Theory for Everyone

Jodi Dean, The Communist Horizon

Verso, 256pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781844679546

reviewed by Samuel Grove

The latest book of Verso's 'Pocket Communism' series sees Jodi Dean attempt to deliver a lesson to the political left that the political right already learned long ago: that 'Communism' is the horizon that configures our political landscape. For the right, the communist threat is everywhere. Barack Obama is communist, single payer healthcare is communist, anti-war protest is communist, the regulation of markets is communist, taxing the rich is communist. Superficially of course this invective is absurd, a symptom of the American right's descent into insanity, along with their denials of climate change and evolution. However for Dean there is a kernel of truth to these claims. That is, however mild efforts to curtail capital and ruling class power maybe, they fundamentally emanate from the communist idea of equality. If this is true then the reflexive denials of the liberal class, that Obama, anti-war protest and market regulation are communist, while obviously true, also lead to a denial of politics—politics as conceived as a conflict between those for equality and those who are opposed to it.

If this denial of politics were confined to liberals then it would not be much of a problem—for the task of liberals has always been to lobotomise political conflict through abstract appeals to negotiation, compromise, and reconciliation. The trouble is that it has infiltrated the left in general. When Occupy in the US (or trade unions in Europe for that matter) frame their demands in terms of 'representation', 'inclusion', 'participation' and so on, this represents an abnegation of what the left really stands for. In turn it has produced a re-conception of political conflict; between a right that opposes equality and a left that claims not to oppose anything.

Fortunately politics does not operate solely on the plane of rhetoric. What distinguishes the left from liberals is that the left doesn't always mean what it says. So for instance while the left might make a rhetorical commitment to the 'inclusion of all' they do not champion the inclusion of fascists (whereas liberals often often do). Likewise their calls for greater ‘inclusion’ and ‘participation’ are implicit demands for greater economic equality couched in less controversial language. Is it just a matter, then, of the left coming out and saying what it means?

Partly. Dean would certainly concur with Alain Badiou's counsel that ‘a struggle can only prevail when its principles are clear'. But for Dean flaws of rhetoric are merely symptomatic of a deeper malaise that the left is only just starting to work its way through. The left, she argues, is invested in its own powerlessness. This is why, while our political horizon has never stopped being communist, in the last few decades it has taken the form of a 'lost horizon'. Rather than recognise the scale of its losses, the left has preferred to re-imagine them as victories: the abandonment of revolutionary struggle is really a maturation from juvenile idealism; the smashing of organised labour has given rise to spontaneous, more democratic, forms of resistance; the dominion of capital has allowed us to focus our efforts on the power of the spectacle.

Our current movements bear the scars of this 'lost horizon'; but they are also increasingly oriented by its actual horizon. If we are not talking openly of taking power, we are at least finally talking about stripping capitalists of theirs. The 'spontaneous' occupations of Tahir Square, Wall Street and Plaza del Sol are in fact forms of collective resistance that have required a great deal of organisation and leadership to pull off. The championing of debt strikes could be no more a symbolic act of individual resistance, but if done collectively they could strike at the heart of the financial system. Above all, Dean writes, ‘we appear to ourselves - we say “we.”’

The remaining task is to coalesce this ‘we’ around a political organisation that can put up a direct challenge to capitalism and the state that sustains it. In other words, a party. It is a party that can mobilise a mass movement and sustain it in the process of oppositional struggle. It is a party that can provide the apparatus to harness our one advantage (our numbers) into organised strategic action. It is a party that gives leadership, hierarchy and the assignation of responsibilities a ‘structure of accountability’.

The Communist Horizon is a polemic designed to provoke. Readers must therefore be ready or willing to have their basic assumptions challenged. In the case of reconsidering the Soviet Union (the literature of which has not progressed much beyond Cold War propaganda) and the amalgamation of politics and ethics—this is most welcome. At times, however ,she bends the stick too far. 'Democracy', she insists, represents an accommodation with capitalism. I don't necessarily agree with this. If communism is 'the collective determination of the people over their conditions' then isn't communism democracy's highest form? Of course democracy can be a way of watering down demands or descending into liberal pieties. But it doesn't have to be. Dean refuses the Cold War propaganda that made 'communism' synonymous with Stalinism, so why should she accept the same propaganda that makes democracy synonymous with capitalism? Words don't exist in isolation, and the way they are used reflects political struggles.

Using 'democracy' alongside 'communism' has three main virtues. Firstly, it separates communism from its bureaucratic authoritarian form. Secondly, ‘democracy' makes immediate sense to people ('if we elect state officials, why not out workplace managers?'). We all have the intelligence to understand the arguments but not all of us have the time or the inclination to engage with arguments made more elaborate than they need be. Thirdly, it connects our struggle to previous movements. If left despair and inaction is born out of its losses, as Dean maintains, then re-engaging with our past victories must be a part of our overcoming it. These include universal suffrage, won in the face of considerable resistance from the right; the modern right's desperation to appear to be in favour of democracy is, as Corey Robin has pointed out, testament to the left's successes not its failures.

Why not, then, the 'democratic horizon'? It is here that we reach the limits of democracy that Dean's book so astutely identifies. Democracy is a process, not a goal. It is measured quantitatively not qualitatively. It is empirical not axiomatic. It is no more a marker then of our actual place than the way the wind blows. Above all - and this we have learned from experience - democracy is not a means for attaining itself. The vote wasn't won through referenda. Rather it was won when 'the people' imposed its 'will' on the polity. For Dean the terms 'people' and 'will' are mutually constituting. That is, the 'people' only become once they have transformed themselves into a unified collective behind a certain ‘will’. We should not be put off by a failure to reach a democratic consensus or by the mere existence of reactionary dissent. For not everyone is 'the people'.

Dean's argument might appear controversial, but only if we pay no attention to history. For example, we do not have much trouble in saying that women won themselves the vote. And yet at the height of the suffragette movement in Britain, reactionary movements were able to gather more female signatories against their having the vote than the suffragettes could muster for it. So when we say that women won themselves the vote, we can only be using 'women' in a certain qualified sense.

The overthrow of capitalism will not come at the polling stations or the signing of petitions. Such devices, Dean argues, are essentially exercises in ratifying prevailing arrangements (the 'rendering the people' in terms of their 'demographic components'). It will come when the people will it and have the organisational form to achieve it. Dean is right. The people's will is communist because 'communism' is expressly for the collective in a way that brooks no qualification. As such, it is the only word we have in our political vocabulary that represents an unequivocal rejection of capitalism. This is why our horizon is communist.

Midway through The Communist Horizon Dean quotes Walter Benjamin on the perils of a certain strata of radical left wing intellectualism; one that has 'nothing in common' with a workers movement, and whose function is to 'produce, from the political standpoint, not parties but cliques; from the literary standpoint, not producers but agents or hacks who make [...] a banquet out of yawning emptiness.’ The truth is that theory is largely a 'banquet of yawning emptiness'. There is often a chasm separating the questions intellectuals ask themselves and the kinds of problems encountered by everyone else. The Communist Horizon is theory for everyone else and I can think of no higher praise for Dean's arguments than to say that they really belong, not in seminar rooms and lecture theatres, but in people's houses, workplaces and public haunts.
Samuel Grove is a PhD researcher with the Centre for Critical Theory at the University of Nottingham. He has written for various publications including Tribune Magazine and Red Pepper.