2Issue #54 / March 2013
On October 13th, 2012, Ross Wole o the Platypus Afli-ated Society interviewed Jodi Dean, Proessor o PoliticalScience at Hobart and William Smith College and author o
The Communist Horizon (Verso: New York, 2012)
. Whatollows is an edited transcript o their conversation.
: Your new book,
The Communist Horizon
,builds upon a body o literature that has accumulatedaround the concept o “communism” over the last de-cade. What is the signicance o this renewed emphasison communism?
: The shit towards communism puts letistthought into a distinct political horizon. It is no longer asort o touchy-eely, identity issue-based, and ragment-ed emphasis on each person’s unique specicity. It isno longer a generic, attitudinal liestyle, preoccupationwith “awareness” or the spontaneous, and momentaryreduction o politics to the minuteness o the everyday.Communism returns politics to grand, revolutionarypossibilities—to projects o political power. And thatchange is absolutely, crucially enormous, even i ortyyears out o date.
: Where does your own work on “the communisthorizon” t in relation to the work o other major letisttheorists on the subject?
: My writing intersects Žižek as well as Hardt andNegri, with alliance to (and inspiration rom) BrunoBosteels. I get the account o communication as theundamental aspect o economic change rom Hardt andNegri. It is rom them I get the account o contemporarycapitalism and its political economy. I also disagree withthem because they get rid o the notion o antagonismand that is the problem. Their diagnosis o inormatiza-tion and communicative subsumption in capitalism isright, but they’re too positive about it, without providingthe orce that negativity carries in critique. I get thecritical aspect rom Žižek.On the importance o the party, Žižek says, “a politicswithout the Party is a politics without politics.” I ullyagree with that. Also, Bosteels and I have talked aboutthe similarity between Žižek’s account o the party in the“Aterword” to
Revolution at the Gates
and Alain Badiou’saccount in
Theory o the Subject
. The party is an associa-tion rooted in delity to an event. It holds open the spaceor this delity. The implication is that the party is notrightly understood in terms o its program or doctrine,but rather in terms o holding open the space or thesubject aithul to the event, in this case, the event o1917. This is where there is a similarity or resonance interms o thinking about communism.
: In your book, you write: “The problem o the Lethasn’t been our adherence to a Marxist critique ocapitalism. It’s that we have lost sight o the communisthorizon” (
The Communist Horizon
, 6). What does “com-munism” provide that is missing rom the Marxist cri-tique o capitalism?
: Communism provides a positive moment: It issomething that makes you do more than criticize andconstantly subject everything to a ruthless critique. Itprovides a purpose and a direction or that sort o nega-tivity to have a positivity in mind. Letist intellectuals inparticular oten get lost in critique. We etishize critique.We
it, in the psychoanalytic sense, but the ques-tion is: What to do with the critique or how to use it tomove orward—to galvanize and organize the masses?What communism provides is an orientation or critique.That is what Marx had, too. Yet, when Marxism movedso strongly into the academy that critique becameviewed as benecial or its own sake, it lost the orienta-tion to a politics that would be willing to take power.
: Though he may have been its most celebrated in-terlocutor, one o Marx’s most enduring contributions torevolutionary thought arguably consists in his sustainedpolemic against rival theories o communism (those oCabet, Dézamy, Weitling, Fourier, Proudhon) that ex-isted during his time. So would you say that Marx’s criti-cal intervention into the history o communist discourseis irreducible? Or is this legacy o immanent critique oother letists dispensable?
: I don’t think this legacy is dispensable. It justshouldn’t be a etish-object, right? It shouldn’t be somekind o “all or nothing.” My riend James Martel has atrilogy o books on Walter Benjamin. In the rst o these,
, he criticizes what he calls “idolatry,”using Benjamin’s discussion o Baudelaire. James is ananarchist, and we disagree there, but his critique o idola-try as a mode o let attachment is really good. So as toyour question, it doesn’t need to be one thing or the other.
: More broadly, what is the relationship betweenMarxism and communism? Does one have priority overthe other?
: I think they have to go together.
: Is it still possible to imagine the creation o a com-munist society with a pre- or post-Marxist lens?
: Communism without Marxism can become weirdprimitivism. Some o the anarchist approaches to sus-confict. There won’t be
confict, but there’ll bedierent kinds o confict, and we will need the state insome orm in order to abolish capitalism, in order totake things and redistribute them.
: Besides sovereignty, the other component in yourreormulation o “the dictatorship o the proletariat” as“the sovereignty o the people” is “the people.” Follow-ing Hardt and Negri and Badiou, you distance yourselrom the classical Marxist notion, elaborated by Lukács,o the proletariat as the “subject” o communism orhistory. Instead, you “oer the notion o ‘the people asthe rest o us,’ the people as a divided and divisive orce,as an alternative to some o the other names or thesubject o communism—proletariat, multitude, part-o-no-part” (18–19). How does this amendment to thetraditional concept o the “subject” o communism orhistory help to improve Marx’s theory, or at least bringit up to date?
: One o the ways it brings Marx’s theory up to dateis really pragmatic. When you’re talking to a bunch opeople today, almost no one says that he’s a membero “the proletariat.” They may say they’re part o “thepeople.” (This, even though Marx and Lenin are veryclear that “the proletariat” is not an empirical catego-ry). The term “proletarianization” is still accurate anduseul, however, so I think it’s important to keep thatconcept and think o “the people” as “the
people.” For olks in the US, “proletariat” suggestsactory labor too strongly. There are many people whodon’t eel like they’re proletarians, even as they mightrecognize their existence as proletarianized, especiallytoday because we’ve lost so many manuacturing jobs.There are so many precarious workers, ragile workers,so many non-workers—widespread unemployment,people who are underemployed. It’s hard or those olksto think o themselves as “the proletariat.” The senseo “the people” as a divided group better encompassesour own time. Frankly, I also think it includes more othe “reserve army” o the unemployed, the
that classical communism had mistakenlyabandoned.Now I don’t mean this in any way as a rejection othe category o the worker. Recognizing “the people” asa revolutionary subject also brings communist theoryup to date, because in Russia and in China there werediscussions o alliances between the proletariat and thepeasantry, both as segments o the revolutionary peo-ple. There was a realization in Russia and China that thecategory o the “the proletariat” risked being too narrowand exclusive and wouldn’t account or a huge segmento the people. Both Lenin and Mao had ideas o “thepeople” as a revolutionary grouping and both used thislanguage. Lukács is very clear in his book
Lenin: A Study in the Unity o His Thought
how Lenin evolved the notiono “the people” to give it this revolutionary, divided, anddivisive sense. So there are good Marxist reasons tomake this rhetorical move in emphasizing “the people”rather than “the proletariat.” They recognized the utilityo a militant account o “the people,” not as a totality orunity, but as a divided group.
: How does your category o “the people as the resto us” work to address the problem o revolutionaryconsciousness? What would something like “alse con-sciousness” look like in this model?
: This is where Žižek is very helpul. In Žižek’s account,ideology is not a matter o what we know but what we do.So “alse consciousness” isn’t the problem. The problemis what you’re
, and how your actions repeat. We all
capitalism is a system that exploits the many orthe benet o the very ew, and yet we continue in it. It’snot like we are deluded about it. Our contemporary prob-lem is not that we are unaware that capitalism is unjustand wrecking the lives o billions. The problem is thatwe either don’t have the will to get out, or aren’t quitesure how to do so. It’s not a matter o changing people’sminds. It’s about changing their actions.
: I would like to go over your rejection o democracyin the name o communism. This may just be tactical,given the political vocabulary today. Taking a broaderhistorical purview, however, didn’t Marx and others viewcommunism as simply a higher realization o the demo-cratic principle?
: That is because they didn’t live in democracies.They were struggling or democracy. They didn’t haveuniversal surage, democratic governments, and soon. So it makes sense that they thought they were orthat. Maybe not toward the end o his lie, but Marx orthe most part believed that once there was a workers’party and universal surage you could possibly installan elected version o something like communism. Thatseems likely in some o his writings. But that view isridiculous. The bourgeoisie is not going to give up with-out a ght. That is why I think Lenin is so much better.In “
Let-Wing” Communism: An Inantile Disorder
Leninargues that democracy
is the highest orm o bourgeoisgovernment—it is a vehicle or bourgeois rule.We need to ask ourselves: What is the attachmentto democracy? What does that mean in let-wing dis-cussions these days? I think it’s a ailure o will, andeven an attachment to the orm o our subjection. Whydo we keep arguing in terms o democracy when welive in a democracy that is the source o unbelievableinequality and capitalist exploitation? Why are we soattached to this? It makes no sense. O course, it’snot like we should have a system where nobody votes.The most undamental things—namely, control overthe economy—should be or the common, in the nameo the common, and by the common (without beingdetermined by something like voting). It should beknown that there is no private property. Everything weown and produce is or the common good, and that isnot up or grabs, it is a
or the possibility odemocracy. It shouldn’t itsel be
to democracy,the same way that any kind o revolutionary momentor transition to communism can’t be understood as ademocratic move. I we can get twenty percent o thepeople, we could do it. But it’s not democratic. Eightypercent o people don’t care. Badiou is brilliant whenhe asks, “Why are people so intrigued by the so-called‘independent voters?’ Why are people without a politi-cal opinion even allowed to decide, when they don’teven care?”
: Like Bosteels, you object to Badiou’s treatment ocommunism as a quasi-Platonic “eternal political idea”(37). What is at stake in this objection? I communistpolitics arose historically, what were the historical con-ditions that rst made it possible?
: In a very banal Marxist sense, what makes commu-nism possible has to do with the level o developmento orces o production under capitalism. And then thequestion is, as always: Is communism yet possible? Isthe act that we haven’t achieved it yet a sign that it hasnot yet been possible, in terms o the level o develop-ment o orces o production? Or have we just lacked thepolitical will?
: Insoar as communism can thus be seen as boundup with the historical emergence and continued devel-opment o capital, what role does capital play in historyin determining what you call “the communist horizon”?Does the image o communism vary rom age to agedepending on the social conditions that are present? Iso, how?
: There would be things that vary and things thatdon’t vary. The image o communism would also varywith respect to the specicities o the relations o pro-duction in dierent societies. The image o communismor Mao was not the same as the image o communismor Lenin. So there are all sorts o ways that one couldparse this and contextualize it with rich historical detail.But even some o the abstractions about communismare helpul. My avorite o Marx’s denitions o commu-nism is “From each according to ability, to each accord-ing to need.”
However, one can also get very properlyspecic on how something like “equality” would mani-est under communism, just as Marx criticizes equalityas a bourgeois notion, particularly i it’s going to be lim-ited to certain abstract rights.
: As in his
Critique o the Gotha Program
: Right. Both notions are there in that text. You haveboth the critique o a certain orm o equality and anoth-er image o equality. So what would be better than theabstract question o “How does it change?” Questionsthat are much more historically specic.
: How does the communist horizon appear underthe aegis o what you call “communicative capitalism”(a term that encompasses both Fordist and neoliberalcapitalism)? Is this any dierent rom how it appearedunder previous phases o capitalism—monopoly capital-ism, classical liberalism, or mercantilism?
: There is something about the communicative “com-mon” that makes things dierent. In communicativecapitalism, we see a mode o subsumption and expro-priation o the social substance that goes beyond thecommodity orm, and also beyond the labor theory ovalue. We see this in the way that Google and Facebookseize our relationships directly—without having to com-modiy any kind o social substance—and search themor their own purposes. There is something about theway that communicative networks exceed the commod-ity orm that is important or the critique o capitalismand in terms o how communism might unold or whatit can be.
: Discussing the predominant picture o socialismand the USSR urnished by Western historiography, younote that, “there is not yet a credible and establishedbody o historical literature on communism, socialism,or the Soviet Union. Most o the histories we have wereproduced in the context o a hegemonic anticommu-nism” (33). Beyond repairing communism’s poor publicimage by correcting tendentious accounts o its history,is there a need or a Marxist history o historical Marx-ism itsel?
: What I would really like to see, in terms o my owninterests, is a history (or maybe a political science)that provides a Marxist approach to learning rom theSoviet experience. What are the positive things thatcan be taken rom Soviet history? There have been allsorts o great models and dierent ways o approach-ing the question o the workers’ control o the economy,particularly the Yugoslav experience, and we need tohave positive histories and reassessments o these. Iam really much more interested in what we can learnor building a better party, or modeling dierent states,and or putting together a positive vision that is politi-cally relevant.
: Toward the end o your book, you introduce thegure o Lenin in connection with your concept o theparty. This takes place within the context o a discus-sion o the Occupy movement in 2011-12. Counteringthe common conception o political parties as inherentlyauthoritarian and unrepresentative, you maintain that“the party is a vehicle or maintaining a specic gap odesire, the collective desire or collectivity” (207). Whatwould you say is the relevance o Lenin today, in light oOccupy? Does Occupy invalidate or perhaps complicateLeninist conceptions o party and organization?
: In the book I emphasize that with Occupy WallStreet, the olks who were sleeping in the parks
avanguard. Even i their larger movement didn’t like touse the term “vanguard,” they acted like a vanguard.Their activities also helped galvanize people and or-ganize resistance. So to that extent, they were actingsomewhat like Lenin, even though they might have es-chewed describing themselves that way.
: Since the party you propose is patterned aterLenin’s notion o a vanguard party, how would you ap-proach existing political organizations that still lay claimto this legacy—who maintain, moreover, that they alonehold the “little red thread” o continuity connecting themwith October 1917? What is to be done with the actuallyexisting Marxist let?
: There has been a debate, by either the InternationalSocialist Organization or some other website, aboutwhether the sectarian parties should try to orm onebig party or exist as a kind o united ront. And there are
What is to be done withthe actually existingMarxist left?
An interview with Jodi Dean
tainability seem to have in mind something positivelyprehistoric in their rejection o anything that could be acity—even medieval cities, which didn’t require everyoneto live in a subsistence mode o existence. Marxismrecognizes that important things happened with indus-trialization, and communism comes out o—or has to be
out o—a particular kind o capitalist develop-ment.
: Oppositely, what is Marxism without communismas its goal, as with Bernstein or Kautsky? Or, as withBadiou, without the revolutionary implementation o thestate as its means?
: Marxism without communism loses its radical goaland direction. That is what the problem with “socialism”is. Let me say a little more about this: I wasn’t sure atthe beginning about “communism.” In the United States,it made sense rom the 1990s through the rst hal othe last decade to think in terms o socialism. For us,socialism would be an amazing achievement, giventhe hideous trend o neoliberalism. However, I becamemore avorable to communism ater reading the cri-tiques o European social democracy, and I recognizedit was a sellout to capitalism that sacriced Marxism’srevolutionary edge and, in act, had betrayed the revolu-tion. O course, I eared that the same could be said orparties claiming to be “communist,” such as the ItalianCommunist Party, which has co-opted and betrayedrevolutionary Marxism just as much as some o thesocial-democratic parties o Europe. But in the contem-porary political and intellectual turn, “communism” isimportant because it says “Look, we’re not sanguine.We think social-democracy sold out, that socialism isaccommodationist. That approach has to be rejected.”Another reason or “communism” comes rom theAmerican context. No other word symbolizes anti-cap-italism like communism. And that’s reason enough toclaim it, hold onto it, and organize around it.I disagree with Badiou on his rejection o the stateand o the party, which is tantamount to a rejection opower, and results in a bizarre condemnation o com-munism as some weird mental attitude. His book,
, ends up promoting communismas the contemplation o this Ideal Form. We have tothink in terms o a state and o a party. We need to pushourselves to imagine dierent orms and modes o orga-nization and realize them dierently. We can’t think thatevery possibility has been used up.
: On the subject o the state, you propose a stateguided by “the sovereignty o the people” rather than“the dictatorship o the proletariat.” Can you explain thereasoning behind this terminological shit?
: There are a couple o reasons I argue or “the sover-eignty o the people” instead o “the dictatorship o theproletariat.” The reason I moved to “sovereignty” rom“dictatorship” is not simply because “dictatorship” has abad reputation or that it’s a dicult political position toorganize people around (though these are good reasons,too). It is because “dictatorship” connotes a provisionalorm, whereas “sovereignty o the people” lets us knowthat we must always be collectively governing ourselves.We have to always be steering ourselves, always mindulo a struggle against those who would attempt to op-press, exploit, or expropriate us.
: Does your notion o “the sovereignty o the people”allow or Lenin’s (and Engels’) doctrine o “the witheringaway o the state”?
: No, I don’t think so. I am not sure i it makes senseor us. What makes sense or us is to think o dier-ent modes o power that we continue to exert overourselves. Here is how I would put it: I am interested inthe dierent modes and dierent ways in which we canbe sel-sovereign. For Lenin, there is a lot o “wither-ing away,” which means that with everyone getting newskills and being able to do the same things bureaucrati-cally, the state apparatus will become unnecessary. Insome ways I think that is right. We might think o thattoday in terms o various distributive orms o govern-ment or governance, but overall the language o “with-ering away” doesn’t capture how we would continuallyneed orms through which to steer or govern ourselvesin complex societies.
: Insoar as Marx, Engels, and Lenin characterizedthe modern state as expressing the domination o oneclass over all others, doesn’t the continued existence othe state suggest that classes continue to exist? Doesthis imply that a classless society is impossible?
: It depends on how we understand the state andhow we understand classes. I want to deend an ideao communism against a bunch o the common-sensecriticisms that are given, the kind raised by democratsand progressives. They tend to criticize it along the ol-lowing lines: “Oh, you communists think that you’ll getto an end o history where there’s no more politics, andeverything is just wonderul, touchy-eely unity.” Laclaualso has a version o this critique. The reason they havethat criticism owes to the language o the witheringaway o the state, as i we could have orms o humansociality that would be completely without violence oroppression. We shouldn’t be utopians in the sense thatwe believe in a classless society there will be no more
Jodi Dean continues on page 4