- Pleasures of the Vanguard
Whispers have been traveling around the Left for a while now, telling of a strange entity without a name. In the midst of multitudes and multiplicities strange phrases appear—"fidelity to the Event," "kernel of truth," "commitment"—a language at once new and yet archaic. The radical dogmas that all organizations must be horizontal and all revolutions organic are no longer repeated with enthusiasm. There is a specter haunting communism—the specter of the Communist Party. Jodi Dean's new work, Crowds and Party (2016), finally speaks that name. It is a study of the party as a form, a tactic, and an experience that is both a strong counterblast to the individualist tendencies of the contemporary Left and a celebration of the party's true sublimating potential.
At the heart of Dean's argument is an experience familiar to many who took to the streets in 2010 and found nowhere to go from there; horizontalism, no matter how ethically righteous, consistently "fails to scale, endure, or replace capitalist state power" (258). Instead of representing a moment of revolutionary potential, "the unleashing of the playful, carnivalesque, and spontaneous [have been] taken to indicate political success" (125) in and of themselves. After one of the largest global upheavals for a generation, the desiccated theoretical tools of many cultural theorists could encounter the crowds and their actions only as so many signifiers. By refusing to accept that many demonstrations and actions had been and were organized, attempts to think tactically about the current situation reverted to technophiliac scripts about Facebook riots [End Page 132] and networked democracy. It was as if having the ability to organize a protest was the same as actually protesting. Ideologically, a Left politics of fragmentation encountered again and again the limits of its own mobilizing potential and demonstrated that an approach based on voluntarism simply cannot resist a capitalist system that prides itself on free choice.
It is within this context that Dean's intervention is not only welcome but necessary. She mobilizes forms of Marxist theory that have been quietly coming to the fore over the past decade—think Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek—and brings them to bear on the very specific problem of organizing against capitalism. The crowd is the initial site of the text's critique. A politicized crowd is at once a segment of the population acting on behalf of the rest and an embodiment of the people itself—at once a collection of autonomous individuals and a mass organism. Dean cleverly inverts the reactionary Gustave Le Bon's diagnosis of the crowd as collective madness and finds in this deindividuated experience the signs of a collective desire: a communal longing for the communal. It is from here that Dean can reintroduce the party as the remainder of this collective experience and the inaugurator of future collective experiences. Historical testimony from party members is finally combined with the theoretical work and Dean's personal experiences of protest in such a way that the text itself seems to produce a collective voice.
Arguably, Dean's most important intervention is in situating the party within a framework of desire. Drawing on Lacanian Marxist theory, Dean refuses the libertarian association of desire with individual pleasure and demonstrates its cooperative qualities within the crowd and its productive workings within the party. It is this desiring relationship, compared to psychoanalytical transference, that brings about the ethical dimension of party membership. The much-maligned hierarchy incumbent within political organizations does not operate as an arbitrary force wielded upon members from without (à la 1984) but as a dialectical process occurring with the cooperation of the subject. To be in the party was to be somebody, "to be somebody was to be accountable, and to be accountable was to feel the moral pressure of the collective" (237). It is this accountability that maintains the struggle in the days after any given revolutionary moment. In Dean's psychoanalytical schema, "the crowd event is the Real that incites the people as a collective, partisan subject. The party is the...