Joseph G. Ramsey: How would you trace your own relationship to communism as a cause and a concept? You attribute the notion of the communist “horizon” to Bruno Bosteels (who takes up the term from the Bolivian Marxist theorist and rebel turned politician Álvaro Gercía Linera). For how long have you viewed communism as your political horizon? How has this horizon shaped your theoretical and practical work? Has communism always defined the end point, the horizon for you?
Jodi Dean: I don’t think of the horizon—or communism—in terms of an end point. The horizon is the division that marks where we are. The division that marks where we are with respect to politics is that between communism and capitalism. This has been true at least since 1917 and arguably since 1848. It’s important to think of communism not as an end but rather as the only condition under which a politics adequate to the needs, demands, and common will of the people is possible. Under any other conditions, interests other than those of the people rule (coerce).
I find myself feeling anxious about the term ‘your political horizon’ because it makes it sound as if the communist horizon (that is, the fundamental opposition between communism and capitalism) was subjective or personal rather than objective. The communist horizon isn’t something specific to anyone. It’s a fact of the world, the event of 1917.
I was born in 1962 and don’t remember not being acutely aware of the Cold War, perhaps because of the nuclear threat, perhaps because of the war in Vietnam or the space race. (When I was a kid, my father was in the Air Force. For a while, we were stationed in Omaha and he was a flight surgeon on flights associated with the Strategic Air Command. Later, we were stationed in San Antonio and regularly saw the troops undergoing basic training before they were sent to Vietnam.)
I didn’t think about communism via the metaphor of a horizon until I heard Bruno use García Linera’s term at a conference in Rotterdam in 2010. The conference, called “Waiting for the Political Moment,” was completely interesting in part because it gave me the sense not only that communism was back on the table (which was already clear after the Birkbeck conference1) but that the tables had turned, so to speak. The arguments that had been so popular, the ones that had seemed to be winning in academic contexts, the ones associated with Foucault, Deleuze, deconstruction, a particular kind of post-structuralist theory, weren’t so persuasive anymore. The ones that were persuading people, that were the most compelling, were the ones coming from communist orientations.
Ramsey: How did you become radicalized? What events or figures were particularly influential to your own development politically?
Dean: This is a difficult question; my answer will end up boringly autobiographical. I think the short answer is probably something like: I was never radicalized. I studied Soviet history in college and read Marx and Lenin before I read any other political theory. The ideal of “from each according to ability, to each according to need” resonated with the New Testament description of how the Apostles distributed work and goods (I was brought up Southern Baptist). So it was simply right. Lenin had the skill and the will to try to realize this ideal.
Here is the longer version: my initial political views were completely incoherent, an unintelligible mishmash, perhaps a result of the different views of my parents, living in the deep south (Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama), being raised Southern Baptist by parents who were not fundamentalists but critical, feminist, and anti-racist. Maybe the one thing that was somewhat consistent was an attraction to intensity, conviction, and opposition. So, as a kid I was against the Vietnam War but, under the influence of my mother, deeply engrossed in a Cold War series of novels by Alan Drury. The first was called Advise and Consent. The novels get consistently worse until the last one, which is a kind of warning novel about how bad things would be if someone who was accommodationist toward the Soviet Union (or insufficiently hawkish) were elected president. Meanwhile, Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men comes out (the book and the movie) and I get completely obsessed with Watergate and the awfulness of the Nixon administration, which did a good job countering Drury’s right-wing propaganda. At some point while I was in high school, a Russian émigré scientist started working in my father’s lab. He started teaching me a little Russian, which I then studied in college (I was terrible at it and cried every day my first semester). One of my first courses was with Robert C. Tucker (of the Marx-Engels Reader and the Lenin Anthology). I then took several courses in Soviet politics with Stephen F. Cohen, who wrote Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution. I had the tremendous privilege of being able to study Soviet politics with one of the few people in the US during the early 80s who wasn’t trying to blow them up. So, yes, we read about collectivization and the terror, but we also learned that this wasn’t all there was. There were ideals and goals and a tremendous experiment in social equality.
After college, I traveled by myself in the Soviet Union for several weeks (I am very proud of this – not many young American women did this in 1984; my Russian was good enough that I could meet people and talk with them, go to their apartments). It was tremendously exciting to be on a train crossing into the Soviet Union early in the morning – fog, lights, soldiers, dogs, a billboard welcoming people to the world’s first socialist republic. I then started graduate school in Soviet Studies at Columbia University and switched after the first year or so to political theory. The strange thing: this was the first time I learned anything about Western Marxism. I had thought communism was Marx, Lenin, and Mao and was totally clueless about everything else until graduate school. So, I worked through this material and got to the Frankfurt school, loved Lukács but was told I would never get a job if I wrote a dissertation on him, did a dissertation on Habermas instead, was engaged in identity politics associated with sex and sexuality, and was relieved to read (and get to know) Žižek as he was opening theory back up to the questions and concerns of Marx and Lenin.
Ramsey: Interesting. What do you see as the primary importance of Žižek’s intervention in the ‘Theory’ scene, particularly in the US? What would you say are the major ways in which Žižek’s theoretical or political approach informs or differs from your own? I realize of course that you wrote a book on this topic, Žižek’s Politics.
Dean: Although Žižek is probably best known for reinvigorating interest in Lacan, I became most interested in his work for its emphasis on class struggle as the fundamental antagonism. At a time when multiculturalism was theoretically dominant, when Laclau and Mouffe’s emphases on hegemony and radical democracy were widely cited, and when Butlerian ideas of performativity seemed to be everywhere in feminist and queer theory, Žižek emphasized the primacy of the economy. Without addressing the economy—economic inequality, class struggle—there could be no further improvement in the other areas. One place with a good version of this argument is the last chapter of The Ticklish Subject, which is one of my favorite of his books. Even more exciting is the Afterword to his collection of Lenin’s writings, Revolution at the Gates. The Afterword, “Lenin’s Choice,” is basically a book in itself. There Žižek connects the party with the analyst in a provocative, crucial way that I am trying to work out and extend.
I would not have immersed myself in Lacan if it had not been for Žižek; I was always more interested in his Marxism, Leninism, use of Althusser, etc. I’m glad that I have, though, since it’s enabled me to specify my account of communicative capitalism and critique of democracy (in Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies and Blog Theory). On where I differ from Žižek: this is hard to say because he writes a lot. It sometimes seems that he views drive more optimistically than I do, more as a critical path out of dilemmas of desire and fantasy. The thing is, he also talks about the trap of drive and Lacan’s rather enigmatic gestures to a desire that is beyond the drive, the desire of the analyst. It could be that I have a more positive appraisal of the political potential of desire than he does, or that I am reductive in my treatment of drive.2
Ramsey: Of course, one of Žižek’s distinctive contributions has been as a consistently public intellectual. He came down to Zuccotti Park to speak to Occupy Wall Street for instance. How would you characterize your relationship to Occupy Wall Street, from a practical and a theoretical perspective? The closing chapters of your new book both unite with aspects of this recent social upsurge and offer sharp criticisms of some of the ideological common sense that was very influential in Occupy. I think here of your take on concepts of horizontalism, direct democracy, autonomy, etc. To put it sharply: What are the problems with these concepts as political organizers for our fledgling radical movement?
Dean: Most succinctly put: the problem with these concepts is that they deny or obscure antagonism. They are insufficiently divisive in several senses. They do not break sufficiently with the dominant ideology that urges people to participate and that celebrates individual freedom. Autonomy in Occupy doesn’t seem to be pointing to autonomy from organized parties (as the term has done historically in Italy, for example). Rather, it blends together with libertarian emphases on the consent of each individual person. Horizontalism (which may well have been a powerful ideal in Argentina, and I take it that at least part of the emphasis on horizontality in Occupy comes from Marina Sitrin’s important work on horizontalidad in that country) resonated in the US primarily because it is part of the current neoliberal environment. For example, corporations (particularly Google; the New York Times runs laudatory pieces on horizontal decision making in ‘hip’ companies about every six months) celebrate their flat structures, their inclusive decision-making, that make them flexible and responsive. Or, think of Thomas “The World Is Flat” Friedman. The uncritical uptake of horizontality in Occupy needs to be read in terms of its setting in a critique of bureaucracy, regulation, and expertise that has been deployed by the libertarian right against the welfare state, against any government control of the economy, and against the academy. It should also be read in terms of communicative capitalism’s emphases on connectivity and communication such that all opinions and ideas are communicatively equivalent.
There is another sense in which the concepts of direct democracy etc are insufficiently divisive—they proceed as if all political ideas are equal. We saw this in some of the anti-party rhetoric last fall. On the one hand, this rhetoric voiced a concern with breaking out of the chokehold of the mainstream political parties—and of course I agree with that. On the other, the refusal to draw lines makes it seem like libertarians, anti-Fed Ron Paulites,3 and anti-tax people are on the same side as people who want more control over the banking sector and people who are anti-corporate. Communists and socialists can work with the latter, but not with the former whose politics is basically one of expanding opportunities for the market.
Ramsey: Shifting gears a bit, in the opening pages of The Communist Horizon you call attention to your use throughout the book of the first person plural pronoun “We” as opposed to the more traditional, singular pronoun, “I”. Throughout the text you continue with this practice, which you describe as a kind of performative operation that aims to challenge the individualism and fragmentation that you see as prevalent (and disabling) for much of the US Left today. Who did you imagine as the actual audience (or audiences) for this text? Who is the “We” of, for, and to whom you speak?
Dean: I imagined it as “we leftists who have forgotten that communism is the basic core of what it means to be left.” I thought of readers as activists and thoughtful people who in some sense think of themselves as communists, but maybe felt like the term was outmoded or that they couldn’t use it without apology or qualification, so they had adopted the rhetoric of democracy even as they were deeply uneasy about the way democracy leaves capitalism intact. It’s a partisan, divisive “we.” Not everyone who reads it will be interpellated by it.4
Ramsey: Interesting. You’ve been travelling across the country and across the world to talk about your book since its publication a few months ago. I heard one of your hosts refer to it online as “Jodi Dean’s World Communism Tour.” What has been the reception of your argument? Are you finding that the intended audience you speak of is responding positively to your intervention? What’s struck you about the reception of The Communist Horizon?
Dean: The reception has been great! One cool thing is that older people, people in their eighties, who may not usually go to talks by academics at universities, galleries, or community centers, come to mine and then talk about their experiences as socialists and communists in the ‘40s and ‘50s. One woman in Milwaukee addressed the entire audience, saying that she remembers when ‘they took the word communism away from us’ and how happy she was to be there to hear someone bringing it back. People who have felt pressured by tendencies in post-structuralist theory to repress, deny, or abandon their Marxism and who encounter now a generation of graduate students with next to no knowledge of Marx, express a sense of relief at communism’s intellectual return.
Ramsey: Pulling back a bit, what exactly do you mean by “communicative capitalism”? How does this represent a qualitative transformation in contemporary capitalism? To what extent is this term’s usefulness limited to the capitalist “center” or “metropole”?
Dean: Communicative capitalism is the merger of capitalism and democracy through networked communications media. Ideals fundamental to democracy like inclusion and participation are materialized in contemporary media. The result has been a dramatic increase in inequality. This is a development of capitalism in that communication is the means of capitalist subsumption; so it is intensive as well as extensive. I developed the idea out of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s analysis in Empire.
I don’t think the concept is limited to the ‘center’ or ‘metropole’ for two reasons. First, I don’t think there is a center—capitalism is global. Second, one of the vehicles for capitalist expansion has been the spread of communication (a terrific short book on this is Mattelart’s Networking the World). As I was working out my initial ideas on this, I read something on or from John Perry Barlow in Wired (this must have been in the late ‘90s). Barlow was somewhere in Africa talking about computers and the internet—in a village with no running water and no electricity. It was one of the most inane things I’ve ever come across, this sense that what matters more than anything else was getting people on the internet. Communicative capitalism promises success and democracy if people are online. We’ve seen that the reality of this democracy is success for the very, very few, entertainment for some, and immiseration for many.
Ramsey: Could you translate the findings from your extensive research in the field of communicative capitalism and media technology into a kind of ‘guidelines’ for radicals? How should communists relate to Facebook, for example? So much left discourse and interaction takes place online these days. (In fact the two of us first ‘met’ and collaborated through FB!)
Dean: I think I only have one guideline: what matters are the ends, not the means. Radicals go wrong when we focus primarily on media and process (another point at which I have had disagreements with some tendencies in Occupy), as if the movement were only about reporting on or streaming events rather than trying to eliminate capitalism and the political regime that enforces it.
Communists should relate to Facebook as we do to paper – use it. I’m not against Facebook in practice. I’m against thinking that having a bunch of likes or a page is a political act. It’s less significant than a party paper was in Lenin’s time, but it’s not nothing, and in our contemporary setting not having it is worse. But we shouldn’t fall into thinking that Facebook or Twitter make the political difference for the radical left. They don’t. Lady Gaga has over 20 million followers on Twitter. That should put things into perspective.
Ramsey: Throughout TCH you frame an opposition between desire, which you tend to align with communism, and drive which you generally identify as a form of enjoyment that ensnares subjects in the existing networks of communicative capitalism? What does it mean to formulate communism from the standpoint of desire? Is drive always politically bad/suspect? Or can we speak of a drive that would be oriented towards communism?
Dean: Drive isn’t oriented toward something; it’s shaped from loss and just attaches to any old thing, easily moving from one object of intense attachment to another (I’m tempted to say that with respect to politics drive manifests itself as a kind of political Asperger’s syndrome; you know, how everyone is at one moment obsessed with binary oppositions, then fracking, then “isms,” then debt). It’s a repetitive circuit that results from failure, where people get off (get a little nugget of enjoyment) from failing. So drive also structures melancholia, as we see in Freud’s discussion in Mourning and Melancholia where he uses the language of drive that he develops in the The Instincts and Their Vicissitudes. This language is reflexive, inward-turning as well as self-loathing. I argue that communicative capitalism (and consequently contemporary democracy as well as contemporary media networks) exhibit the reflexive structure of drive. Examples: getting stuck in the intertubes, clicking around, looking but not finding, repeating the same gestures, having the same pointless arguments, getting invested in them even when (or especially when) they don’t matter.
Now, it’s possible for drive’s repetitions to have destructive effects as with vicious circles in feedback systems or when bubbles burst in markets. Žižek describes this version of drive as a kind of prior clearing that creates the space for something new. I don’t disagree with this, but I don’t think it provides a politics (or, the politics it suggests is one of waiting for the rupture—which Žižek sometimes suggests when he appeals to Bartleby5 or when he emphasizes the importance of thinking rather than getting caught up in activity; I prefer to think of not getting caught up in activity in terms of working to break the hold of drive’s repetitions). Desire doesn’t turn inward; it looks outward, toward the horizon. A communism thought in terms of desire, then, is one that recognizes the necessity of breaking out of the trap of reflexivity, of installing a gap.
At this point, I am focused on thinking of communism in terms of a collective desire for collectivity. Because I understand communicative capitalism as structured in terms of drive, I don’t see the benefit in theorizing communism this way—communism is a break with this, a rupture of the circuit that lets us look outwards.
Ramsey: It’s difficult to miss the Lacanian influence here. I’ve seen some within self-identified socialist or communist circles writing about your book in somewhat dismissive ways, focusing on the ‘Lacanese’ you employ as if it is does more to obfuscate than to illuminate. What do you see as the value of Lacan here for radical theory and for the communist movement in particular?
Dean: The unconscious matters—we’ve been talking about desire and drive, both unconscious processes. Language matters. Understanding the subject matters. Psychoanalysis offers a theoretical apparatus that helps us think about these components of our thought and experience. It provides us with ways of addressing our attachments to dysfunction and self-hate, to perceived needs for guarantees and certainty, as well as to our ambivalence toward masters.
But, to use an odd cliché I may have never used before, ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating.’ If people don’t find Lacan/lacanese illuminating, it will be obfuscating. It’s that way with any specialized discourse or vocabulary.
Maybe an example will help. In The Communist Horizon I use Lacan to suggest an idea of the party as situated at the overlap of two lacks, such as the people’s lack of knowledge of what they desire as well as the party’s own lack of knowledge, the fact that it can’t guarantee a particular future. Given these lacks, the role of the party is to keep the site at which they overlap open as the gap necessary for the collective desire for collectivity. The question is then whether this formulation helps us think of new or better ways to organize.
Ramsey: Would it be fair to say then, building upon these “two lacks,” that the party you envision must be one that is able both to learn and to teach, and moreover to incite and sustain the collective desire to both learn and teach?
Dean: Yes, particularly the latter insofar as sustaining desire requires cultivating a kind of relation or orientation to what is lacking. I sometimes wonder whether prior visions or versions of the communist party have overplayed its teaching role and then in a backlash against this overplaying ended up fetishizing some kind of authentic workers’ or people’s knowledge that the party has to learn. What if instead we recognize that the party is a collective and that collectives bring together people with different skills, experience, and knowledge? A communist party orients its collective toward the truth of communism. The primary task of the party is the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and establishment of communism. This is more than a pedagogy, to say the least.
Ramsey: In the book you cite Marx’s famous communist motto (a phrase that precedes Marx as well) “from each according to ability, to each according to need,” writing that “this principle contains the urgency of the struggle for its own realization” (15). I often speak of the communist kernel of hope as inherent in the fact that among the needs of human beings is the need to satisfy others’ needs (and perhaps to be or to feel needed by those others as well). How does your reframing of communism from the standpoint of desire relate to the (more traditional?) framing of communism as oriented towards the satisfaction of need, and the development of human abilities? How do need and desire relate within your thinking here?
Dean: Here’s the rub: we all know that people have needs. Even the worst capitalists know this. The political question concerns our relation to these needs. This is a matter of desire and will. Are needs to be addressed singularly or collectively? Desire, then, involves the politicization of needs.
Ramsey: Often it seems to me that communists put forth our goals as a matter of what we will eliminate or abolish (“the 4 Alls” etc. “the gaps” or divisions that are inherent in class society, etc). Not so much in terms of what we want to cultivate or unleash. Often when we speak of what we strive to unleash or cultivate (“global human flourishing” etc.) it is depicted as something that will come after the elimination or overturning of various oppressive institutions, ideologies, state structures, class relations, etc. I’m not suggesting that it is wrong to say we want to eliminate A, B, and C, or that we want to abolish or overthrow X, Y, and Z. But it sometimes seems to me as if desire and the pursuit of what we “really want” is positioned somehow “on the other side” of this abolishing, overturning, eliminating, etc. – now being the time for “self-sacrificing struggle” and the repression of desire for the sake of the greater good, of the collectivity, of the revolution down the road. Desire here may become something we’ll only get back to on the “other side” of some kind of revolutionary break. Nothing against revolutionary breaks, and the openings they provide, of course. But your focus on communism as a matter of desire–”the collective desire for collective desiring”–seems to me notable and refreshing as a way to bring that future flourishing we communists often imagine into the present, but in a way that still propels us forward towards cultivating human liberation. It gives a positive lean to communist subjectivity, even if that subjectivity continues to be defined (as desire) by lack.
Dean: I love the way you are putting this and will now have to use this! It’s nicely succinct and clear.
Ramsey: It seems to me that often on the radical left, we speak of pursuing the “satisfaction of human needs.” Everyone getting enough food to eat, clean, water, shelter, etc. All crucial stuff, obviously. But this emphasis on the emancipated society as a state of satiety and “satisfaction” may give short shrift to the way that – on another level– communism and liberation is not only, or even primarily, about satisfying people’s immediate material needs (though this too), so much as it is about cultivating a hunger, or, as you would put it, a desire. A political desire.
Dean: Sorry to keep interrupting but I like your expression ‘state of satiety and satisfaction’ and your evocation of a hunger — it reminds me of Benjamin’s critique of left melancholic hacks preoccupied with their digestion.
Ramsey: Something I’m just starting to think about is what the difference is between conceiving of communist politics as a matter of satisfying human needs – and cultivating new needs – vs. a matter of desire. What do you see as the stakes of foregrounding communism as a matter of desire?
Dean: The opening up of a gap so as to free us to envision new possibilities. You know how people tend to criticize the left for not having a vision, not having a goal, not having ideas? Well, this only makes sense for a left that has abandoned communism. Once we claim communism, then we insert ourselves into a logic of desire such that we have to think strategically as well as tactically, we have to start thinking in terms of what communism for us will look like and how we can get there.
Ramsey: In reading (and re-reading) The Communist Horizon I was struck by your rather complex, even vexed, relationship to the concept of the proletariat. On the one hand you give a forceful (and quite Leninist) account of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” as the organization of the exploited and oppressed to forcibly suppress the oppressor. Similarly you reflect that the current Left reluctance to identify with a Marxist term such as the proletariat may reflect chiefly the negative influence of decades of anti-communist (and anti-Soviet) propaganda. You in fact point out how Marx and Engels, as well as such contemporary Marxist thinkers as Étienne Balibar, contrary to pervasive anti-Marxist stereotypes, all have understood the proletariat precisely not as a straightforward empirical/sociological category limited to, say, factory workers, but rather as an open category encompassing all those who are structurally positioned opposite to and yet constitutive of capital and its ceaseless processes of accumulation.
And yet, after all of this rather firm defense of the concept, you reject the proletariat as a name for the subject of communism, at least in a contemporary US-European context. What struck me was the way, in the exact places where you reject the proletariat as a term (in favor of a notion of “the people as the rest of us” as shaped by and opposed to the process of proletarianization), you refer not just to the proletariat but to “the industrial” proletariat (77) and to “factory labor” (78). My question is: why the insertion of these qualifiers here? Is it possible to deploy a concept of the proletariat that is not centered on the site of the industrial factory? Why reject the proletariat as such, rather than just its narrow misconstrued empirical “industrial” image? Is your decision to reject the proletariat justified by the post/de-industrialization and/or financialization/precariatization of the US economy? Or more so by a pragmatic adaptation to contemporary ideology and popular misunderstanding? Is your sense that the proletariat as a concept—though used by Marx and Marxists in a more dialectical and dynamic sense that is intellectually still valid—is so mis-identified today with a narrow notion of clock-punching factory workers as to be politically unhelpful? Why not continue to fight for a dialectical notion of the proletariat (alongside the notion of proletarianization, which you more clearly uphold)? Why uphold the latter but not the former?
Dean: This is the part of my argument about which I am most ambivalent. As you suggest, financialization does not mean that there is no proletariat, especially when we follow Marx, Engels, and Balibar and recognize that ‘proletariat’ is not an empirical category. I ended up arguing for the idea ‘the people as the rest of us’, first, for pragmatic reasons. A year or so ago I gave a talk at No Space in Williamsburg. At one point, someone in the audience asked “who here is a proletarian?” No one raised a hand (I may be getting the details of this wrong, but this is how I remember it). So, even though a bunch of folks were unemployed and precarious, they didn’t feel right identifying themselves as proletarian. Since I was already fighting for the name communism (controversial to some folks), I decided not to hold on to proletarian. I also felt like there were good commie grounds for this, as Lukács argues in his book on Lenin. There he speaks of Lenin’s radical notion of the people.
Ramsey: Is The Communist Horizon a specifically US-UK-European intervention? Do you see classical Marxism, including the proletariat, as still applicable to situations like contemporary India or China?
Dean: Yes. I was reluctant to speak or write in broader terms, since I have never been to India or China and don’t have sufficient knowledge to say anything about them. Isn’t it the case that Mao used the language of the people to refer to peasants and workers? And, wouldn’t a notion of the people also work in India since it, too, has had a history of peasant as well as worker struggles? Since the notion of the people already has a strong communist legacy, I don’t see a reason to prefer the term ‘proletarian.’ But of course that’s a matter for Indian and Chinese activists.
Ramsey: And then of course there is your argument for speaking of the “sovereignty” rather than the “dictatorship” of the people (with people here substituted for the proletariat). What’s the significance of this shift in terminology?
Dean: The primary theoretical reason for the shift is that dictatorship is temporary. Arguments for the dictatorship of the proletariat occur in the context of the withering away of the state. I don’t accept such a withering away, particularly once we recognize the distributed and differentiated nature of contemporary states. State operations occur at multiple levels—local, municipal, national, international—and are distributed into a wide array of operations, from inspecting food production, to providing air traffic control, to funding infrastructure projects, to overseeing public health, to collecting and redistributing revenue. I don’t think these things will or should go away and I don’t think they should be handled via markets. They are matters to be determined by the people for their collective good. The state is a tool for the people to handle these things (of course, it isn’t now; now it’s the way capitalists keep themselves in power). I think it’s important to get away from claims regarding the withering away of the state—they seem to point to the end of politics, but politics won’t end as long as there are people.
Ramsey: This is very interesting, and not uncontroversial these days! Of course, perhaps predictably, some have criticized your book for continuing to uphold (some would say “falling back on”) the terms of Party and State. What is your response to those who argue that we must chart a communist road that does without these terms as anchor-points? How would the “State” which you envision for a communist movement be similar to or different from the state apparatus that exists today? Are we talking about taking over existing entities and running them under different leadership and with different methods or priorities? Or the sweeping away of existing institutions and the creation of new ones?
Dean: Here I agree with Žižek: politics without the party and the state is politics without politics. It’s a kind of hysterical provocation, or macho play-acting that eschews responsibility and reduces politics to fashionable sloganeering. Getting more specific can help: we can realize that there are different kinds of states and different kinds of parties. When people reject the party because they are rejecting electoral politics, they have a good point and a lot of history on their side. When people reject the state on the basis of the failure of socialism to develop into communism, they also have a good point. The underpinning of most of these discussions is a set of assumptions regarding the European experience, the Soviet experience, and the Chinese experience. But what if we attend more to Latin America? To Nepal? To the role of revolutionary communists in anti-colonial struggle? To the role of communists in anti-racist struggles in the US in the thirties?
We dismiss too much if we assume that the bad experiences of the French and Italians with their communist parties means that there is no role for an organization like a party in contemporary politics now. On the state: again, we can improve our thinking here by considering different state apparatuses and functions, the way they are distributed, the role of law, etc. I don’t think all existing institutions need to be eliminated—why reinvent the wheel? A jury system is a good idea. Layered institutions (local, municipal, county, state, region, nation, hemisphere) as well as economic sectors and sets of interests that crisscross one another also make sense for complex societies. And so does the rule of law – as long as this rule is exercised for and in the interest of the working class, the people as the rest of us (which is the basic idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat). Maybe the best way to put it would be in terms of the need to reevaluate all existing institutions from the standpoint of the people/working class, and seeing what is worth saving.
Ramsey: The way you move back and forth here between the standpoint of the “people” and “the working class” points to a significant aspect of your book. I was particularly interested in your critical take on what you call (following Lenin) the “merger narrative”? What is “the merger narrative” and what do you see as its usefulness or limitation for us today? (73) And how does your verdict on this “merger narrative” affect what you see as the outlook for communist inroads today? Or for how we should re-conceptualize the relationship between communist politics and class struggle?
Dean: The merger narrative material is from Lars Lih. His book on Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? is absolutely phenomenal. Lih explains the merger as that between working-class struggle and socialism. The genius of Marx and Engels was to bring these two together. Other socialists were writing in the nineteenth century (Robert Owen, for instance) but they didn’t make the cause of socialism into the purpose and destiny of the working class. I don’t think it’s convincing anymore to say that bringing about socialism (or communism) is the historical destiny of the working class. First, the notion of history is problematic. History doesn’t have a grand meaning or purpose for which it hones a chosen people. It can’t provide us with guarantees. Second, thinking in terms of the mission of a specific class tends to make activists and theorists not only solidify, naturalize, and instrumentalize this class, but it enables us to displace action onto this class rather than recognize our own agency and responsibility. In a way it lets us blame the proletariat for our own complacency, inaction, and accommodation. “Oh well, no revolution in my immediate future, nothing I can do about it.”
Of course, this does not mean that there is no class struggle or no point to class struggle. Class struggle is coterminous with capitalism. There is no capitalism without class struggle, whether one thinks about this as capitalism’s reaction to workers’ assertions of power (in Hardt and Negri’s terms: resistance comes first) or as capitalism’s need constantly to ensure that people are so immiserated that they have no choice but to sell their labor power. So class struggle is a given. Whether or not it will lead to communism is a matter of political struggle and political will.
Ramsey: So then one should not conflate the struggle for communism with “building the class struggle.” The latter is the condition of the former, but the former has its own political demands and particularity. The question is not simply how to build the class struggle, but how to work upon the cleavages in society created by that class struggle in a way that opens up a path to communism?
Dean: I like that.
Ramsey: I was struck by the fact that there is nowhere in The Communist Horizon an overt argument for “communism” as being a better or more useful name for the emancipatory project than, say, “socialism” is. Why is communism the name of the horizon for you? What is the significance of the name here?
Dean: This is a good question. For the longest time I thought of myself simply as a socialist and didn’t worry about the difference. Then, I guess it was Negri who started to emphasize the accomodationism of European socialism (although on that note one can say the same about, say, the Italian communist party). The difference matters in terms of installing a gap: communism opens us up to something else in a way that socialism doesn’t. And why is that the case? Because we know that socialism doesn’t require the abolition of capitalism. It works for capitalism with a human face. Is this an option? I don’t think so. And, if it could be an option, it would only be in the context of the political space secured by active, militant communists.
Ramsey: And the fact that the über-capitalist dictatorship of China still refers to itself as “communist” and thus taints this name?
Dean: No one thinks China is communist.
Ramsey: The first chapter of your book provides a quite useful and insightful refutation of dominant anti-communist ideology. What is your response to those, including many self-identified socialists or radicals, who argue that the term communism is too “blood-stained” or too associated with authoritarianism (or totalitarianism) to be a good candidate for resurrection or resuscitation?
Dean: They have been duped by capitalist ideology. Communism is the one name we have for a political and economic alternative to capitalism. It says no to capitalism and posits the only viable alternative. In fact, it’s better to say that communism isn’t even an alternative; it is the truth and only option in the face of climate catastrophe, extreme inequality, and the inability of capitalism to provide for the needs of the people.
Ramsey: Some (such as Bhaskar Sunkara in Jacobin)6 have dissed The Communist Horizon for not taking up a close critique or settling of accounts with existing self-identified socialist or communist tendencies, from social democratic mass parties in Europe, to initiatives like SYRIZA in Greece, to Trotskyist micro-parties in the US. How do you account for your silence on such specific parties in the book? What tendencies party-wise in the world right now can or would you cite as either positive or negative examples in this party-making/building regard? You make a strong argument in your first chapter as to the evolution, and non-identity of the communist movement both within the Soviet Union and outside it? What are the lessons of communist history and theory when it comes to party building, as you see them?
Dean: That is an enormous question, the subject of volumes and volumes of work. Communist history is rich and varied, most of it I don’t know at all. I can say that I’m not convinced at all by Badiou’s claims that the time for a party has passed, but I do think that we have to think in more varied ways about what a party can be and do. My next project will take up the party in more detail, attending to some of its histories. I expect, though, that this will be more eclectic than systemic, combining a reading of Jacques Camatte, the KAPD, and the Black Panthers (this might not work, but that’s the provisional plan). It seems clear that simply having a working-class party will not enable the proletariat to win the battle of democracy. Is that because of something like Michels’ iron law of oligarchy? Do electoral parties necessarily come to constitute new classes and/or bureaucracies? Given the enormous military and police power of the state, does it make sense to envision our communist party as a way of organizing and directing violence or is that a kind of macho fantasy?
With respect to your other questions, Bhaskar’s criticisms were of a 20-minute talk I did as a lead-in to a discussion (the one at No Space in 2011 that I mentioned). To my knowledge he hasn’t reviewed The Communist Horizon.
I didn’t engage specific sectarian parties in the US because I was talking to an activist and academic left that thinks we have moved past the party, that we don’t need a party any more (Badiou takes this view, for example, as do nearly all anarchists and post-anarchists as well as many movement people). People in parties already recognize the need for a party. More interesting have been the recent debates among socialists about merging and/or allying in some fashion, perhaps like SYRIZA. That seems very promising to me. I particularly like the deliberate way SYRIZA interacted with the occupation in Syntagma Square; it had a social wing that was involved but that did not try to control or take over the process. The social wing, in other words, was separate from the political wing.
But, it’s also important to recognize the difference between the US system and the European parliamentary systems. We are really limited by the ways that states buttress the two-party system as well as by winner-take-all electoral districts. This suggests that focusing on local contests has much more potential as a way of building and expanding. It also fits with the history of socialism in the US, which has had more success on the municipal level.
Ramsey: Historically the US communist movement has given priority to issues of national oppression and racism. In fact it could be argued that one of the main things that distinguished the early communist movement and party from its socialist counterpart, besides its embrace of the Bolshevik Revolution, was its willingness (at Soviet direction!) to give special emphasis to problems of white chauvinism within the US working class, and the special oppression of Black people. To what extent do you see issues of race, racism, and racialization as essential to grasping contemporary US capitalism and the struggle to overthrow it? How do you conceptualize the relationship between racism, class struggle, and communism?
Dean: Last winter the Pew Research Foundation published a poll that said that a majority of Americans think that the strongest division in the country is between rich and poor. There was a 19 percent increase in the number of people emphasizing this division since the previous poll in 2009. The largest percentage of people holding this view are African Americans.
I say this as a way of saying that anti-capitalist and anti-racist struggle have to be understood together. Some tendencies in identity politics, even as they used the mantra ‘gender-race-class’ have put race issues and class issues at loggerheads. There have been practical reasons for doing this, not the least of which is white racism, which has been the major barrier to building a strong working-class movement in the US. I just read for the first time W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America. I was taken by the way his account of racism—particularly in the deep south where I grew up—is still so applicable to the contemporary US. Maybe, though, the last 20 years of multicultural politics has started to chip away at this and create the conditions for a real people’s struggle in the US.
1. On “The Idea of Communism,” held in 2009 at the Birkbeck Institute in London.
2. For an extended elaboration of the concepts of Drive and Desire, see Slavoj Žižek’s Parallax View (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006). See also Chapter Five of The Communist Horizon, on “Desire.” Here is one way that Dean describes the distinction between the two terms: “What is crucial in the Freudian account of the drives is the way drive provides the subject with another way to enjoy. Unable to satisfy or maintain desire, the subject enjoys in another way, the way of the drive…. In contrast with desire, drive isn’t a quest for a fantastic lost object…. Drives don’t circulate around a space that was once occupied by an ideal, impossible object. Rather, drive is the sublimation of desire at it turns back in on itself” (173). Basically, whereas Desire seeks satisfaction in the pursuit of an Object, Drive takes its satisfactions from the very absence (or loss) of the Object.
3. Supporters of libertarian Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, who call for abolition of the Federal Reserve Bank.
4. Dean here uses interpellation in the sense of ideological hailing. The concept is elaborated notably by Louis Althusser, in his influential essay, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” where the process of interpellation is likened to the hail of a police officer on the street, a hail to which we may or may not respond. We may recognize ourselves in the “Hey You” of the cop, or not. Either way though, the way in which we are interpellated forms us as a Subject, who either does or does not identify in practice with the position the Other projects.
5. See Žižek’s The Parallax View, where he elaborates his “Bartleby Politics” as an emblem for the Left’s need to pull back from rather compulsive “just do it” activism, so as to create for itself a space for radical thinking that can enable us to do not just “what is being done” but what needs to be done.