Comrade: An Essay on Political Belonging
by Jodi Dean
Published October 2019
If this year has taught me something – and I often shy away from this lemons-out-of-lemonade, meaning-out-of-muck invocation: 2020 can have just sucked lessonlessly, and we are allowed to hit delete and choose not to remember any of it once it’s over – it’s this: I need people. I need them, even though they often terrify and disappoint me. I need to see them at least every other day, and hold the elevator doors for them (even when I know social distancing prevents them from riding with me), and I need to make fun of them over beers, and to stand in a crowd with them shouting chants, my screaming no louder than anyone else’s. I need them to pull me up when I’ve fucked up, and to tell me when and where to show up.
My disappointment is, in other words, entangled with my joy – because the possibility of either of these things depends, to a radical degree, on other people. When we struggle together, we are surrounded by and become comrades. There is no struggling alone.
That the unit of the individual is too small to enact political transformation is the simple wager that Jodi Dean uses to open Comrade. It is a work of political theory that is well-timed, as neoliberal states have failed their citizens en masse and ideas such as solidarity and mutual aid have threatened to go mainstream in the West. In Comrade’s opening chapter, Dean writes that we are presently caught in a deadlock of survivors and systems.
On one side, ‘we have survivors, those with nothing left to cling to but their identities, often identities forged through struggles to survive and attached to the pain and trauma of these struggles.’ When we view ourselves as here only to be one of the ones who makes it through, bloodied and battered but so-far-unkilled, we start to believe that there is no changing our surroundings, only surviving them. This manifests in the focus that Dean sees the modern left placing upon self-care, self-education and self-transformation. It’s too hard to act on the world, but you can manage how you react to it. The world will come for you, onslaught after onslaught – natural disaster after natural disaster – but you can be ready: you can hoard toilet paper, buy face masks in bulk, invest in an air purifier or personal protective bubble. Worried about a lack of social mobility? Why not try going gluten-free?
Others also key into the political problem surrounding the term survivor. Survivors, writes Wendy Trevino, find themselves identifying strongly with their particular status as survivors. Yet survivors rarely want the same things. As Dean writes, ‘that someone identifies as a woman, as black, as transgender, or as a survivor tells us nothing about their politics.’ Nick Estes identifies this dynamic as a politics of injury, not wholly focused on the material transformation of the world. Moreover, in a system where most of us have been reduced to survivors – that is, have been victimised in some way – the result is that there are many, many voices, many individuals, but no collective.
On the other hand, confronting the scale of the issues requires system-level thinking. It becomes easy to feel that there is no acting upon these insurmountably huge unfolding processes of ecological collapse. If survivors are too small, and systems are too big, then the space from which to exercise agency evaporates.
Mark Fisher also notes this tendency for agency to become elided somewhere between the individual and the structural. In Capitalist Realism, published a decade ago now, he writes: ‘But this impasse – it is only individuals that can be held ethically responsible for actions, and yet the cause of these abuses and errors is corporate, systemic – is not only a dissimulation: it precisely indicates what is lacking in capitalism.’
The great strength of this book lies in Dean’s ability to not only powerfully critique the individualisation of political subjectivity – characteristic of her other recent works, like Crowds and Party – but also to propose solutions. In Crowds and Party, she proposes the political party as a method for restoring the experience of collectivity. In Comrade, the idea that ‘political change is always and only collective’ persists, and the exit that Dean provides out of the survivor versus system impasse is through the comrade, a political relation capable of filling this space. Comrade is a mode of address, a figure of belonging, and container for shared expectations; it’s what Dean proposes as a replacement for the rhetoric of allyship that presently dominates in some leftist activism, particularly that staged online. Dean characterises allyship as individualising, and focused on changing how one thinks and feels rather than how they act:
allyship is a matter of the self, of what the self acknowledges, of the individual who stands alone, and of this single individual taking on a struggle that properly belongs to another. It’s as if struggles were possessions—artifacts that individuals take on, over, and into themselves—all while being urged to see these acquisitions as something to which they, as the ally, have no right.
Allies tell each other to ‘Google it’, even though the nature of the algorithm on most platforms will now lead most audiences straight to radicalising right-wing content. Allies pay thousands of dollars to attend a diverse dinner party, or peruse reading lists on non-fiction about race, buying every book and reading none. Allies take the advice of an Instagram infographic and ask their long-suffering significant other, ‘would you be comfortable if I talked to my friends about their privilege?’ Allies, in other words, convincingly produce the affective performance of discomfort, without yielding any of their comforts.
As opposed to the ally, a comrade is not a ‘little sovereign state’ that comes together temporarily, as a bounded and separate entity, united over briefly shared common interests in which the ally has a stake. Comrades do not confront their discomfort as a favour to the oppressed. Rather, they confront state and capitalist power in solidarity with the masses of which they are a part. Although comrades may not share an identity, they do share a side: they take ‘on each other’s fights as if they were [their] own, including those for national liberation and the fight against imperialism,’ fights in which their stake is clear and equal.
This year has made hyper-visible that the constellation of racial, state and capitalist power is, to sound momentarily as if I have a joint in my mouth, all connected, man. Police deployed against student protesters bear down on Aboriginal communities in this country with twice the force and frequency. The military, dispatched in Australian cities and at border checkpoints to enforce the public health response to COVID-19, have been deployed, again, against Indigenous communities with ease. In the United States, the military weapons – sound cannons, MRAPs – used to suppress anti-fascist protests were first honed through practice on Iraqi and Afghan civilians. If you hate your job, so does the prisoner making 30 cents an hour to fight raging wildfires. If you lost your job, and had to claim social welfare for the first time in your life, despite swearing you never would take a hand-out, then you know what it’s like for the state to treat you as unproductive and therefore untrustworthy. If you feel surveilled all the time – by your devices’ predictive advertisements, which try to sell you things you’ve only ever thought about – so too do those with food deliveries to make, with drones circling overhead, or who have been arrested and disappeared by the government for their politics. If you feel trapped by the hardest and firmest borders for a hundred years, then you know, more than you did before, that borders take violence to maintain.
Although these are not equivalent struggles, they are common: in Dean’s words, common symbols and names – like comrade – are what help ‘let people understand their local issues as instances of something larger, something global.’ Thousands of kilometres away, and decades before, Gangulu academic and activist Lilla Watson wrote: ‘If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.’
My first encounter with Dean in the flesh was at a conference last year in Colchester. Colchester is about an hour away from London and being rapidly gentrified. Lately, it is home to an overflow of professional commuters, as well as the individuals forcefully displaced from their London public housing and moved into the town to make room for upscale new accommodations in the city.
I was, at the time, still trying to figure out what kind of academic I wanted to be, or if I wanted to be one at all. My relentless flirtation with post-structuralism had hit a snag. Until then, I had viewed it as the newest, the freshest off the block intellectual turn and so, I assumed, the most progressive. A teleological error on my part. It was also the one I was introduced to most often in classes, and I found myself, by the end of my degree, easily conversant in queer theory and psychoanalysis, and wary about assuming a priori that class was the most important power relation. Although I enjoyed the intellectual stimulation – and I still love many of these texts – I had by the beginning of my postgraduate studies begun to wonder if part of the thrill, for me, of reading theory, was the escapism. I would come to after a bout of reading and thinking deeply, bleary, and with the hollow, dawning suspicion that I might be detaching myself from reality, numbing myself to it to make it go by.
(I don’t mean to mount an anti-intellectual argument here, nor reproduce the right-wing position that universities are bastions of latte-sipping lefties who are out of touch with ordinary folks. It’s the opposite: universities felt conservative, good at stifling radical grassroots currents, or refracting them back into the institution in diluted, liberal form. For example, the term decolonisation – which means land back – spat through the decoder ring of the university, comes to mean everything but: improved representation of non-white scholars in curricula and staff, reading groups, yoga, diverse catering. These are metaphors that would be evocative if they gestured towards an original referent, but instead are empty because they do not signal – and instead obfuscate – their foundation.)
Feeling unsatisfied, I tunnelled inwards: Was I paranoid, seeing race and gender and class everywhere, always looking for a fight? What did it say about me that I chose to spend so much of my time in these spaces? Had I been co-opted? Was there a way to be truly left inside the ivory? Should I simply give in and give up, and accept my newfound position in the middle class?
I’d had a passing interest in Dean’s work for some time – a friend bought me a copy of Blog Theory for my birthday – but watching her at work at this conference was gripping. Dean didn’t fit in with the tone being struck by the other presenters. She made it clear that her position on the topics we were discussing – the modern rise of fascism, the moribund project of socialism and the seeming indefatigability of capital – differed from the others there. That Dean was so unabashed, and so no-bullshit, about her materialist politics, had me excited for the first time in a while. (For our recent anniversary, my partner gifted me an embroidery of Dean’s Twitter profile picture).
At the end of Dean’s keynote, a member of the audience raised the question of violence. Isn’t this agonistic?, they asked. Critical theory spaces develop their own set of buzzwords: this one saw participants favouring the terms populism, libidinal and agonistic (in favour of the old stalwart dialectic). Dean’s response was caught half-way between sheepish and ironic. The idea, she said, that the relationship between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie inherently requires violence is really up to them.
‘Conflict is not inevitable,’ she said. ‘They could always just choose to give up their power and join our side. You know,’ she paused. ‘If they don’t want us to cut off their heads.’
It is this indecorous savagery that helped me decide what kind of academic to be: one who refused to accept that it was me who was the problem. One who did not balk at identifying that if I was being antagonistic, it’s because I was being antagonised. One who remained committed to achieving education’s revolutionary potential, as the history of popular education initiatives demonstrates.
The notion that you could always choose to position yourself differently in the class structure runs throughout Comrade. One of Dean’s four theses on the comrade, explored in the book’s third chapter, is that anyone – but not everyone – can be one. Whereas other political theories – the pejoratively dubbed ‘liberal privilege theory’, for example – tell us that identities are static, skins that we wear and can never discard, and which generate for us lanes that we should stay in, Dean reminds us that to be a comrade is both a choice, proven by our acts, and a relation – a decision about where we position ourselves, whose side we take, and what we fight against. I find this argument convincing: the view that identity is intractable and makes permanent determinations about one’s character makes for a small left, but also one that takes morality as an essence, limiting room for change, transformation and abolition.
Dean’s belief in one’s ability to alter, or shed, one’s positionality resonates with Bissau-Guinean and Cape Verdean revolutionary Amilcar Cabral’s theory of ‘class suicide’, posited over four decades ago. Cabral writes that, for revolution to occur, the petit bourgeoisie – the revolutionary leadership – must ‘sacrifice its class position, privileges and power through identification with the working masses’ and become ‘completely identified with the deepest aspirations of the people to which he belongs.’ In Cabral’s view, as in Dean’s, it is not inevitable for individuals to be determined entirely by their place in the class structure. Rather, they could opt at any time to release their power and adopt the same goal as oppressed peoples.
Indeed, we have witnessed important acts of class treason this year: white American protesters forming human barriers to shield black protesters from police in Louisville, and giving up their lives in Portland. Significant instances of veteran dissent and whistleblowing against the military industrial complex. Adrienne Maree Brown wrote this of the Occupy Protests of the early 2010s: ‘to speak to the whiteness of the crowd, I actually felt moved to see so many white people, … standing around looking liberated themselves.’
Dean’s insight bears out in a second way, when considering another aspect of the modern left, namely the numerous ‘racial fraud’ controversies that have led to the resignation of several white academics this year. On this, I find myself agreeing with others who have noted that the interpretation of identity as a permanent foreclosure may make solidarity seem impossible. As a result, the only means available for being ‘on the right side’ becomes to exit one’s identity entirely. The recent scandal surrounding former Washington University academic Jess Krug, who falsely claimed to be black for several years, for example, could be interpreted through this lens. This reading, in my view, skews a little generous, and overlooks the self-enrichment in which Krug engaged. However, it is nevertheless food for thought, and may also go towards explaining the tendency for aspiring good lefties to sometimes under-state their wealth, to lie about or obfuscate who pays their rent or whether their mum got them their job (instead of doing something useful). I am, I can safely say, in between my and my partner’s income, more middle- than working-class these days. However, I am buoyed by the knowledge that the chasm that this opened up between myself and my parents who grew up in conditions of poverty leading to homelessness, hunger, physical abuse may not be as estranging as I feared. ‘To be a comrade,’ writes Dean, ‘is to share a sameness with another with respect to where you are both going.’
Dean does not deny that the comrade is a utopian category. The work engenders this optimism: it creates its own conditions for possibility. But if it sounds like we aren’t there yet – like left movements aren’t often felled by the persistence of asymmetric power relations that sideline non-white or queer or female members of a movement – then that is because comrade is an aspirational category of political belonging: a horizon that snaps in and out of view when one squints. Still, ‘[t]o be a left at all,’ Dean writes, ‘we have to be comrades.’
Stepping into the space of the comrade ‘does not abolish the antagonism of sex. It enables another possibility to intrude.’ Comradeship is a container indifferent to present-day determinations of identity and power, which matter elsewhere but do not matter here. Dean writes, of Frank Wilderson, that ‘he can hate the whiteness of his friends, and his friends for their whiteness, in a way that is deeply personal, wrapped up in life and being. Comradeship is different—it’s about the politics, the struggle, the discipline of common work, and the deep sense of connection and accountability that results.’
Still, writes Dean, we can’t help but fill comrade with all our own anxieties about identity. We’re afraid: afraid of utopia, or afraid that comrade is another way of saying white man. In chapter two, Comrade carefully walks the reader through this fear, restoring to the historical record the long history of black and women’s and black women’s struggle in the history of the US Communist Party, Dean’s case study of choice. She shows the reader that before the CPUSA capitulated to racism, it first represented Black liberation and class struggle as inextricably entwined, and demanded of white party members that they be willing to lay down their lives for Black liberation. Indeed, the Communist Party’s commitment to black self-determination in the Black Belt was such that part of their platform was that ‘a large area of the southern United States’ be apportioned to African Americans, ‘because they had built it, their work made it.’
To let my fear speak for a moment – as Dean writes, cynicism often parades as maturity – I struggle to celebrate this as a fulsome negation of the capitalist present, which is built not only on slavery but also settler-colonialism. The question of Indigenous self-determination – which includes that of land distribution – is not a side-show to the question of the possibility of comradeship: it is, sometimes, the answer. One of the foremost contemporary examples of fully expressed comradeship that we have, in my view, is the recent success of Bolivia’s Movement for Socialism. Their win in the polls rendered last year’s coup a failure, and was won by the struggle of Indigenous workers, Indigenous comrades. I think of the joy we felt, across the world, receiving that news. The global left, buoyed and inspired by the people’s resistance.
My joy is, as ever, entangled with my fear and my disappointment. As this crisis prolongs, I fear that notions such as solidarity and mutual aid were a flirtation – an expressed collective desire for collectivity, yes, but merely a brief one, as we ease into this new, worse status quo. I fear that we will turn further inwards – that I will turn further inwards, that, as the conditions of existence become increasingly difficult, my social world will narrow in tight spirals, such that I find myself first wanting good things less for the globe and more for my nation; then less for my nation and more for my neighbourhood; then less for my neighbourhood and more for my family; then less for my family and more for only me. I fear being reduced to one. I need other people. I need to show up for them, and need them to show up for me. Dean is right: I need you, comrade.
brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. California: AK Press, 2017.
Cabral, Amilcar. Unity and Struggle: Speeches and Writings, trans. Michael Wolfers (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979).
Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Hampshire: Zero Books, 2009.