The Communist Horizon by Jodi Dean

[This text comes from a talk given by Jodi Dean at the Brecht Forum in New York.  A video of the talk is available here.  Reposted from Kasama Project.]

The term “horizon” marks a division.

Understood spatially, the horizon is the line dividing the visible, separating earth from sky. Understood temporally, the horizon converges with loss in a metaphor for privation and depletion. The “lost horizon” suggests abandoned projects, prior hopes that have now passed away. Astrophysics offers a thrilling, even uncanny, horizon: the “event horizon” surrounding a black hole. The event horizon is the boundary beyond which events cannot escape. Although “event horizon” denotes the curvature in space/time effected by a singularity, it’s not much different from the spatial horizon. Both evoke a fundamental division, that we experience as impossible to reach, and that we can neither escape nor cross.

I use “horizon” not to recall a forgotten future but to designate a dimension of experience that we can never lose, even if, lost in a fog or focused on our feet, we fail to see it.

The horizon is Real in the sense of impossible—we can never reach it—and in the sense of actual. The horizon shapes our setting. We can lose our bearings, but the horizon is a necessary dimension of our actuality. Whether the effect of a singularity or the meeting of earth and sky, the horizon is the fundamental division establishing where we are.

With respect to politics, the horizon that conditions our experience is communism. I get the term “communist horizon” from Bruno Bosteels, who gets it from Alvaro García Linera, vice president of Bolivia. Garcia Linera was the running mate of Evo Morales on the ticket Movement to Socialism-Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP). He is the author of multiple pieces on Marxism, politics, and sociology, at least one of which was written while he served time in prison for armed uprising (before becoming Vice President of Boliva, he fought in the Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army).

Bosteels quotes García Linera’s response to an interviewer’s questions about his party’s plans following their electoral victory:

“The general horizon of the era is communist.”

García Linera doesn’t explain the term. He invokes the communist horizon

“as if it were the most natural thing in the world.”

Assuming it as an irreducible feature of the political setting, he says:

“we enter the movement with our expecting and desiring eyes set upon the communist horizon.”

Some on the US left think the communist horizon is a lost horizon. This is a mistake that capitalists, conservatives, and even liberal-democrats don’t make insofar as they see the threat of communism everywhere, twenty years after its ostensible demise. To think further about how this communist horizon manifests itself to us today, how we feel its force, how it formats our setting, I treat communism as a tag for six features of our conjuncture:

1. a specific state formation that collapsed in 1991;
2. a present, increasingly powerful, force;
3. the sovereignty of the people;
4. the force of the common and commons;
5. the collective desire for collectivity; and
6. the actuality of revolution.

My goal is to highlight the actuality of communism as an ideal for us, one worth fighting for in a struggle that is ever more urgent and necessary.

As Bosteels argues, invoking the communist horizon produces “a complete shift in perspective or a radical ideological turnabout” such that “capitalism no longer appears as the only game in town.” With communism as our horizon, the field of possibilities for revolutionary theory and practice starts to change shape. Barriers to action fall away. New potentials and challenges come to the fore. Anything is possible. We can set “our expecting and desiring eyes here and now on a different organization of social relationships.”

Instead of a politics thought primarily in terms of resistance, playful and momentary aesthetic disruptions, the immediate specificity of local projects, and struggles for hegemony within a capitalist, parliamentary, setting, the communist horizon impresses on us the necessity of the abolition of capitalism and the creation of global practices and institutions of egalitarian cooperation. The shift in perspective the communist horizon produces turns us away from the democratic milieu that has been the form of the loss of communism as a name for left aspiration and toward the reconfiguration of the components of political struggle, in other words, away from general inclusion, momentary calls for broad awareness, and lifestyle changes, and toward militant opposition, tight organizational forms (party, council, working group, cell), and the sovereignty of the people over the economy through which we produce and reproduce ourselves. In short, the communist horizon orients our politics such that we are fighting not just against but for (and this may be why some on the left have been reluctant to embrace the communism—it fearlessly advocates the collective power of the people).

1 Communism: the Soviet system
For most people in the US, communism refers to the Soviet Union. But this complicates matters insofar as the Soviet Union did not claim to have achieved communism although its ruling party called itself a communist party. As is the case with any party or political system, the communist party in the Soviet Union changed over time, moving from a revolutionary party to a governing bureaucratic party, a governing bureaucratic party that also experienced changes over time, changes that were sometimes violent, sometimes incremental. Insofar as it was a political party, and for most of its history the only recognized political party, the communist party in the former Soviet Union was a locus of struggle and disagreement over a host of issues from art, literature, and science to economic development, foreign policy, and internal relations among the various republics. So the Soviet Union isn’t a very stable referent of communism. [CHANGE SLIDE]

It tends to be stabilized via the proper name of Stalin, where “Stalinist” tags practices of monopolizing and consolidating power in the state-party bureaucracy. Communism as Stalinism is marked by authoritarianism, prison camps, and the inadmissibility of criticism. Generally, it eclipses post-Stalinist developments in the Soviet Union, particularly with regard to successes in modernizing and improving overall standards of living.

Treatments of communism as Stalinism usually present themselves as concrete historical analysis. Most of the time, they are nothing of the sort. Rather, they are appeals to history made in an attempt to repress the communist alternative. Consider, first, where the facts of this history come from. Michael E. Brown and Randy Martin argue persuasively that there is not yet a credible and established body of historical literature on communism, socialism, or the Soviet Union. Most of the histories we have were produced in the context of a hegemonic anticommunism. The methodological and conceptual defects in scholarly studies of the Soviet Union would be scandalous in other academic fields. Second, the history invoked to repress the communist alternative is bizarrely deterministic, with no room for chance and contingency: if Lenin, then Stalin; if party, then gulag. If it happened once, it will happen again, and there is nothing we can do about it. The oddity of this position is that communism is unique in its determining capacity, the one political arrangement capable of eliminating contingency and directing action along a singular vector. Communism becomes the exception to the dynamic of production, struggle, and experience that gives rise to it. Instead of the politics of a militant subject, communism is an imaginary, immutable object, this time a linear process with a certain end. Thus, third, history itself starts to functions as a structure and a constant incapable of change and impenetrable by “external” forces. Any particular moment is a container for this essential whole—the Leninist party, the Stalinist show trials, the KGB, the Brezhnev-era stagnation. Each is interchangeable with the other as an example of the error of communism precisely because communism is invariant. In contrast with capitalism’s permanent revolution, historical communism appears as impossibly static. Only by supposing such an impossible, invariant, constant, unchanging communism can the appeal to history turn a single instance into a damning example of the failed and dangerous communist experience. And as it does, it disconnects communism from the very history to which it appeals, erasing not only communism as capitalism’s self-critique but also communism as capitalism’s mirror, ally, enemy, and Other.
This is the inner truth of the liberal, democratic, capitalist, and conservative appeal to history: not to inspire inquiry but to preserve the fantasy that capitalism and democracy are the best possible economic and political arrangements.

2 Communism: a present force
If the end of the Soviet Union were the same as the end of communism, then communism would be past—like the Roman or the Ottoman empire. As a particular political formation, it would be an artifact to be analyzed and studied. Whatever gave it breath, made it real, would be gone. Yet communism persists. It’s frequently evoked as a living presence or possibility. [CHANGE SLIDE]

In the US, “communism” is used as a term of opprobrium so frequently that one would think the Cold War never ended. What is communist? National healthcare. Environmentalism. Feminism. Public education. Progressive taxation. Paid vacation days. Gun control. Bicycles are a “gate-way drug” to communism. Web 2.0 is communist because it holds out “the seductive promise of individual self-realization” that Karl Marx evoked in “The German Ideology.” Who is communist? Anyone who protested US military aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan, anyone critical of the Bush administration, Democratic political leaders such as Nancy Pelosi. And, of course, Barak Obama.

It’s obvious enough that contemporary Democrats are not communists—the Democratic Party did not even attempt to pass a single-payer public health insurance program and its response to the economic crisis has focused on the finance sector. The constant evocations of an encroaching communist threat in the US could thus seem to be a not very creative return to the language of the Cold War and Red Scare, a conservative retreat to a formerly effective rhetoric of fear. But it’s not. It’s actually an indication of a concrete awareness of the need for, the demand for, an alternative to capitalism.

In the US, we are reminded daily that radical change is possible, and we are incited to fear it. The threat, or specter, is communism, right-wing radio and blogs scream, and if we don’t do something, we will be under the communist yoke. The right, even the center, regularly invokes the possibility of radical change and it names that change communism. Why does it name the change communism? Because extreme inequality is visible and undeniable. The US has historically positioned extreme inequality, indebtedness, and decay elsewhere, off-shore. The economic recession, collapse in the housing and mortgage markets, increase in permanent involuntary unemployment, and trillion dollar bank bailouts have made what we thought was the third world into our world. The division cutting across capitalist societies is more visible, more palpable, in the US now than it’s been since at least the 1930s: more of our children live in poverty than at any time in US history; the wealth of the very, very rich, the top one percent, has dramatically increased while income for the rest of us has remained stagnant or declined; corporations sit on piles of cash instead of hiring back their laid-off workers; many of the foreclosures the banks force on homeowners are meaningless, illegal acts of expropriation (the banks can’t document who owns what so they lack the paper necessary to justify foreclosure proceedings). The one percent aren’t job creators—they are wealth expropriators, fearful of the rising anger and power of the collective people.

In a culture where the mantra for over fifty years has been “what’s good for business is good for America” and where since the presidency of Ronald Reagan we’ve been urged to believe that inequality is good because what benefits the rich trickles down to the rest of us, the current undeniability of division isn’t nothing. It’s something. Inequality is appearing as a factor, a force, even a crime—the J.P. Morgan and LIBOR scandals are only the most recent. No wonder we are hearing the name communism again—the antagonism cutting across capitalist societies is visible, palpable, pressing. The right, even the center, tries to evoke communism as a threat, something to warn against, a terrible past we should all hasten to avoid. But if it was so terrible and if it is in the past, why is it still a threat? Because communism is the alternative, the remedy, the answer to our current economic crisis.

I’ve consider the right’s relation to the communist threat. What about the democratic left? Whereas the right treats communism as a present force, the left is bent around the force of loss, that is, the contorted shape it has found itself in as it has forfeited or betrayed the communist ideal. More specifically, the predominant characteristic of the contemporary left is its frequent claim not to exist. Whereas the right sees left wing threats everywhere, those on the left eschew any use of the term “we,” emphasizing instead their own fragmentation into a multitude of singularities. There are events, moments, projects, demonstrations, blogs, sometimes even affinity groups and general assemblies, but the left doesn’t exist. Not surprisingly, then, in these leftist discussions, there is no left political vision or program, a point that is lamented even as it is generally disconnected from the setting in which it appears, namely, the loss of a left that says “we” and “our” and “us” in the first place. (One of the most profound achievements of Occupy has been its establishment of a new sense of collectivity such that we can say “we” without qualification.)

The rejection of communism as an ideal has shaped the left. Fragmented tributaries and currents, branches and networks of particular projects and partial objects, are the left form of the loss of communism. Some think of this form as an advance. They name it democracy, envisioning struggles on the left specifically as struggles for democracy. In some times and places, this could make sense, like in the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, in struggles against colonialism and imperialism, even in opposition to the authoritarianism of the party-state bureaucracies of the former East. In these instances, to stand for democracy was to stand against an order constituted against democracy. But in parliamentary democracies, for leftists to refer to their goals as a struggle for democracy is strange—it’s not like they are fighting for rights to vote, right to free speech. Democracy is our ambient milieu, the hegemonic form of contemporary politics. For the left to use the language of democracy now is a way of avoiding the fundamental antagonism between the top one percent and the rest of us by acting as if the only thing really missing was participation.

Political repercussions of the loss of communism as a name for left aspirations include a corresponding turn away from militant opposition and toward generalized inclusion as well as an abandonment of tight organizational forms like the party, the council, and the cell in favor of broad, thin, and momentary calls to become aware of an issue and change one’s lifestyle. More fundamentally, the repercussion of the sublimation of communism in democratic preoccupations with process and participation democratic is acquiescence to capitalism as the best system for the production and distribution of resources, labor, and goods.

The mistake leftists make when they turn into liberals and democrats is thinking that we are beyond the communist horizon, that democracy replaced communism rather than serves as the contemporary form of communism’s displacement. They don’t see, can’t acknowledge, their own complicity with capitalism: if political struggle is always an irreducible dimension of capitalism and capitalism always interlinked with conflict, resistance, accommodation, and demands, then refusals to engage in these struggles, rejections of the terms of these struggles, will affect the form that capitalism takes.
3 Communism: the sovereignty of the people
I’ve discussed two ways of thinking about the communist horizon, the past Soviet experiment and the present force. I’ve described the present force of communism via a right-left distinction between threat and loss, a distinction which rests on a common supposition of democracy. In each instance, communism names that in opposition to which our current setting is configured, the setting within which contemporary capitalism unfolds. Why is communism that name? Because it designates the sovereignty of the people, the rule of the people, and not the people as a whole or a unity but the people as the rest of us, those of us whose work, lives, and futures are expropriated, monetized, and speculated on for the financial enjoyment of the few. [CHANGE SLIDE]

Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács invokes the people in just this sense when he explains the dialectical transformation of the concept of the people in Lenin’s characterization of the Russian Revolution: “The vague and abstract concept of ‘the people’ had to be rejected, but only so that a revolutionary, discriminating, concept of ‘the people’—the revolutionary alliance of the oppressed—could develop from a concrete understanding of the conditions of proletarian revolution.” The people are the communist political subject.

My claim, then, is that it makes sense to substitute the idea of the sovereignty of the people for that of the dictatorship of the proletariat. When the people are the subject of communism, their sovereignty is not that of the dispersed individuals of liberal democracy. Rather, the sovereignty of the people designates the direct and fearsome rule of the collective people over those who would oppress and exploit them, over those who would take for themselves what belongs to all in common.

As Lenin describes it in State and Revolution, the dictatorship of the proletariat is an organization of the oppressed for the purpose of suppressing the oppressor. More than a mere expansion of democracy, more than the inclusion of more people within democracy’s purview, the dictatorship of the proletariat puts into practice the purpose and end of democracy, making it serve the many and not the “money-bags.” Consequently and necessarily, the dictatorship of the proletariat imposes restrictions: it restricts the freedom of capitalists, exploiters, and oppressors. They are not free to do as they will but are governed, controlled, and limited by the rest of us. In time, this governance, control, and limitation effectively eliminate the capitalist class. But until the inequality that enables capitalism has been eliminated, the organized power of a state serves as the instrument through which the people not only govern, but insure that governance is carried out for the benefit of the collective rather than the few.

So my wager is that an emphasis on the people as the rest of us can do the work formerly done by “proletariat.” Qualified as ‘the rest of us,’ the people designates those proletarianized by capitalism, that is, the people produced through the exploitation, extraction, and expropriation of our practical and communicative activities for the enjoyment of the very, very rich. When communism is our horizon of political possibility, the sovereignty of the people points to a view of the state as what we use to govern for us as a collectivity. It is our collective steering of our common future for our common good. This is what the slogan ‘power to the people’ means.

Two more points about the sovereignty of the people. First, the people of communism are not the same as the totality of the people imagined by populism. The difference is division. Rather than there being a smooth flow from actual people to the collective power of the sovereign people, a gap disrupts the whole, belying the fantasy of a whole, unitary people. No matter how popular the sovereign, the people and the government are not present at the same time. Insofar as the people can never be fully present—some don’t show up, didn’t hear what was going on, were mislead by a powerful speaker, were miscounted from the outset, completely disagreed and so wanted to count themselves out, were barred from attending—their necessary absence is the gap of politics. Split, divided, impossible, the people cannot be politically. They are only political through and as one, few, or some. The rule of a leader, party, or constitution compensates for or occupies the hole of the missing conjunction between people and government. Nonetheless, this rule cannot overcome the division that the sovereignty of the people mobilizes; division goes all the way down—antagonism is fundamental, irreducible.

Second, because the people are divided sovereignty provides a better name for their rule than dictatorship. Historically, dictatorship was a temporary arrangement. Whether as a provision in the Roman constitution or a step toward the withering away of the state, dictatorship marks the exceptionional convergence of legality and illegality, force and right. Its limited temporality allows for acts justified by revolutionary fervor alone. As exceptions, they contribute to excessive violence. It is better for the violence of rule to remain wrong and in need of justification: what were the alternatives? Did it serve the common good? And even if it did, can its justification be generally willed? The revolutionary fury of the people is without limit or control. But this cannot and should not be incorporated in a governing form. Doing so invites excessive measures in the name of revolutionary change, as if transforming the people were a process that could end.

Only in a world without people would there be no need for the rule of the people. This rule should be thought in terms of self-governance, self-control, self-steering. Then it can and must be combined and thought with the trans-subjective, mutually determining conditions of selves, such that there is no self-governance absent collective self-governing. Absent the collective determination of the people over their conditions, each remains unfree. Insofar as communism names this sovereignty, communist movement strives to bring the conditions for it into being, grasping that these conditions are material and that the political sovereignty of the people is impossible when the basic conditions of our lives are outside of our collective determination. To reiterate, this sovereignty is unavoidably partial and incomplete. Important determinants of our lives—when we are born, when we die, who our parents are, who we love, our mother tongue, the weather—remain outside our determination. We do well to remain mindful of sovereignty’s limits. Yet these limits do not mean that other determinants are similarly outside our attempts to steer them. We can and already do make decisions about who gets what, who has what, what is rewarded, what is punished, what is amplified, what is thwarted.

4 Communism: the common and the commons
In recent years, a variety of voices have converged in an embrace of the centrality of the ideas of the common and commons to the contemporary reinvigoration of communism. Indeed, as Silvia Federici and others have pointed out, this convergence is not unique to communists—a spectrum extending from the anarchist left to a capitalist center has made the question of the commons a central one, in part as a response to damages resulting from neoliberal privatization and in part because of concerns about the climate. Communists’ embrace of the commons echoes and extends Marx’s analysis of the enclosure of the commons in Capital. The analysis thus has both a critical and a positive component. [CHANGE SLIDE]

As Marx explains in his discussion of primitive accumulation, capitalism didn’t get going because some worked harder than others (a story that is one of capitalism’s own key myths). On the contrary, capitalism got going because some were robbed of their means of production and the protections they formerly had under the old feudal arrangements. These people were “hurled into the labor-market as free, unprotected, and rightless proletarians”—freed of their land, and free to sell themselves into capitalist exploitation. The history of their expropriation, Marx tells us, “is written in the annals of mankind in the letters of blood fire.”

The contemporary critical focus on the commons highlights the continuity of the forceful expropriation of what belongs to all in common by and for the few. David Harvey, for example, emphasizes capital’s ongoing accumulation by dispossession. Private property is inseparable from force—as is clear not only in foreclosures, gated communities, the use of police to protect banks and bankers, but also in the wide array of legal forces brought to bear to collect the debts of ordinary people even as corporate debts are ignored, forgiven, or, displaced back onto the people. Because of the interconnection between violence and property, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri emphasize an additional critical dimension of the common: it designates an area between and overlapping spheres liberal defines as public and private, state and market. What is common cannot be confined to either but instead discloses the arbitrariness of the division: how is it that reproduction, which is common to us all, is private? Deployed critically, then, the notion of the commons makes visible ongoing acts of violent expropriation across the globe—of water, air, space, health, resources, knowledge, and basic capacities of social reproduction.

At the same time, the common and the commons point toward new practices and institutions of egalitarian cooperation. This positive direction, sometimes designated with the active verb ‘commoning,’ can also be found in Marx. For example, in The German Ideology, Marx describes communism as “turning existing conditions into conditions of unity.” When the community of revolutionary proletarians takes their conditions of existence (and those of all of society) under their control, they transform what was abandoned to chance into conditions that they determine.. Of course, this isn’t easy. It can’t be accomplished simply at the level of ideas but has to be carried out in practice. Capitalism perpetually divides people, engendering hostility and competition among them even as their interconnected work produces conditions common within classes. Uniting together, building solidarities, is thus vital not just for over-turning capitalism (which may well be able to destroy itself), but for creating a freer, more just and egalitarian future.

A number of contemporary positive approaches to the common and the commons describe different experiments in commoning, from urban gardening to Wikipedia, small-scale solidarity economies to the global movements of the squares. While these examples point to very real problems of scale (which become extremely urgent when we think of climate change), they nonetheless indicate a vital trajectory for the left, one focused on the practical, organizational work of creating a different world, one that manifests a collective desire for collectivity.
5 Collective desire for collectivity
If communism means anything at all, it means collective action, determination, and will. Under conditions of capitalism’s cult of individualism, to emphasize acts of individual decision and will reduces communism to one among any number of possible choices. Such an emphasis assents to capitalist form, rendering communism as just another content, an object of individual desire rather than the desire of a collective subject. Desire remains individual; nothing happens to its basic structure. [CHANGE SLIDE]

Lukács’s insight into individualism as a barrier to collective will-formation illuminates the collectivity of communist desire. Lukács notes that the “freedom” of those of us brought up under capitalism is “the freedom of the individual isolated by the fact of property,” a freedom over and against other, isolated individuals. He explains that “the conscious desire for the realm of freedom can only mean consciously taking the steps that will really lead to it. And, in the awareness that in contemporary bourgeois society individual freedom can only be corrupt and corrupting because it is a case of unilateral privilege based on the unfreedom of others, this desire must entail the renunciation of individual freedom.” Communist desire is a desire for collectivity.

In a setting of capitalism’s distractions and compulsions, one may very well feel like something is wrong, something is missing, something is deeply unfair. One might try to make a difference—signing petitions, blogging, voting, doing one’s own part as an individual. And here is the problem: one continues to think and act individualistically. Under capitalist conditions, communist desire entails “the renunciation of individual freedom,” the deliberate and practical subordination of self in and to a collective communist will. This subordination requires discipline, work, and organization—which we have been seduced into resenting. It is a process carried out over time and through collective struggle. Indeed, it is active collective struggle that changes and reshapes desire from its individual form into a common, collective one.

I follow Lacan in understanding that desire always involves a gap, lack, or rupture; desire, to persist as desire, has to remain unsatisfied. The gap necessary for communist desire is manifest in the rupture of communism with its setting, as Marxist themes of negation and the communist legacy of revolution both affirm. Of course, communism is not the only political ideology that mobilizes negation and revolution—there are and have been liberal-democratic, bourgeois revolutions. And communism shares with capitalism a revolutionary mobilization of negation, hence communism as the negation of the negation. The difference in the ways they subjectify the gap, then, is crucial. Capitalist subjectification, the desire it structures and incites, is individual. Communist desire can only be collective, a common relation to a common condition of division.

Collectivity is thus the form of communist desire in two senses: our desire and our desire for us; the collective desire for collective desiring. One might think that the object of communist desire would be a world without exploitation; a world characterized by equality, justice, freedom, and the absence of oppression; a world where production is common, distribution is based on need, and decisions realize the general will. Once one starts to describe this perfect world, though, it always comes up lacking. Something is always missing—what about an end to sexism, racism, and egoism? What about an end to social hierarchies? What about religious freedom and the intolerant? What about meanness and bullying? It’s no surprise that communism’s critics criticize communism as utopian and impossible. It seems another word for perfect. But the impossible of communist desire is not the same as its cause. The object-cause of communist desire is the people and, again, the people not as a name for the social whole but as a name for the exploited, producing majority.

For any government, system, organization, or movement, the people remain elusive, incompatible with and disruptive of that which attempts to reduce, constrain, or represent it. Authoritarianism, oligarchy, aristocracy, representative democracy, parliamentary democracy—none of these forms worries too much about the disconnect between government and people. But the disconnect, the gap, matters for communism because communism is not only an association for governance, but also an organization of production. The people are elusive. They exceed their symbolic instantiation as well as the images and fantasies that try to fill the gap. Communist desire, a collective desire to desire communism, occupies and mobilizes this gap, recognizing its openness (that is, the impossibility of the people) and treating it as the movement of communism itself. We are the 99%.

6 The actuality of revolution
To some the Leninist party appears as a specter of horror, as the remnant or trace of the failed revolution the terrors of which must be avoided at all costs. In such a vision (which may not be concretely held by anyone but seems vaguely intuited by most), communism is reduced not simply to the actual (which is always necessarily ruptured, incomplete, irreducible to itself, and pregnant with the unrealized potentials of the past) but to the parody of one actuality, an actuality that itself has changed over time and from different perspectives. [CHANGE SLIDE] In such a reduction (which is an ongoing process), actuality is displaced by an impossible figure, a figure so resolute as to be incapable of revolutionary change. Rigid, exclusive, dogmatic—it’s hard to see how such a party could even function in a revolutionary situation much less ever attract members in the first place: how would it get people to show up, to march, to write and distribute newspapers, to put their lives on the line? How would it grow or spread?

In contrast, Lukács’ account of the Leninist party suggests an organization formed as the subjectification of two lacks, the chaos of revolution and the non-knowledge of the party. Lukács argues that Lenin’s party presupposes the actuality of revolution. It’s a political organization premised on the fact of revolution, on the fact that the terrain of politics is open and changing and that revolutions happen. Revolutions are not messianic events wherein long-awaited deities intervene in human affairs. They are results, conditions, and effects of politics wherein states are overthrown, dismantled, distributed, reconfigured, redirected. In the chaos of revolution, tendencies in one direction can suddenly move in a completely opposite direction. Because the revolutionary situation is characterized by unpredictability and upheaval, no iron laws of history provide a map or playbook that revolutionaries can follow to certain victory.

The actuality of revolution requires discipline and preparation, not because the communist party can accurately predict everything that will occur—it cannot—and not because it has an infallible theory—it does not. Its theory, like the conditions in which it is set, is open to rigorous criticism, testing, and revision. Discipline and preparation enable the party to adapt to circumstances rather than be completely molded or determined by them. The party has to be consistent and flexible because revolution is chaotic. The actuality of revolution is thus a condition of constitutive non-knowledge for which the party can prepare. It’s a condition that demands response, if the party is to be accountable to the exploited and oppressed people.

A communist party is necessary because neither capitalist dynamics nor mass spontaneity immanently produce a proletarian revolution that ends the exploitation and oppression of the people. A revolutionary period brings together and confuses multiple and changing groups and classes. Different spontaneous tendencies, degrees of class consciousness, and ideological persuasions converge. The Leninist party doesn’t know what the people want. It’s a form for dealing with the split in the people, our non-knowledge of what we, as a collectivity, desire. As Lukács writes, “If events had to be delayed until the proletariat entered the decisive struggles united and clear in its aims there would never be a revolutionary situation.” What the party knows is that such a lack of knowledge must not impede action because it cannot forestall the actuality of revolution. The party, then, is an organization situated at the overlap of two lacks, the openness of history as well as its own non-knowledge.

Collectivity—common cause and common determination—is difficult. It involves giving up what we don’t have for something we can’t achieve. We are and cannot name a whole. We are and cannot fully justify the coercive and productive forces we unleash. The communist party is a form for maintaining this gap without yielding to fantasy or fatalism—which is why Badiou theorizes its operation in terms of courage as well confidence. Neither instantiation nor representative of the people, the party formalizes its collective desire for collectivity; when the party fails to keep open the gap of desire, it ceases to be a communist party.

The actuality of revolution is the press/pressure that we feel, that we can’t put off but must redirect. The communist horizon is what we must focus on and use as a guide if this redirection is compelled by the force of the common rather than the speculation of the few.

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