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In Comrade, Jodi Dean champions comradeship as a political relationship, against the passivity encouraged by much of identity politics, argues Martin Hall

Jodi Dean, Comrade: An Essay on Political Belonging (Verso 2019), 176pp.

As the race for the Democratic nomination gathers speed, candidates are being discussed both horizontally, along a line of left to right, and also based upon an ill-defined axis of oppression, predicated upon a constellation of identities. In the latter model, people who consider themselves leftists can make a case for supporting Pete Buttigieg, on the grounds of his sexuality, or Elizabeth Warren, based on her sex,1 over Bernie Sanders, the socialist candidate, and the only one who will pose a challenge to the system that creates the oppression faced by women or LGBT people.

We are also seeing historical comments from Sanders that used slavery as a comparative when discussing the treatment of mining workers being weaponised to place him ‘on the receiving end of criticism by those who see his description of economic inequality and institutional racism as “parallel problems” as a way to subsume the cultural underpinnings of racism into a class-based paradigm.’ Rather, this actually subsumes a Marxist understanding of the relationship between exploitation and oppression under a blanket of identity politics. It ignores the fact that Frederick Douglass, perhaps the most important African-American slave abolitionist in US history, referred to a ‘slavery of wages only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery.’2 Finally, and perhaps most pertinently for our purposes here, it disavows the concept of universalism that is central to the emancipatory project of socialism.

Into this situation comes Comrade, the latest book from Jodi Dean, which confirms her place as one of the most individual voices on the radical left. It follows 2016’s Crowds and Party, which made a case for the importance of the party form in the context of the limits of US social movements, and 2012’s The Communist Horizon, which attempted to decouple the idea of communism from its association with the Soviet Union and resituate it as a revolutionary politics of desire requiring a party form contra voluntarism. This long essay takes as its base the inadequacy of ‘allyship’, situates it in the move from a mass politics of belonging predicated upon class, to one based upon identity formations, and in so doing argues for the affective and political importance of the relational term, ‘comrade’.

The return of the communist idea

Dean is not working in isolation. There has in the last decade been a renewed interest in the academy in communism as an idea; indeed, as the “pure Idea of equality”.3 This debate has taken place in a variety of fora, but has principally coalesced in three large international conferences under the banner ‘the Idea of Communism’, which took place in London, New York and Seoul every two years from 2009–2013. The papers from them have been collated in three compendia by Verso, who have also published Dean’s three most recent books. Both Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek have been central to this, but it is the former who has the greater role as the intellectual origin of much of it, and whose maxim ‘from Plato onwards, Communism is the only political Idea worthy of a philosopher’ has been central.4

However, much of the thinking collected within these volumes is voluntarist in nature, often anti-party, and owes something to the Maoism that ran through much of the French left in the late 1960s and 1970s. What it has in common is a rejection of the politics of compromise so key to the neoliberal project and a desire to re-centre communism in any debate upon radical democracy. In this regard, at least some of it may be seen as an antidote to the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantel Mouffe that has so hegemonised much of academic thought in humanities departments in the last few decades.

Dean has been part of this discussion,5 though her work is markedly different in a number of ways. As stated above, she prioritises the party form, is in no sense a Maoist, and places praxis as central to her discussion of communism, in this way attempting to make material the title of the conferences alluded to in the previous paragraph. This is key, as one of the limitations of much of academic Marxism has been its valorisation of the abstract and the theoretical over the concrete. Her historical examples and sense of the party form tend to be drawn from the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), though she is not entirely from that tradition, being open to the thought and practice of Trotsky and Althusser, among others.

Along with some historical examples from communism in the US, Dean also explains a conceptual difference from her use of ‘comrade’ in this text compared to in Crowds and Party, and it is worth spending a little time outlining this for the reader. In the earlier work, she envisaged ‘comrade’ as an ideal ego; in this book, it is an ego ideal. Both terms come from Jacques Lacan, and refer to his essay ‘The Mirror Stage as formative of the function of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience,’6 his seminal essay on the foundation of the ego; in short, the ideal ego is how the subject imagines themselves, the ego ideal the place from which they would like to be seen, or more technically, identification with the place (and/or person) from where they are being observed. As can be seen, the latter category lends itself to relationships between a collective based on shared goals.  

Dean also sets out her stall in more general terms in the first chapter:

To see our political horizon as communist is to highlight the emancipatory egalitarian struggle of the proletarianized against capitalist exploitation – that is, against the determination of life by market forces; by value; by the division of labor (on the basis of sex and race); by imperialism (theorized by Lenin in terms of the dominance of monopoly and finance capital); and by neocolonialism (theorized by Nkrumah as the last stage of imperialism).7

Following this, the discussion turns to the best way in which to achieve it, and it is here that she breaks from the anti-party positions of many of the other philosophers captured in the books referred to above. Her thinking on the party owes much to the movements of the squares in Greece and Spain, and to the limitations of the Occupy movement, which she discusses so adroitly in Crowds and Party

Comrade versus ally

Perhaps the most important idea in the first chapter – and a major task of the book tout court – is Dean’s attempt to contrast the figures of the comrade and the ally.  She sees the latter, which is almost ubiquitous in much of the US left nowadays, as being predicated upon identity and two opposing approaches emphasising survivors and systems. Regarding systems, Dean does not mean the structuralist Marxist approach to power, but rather the idea that late capitalism is a series of processes and systems too big and powerful for activists to affect, never mind overthrow. Moreover, identity becomes reified, as survivors identify based upon attachment to trauma, and how their particular identity has been maintained or forged in the face of that.

She rightly sees that as indicative of the way in which neoliberalism has removed social institutions, and the way in which the intensification of late capitalism via social media and networks – what she calls communicative capitalism8 – has produced an atomised, individualised response to the very problems created by an individualised, atomising society. What both approaches do is disavow class struggle, as Dean suggests: ‘[p]olitics is effaced in the impasse of individualized survivability under conditions of generalized non-survival, of extinction.9

What of the comrade, then? Here is an indicative section:

The comrade relation remakes the place from which one sees, what it is possible to see, and what possibilities can appear. It enables the revaluation of work and time, what one does, and for whom one does it. Is one’s work done for the people or for the bosses? Is it voluntary or done because one has to work? Does one work for personal provisions or for a collective good? We should recall Marx’s lyrical description of a communism in which work becomes ‘life’s prime want.’ We get a glimpse of that in comradeship. One wants to do political work. You don’t want to let down your comrades; you see the value of your work through their eyes, your new collective eyes.10

Of course, Dean is aware that the vast majority of comrades will do both, but the value attached to them is different. The last sentence here indicates the ego ideal position discussed earlier, and where the revolutionary melding of the psychoanalytic and political subject comes is in the ability of the comrade relation to set up a new place from which one is seen and can be evaluated, rather than the one from which we are usually seen that informs our social relations under capitalism.

Restoring comradeship

Dean stress the centrality of moving (back) to the comrade relation in a section of chapter one entitled, ‘From Allies to Comrades’. In it, she talks about the hesitation in using the term in the US, though does not go into the specific identity-based reasons for that at this stage, preferring instead to use the section to generalise usefully in the following areas: the historical relationship of the US to socialism and communism; capitalism’s cult of individual identity; the limits of allyship and the discussion pertaining to that on US compasses.

Regarding the latter, Dean gives examples of who can be an ally and who cannot: ‘straight people who stand up for LGBTQ people, white people who support black and brown people, men who defend women, and so on. I have yet to see the term used for rich people involved in working-class struggle.’11 The point she is making here is that class is effaced in the range of identities with which it is said that people can ally. She also discusses the nature of becoming an ally, and the plethora of how-to guides available that people can get in order to purge themselves of their bad habits, which she rightly describes as ‘mini lifestyle manuals, techniques for navigating the neoliberal environment of privilege and oppression.’12

All of this is based on the idea that the ally acts on their own, as an individual on social media, via hiring from marginalised groups, the setting up of charitable campaigns, learning how not to dominate at demos, or at any sort of collective gathering. It is all predicated upon the notion of raising awareness, not concrete action, in which ‘allyship is a disposition, a confrontation not with state or capitalist power but with one’s own discomfort.’13 Dean describes all this as the form of our political incapacity, from which we must make a break if we are to take up the mantle of egalitarian comrades.

The next chapter takes up objections to the idea of the ‘generic comrade’,14 and counters them, often via examples from the CPUSA. These objections hinge on the idea that comrade excludes people on the basis of sex and/or race, and is therefore a term that really designates white men. Such debates will be familiar to readers who have encountered the pejorative use of the term ‘Bernie Bros’ in the US. In terms of women, Dean begins by providing a list of female comrades, including Alexandra Kollontai, Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg and Angela Davis. Even more pertinently, she discusses the masses of women worldwide who have been part of armed revolutionary struggle, and the First International Conference of Socialist Women that took place in 1907, at which universal suffrage without distinction of sex was demanded.

Moreover, she discusses Lenin’s universalism and insistence that women are comrades. As is the case with much of the book, examples are provided from the CPUSA, such as the ways in which in the 1930s women comrades used the party to hold their husbands to account for chauvinism. The role of women in the CPUSA and the movement more generally in that decade is highlighted, with parity in membership being achieved by 1944.15 The CPUSA, as many organisations have done since, based their view on how and why women had been subordinated to men on Engels’ The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, in which he said that this was an effect of exploitation.

Dean does discuss the ways in which terms can be masculinised over time, and gives ‘proletarian’ as an example. The point then is to use terms universally, and with respect to their histories, and how they may have changed. She sums up this section with the following comment: “The determinations of a sexist, racist, capitalist society unavoidably intrude, but comrade names a relation no longer determined by these factors, providing a site from which they can be judged and addressed.”16

Race and class

The issue of race is perhaps more complex. While the argument is the same in terms of structure – the effacing of the history of people of colour from communist struggle – there are specificities to do with the US situation, particularly in the twentieth century. This concerns both the realities of life below the Jim Crow line and the black-radical tradition that is separate from Marxism. The book provides a useful history of African-American communist figures and struggles, the claiming of the Soviet Union as allies in black liberation and the identification of anti-Bolshevism in the US as a vehicle for racism and attacks on black-liberation movements. Debates in the 1930s around the need for white comrades to be prepared to die for their black comrades are outlined, as are the particular ways in which the black bourgeoisie advanced their own class interests by performing the role of ‘delivering a pacified, cooperative black lower class over to white law’.17

Of interest in the chapter is a fairly long section on the well-known, perhaps infamous, ‘Black Belt Thesis’, which came after the Comintern took the position that black people in the South should be considered an oppressed nation with the right to self-determination. Both sides of this debate – in short, whether or not black Americans were an oppressed national minority or an oppressed racial minority – are discussed in detail, as are the principal figures involved. Dean uses the thesis to argue against the assumption that the CPUSA (and more broadly, the Marxist-Leninist left) took workerist positions regarding the relationship of the class struggle to specific forms of oppression, and more specifically, to advance her notion that ‘comrade’ sees no colour.

Four theses

Dean explains four theses which can be said to be the kernel of the book. They are as follows:

1Comrade names a relation characterised by sameness, equality, and solidarity. For communists, this sameness, equality, and solidarity is utopian, cutting through the determinations of capitalist society.

2Anyone but not everyone can be a comrade.

3The Individual (as a locus of identity) is the ‘Other’ of the comrade.

4The relation between comrades is mediated by fidelity to a truth. Practices of comradeship materialise this fidelity, building its truth into the world.

Thesis one, which owes something to Alexandra Kollontai’s work, concerns the extent to which the comrade principle is the cornerstone of proletarian belonging; specifically, the way in which the relation when used names an equal subject in the struggle against capitalism.

Thesis two pertains to how ‘comrade names a relation that is at the same time a division.’18 Why? Because it assumes a political division, while at the same time being predicated upon inclusion. She discusses how comrade is not the same as a kinship relation, nor a neighbourly one; it is outward-facing, based on shared goals. In this sense, it is generic, not unique, based on sameness. It is not the same as citizenship: while ‘citizenship is mediated by the state, comradeship exceeds the state.’19

The difference between these two categories is also seen in the way in which capitalist states can see the comrade relationship as being potentially traitorous. Dean uses Carl Schmitt’s categories of ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’ to talk about how comradeship has been seen as dangerous to the state, as it undermines that statist binary, and indeed, is not the same as friendship (though comrades may of course be friends). Dean sums up the political and egalitarian base of the comrade relationship thus: ‘the emancipatory egalitarian energy of comrade, its life-giving capacity and ability to map social relations in a new way, is a product of its genericity: anyone but not everyone can be a comrade.’20

The third thesis takes up the collectivity of the relation and counterposes it with individual identity, which, of course, is very much the basis for allyship, as discussed above. She discusses the etymological debates that took place as the Soviet Union was collapsing, which saw attempts to discredit the word, making the point that for ‘anti-communists, the instrumentalism of the word is horrifying.’21 Much of this comes from the desire to disavow the idea of being on the same side of a struggle; in this sense, it’s a way in which capitalism effaces itself as an ideology by not allowing for the fact that its proponents are also ideological and on the same side, though not in a comrade relationship.

Thesis four owes much to Alain Badiou’s idea of truth as a process, and how people can be made subjects of it via fidelity. The comrade relationship posits a militant, collectivised fidelity from the subject, in which, as Peter Hallward suggests in a discussion of Badiou, ‘subjectivization essentially describes the experience of identification with a cause, or better, the active experience of conversion or commitment to a cause”.22 This fidelity is not blind faith, though: it involves the rigorous working-through of what it is to which the subject is being faithful. ‘Comrade’ is therefore disciplinary in its affirmation of the revolutionary evental rupture of the radical, collective movement.

Characteristics of the comrade

In the manner of Badiou’s four conditions and generics, Dean not only gives us four theses, but also what she calls ‘four primary characteristics of the comrade: discipline; joy; enthusiasm and courage.’23 Discipline is a necessity, as anyone involved in political activity will know, and the prime example is, of course, Lenin’s work on the discipline of the revolutionary party. Joy in this discipline is no less essential, and is what allows comrades to experience the freedom brought by discipline; again, something that is anathema to the capitalist. Lenin is brought to the discussion again in Dean’s thoughts on enthusiasm, and the required energy needed, which functions as a ‘surplus benefit of collectivity.’24 Last, we have courage, the need for which is in many ways self-evident; however, Dean doesn’t mean individual courage, for which we might substitute heroism. What she is talking about is an effect of discipline and strength. Following this, there is a discussion of the difference between Badiou’s and Žižek’s concepts of the political subject, which she uses to argue against the lack of a political body – the party form – at the heart of the latter’s work in this area.

Finally, in the concluding chapter, we come to what happens when someone is not your comrade. She begins by once more stressing its relational nature: ‘[c]onsider how odd it sounds to use “comrade” as a self-description: “I am a comrade.” In stark contrast to “I am an ally,” one would never say “I am a comrade”.’25 This nicely sums up much of what Dean is attempting to do in this short book, which is to strengthen and revivify where necessary the relational, collective subject of revolutionary politics and to contrast it with the atomising, individual project of allyship. There is then a section on how some on the left entertain illusions in spontaneity, with an attendant distrust of belonging, and a limit on the horizon of collective capacity to achieve change.

Comrades and splits

After that, there is a section on the tendencies toward expulsion present in communist parties, beginning with a brief exposition of the liberal view of them, and how they see it as proof of inflexible dogmatism. A case study is given, that of August Yokinen, who was expelled from the CPUSA in 1931 for racial prejudice, but allowed a path back providing he committed himself to fighting for black liberation. He remained a comrade, and was indeed defended by party lawyers when the US attempted to deport him back to his native Finland. Dean reports the Daily Worker’s contemporary coverage of this, in which it was asserted that the bourgeoisie had assumed he would become a rat, but he would not, hence the deportation. Other examples of expulsion are given, which by the 1940s Dean sees as an effect of McCarthyism, effectively: a (sometimes unnecessary) need to self-purge at a time when the party was under severe attack.

Following this, another way out of the party is discussed, with again an emphasis on what this tells us about comradeship. The example here is the renowned C. L. R. James and his resignation from Correspondence in 1962, a workers’ paper he had founded ten years earlier. It was a political argument, and James still referred to anyone at the paper who adhered to Marxism as a comrade, even though he could no longer work with them. His sense of Marxism – and the correct one – was predicated on the self-emancipation of the working class, and he identified as non-comrades, or even enemies, self-professed Marxists who did not believe this. Drift is also discussed as a way for comradeship to end, as is the way that the end of one set of comradely relations can be replaced by another, with the example being Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht leaving the SPD to start the KPD.

The final section of the book, entitled ‘The end of the world’, concerns itself with what happens when people feel all hope is lost. To do this, she discusses Doris Lessing’s 1962 novel The Golden Notebook, which was a response to the exodus from the CPGB that occurred after Khrushchev’s revelations regarding what had been going on under Stalin. This allows Dean to think about what happens when the discipline of the cadre wanes; when principles slip; when disgust kicks in. What is of interest in this discussion is that it allows comparisons to be made with other historical moments when it has seemed to some that the end of the world has come for the left: after 1956; after 1968 in a certain sense; after 1989, when the end of history was announced. As Dean describes, ‘[t]he end of the comradeship is the end of the world: nonmeaning, incoherence, madness, and the pointless, disorienting insistence on the I.’26 

The book ends with some thoughts regarding how the comrade relation will work under communism, and Dean’s annoyance at being asked the question, in the context of communism being so far away currently. She reaffirms communism as the only answer to the problems caused by capitalism, while being aware that comradeship is:

‘not a magical solution to all problems facing the left. But it is the only form through which these problems might be solved. Anything less will doom us to the competition, individualism, cynicism, and melancholia into which we’ve descended. To be a left at all, we have to be comrades.’27

There is much more to be said, and this review has only scratched the surface of what Dean manages to do in what is a short book. All that remains to be said is this: you should read this book, comrade.


1Activists making a case for Warren on these grounds would almost certainly say ‘gender’ rather than ‘sex’. This review isn’t the place for a discussion of these terms and the epistemological shift that has occurred in much of the discourse on this subject in recent years, but it is our view that as Warren is a woman, and woman is a term to refer to an adult female, ‘sex’ is the right categorical term in this context.

2See August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, Along the Color Line: Explorations in the Black Experience (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002), p.18.

3Alain Badiou, ‘Must the Communist Hypothesis Be Abandoned?’, The Yearbook of Comparative Literature (2009), Vol 55, 79-88 (81).

4See Costas Douzinas and Slavoj Žižek, ‘Introduction: The Idea of Communism’, in C. Douzinas and S. Žižek (eds.), The Idea of Communism (London: Verso, 2010), pp. vii-x (x).

5See Jodi Dean, ‘Communist Desire’, in S. Žižek (ed.), The Idea of Communism 2 (London: Verso, 2013), pp.77-102.

6See Jacques Lacan, Écrits. Trans. B, Fink (London: W. W Norton and Company, 2006).

7Dean, Comrade, p.5.

8Dean has written about this topic in a number of places, but the best place to start is her essay ‘Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics’, Cultural Politics (2005), Vol 1, No. 1, pp.51-74.

9Dean, Comrade, p.13.

10Dean, Comrade, p.7.

11Dean, Comrade, p.16.

12Dean, Comrade, p.17.

13Dean, Comrade, p.18.

14Dean’s use of the term ‘generic’ here owes much to Badiou, who refers to the four generic truths - creation; revolution; invention and passion – which come from his four conditions of philosophy – art; politics; science and love. Badiou writes about this in a number of places, but his Conditions. Trans. S, Corcoran (London: Continuum, 2008) is a good place to start.

15Dean, Comrade, p.29.

16Dean, Comrade, p.36-7.

17Dean, Comrade, p.46.

18Dean, Comrade, p.68.

19Dean, Comrade, p. 72

20Dean, Comrade, p.76.

21Dean, Comrade, p.79.

22Peter Hallward, Badiou: A Subject to Truth (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2003), p.xxvi.

23Dean, Comrade, p.85.

24Dean, Comrade, p.89.

25Dean, Comrade, p.99.

26Dean, Comrade, p.135.

27Dean, Comrade, p.135.

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