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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/What is to be done with the actually existing Marxist left? An interview with Jodi Dean

What is to be done with the actually existing Marxist left? An interview with Jodi Dean

Ross Wolfe

Platypus Review 54 | March 2013


On October 13th, 2012, Ross Wolfe of the Platypus Affiliated Society interviewed Jodi Dean, Professor of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith College, and author of The Communist Horizon (New York: Verso, 2012). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation. 

Ross Wolfe: Your new book, The Communist Horizon, builds upon a body of literature that has accumulated around the concept of “communism” over the last decade. What is the significance of this renewed emphasis on communism?

Jodi Dean: The shift towards communism puts leftist thought into a distinct political horizon. It is no longer a sort of touchy-feely, identity issue-based, and fragmented emphasis on each person’s unique specificity. It is no longer a generic, attitudinal lifestyle, preoccupation with “awareness” or the spontaneous, and momentary reduction of politics to the minuteness of the everyday. Communism returns politics to grand, revolutionary possibilities—to projects of political power. And that change is absolutely, crucially enormous, even if forty years out of date.

RW: Where does your own work on “the communist horizon” fit in relation to the work of other major leftist theorists on the subject?

JD: My writing intersects Žižek as well as Hardt and Negri, with alliance to (and inspiration from) Bruno Bosteels. I get the account of communication as the fundamental aspect of economic change from Hardt and Negri. It is from them I get the account of contemporary capitalism and its political economy. I also disagree with them because they get rid of the notion of antagonism and that is the problem. Their diagnosis of informatization and communicative subsumption in capitalism is right, but they’re too positive about it, without providing the force that negativity carries in critique. I get the critical aspect from Žižek.

On the importance of the party, Žižek says, “a politics without the Party is a politics without politics.” I fully agree with that. Also, Bosteels and I have talked about the similarity between Žižek’s account of the party in the “Afterword” to Revolution at the Gates and Alain Badiou’s account in Theory of the Subject. The party is an association rooted in fidelity to an event. It holds open the space for this fidelity. The implication is that the party is not rightly understood in terms of its program or doctrine, but rather in terms of holding open the space for the subject faithful to the event, in this case, the event of 1917. This is where there is a similarity or resonance in terms of thinking about communism.

RW: In your book, you write: “The problem of the Left hasn’t been our adherence to a Marxist critique of capitalism. It’s that we have lost sight of the communist horizon” (The Communist Horizon, 6). What does “communism” provide that is missing from the Marxist critique of capitalism?

JD: Communism provides a positive moment: It is something that makes you do more than criticize and constantly subject everything to a ruthless critique. It provides a purpose and a direction for that sort of negativity to have a positivity in mind. Leftist intellectuals in particular often get lost in critique. We fetishize critique. We enjoy it, in the psychoanalytic sense, but the question is: What to do with the critique or how to use it to move forward—to galvanize and organize the masses? What communism provides is an orientation for critique. That is what Marx had, too. Yet, when Marxism moved so strongly into the academy that critique became viewed as beneficial for its own sake, it lost the orientation to a politics that would be willing to take power.

"Vote Communist" van featuring a model of Sputnik, Rome 1958

RW: Though he may have been its most celebrated interlocutor, one of Marx’s most enduring contributions to revolutionary thought arguably consists in his sustained polemic against rival theories of communism (those of Cabet, Dézamy, Weitling, Fourier, Proudhon) that existed during his time. So would you say that Marx’s critical intervention into the history of communist discourse is irreducible? Or is this legacy of immanent critique of other leftists dispensable?

JD: I don’t think this legacy is dispensable. It just shouldn’t be a fetish-object, right? It shouldn’t be some kind of “all or nothing.” My friend James Martel has a trilogy of books on Walter Benjamin. In the first of these, Textual Conspiracies, he criticizes what he calls “idolatry,” using Benjamin’s discussion of Baudelaire. James is an anarchist, and we disagree there, but his critique of idolatry as a mode of left attachment is really good. So as to your question, it doesn’t need to be one thing or the other.

RW: More broadly, what is the relationship between Marxism and communism? Does one have priority over the other?

JD: I think they have to go together.

RW: Is it still possible to imagine the creation of a communist society with a pre- or post-Marxist lens?

JD: Communism without Marxism can become weird primitivism. Some of the anarchist approaches to sustainability seem to have in mind something positively prehistoric in their rejection of anything that could be a city—even medieval cities, which didn’t require everyone to live in a subsistence mode of existence. Marxism recognizes that important things happened with industrialization, and communism comes out of—or has to be dragged out of—a particular kind of capitalist development.

RW: Oppositely, what is Marxism without communism as its goal, as with Bernstein or Kautsky? Or, as with Badiou, without the revolutionary implementation of the state as its means?

JD: Marxism without communism loses its radical goal and direction. That is what the problem with “socialism” is. Let me say a little more about this: I wasn’t sure at the beginning about “communism.” In the United States, it made sense from the 1990s through the first half of the last decade to think in terms of socialism. For us, socialism would be an amazing achievement, given the hideous trend of neoliberalism. However, I became more favorable to communism after reading the critiques of European social democracy, and I recognized it was a sellout to capitalism that sacrificed Marxism’s revolutionary edge and, in fact, had betrayed the revolution. Of course, I feared that the same could be said for parties claiming to be “communist,” such as the Italian Communist Party, which has co-opted and betrayed revolutionary Marxism just as much as some of the social-democratic parties of Europe. But in the contemporary political and intellectual turn, “communism” is important because it says “Look, we’re not sanguine. We think social-democracy sold out, that socialism is accommodationist. That approach has to be rejected.” Another reason for “communism” comes from the American context. No other word symbolizes anti-capitalism like communism. And that’s reason enough to claim it, hold onto it, and organize around it.

I disagree with Badiou on his rejection of the state and of the party, which is tantamount to a rejection of power, and results in a bizarre condemnation of communism as some weird mental attitude. His book, The Communist Hypothesis, ends up promoting communism as the contemplation of this Ideal Form. We have to think in terms of a state and of a party. We need to push ourselves to imagine different forms and modes of organization and realize them differently. We can’t think that every possibility has been used up.

RW: On the subject of the state, you propose a state guided by “the sovereignty of the people” rather than “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Can you explain the reasoning behind this terminological shift?

JD: There are a couple of reasons I argue for “the sovereignty of the people” instead of “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” The reason I moved to “sovereignty” from “dictatorship” is not simply because “dictatorship” has a bad reputation or that it’s a difficult political position to organize people around (though these are good reasons, too). It is because “dictatorship” connotes a provisional form, whereas “sovereignty of the people” lets us know that we must always be collectively governing ourselves. We have to always be steering ourselves, always mindful of a struggle against those who would attempt to oppress, exploit, or expropriate us.

RW: Does your notion of “the sovereignty of the people” allow for Lenin’s (and Engels’) doctrine of “the withering away of the state”?

JD: No, I don’t think so. I am not sure if it makes sense for us. What makes sense for us is to think of different modes of power that we continue to exert over ourselves. Here is how I would put it: I am interested in the different modes and different ways in which we can be self-sovereign. For Lenin, there is a lot of “withering away,” which means that with everyone getting new skills and being able to do the same things bureaucratically, the state apparatus will become unnecessary. In some ways I think that is right. We might think of that today in terms of various distributive forms of government or governance, but overall the language of “withering away” doesn’t capture how we would continually need forms through which to steer or govern ourselves in complex societies.

RW: Insofar as Marx, Engels, and Lenin characterized the modern state as expressing the domination of one class over all others, doesn’t the continued existence of the state suggest that classes continue to exist? Does this imply that a classless society is impossible?

JD: It depends on how we understand the state and how we understand classes. I want to defend an idea of communism against a bunch of the common-sense criticisms that are given, the kind raised by democrats and progressives. They tend to criticize it along the following lines: “Oh, you communists think that you’ll get to an end of history where there’s no more politics, and everything is just wonderful, touchy-feely unity.” Laclau also has a version of this critique. The reason they have that criticism owes to the language of the withering away of the state, as if we could have forms of human sociality that would be completely without violence or oppression. We shouldn’t be utopians in the sense that we believe in a classless society there will be no more conflict. There won’t be class conflict, but there’ll be different kinds of conflict, and we will need the state in some form in order to abolish capitalism, in order to take things and redistribute them.

RW: Besides sovereignty, the other component in your reformulation of “the dictatorship of the proletariat” as “the sovereignty of the people” is “the people.” Following Hardt and Negri and Badiou, you distance yourself from the classical Marxist notion, elaborated by Lukács, of the proletariat as the “subject” of communism or history. Instead, you “offer the notion of ‘the people as the rest of us,’ the people as a divided and divisive force, as an alternative to some of the other names for the subject of communism—proletariat, multitude, part-of-no-part” (18–19). How does this amendment to the traditional concept of the “subject” of communism or history help to improve Marx’s theory, or at least bring it up to date?

JD: One of the ways it brings Marx’s theory up to date is really pragmatic. When you’re talking to a bunch of people today, almost no one says that he’s a member of “the proletariat.” They may say they’re part of “the people.” (This, even though Marx and Lenin are very clear that “the proletariat” is not an empirical category). The term “proletarianization” is still accurate and useful, however, so I think it’s important to keep that concept and think of “the people” as “the proletarianized people.” For folks in the US, “proletariat” suggests factory labor too strongly. There are many people who don’t feel like they’re proletarians, even as they might recognize their existence as proletarianized, especially today because we’ve lost so many manufacturing jobs. There are so many precarious workers, fragile workers, so many non-workers—widespread unemployment, people who are underemployed. It’s hard for those folks to think of themselves as “the proletariat.” The sense of “the people” as a divided group better encompasses our own time. Frankly, I also think it includes more of the “reserve army” of the unemployed, the Lumpenproletariat that classical communism had mistakenly abandoned.

Now I don’t mean this in any way as a rejection of the category of the worker. Recognizing “the people” as a revolutionary subject also brings communist theory up to date, because in Russia and in China there were discussions of alliances between the proletariat and the peasantry, both as segments of the revolutionary people. There was a realization in Russia and China that the category of the “the proletariat” risked being too narrow and exclusive and wouldn’t account for a huge segment of the people. Both Lenin and Mao had ideas of “the people” as a revolutionary grouping and both used this language. Lukács is very clear in his book Lenin: A Study in the Unity of His Thought how Lenin evolved the notion of “the people” to give it this revolutionary, divided, and divisive sense. So there are good Marxist reasons to make this rhetorical move in emphasizing “the people” rather than “the proletariat.” They recognized the utility of a militant account of “the people,” not as a totality or unity, but as a divided group.

RW: How does your category of “the people as the rest of us” work to address the problem of revolutionary consciousness? What would something like “false consciousness” look like in this model?

JD: This is where Žižek is very helpful. In Žižek’s account, ideology is not a matter of what we know but what we do. So “false consciousness” isn’t the problem. The problem is what you’re doing, and how your actions repeat. We all know capitalism is a system that exploits the many for the benefit of the very few, and yet we continue in it. It’s not like we are deluded about it. Our contemporary problem is not that we are unaware that capitalism is unjust and wrecking the lives of billions. The problem is that we either don’t have the will to get out, or aren’t quite sure how to do so. It’s not a matter of changing people’s minds. It’s about changing their actions.

RW: I would like to go over your rejection of democracy in the name of communism. This may just be tactical, given the political vocabulary today. Taking a broader historical purview, however, didn’t Marx and others view communism as simply a higher realization of the democratic principle?

JD: That is because they didn’t live in democracies. They were struggling for democracy. They didn’t have universal suffrage, democratic governments, and so on. So it makes sense that they thought they were for that. Maybe not toward the end of his life, but Marx for the most part believed that once there was a workers’ party and universal suffrage you could possibly install an elected version of something like communism. That seems likely in some of his writings. But that view is ridiculous. The bourgeoisie is not going to give up without a fight. That is why I think Lenin is so much better. In “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder Lenin argues that democracy is the highest form of bourgeois government—it is a vehicle for bourgeois rule.

We need to ask ourselves: What is the attachment to democracy? What does that mean in left-wing discussions these days? I think it’s a failure of will, and even an attachment to the form of our subjection. Why do we keep arguing in terms of democracy when we live in a democracy that is the source of unbelievable inequality and capitalist exploitation? Why are we so attached to this? It makes no sense. Of course, it’s not like we should have a system where nobody votes. The most fundamental things—namely, control over the economy—should be for the common, in the name of the common, and by the common (without being determined by something like voting). It should be known that there is no private property. Everything we own and produce is for the common good, and that is not up for grabs, it is a condition for the possibility of democracy. It shouldn’t itself be subject to democracy, the same way that any kind of revolutionary moment or transition to communism can’t be understood as a democratic move. If we can get twenty percent of the people, we could do it. But it’s not democratic. Eighty percent of people don’t care. Badiou is brilliant when he asks, “Why are people so intrigued by the so-called ‘independent voters?’ Why are people without a political opinion even allowed to decide, when they don’t even care?”

"Without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement," poster by Gustav Klutsis featuring a quote from Lenin, 1927

RW: Like Bosteels, you object to Badiou’s treatment of communism as a quasi-Platonic “eternal political idea” (37). What is at stake in this objection? If communist politics arose historically, what were the historical conditions that first made it possible?

JD: In a very banal Marxist sense, what makes communism possible has to do with the level of development of forces of production under capitalism. And then the question is, as always: Is communism yet possible? Is the fact that we haven’t achieved it yet a sign that it has not yet been possible, in terms of the level of development of forces of production? Or have we just lacked the political will?

RW: Insofar as communism can thus be seen as bound up with the historical emergence and continued development of capital, what role does capital play in history in determining what you call “the communist horizon”? Does the image of communism vary from age to age depending on the social conditions that are present? If so, how?

JD: There would be things that vary and things that don’t vary. The image of communism would also vary with respect to the specificities of the relations of production in different societies. The image of communism for Mao was not the same as the image of communism for Lenin. So there are all sorts of ways that one could parse this and contextualize it with rich historical detail. But even some of the abstractions about communism are helpful. My favorite of Marx’s definitions of communism is “From each according to ability, to each according to need.”However, one can also get very properly specific on how something like “equality” would manifest under communism, just as Marx criticizes equality as a bourgeois notion, particularly if it’s going to be limited to certain abstract rights.

RW: As in his Critique of the Gotha Program?

JD: Right. Both notions are there in that text. You have both the critique of a certain form of equality and another image of equality. So what would be better than the abstract question of “How does it change?” Questions that are much more historically specific.

RW: How does the communist horizon appear under the aegis of what you call “communicative capitalism” (a term that encompasses both Fordist and neoliberal capitalism)? Is this any different from how it appeared under previous phases of capitalism—monopoly capitalism, classical liberalism, or mercantilism?

JD: There is something about the communicative “common” that makes things different. In communicative capitalism, we see a mode of subsumption and expropriation of the social substance that goes beyond the commodity form, and also beyond the labor theory of value. We see this in the way that Google and Facebook seize our relationships directly—without having to commodify any kind of social substance—and search them for their own purposes. There is something about the way that communicative networks exceed the commodity form that is important for the critique of capitalism and in terms of how communism might unfold or what it can be.

RW: Discussing the predominant picture of socialism and the USSR furnished by Western historiography, you note that, “there is not yet a credible and established body of historical literature on communism, socialism, or the Soviet Union. Most of the histories we have were produced in the context of a hegemonic anticommunism” (33). Beyond repairing communism’s poor public image by correcting tendentious accounts of its history, is there a need for a Marxist history of historical Marxism itself?

JD: What I would really like to see, in terms of my own interests, is a history (or maybe a political science) that provides a Marxist approach to learning from the Soviet experience. What are the positive things that can be taken from Soviet history? There have been all sorts of great models and different ways of approaching the question of the workers’ control of the economy, particularly the Yugoslav experience, and we need to have positive histories and reassessments of these. I am really much more interested in what we can learn for building a better party, for modeling different states, and for putting together a positive vision that is politically relevant.

RW: Toward the end of your book, you introduce the figure of Lenin in connection with your concept of the party. This takes place within the context of a discussion of the Occupy movement in 2011-12. Countering the common conception of political parties as inherently authoritarian and unrepresentative, you maintain that “the party is a vehicle for maintaining a specific gap of desire, the collective desire for collectivity” (207). What would you say is the relevance of Lenin today, in light of Occupy? Does Occupy invalidate or perhaps complicate Leninist conceptions of party and organization?

JD: In the book I emphasize that with Occupy Wall Street, the folks who were sleeping in the parks were a vanguard. Even if their larger movement didn’t like to use the term “vanguard,” they acted like a vanguard. Their activities also helped galvanize people and organize resistance. So to that extent, they were acting somewhat like Lenin, even though they might have eschewed describing themselves that way.

RW: Since the party you propose is patterned after Lenin’s notion of a vanguard party, how would you approach existing political organizations that still lay claim to this legacy—who maintain, moreover, that they alone hold the “little red thread” of continuity connecting them with October 1917? What is to be done with the actually existing Marxist left?

JD: There has been a debate, by either the International Socialist Organization or some other website, about whether the sectarian parties should try to form one big party or exist as a kind of united front. And there are interesting positions on this. But there has got to be a way to split the difference, perhaps using SYRIZA as a model, since SYRIZA is a coalition for the radical left. So a radical left coalition, something like SYRIZA, could be very cool to try out. It would be something more stable than just affinity groups flowing together but less unified than just one party with one line.

RW: Must these parties simply set aside their differences and unite? How would you distinguish between historically meaningful, principled splits and historically meaningless, arbitrary splits?

JD: The question is: “How much are we divided together? And how much are we divided apart?” And the answer to that question comes through practice. Which divisions do we maintain? And where do we decide to split? I don’t think a lot about the historical arguments. What matters today is what we identify as the primary enemy. Is the primary enemy capitalism or is the primary enemy the state? Communists and socialists rightly recognize the primary enemy as capitalism. The problem with anarchists is that many of them see the primary enemy as the state or the state form. So they don’t think that seizing the state—or trying to expropriate it in various sorts of ways by winning parts of it—matters. They think more about just abolishing it completely. That is a mistake. Whether or not anarchists and communists can work together, because we recognize that the current state is the state of capital, is an open question. If non-affiliated communists can build themselves into a party, or proto-party, that is strong and attractive enough, it would draw the schismatic parties into a kind of divided alliance—an alliance that uses its divisions to strengthen itself.

Let’s face it, though: We’re not Greeks. We don’t have a radical history of hundreds of thousands of people in the streets in the last fifty years in the United States. We don’t have it as part of our regular practice that folks can throw firebombs at the police and the police just stand by. So given where we are, it makes infinitely more sense to ask what we can pragmatically do to organize against capitalism, and replace it with something more egalitarian.

RW: As with Žižek, the history of political Marxism you draw upon has a kind of cutoff point with Lenin’s death, after which Stalinism took hold. Beyond that point, the versions of Marxism that migrated or took shape outside of the sphere of Soviet Marxism—Trotskyism after Trotsky’s exile, Western Marxism with the Frankfurt School and elsewhere, Maoism after the Sino-Soviet split—appear to be orphaned in the account you trace in The Communist Horizon. Discourse on the party ends with Lenin.

JD: Yeah, that is a totally fair point, and I think it is totally true. Where I would like to go next involves studying the German Communist Party toward the beginning of the 20th century. They were advocating forms of horizontal participation in small political structures. |P