Reviewed by Jule Ehms
Jodi Dean’s Communist Horizon wants to reintroduce communism as a serious political alternative to the American left. Although Marxists will probably have some problems with Dean’s conceptions, for the unconvinced activist or sceptical student this book offers interesting insights in the current political landscape.
According to Dean the idea of communism can currently be associated with six aspects: (1) the specific image of the Soviet Union (including the dictatorship of Stalin and the collapse of 1989), (2) communism as a present, increasing powerful force, (3) as the sovereignty of the people, (4) with the role of the common and the commons, (5) communism as the egalitarian and universalist desire, which could liberate the current left from its melancholy and (6) the communist party. To each of these features Dean devotes a single chapter. But unfortunately she neither clarifies where her conception is actually coming from nor does she provide a more concrete explanation of what communism could mean – at least an explanation which would extend the phrase ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’ (15).
In the first two chapters Dean discusses the usual misconception of communism by conservatives and criticizes the left as not having ‘the communist horizon’ either. According to her a concrete agenda is currently missing and would result in a left only active in order to defend the status quo. Stating that ‘the left’ should not be afraid of returning to a more radical stance, Dean truly formulates an important critique. However, it is not obvious who is meant by ‘the left’. Marxist or socialist activists who actual do exist and do important political work, seem to be completely overlooked by Dean’s analysis.
In chapter three the concept of communism as a political idea – the sovereignty of the people – is discussed. Here Dean wants to explain (and to mitigate) what was usually expressed by the slogan ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. She first replaces the antagonism of proletariat and bourgeoisie with the antagonism between the rich and ‘the rest of us’. This change of concepts has indeed the advantage that the division among the classes is no longer a question of the access to the means production (which is a complicated issue in a service society), but becomes a question of the standard of living. Unfortunately, however, substantial features of Marx’s economic theory are lost in the process.
Dean then discusses the idea of sovereignty. She rejects the term `dictatorship’ since it only occurs in the context of the state withering away after the proletariat has taken over the means of production and therefore also political control. For the author the idea of communism is compatible with the institution of a state. For most Marxists, however, the state expresses the domination of one class over ‘the rest of us’. If Dean wants to hold on to the idea of the state she should therefore explain what she understands by this.
With Chapter three the book suddenly becomes more complex, partly because Dean goes into the political theories of Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri or Michel Foucault. Moreover the reader is also confronted with concepts of psychoanalytic discourse, especially those of Jacques Lacan, which might be challenging for the unprepared reader.
Chapter four returns to the current state of affairs and Dean introduces the concept of ‘communicative capitalism’ in order to describe it. The actual state of capitalism is characterized by what Dean calls an ‘ideological formation’: the combination of capitalism with democracy via networked communication technologies (123). She focusses hereby on ‘the common’ as what is shared by a community and how this – as the social substance – gets exploited and expropriated. Dean again offers some pertinent observations of some of the problems of leftist activism and, for example, criticizes the way the real potential of political critique gets lost in the use of social media. However, her reflections also involve a too loose approach to the terms `exploitation’ and `value’, which were originally meant to describe concrete economic relations. Additionally it would have been helpful if Dean had specified how she understands democracy. If communism offers the ideal conditions for the self-determination of the people, how do we speak about democracy in the context of the bourgeois state?
What accompanies the state of communicative capitalism is a melancholic left, which is the topic of Chapter five. Here Dean tries to formulate her argument for communism as a collective desire with reference to the psychoanalytic ideas of Freud and Lacan. The communist desire as the acknowledgement of a lack, according to Dean, has to replace the repetitive, circling drive of the current left. But what is the lack that a collectivity can be built around (187)? Equality? Security? The satisfaction of fundamental needs? Unfortunately Dean leaves this question open.
Additionally it has to be said that although the inclusion of other fields of the Marxian discourse – here psychoanalysis – is usually fruitful, in this context however, it is no help. Dean underestimates how much explanation the ideas of “drive” and “desire” and their use for tactical reflection need – certainly more than the short introduction that is given in this book.
In the sixth and final chapter the author continues with her discussion of political strategies and advocates the establishment of a communist party – an institution necessary, according to Dean, in order to establish collectivity and to promote the collective desire in form of communism. Dean’s advocacy of a party goes hand in hand with a critique on the structures of the Occupy movement. She tries to still the activists’ fears of losing democratic control to an all dominating vanguard and explains why the formulation of a common position does not mean negotiating away the existing heterogeneity of the ‘99 %’. Although she is strict in pointing out that Occupy failed to address the ongoing class war, she also defends the movement for revitalizing the American left and for making resistance an option again.
To reflect upon the US Occupy experience is indeed a necessary part of the current political debate, nevertheless a glance at other, more radical organizations within the US and other countries would have contributed to Dean’s analysis and even strengthened her argument for a more demanding movement.
To summarize: above all The Communist Horizon argues for a revival of communism as a political ideal. Dean does make clear what current struggles about democracy and a more inclusive society lose in so far the aspect of class war and the need for a radical movement is ignored. However, it remains unclear to which kind of activist Dean is actually speaking. For the yet unconvinced reader the first and last chapters are truly interesting and offer some helpful arguments. For more or less established Marxists however those chapters offer nothing new. But it seems Dean (in Chapters three and four at least) is addressing those who are already familiar, not only with political theory in general, but also with the much more academic ideas of psychoanalysis and Marxism. This complicates reading and makes Dean’s most interesting arguments more difficult than they need to be. Dean also remains too abstract. When she speaks about communism, about the party, the left, the state or democracy it is up to the reader to guess what she means. This lack of precision unfortunately extends to the use of particular Marxist terms (value, state, exploitation), which seems unnecessary slip Dean knows her Marx quite well.
The Communist Horizon could therefore be recommended to non-Marxist leftists – maybe the Occupy activist especially. Although those who are still asking themselves ‘Why communism?’ will not find the answer within this work. Nevertheless Dean has to be praised for opening up academic discourse to current tactical questions. The idea to address the (potential) activist directly will hopefully encourage other Marxist academics to criticize, to take a stance and maybe even to get involved more practically again.
9 March 2014