A way forward for the 99%?

The Communist Horizon

Capitalism inevitably breeds resentment and resistance on the part of those exploited and oppressed by its imperatives. The question of how to organize that resistance must become increasingly pressing and paramount. Since the economic crisis of 2008 there have been tremendous struggles on every continent, but our rulers remain dominant. How can the exploited and oppressed break the haughty power of billionaires and the myriad of institutions at their service? 

Jodi Dean attempts to answer this question in The Communist Horizon.1 She argues we must transcend the politics of the moment and create a mass revolutionary party with the grand aim of achieving a communist future. However, Dean’s proposals for which social force the party should organize for fundamental revolutionary change are problematic. Also problematic, particularly given her inadequate analysis of Stalinism and its betrayal of revolutionary aspirations, is Dean’s dismissal of the fight for democracy, calling it a “defense of the status quo.” Nevertheless, Dean’s somewhat unique case for a “communist party” calls for further engagement and analysis.

Capitalist crisis and the return of communism
The Communist Horizon is part of the Verso Books Rethinking Communism for the Twenty-First Century2 series, which also includes contributions by radical intellectuals such as Slavoj Žižek, Alain Badiou, Bruno Bosteels, and Boris Groys. The Pocket Communism series is an outgrowth of the March 2009 conference “On the Idea of Communism” held initially in London, organized by the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. Conference planners were surprised to find a much greater level of interest than they initially assumed. The genesis of the conference was a response to “The Communist Hypothesis,” written by the prominent French philosopher and Maoist-influenced intellectual Alain Badiou3 in reaction to the 2007 election of center-right Nicolas Sarkozy to the presidency of France.

Since then, follow-up conferences have been held in Paris, Berlin, and New York. Verso’s two-volume The Idea of Communism4 compilation, edited by Costas Douzinas and Slavoj Žižek, is drawn from a broad array of presentations at the conferences, and includes contributions from Terry Eagleton, Susan Buck-Morss, Jacques Rancière, Alberto Toscano, Jodi Dean, and Etienne Balibar. In the Verso description, “An all-star cast of radical intellectuals discuss the continued importance of communism.” 

The participants in the Idea of Communism discussions are cognizant of the ideological bankruptcy of neoliberalism and the need for an alternative analysis that can make sense of the world and connect to new manifestations of resistance. However, they are all academics, some of them steeped in the obscurantist language of postmodernism, making the discussions sometimes difficult to follow and at times incomprehensible. This is the context for and background to Dean’s The Communist Horizon. Though densely layered with sometimes difficult-to-decipher references, The Communist Horizon is nevertheless written in a polemical, interventionist, and popular style geared toward a post-Occupy audience and experience.

Summarizing Dean’s thesis
The main thrust of Dean’s argument is as follows: Capitalism has demonstrated its bankruptcy, and an egalitarian alternative is urgently needed. The Left has failed because of its focus on “individualist” rather than collective action, and, importantly, because it hasn’t provided a vision of a different society capable of infusing and informing struggles with an ultimate goal.

In terms of agency, Dean rejects, with some qualification, the working class as the social force capable of successfully overturning capitalism. Workers still confront employers in the workplace. However, Dean contends that “communicative capitalism” is now the primary form of exploitation and dispossession. The vast majority, the amorphous “people,” rather than a distinct social class, are now exploited primarily outside of the workplace in their “free” time through their relationship to new forms of communication, primarily the Internet. In this sense, society is increasingly “commodified,” and wider and wider layers of society are being “proletarianized.” 

The Occupy movement broke the dominance of the “communicative capitalist” cycles and allowed for an alternative to develop within the encampments. The movement also revealed the effectiveness of collective resistance. Occupy activists whose energy sustained the movement played, in Dean’s view, the role of a “vanguard.” Yet the political and organizational horizontalism and leaderlessness of Occupy, Dean contends, indicates the need for a mass communist party. If the Occupy vanguard constituted itself as a political organization, she contends, it could more effectively orchestrate and galvanize struggle, and educate wider layers of society in the need for a communist alternative. 

Reviewing the book is somewhat challenging because it integrates, addresses, and polemicizes with many of the issues and questions running through the wide-ranging Idea of Communism debates. For example, Dean’s chapter “Desire” responds to a 1999 essay by Wendy Brown discussing Walter Benjamin’s 1931 utilization of Freudian psychoanalysis, drive versus desire, to understand the “melancholia of the contemporary Left.” As interesting as this might seem, I won’t address it, focusing instead on what Dean posits on the relevance of communism, the question of the working class and agency, the issue of what constitutes labor, the analysis of the Occupy movement in the United States, and her case for what she defines as a Leninist party. 

Dean contends that “over the last decade a return to communism has re-energized the Left. Communism is again becoming a discourse and vocabulary for the expression of universal, egalitarian and revolutionary ideals.” She points to the writings of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, in particular their Empire trilogy, as well as the writings of Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek. “The Empire Trilogy that Negri coauthored with Michael Hardt offers an affirmative, non-dialectical reconceptualization of labor, power and the State, a new theory of communism from below,” she writes. However, “where Negri and Badiou reject Party and the State, Žižek retains a certain fidelity to Lenin.” These theorists are extremely important points of reference for Dean and many of the Idea of Communism cothinkers, and are widely influential among radicalized layers of graduate students and a new generation of activists with an intellectual orientation. 

Back in the USSR?
In the first chapter, “Our Soviets,” Dean points out that “for people in the United States, the most conventional referent of communism is the Soviet Union.” She continues:

The chain communism-Soviet Union-Stalinism-collapse sets the parameters for the appeal to history that is characteristic of liberal, democratic, capitalist, and conservative attempts to repress the communist alternative. Responding to challenges regarding the exclusion of class struggle, proletarian revolution, collective ownership of the means of production, and the smashing of the bourgeois-democratic state from political theory, they invoke history as their ground and proof. History shows that the communist project is a dead end.

Dean argues, correctly in many ways, that communism has been viewed through a lens shaped by the United States in its superpower clash with the Soviet Union. However, in attempting to defend communism, Dean tends toward a defense of what was called, before the collapse of the USSR in 1991, “actually existing socialism.” There is no analysis of the failings and crimes of Stalinism, all committed in the name of Marxism and communism; and no analysis of why, therefore, many who looked toward a radical alternative turned away from communism as it was commonly perceived.

Indeed, her chapter “Our Soviets” largely offers apologia rather than analysis of the nature of the Soviet Union and its historical evolution from a workers’ state to a repressive one-party police state. One rather convoluted passage will give the flavor of her evasive, if not positive, treatment: 

A legacy of the Cold War more than of critical inquiry into Soviet history, “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. Just as communism as the Soviet Union overshadows a wide array of other communisms—from China, through Yugoslavia, to Cuba and Nepal, to the US, UK, and Europe, and from parties coexisting with Parliamentary state formations to revolutionary fighters operating under various names and in various degrees of legitimacy—so does the Soviet Union as Stalinism eclipse post-Stalinist developments in the Soviet Union, particularly with regard to the successes in modernizing (including a highly successful space program) and improving overall standards of living.

Dean criticizes the Left for failing to champion communism, but fails to clarify why this is the case, nor does she acknowledge the tremendous challenges faced by those who sought to preserve and extend the revolutionary communist tradition theoretically, politically, and organizationally in the face of Stalinist degeneration beginning in the 1920s. Communism was so associated with and tainted by Stalinism and the reactionary role of Communist parties internationally that many Marxists, who were extremely marginalized, chose to project variations of “socialism from below” as an alternative. 

Dean writes, “The disavowal of communism as a political ideal shapes the Left. Fragmented tributaries and currents, branches and networks of particular projects and partial objects, are the left form of the loss of communism. The ‘politics-of-no-politics’ line seeking to trump class and economic struggle in the Spanish, Greek, and US protests wasn’t new.” This description of how the Left has fragmented and turned away from the “old” Left is accurate, but many of these shifts came as a result of the failures of Stalinism to uphold the liberatory power of communism. 

The lack of acknowledgement of the antidemocratic and bureaucratic character of Stalinist regimes raises a question mark over the conception of party organization that Dean advances. For many, it appears from historical experience that the Stalinist state and the Communist Party are one of a kind; that is, the Soviet Union proves that a top-down party produces the top-down antidemocratic state. This is why the issue of “democracy” isn’t simply a liberal concern, as she contends. Stalinist orthodoxy distorted revolutionary communism by exalting the strong state rather than the flowering of democratic control of society from below by the producing majority. 

The proletariat or the people?
In the chapter “Sovereignty of the People,” Dean contends that Marx’s identification of the working class, and particulary industrial workers, as the central agents of socialist transformation has to be reevaluated in light of changes in the nature of capitalism. The framework that sees the main opposition in society as between the bourgeoisie, or capitalist class, and wage workers should be replaced with the idea of the “rich” versus the “people,” or, as she puts it, “the idea of the people as the rest of us as a modulation of the idea of the proletariat as the subject of communism.”

Purporting to draw upon Hal Draper’s The Dictatorship of the Proletariat from Marx to Lenin5 and Lenin’s State and Revolution,6 Dean defends the idea of “the dictatorship of the proletariat” as the “direct and fearsome rule of the collective people over those who would oppress and exploit them, over those who would take for themselves what belongs to all in common.” Dean argues that the dictatorship of the proletariat is necessary to eliminate the capitalist class and that the “organized power of a state serves as the instrument through which the people not only govern, but ensure that governance is carried out for the benefit of the collective rather than the few.” 

Here, it would have been useful for Dean to explain that there is a fundamental difference between Marx, Engels, and Lenin’s view of a workers’ state, and the anti-working-class undemocratic practices of Stalinist states and Mao’s China, given the failure of these states to “wither away.”7

Drawing upon the excellent work of Lars T. Lih,8 Dean challenges the notion of Lenin’s elitism. Lenin, Dean argues, embraced the “merger narrative”—“merging two previously separate political elements—working class struggle and socialism—into a single narrative that makes establishing socialism into the goal of the workers’ struggle, in fact, into the historical mission of the working class.” Dean correctly points out that Lenin’s argument for a revolutionary socialist party was based on making already existing working-class militancy more effective and directed towards definite goals.

Dean argues against the notion that “proletariat” can be reduced to “an empirical designator of one specific type of worker.” That is, the proletariat is determined by the fact they do not own any means of production and depend upon wages to live, and not upon what kind of work they’re engaged in. “An advantage of the Marxist view of the proletariat as the subject of communism,” she writes, “is its linkage of an essential role in production to an essential role in politics. The proletariat has been the name for the universal class, the subject-object of history, because its emancipation emancipates us all, dissolving the class and property relations at the basis of capitalist power.” 

This captures the core of Marxism, but Dean does not draw out its profound contemporary meaning. Dean actually rejects this conception. Citing Žižek, Dean argues the “merger narrative” has unraveled:

Leftists have had to grapple with the fact that history hasn’t unfolded according to socialist predictions. Socialism did not lead to communism. The workers of the world did not unite. Capitalism has been relatively successful in adapting in response to the crises it generates, in large part through the ruling classes’ use of state power.

Without having made any attempt to analyze why any of this occurred (or failed to occur), Dean’s argument could be served up by anyone choosing to oppose Marxism tout court. The powerful optimism of Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto has galvanized many who have read it. But they also made explicit that workers were disunited, ideologically manipulated, and could be set against each other, making class unity arduous to achieve and never a mechanical outcome. 

The Left, Dean concludes, should no longer focus on the leading role of the working class in the struggle for socialism. “The changes . . . usually discussed under the headings of deindustrialization, post-Fordism, and the rise of the knowledge- or information-based economy, suggest the inapplicability of the figure of the industrial proletariat as the contemporary subject of communism.” We should therefore stop talking about the “working class.” Hardt and Negri argue that the term should be replaced by multitude, based on a conception of labor that “cannot be limited to wage labor.” For them, class is merely “a collectivity that struggles in common.”9 Dean essentially agrees with these propositions, but proposes substituting for working class the term people. “Class struggle,” rather than referring to the clash between workers and bosses, should now refer to the struggle between “the rich and the rest of us.” In short, her analysis of an ostensible “new economy” leads her back to an old-fashioned populism. This conclusion raises a question mark over her use of the term “dictatorship of the proletariat”; if by “proletariat” she now means everyone but the rich, then it would seem that for her the term connotes an old-fashioned concept that originated in the radical bourgeois revolutions of Europe: “rule by the people.”

How does Dean defend this new, greatly enlarged conception of the working class? Because capitalism exploits all of human life, the specificity of exploitation in the workplace to create commodities is no longer central to capital accumulation. She puts it this way: “Communicative capitalism seizes, privatizes, and attempts to monetize the social substance. It doesn’t depend on the commodity-thing. It directly exploits the social relation at the heart of value.” According to Dean, networked communications allow corporations such as Facebook, Google, and Amazon to profit from our unpaid use of their services, and to harness our patterns, relationships, and friends for profits.

“Proletarianization,” for Dean, is a process in which all social activities under capitalism, wherever they are found, become part of the process of capitalist reproduction:

Worldwide, at least a billion of us find ourselves doing work for free that corporations claim to own. Perhaps the best known example of this capitalization of unpaid labor is Facebook the CEO of which is the youngest billionaire in the world. Nearly every time we go online or use a mobile phone we produce for someone else, creating the data and traces that someone else claims to own. Our collective actions create the rich. They can also destroy them.

Rather than workers having collective power in the workplace, our power flows from our individual connection to the networked society. 

Workers have lost their power at the point of production, then, because capitalism no longer depends primarily on their work for the creation of wealth. Dean acknowledges that class struggle continues to exist between workers and employers, but believes that “communicative capitalism” has decentered the importance of this relationship and the dynamics it produces. For Dean, the power to change society lies beyond the arena where the “dictatorship of capital” is felt most ferociously: the workplace. By this logic, the isolated, and possibly very well-off, networked individual “playing on Facebook” while sipping a frothy cappuccino in a Starbucks lounge chair is the proletarianized subject and gravedigger of capitalism, rather than the exploited workers at Starbucks coffee shop and the great production chain dependent upon the actual mental and physical labor of exploited workers stretching to South America who grow, package, and transport coffee beans. 

The problem with Dean’s analysis is that while capitalism has changed, its underlying drives have not. Saying that “infinite demands on our attention” by the Internet “expropriate political energies of focus;” or that capitalism dispossesses us “of our previous knowledge and capacities,” forcing us to buy new rather than repair; or that “the very communicative practices of capitalism. . . entrap us in circuits from which escape seems impossible”—all of this is quite interesting, but it doesn’t add up to a new form of capitalism. The source of profit is not “the disproportion between the supply of information and the demand for attention,” as one author she quotes approvingly claims, but remains the disproportion between the value that labor produces and the cost of setting it in motion.

The view of the working class and labor assumed by Dean and others in the“Idea of Communism” fold has been convincingly challenged by Kevin Doogan in his book New Capitalism? The Transformation of Work, whose thesis is that neoliberalism, capitalism’s ideological platform, vastly exaggerates globalization, the mobility of capital and labor, disinvestment to core capitalist regions, workforce precarity, the fetishization of technological advances, dematerialization, and as an outcome of these processes, the changed relationships between workers and employers. To be sure, neoliberalism has effected important changes in the nature of work and the structure of capitalism, but not in such a way as to alter its basic dynamics.

Doogan rejects the assumption of Hardt, Negri, Žižek, and others that we live in a new phase of capitalism rendering much of Marxism’s strategy and tactics obsolete. For example, even though manufacturing jobs have declined in the United States, Japan, and the European Union, a majority of foreign direct investment (FDI) still finds its way there. Moreover, declines in manufacturing in some centers have coincided with an explosion of industrial production in other countries, such as China and the BRICS. Doogan contends that radical and left-wing voices have contributed to the “general zeitgeist of instability, precariousness and powerlessness” on labor’s part, even though labor-force survey data from North America and Europe show that job stability has not declined, and has, in fact, increased in many sectors of advanced economies. 

Kim Moody, author of numerous books assessing the state of the labor movement in the United States and elsewhere, also challenges the idea of the decline in the importance of labor and manufacturing in modern capitalism. While acknowledging the overall shift from goods-producing work to service employment in the United States, Europe, and Japan, Moody argues that industrial production still remains at the heart of the system. (Indeed, from the beginning of capitalism, service jobs have always numerically exceeded manufacturing jobs.) First of all, the shift to services itself is a product of the increase in manufacturing productivity and the necessity for a much larger service sector to support it. Secondly, most calculations of the service sector include transportation and energy, which logically belong in the manufacturing or industrial sector.10 Even allowing for an absolute decline in manufacturing jobs, the relative weight of manufacturing in terms of output and profitability to the system remains strong. Much of US manufacturing hasn’t departed to other regions of the globe, moreover, but to other regions of the United States, specifically, to the US South where unions and labor rights are historically weaker, and workers’ wages and compensation is lower. A systematic analysis of US industry in his 2004 book, US Labor in Trouble and Transition, leads Moody to conclude that “the making and moving of goods and other tangible commodities (energy, communication) remain at the heart of capital accumulation.” Moreover, “much of the service sector that has arisen recently rests on the production of goods.”11

Global capitalist restructuring has created a massive global working class linked together through massive chains of production, transportation, and distribution. These chains are centered on exploitation in the workplace, since real commodities are made, moved, and sold there. These chains link the fate of “new” working classes in China, India, and elsewhere with the so-called “old” working classes of North America and Europe.12 

Raw materials for computers allowing the Internet’s communications to exist must be excavated from the ground by workers using machines built by other workers. Those raw materials must be transported by workers in machines built by workers to plants built by workers. Computers, or any other commodity-thing, created in one location must be packaged and sold by workers elsewhere. Therefore, low-wage Best Buy retail workers in the United States are coupled with low-wage Foxconn workers in China; capitalism is contingent upon the simultaneous exploitation of their labor. 

Writing in Socialist Register 2014, Ursula Huws challenges similar assumptions as those made by Dean and others about the changing nature of work and production. “One current idea that has attracted considerable support,” she writes, “especially among the young, is the notion that the idea of a working class defined by its direct relationship to production is outmoded. Since all aspects of life, such arguments go, have been drawn into the scope of capitalist cash nexus in some way, all those who are not actually part of the capitalist class must be regarded as part of an undifferentiated ‘multitude.’”13

This framework, according to Huws, has led to debates addressing the “blurred” boundaries between work and play, and between production and consumption. However, Huws insists:

the existence of a separately visible sphere of non-manual labor is not evidence of a new ‘knowledge-based,’ ‘immaterial,’ or ‘weightless’ realm of economic activity. It is simply an expression of the growing complexity of the division of labor, with a fragmentation of activities into separate tasks, both ‘mental’ and ‘manual’, increasingly capable of being dispersed geographically and contractually to different workers who may be barely aware of each other’s existence.

Huws adds that the high visibility of so-called “dematerialised labor” or “virtual” labor is completely dependent on a “highly material basis of physical infrastructure” that includes the construction of manufactured commodities such as satellites, which must be launched into space to carry signals. This is the real economy premised on the physical and mental labor of real workers in real workplaces. 

Proletarianization and class agency
A better way to understand “proletarianization” is, in the classical sense used in the Marxist tradition, the transformation of rural peasants and laborers into wage workers. Such, for example, was the migration of over 200 million rural Chinese to work in China’s relatively new industrial centers of capital accumulation over the past decades. Though it involves smaller numbers, the process is paralleled by a downward pressure on middle-class professionals such as doctors and professors, whose relative individual independence has been increasingly encroached upon by market prerogatives, transforming them into something approaching the status of wage workers. 

In The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx makes a distinction between two related conceptions of the working class—one, the class defined by its objective relationship within the system of production as workers who sell their labor power for a wage; and two, the class as defined self-consciously in and through its own struggle. “Economic conditions had first transformed the mass of the people of the country into workers,” he writes. “The mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle, of which we have noted only a few phases, this mass becomes united, and continues itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests.”14

Once again drawing on the insights of Žižek, Dean distances herself from this conception by insisting that “classes don’t preexist the struggles that produce them, struggles fought on multiple terrains—cultural, legal, technological, national and other instantiations of past struggles. And because classes don’t preexist these struggles, their politics is not given in advance as a necessary outgrowth of inevitable or naturalistically conceived interests.” 

This could perhaps be appreciated as an attempt to cut against vulgar Marxism or mechanical determinism; but since Dean contests the waged working class’s social agency it muddles more than it elucidates. Class does exist in an objective sense; there are wage earners and there are employers.15 Classes, to be sure, become increasingly self-evident and self-conscious when they enter into collective struggle. However, working-class experience is shaped prior to struggle by the individual and collective experience of exploitation and oppression inside and outside the workplace. It is this experience, and the fact that workers have interests antagonistic to their employers and rulers, that creates the conditions for and inevitability of resistance, organization, and for the sharpening of class consciousness. 

By rejecting overarching class structures and imperatives derived from direct worker-employer relationships, Dean embraces both voluntarism and idealism. Drawing from author Peter Hallward, she explains:

Hallward does not treat the people as an empirical designation for the inhabitants of a particular territory, the citizens of a particular nation, or the occupants of a particular social class. Rather, he conceives them through their active willing, that is, their active identification with an emergent general interest.

In essence, the working class, redefined as “the people,” is whoever identifies and organizes as such—“the people are those who formulate, assert, and sustain a fully common interest.” Dean’s conception of “communism,” of social change, is completely unmoored from the material basis that Marx considered an absolute precondition for the creation of socialism—material abundance and a self-organized exploited class. “Which is the better approach for communists today,” she asks. “Repeating in our contemporary setting the epic and never-ending struggle of workers against owners, many against few, or appealing to the potentiality of capacities we all share, capacities of language, communication, and thought?”

For Dean, the perfect example of a self-willed “class” constituting the “people” is the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011. To be sure, Dean mentions strikes, workplace occupations, and mass demonstrations as examples of resistance since the eruption of the financial crisis; but their significance isn’t drawn out, nor is their relationship to or what distinguishes them from the Occupy Wall Street movement. She leaves undeveloped the process by which the occupation of a specific social space where no market commodities are created could move towards revolutionary upheaval. Though Dean doesn’t explain why the seizure of social space is more effective than the seizure of workplaces and the halting of production—the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike, for example—it is implicit in her analysis. 

Strikes in the United States today are still few in number, a product of the ferocious decades-long employers’ offensive, the strategies of trade union leaders shaped in this context, and an underdeveloped level of organization among rank-and-file workers and of the Left in general. But when conditions are ripe and when leadership exists, strikes can become workplace occupations that can lead to general strikes and the creation of workers councils.16 One of the deep fears held by the ruling class at Occupy-type moments is that these social struggles will spread to the working class—it was these fears that let to the suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen protests, for example.

Occupy Wall Street and the Chicago teachers’ strike were part of the same phenomenon of radicalization and resistance of the past several years, but they also demonstrate different processes and strategies. Occupy depended on the actions of a small minority who provoked state repression to galvanize a larger movement. The Chicago teachers strike, as with all workplace strikes, depended on the overwhelming majority of teachers voting democratically to take collective action. The premise of their collective power was their collective labor across hundreds of schools in Chicago. If a radical minority of teachers had withheld their labor and struck they would have been isolated and crushed. Marx and Engels championed the need for “working class self-emancipation” because it cannot be achieved by a dedicated minority for the workers, and because it would be the only way the worker-majority would become fit to govern society in the interests of all. 

Lessons of Occupy: Case for a revolutionary party?
In the concluding chapter, “Occupation and the Party,” Dean makes a case for the creation of a new “communist party.” She writes that when Wall Street was occupied in 2011 a “cadre of the newly active located an inexhaustible political potential,” and the possibility of a world without capitalism could be envisioned. 

Occupy and other protest movements arising internationally appear, at first, to validate the emphasis on consensus, inclusion, autonomy, leaderlessness, and horizontalism championed by some categories of anarchism. However, the lack of recall, accountability, and the pursuit of multiple, even conflicting goals (or none at all), led to skepticism toward organizing structures, paranoia of leaders, suspicion of leadership, and disillusionment. 

Dean writes astutely, for example, that Occupy “produced a new sense on the US left that collective resistance was again possible,” and that its slogans helped reinforce a stronger sense of class. For a Left that has “tended to believe that autonomy, fragmentation, and dispersion can substitute for solidarity,” Occupy was a major step forward. Many of her criticisms are also spot on: “Assertions of leaderlessness as a principle incited a kind of paranoia around leaders who emerged but who could not be acknowledged or held accountable,” she writes. Of occupations, she notes that while holding space “breaks with the transience of communicative capitalism,” they are not easy to establish or sustain, and, seen as ends in themselves rather than means to organize and expand the struggle for real demands, become a political dead end. 

The experience of Occupy, Dean argues, rather than confirming anarchist-inspired ideas “pushes us to think again about the role of a communist party.” Occupy “does work that Lenin associates with a revolutionary party: establishing and maintaining a continuity of oppositional struggle that enables broader numbers of people to join in the movement. It builds collectivity.” Therefore, a revolutionary party overcomes fragmentation and fulfills the desire for collective action. The new party, Dean argues, should be constituted by the “vanguard of disciplined, committed activists undertaking and supporting actions in the streets,” creating confidence in the possibility of collective resistance against the “proletarianization” of society. 

Following on the insights of Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács in Lenin: A Study on the Unity of Thought17 published in 1924, Dean argues that

the actuality of revolution requires discipline and preparation, not because the communist party can accurately predict everything that will occur—it cannot—and not because it has an infallible theory—it does not. Its theory, like the conditions in which it is set, is open to rigorous criticism, testing and revision. Discipline and preparation enable the party to adapt to circumstances rather than be completely molded by them. The party has to be consistent and flexible because revolution is chaotic.

These are all important points, but Dean doesn’t analyze the difference between this kind of party and the Stalinized mass Communist parties of the post-World War II era. The influence of such parties grew enormously but they became increasingly undemocratic and opposed to militancy. This is why many are hostile or suspicious towards “Leninist” organizations. 

There is much in Dean’s judgment of Occupy that is accurate. However, her basic premise is problematic: in Dean’s schema, Occupy activists are substituted for the proletariat or working-class vanguard, a new vanguard that represents her newly-defined “proletariat”—everyone who isn’t rich. She fully accepts Occupy’s description of society—brilliant though superficial—1% vs. the 99%—as her framework for understanding class today. “In this setting of an occupied Wall Street,” she writes, “this ‘we’ is a class, one of two opposed and hostile classes, those who have and control the common wealth, and those who do not.”

The sites of the Occupy protests were public spaces—not sites of potential power such as the workplace. This highlighted economic inequality and reflected a growing awareness of class inequality. But it did not constitute the “new” form of class struggle. That such a struggle emerged outside the workplace (as it also did in the struggle in Madison, Wisconsin against union-busting) is an indicator that the working class as a class still lacks confidence in the workplace setting to engage in collective struggle on a significant scale, not that “class” struggle has permanently shifted onto a new terrain, where “collectivities” are constituted solely by the actions of associated individuals. The Occupy movement was a harbinger of that future class struggle, but it would be a mistake to conflate it or consider it a sufficient substitute for strikes and workplace occupations. 

 The Occupy activists, Dean insists, were the “militants” of the “billion of us” who are “proletarianized” by Google and Facebook. However, within the actual Occupy movement there was a wide range of political views, class origins, and varying levels of consciousness—even right-wing libertarians were involved. In practice, Occupy was very much a movement with contending, antagonistic, and even conflicting views rather than constituting a coherent political force. 

Lenin conformed with the contention of Marx and Engels that the working class held the potential to become the future “gravedigger” of capitalism, but argued the revolutionary party should be composed of only the most class-conscious sections of the working class; that is, the vanguard. Generally speaking, consciousness in the working class, as in the Occupy movement, is very uneven. Despite experiencing exploitation and forms of oppression, the vast majority of people have “mixed” or “combined” consciousness, in the sense that they hold ideas challenging the status quo but also reactionary ideas upholding it. How could it be different since? Paraphrasing Marx, the ruling ideas across society are the ideas of the ruling class. If a revolutionary party attempted to include the entire working class today it would cease to be revolutionary, since a majority of the working class isn’t revolutionary. However, consciousness in the working class, as in the Occupy movement, isn’t static and can shift to the left or to the right depending on objective conditions, the balance of class forces, and the role of class leadership. The premise of a minority revolutionary party is that the great majority of the working class can develop revolutionary consciousness through participation in actual class struggle. Revolutionary organization is not outside this struggle but aims to become a subjective factor in it. 

Therefore, the revolutionary party by itself doesn’t have the social power to overthrow capitalism, and only a minority of workers, at least initially, will affiliate. The purpose of a revolutionary party is the creation of a medium for revolutionary socialists to influence larger sections of the working class, but also to simultaneously educate, expand, and deepen working-class consciousness and leadership beyond such a party. This process creates conditions for the party’s proliferation, the growth of its capacity and activities, and the organic development of militant class leadership. Nevertheless, mass working-class action flows not from the exhortations of a revolutionary minority but from the collective and lived experience of class oppression and exploitation. 

Proposals for the creation of mass revolutionary parties influenced in any way by the experience of Leninism have been generally greeted with antipathy on the academic terrain where Dean is situated. The reaction to the case for a communist alternative and a mass communist party can help gauge the degree to which intellectuals and activists alike are willing to look beyond the baggage of Stalinism. Dean’s description of a revolutionary party is insufficient but puts a dent in widespread caricatures. To rebuild a revolutionary Left with enough physical presence amongst the exploited and oppressed, and with enough experience and sophistication to make it capable of providing political leadership to large-scale collective struggles, a renewal of Marxism is a precondition.18 Dean’s apologia for Stalinism cannot be the foundation of such a renewal.

Dean’s confidence in an alternative vision is refreshing, and her hostility to the further commodification of every aspect of our lives should be fully embraced. The renewed engagement and growing interest in communism as an alternative is an expression of deepening radicalization. Dean should also be commended for attempting to make concrete proposals in order to strengthen the struggle against a system that prioritizes the lives of a tiny parasitic minority over the vast majority. Her contribution to “rethink communism today, to critique and learn from the past in order to instantiate something better this time,” is, however, deeply marred by her failure to adopt a left or Marxist critique of Stalinism. Her recasting of modern capitalism as “communicative capitalism” draws her analysis far from a basic Marxist and class framework which remains central to understanding capitalism today, despite its many changes. It would be disturbing to think that—instead of a revival of the insurgent, democratic, and revolutionary Lenin—we were being offered a “communism” that merely reflected an effort to revive, in slightly different colored clothes—the populism of the “people’s front” era of the Stalinized Communist parties.

  1. Dean is also author and editor of numerous books, including Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics; Žižek’s Politics; Solidarity of Strangers: Feminism after Identity Politics; and Empire’s New Clothes: Reading Hardt and Negri
  2. See http://www.versobooks.com/series_collect....
  3. Alain Badiou, “Spectres of 68,” in New Left Review 49 (Jan-Feb 2008), http://newleftreview.org/II/49/alain-bad....
  4. See http://www.versobooks.com/books/513-the-....
  5. See Hal Draper, The Dictatorship of the Proletariat from Marx to Lenin (New York: Monthly Review, 1987).
  6. See V. I. Lenin, State and Revolution (New York: International Publishers, 1932), http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/wo....
  7. See Chris Harman, Class Struggles in Eastern Europe 1945–83 (London: Bookmarks, 1988); Ian H. Birchall, Workers Against the Monolith: The Communist Parties since 1943 (London: Pluto Press, 1974).
  8. See Lars T. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: What is to Be Done? in Context (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008).
  9. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004), 104, 105.
  10. Kim Moody, US Labor in Trouble and Transition: The Failure of Reform From Above, The Promise of Revival From Below (New York: Verso, 2007) 43.
  11. Ibid., 225.
  12. See “Working Classes; Global Realities,” Socialist Register 2001; Chris Harman, “The Workers of the World” in International Socialism Journal (Autumn 2002),https://www.marxists.org/archive/harman/... Paul Mason, Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010).
  13. Ursula Huws, “The Underpinnings of Class in the Digital Age: Living, Labour and Value,” Socialist Register 2014 (London: Merlin, 2013), 80.
  14. Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 6 (New York: International Publishers, 1976), 211.
  15. For a better appreciation of class formation see Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution Volume II: The Politics of Social Classes (New York: Monthly Review, 1978).
  16. See Leon Trotsky, 1905 (New York: Vintage, 1971); Paolo Spriano, The Occupation of the Factories: Italy 1920 (London: Pluto Press, 1975); Gwyn A. Williams, Proletarian Order: Antonio Gramsci, Factory Councils and the Origins of Communism in Italy 1911–1921 (London: Pluto Press, 1975).
  17. See Georg Lukács, Lenin: A Study on the Unity of Thought (London: New Left Books, 1970), http://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/w....
  18. See Duncan Hallas, “Toward a Revolutionary Socialist Party,” Party and Class (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2003).

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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