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Organizing and Being Organized

The rise of a twenty-first-century socialist movement has raised the old question of what it means to be a “comrade.” By building comradeship, we forge a new kind of collective subject, different from friendship or being an “ally” — one that can change the world.

Anti-Nazi demonstrators march in Battery Park, New York, June 23, 1934. FPG / Archive Photos / Getty

Like a good organizer, Jodi Dean sometimes makes you a little uncomfortable. Reading Comrade: An Essay on Political Belonging is like sitting in the awkward silence of a one-on-one conversation, after the “ask” has been made. If you’re the organizer, you’re resisting the urge to add, “No pressure, obviously,” to the question you’ve just posed. If you’re being organized, you’re evaluating your possible outs against your commitments to building socialism or another campaign, your sense of duty, and your desire to please your organizer.

Part of what’s uncomfortable about this moment is that everyone knows that everyone knows what’s happening: we know an uncomfortable ask is coming. Yet we choose to participate in these dialogues, rather than just passing around a sign-up sheet, because we want to be made to do things that, deep down, we know we want to do, but probably won’t do without being asked.

Dean’s latest book captures this desire and the relationships it sustains. In Crowds and Party, Dean made a compelling case for rehabilitating the party as an organizational form for the Left. Comrade offers an extended meditation on the specific relation that characterizes party life: comradeship.

For many socialists, “comrade” is mainly a semi-ironic term of address. Dean shows it to be a useful and distinctive concept. The comrade is unlike the ally or the friend. Whereas allies support each other at a distance, across the boundaries of their experiences of oppression, comrades are equalized by being on the same side of a struggle.

Whereas friends are attached to each other for their specificity and uniqueness, comrades are bound together by their shared work; as a result, they are largely interchangeable. Friends aren’t supposed to use each other, but comrades joyfully use each other to build and sustain an organization.

These distinctions may sound too stark, and the requirements for comradeship too demanding. For Dean, comradeship is an “ego ideal,” a perspective that socialists can take on themselves while they’re doing political work. Comrades may also be friends or lovers, and those who call each other “comrade” are often not actually equal or the same. But when they take the perspective of comradeship, they abstract away from the particularities of their relationships, and instead posit sameness and equality.

Comradeship is instrumental, but is this instrumentality strategic or an end in itself? For Dean, it seems to be both. In Crowds and Party, Dean offered the party as an answer to a strategic problem: How can the Left build power that endures once the crowds dissipate?

Against the backdrop of Occupy Wall Street and the movements of the squares, Dean argued compellingly for the centralized, disciplined party as an antidote to the Left’s disorganization. Her turn to the party seemed to mirror Jane McAlevey’s reconstruction of the “CIO method” of labor organizing. The conviction behind both: If we want to start winning, we have to build disciplined, enduring organizations.

There are moments in Comrade where Dean speaks as a strategist. She writes, “Comrades are those who tie themselves together instrumentally, for a common purpose: If we want to win – and we have to win – we must act together.” Comradeship is a relation that holds the discipline and unity necessary for successful collective action in pursuit of “communism.” On this reading, communism is something to be won — the “egalitarian future of a society emancipated from the determinations of private property and capitalism and reorganized according to the free association, common benefit, and collective decisions of the producers.”

But for much of the book, comradeship is also prefigurative: it enacts the world it seeks to bring about by reshaping those who see themselves as comrades. Dean draws from Alexandra Kollontai the idea that comradeship is the vehicle for a “radical re-education of our psyche” under communism. In Dean’s words, it “engenders new feelings such that people no longer feel themselves unequal and compelled to submit.” On this reading, communism is not a future society; it is the party itself, enacted in the neoliberal present. Comradeship is the practice of maintaining the party and transforming ourselves.

Some organizers critiqued Occupy for its focus on prefiguration at the expense of “strategic politics.” For Dean, Occupy’s horizontalism, rather than its prefigurative attempts to build a new, better world right now, was the problem. Occupy prefigured a world of self-realized, fragmented individuals: this was the wrong world. Instead, Dean wants us to prefigure communism: a society in which individuals subordinate their personal desires and interests to the good of the collective, so that all can be liberated from capitalism and its inequalities.

It’s a truism that emotion and affect are important sources of motivation for participants in social movements. But, through her description of comradeship, Dean captures a particular desire that scholars of social movements don’t often name or describe: the desire to be organized. As a socialist organizer herself, Dean knows the experience of becoming part of a collective subject — the joy of wanting something with others that you can only achieve together; the validation of seeing your work through “new collective eyes”; the respite from individuality, isolation, and political apathy that collective work can offer.

Dean boldly describes the subjective relief and political utility of “becoming many”:

Sometimes we want and need someone to tell us what to do because we are too tired and overextended to figure it out for ourselves. Sometimes when we are given a task as a comrade, we feel like our small efforts have larger meaning and purpose, maybe even world-historical significance in the age-old fight of the people against oppression. Sometimes just knowing that we have comrades who share our commitments, our joys, and our efforts to learn from defeats makes political work possible where it was not before.

Comrade illuminates a real and powerful relation, but Dean’s commitment to comradeship for its own sake at times frustrates me. One has the sense that, for all her attention to certain aspects of political experience, Dean is willfully disconnected from the objective conditions in which political organizing happens.

Throughout the book, she invokes a nostalgia for the Old Left of the Communist Parties of the United States and the Soviet Union in the first decades of the twentieth century without really reckoning with its failures — ignorance and obfuscation of Stalin’s crimes, incapacity to incorporate internal criticism —  or acknowledging that the present might offer different political possibilities than the first half of the twentieth century did. There’s no sense, for example, of the energy and political traction that democratic socialism, rather than communism, has today.

Moreover, there may be objective — and strategic — limits to our ability to “abstract” from specificity and “posit” sameness and equality. Sometimes we aren’t equals, even when we are on the same side of a struggle. Dean recognizes this. But she thinks that the idea of comradeship provides a basis for identifying and redressing existing inequalities, include those of sex, gender, and race. Comradeship “enables another possibility to intrude.”

But is it always possible to imagine ourselves as comrades? And can’t comradeship just as easily be invoked to obscure inequalities and rebuke those who bring them to light?

Dean’s reading of Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook is particularly revealing on this point. The novel explores the psychological effects of the fracturing of the British Communist Party, through the notebooks of a novelist and former party member named Anna Wulf. In the final chapter of Comrade, Dean describes Anna’s process of de-conversion from the party.

Dean’s attraction to this novel makes perfect sense. Anna relates to comradeship very much as an ego ideal. She imagines herself as a comrade to her anti-intellectual, sexist boss, her various misogynistic lovers, and her friends.

But the subjective work of positing herself as a comrade and thus as an equal, and abstracting from the realities of sexism, racism, deception, and incompetence within the Party, ultimately undoes her. Anna leaves the party not just because of Khrushchev’s 1956 revelations of Stalin’s many crimes, but because the dissonance between her imagined relations of comradely “sameness” and equality, and her lived reality in which those relations don’t exist, becomes unbearable.

Dean reads The Golden Notebook as an account of the devastation and chaos that ensue when comradeship ends, which it certainly is. But her failure to respond to the novel’s pessimism is notable. Anna’s faith in the party, once lost, is unrecoverable, and its loss throws her world into chaos.

Moreover, she comes to see her past self, and the party, as having been fundamentally self-deceiving. Lessing, who, like her character Anna, left the British Communist Party in 1956, completely disavowed her prior commitment to communism thereafter. In a 2001 interview, she reflected on her time as a communist as a delusion: “Yes, I had a heady two years when I believed it all. We genuinely believed that ten years after the war, the world would be transformed by Communism and we’d be living in this perfect place where there’d be no injustice, no race prejudice … Can you believe we were so stupid?”

In the face of the novel’s, and Lessing’s, pessimism, Dean seems to take from The Golden Notebook the lesson that the end of comradeship is apocalyptic, but we can still begin again. For Dean, because comradeship is an ideal, we can (and must) imagine it, regardless of the objective conditions in which we find ourselves. There’s something hopeful about this vision, but it’s also unsatisfying. One can’t help wondering if there isn’t a bit too much voluntarism in Dean’s rehabilitation of both party and comrade, a belief that we can imagine communism and comradeship into existence through our own personal, heroic exertion, regardless of our historical circumstances.

This isn’t to reject comradeship, but to pose some questions about its limits as an ego ideal: Are there times when the comradely perspective can undermine socialist organization? Can comradeship’s ego ideal become so persuasive in practice that it blinds us to dysfunction, discrimination, and abuse among ostensible comrades? Is it more useful than harmful to think of ourselves as equal and the same in contexts where we obviously aren’t?

The book provokes but does not answer these questions. Still, whatever one thinks of comradeship as an ego ideal, Comrade makes an invaluable contribution to socialist theory and practice by emphasizing the instrumentality of a certain kind of political relationship. To quote Dean again: “Comrades are those who tie themselves together instrumentally, for a common purpose.”

We might initially shrink from the idea of using other people and being used, in turn. But it’s this reciprocal use that makes an organization possible. That we relate to each other instrumentally, as comrades, is what makes the uncomfortable one-on-one conversation, in which we are confronted with an “ask,” work. Drawing on the Latin root of “comrade,” camera, or room, Dean describes comrades as those who share a structure which shelters them from the outside world. In fact, comrades are the structure. Their relationships, built through shared work toward the same end, constitute and sustain the organization.

This insight cuts against tendencies toward individualism and disorganization on the Left. Sometimes, for fear of impinging on others’ autonomy or losing their own, leftists talk about organizing as making a space for an organization to spontaneously emerge.

Dean shows us that, if we want to build powerful, lasting organizations, we have to go beyond making spaces. We have to build structures. This means that we have to get good at being on both sides of the comradely relationship. On the one hand, we have to develop campaigns, do turnout, talk to people at their doors, educate, and agitate. But we also have to allow ourselves to be organized — to be turned out, moved from what we want to what’s best for the collective, and disciplined by collective work.

We might prefer to think of ourselves in the former role — as organizers — but being organized is just as crucial to building and sustaining socialist organization, even when it’s less visible and less rewarded. We canvass in order to recruit people to the cause, but the canvass also works on us, forging us into a collective subject through shared, sometimes tedious, work, on the same side of a long struggle. This process may be uncomfortable, but it’s a discomfort we can’t do without.