A psychodynamic approach to a new party?

Issue: 160

Martin Pitt

A review of Jodi Dean, Crowds and Party (Verso, 2016), £16.99

In 2011 huge Occupy movements, inspired by the Arab Spring, appeared around the world. Jodi Dean was involved in the New York events and she makes these the starting point of her book Crowds and Party. Dean rightly observes that although the Occupy movement was inspiring, there were two interconnected weaknesses in the dominant ideas of the participants. One was the celebration of individuality as empowerment, the other a rejection of party organisation itself. Dean argues spiritedly against both of these limitations.

She initially discusses the deliberate “invention” of individualism as ­empowerment and shows just how much this bolsters neoliberal capitalism. Then, following Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Žižek, she employs psychoanalysis to examine the feeling of the crowd, its intensity, sense of power and its “egalitarian outburst”. She explains how the ideology of individualism in the Occupy movement undermined its ability to work as a collective.

The need for individuals to integrate into a relatively powerful collective is the very antithesis of the individualism of capitalist ideology. The struggle of ideas between capitalism’s individualism and communism’s collectivity then is the key to Dean’s theory of a new communist party which, she says, will lead to the demise of capitalism.

A book by an academic advocating building an extra-parliamentary party to help end capitalism is very welcome. However, the writer’s “psychodynamic” approach is problematic. It obscures the real agency of social change, fails to distinguish between different kinds of party and separates party from politics.

Dean argues that the party is necessary to lend continuity, context and fidelity to the crowd after it has dispersed, and talks of belonging, intensity and strength. But she appears not to understand that, although the crowd and party may feel strong, they are not powerful enough to combat capitalism or even depose a tyrant. For that, working class intervention is necessary—as the Egyptian and Iranian Revolutions, for example, can attest. Neither crowd nor party is strong enough seriously to threaten the productive system. Leon Trotsky in the introduction to his History of the Russian Revolution explained the real power relationship in his analogy of a steam engine. Where the party is the piston box and the mass workers’ movement the steam, it is neither the piston nor the box that is the power, but the steam.

The global working class (those selling their labour power and not just paid to supervise the work of others) has grown massively since Trotsky’s day. It is now the largest social class that has ever existed and has interests diametrically opposed to the ruling class. Its cohesion and position at the point of production make it potentially all-powerful, not least in the United States where Dean is based. As the agency of social change it should not be casually dismissed. But Dean does precisely this. “Communicative capitalism”, she says, now exploits everyone, chiefly outside the workplace. She prefers “the people” rather than “the working class” because the former term is more “generic” and less “saturated”.

Mistakenly, she claims that “the people” as a social base for a party and movement derives from Lenin, and cites Georg Lukács and his book Lenin: A Study in the Unity of His Thought, where he refers to: “the people—the revolutionary alliance of all the oppressed”. Actually Lukács argues the opposite. The sentence comes towards the end of the chapter entitled “The Proletariat as the Leading Class” and the paragraph in which it appears ends with the words: “But because the consciousness and ability to lead this struggle exists—in objective class terms—only in the class consciousness of the proletariat, it alone can and must be the leading class of social transformation in the approaching revolution” (­emphasis in original).

Lenin consistently and constantly referred to “the proletariat” rather than “the people”. And his party was predominantly working class despite that class being vastly outnumbered by the peasantry. Lenin was a thoroughgoing Marxist, and the essence of Marxism is to see the world from the standpoint of the proletariat. It is a guide to action for the class to overthrow capitalism. This is why its laws, tenets and theories are so remarkably consistent, interlocking and reinforcing one another to produce a cohesive whole. It is just about feasible to consider a people’s movement in 1871 or 1917. But even then, the vast peasantry had to be won to the workers’ revolution; “the people”, for Lukács, had to be surrounded by all sorts of caveats, cautions and qualifications. The term is not feasible in modern day America where the working class comprises the overwhelming majority. In short, there is nothing in Marx, Lenin, Lukács or in the modern world to suggest abandoning the working class as the agency for social change.

The difference between the Marxist approach and Dean’s psychological one becomes quite clear in her section on the Paris Commune. For Marxists, this is one of the most exciting and important events in history. For the first time the working class took power, dismantled the former state (bureaucracy, standing army, legal system, etc) and created a new one to implement its own rule. It was the most democratic state that had ever existed, with parliamentary ­representatives paid the average wage of a skilled worker and subject to immediate recall. It proceeded to implement the most progressive measures in the interests of ordinary working people.

But for Dean, this hitherto most egalitarian of states wasn’t egalitarian enough. She seems to want a free and equal, classless state, and therefore disagrees with Marx that any state is an instrument for the oppression of one class by another. So the fact that this one did not oppress workers, peasants, artisans and others that make up the masses, but instead oppressed the bourgeoisie, doesn’t impress her. Dean praises the uprising that started the Commune but is dismayed by the setting up of a workers’ state because “it showed no fidelity to the egalitarianism of the crowd”. As Marx did pay tribute to the Paris crowd in his writings, she argues that we should attend to his rhetoric, “rather than his (weak) analysis”. Dean is critical of Marx’s analysis because she is hostile to states in general. She is dismissive of the Commune’s system of representation as, she argues: “Distributed and federal political arrangements have served bourgeois and imperial power quite well”.

Though clear on the need for a party Dean is vague as to the form it should take. She wants neither a revolutionary nor a reformist party, wishing to “break out of this dualism” whose “aspects are too limiting”. It appears she would like a mass Second International-type party like the German SPD, with a powerful infrastructure, social and sporting clubs, etc. This she believes will grow purely through “the expansion of voluntary cooperation”, which will then put huge strain on the state before finally overwhelming it in a great “tidal wave”. In truth this type of mass party completely failed in practice. Lenin’s vanguard workers’ party on the other hand succeeded in leading a revolution, and thus proved in practice its superiority over those of the Second International.

Dean really wants a revived mass international communist movement and rues both the huge losses to the original in 1968, and its collapse in 1989. She invites us to overlook the crimes and betrayals of the world’s working class by the Stalinist monolith, as “all parties make errors”. She openly eschews discussion of party politics, aims and structures. But it is precisely these that made the crimes and betrayals inevitable. However, Dean believes these matters to be secondary to the “concentrated aspirations” of the party membership.

Dean’s book is a cryptic, sometimes obscure and occasionally ambiguous, but spirited advocacy for a collective, as against individualism. As such it was useful in the debates taking place in 2011. Now the strong current of political individualism among activists seems to be at an end and broad parties such as Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain and the Labour Party in the UK are popular. But even in 2011 the political and practical arguments for a party were sharper, stronger and more profound than the psychological ones.

Like the work of Žižek, Lacan and Alain Badiou, who Dean quotes frequently, much of the book is quite abstract. It is limited to feelings and ideas, as though these had no material basis, and there is little consideration of change and development. But the main problem is that, in adopting “the people” as the subject of history as against the Marxist “working class”, she turns her back on 150 years of tried, tested, consistent and developing theory. Anyone is perfectly entitled to do this of course, provided they can supply activists with a similar or even more powerful body of theory and guide to action.

Martin Pitt is a long-term SWP party branch activist in west London and Convenor of West London Stand Up to Racism.