crowds and party

Jodi Dean in Crowds and Party boldly reasserts the need for socialist organisation, as a necessary antidote to neoliberal individualism, finds Lindsey German


Jodi Dean, Crowds and Party (Verso 2016), x, 276pp.

When I first joined a socialist organisation back in 1972, the objective conditions for its growth seemed pretty good. Britain had become notorious in some quarters, esteemed in others, for its high level of class struggle. There had been a major liberalisation of society, with equality legislation, and expanding horizons for young people. This included a burgeoning of university education, which benefited many, including many like me, whose families had never been to university. There had been major battles and campaigns internationally over the Vietnam war, racism and equal rights, and there were growing movements against oppression. While Britain’s 1968 had been a low key affair compared with France and a number of other countries, it had been successful enough to launch a new left into the headlines and to spark a radicalisation among young people in particular.

The far left (mostly of a Trotskyist variety in Britain) grew substantially from the late 1960s, including in its ranks young people who rejected the old Labour and Communist parties. Then, there were few arguments about the need for a party. There were, of course, plenty about what we all stood for, where we differed, and how to make a revolution, but there was little doubt that we needed organisation. For us then on the left, many accepted the various models stemming from the Bolshevik version, sharpened over two decades of repression, imprisonment and exile, and honed into a fighting force which could take on the power of capital and its state.

Today, that model is adhered to by relatively small numbers of people. The defeats from the late 70s onwards have weakened trade unions and the left throughout the developed world. The triumph of neoliberalism supposedly demonstrated to everyone that whatever their model of socialism, it could no longer succeed and was no longer needed. The supposed socialist states (a concept which I did not accept) were deemed failures and swept away in the old eastern bloc.

The revival of struggle and the critique of neoliberalism which we can date from the anti-globalisation protests in Seattle in 1999, didn’t necessarily increase the fortunes of the party. Theorists of these movements argued that party organisation was top down, unnecessary, dictatorial, or a combination of the three, stressing the idea of networks, of spontaneous actions, and of horizontal spaces rather than any concept of leadership.

But looking back over the past nearly two decades, it is also clear that the spontaneous actions and informal networks have not succeeded where the party system failed. Movements such as Occupy or UK Uncut have managed to put important questions onto the political agenda, but they haven’t succeeded in maintaining campaigning organisation in any systematic way. The period since the banking crash of 2008 has seen these phenomena, but has also seen some return to ideas of building parties of the left. This has been at least in part a response to the failures of social democracy, leading to new parties of various levels of success in Germany, France, Greece, Spain, among others. They are sometimes inspired by, and often take some of their politics and practice from, the ‘new movements’.

Jodi Dean’s new book, Crowds and Party, is a bold attempt to address some of these ideas and to make a strong case for socialist organisation, or party. Her response to mass protests around Occupy has at its heart the idea that it is not enough to simply talk about crowd and multitude, but there is a central need to build organisation.

Dean argues that the individualism and absence of collective power which so dominates society today is at least partly broken down by the experience of the crowd. She looks at various theories of psychology and at historical examples of the political role of the crowd. The fear of the crowd or ‘mob’ is common in literature and historical writing. In fact, crowds without obvious political leadership are often highly political and sometimes disciplined. Historians such as Peter Linebaugh in The London Hanged or George Rude in The Crowd in History have demonstrated this political impulse, and as I wrote in A People’s History of London, crowds as diverse as black rioters in 1981, the students of 2010 and the poll tax campaigners who rioted in 1990 can all be seen in this tradition.

The central role of party, organisation and solidarity are the antidote to individualism, not just on a personal but political level, says Dean, and she argues that this is of necessity a struggle. ‘The communist response to isolation is not to let the reality that produces individualism determine our political horizon. Instead, it is to build solidarity’ (p.70). Her critique of the fragmentation of the left and of ‘left realism’ which says that ‘collectivity is undesirable and that collectivity is impossible’ (p.67) are well made.

The writings of Marx on the Paris Commune and the role of party, class and democracy in this first attempt at genuine workers’ self-government are important in terms of Marx’s understanding of the state, but also in how he saw revolution in this first direct experience of it since the defeated European revolutions of 1848. Dean quotes Marx’s view from his early writing in The German Ideology, which demonstrates how the working class comes together as a leading class: ‘The class making revolution emerges at the outset simply because it is opposed to a class not as a class but as a representative of the whole of society’. That is to say, it does so by defining itself as part of a wider majority against the oppressors. Marx praised the comrades in Paris in 1871 because they were making a ‘real people’s revolution’.

Marx’s starting point was, as he and Engels famously argued in the Communist Manifesto, that the revolutionaries have no interests separate from the working class as a whole. However, he also, wherever possible in his life, formed organisations in order to carry his ideas forward, and described the achievements of the Commune as for ‘our Party’. Lenin returned to the Commune and the role of the crowd within it when theorising the 1905 Russian revolution. Dean describes his experience as meaning that ‘the party is the bearer of the lessons of the uprising’ (p.155).

This could equally well be written that the party is the memory of the working class, that it learns the history of past defeats and victories, and that its theoretical development is the condensed experience of working-class struggles. The function of memory is hugely important in any defence of a socialist party, particularly relevant at a time when so much history of society, let alone of the working class, is ignored, forgotten, misremembered, lost or traduced.

There are other central reasons to develop a socialist party based on the model which was so current when I became a socialist. There are many critiques and criticisms of the Leninist party but there are many positive elements to it as well. One is the development and releasing of human potential: that the party itself can be the means by which working people learn politics, educate themselves, feel a growing confidence and solidarity, and develop their own strengths as speakers or writers or agitators.

Dean spends some time quoting from examples mostly in the US Communist Party where exactly this happens; where working women develop their strengths, where black people feel a sense of solidarity, where manual workers are able to express the reality of their own exploitation. This strength which the party can impart is often ignored or scorned by middle-class commentators, but it is a real phenomenon and one which partly explains adherence to the Communist Parties and the Eastern Bloc long after the reality of these states became widely known.

The idea that the party is outmoded, that it is based on old vertical models of centralisation and power is also dismissed by Dean. She says that this objection to the party is past its time: ‘The crowds, riots, occupations, and revolutions of the early decades of the twenty-first century are demonstrating that the rejection of the party is itself outmoded’ (p.165).

But, if all these points are valid, and I believe that they are, there has to be asked what went wrong? Why has the party in this form lost favour? Here Dean is less strong. She adheres to the politics of the Communist Party, and does not really locate what went wrong with these parties, how they became on the one hand totally identified with a form of state capitalism which was distant from Marx’s view of socialism, and which was bureaucratic, authoritarian and undemocratic. Nor does she seem to locate socialism in the development of working-class struggles around their exploitation and oppression.

There are many debates to be had about where the left made mistakes. Lenin and Luxemburg debated about the role of centralisation and power, and in the twenty-first century these are as relevant as ever. It is clear that much of the post-1968 left has failed not just to make a revolution but to build mass organisations which can challenge power. That doesn’t mean power cannot be challenged. Indeed, it has to be, but that requires not just mass protests on the streets or even in workplaces but the construction of organisation which has organic connections to these struggles, plus the democratic structures which can consolidate and generalise from them. It means learning from new movements, not pretending that history will keep repeating itself in exactly the same way, or that the ‘vanguard’ will automatically find itself at the movement’s head.

This also means a theory of the state which rejects state centred ‘socialism from above’ and does not regard the state as neutral but as an instrument of a ruling class, however liberal it might appear. Indeed, Dean makes the point that ‘the liberal state is in actuality the dictatorship of capital’ because ‘what feels like the right decision is the one that confirms the bourgeois mindset: protect private property, preserve individual liberties, promote trade and commerce’ (p.207).

These points are especially important at a time when there have been advances for left parties and when we in Britain are witnessing a huge struggle within Labour around the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. We need to understand just how serious an enemy we confront in the form of the state and those wishing to protect it. The traditional role of parties such as Labour has been to see the terrain of politics as totally separate from economics. Yet the two are inextricably linked and eventually a challenge from one will also challenge the other. To challenge economic power, a party has to be organised on the basis of our own power as working people.

The growth in inequality, the raising of the level of exploitation, the inability of capital to deliver even the most basic reforms, the denial of genuine democracy in a neoliberal world: all these point to why people are talking about parties again.

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.