‘Crowds and Party’ reviewed by James Cairns

Crowds and Party

Verso, London & New York, 2016, 276pp., $26.95 hb
ISBN 1781686947

Reviewed by James Cairns

About the reviewer

James Cairns is Associate Professor of Social and Environmental Justice at Wilfrid Laurier …


In the near-decade since the outbreak of the 2008 crisis, crowds have shaken the established order, and inspired progressive forces to imagine that change is on the horizon. Jodi Dean celebrates this surge in popular unrest, occupations, protests, riots, mass demonstrations. Crowds signal the potential capacity of collective subjectivity, “break[ing] through the impasse the individual presents to left politics” (115).

Notwithstanding her cheers for the creativity, audacity, and power of the crowd, Dean’s main thesis is that genuine social transformation will only come through a new communist party. “Without the party, there is no body capable of remembering, learning, and responding” to the crimes of capitalism and the needs of the people (260). Only the party “enables the crowd to endure as a rupture with capitalism… hold[ing] open the gap for the people as the collective subject of politics” (260-1).  

There is rich theoretical insight in Dean’s framing of the party as “a site of transferential relations” (184), “a place from which a collective can look at itself” and act deliberately in the interests of the whole (203). The book raises the crucial question of what would be necessary for “the egalitarian intensity and desire of the crowd to endure” after the people go home (222). However, its contribution to contemporary political strategy is debateable. The closer Dean focuses on the party as The Answer to the problems of the Left today, the further she turns away from the world as it presently is.  

Dean’s book opens with a scene from the height of the Occupy moment in 2011. A professor of political and media theory, Dean is part of the large crowd that’s formed in and around Washington Square Park, in Manhattan. The Occupy insurgency is spreading through cities around the world. Its trajectory is unknown; what will come of the surge of mass disaffection is an open question. The original Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park, while bustling with people and activity, is under increasing pressure from police, and disconnected from hubs of real life. In Washington Square Park, the people around Dean are talking about launching a new occupation, advancing the movement in New York by taking over this larger space at the heart of the NYU campus.

The collective power of the crowd is palpable. Dean can sense momentum building. Activists use “the people’s mic” (by which people gathered around the speaker repeat what’s been said in order to carry the message across the crowd in the absence of electronic amplification) to argue that they need to open up a new front of resistance by taking this square, and that they have the bodies to do it. Dean is watching Occupy move into a new phase of insurgency.

“Then, a tall, thin, young man with curly hair and a revolutionary look began to speak” (3). Through the people’s mic, he told the crowd that while they could take the park tonight, they could also take it a different night, or choose not to take it at all. “Each person has to make their own autonomous decision,” he yelled, pausing as the point echoed in the mouths of those around him. “No one can decide for you. You have to decide for yourself.”

In Dean’s words: “The mood was broken.” The gathering feeling of collective power, solidarity, and shared hopes was splintered into so many fragments of individual preferences, doubts, and fears. The crowd didn’t take Washington Square Park; it never even tried. What might have been the escalation of Occupy turned into the start of its rapid demobilization. The movement never realized the potential it showed in those days.

The scene in Washington Square Park illustrates two of Dean’s core arguments. First, encouragingly, the crowd has emerged as the main political force of Left politics since the 2008 economic crash. Before Occupy there were mass uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and across North Africa and West Asia. Crowds shut down the Wisconsin legislature in 2011; they forced the fall of the government in Quebec in 2012. Mass protests against FIFA in Brazil, a wave of Idle No More demonstrations, anti-austerity marches across Europe: the crowd is the preeminent extra-individual political subject of our times. In contrast to Freud, who theorizes the crowd as though it possessed the psychology of an individual, Dean draws on the insights of the reactionary LeBon, who was more attentive to the unique character of the “collective subject” that is the crowd event. Dean frames the crowd as “destructive, creative, unpredictable, temporary, and intense: the crowd expresses the paradoxical power of the people as subject” (114).

The second point of Dean’s Occupy anecdote is that the crowd has reached the limit of its capacity to make progressive change. For all its symbolic and material power, its creativity, intensity, and beautiful rage, the crowd alone cannot serve as the vehicle of social transformation. By definition the crowd is temporary. People go home. Cops smash encampments. We neither can nor should want to live in a state of perpetual political frenzy, which is inherent in the crowd form. Moreover, under neoliberalism, argues Dean, influential left theory and activists have embraced a form of realism in which “the individual is to be invested with the energy and attention formerly directed toward building the revolutionary people” (55). It’s left individualism as radical common sense that makes it reasonable to assert that we don’t have to take Washington Square Park tonight; each person has to choose what is best for them.  

The problem with a politics of the crowd is that it inhibits the development of lasting and growing solidarity, spaces for the preservation, circulation, and creation of movement theory, and, crucially, venues and experiences capable of sustaining and intensifying the feelings of collective strength, hope, and possibility that surge during the crowd event but can disappear when the crowd disperses. “The politics of the beautiful moment is no politics at all” (125).

Now we arrive at the core of Dean’s argument, which doubtless is meant to be as provocative as it sounds: We need a new communist party. Not provocative enough for you? “Anyone who is unwilling to talk about the party should not talk about political transformation” (250).

The crowd has the power to rupture politics-as-usual, but for transformation to take place, “the crowd rupture has to be politicized, tied to a subject” (145). That subject is the communist party, “the political form for the press of the unrealized struggles of the people, enabling the concentrating and directing of this press in one way rather than another” (183). Drawing on a reading of the Paris Commune, Lacan’s work on transference, and a handful of reflections from members of the US- and UK- Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s, Dean argues that only the party is capable of providing the Left with certain essential needs.

By disrupting business-as-usual, the crowd initiates a gap between what is and what could be. The party holds open that gap: it “holds open a political space for the production of a common political will” (253). The party is not only a fact of oppositional collectivity, but a tool for deepening critical self-reflection. “Seeing themselves from the perspective of the party,” members can sense their political horizons expanding. The party is an anti-capitalist “place from which a collective can look at itself,” and assess its strengths and weaknesses on its own terms (203). Party activity sharpens members’ political consciousness, and “pushes them to act in collective rather than individual interest” (237). The party makes the crowd into “something more than it is. It gives the crowd a history, letting its egalitarian moment endure in the subjective process of people’s struggle” (259). Ultimately, the party is the institution through which we will move beyond the capitalist horizon into the new world of communism.

It’s not clear who Dean envisions to be her ideal readers. If they, too, are devotees of her core political reference points (Marx, Lenin, Lacan, Žižek, and sometimes Badiou), its doubtful they’ll have much trouble accepting the idea that genuine revolutionary change requires a mass political organization, OK, let’s even call it a communist party. But Dean’s bold proclamations and argumentative tone suggest she imagines herself addressing the unconverted; she’s attempting to change minds. That must mean she’s talking to movement-curious anarchists, lefty student activists, feminists, anti-racist organizers, indigenous water-protectors, Bernie supporters, Fight for 15 champions, campaigners for queer and trans* rights – all points along the spectrum of the broad Left, which, it’s true, don’t at this moment share Dean’s belief that the answer is party formation. Inviting this wide and politically diverse group to reflect on the need for and possibility of new forms of political organization is an important contribution. But if this is indeed what Dean’s book is doing, its approach undercuts its aim.

The book never seriously addresses the important reasons why so many anti-racist, feminist, indigenous, and other activists are critical of the party form. Comrades have long raised concerns about racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination reproduced through Left parties, not only in fear of what happens “after the revolution,” but within the party itself. If Dean wants to argue that critics are wrong to worry about that anymore, that’s her case to make. Not only does she not make the case, she doesn’t even acknowledge that the party could be legitimately criticised on these grounds. Instead, in one fell swoop, Dean dismisses “micro-politics, identity politics, anarchism, one-off demos […] because they affirm the dominant ideology of singularity, newness, and now” (21).

I’m doubtful that Dean’s hostility to huge layers of the existing left is the best way to win activists to her point of view. But forget for a second the dubious rhetorical strategy. It’s also a failure to recognize that party-skepticism could be genuinely rooted in a commitment to integrative liberation politics. Doubtless the forces of “communicative capitalism” and the individualist perspective of “left realism” are at play when people on the left automatically reject the need for mass political organization. But so is the failure of the historical Communist Party to integrate analysis and action on behalf of the full range of people’s needs. Lest it seem unfair to saddle Dean with the baggage of the Communist Party when really she’s talking about “the party” in an abstract sense, make no mistake that she’s the one who holds up experiences of CP members to make her case.  

Dean draws from memoirs of Communist Party members to show how being in the Party not only developed their “political consciousness” (223), but provided “access to a force strong enough to go up against the law and win.” Party membership meant being part of “an affective infrastructure capable of enlarging the world” (213). Lilly’s experience in the party (as told in Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism) gives her confidence to resist patriarchy at home. Hosea Hudson watches the Party link the racism he faces at work to “unemployment, Jim Crow, and lynching to something bigger. Hudson doesn’t say that the Party knows what this something is, but he experiences it as the place of this something, this gap of more to and in the world than what he has already known” (231).

These examples are moving, and they ought to be instructive. Our enemies are organized and wield brutal tools of discipline and dispossession. “A Left that refuses to organize itself in recognition of this fact will never be able to combat it” (248). Certainly that’s true; and in the era Dean focuses on, the CP did organize a small but real layer of militant workers in the US and UK. But Dean’s case for Party organization isn’t helped by ignoring experiences of Party members that contrast with those of Lilly and Hosea, to say nothing of skating over all the ways in which the Party’s Stalinist commitments undercut the self-organization of the “advanced layer” (think support for the Moscow Trials and the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the No Strike pledge in the 1940s, defending Russian tanks in Hungary in 1956….).

It’s remarkable that Dean’s account of the historical Communist Party doesn’t include a single word of critique from any of its most thoughtful Left critics. Nothing from Sheila Rowbotham, Raymond Williams, Richard Wright (who joined the Party for its anti-racist principles and left the Party because of the racism of its members), Irving Howe, Cedric Robinson, Doris Lessing – all very smart, active, and politically astute writers around the CP, who wrote perceptively about its deep flaws. Nothing from CP members expelled from the Party for criticising it from the inside. Late in the book Dean writes: “The actuality of the Communist Party exceeds its errors and betrayals” (247). Is that her response to critics? A more compelling approach would’ve engaged with the actual contradictions of the Party in history.

Dean’s call for a party is motivated by her persuasive argument that the full potential of the crowd will only be realized through new experiments in political organizing. Yet focusing on the party-to-be through the lens of the Party-that-once-was turns attention away from the actual conditions of political organizing in this moment. The book says surprisingly little about the actual cutting-edge of collective politics driving the eruptions of popular power today. The largest, most powerful crowds of the past decade are manifestations of new organizing efforts for indigenous sovereignty, migrant justice, gender equity, Palestine solidarity, stronger compensation and protections at work. Writing in the Boston Review, historian Robin DG Kelley highlights the political sophistication of one of the most advanced contemporary movements, calling the Movement for Black Lives policy platform not simply a list of demands, but “a vision statement for long-term, transformative organizing.”

The fact that leading sections in all of these efforts appear increasingly open to coalition-building is hugely promising. We don’t yet know what it would look like to build genuine, militant coalitions with the power to win concrete victories. Building genuinely solidaristic, fighting coalitions will present new opportunities for yet more ambitious experiments in integrated struggles from below. But coalition-building is not Party-building. And while the Trump presidency may end up providing a particularly effective target to organize around and rally against, the Left hasn’t even begun the real work of coalition building or seen any sustained success with it in a long time. Focusing on the party-to-come, as though the concrete organizing challenges in front of us can be skipped, is a mistake of both theory and politics that risks licensing “micro-party” sect-building efforts.

Dean’s work on “the passional dynamics of the Communist Party” (Chapter 5) can help imagine the best aspects of mass transformative organizations at their fullest development. The question of when such organizations will appear, what they will be called, and how they will operate has not yet emerged organically from the experiences and the needs of the struggles presently being waged by the very social forces that would have to be at the core of any meaningful party-building project. 

7 February 2017

One comment

  1. Whether you need to build a communist party is not the question . The question is what type of communist party you build ..

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