The term ‘comrade’ has a long history in socialist political movements, and in the twentieth century came to be used by millions around the world. But what are the specific values and expectations placed on us when we call each other comrade? Is the word still relevant today and able to help unify current left-wing struggles? In her new book, Comrade, Jodi Dean argues that the rehabilitation of the concept of comradeship, as a relationship of political belonging that must be built, sustained, and defended, is a crucial task for the contemporary Left. In this interview, we discuss some of the book’s key ideas.
Jodi Dean is Professor of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. She is the author or editor of thirteen books, including The Communist Horizon (Verso, 2012), Crowds and Party (Verso, 2016), and Comrade (Verso, 2019).
How do you define the term ‘comrade’?
Those who are on the same side of a political struggle. I’m interested in the way that being on the same side impacts those who share it, the way this belonging functions to generate expectations.
Etymologically, comrade derives from camera, the Latin word for room, chamber, and vault. The technical connotation of vault indexes a generic function, the structure that produces a particular space and holds it open. A chamber or room is a repeatable structure that takes its form by producing an inside separate from an outside and providing a supported cover for those underneath it. Sharing a room, sharing a space, generates a closeness, an intensity of feeling and expectation of solidarity that differentiates those on one side from those on the other. Comradeship is a political relation of supported cover.
One obvious objection to the use of ‘comrade’ today, along with ‘party’ and ‘communism’, which you’ve also focused on in previous books, is its associations with a past of failed revolutions or the totalitarian regimes of actually existing socialism in the 20th century. Is there a sense that these terms are simply dated, if not an obstacle to creating a unified left-wing movement? Or, is that kind of thinking itself the obstacle?
You are absolutely correct that that sort of thinking is the obstacle. It reflects an anti-communist, capitalist, reactionary mind-set that dooms the Left – the clue is the term ‘totalitarian’ which today is used to create a false equivalence between the USSR and Nazi Germany.
Part of the falsity also lies in the delusion that parties are outmoded. Political power is still achieved via parties. The Right knows this. But stupidly too much of the Left abandoned the party form, which then ceded the space to the Right. All over the world there are still communist and socialist parties. The Left embrace of failure is a cop out, a refusal to engage in politics. And the result is that the Right becomes the force channelling popular anger.
Communism is the name we have for the positive alternative to capitalism. It says that we cannot compromise with capitalism. There is no such thing as capitalism with a human face. Capitalism relies on exploitation. It’s as simple as that. Is it hard today to organise under the name communism in Europe and the US? Yes. It’s always been hard. And it has gotten particularly hard in Poland where a law has been passed outlawing the promotion of totalitarianism. Why, if communism had been defeated, was it necessary for the right-wing ruling party to pass this law? Anti-communism is being used to ward off opposition to capitalism; it’s being used to defeat democracy.
In the book you explain that the comrade has ‘four primary characteristics: discipline, joy, enthusiasm, and courage.’ Are these the qualities that you feel are currently missing from much of contemporary Left political struggle? How might their resurgence change the kinds of political action we partake in and how we relate to it?
I would say that it’s the combination that is missing. So there are of course courageous fighters on the Left. For starters think of Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, all the environmental and climate activists who are fighting against coal, oil, and gas corporations, many of whom who have been killed. I’d also say that there is enthusiasm and joy: people come out for marches; they make hilarious signs; they demonstrate amazing creativity.
Discipline, though, may be what is missing. I don’t mean individual discipline: as every organiser knows, political work takes enormous discipline — showing up, getting people to show up, this isn’t easy. There’s always something else to do and it’s easy to get discouraged, like, will this protest even make a difference? The challenge is in a broader collective discipline where people realise that it’s good and important and necessary to follow a common line, pursue a common strategy.
Too many think that everyone needs to provide their original individual hot take, and that this hot take must be a take down. This kills Left solidarity. Some on the Left also think of discipline as bad, perhaps from (mis)reading Foucault or from embracing a view of the multitude they take from Hardt and Negri. But discipline generates capacity. The more coordinated and disciplined we are, the more we can pursue a collective strategy. And the more prepared we can be after we win.
Another aspect you consider is how a politics built around comradeship works in relation to identity politics, clearly defined group struggles, and the notion of political ‘allies’. How does comradeship work as a unifying factor here without homogenising the particular issues and contradictions faced by different groups?
It’s a matter of perspective. Comrade names a relation between people on the same side of a political struggle. It doesn’t name a relation between people and what they are struggling for or against. So comrade doesn’t say anything about particular issues.
One of the examples I use in the book comes from the Communist Party of the United States and its fight against white supremacy and lynching and for black people’s right of self-determination. This was a struggle that the whole party was instructed to pursue. No exceptions. That a comrade was white didn’t exempt them from the requirement to oppose white supremacy in all its forms, everywhere and all the time, that is, in personal life as well as political life. There’s no homogenising here. The struggle was against white supremacy and comrades were told that they had to be willing to act in defence of any black person. I should add that the CP’s work in this area was path-breaking – in the 1930s it was the leading interracial group fighting for black liberation.
The ‘allies’ idea makes politics seem like a possession, something that belongs to a person or group naturally, by virtue of their ascribed identity. Politics is somehow naturalised, as if everyone who shares an identity politics shares a politics – but of course we know that is not true. Politics has to be built, constructed.
What is the relationship between comrades and party? How does the comrade ensure that the party does not become hierarchical, or a kind of superego figure, demanding ever greater fidelity, commitment and discipline?
There are no guarantees, not in life, not in politics. The thing to keep in mind is that comrade operates as an interior force. We internalise the perspective of our comrades. So the force we feel is what we impose on ourselves. Our actual comrades are generally far more tolerant and forgiving than the internalised comrade. In fact, the comrade always becomes a super-ego figure demanding greater fidelity, commitment, and discipline. That’s part of the power of comradeship: our comrades (internalised) make us do more than we would otherwise.
And given the world we are in, given the absolute imperative of the fight for communism on a vastly unequal and warming world, we should embrace this. It follows directly from a Left analysis of the present as one of exploitation and inequality – why would we think that anything but commitment and discipline is demanded by our situation?
A recent review of Comrade in Jacobin raises some similar questions: ‘Are there times when the comradely perspective can undermine socialist organisation? Can comradeship’s ego ideal become so persuasive in practice that it blinds us to dysfunction, discrimination, and abuse among ostensible comrades? Is it more useful than harmful to think of ourselves as equal and the same in contexts where we obviously aren’t?’
I don’t see how a comradely perspective could undermine socialist organisation. The question doesn’t even make sense to me; there is no socialist organisation absent a comradely perspective. There might be a bunch of individuals who think of themselves as socialists who have paid dues to an association that claims to pursue socialist goals. I wouldn’t call that a socialist organisation myself, but even if it were, how would comradeship undermine rather than activate and inspire it?
The next question about being blind to dysfunction, discrimination, and abuse – comradeship is what lets us see dysfunction and abuse. And it provides us with the norm of equality through which to address it. A great example comes from Claudia Jones in her famous article, ‘An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman!’ She appeals to her white men and women and black men comrades for their failure to treat black women in the Party as equals.
And on the last bit: to think of ourselves as equal does not mean to posit an identity of capacity and experience. The context of comradeship is being on the same political side. For communists and socialists, this side has been organised in terms of party belonging. Equality is an attribute of this belonging: all are equally obliged to carry out the party’s work; all are equally important for the party’s work.
In terms of this obligation to carry out the party’s work, there’s always the question of how the party’s work is defined. In the book you talk about how the relationship between party and comrade can end, including through mass resignations that are ‘righteous assertions of comradeship and collectivity in the context of a party that has lost its way.’ What does this say about the limits of party authority and the nature of the comrade’s obligation to it?
You’ve quoted a line that I write in the context of a story about Junius Scales, a member of CPUSA who had been imprisoned under the Smith Act. His family faced all sorts of financial problems. One of Scales’ comrades raised a lot of money for them, but a section organiser got wind of it and said that it was against party policy. When Scales’ comrade asked why, the organiser couldn’t answer. So the comrade – and a slew of other comrades who had all been in the party over twenty five years – resigned en masse and gave the money to Scales’ wife.
What interests me in this example is Scales’ emphasis on twenty-five years and on the group of comrades against the one section organiser. It’s like, who really is the party in this example? The one organiser who announces a policy but doesn’t explain or defend it or the long term comrades, dedicated enough to quit when they realised they would not be able to conform to expectations of party unity?
Sure, everyone recognised that officially the section organiser was speaking in the name of the party. But what he said and did violated the long-term comrades’ sense of what it is to be a communist to such a degree that they couldn’t accept it. And this wasn’t an individual conviction and decision; it was collective.
As Scales describes it, their choice was between supporting him, a comrade who had made a great sacrifice by going to jail, or following an inane, unjustified instruction. If they had remained in the party but given the money to Scales’ wife anyway, they would have violated party unity. So they quit. Their obligation was maintaining party unity by following the organiser’s instruction and when they couldn’t do that, they quit.
In a well-structured democratic centralist party, party rules are democratically determined and party decisions are justified and explained. A party can’t expect its cadre to follow arbitrary instructions, especially when they go against past principle and practice. Party membership is voluntary. People can always quit. A party that acts in an arbitrary way and that fails to support its cadre can’t expect people to stay in it and without people it has no capacity. You could say, then, that the limit of party authority is members’ ability to leave
Another way to look at this: a party is an organisation for the purpose of winning political power. It is totally instrumental. People join a party in order to participate in the struggle. This means that they put their own self-interest aside for the sake of achieving the collective goal. This instrumental aspect of the party form is what provides the limit to party authority: it has authority over what is necessary to achieve the goal. When it oversteps, people can quit, and this hurts its capacity.
The other thing to keep in mind is that the party is its cadre. In a democratic centralist party, party members are making rules that they give to themselves; this also gives us a sense of party members’ obligations – they are obliged to participate and speak out and engage in critical reflection on the party’s activities, to work to make the party better and stronger.
You write that ‘comradeship is premised on inclusion and exclusion, anyone but not everyone can be comrade. It is not an infinitely open or flexible relation but one that presupposes division and struggle. There is an enemy.’ How are comrades to deal with enemies?
I’m joking. Look, it’s a contextual question – who is the enemy in a specific context? Neither comrade nor enemy is an ontological term; people are not born comrades and they may not remain comrades. Same with enemies. People can change – political work is work that tries to change people.
To say that capitalists are the enemy does not mean that we have to kill all the capitalists. It means that we demolish the system that enables capitalism. So really the way to deal with enemies is to change the structure that produces enemies. This lets us recognise that the enemy is a feature of the structure not the person. A person can become a comrade. Or maybe an ally or just a neighbour or relative or something that is not political.
Should the comrades who fight to ‘demolish the system that enables capitalism’ have all the means at their disposal, including violence? If so, how do you respond to the oft-repeated argument that the use of violence will disfigure not only the struggle but also the new society it seeks to construct?
I don’t get the claim that violence disfigures the struggle and the new society. This makes no sense to me – since when does an oppressive regime just roll over and say, oh, sorry for that? I wish I knew where this argument came from. Maybe it’s Kantian? It’s certainly counter-revolutionary. The republican tradition (I’m thinking of Machiavelli here) associates the power of citizens with military prowess. Fanon defends the use of violence in decolonial struggle etc.
Why would the use of violence against an oppressor/coloniser/exploiter disfigure a new society? One doesn’t see this argument used against the US in 1776, to the best of my knowledge. The disfiguring violence was that of the genocide of the indigenous population and of the slave system.
I wonder if this worry about violence is in fact a symptom of the Left’s becoming liberal since 1989, that is, a symptom of the defeat of the USSR and Marxism on so much of the Left. It’s part and parcel of a very particularised embrace of Martin Luther King and Gandhi, of an acceptance of the status quo that says that our goals should be reform and resistance and incremental change. How’s that worked out for us? In the US, we’ve seen a massive increase in inequality, mass incarceration, and police violence.
I don’t think violence should be glorified but I accept that it will most likely be necessary: after all, the racist patriarchal capitalist state uses violence against those who fight against it all the time and pre-emptively. When we reject this state, we reject its claim to a legitimate monopoly on the use of violence.
The real problem for the Left is the fact that the state has such an extraordinary advantage on this front, given how heavily armed the police and military are. To think that we are in any position to win militarily is delusional. So it’s crucial to think through what counts as violence in what context, what are the dimensions and parameters of uses of violence and for what ends, these sorts of tactical questions that shift the discussion away from a simple for and against and toward the consideration of what kind, in what context, to what end.
Do the bonds of comradeship extend to the dead? If so, what do we owe comrades past? How do we honour their labour and sacrifice, whilst at the same time extricating ourselves from their mistakes?
I love this question. I think we owe it to our fallen comrades to continue their struggle, to recognise that they encountered hard choices and decisions the consequences of which they could not foresee, and to forgive them for their errors. To be honest, the Left focuses too much on the mistakes and not enough on the successes. It’s like we can’t handle the fact that power for humans won’t and can’t be pure and that we want some kind of protection from this. Really, the mistakes from which we have to extricate ourselves are the compromises with capitalism. And the mistaken demand for purity.
What about comrades not yet born? What, if anything, are they entitled to expect from comrades who are engaged in political struggle today?
Some art activist comrades of mine recently told me about a slogan for an action: Be the ancestors your descendants desire. That should be our orientation to our future comrades. We have to keep the fight going, we have to transmit knowledge and skills, we have to be better than we think we can be. We have to be the comrades they will desire.
And this means treasuring and supporting our comrades, not abusing them – really, the way the Left eats its own is so annoying; we are all that we have, our own best resources considering that the capitalists have the money and the imperialists have the bombs. We have to stop giving in to liberal preoccupations with individualised success and instead learn better how to follow, support, imitate, and help. Here’s where the Chinese communist emphasis on serving the people is so important (on this I recommend the new volume edited by Christian Sorace, Afterlives of Chinese Communism).