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  • Limits and Openings of the Party:A Reply to Jason E. Smith
  • Gavin Walker (bio)

Jason E. Smith puts forward an important and welcome series of rejoinders to my discussion of the concept of “party,” from two overall vantage points: on the one hand, the relation of my discussion to prior theorizations, principally in Marx, Lenin, and the work of Alain Badiou; and on the other, to overall questions of the relation of politics to Marxist theory. These two directions eventually come to be synthesized in the conclusion of his text “Contemporary Struggles and the Question of the Party,” itself an important intervention in the rethinking of “the organizational question” today.

Let me say from the outset that I welcome his points of contention both for their theoretical sophistication and for their political gravity, concerned with some of the most fundamental questions of Marxist theory. Smith’s comradely criticisms of my discussion are undertaken in an open spirit of political debate and on the basis of a dense substratum of agreement. Precisely because of the many agreements and overall shared sense of politics and thought that underpin this exchange, I appreciate all the more the pointed moments of disagreement that he raises. Since he has already in his response outlined a number of the points on which we agree, I want to proceed directly to inserting certain divergences into our debate. Partly, our disagreements center around what I suspect are real political differences, differences of allegiance that are of course “internal” to Marxism and to the diverse political trends that can be encompassed under this name. Our disagreements also concern our modes of analysis, our “protocols of reading.” This is a formative part of a productive, creative, affirmative dialogue, one that raises questions rather than placing competing answers into contrast. In this sense, Smith’s reminder at the end of his text that the party is the name of a question, not an answer, is perhaps the most essential site of agreement between us, a point that animates our two discussions. It is precisely on this point that I would hope our analyses here, necessarily short and schematic, can mark a point of departure, a new beginning, to continue the endless pursuit of this question: what is organization? What is politics? Where does our exigency for intervention come from? How can we push forward the social motion before our eyes into instances of political revolution? And what status for political thought, for theory’s work, does this conception of politics imply?

To begin his analysis, Smith mentions a set of divergent conceptions of the question of the party, linked in particular to two broad questions in my text: the status of Alain Badiou’s work, and the distinction between the historical and the formal notions of the party. These two moments are linked together around a basic problem: to what extent is the party-form of politics something derived from or justified by the situation within which it emerges? Let me expand on this briefly, because it is this point that constitutes the crux of our disagreement. As Smith quite correctly points out, I tend to move between two instances in relation to Badiou’s work. On the one hand, I agree entirely with the way Smith poses the break, central to Badiou’s political thought, between his “party” and “non-party” oriented work. On the other hand, I take a certain direction from Bruno Bosteels’ work on this question: it is entirely possible to read the “post-party” Badiou as deeply marked by and even continuous with the “M-L” Badiou. Perhaps more importantly, though, I want to emphasize that I think it is not necessary to be faithful or loyal to the breaks of Badiou’s body of work in order to find in his form of thought a series of crucial clues to the rethinking of this question. Without doubt, “the party” as a concept comes to be charged with a series of failures in Badiou’s work. But equally, he never gives up, to the present day, the concept of organization, an emphasis on the necessity of an organized politics that would form a hard kernel...