Critical reflections on Jodi Dean’s
The Communist Horizon
The eye-grabbing cover of Jodi Dean’s The Communist Horizon (Verso, 2012) depicts what could be the dawn of a new day. A red sun, half in view, arcs across the volume’s bottom edge. From this solid red spot, dozens of thin but widening beams fan out; crossing the background, the sunlight splits the sky itself into stripes of red and white.
Though Dean had no direct hand in selecting this cover image,1 it speaks to one of her most consistent themes: the fundamental importance of division to her notion of communism. We are not presented here with a unified red star in the distance (suggesting a stable true referent to navigate or chart one’s march by), nor with a solid red flag (that might suggest this truth is presently embodied in a particular party or state). Here, the red spot splits the scene. The beams emanating from the red sun are not just red, but red and white, suggesting that this horizon does not turn all the world red—like some anti-capitalist Midas touch—but rather illuminates the divisions that exist. Here the red sun divides in two the world it stretches to meet; it does not eradicate particularity, but casts it in a new—dividing—light.
Surely it says something that of all the dozens of cover-images put out by Verso last season, the editors chose this one—red sun rising, red beams spreading—to go on the cover of its Fall 2012 catalog. It would appear that the idea of communism is making a kind of comeback, at least in some circles—academic as well as activist. Consider the story of the now famed March 2009 Birkbeck Institute conference on “The Idea of Communism.” Featuring critical communist theorists from Alain Badiou and Bruno Bosteels to Michael Hardt, Peter Hallward, and Slavoj Žižek, this gathering, expected to attract a mere 200 attendees, found itself overwhelmed with an interested crowd of 1200. Verso Press’s new “Pocket Communism” series is among the latest signs of the red shift. These hard-covers—they won’t fit in your pants, but will in a jacket—are built for easy transport to the post-demonstration discussion circle or to the seminar table.
The latest in this Verso series, Dean’s The Communist Horizon may be the most accessible and most explicitly engaged of the bunch, in the sense of being oriented towards recent political developments and pressing questions of political form.2 Though it is a book that certainly sheds light (and weighs in) on a number of debates within what might be called the New Communist Philosophy, The Communist Horizon deserves to be read and discussed beyond such circles, by anyone who believes that the present capitalist world order leaves much to be desired. One recent commentator has aptly described Dean’s book as “Theory for Everyone.”3
It’s a sweeping and forceful work, one that boldly and unapologetically attempts to recast the political field of contemporary capitalism (at least as it is experienced in the Euro-American sphere) while taking aim at a host of widely held beliefs – prevalent on both the Right and the Left – that stand in the way of building a serious emancipatory movement today.
When I first heard the phrase “communist horizon” – in Bruno Bosteels’ The Actuality of Communism (Verso, 2011), where Dean herself found her title-trope4—I was excited. (Excited enough, in fact, over the following months, to push successfully for naming a local group I worked with Red Horizon.)
Why? What does communist horizon conjure, connote, or emphasize that communism alone might not? What does it mean to figure communism as our horizon?
Well, for starters: a horizon is equally available to all. It does not require specialized goggles, or a special Archimedean point from which to look out; in no way is it the property or the monopoly of any particular group or lineage; it belongs to everyone. What could be more common than the horizon? While someone may point it out to you, or help you to discern its signs, anyone with functioning eyes can see it (provided of course there are no large structures obstructing the view), so long as they are willing to look. It belongs to no country, but is in a fundamental sense global, planetary.
A horizon is always out ‘there,’ never quite ‘here.’ It can only be seen, never touched. No matter how one strides towards it, it remains distant, an aspiration. However focused one is on keeping a particular spot on the horizon in view, one can never be sure that one will arrive exactly ‘there.’ Certainty as regards a horizon must always remain more than a bit speculative. There is no room for arrogant pre-possession or for pretense, as if one could know for sure that one’s charted path is the “one true path,” as if we were the ‘true’ and only communists. A horizon is wide; it stands to reason that there may be many different paths for reaching it. It can be glimpsed, but not grasped. No single person, no single group can in fact control, nor possess it.
Yet, though unreachable, even in a sense unapproachable, a horizon can help to orient us where we are. We look to a horizon to see where we are headed, to determine the general direction in which we want to go.
Crucially, to orient toward a communist horizon is to be reminded of hopes and possibilities that may not seem apparent in the immediacy of the present. Keeping the horizon in mind, keeping one eye on the horizon, if you will, is to keep from losing our bearings, to keep from becoming totally consumed by, and mired in, our immediate surroundings, institutions, or struggles, as important and demanding as these often are. Even as we devote energies to the local terrain, we should never forget that what we’re about is trying to find our way towards a radically egalitarian and worldwide change, a global human flourishing, “where the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all.” Communism can never be solely about the here and the now, but must seek to connect this here and now to the there and the then, with the spatially and temporally distant.
At the same time, we also may look to a horizon to see not just where we are heading (or where we want to go), but also to see what is coming our way: what is in the distance now (in spatial or temporal terms), but is coming nearer…whether it’s good or bad, or—as is often the case—both.
In our particular moment, to look toward this horizon (whether in spatial or in temporal terms) is to lay eyes on a number of intensifying capitalist crises—perhaps most acutely, the environmental crisis (which includes but is by no means limited to the toxic spiral of global warming and climate destabilization), but also interrelated crises involving spiraling global inequalities, the overproduction of surplus capital on the one hand and the production of “surplus” population, for whom the system appears to have little profitable use, on the other. Acting out what Marx termed the “absolute general tendency of capitalist production,” capitalism’s unrestrained ‘productivity’ promises to render huge swaths of humanity superfluous to value production altogether, except as global slums to be policed by private security, locked up in private prisons. To these fundamental crises, readers can easily add their own catalog of oncoming catastrophes.5
At the same time, though, to look into the distance today is also to take in the stirring of mass popular movements across the world, from the Arab Spring to the Occupy movement, to the anti-austerity struggles growing in Europe, to the ongoing Maoist-led movements in India and Nepal. These uprisings suggest what Alain Badiou has called a “Rebirth of History,” reminding us of the potential for an aroused populace to challenge and even to overthrow dominant political regimes. Especially here in the US, where political horizons and immediately realizable possibilities often seem so radically impoverished—where the commercial media and corporate politics drag down political discourse and childlike imagination alike—keeping one eye on the horizon (temporal and spatial) may be crucial to sustaining hopes of radical social transformation.
Crucially, to speak of the horizon of the era as communist is to imply that the capitalist horizons, the proclamations about where the limits are for human social potential, about what is “natural” and what is “possible” or “realistic,” given the “new normal” of the existing system, are utterly artificial, arbitrary, themselves non-necessary. They are not limits, but artificial and socially constructed restrictions and restraints. To declare that the actual place where the earth and sky (where human materiality and human aspiration) meet is communism, is to call out the structures and the “laws” of the ruling system as no more “natural” or ultimately binding for us than fake skylines that might be painted onto flat canvas backdrops for a cheap Hollywood movie. We can—and should—point out their artifice at every opportunity, as one key step toward knocking them over and revealing the actual horizon beyond. To speak of the communist horizon is to implicitly call out the capitalist horizon as false. It is to defamiliarize the dominant “norms” of our world, by persisting in a belief in something beyond it, even when a self-identified mass communist movement—except in India, Nepal, Greece and perhaps a few other places—is not yet a clear and present player on the scene. It is to insist that other coordinates of political and social life are possible and desirable, however fleetingly discernible within the present.
The communist horizon offers us a figure for thinking unity and contingency together, universality and particularity. It is the aspiration that needs to be kept in view while we devote ourselves to more immediate projects, not knowing at this point which projects will turn out to have been the ‘correct communist path’ at some hypothetical point in the future. The horizon thus becomes a figure for uniting revolutionary utopianism with political pragmatism. As such, it is a figure that offers questions, more than answers—perhaps an appropriate image for us today. With the communist horizon in mind, the question becomes not where should we go (or who precisely we should go to) to do communist work, but rather how can we conduct our explorations – and the work that we are doing, wherever we are – in a communist way.
Finally, I would conclude my opening ‘riff’ on Dean’s titular trope by emphasizing that looking to the communist horizon is always to be looking for others looking back.6 For, the ultimate communist horizon, what makes a cooperative and egalitarian social transformation possible as well as necessary, I would argue, is the intersection of four points: 1) that capitalism itself is a system based on increasingly (albeit increasingly disavowed) socialized labor, one that brings people together in new ways and that unleashes productive (and destructive) forces of unprecedented power (and danger);7 2) that this system remains fundamentally incapable of satisfying the needs and wants of the vast majority of humanity; 3) that human beings are capable of thinking, desiring, wanting, and wishing in ways that point beyond this system’s limits; and 4) that among our needs is the need to satisfy the other’s need; that it is within our capacity, even perhaps integral to our nature, that we see in the other a being ultimately very much like ourselves, that we see ourselves reflected in the other.
These points, taken together, imply nothing less than the potential and necessity for a communist, cooperative organization of the world. Bearing them in mind, we must assume that, whatever the immediate political situation proclaims as “realistic,” there are billions of people out there who in some way are looking out for something systemically beyond it, even if the words ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’ do not cross their lips. The challenge, the need, then, is to find a way to catch their eye, and to hold and to triangulate their gaze long enough to build something together out of our mutual recognition.
Building upon each of those four points, communism can then stand for the unending struggle to render increasingly visible and self-conscious: 1) the collective nature of social production under capitalism—or for that matter, under any “transitional” socialism; 2) the fatal flaws of capitalism with respect to the needs of humanity; 3) the capacity of human thought and reflection to transcend the reifying and fetishizing, fragmenting and isolating, marketizing and mental deadening that are so essential to capitalism, and remain as latent dangers under socialism; and 4) the reciprocal and self-reflexive nature of human need.8
To strive for communism is not only to strive for a particular set of social, political, and economic institutions and relationships, but to strive to cultivate (in oneself and in others) a consciousness of and sensibility to the way that we are all made of a common substance and inhabit a common planet, that we all, in a sense, face a common threat, and that, as human beings, our individual interests and flourishing are deeply interdependent. In short, no one can be fully human alone. When we hurt another, we hurt ourselves. We are at root social and collective beings.
The ultimate horizon of communism then might be conceived not as a state and not as a sun, or any other thing, but as the possibility of a collective humanity, looking back at itself—taking itself in, if you will—and then seeking to satisfy and to realize itself, in and through rational and non-coercive intercourse with others (and with the earth we share). It takes flight from the mutual recognition of our common class enemy, yes, but also of the ways in which we labor together each day to make and remake the world (albeit in ways that often do not accord with our will or desire, that are forced upon us by capital and its private dictatorship over our commonwealth, our social surplus too often stolen and used against us). It insists that we treat the myriad of human others not as instrumental means, but as human ends in themselves—as intersections of need and desire, as beings to whom we are connected.
Communism can thus be understood as beginning—as having already begun—not with the achievement of some utopian end-state (or with the toppling of the capitalist order, the seizing of factories, etc), but wherever there grows a conscious desire to bring about this dialectic of mutual human recognition and flourishing. Communism thus incarnates, as Jodi Dean keeps reminding us, as “the collective desire for collective desiring.”9 This desire stands opposed to the rule of capital, but is not reducible to that opposition. It aims to cast new coordinates for human species-being.
For Dean, the Communist Horizon represents “a fundamental division that we experience as impossible to reach, and that we can neither escape, nor cross…a dimension of experience that we can never lose,” she adds, “even if, lost in a fog or focused on our feet, we fail to see it” (1). “The horizon,” she writes, “shapes our setting,” whether we acknowledge it or not. Citing parenthetically the influential Freudian psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, Dean likens the horizon to the “Real” which, for Lacan, was both impossible and actual. She likens it, in our recent dialogue (printed below), not to an end point, but to a condition, the only political condition under which an egalitarian politics is possible.
It is at once unreachable and yet constitutive, utopian not in the sense of an imaginary blueprint to be imposed on reality, but in the sense of a viewpoint that cracks open possibilities inherent in our immediate, present conditions, while at the same time providing coordinates—and inspiration—by which we can navigate these conditions, together. To grasp the horizon is to enact a shift of subjective perspective – albeit rooted in the study of objective actuality – that allows us to envision, and thus seek to actualize, a freedom beyond the formal limits of the present system. At the very least such a shift allows us to dissolve in thought some of the self-defeating ideas and practices that too often keep us from daring to actualize our potential.10
Dean roots her title in Bolivian Marxist García Linera’s contention that “The general horizon of the era is communist.” She notes early on that Linera does not feel that he must provide an argument for this contention; rather, he “assumes the communist horizon as an irreducible feature of the political setting,” “as if it were the most natural thing in the world” (3). “For Linera,” she adds, “communism conditions the actuality of politics.”
To speak of communism as a horizon is thus to suggest its natural and eternal, if not self-evident, aspect; it exists as a possibility to some extent independent of the state of the ‘productive forces’ or the particular historical moment. It is at once historical and eternal at the same time.11
As much a manifesto as a cutting-edge critical intervention, The Communist Horizon aims not just to sharpen our view of the present, but to stoke our desire for global human emancipation, to help us clear our throats of the taboos that choke them, for the study and the struggle that lie ahead. Dean seeks to incite in readers not just a righteous indignation in the face of capitalism’s many and widely documented abuses and injustices, and not just an understanding of how capitalism (‘necessarily’) produces these crimes, but a collective desire for communism. She understands communism not just as a goal – to abolish class divisions and satisfy basic needs – but as a transformative subjective process: the unfolding desire for collective desiring, a desire to bring into being a political Subject, a “We” which can put into practice the principle: “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” As Dean puts it, rather eloquently, “This principle contains the urgency of the struggle for its own realization” (15).
Who among us would disagree? And yet, despite the eloquence of such Marxian poetry, who among us dares to proclaim proudly and publicly that s/he is a communist?
Dean’s book not only seeks to convince us of its truths, but tries to make it easier for us to speak these truths, publicly, boldly, and unapologetically. It is a text whose very polemical style performatively models the engagement for which it argues. At the level of style and of theoretical critique alike, it aims to challenge the “We” skepticism and the scholastic individualism that characterize academic circles (and so much else in contemporary capitalist society). Her manifesto makes its premise what many Marxists leave as their conclusion: that it is not enough to challenge or protest or reform the present order (nor is it enough to predict the precise vector of its demise, as if we were outside it); we need to collectively overthrow it, so we can outgrow it – even if in order to do so we must first outgrow it from within.
Dean’s major themes
Divided into an introduction and six chapters, The Communist Horizon includes at least seven distinct offerings: 1) an incisive critique of anti-communist ideological assumptions that persist in and police contemporary political discourse, 2) a deft tracing of the way that communism, even in its relative absence, still structures political thinking on both the Left and the Right, 3) a thought-provoking concentration of a decade’s worth of thinking about the implications of 21st century ‘participatory’ communication technologies and ideologies for capitalism, 4) a suggestive if uneven reconceptualization of communist political subjectivity for the current moment, including a nuanced critical engagement with living communist philosophers (Žižek, Bosteels, Badiou, Rancière, Hardt, Negri, Agamben, Hallward, etc.) on a range of topics—from the Party and the State to the nature of the Commons, Democracy, Dictatorship, Sovereignty, and the Proletariat, 5) a theoretically probing reflection on communism as a collective desire, and 6) a deeply sympathetic but nonetheless sharp critique of the recent Occupy movement. This last leads into her closing contribution, 7) an argument for (re)constituting a bona fide communist party as the sine qua non of 21st radical politics. In the remainder of this article I will walk through the first two and the last two of the above-listed themes. The other themes are addressed in my dialogue with Dean, below.
In her first chapter, Dean reduces to rubble several aging pillars of anticommunist doctrine, particularly those which are built upon a certain (and deeply problematic) notion of “History.” She does this not by through offering a historical narrative of her own, but by analyzing the concepts on which anticommunist “History” tends to be based.12 This chapter, while offered as a defense of communism, should be of interest to any on the Left who must contend with anticommunist rhetoric of one sort or another – in effect, to anyone who struggles seriously for social justice.
Starting from the reasonable assumption that more than any other state or society, the USSR figures in the American imagination as the prime example of ‘Communism,’ Dean argues that the Soviet Union, during its seven decades existence, was not at all the static or stable referent that anticommunism implies. The actually-existing Soviet Union was, rather, a dynamic entity, characterized by change, conditioned by internal contradictions and struggles as well as by external forces and historical contingencies. It was, furthermore, far from the simple hall of gray bureaucratic horrors that many suggest. It had many notable achievements: from defeating the full force of Nazi aggression, to achieving rapid industrialization in the most severe conditions, to supporting decolonization abroad, to making major strides toward economic security and equality at home. Dean further discusses the way in which the very existence of the Soviet Union pressured existing capitalist states to enact reforms that otherwise would not have been considered necessary or even possible.13
And yet, Dean observes, communism is treated in standard anticommunist discourse as if it were one, fixed “thing.” It is presented to us as a uniquely determined (and self-determining) object, an ahistorical invariant on an inevitable, teleological arc, whose appearances (invariably negative) express not a complex interaction of contingent factors, but communism’s unchanging (‘brutal’, ‘doomed’) essence. “If it happened once, it will happen again, and there is nothing we can do about it,” Dean parodies, commenting, “The oddity of this position is that communism [within anticommunist ‘history’] is unique in its determining capacity, the one political arrangement capable of eliminating contingency and directing action along a singular vector” (35).14 Beyond the obvious danger of anticommunist demonization, another risk here for leftists is that “Instead of the politics of a militant subject [inherently engaged with the flux of material and historical particularities], communism is [understood as] an imaginary, immutable object” [emphasis added]. How can one come to identify as a partisan with a movement that is presented to us as sealed off, closed, fated, doomed if not outright demonic?
Undermining this dominant narrative even further, Dean points out, is the fact that most of the canonical understandings of the history of the Soviet Union (and of the Communist movement generally) are deeply marred by cold war ideology, bias, and lack of valid evidence.15 Furthermore, the degree to which even those failures or defeats of the Communist camp which have been well-documented can be laid at the foot of communism as such is far from clear. As she puts it, in many cases, “It is still impossible to say which aspects of the Soviet system were intrinsic to it and which resulted from external pressures” (33). Similarly, many of the USSR’s excesses (in its crash-course industrial development) were inspired by models of ‘success’ based in the capitalist West (Fordism etc). This is to say, Dean suggests (in a way that is informed by Susan Buck-Morss’s studies of Soviet culture), that the US and the USSR were mutually implicated in one another’s development, a fact that calls into question any hypostatizing of the Soviets as a static and hostile “other.” To condemn the USSR at any number of points is to condemn the capitalist model of USA, more so than communism as such.
Beyond that, Dean points out how the USSR, and the 20th-century Communist movement as a whole, were characterized by division and debate, across places and times, factions and parties – a complexity that tends to be ignored within anticommunist discourse.16 (Similarly ignored by anticommunists is the basic point that the leadership of the Soviet Union never claimed to have achieved communism at all, though it did call itself a Communist Party.)
The historical instability and non-identity of the actually existing Communist movement (within the USSR and beyond it) then must logically be reflected back into the anticommunist discourse that founds itself upon (and then encircles) this referent as if it were a fixed object. In the sustained light of this simple but disturbing truth, monolithic anticommunism falls apart. As Dean points out, contrary to this American dogma, “The USSR was never fixed or one” (23).
How could an ideological structure of such dubious stability have lasted so long and exerted such influence? As Dean points out, more than any other, it has been the name of “Stalin” or “Stalinism” that has allowed anticommunist ideology to obscure what would otherwise be glaringly obvious methodological problems. “A legacy of the Cold War more than of critical inquiry into Soviet history,” Dean writes, “‘Stalinist’ tags practices of monopolizing and consolidating power in the Soviet party-state bureaucracy. In this circumscribed imaginary, communism as Stalinism is linked to authoritarianism, prison camps, and the inadmissibility of criticism” (29). And linked in essence, we should add, not merely through the mediation of historical circumstances, competing structures, or agents. Dean emphasizes the ways that this ‘tagging’—a practice that is still common on the Left as well as the Right—obscures both the history of other communisms outside the Soviet Union, and that of the Soviet Union itself after Stalin.
Dean might press still further here to discuss the internal struggles and tensions that characterized even—some would say, especially—the Stalin period in the USSR, as well as the internal/external struggle between Maoist China and the USSR. Moreover, at the level of method, she might consider how “anti-Stalinists” tend to employ ahistorical and essentializing (often moralizing) judgments of the Stalin era. The name of “Stalin” tends to hypostatize the Soviet Union, allowing critics to abstract from both the external threats (capitalist encirclement and imminent Nazi invasion) and internal pressures (sharp internal class struggles as well as actual counter-revolutionary conspiracies) faced by the world’s first socialist state in the crisis-racked decade of the 1930s.17 Just as problematically, this objectifying and abstracting (often outright demonizing) of “Stalin” allows for Leftists (notably those based in a Trotskyist bibliography) to identify themselves with a hypothetical “alternate” or “dissident” tradition, one that presumably could have avoided the historically inherited problems and difficulties (and yes, even horrors) of the actually existing Soviet Union.
What makes this Stalin-casting particularly problematic, we might add, is that many of the challenges the Soviet Union and its leadership (including others as well as Stalin) faced—how to stave off fascist aggression, how to rapidly industrialize, how to collectivize agriculture in a class-stratified countryside, how to deal with actual counter-revolutionary wrecking and conspiracy—cannot simply be pawned off on “Stalin.” Rather, in many cases, these challenges may be inherent to the project of socialist state construction as such, at least within the context of capitalist-imperialist encirclement.18 Following Žižek and others who have cautioned Marxists against falling for a “narrative of the Fall” within Marxism, and against the seductions of political fantasies rooted in the preservation of a “Beautiful Soul,” I would here caution against political identification with an imaginary pure “Third Way” that is purchased, on the one hand, by abstracting from historical particularity, and, on the other, by denigrating the sacrifices of millions of comrades who lived and died trying to figure and fight their way through the actual contradictions of their place and time.19
It should be pointed out here that Dean’s polemic against anticommunism is less about identifying one or another communist trajectory as “correct,” than it is about taking apart the ideological structures that continue to prevent, cordon off, or hamper an honest critical discussion of this history, and—most importantly—its meaning for a communist present and future. To her credit, Dean emphasizes how the reconstruction of the history of communism should be a project carried out from the standpoint of the present, with its particular needs, not principally an academic or sectarian matter of scoring points for one’s own school or camp. As should become clear in the next section, Dean’s anti-anticommunist polemic should be of use even to those radicals who may, for one reason or another, still keep their distance from explicit communism. For, as she argues, disavowing communism does not keep communism (and anticommunism) from shaping one’s political horizon. Far from it.
Communism: Site of Fear and Loss
Even in the absence of mass-based communist organizations, a certain specter—or ghost—of communism continues to structure politics and ideology in the US, both on the Right and on the Left. Communism, as Dean puts it, remains a “present force,” a source of what, following Eric Santner, she calls “signifying stress,” an absence that nonetheless, as “lack,” pulls at our language, reminding us of the present’s non-identity, its fissures and openings.
For the Right, Dean argues, communism continues to represent the threat of threats. Whether it is an anti-war protest, single-payer health insurance, progressive taxation, or demands for tighter global restrictions on carbon emissions, the label “communist” remains on hand to dismiss and demonize, policing “legitimate” discourse, by declaring Left proposals to be out of bounds. In particular, any group, individual, or proposal that calls attention to the class antagonism that runs through society is likely to elicit such denunciations as “communist.” Indeed, liberals too invoke the specter of communism to police existing discourse, ruling out of bounds radical positions that even potentially threaten to challenge the sanctity of private property, or raise the possibility of serious wealth redistribution, before they even have a chance to be articulated.
Such red-baiting, Dean suggests, is not just an expression of unprincipled and know-nothing conflations by ultra-conservatives (who—sigh—see even the corporate-capitalist-centrism of Obama as some sort of big-time “socialism”). Rather it signals a genuine fear on the Right about the vulnerability of the capitalist system, or at least of its hegemony, in this period following the Great Financial Crisis, Great Recession, and the Bank Bailouts. As Dean writes, “the bank bailouts shattered any remaining illusion that the democratic state serves and represents the people. They demonstrated in a spectacular and irrefutable fashion that the government intervenes in the economy and does so on behalf of a class.” As she adds, “When the US government bailed out the finance sector, the visibility of the state as an instrument of class power became undeniable…. The next move,” she adds, “is conceptually easy: use the state for a different class; use it to destroy the conditions that create classes” (42-43). Dean is keen to link the eruption of Occupy Wall Street to the broad resonance, the mass grasping of this basic point: following the Wall Street bailouts, tens of millions of people in this country have come to see the US government as something like “the executive committee of the bourgeoisie,” as a servant to the super-rich, “the 1%.”20
Building on this point, Dean detects a serious fear lurking beneath the escalating efforts of capitalists and politicians to beat back and blame “the people” for their alleged “excesses,” namely the scandalous, disavowed recognition that the people can be, have been, remain a political force in their own right, that the people have the power to oppose, resist, and restrain capital, when and where they are determined to do so. She suggests that the “demanding, refusing, taking” people that is blamed and abused by the Right could in a sense be flipped into a more militant political identity. “The problem is with the people’s demands,” Dean writes, “but not that we’ve demanded too much. It’s the opposite; we’ve demanded too little” (45).
Here, though, Dean’s useful argument demands some critical qualification or development, especially in relation to the particularities of race, racism, and national ideology as they cut across US culture and politics, lest we fall into a narrowly economistic notion of class struggle and communist politics. Dean writes, I think correctly, that “The antagonism that cuts across capitalist countries is so apparent that dominant ideological forces can’t obscure it” (47). Indeed, one of the lasting effects of Occupy has been to make available a popularly accessible and widely recognized language for conversing with people from all walks of life about the stark class inequities that run through our society. Nonetheless, in this context, ruling ideology, politicians and pundits, as well as reactionary ideas and practices that have permeated the masses themselves (particularly, but not exclusively, their relatively “privileged” strata) are constantly at work displacing this antagonism in a way that obscures its class nature, that elides the principal enemy (capitalism, the capitalist class), and that turns the “people” (or “the 99%”) against itself.
Here we need to account for—and to struggle against—racial ideology and racist structures. The trope of the “excessive…demanding, taking” and otherwise “undeserving” people is not just a weapon that is leveled against the people from above; it is a key means that is used to split the people themselves, turning one fraction of the working masses upon another, as predators, as cannibals, as zombies. Class struggle is displaced onto cultural divisions; secondary divisions among the people are rendered primary, and made into destructive antagonisms. Too often racist ideas, white supremacy, and other forms of race- or nation-based distancing from the supposed “other” have undercut the power of (“white” or would-be “white”) working people in their spontaneous efforts to find someone to blame for the crisis in their lives, while at the same time adding additional levels of oppression to those “non-white” subject “below.” It’s an old and ongoing routine: Those with jobs are encouraged to scapegoat “welfare mothers” for their tax burdens; those who happen to be born on one side of an imaginary line in the sand that was drawn by a bloody bayonet, are encouraged to blame the “illegal immigrants” for their suppressed wages; the would-be “white” and “middle class” sectors of the population are taught to hate and to fear the “criminal” underclass, most of which has been demonized for nothing more than the possession of a controlled substance, less dangerous than many legal ones.21
These fractures in the US population run deep; they demand a thorough working through. This is not at all to say that such racial divisions must be dealt with in full “before” an emancipatory movement takes on the economic class struggle.22 Dean’s posing of the primary contradiction as “The Rich” vs. “the Rest of us” provides a useful framework for working through and exposing the problems with various racist divide-and-rule strategies, which attempt to get the “white” or more “privileged” sectors of the working class to disassociate from their “non-white” and more acutely oppressed brothers and sisters, thereby sacrificing their own potential power, as well as their full humanity, on the dubious and blood-stained mantle of American “respectability.”23 However, within this broader class framework, the particular contortions and confusions and dangers of racism still need to be directly addressed.24 It would be a mistake to underestimate the degree to which culture and ideology, each encrusted with twisted, split shards of history, can distort the ways in which this obvious class contradiction appears. OWS’s “99/1%” or Dean’s “Rich/Rest” figuration holds real promise as a tool for left-populist polarization. But such figures should be viewed not just for what they reveal of “the reality” but as reflecting a new and powerful position in the hegemonic struggle to determine how precisely “class” and “the crisis” itself will be grasped by the USAmerican masses.
For the Left, on the other hand, Dean argues, communism continues to figure less as a specter to be feared than as a ghost to be perpetually mourned; it marks the site of a loss and an occasion for left melancholia. Communism, as the clearest name for a militant collective movement for the abolition of capitalism, class exploitation and domination, remains what the Left wants to want, but not being allowed, disavowed, rendered taboo, in its absence, Left politics more and more cycles through pathetic, unproductive, and increasingly passionless repetitions. We lose ourselves and exhaust our political energies in efforts other than the one(s) we know to be most necessary—organizing to affect the broad exposure and popular overthrow of capitalist class rule.
Post-communist “democratic” Left politics, for Dean, are characterized by something like Freud’s notion of drive, (a rather perverse satisfaction taken in endlessly circling the gap created by the loss of a desired object) rather than by desire (the libidinal compulsion to traverse the gap and to achieve the wanted object). It is in this context that Dean criticizes a certain left fixation on procedure and inclusion as if they were ends in themselves, to the exclusion of more explicitly political talk and action—about program, about strategy, about the nature of the change that we seek. “Some on the Left view the lack of a common political vision or program as a strength,” she writes, “They applaud what they see as the freedom from the dictates of a party line and the opportunity to make individual choices with potentially radical political effects” (54-55). “At the same time,” Dean adds, “the refusal of representation and the reluctance to implement decision mechanisms hamper…actual debate, enabling charismatic individual speakers to move the crowd and acquire quasi-leadership positions…and constraining the possibilities of working through political divergences toward a collective plan” (55). It is clear that Dean has Occupy Wall Street in mind here. “On the one hand,” she writes, “the openness of the movement, its rejection of party identification, made it initially inviting to a wide array of those who were discontented…. On the other… this inclusivity had detrimental effects, hindering the movement’s ability to take a strong stand against capitalism and for collective control over common resources” (55-6). Moreover, we might add, “inclusivity” becomes self-contradictory, at least in a class society, as meetings draw out to four and five hours, to the point that working people, single mothers, and commuters must leave before decisions are finally made, by the relative free few who remain.
Anyone who participated in Occupy will recognize the truth of Dean’s insight when she writes of a certain “politics of no politics”:
Avoiding the division and antagonism that comes with taking a political position, they displace their energies onto procedural concerns with inclusion and participation, as if the content of politics were either given—a matter of identity—or secondary to the fact of inclusion, which makes the outcome of political struggle less significant than the process of struggle. These leftists name their goal democracy. (56-7)
Dean objects to making Democracy the key term for Left struggle today. And she makes a solid argument, albeit a somewhat one-sided one:25 “Left use of the language of democracy now avoids the fundamental antagonism between the 1 percent and the rest of us by acting as if the only thing really missing was participation” (57-8).26
She argues that the Left’s recurrent call for more or more complete, more direct, or more radical democracy is a poor substitute for the lost communist horizon. Deferring the question of what social change is being demanded, calls for ever-greater democracy make of participation an end in itself. Privileging procedure and inclusivity, such a politics tends to avoid the frank recognition of divisions – both the class divisions of capitalist society and the political divisions that run through the people themselves (individually as well as collectively). Provocatively, Dean suggests that part of what may account for this clinging to democracy and proceduralism – at the cost of endlessly deferring class struggle – is a kind of fear not of defeat, but of success, a fear—often tinged with elitism—of the fury and power that might be unleashed among the people were the brute contradictions of capitalism to be proclaimed openly, honestly, and boldly. A true mass-based communist movement, after all, will not confine itself to the properly designated protest zones, or to the ballot box, but may call into question the position of the intellectuals and full-time activists themselves.
On the Party
Dean devotes her final chapter to a philosophical defense of the idea, and the necessity, of a communist party. On this last point, Dean sides with Bruno Bosteels and Slavoj Žižek, as well as Lenin and Lukács, (and against Alain Badiou27) in arguing that “there is no communist politics without a communist party.”
Much of Dean’s argument for the Party form is developed through her critical analysis of Occupy Wall Street. Contrary to those who would argue that OWS represented the transcendence of the need for anything like a communist party, Dean argues that the Occupation did not resolve but rather posed once more the problem of organization. For Dean, much of the power of OWS came from aspects that a communist party could and should embody, while its ultimately disabling weaknesses cried out for the structure that a “communist party of a new type” could provide.
Interestingly, Dean argues that Occupy, at least for a time, fulfilled some of the key functions that thinkers such as Lukács and Lenin had seen as essential to the party, in part by “establishing and maintaining a continuity of struggle that enables broader numbers of people to join the movement” (232). As Dean elaborates also in our dialogue, Occupy dramatized “the incompatibility of the people and capitalism.” She offers many sharp criticisms of Occupy, but she also credits the movement, albeit in ways that many of its own unofficial leaders would resist, drawing out ways that Occupy functioned in vanguard-like manner, as well as ways in which Occupy’s own weaknesses and limitations pointed beyond itself and towards the need for more party-like structures.
What would be the essential features of a party? Quite reasonably, Dean points out the need for political forms that can scale, that can endure, and that can cultivate the communist desire for collectivity, while learning both from history and from contemporary experiments. For Dean, the party further represents an explicit assertion of collectivity, a structure of accountability, an acknowledgement and working through of differential capacities inherited from the present system, and a vehicle for solidarity. The party of a new type should be an organization that instills discipline, and that makes preparation in light of the actuality of revolution, and of the chaos that characterizes revolutionary situations. Yet it should also be an organization characterized by flexibility and responsiveness to concrete situations, a structure that is attuned to contingencies and particular circumstances, that does not take naïve faith in the “Big Other” of either a pre-determined class mission, or historical inevitability. As Dean points out in an earlier chapter, “something can always go wrong,” a point which argues for ever more intelligent planning and preparation, as well as humility and vigilance.28 The prerequisite for such a healthy, dynamic and responsive party structure, Dean argues, is that cadre remain in “constant interaction with struggling proletarianized people” (243, emphasis added). The party, she argues, must become a vehicle for the self-understanding and the self-expression of the masses of the people, not an organization standing above or over them.
Drawing an analogy to psychoanalysis, Dean argues that the “Party doesn’t resolve contradictions [for the people], it expresses them as contradictions.… [It] doesn’t make demands on the people [but rather] makes present to the people the demands that they are already making on themselves, but can’t yet acknowledge” (244). The Party in this respect functions somewhat like the disciplined analyst, not telling patients what they want or need, but rather helping them (the proletarianized people) to become conscious of – and confident or courageous enough to admit and to take responsibility for – what they already desire. Resisting the position of the Master who knows, the party’s role is not to satisfy the collective desire of the people, but to rather to sustain that desire, to prevent it from being submerged and elided, to bring it to self-consciousness.29 As Dean points out, some anti-party anxiety may in fact stem from a disavowed desire for a Party that knows what to do, what we want, and what we must do to get it. Dean’s party offers no such guarantee. “It’s up to us,” as she puts it.30
Admittedly, Dean’s defense and definition of the party form remains largely philosophical. She doesn’t offer us a map of what particular class forces, institutions, organizations, or tendencies might form the concrete basis for a communist party—in the US or elsewhere—that is more than an academic discussion circle. What are the social fault lines and tendencies that are most ripe for cultivating and organizing communist desire today? Dean doesn’t answer this question, but she does help us to pose it. Nor does The Communist Horizon offer a delineation or demarcation of the features that Dean sees as positive or negative examples in previous or contemporary communist parties. She is rather trying to clear the space and to inspire the courage so that such a practical and concrete collective discussion can take place.
Where she finishes is where our work begins.
1. In a personal email, Dean indicated to me that while she had no input into the cover, she appreciated its Mao-era communist style. She further emphasized the subtle but important differences between this communist horizon and the “Rising Sun” of Imperial Japan; the latter would have many fewer and thicker sun beams compared to the former.
2. I refer readers also to Dean’s blog, which combines accessibility, quick responsiveness to current events, theoretical rigor, and openly communist radicalism. See
3. See Samuel Grove’s insightful piece, “Theory for Everyone,” in Review 31, available at http://review31.co.uk/article/view/95/theory-for-everyone.
4. To be clear, Bosteels takes the phrase from Álvaro García Linera, though he gives it his own theoretical bent.
5. I have tried to trace some of the dynamics of these interconnected capitalist crises in a special issue of Cultural Logic: an electronic journal of Marxist theory and practice, entitled Culture and Crisis (www.eserver.clogic.org) as well as in print as issue #60/61 of Works and Days (www.worksanddays.net). I would also recommend the thought-provoking analyses associated with “Communization Theory.” See for instance the work of Endnotes, starting with “Misery and Debt: On the Logic and History of Surplus Populations and Surplus Capital” http://endnotes.org.uk/articles/1; also the critical volume, Communization and Its Discontents, ed. Benjamin Noys, available in full at http://libcom.org/library/communization-its-discontents-contestation-critique-contemporary-struggles.
6. Jodi Dean approaches this aspect of the horizon in her recurrent description of communism as a matter of “collective desire for collective desiring.”
7. Every object or institution that we see, that we encounter, that we use, has been created by others—often many many others, no more fully satisfied by the current system than we are.
8. Here we get at one reason why I prefer to use the term communism when speaking of my own political orientation as well as of the ‘end goal’ or condition toward which we ought to aspire. We may support socialist economic or state structures, but it is important to continue to struggle for communism within and around such structures!
9. The early Marx spoke of it as the cultivation of species being, a term that takes on new and urgent resonance in this age of potentially apocalyptic capitalist ecocide.
10. Actually, Dean opens her book with quick references to not one but three types of “horizon,” each of which stands in resonant relation to her figure of the communist horizon. She invokes, all in her opening paragraph (and throughout her introduction): 1) the horizon as “the dividing line separating earth from sky;” 2) “the lost horizon” which suggests a more temporal dimension, connoting those “abandoned projects” and “prior hopes that have now passed away”; 3) “the event horizon.” Taken from astrophysics, this last signifies the space surrounding a black hole from which nothing can escape.
Dean at the outset emphasizes how the first and third horizon (the spatial and the event horizon) are “not much different” from one another. But is that the case? She writes: “Whether the effect of a singularity or the meeting of earth and sky, the horizon is, the fundamental division establishing where we are” (2). And this may be true. But certainly these two types of horizon establish our location, or allow us to establish our location in somewhat different ways. The earth-sky horizon is one that we can never reach, but which, if we study it, we can use to navigate our more immediate environment. The event horizon is rather a black-box, a black hole, an unknown. We might conceivably reach one, but once we did we could never return, nor would we be ‘there’ to register our having reached it. The event horizon represents the most extreme form of gravity, determinism on a cosmic scale, where epistemology and ontology collapse in on one another. Though we could certainly err in too closely parsing the metaphor(s) here, it might not be too much to suggest that while the earth-sky horizon represents the possibility of freedom within limits, the event horizon suggests the limits on that freedom. We might read the former as a figure for Theory, associated with communism, and the latter as a figure for History, linked to capitalism and its vortex-like laws. As human beings, we are creatures who, with the help of eyes and light, can see and navigate. But even the light, in the end, is bent, by gravity. How to go about bending social gravity!
11. Bruno Bosteels edges towards this tense relation of Eternity and History in his valuable The Actuality of Communism (Verso, 2011).
12. She does however cite the need for such new communist histories. As she writes: “The best response to the appeal to history is to shatter the chain communism-Soviet Union-Stalinism-collapse and make a new one out of the rich variety of movements and struggles. This is a history of courage, revolt, and solidarity” (38).
13. It’s worth noting that, absent a serious “Communist threat” in the world, these hard-won reforms continue to be dismantled everywhere, lending credence to the contention that the present moment in some respects resembles the “classic” capitalism and imperialism that prevailed prior to the revolutions of the 20th century. This deflates the view that the Soviet Union was strictly a negative influence, supposedly holding back some “Third Way” socialism.
14. ‘Oh, that it were so!’ I can’t help but interject.
15. For those interested in the extent to which influential histories of communism continue to be characterized by an extremely problematic, careless, even scandalous lack of valid evidence, I strongly recommend the work of Grover Furr. See his article in the present issue; also (co-authored with Vladimir Bobrov) “Stephen Cohen’s Biography of Bukharin: A Study in the Falsehood of Khrushchev-Era ‘Revelations'” (2010), in Cultural Logic http://clogic.eserver.org/2010/Furr.pdf
16. While Dean certainly gestures toward “other developments” in the communist movement, one could wish for a sustained engagement with at least the most significant among them, namely those associated with Maoism.
17. This is not even to mention perhaps the most pervasive practice of all: the proliferation and deployment of outright falsehoods, fabrications, and unsubstantiated allegations as a bedrock—one might say tombstone—of historical truth.
18. This is of course not to say that Stalin or the Soviet Union handled any or all of these challenges correctly, or in ways that should be simply emulated. But neither should their real struggles and attempts be dismissed out of hand. They should, rather, be studied and learned from, as indeed, the Chinese communists and Mao attempted to do, with results that likewise demand critical study.
19. For a sober, concise, insightful discussion of the variously competing yet overlapping political economic theories that informed different strains of Bolshevik and socialist practice, from Marx and Engels through Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin, Stalin, and Mao, I refer readers to the remarkable, but under-appreciated volume, Socialist Construction and Marxist Theory: Bolshevism and Its Critique by Philip Corrigan, Harvey Ramsay, and Derek Sayer (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978).
20.To grasp this point is to glimpse the likely polarization and radicalization of US political culture that is to come, as the “respectable center” becomes less and less tenable.
21. Regarding the crucial role of mass incarceration and criminalization in the persistence of the USA’s system of race-based social control, see Michelle Alexander’s important book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010).
22. In fact, such an urge to “deal” with racial inequities and white privilege before taking on issues of class and capitalism — for instance by calling for a redistribution of scarce resources between exploited strata in such a way as to elide the common enemy that binds working people of all “races,” stealing and shaping the social surplus to the detriment of the proletarianized—can be as disabling and disempowering as the tendency to neglect racial divisions altogether.
23. Indeed, as Dean points out at the very end of our dialogue, a majority Americans now see class conflict between rich and poor as more fundamental than racial conflict between “white” and Black; African Americans remain the most likely to hold this view.
24. Particularly useful to understanding and engaging issues of racism and white supremacy from a Marxist standpoint is the work of Theodore W. Allen. See his recently republished Invention of the White Race (Verso, 2012); also Jeffrey B. Perry, “The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights from Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight against White Supremacy,” in Cultural Logic, http://clogic.eserver.org/2010/Perry.pdf.
25. It is one one-sided insofar as it does not engage with the point that to advocate a truly democratic control over the economic realm of production would be quite a radical and revolutionary position. For an insightful discussion of Dean’s treatment of democracy that explores this issue, see Groves, “Theory for Everyone” (note 3).
26. One important example of this avoidance can be found at the very end of Michael Moore’s recent film, Capitalism: a Love Story (2009), where in his rousing, oddly prescient call for action—Moore ropes off Wall Street with yellow “crime scene” tape—he calls for us to assert the opposite of capitalism…Democracy. A giant American flag accompanies the call, with no mention that it is the owners of Wall Street who have hung that particular flag in the first place.
27. Aside from their stark difference on the question of the Party-State, I must mark here the way in which I have found Dean’s rebuke of Badiou’s notion of the Communist Idea to be in fact a rebuke of certain common misreadings or individualist appropriations of Badiou. At various points, I find Dean’s thought about communist subjectivity to be closer to Badiou’s own than she here acknowledges. I plan to elaborate and substantiate this point elsewhere.
28. She approvingly quotes Bruno Bosteels’ description of the party as a “flexible organization of a fidelity to events, in the midst of unforeseeable circumstances.”
29. Introducing a more collective aspect to Dean’s psychoanalytic analogy, we might think of such a party as a kind of guided group therapy, or perhaps, with reference to the popular realm of sports, to acting as a kind of coach for the red team.
30. Toward the end of her book, Dean offers a sober reflection on continuing left anxieties concerning the possibility of founding/joining a communist party. These include fears of centralization, and a continuing attachment to more individualist approaches, as well as an identification of the notion of a communist party with a narrow and often anticommunist-inflected version of such a party, namely a stereotype of the Soviet Union’s communist party, a party associated (rightly or wrongly) with bureaucracy, dogmatism, and authoritarianism.