Thoughts on Jodi Dean’s Comrade

A Critical Engagement

April 6, 2020

Book Cover of Comrade by Jodi Dean
Comrade: An Essay on Political Belonging
by Jodi Dean
Verso Books
2019

Disapproving of our local’s commitment to union democracy, the president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, a classic conservative bureaucrat by the name of Paul Moist, spoke at Local 3903’s General Membership Meeting just over ten years ago. Or, rather, Mr. Moist harangued us. Repeatedly, he’d use the phrase “brothers and sisters,” in spite of pleas from the gathered members that this was not gender-neutral language, that some of us were neither a brother nor a sister. We demanded that he call us “comrades,” but to no avail: Moist comes from a fraction of the labor movement that never much thought about the concept itself (comrade or genderqueer). In this case, as Engels would say, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”. “Comrade” is a term to use in labor or Left circles that is neither raced nor gendered. And in that lack of racializing or gender-coding, it reflects a social relation amongst comrades that can affirmatively move beyond the false equivalencies of “brother and sister” or “union siblings”. It neither reduces nor deduces humanity, but instead affirms a shared meaning and a shared struggle.

It is to Jodi Dean’s credit that she has written a succinct, readable, and sometimes profound text on the concept of the Comrade, capital C. In his classic text, Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society, the philosopher Bertell Ollman casts an eye on Marx’s relational theory. Ollman distinguishes the general notion of relations which he does not capitalize, with the capitalized Relations in a Marxian/dialectical sense. In this spirit, for the purpose of conceptual distinction, I will use capital C for Dean’s concept, non-capitalized for the general term. At its best, Dean’s theorization is relational and implicitly rooted in class, to use Ellen Meiksins Wood’s conceptualization, as a relation as opposed to a social location. Yet, at times fudging this distinction, Dean begs the question as to what constitutes the politics underlying the specificity of the question’s formulation. Is this a contribution to general Left strategic and tactical political theory? Or is it something with the specific political prerequisites of being steeped in Comrade Dean’s edifice, not to mention those of Badiou, Zizek, and Lacan?  Is it for revolutionaries from a variety of traditions, or does it speak specifically from a particular tradition?

There are indications, on that front, that this is two books at once. The first is a meaningful and beautifully written, and debate-worthy text of the notion of comradeship as a structured process, a relation rather than a signifier. The process of Comrade as a degendering concept is unpacked with concrete examples of debates within the communist movement in both the United States and the Soviet Union. The concept itself “provides the perspective comrades take when they see themselves acting politically.. ..generated by their relation to others on the same side…sexist, racist capitalist society unavoidably intrude, but comrade names a relation no longer determined by these factors.”1Pp. 36-37.

The other book uses the concept of Comrade, as a McGuffin, and in doing so, annihilates the human, sensuous, and relational aspects of comradeship. This is to say, it is a formulation that contains an inherent contradiction.  In a sense, this can be read as not merely a conceptualization of the generic comrade. Rather it can be read as pertaining to a comrade that shares Dean’s politics.

Dean is reportedly a supporter of the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), which has what many would refer to as “campist”2Today’s “campists”, range from outright “tankies” who celebrate any and all anti-American powers, deriving from the original meaning of the term as denoting those who side with one “camp” or another during the Cold War, while those who used the term, third campists, used to say “Neither Washington nor Moscow.” It is not that Dean is a campist, indeed the implication of her work actually would indicate a “neither Washington nor Moscow” type of politics, quite literally, in today’s neo-Cold War atmosphere. Yet the PSL “line” is as “campist” as it gets, giving cover to murderous despots like Assad, and seeing China, like Russia, as an anti-imperialist power. Today’s world has ironically resolved the splits in the “campist camp” falling out of the Sino-Soviet split, something humorously shown in the similar politics of the parties flowing out of that split within India. politics and a classic Marxist Leninist party structure. Indeed, her thinking has perhaps guided some recent turns in PSL’s activity towards more comradely relations with the rest of the Left. Thus she focuses more on well-worn criticism of identity politics, but includes unironic quoting of Stalin (on the “National Question”) in an otherwise perfectly reasonable explication of the Black Belt thesis, among other such provocations. One is left with a suspicion that Comrade Dean is using her exceptional prose skills to work at instrumentalizing her investigation of comradeship in the services of a specific set of politics. To a lesser extent she is staking claims within theoretical debates among psychoanalytically inflected Marxists.In particular, we consistently revisit or the arcana of seemingly detached debates amongst the likes of Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek. These inflections may provide metaphorical value, but they add nothing to her argument one way or another.

Yet that set of politics stands in contrast to generic aspects of her conceptualization of comradeship itself. The book’s popularity, beyond the small cohort of traditional campists, may be in how it works to re-naturalize as opposed to de-naturalize traditional hierarchical forms of comradeship. This involves arriving at conclusions reassuring to anyone already primed for top-down organizational structure and an oleaginous and uncritical opposition to US foreign policy. This opposition, while styling itself anti-imperialist, often comes at the expense of also opposing other imperialist powers.

The authorial intent of the book seems genuinely non-sectarian. Certainly, Dean approvingly quotes Stalin but also Trotsky, Orwell, and even Irving Howe. Everyone can be a Comrade in Dean’s bouillabaisse. And there is a virtue to this insofar as insights are sought from a variety of traditions that have broadly constituted Marxist politics since the time of Marx himself. Indeed, the central figure that looms larger than others on the inner meaning of the Comrade is the late Trinidadian author and theorist C.L.R. James, not a hero of any classically Stalinist left.

Perhaps Dean would like to situate her work within that independent, anti-authoritarian Left tradition, which is certainly a key point of reference for her book. Yet the book is juxtaposed to tools with which she molds her insights, tools that at times warp her insights to the point where the wrong questions provide the wrong answers. Not for the first time within orthodox traditions, Dean’s political insights are tied down both to campist political loyalties and stakes in interesting, if sometimes besides-the-point debates within psychoanalytically inflected Marxism.

Whether or not the first book (multifaceted, non-sectarian class-based comradeship) wins out against the second (wooden, authoritarian, and line-driven campism) the text  is worthy, in its own spirit, of being pushed beyond its boundaries, or perhaps towards its subterranean homesick dialectic. Dean’s work, like all theory, needs to be seen in context, within the living breathing social history of political thought, What interests underly Dean’s effort, what ideological lacunae are at work, and more importantly what use Comrades can make of such a unique text is an open question. Maybe neither book wins, both exist in an undialectical dyad, a sort of fact/value distinction, the positivism that Thompson saw in Althusser. Indeed, and to Dean’s credit, separately and on their own terms, both books succeed wildly. Yet the second one must be called to task.

A paradigmatic example can be found in Dean’s account of Mary Inman, a pathbreaking socialist feminist recently resuscitated by Viewpoint.  Dean takes issue with what she sees as a narrative that implies that Inman was exiled from the party. Yet in her critique, she unwittingly falls into precisely the type of distinction that Inman herself had warned about. That is to say, Inman and the party had wildly different views, not merely on housework as productive labor, but about the very relationship between capitalism and misogyny. While Dean is not unsympathetic to Inman, she fails to see the practical stakes of a debate between a view that connected “women’s oppression” directly with capitalist social property relations in a unitary sense, and another, the party’s, that treated these as “dual systems” or in more current  parlance , “axes of oppression.”  Dean gives a theoretical bet-hedging between Inman’s early housework-as-productive labour analysis and the party’s “official” line which treated the “oppression of women” as an implicitly separate sphere of oppression, a separate system. How is it that Inman, for Dean, was “treated as a comrade”, when she was objectively “put in her place” by male comrades? Dean sees the treatment as nothing uncomradely. After all, Inman’s primary official party critic Abram Landy still pointed out that the party was for what can be seen as natalist or “family values” approaches to the “woman question.”

Everyone can be a Comrade in Dean’s bouillabaisse. And there is a virtue to this insofar as insights are sought from a variety of traditions that have broadly constituted Marxist politics since the time of Marx himself.

Dean is wrong to take issue with Viewpoint’s read that Inman was “exposing the complicity between economic reductionism and identitarian reformism in the CP.”3Viewpoint Magazine Editorial collective, introduction to Inman, Fall 2015. Link >> Dean’s own account confirms that of the Viewpoint comrades, quoting them pointing out the party’s family-driven politics and focus on middle-class women. Yet Dean argues that the idea that the party was not a space that took sexism seriously is disproven by “the party’s own publications and organizing,” and finding the critique of Inman by the party’s official critic of her position  to be “nuanced.”4P. 33 Yet this is one-sided subjectivism on Dean’s part. As opposed to openly “taking a side” in a debate she is doing so covertly, implicitly arguing against Inman’s perspective while presenting it as a sort of valuable museum piece. Yet Inman’s ouster can’t be divorced from a context in which mainstream American Communism sought respectability, as it formed a part of the New Deal coalition. There are echos of today’s calls to orient towards “regular people” and the like, in official communism relegating the question of gender, like race, as we shall see, as secondary.

What Dean calls the “genericity” of the concept of Comrade is not pushed far enough except when one considers that by implication if not definition, the comrade is not transformed into a Comrade through struggle and self-transformation. At times, for Dean, a Comrade does not develop the ego-ideal of comradeship by virtue of experience and reflection, they do so by interpellation. Or do they? At other points, she portrays comradeship as growing out of struggles and/or informing instantiating struggles, often simultaneously. On one level it is tempting to believe that Dean, an exceptionally gifted theorist, has intentionally introduced this contradiction that esoterically uses a text about comradeship to take sides in theoretical and political battles.

The first of the book’s essays takes up the contrast of the concept of comrade with the concept of “ally.” Now of course, this has been done before, but this is one of the most effective polemics against the nebulous and liberal slipperiness of “allyship” in recent years. The reader is immediately drawn in with a humorous anecdote in which Barack Obama made a multi-layered joke at Bernie Sanders’ expense in the spring of 2016. “That’s no way to treat a comrade,” says Obama in response to Sanders apparently “distancing himself” from Obama, who joked that unlike her dad, Bernie would have let Malia go to the Burning Man festival. Dean’s reading of Obama’s joke, in three parts, sums up the entire book – indeed both books.

In Dean’s reading, from one angle, Obama’s use of “comrade” could have been redbaiting, pure and simple. From another, it could have been a reminder that in not being a Democrat, Sanders was not a comrade in the sense of being on the same “side,” a truth, but not a complete one. And yet still another, a sublation, in the sense that Obama, having been redbaited as a Muslim socialist Kenyan by the likes of current President Trump was making a joke at his own expense, at the knowing laughter of the room. Obviously, President Obama was not a comrade of Sanders as he was not a Comrade. That is to say, he was redbaiting by poking fun at the redbaiting of himself and juxtaposing a very generic politically unspecific concept of comrade with the concept of Comrade, that of which the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Obama does not share what Dean refers to as Sanders’ “emancipatory egalitarian horizon.”5P. 2 He is not a Comrade. That much is obvious. Yet he is nothing if not an astute conservative.

Dean then spells out what I like to see as her relational model of comradeship, a point she often refers to, bringing out (precious too few, alas) queer subtexts at some key points. This model of comradeship is predicated on the primacy of self-transformation but also in so doing, discovering a real sensuous character that allows for the mutual fulfillment of both self and collective. She quotes Angela Davis and Vivian Gornick on the virtues of working within the CPUSA, focusing on their desire to carry on an emancipatory tradition greater than themselves. In the words of Davis, this was a sense of “permanence in its membership and structure and substance to its ideology.”6Davis, A. (1988) An Autobiography, New York: International Publishers pp. 186-197, quoted by Dean pp. 5-6. Likewise Gornick’s story of the grind of paper sales as capacity-development for collective reliance and self-transformation hinges upon the virtue of having one’s comrade’s back.

For the coming into being of comradeship, Dean invokes a primacy of self-transformation through political activity, of knowing oneself through others. The rubric for Dean’s Comrade is clearly internationalist and anti-imperialist. It is not class reductionist but remains predicated upon class struggle. It is “against the determination of life by market forces…struggles such as those led by women of color against police violence…infrastructure battles around pipelines, climate justice…social reproduction struggles…the ongoing fight of LGBTQ people.”7P. 5 Dean’s writing develops that rare and inspirational feel of old fashioned tribune-like rhetoric. Communist organizing for Dean is work one wants to do, disalienated labor in the service of humanity. And communism requires organization, whether or not we agree with Comrade Dean about the specificity of parties as an “ideal ego.” “Comrade” is a discursive utterance not of mere shared commitment, but of leveling. All members of a party are at least latent Comrades. “Comrade” can both bring someone down from a pedestal or up from the muck.

I remember the first time I was called “comrade” unironically and casually. Certainly I’d heard it used in meetings, but it was well into my politicization, a worker diving into labor activism that I came to be called the term on a regular basis – often because we simply didn’t know each other’s names on the picket-lines! But my labor mentor Comrades would tell me that not just anyone was a comrade, one had to earn one’s stripes, as it were. The comrades, implicitly in the case of my union, were what we would also perhaps call the militant minority. Those who would do a double shift as a picket captain, those who had the wherewithal to win a grievance with a direct action.. These are the people who would earn the title of comrade, according to those, many of whom were steeped in the troublemaking Labor Notes tradition, engrained in me the concept through organizing with them. This is all to say that I became a “Comrade” by realizing I already was one, and living up to it. It made sense to me, and still does, as a non-gendered version of the Yiddish phrase “mensch.”

“Comrade” can both bring someone down from a pedestal or up from the muck.

As this concept of Comrade (or “mensch”) is in keeping with the late Ellen Meiksins Wood’s Marxism, the focus is “the social relation itself, the dynamic of the relation between appropriators and producers, the contradictions and conflicts which account for social and historical processes.”8Wood, E.M. (1995), Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 176-177 For Wood, drawing on E.P. Thompson, social relations constitute structured processes, the set of social relations itself is defined by its own transformations, and the laws it develops and imposes upon itself, including the law of value. Thus theory, to Wood, must accommodate and develop concepts that are historical in that they illuminate a feature of the ensemble of social relations while allowing for specificity. Dean’s Comrade most certainly is an historical concept. But structure, to Thompson, Wood, and arguably Marx, is not set against history; it is history. For Dean, history and structure are indeed separable, incorporating different empirical spheres of cognition. The process is separated into three spheres, the psychoanalytic (theorist), the cognitive (cadre), and the praxeological (political activity).

Dean’s use of history is itself selective as opposed to granular. It’s not that this is a problem as such, as all historical social theory has to engage in abstraction. The history Dean deploys, however, renders her theory itself that much more contradictory. For example, Dean fails to adequately explain key shifts in American communism, implying that the “Hammer and Hoe” third period Communist Party of the early thirties was essentially indistinguishable from the Popular Front and Browderism. Wood asserts that the “usefulness of any class analysis – as either a sociological tool or a guide to political strategy – rests on its ability to account for the process of class formation.”  Yet in Dean’s work, not unlike the popular democratic socialist labour writers Jane McAlevey and Sam Gindin, in place of a reciprocal relations, there is implicit or explicit hierarchy predicated upon the transmission of knowledge, a sort of hot-housing of class consciousness. In the case of Gindin, McAlevey, and their cothinkers staffing many a union, there is an analytical separation between organizer and organized, like with Dean, Party and comrade. The comrade in isolation is analyzed thus, on a different level as the comrade in relation to the party.This works against any processual, relational theory of a Comrade, and cuts against Dean’s own significant insight.

Politics as such comes from below, giving rise to phenomena like strikes, movements and parties. An example would be the widely held belief that the Sanders phenomenon is a prime mover in the impressive growth of the US Left. In reality, this is to put the cart before the horse, as the Sanders phenomenon is a crystallization of a cycle of struggles going back at least a decade. Recalling the anecdote from Gornick, party members didn’t go on paper-sales merely due to the party authorities, but because they didn’t want to let their comrades down. In other words, comradeships form in a horizontal sense, and organization is there to structure these organic relationships, not to hot-house them. Attempting to hot-house class consciousness is a short cut.

Dean contrasts comradeship to allyship, which is transactional and ephemeral, which again, is nothing new. The particular introductory essay may have worked better by leaving allyship as a comparative object on the cutting room floor as Dean is far weaker here and draws too sharp a distinction. Dean’s critique of allyship as “identity politics” sometimes falls flat, more often boilerplate, if clearly well intended. It is not that Dean has fallen into class reductionism. Precisely the opposite is the case as seen from her commitment to antiracism, queer and social reproduction struggles, both on paper and in practice. This being the case, there is a plausible reading here that can lead to the opposite conclusion.

While working from her highly original theory of communicative capitalism, Dean contrasts “survivors” and “systems” – traumatized subjects or impersonal structures – as constitutive of how we experience everyday life in modern capitalism. The aim of radical politics, implicitly, is mere survival of a bleak and horrifying world. Dean laments “fragmenting assertion of particularity, of unique survival… …the encroaching unavoidable impossibility of survival”. Yet Dean sees these “fragmenting assertions of particularity”9P. 13 as militating against “the political struggle of the proletarianized”.  Yet what if we were to flip the script and actually see these “fragmenting assertions” as a point of entry into revolutionary politics? What if we went even further, and asserted, as the Locust Review collective point out, “the working class is weird”10Locust Review Collective, 12/2019, “We Demand An End to Capitalist Realism”, Locust Review. Link >>, in other words, that there is no Left-wing version of a swing vote. There is a sense of respectability politics in the pathologization of diverse experiences of working-class life. This is to say, that one can’t help but agree with Dean as to the fragmentary nature of life under contemporary capitalism. Yet one can see far more hope, and far more concrete human activity rooted in the fragments, as the very notion of a fragment presupposes a whole. A universality that suppresses or denies its parts is a false universality.

Far from being a barrier to activism, assertions of particularly can politicize, and see one’s particular struggle as part of a general struggle. Take the queer activism around Palestine or police violence for example. There is a profundity in Kurt Cobain’s declaration that “everyone is gay”11From Nirvana’s “All Apologies” on In Utero, 1993, Los Angeles: DGC Records that seems lost on Dean, despite her queer sympathies. This is not about sex so much as it is about an orientation to celebrate, not denigrate the contribution of countercultural and counterhegemonic identities to the socialist project. Far from being devoid of politics, it is the very space out of which politics develop. But it can also be depoliticizing, of course.  Rather than draw out this dialectic, Dean paints it as one-sided.

Dean goes on to state, oddly, given her enthusiasm for the Black Belt thesis, that there can be no politics in the simple assertion of identity. This may be hair-splitting, but there are numerous points in the book in which Dean grounds comradeship in the assertion of an identity, in which she specifically deploys two identity-subjects (women; African Americans) to theorize the “generic comrade” – quite successfully. Read against her own grain, Dean could even accuse herself of avoiding the working class! After all, her case studies of communist activism are not at the point of production or in labor unions. Now Dean could be stating that she is deploying identity but grounding it in class, but it is ambiguous enough to be read as contrasting class to identity categories. This point is served by Dean’s stick-bending and arrogant statement that “attachment to identity is pathological.”12P. 16 Amongst circles of psychoanalytically inclined/Lacanian and Zizekian Marxists, these terms aren’t meant as insulting towards the working class in its manifold weirdness. But one almost wants to look down at the page and say, “Who the hell are you to diagnose us?”

Comradeships form in a horizontal sense, and organization is there to structure these organic relationships, not to hot-house them. Attempting to hot-house class consciousness is a short cut.

The impulse to play doctor is indicative of Dean’s socialism from above. Socialism from below takes for granted that people are going to be “all over the place” in their belief systems, affective particularities and inclinations. Deploying psychoanalytic diagnostic tools is actually insulting. It is to confuse the symptom for the cause. Hence, even on her own terms, it is a misdiagnosis. Perhaps Dean thinks the Left needs to be insulted to shake it from its identitarian doldrums.

If there are problems on the Left around identity, they must be solved internally to the Left as it coheres a really-existing social force. Even Dean points out that in recent years, “identity politics” have been problematized in both theory and practice, and in often productive ways. After all, class formation, in Wood’s terms, does involve identity, a rough equivalent of Wood and Thompson’s term “experience.” As Wood points out, “it is indeed experience and not simply an objective ‘assemblage’ that unites these heterogenous groups into a class – though ‘experience’ in this context refers to the effects of objective determinations.”13Wood, p. 91. Experience or “identity” is co-constitutive with capitalist social relations as a whole. It is not that psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis cannot teach us – the work of Fromm and Fanon would say otherwise. It is to say that there is an offensive arrogance to the deployment of these concepts in critiques of everyday life.

Dean is very attached to an idiosyncratically orthodox model of the party as “ideal ego” that interpellates the “ego ideal” of the Comrade. She is fond of unironically quoting the anti-communist satire Ninotchka as an example of a healthy set of social relations, forgetting that the film ends with the communist agents defecting! The Comrade sees in the party all the virtues that make a good person and thus, as noted, how they relate to one another. This is not to enter any debate about parties, as I share Dean’s position, articulated in Crowd and Party, that parties are a necessity. But the orthodoxy of Dean’s party conception is obscured using psychoanalytic rhetoric. Dean’s party seems not very different in its internal dynamic than that of the so called “Leninist Party”, a concept that is arguably not rooted in Lenin’s own politics or writing. This type of party has a very top-down and disciplinarian model. Far from being actually “Leninist”, this was a stark contrast to the model of open debate and feisty polemics that occurred in the early years of the Bolshevik revolution, before the felling of Lenin to illness and the rise of Stalinism.

Dean points out, without any apparent disapproval, in today’s Chinese Communist Party, comrade is seen as mystifying hence cadre are encouraged to use “bro” or “boss” among comrades. Thus, with the CPC, the purpose is not even the word. Rather it is the concept as mediated through the official party ideology essentially authoritarian capitalism that pays lip service to revolutionary heritage. The levelling quality of the concept can indeed, as in this or many other cases, serve as a mystifying quality.

Dean is far clearer and more successful when she theorizes what comradeship is not, rather than when defining directly what it is.  In the book’s concluding essay, “You are Not My Comrade,” the prose is lyrical when before it was at times turgidly didactic. The essay implicitly draws on Dean’s own experience as a highly dedicated and praxeologically non-sectarian communist activist in her upstate New York community of Geneva. At a time in which the assertion of a political “line” is generally derided even on the left, her defense of having a line at all is most welcome (even if I differ with Dean on the what the line should be), as is the notion that Comrades don’t abandon Comrades. With the incoherence of the growing DSA and other broad formations, Dean’s call to comradeship as disciplined commitment could not be more urgent.

With the still recent events of the International Socialist Organization’s disintegration, Dean is wise to revisit the question of expulsion. Indeed, Dean is unflinching in her denunciation of Trotsky’s expulsion. As opposed to a concentration to the purge and eventual assassination of Trotsky and the repression and defeat of the Left opposition in the Soviet Union, Dean productively shifts the lens to the CPUSA in 1931. A Finnish worker by the name of August Yokinen failed to defend three African-American workers who were asked to leave a dance being held at a Finnish community club close to the party. The local party branch investigated this “looking the other way,” and all but one of the Finnish party members owned up to their errors and allowed themselves to be held accountable – all but Yokinen, a true racist who claimed to be worried about African American “hygiene.” After a party trial, he was expelled for his blatant chauvinism. In turn, his expulsion by his comrades allowed him to be held accountable (he had admitted guilt and his defense was precisely that the party would be consigning him to reaction and political homelessness should he be expelled) and learn from his errors, he was thus provided a way back to membership by agitating against racism in the Finnish community. He never stopped being a friend of communism and had a path back to being a Comrade. Tragically, he was arrested and later deported precisely because he was committed to rectification within the context of party discipline.

Dean contrasts this relational approach with a wave of expulsions over white chauvinist language and activity in the early fifties. These expulsions occurred in the context of the CP fundamentally shifting its line on white supremacy. This shift was co-constitutive with the party’s abandonment of the “Black Belt” thesis. Dean neither supports nor rejects the thesis. Rather, she emphasizes its pedagogical impact and the utopian horizon embedded inside the party. This promoted a comradeship that did find positive ascription within the context of identity – but national, not racial identity, as the black belt thesis was predicated upon African Americans being a national minority. Yet in later years, white chauvinism was no longer structural, but was considered by party leaders to be a veritable parallel system.

The lacunae on identity and experience give pause, not with respect to Dean’s noble intent in writing an important book for the communist movement. Rather, it is the the “symptomatic silences” that are at best eclectic and at worst evasive, rendering the book less, not more likely, to help reinvigorate a political strategy that accounts for class formation or composition in all of its vicissitudes.

In contrast to when African Americans were a “national minority” who commanded respect rather than pity, anti-racism was reduced to a moral imperative. This was even instrumentalized in internal party intrigues. According to Harry Haywood, white comrades were disciplined for using terms like “black sheep” or “black coffee,” and Haywood’s white wife was accused of white chauvinism for marrying a black man. One can certainly draw some parallels with the essentialism of some of today’s more reductive online discourse, in particular the presumption of bad faith, and the elevation of language above social practice. The rejection of capitalism, racism and hetero-patriarchy are enacted, in this sense, as much by adopting new discursive codes than in the material realm. This is not to take issue with the imperative of the advantageous use of the malleability of language. Rather, it is to engage a moralism around language that dismisses the complexity of consciousness and the capacity for self-transformation and capacity development.

Dean’s inclusion of a wide range of anecdotes about the moralism that drove the later CPUSA expulsions as an attempt to, as in other sections, draw a parallel with today’s “idpol” is somewhat suspect. But she is starkly clear that this atmosphere developed in the context of the McCarthy years, and that the party’s new line, that had downgraded black comrades’ structural role in the party had increased casual white chauvinism within the party. Once, Black comrades had been seen within the Communist Party in a non-tokenistic way: as a vanguard within a vanguard as a national minority. Now having their nationhood taken away, they were merely racially oppressed. Dean is exemplary here, but cuts against her own thesis around identity or experience. On a subterranean (or “symptomatic”) level, her position is closest to that of C.L.R, James, who she quotes early in the book as an opponent of the Black Belt thesis, from a note written for Leon Trotsky.

One wonders if the inclusion of James is simple Trot-baiting, as she is contrasting him seemingly with the heroic CP member Harry Haywood in his opposition. Yet paying attention to James’s broader work on the Black Belt thesis and the state of the black Left, he actually compares the Trotskyist movement’s stance unfavorably with pre-Popular Front American communism, in spite of the Black Belt thesis. James looms as large as Haywood in Dean’s theory of the Comrade in general, as the struggle for Black liberation, at least implicitly, in Dean’s eyes, is the central contradiction of the American socialist movement. Later James is presented as the ultimate authority on the dialectic of the Marxist Comrade tout court, insofar as Dean draws on his resignation from Correspondence to tease out what it means to not merely resign from a political center such as a journal, but a divorce of Comradeship as such.

What is left out of the book are the details behind the split. James, alongside Martin Glaberman and other Anti-Stalinist socialists, had founded the influential journal in 1953. As the years rolled by, the editorial board was moving in what James saw as an eclectic and unproductive direction. To James and Glaberman, it seemed to be moving away from a class analysis towards a sort of moralism and infantilization of the working class. This ran counter to James’ Marxism, which was all about the primacy of working-class self-emancipation. As well, they’d had the audacity to block publication of James’ work on the British socialist Raymond Williams who asserted a non-reductionist class centrality in contrast to James’ erstwhile comrades. To James, this all represented not a personal betrayal, but a deviation from Marxist theory and socialist politics.

Dean quotes James presenting a commitment to Marxism as the floor of comradeship, and thus calling oneself a Marxist while questioning its central tenet of proletarian self-emancipation or in Dean’s (somewhat muddled) translation, “socialism is built by the proletariat.” James cannot be comrades with those who reject this basic principle while still claiming the mantle of Marxism. If they were to abandon that mantle and be honest about being anti-capitalist but not Marxist, perhaps they would be “friends.” Drawing on past experience that those who claim to still be Marxists while questioning this central tenet have become the “bitterest and most unscrupulous enemies of former comrades” for James.

Dean must be aware that James is making specific reference to the Popular Front turn in American communism and the early “retreat from class” under Browder just as much as he is referring to the anti-communist and ex-communist milieu in the African American intelligentsia. She must be aware that the reason these false comrades seem “quixotic…duplicitous” to James in that they really did turn out, by her own logic to be false comrades, all the way down to the likes of those Communist Party members who actively agitated against wartime strikes and black worker organizing. Yet Dean is elliptical if not avoidant of this concrete history. As Dean shows, a shared meaning and common purpose created a set of circumstances in which, in 1917, Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and SRs could all address one another as comrade. Even into the twenties, the likes of Martov and Zinoviev were still comrades. Dean and I are comrades, by this logic, even as we stand in different parts of the communist tradition. But with the lack of shared meaning, as Dean shows through exegesis of Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook, comradeship becomes impossible and thus so does communism.

In turn, with no communism, we are left with “tired old liberalism”, the liberalism that portends morbid symptoms of fascism and ecological devastation. This shared meaning is what Dean calls the “Communist Horizon” in her book by that title, and, drawing on James, the primacy of proletarian self-emancipation. The commitment to struggle and to have one another’s back. The willingness to allow people to learn and recognition of the unity of diversity. To a certain degree, the partiality of some of Dean’s political inflections, however I may disagree with them, adds to the quality of the book as fodder for a discussion among Comrades, and she gives a particular conceptualization within a common frame of reference.

This frame is still unsatisfactory when one refers back to Wood’s political theory, and when assessing if Comrade adequately accounts for class formation, not to mention social reproduction, and in turn, whether it provides any hints at political strategy. While giving us a theory of the Comrade, Dean has staked claims that violate the theory itself. While it is possible to read a theory of the primacy of proletarian self-emancipation as a structured process of class struggle in its manifold forms, one advancing the importance of social reproduction struggles, the vanguard role of African Americans in the socialist project in the United States, the virtue of a common meaning, that reading may ultimately be a violation of Dean’s intended theory. Is her actual theory that Comrades must submit to the Iron Discipline of the Communist Party? Is the book about social relations and structured processes or interpellation and mediation? Is it about a democratic political culture or mere submission of “pathological” identity to an impersonal whole?

The lacunae on identity and experience give pause, not with respect to Dean’s noble intent in writing an important book for the communist movement. Rather, it is the the “symptomatic silences” that are at best eclectic and at worst evasive, rendering the book less, not more likely, to help reinvigorate a political strategy that accounts for class formation or composition in all of its vicissitudes. It is a text that, in the end, re-naturalizes traditional capital-c Communism with its contradictory eclecticism, rehabilitating Trotsky and drawing on C.L.R. James while also suggesting that the Zinovievist party form ain’t broke so we don’t need to fix it, and that comradeship does not just require shared meaning, but iron discipline and self-abnegation.

Every Comrade should read Comrade, for the purpose of debating Dean’s contradictory ideas in a comradely fashion, and as a way in to better understanding the relevance of key moments of left history to the revived socialist moment of today. I have attempted to demonstrate this kind of sharp but shared practice of debate in the service of comradeship in taking up Comrade Dean’s provocative and often inspiring book.

1 Pp. 36-37.

2 Today’s “campists”, range from outright “tankies” who celebrate any and all anti-American powers, deriving from the original meaning of the term as denoting those who side with one “camp” or another during the Cold War, while those who used the term, third campists, used to say “Neither Washington nor Moscow.” It is not that Dean is a campist, indeed the implication of her work actually would indicate a “neither Washington nor Moscow” type of politics, quite literally, in today’s neo-Cold War atmosphere. Yet the PSL “line” is as “campist” as it gets, giving cover to murderous despots like Assad, and seeing China, like Russia, as an anti-imperialist power. Today’s world has ironically resolved the splits in the “campist camp” falling out of the Sino-Soviet split, something humorously shown in the similar politics of the parties flowing out of that split within India.

3 Viewpoint Magazine Editorial collective, introduction to Inman, Fall 2015. Link >>

4 P. 33

5 P. 2

6 Davis, A. (1988) An Autobiography, New York: International Publishers pp. 186-197, quoted by Dean pp. 5-6.

7 P. 5

8 Wood, E.M. (1995), Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 176-177

9 P. 13

10 Locust Review Collective, 12/2019, “We Demand An End to Capitalist Realism”, Locust Review. Link >>

11 From Nirvana’s “All Apologies” on In Utero, 1993, Los Angeles: DGC Records

12 P. 16

13 Wood, p. 91.

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