type of affective infrastructure, as a form of collectivity that produces feelings of belonging to a world-historic struggle and the kinds of strength and courage such belonging and immediacy brings.
Being in the Party
To illustrate the affective dimension of the Party, Dean turns not to where communist movements were strong, but where they were weakest: the U.S. and the U.K. In these nonrevolutionary circumstances, “the Party held open a gap in the given through which people could see themselves in collective struggle changing the world” (220). Reading Vivan Gornick’s 1977 book, The Romance of American Communism, and other memoirs of the Left, Dean relays the stories of Communist Party members and organizers that testify to the ways that the daily activities of a communist-like writing and distributing leaflets, organizing meetings and demonstrations, selling newspapers-were seen as immediately linked to the international proletarian struggle. The Party intensified the mundane and grinding tasks of organizing, imbuing members with a sense of history and a purpose, making them, as Dean titles her fourth chapter, “more than many.” Indeed, in Gornick’s book one finds statements that attest to this quite often: “Those years in the Party, they made me a human being. Nothing else ever did, nothing else ever could” (73); or “I was a Communist. And being a Communist made me better than I was” (106).
Dean argues that it is the collectivity and activity of the Party facilitated this type of subjectification:
Consistent activity… generated the perspective of the Party that enabled it. Consistency made it possible for the everyday to feel momentous, for neighborhood matters to become more than their immediacy, to become vehicles transmitting the sense of the world . (Dean, 2016, 228)
Dean’s thesis, in other words, is not that the vision of the Party generated the sense of urgency and commitment, but that the sense of urgency and commitment enabled the Party’s vision to take hold. The activity and rhythm of the Party become internalized. Members report their activities at weekly meetings, holding themselves and each other accountable for the state of the revolutionary struggle. Passing out leaflets isn’t a one-off event but a regular action that bears immediately upon the global struggle. This isn’t just known, it isn’t just a series of conceptual connections; it’s felt .
In this way, “‘Party’ names a common interior force” (235). It’s kind of like Peter Sloterdijk’s (2013) sphereology. While for Heidegger the question of the human was about being, for Sloterdijk the question of the human is about being-in:
for humans, being in spheres constitutes the basic relationship-admittedly, one that is infringed upon from the start by the non-interior world, and must perpetually assert itself against the provocation of the outside, restore itself and increase. In this sense, spheres are by definition also morpho-immunological constructs. Only in immune structures that form interiors can humans continue their generational processes and advance their individuations. (46)
We are never just there, we are always contained in something. The Party is an oppositional interior in bourgeois society that is generated by the cadre that it protects, that works on the workers who produce it. It’s a shared interior that isn’t hitched to any particular place or time. Fighting against the domination of capital and the state requires a strong oppositional interior, one that protects and enhances its inhabitants.
As a teacher and an educational scholar, I’m particularly interested in how this all plays out in schools and with students. In Judy Kaplan and Linn Shapiro’s (1998) Red Diapers, a collection of autobiographies of children who grew up in Communist Left families, there is a story that illustrates the impact that the force of the Party interior exerted on a child.
Sirkka Tuomi Holm, a daughter and granddaughter of communist Finish immigrants, was a member of the Young Pioneers, the CP’s children’s organization (which fed into the Young Communist League) in the late 1920-early 1930s. One day in class, when a teacher asked if any students didn’t believe in God, Holm’s hand shot up. Her teacher and fellow students were horrified, her closest friend betrayed her. Holm was embarrassed and lonely, and so two months later, when another teacher asked the same question, Holm didn’t raise her hand. But this time, another Pioneer, Leo, was in the class. He held his hand high.
At the next meeting of the Young Pioneers, Leo outed Holm for not raising her hand. Holm lied, saying that she had raised her hand but the teacher hadn’t seen her. “What did this episode do to me?” she asks? “I vowed that I would never be a coward again and that I would stand up and fight from then on” (38).
When Holm was 10 years-old she got the chance to prove her bravery. Beside her mother on a picket line in Ohio in 1931, the cops rushed in and began beating the striking workers and their supporters:
A big, burly cop ran toward my mother… I took a step forward, stood in front of my mother, stretched myself as high as a short ten-year-old could, and glared defiantly at the oncoming cop. My stomach churned. I started shaking all over. My teeth chattered. The cop slowed down, so I stretched upward a little more and jutted my chin out… The cop stopped, arm still raised, and we locked eyes. We started at each other momentarily, and I was surprised to see a look of shame and then one of pity on his face. He lowered his arm, turned away, and started furiously charging at another women, a friend of my mother’s. (34).
This was, according to Holm, the “test” that she faced after the incident in school. Her young comrade, Leo, outed her for letting her bourgeois teacher puncture the Party sphere. The Party inside of her strengthened, and she strengthened her commitment to the Party. In that moment, faced with the brazen authority of capital and its state, the collectivity of the Young Pioneers asserted itself in the body of 10 year-old Holm. She was more than many.
Holm’s story, I contend, bolsters Dean’s thesis that the primary role of the Party is to generate collectivity, both in the subject and in the organization of subjects. Holm didn’t stand up to the cop because of ideological clarity or because she understood clearly the dynamics at work in the present moment. While such clarity and understanding is crucial to political struggle, that’s not what the movement needs right now. We need the vision, collectivity, urgency, and discipline of the Party to maintain the gap in the order of things. Then we can act from within that gap, understanding and experiencing ourselves and each other as world-historic agents of transformation. How many times, after all, have the people working together (and against others) made and remade the world? Dean’s book not only articulates this urgency and possibility, it affectively communicates it. It’s a book that makes me want to be a better communist, a more disciplined cadre, a better Party member.
Dean, J. (2012). The communist horizon. London and New York: Verso.
Dean, J. (2016). Crowds and party. London and New York: Verso.
Gornick, V. (1977). The romance of american communism. New York: Basic Books.
Holm, S.T. (1998). “Daughter and granddaughter of the Finnish Left,” in J. Kaplan and L. Shapiro (Eds.), Red diapers: Growing up in the Communist Left. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Sloterdijk, P. (2013). Spheres I: Bubbles: Microsphereology, trans. Weiland Hoban. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).
Derek R. Ford is a teacher and organizer currently living in Philadelphia. His latest book, Communist study: Education for the commons is due out later this year through Lexington Books. He is co-author of Marx, capital, and education: Towards a critical pedagogy of becoming (Peter Lang, 2015) and has published in journals such as Educational Philosophy and Theory and Policy Futures in Education. He is a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation. More information can be found at http://www.derekrford.com.