Reading The Communist Horizon

I recently picked up a copy of Jodi Dean’s The Communist Horizon, which has been getting a good deal of publicity and generating interesting debates on the blogosphere (and in my Facebook feed, for that matter). Dean’s book can be situated among a number of other works ushering in a resurgence of a revamped theoretical communism, including titles by Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, and Bruno Bosteels published by the stylish folks over at Verso. Since I’m participating in a reading group organized around this book, my next few posts will be meant as a running commentary. Thus far I’ve only read the Introduction and chapter one, “Our Soviets.”

Why “the communist horizon”? Dean writes that the term horizon indicates a dimension of experience that is Real (in the Lacanian sense) because it is both impossible to ever reach and actual. It “shapes our setting” and is “a necessary dimension of our actuality” (p. 2). Taking up from Badiou’s similar “Idea of Communism,” Dean theorizes communism as an imperative that “impresses upon us the necessity to abolish capitalism and to create global practices and institutions of egalitarian cooperation” (11). For her, a return to this notion is necessary in contrast to the pluralism, playful aestheticism, and obsession with the local and particular that has come to define the radical Left today – for example, as evidenced by the horizontalist tendencies of the Occupy movement.

“The premise of communism,” Dean writes, “is that collective determination of collective conditions is possible, if we want it…The power of the return to communism stands or falls on its capacity to inspire large-scale organized collective struggle toward a goal” (16, 14). Yet Dean, like Badiou, Zizek, and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, rejects the key Marxian idea that the proletariat, taken as an “empirical social class,” needs to be emphasized as the historial agent to bring about the transformation of capitalism into communism. In its place, Dean claims to look at proletarianization – the “process of exploitation, dispossession, and immiseration” (18) – that maintains existing class divisions. As a result, instead of class analysis, she offers the radical democratic notion of “‘the people as the rest of us,’ the people as a divided and divisive force” (18). Communism here is clearly functioning not as an economic, but a political concept.

This turn away from socio-economic analysis and toward a radical democratic metaphysics characterizes much of the contemporary revival of communist theory, inspired as it is by the catching on of Badiou’s argument that communism is an eternal Idea akin to the Platonic form, rather than a historically conditioned, emancipatory philosophy whose ideological roots can be traced to specific historical developments, for example the rise of the bourgeois public sphere (Habermas’s Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere). However, within this circle of authors all calling for a revolutionary universal egalitarianism, Dean takes issue with both Badiou and Hardt and Negri for their rejection of Party and State. Instead she sides with Bosteels and Zizek that the organizational form of the Party is precisely what gives politics its political character.

“The party is a complex, adaptive system. Its end is proletarian revolution, that is, the destruction of the capitalist system of exploitation and expropriation, of proletarianization, and the creation of a mode of production and distribution where the free development of each is compatible with the free development of all” (20).

On this note ends the Introduction. So far so good. However, the next chapter, “Our Soviets,” makes a series of questionable assertions and distinctions that problematize Dean’s argument even further.

There she begins by pointing out the symbolic relationship that existed between the US and the USSR, insofar as each entity needed the existence of its rival as the Other against which to validate itself; in particular, the triad of communism-Soviet Union-Stalinism took on a key role in the American imaginary. I think Dean’s point on this is largely true, and she draws on the research of Susan Buck-Morss, whose book Dreamworld and Catastrophe explored the superpowers’ similar commitment to a kind of cultural high modernism. But instead of leaving it at that, Dean feels the need to push the argument even further by taking on the problem of Stalin, arguing that critiques of Stalinism are more a legacy of the Cold War than an accurate investigation of history (29), and that most of the histories we have of the period were written under the conditions of a “hegemonic anticommunism” (33). The Cold War certainly did give rise to an anticommunist ideology, which permeated not only public discourse and politics but also academia. But Stalinism is a historical problem that cannot simply be explained away by pointing to the ideological biases of American scholars.

Put differently, the problem can be understood as one of historicity and the supposed necessity of a revolutionary party structure to turn in upon itself by becoming a conservative organ of domination. Dean has three objections for those who take the communism-Soviet Union-Stalinism triad as one of a necessary connection: 1) Objectivity has been absent from historical studies of communism thus far; 2) The problems of historical communism have not been treated as the results of contingencies; and 3) History is not a static structure but one that possesses its own historicity. The result, she argues, is that the liberal, democratic, capitalist, and conservative appeal to history (for her these terms are essentially interchangeable) as a way of discrediting the communist legacy is profoundly conservative in its outlook and mission. Its goal is to justify the liberal-democratic order, and it does so by approaching communism as “impossible, invariant, constant, and unchanging” (36), thereby disconnecting communism from its own history.

Yet if the history of communism as told by liberals should not be confused for the History of communism, how should we think about the latter? Perhaps the most important philosophical implication of the first two chapters is the distinction between theory and history that Dean takes up from Badiou. As she writes of communism’s critics,

“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…Yet as Alain Badiou reminds us, “at bottom, it is always in the interests of the powerful that history is mistaken for politics, that is, the objective is taken for the subjective.” (32)

Hence Dean, Badiou, and others take up theory in response to the invocation of history by communism’s critics. Although Dean qualifies her reasoning toward the end of the chapter by juxtaposing Badiou’s Idea of an eternal communism to Bosteels’s seemingly more nuanced position of joining “tactical ahistoricism” to “a new writing of history” (37), considering Dean’s critique of the historical approach just a few pages earlier, at the moment this does not seem like a substantial difference. On the whole, the argument of The Communist Horizon seems much more inclined toward reviving a theoretical communism, not about the possibility of communism in this historical moment.

This tension between history and theory has been at the heart of debates in Marxism for quite some time. One may argue that Dean’s strategy in this book is not that different from Marx and Engels’s own approach in the Manifesto, insofar as they too wrote of communism as the specter haunting Europe – that theoretical Other latent within the present structures of society. For them, to the extent that communism represented the future of humanity, it needed to be brought about through organization and struggle, but also through the empowerment of the working classes by making them see themselves as a world-historical power – in other words, by bestowing upon them a common identity as communists, and thereby uniting them into a fledgling basis for a Communist International. The Manifesto thus had value as a performative, rhetorical tract equally as much as a theoretical-historical analysis of the situation in 1848.

Is that the case with The Communist Horizon, though? Dean’s brushing away of history – not only of the ambiguous legacy of the Soviet Union, but also of the myriad of transformations undergone by Marxist parties across the world throughout the 20th century – already makes me wonder what remains here of the complicated tradition of the Marxist left. It seems to me that part of the reasoning leading Dean to treat communism as if it existed in a historical void is her theoretical predisposition to an essentially subjectivist and voluntarist understanding of politics. We are told that communism must be conceptualized as “the politics of a militant subject” (35) rather than as a linear process, and, looking once again at the Badiou quote above, that a “subjective” politics needs to be counterposed to an “objective” history.

This is potentially a huge problem. One of the qualities that makes historical materialism such a convincing theory is its ability to explain history as the working out of earlier contradictions in society, and the contextual insights it can bring to bear on particular historical moments. For this reason, communism needs to be seen as a historical problem and possibility that is dependent upon the objective structural, material, and social conditions of the present moment. To approach it as a possibility equally available under all conditions and at all times so long as the militant subject is there, which is what I take to be the implication of Dean’s argument, means to regress from the nuanced analysis that historical materialism provides us the tools for to a kind of empty, formalistic, wishful thinking.

Pardon the quip, but it raises some red flags.


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