Crowds and Party

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For a decade or more there has been a sustained assault on the need for a political party in order to achieve social change. Many of the great movements of 2011 such as Occupy and 15M in the Spanish state explicitly rejected parties and leadership. This is now changing.

Much of the socialist left celebrated Syriza, champions Podemos, and hopes Jeremy Corbyn can cement full control of the Labour Party. The Green Party is liked by many. Some even believe Bernie Sanders can transform the US Democrats into a weapon in our hands. These are all parties. In general, the revolutionary party is still treated with suspicion. The broad party is not.

Jodi Dean argues powerfully against non-party trends. She points to key moments during the Occupy movement when “the individualism of its democratic, anarchist and horizontalist ideological currents undermined the collective power the movement was building”. Instead of a force that can confront the power of the bosses and the state, there emerges “disempowered singularities”.

Dean also powerfully locates the march of fragmented individualism as an expression of neoliberal ideology “that tells us to do it ourselves, stay local and small and trust no one because they will only betray us”. There are lots of interesting ideas to debate here, but I have three disagreements with Dean.

The first is her view that we live in an era of “communicative capitalism” where the vast majority of society, not any class, suffer exploitation mainly outside a workplace by methods of interaction such as the internet. Therefore we “should not expect class struggle to manifest primarily as workplace struggles”. This view of a capitalism severed from workplaces underpins a shift from the working class to the “crowd” as the potentially revolutionary subject.

Secondly, Dean too often separates the party form and the politics of such parties. A long and engaging section on the US Communist Party has no serious examination of the Stalinist politics that came to dominate the organisation. These politics shaped the sort of party. The more obscure sections of the book — leaning on psychoanalysis, Alain Baidou and Jacques Lacan — also avoid the reality that parties do not exist separately from their politics.

Finally, and very strangely given the subject, there is very little on the actual experience and record of parties — and therefore an avoidance of the record of reformism. She writes: “Despite Syriza’s inability to deliver on its promises (or, more strongly, despite its betrayal of the very supporters who mobilised in its behalf) it nevertheless shifted the terrain of the possible.” And that’s it!

Dean’s book is a part of the debates now about what sort of party we need, and what politics will produce and sustain it. She is wholly correct when she writes: “Capitalists will not simply hand over control and ownership of the means of production. States will not just stop oppressing, arresting and imprisoning those who resist them. A left that eschews organising for power will remain powerless. This is why we are talking about the party again.”

We must debate further the party we need.