Jodi Dean’s new book, Crowds and Party is the latest contribution to her growing corpus, one committed to developing a communist perspective on the contemporary world of “communicative capitalism.”1 Recently Dean has turned to more explicitly political questions. In her 2012 book, The Communist Horizon, she engages the work of Zizek and Alain Badiou to rehabilitate communism and the Leninist Party. These features of her writings help us understand her take on events that inspired this most recent text: the failure of Occupy Wall Street in America and of Syriza and Podemos in Europe to secure long-term political success. Focusing especially on Occupy, in which she participated, Dean laments the individualist character of its “democratic, anarchist, and horizontalist ideological currents” and the movement’s obsession with consensus-based processes of collective decision making. In other words, an onerous commitment to horizontal forms of association and a “celebration of autonomous individuality” explain Occupy’s inability to achieve lasting gains in the realms of both organization and public policy.2

Crowds, Dean suggests, are organizationally insufficient. She goes so far as to claim that an Occupy-like “crowd does not have a politics” but is merely a kind of spontaneous conglomerate, a “provisional” or “temporary collective being” presumably composed of people with a wide variety of political perspectives and varying degrees of commitment to organized action.3 They thus lack cohesion and are collectively ill equipped to take on the arduous task of ongoing, disciplined political work. Such crowds inevitably “amass but… don’t endure,” thus posing questions of sustainability and programmatic coherence: “Crowds are forcing the Left to return again to questions of organization, endurance, and scale. Through what political forms might we advance?”4

Dean’s answer? The Leninist Party is the means by which crowds may be impelled into becoming a durable and potent political force. A communist party can provide consistency and direction to the “egalitarian discharge” of the crowd event, allowing the “collective desire for collectivity” embodied therein to persist, realizing its emancipatory proclivity in ways more concrete and institutionalized than the mere “beautiful moment” of a subversive gathering together.5 Communist parties can seize the opportunity politically indeterminate crowds present, pushing them in a strategically conscious direction. “This is the role of the party: concentrating and directing the energies of the people. The party shapes and intensifies the people’s practical struggles” by way of its historical memory, developed analysis and organized interventions.6

Dean’s book has its strengths. She rightfully recognizes the need for durable forms of popular organization and strategic thinking about that need from a Left perspective. She offers insightful analyses of current forms of “commanded individuality” and their economic determinants, and she does well to explore potentially empowering processes of deindividuation, succinctly capturing a key aspect of liberatory political experience in the modern world: “Something is happening such that the capacity to say ‘I’ is being replaced by the will to say ‘we.’”7 And while I’m not as well versed as others in this field, her appropriation and reworking of Althusserian ideology critique appears sound, innovative and theoretically fertile.8

The book also has three major, interrelated weaknesses to which the rest of this review speaks directly:

  1. Dean treats the crowd/party dichotomy ahistorically.

  2. She does not pay sufficient mind to critiques of Leninism and organizational alternatives to the Leninist Party.

  3. Her abrupt dismissal of the question of state power is not only irresponsible but disingenuous.

Dean is admittedly aware of these lines of critique and sometimes states as much, if only in passing. Yet while she may briefly acknowledge the ongoing controversy surrounding the Leninist perspective put forth in the book, Dean does not engage in a sustained and serious way with the 150 year-old debate between state socialists and their critics, a decision that severely constrains the force of her argument.9

The author regrettably comes off as somewhat oblivious to the existence of an established, organized (Marxist-Leninist) US Left. How did these organizations and parties—with whose politics Dean likely sympathizes—relate to crowd events such as Occupy? What can we learn from their failures, successes, organizational principles, and activity past and present? While indeed occasioned by current events, Dean’s theorizing is nonetheless lacking in its connection to contemporary instances of strategically informed practice. Her choice to approach the question of the Party in a formal and psycho-dynamic way—in a manner “unfettered by the false concreteness of specific parties in the contingency of their histories”—may explain this lack, but it does not justify it.10 Such ahistorical thinking also disallows any effort to investigate the authoritarian devolution of the Bolshevik Party, its move from a force that perhaps admirably “shapes and intensifies the people’s practical struggles” to one that opposes and crushes them.

Dean also seems to equate the notion of a programmatic politics with party-based politics. Although published after Dean’s book, the thorough policy platform recently released by the politically independent Movement for Black Lives is a case in point. By way of silence on alternatives, the author won’t allow for the possibility that the Leninist Party isn’t the only solution to the problem of popular organization. There are indeed other (revolutionary) Left political tendencies that have grappled with the question of sustainable, programmatically coherent self-organization on the part of the popular classes.11

Dean cites German sociologist Robert Michels’s famous claim that “rule by the few is unavoidable” in the modern world to justify and explain her acceptance of “substitutionism”—a term denoting the Leninist Party’s function as the authentic representative and guarantor of society’s general interest.12 Yet merely claiming that oligarchy is inevitable fails to adequately address one possible critique of Leninism. This critique rejects the anti-democratic tendencies of authoritarian parties and states. Insofar as these institutions are indeed oligarchic they reproduce class divisions and are thus at odds with the socialist attempt to build a classless society.

Dean suggests oligarchy is a consequence of the clear need for political leadership. Yet critiques of Leninism do not presuppose a lack of such leaders, nor do they question the need for delegated responsibility. Rather, their anti-authoritarian call for a classless society works to distinguish between popular empowerment—spurred on, certainly, by exemplary individuals—and the maneuverings of aspiring rulers. Since she is unwilling to draw such a distinction, Dean remains blind to longstanding efforts to oppose the more or less authoritarian rule of a party with popular initiatives promoting a classless social order—i.e. a society devoid of a ruling class as such, be it “communist” or liberal-bourgeois.

Her unwillingness to engage more thoughtfully with critiques of Leninist “substitutionism” and class rule also explains Dean’s reluctance to deal with the question of the state. She casually acknowledges that the Leninist Party seeks to capture state power, writing that “gaining political control of the state remains an important goal.”13 Yet discussion of the modern state ends there, with no mention of its structure or the ways in which it operates to safeguard class rule. At one point Dean goes so far as to deem the question of state power—around which much socialist theory orbits—a non-issue in the face of Left impotence:

[F]or leftists to make state-centeredness the problem now is to short-circuit the discussion that matters. The Left in the US, UK, and EU - not to mention communists - is struggling just to register as a political force. To worry about our seizing the state, then, is a joke, fantasy, and distraction from the task at hand. Rather than a concentration of political will, communist possibility remains diffuse, dispersed in the multitudinous politics of issues, identities, and moments of action that have yet to consolidate in the collective power of the divided people. What matters for us here and now is the galvanization of such a communist will.14

Nevertheless, Dean’s argument for the Party in fact presupposes an affirmative position on the conquest of state power. Both Leninists and political parties more generally are and always have been concerned with securing maximally exclusive control over the state apparatus.15 Her suggestion that present day concern with “seizing the state… is a joke” thus comes off as disingenuous, and the fact of the contemporary Left’s relative weakness in no way helps her argument.

Dean hopes to exert influence on Leftist strategy by calling for the growth of a Leninist Party, a Party built with the hope of seizing state power. Her inclination to avoid or summarily dismiss longstanding and legitimate critiques of such a project is thus irresponsible. Regardless of a given group’s relative strength, such strategic perspectives inevitably orient Leftist goals and activity in the present. Should we call for cops with more mental health training and body cameras, or should we work to disempower, disarm, and ultimately disband murderous police departments? One’s choice ought to entail a clear position on state power. It is regrettable Dean’s book lacks a discussion of this issue that is candid and well-developed insofar as it takes the various critical perspectives on Leninism more seriously.

  1. Jodi Dean defines this concept on her blog: “Communicative capitalism designates that form of late capitalism in which values heralded as central to democracy take material form in networked communications technologies (cf. Dean 2002a; 2002b). Ideals of access, inclusion, discussion and participation come to be realized in and through expansions, intensifications and interconnections of global telecommunications. But instead of leading to more equitable distributions of wealth and influence, instead of enabling the emergence of a richer variety in modes of living and practices of freedom, the deluge of screens and spectacles undermines political opportunity and efficacy for most of the world’s peoples.”  

  2. Dean Crowds and Parties, 4, 67. 

  3. Dean Crowds and Parties, 8-9. 

  4. Dean Crowds and Parties, 26, 4. 

  5. Dean Crowds and Parties, 4-5, 125. 

  6. Dean Crowds and Parties, 152, 25-26. 

  7. Dean Crowds and Parties, 141. 

  8. Dean Crowds and Parties, 76-86. 

  9. For a historical introduction to this debate, see Wolfgang Eckhardt’s recently translated book The First Socialist Schism: Bakunin vs. Marx in the International Working Men’s Association. Writings from many left wing critics of both Lenin and the Leninist tradition are also freely available online. These texts span more or less the entirety of the 20th century, from Rosa Luxemburg and Anton Pannekoek to Noam Chomsky. 

  10. Dean Crowds and Parties, 5. 

  11. The South American tradition of especifismo is one example. See, for instance, FARJ’s Social Anarchism and Organization (PDF).  

  12. Dean Crowds and Parties, 133-136. In his 1911 book Political Parties, Michels argued for what he termed the “iron law of oligarchy,” claiming that under modern conditions even the most sincerely egalitarian organizations are inevitably dominated by a small leadership group. Dean’s perspective on this issue helps us understand why she seems to reduce anti-authoritarian critiques of oligarchic parties and states to “attacks on mass, democratic… politics more generally” (170). If oligarchy is inevitable and the Leninist Party or Party-state has the general interest at heart, then an attack on the Party is an attack on the people as a whole.  

  13. Dean Crowds and Parties, 206.  

  14. Dean Crowds and Parties, 150.  

  15. See the last chapter of Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution, wherein she traces modern political parties’ determined struggle for state power back to the faction-based conflict between the Jacobins and their contemporaries during the French revolution.