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Rethinking Marxism

A Journal of Economics, Culture & Society

ISSN: 0893-5696 (Print) 1475-8059 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rrmx20

Red, Black, and Green


Jodi Dean
To cite this article: Jodi Dean (2015) Red, Black, and Green, Rethinking Marxism, 27:3, 396-404,
DOI: 10.1080/08935696.2015.1042694
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08935696.2015.1042694

Published online: 16 Jul 2015.

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Rethinking Marxism, 2015


Vol. 27, No. 3, 396404, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08935696.2015.1042694

Red, Black, and Green

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Jodi Dean
This essay responds to the commentaries on the talks Stephen Healy and I delivered
during the 2013 Rethinking Marxism International Conference, as well as to Healys
own talk. Rather than persisting in an understanding of left politics that is little more
than a liberal emphasis on individual choice, participation, and pluralization,
communists need to think and act in terms of building and exercising political power.
Fortunately, we are seeing left political advances as ever more segments come
together in a struggle for political power. Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and
other efforts indicate that the party remains a viable form for thinking and acting
politically. Its time to take up the challenge of actively constructing a political
collectivity with the will and mass to fight for an egalitarian world. The party doesnt
prefigure this world but shows the gap between the world we have and the world we
can desire.
Key Words: Communism, Communist Party, Division, Politics, Struggle

In The Party and Communist Solidarity, I urge communists to take up again the
political form of the party. Rather than persisting in an understanding of left politics
that is little more than a liberal emphasis on individual choice, participation, and
pluralization (and arguably less than this, insofar as liberals at least recognize the
role of law and the state), communists need to think and act in terms of building and
exercising political power. For too long, left politics in the United States, UK, and EU
has mirrored neoliberal economics, urging decentralization, flexibility, and innovation. Even the neoliberal push to privatize is reflected in left politics: not only do we
hear ad infinitum that the personal is political, but the micropolitics of selftransformation and DIY takes the place of building and occupying institutions with
duration. In this vein, some on the left have abandoned social change entirely. Wary
of totalizing visions (Helepololei), they cede society and the state to a capitalist
class that acts as a global political class intent on extending its reach into and
strengthening its hold over our lives and futures.
Fortunately, here and now, we are seeing left political advances as ever more
segments on the left come together in a struggle for political power. The success of
Syriza in Greece, the rise of Podemos in Spain, and the efforts of Die Linke in
Germany and Left Unity in the UK indicate that the party remains a viable form for
thinking and acting politically. Indeed, these achievements attest to the vitality of
the party form as a site of political experimentation. Stathis Kouvelakis describes
Syriza as a hybrid party, a synthesis party, with one foot in the tradition of the Greek
Communist movement and its other foot in the novel forms of radicalism that have
2015 Association for Economic and Social Analysis

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397

emerged in this new period (Budgen and Kouvelakis 2015). Far removed from the
rigid, unitary fantasy to which some in this symposium remain fearfully attached (see
Miller 2015), the party is a flexible organization of political struggle.
Mimmo Porcaro (2012), Jan Rehmann (2013), and Peter Thomas (2013) offer varying
but related theses regarding this creative dimension of the party.1 An insight they
share concerns the partys reemergence in the context of the limits of movements
and how movements themselves reformat the party. The party returns as a question
when the Left realizes that neither resistance nor prefiguration nor multiplication is
sufficient for breaking the hold of capitalist state power and producing a new
emancipatory egalitarian social arrangement. No class simply relinquishes power. And
no assortment of disconnected enterprisesno matter how communalconverges
automatically into communism. Whatever poses a threat to capital and the state can
expect to encounter absorption or repression or, most likely, both. How, then, should
the Left respond? Through scattershot initiatives that leave the basic structures
intact while hoping for some kind of magical convergence? Or through organized
action that connects multiple efforts into common struggle? I emphasize the party
because the party pushes communists to strategize: what does winning look like, and
what does it take to win?
A defining characteristic of capitalism is the differentiation between state and
economy.2 More than an economic system for the production and circulation of value,
capitalism refers to a form of society (Marx 2008, 14). In contrast with, say,
feudalism, capitalist society relies on the differentiation of the economic system
from the political system. That state and economy are differentiated does not mean
that they are separate from one another. States are deeply involved in economic life:
they issue and maintain currencies, create and preserve property and markets, devise
and extend the policy infrastructure of global trade, and so on. The differentiation
between state and economy also does not imply complete independence, as if states
themselves were not economic actors with, for example, massive purchasing,
employing, and investing power. Rather, under capitalism the differentiation between
state and economy points to different relations to capital accumulation, with the
state focused generally on the terms and conditions of accumulation and the
economy focused on the circulatory processes of accumulation itself.
Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin (2012, 4) speak of the relative autonomy of capitalist
states. Political logics, rationalities, or governmentalities (to use Foucaults term) are
irreducible to economic considerations. Capitalist states have capacities to act on
behalf of the system as a wholecapacities anchored in an array of institutions, laws,
and policies. At the same time, they are constrained by their dependence on capital
accumulation. States secure and reproduce capitalism, whether by protecting
capitalists from themselves through taxes and regulatory oversight, protecting
capitalists from the people through aggressive policing and surveillance, or protecting
people from capitalists in those increasingly frequent emergency responses that have
taken the place of planning and social welfare.
1. See also the debate between Gavin Walker and Jason E. Smith in Theory & Event 16 (4).
2. Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin (2012, 3) provide a clear explication of this obvious although
frequently overlooked point.

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The stateparticularly in its contemporary extended, decentralized, and networked formgives capitalism its durability. It responds to capitalisms inevitable
crises, keeping the system running even when its components break down. Under
globalized capitalism, an international policy architecture aimed at securing capital
flow provides massive advantages to multinational banks and corporations. The
structural adjustment policies and austerity measures imposed by the IMF, World
Bank, European Central Bank, and U.S. Treasury determine (although not fully or
exclusively) the lives of billions of people, impacting basic social structures such as
education and medical care, property, markets for agricultural products, transportation, currency value, energy, and the availability of potable water. The viability of
communism, as an egalitarian political and economic arrangement anchored in the
sovereignty of the people and in production based on need, depends on seizing,
dismantling, or redirecting this system.
Naomi Klein (2014, 669) tells a story that illustrates the limits the global trade
architecture imposes on local actors. In 2009, the Canadian province of Ontario
announced the Green Energy and Green Economy Act. Its goal was to shift Ontario
away from dependence on coal. As Klein explains, The legislation created what is
known as a feed-in tariff program, which allowed renewable energy providers to sell
power back to the grid. A key element of the plan was ensuring that local
municipalities, co-ops, and Indigenous communities could all get into the renewable
energy market (67). This was to be achieved by a provision requiring that a certain
percentage of materials and workforce come from Ontario. Although there were
various setbacks and complications, after several years the legislation seemed to
have been largely successful. Thats when Japan and the EU went to the World Bank
with the complaint that the local materials and workforce requirement discriminated
against equipment producers outside Ontario. The World Bank agreed; the buy local
provisions were illegal.
The absence of a powerful Left enables the political Right (in part by shifting what
had been the center). The intensified inequality of the last forty years of
neoliberalism testifies to the impact of left political defeat.3 Neoliberalisms
subjection of all of society to its economic criteria of efficiency and competitiveness
has been carried out as a political project.4 The political system has been the
instrument through which neoliberalism has dismantled the achievements of the
welfare state, installed competition in ever more domains, expanded the finance
sector, and imposed austerity.
This is the setting, then, for my appeal to the Left to assemble itself into a party.
Key determinants of our lives occur behind our backscurrency valuations, monetary
policies, trade agreements, energy concessions, data harvesting. To insist on a
politics focused on isolating and archiving singular micropractices abstracted from
their global capitalist context obscures the workings of state and economy as a
capitalist system, hinders the identification of this system as the site of ongoing harm
(exploitation, expropriation, and injustice), and disperses political energies that
3. A melancholic losers slump, as Ramsey (2015) terms it.
4. Some of the most compelling versions of this story come from David Harvey (2005), Grard
Dumnil and Dominique Lvy (2004), and Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson (2011).

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could be more effective if concentrated. More fundamentally, in treating economic


practices as the primary locus of left politics, such an insistence effaces the gap
between politics and economics such that questions of strategy, of how to win, are
displaced. Morrow and Brault supply a striking example of this effacement when they
ask, What is communism for, if not to improve our everyday lives? Communism,
which previous generations rendered as the world-historical struggle of the prole
tariat, diminishes into yet another option for individual self-improvement; the
abolition of exploitation, expropriation, and injustice replaced by economic determinations of immediate satisfaction. As Ramsey rightly notes, Healy similarly
substitutes economic alternatives for political antagonism.

1
Two ideas voiced in the present discussion impress the urgency of the need for a left
party oriented toward communism: racism (Buck 2015) and the Anthropocene
(Healy 2015).
Given anthropogenic climate change, the stakes of contemporary politics are almost
unimaginably high. They range from the continued investment in extractive industries
and fossil fuels constitutive of the carbon-combustion complex (see Oreskes and
Conway 2014), to the dislocations accompanying mass migration in the wake of floods
and droughts to the racist response of states outside what Christian Parenti (2011, 9)
calls the Tropic of Chaos (the band around the belt of economically and politically
battered post-colonial states girding the planets mid-latitudes, where climate change
is beginning to hit hard), all the way to human extinction. That one city, state, or
country brings carbon emissions under controlwhile certainly a step in the right
directionmay be irrelevant from the standpoint of overall warming. Perhaps its
carbon-emitting industries were shipped elsewhere. Perhaps another country chose to
expand its own drilling operations. Climate change forces us to acknowledge that we
cant build new worlds (Helepololei). We live in one world, the heating up of which
threatens humans and other species. Not all communities, economies, or ways of life
are compatible. Those premised on industries and practices that continue to
contribute to planetary warming have to change significantly, and soon. Forcing that
change is the political challenge of our time.
Given the persistence of racialized violence and the operation of the state as an
instrument for the maintenance not only of capitalist modes of production but also
and concomitantly of racialized hierarchy, the challenges of organizing politically
across issues and identities are almost insurmountably daunting. No wonder the Left
resorts to moralism and self-care instead. Its easier to catalog difference than it is to
build up a Left strong enough to exercise power, especially given the traversal of
state power by transnational corporations, trade, and treaties. Its also easier to go
along with the dominant ideology of individualism, which enjoins us first and
foremost to look after ourselves, than it is to put ourselves aside and focus on
formulating a strategy for using collective power to occupy, reconfigure, and redirect
institutions at multiple levels. Here again, not every vision of community is
compatible with every other. Those premised on fantasies of racial, religious, ethnic,

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or linguistic purity directly oppose those premised on diversity. Those premised on


reproducing structures of class hierarchy directly oppose those insisting on equality.
If something like a party of the radical Left can stretch beyond Greece and Spain, if
it can be imagined in North America, it will only be possible as a combination of
communism, antiracism, and climate activism. I use red, black, and green as a
heuristic for the coalition of concerns necessary for such a party. I invoke the
heuristic here to double down against critics who prefer a thousand alternatives to
the party form. A thousand alternatives (see Healy 2015) is no alternative. It leaves
the political system we havethe one that puts all its force behind the preservation
of capitalist class interestsintact. Some ideas need to be chosen, systematized into
a program, and defended.
Consciously reiterating the colors of the Black Liberation Flag, the red, black, and green
heuristic positions itself within the histories of communist, peoples, and anticolonial
struggles. Left Unity in the UK uses red, black, and green in their logo to suggest a similar
constellation. The colors dont have a fixed meaning; they have appeared differently in
the histories of emancipatory egalitarian struggle. In recent struggles, red suggests a
politics against debt, austerity, and corporate personhood and allies with anticapitalism
and communism as well. Black pays tribute to the IWW, anarchists, black power, and
movements against aggressive policing, incarceration, and the murder of African
Americans. Green points to climate justice, an approach to climate change that exceeds
capitalist emphases on carbon markets and green commodities to encompass the
dismantling of the carbon-based economy and the global redistribution of wealth.
The three colors should not be read as three separate issues or groups. They should
rather be understood as a kind of mutually supporting and inflecting scaffold. An
equitable response to the changing climate, for example, is incompatible with the
continuation of capitalism. A communism anchored in extractive industry is incompatible with the mitigation of and adaptation to climate change. Antiracism directs
our attention to those most likely to be exploited and sacrificed in market-driven
schemes to address climate change. It also marks the fact of the history of divisions
within the Left that have stood in the way of our forging collective counterpower.
Here and now, movements are pushing the organizational convergence of
communist, climate, and race politics. Moral Mondays, the ongoing protests in North
Carolina, bring together an array of political concerns around racial justice, cuts to
public services, and the environment. These protests include marches and acts of
civil disobedience. The heartbreaking reminder that Black lives matter calls for the
abolition of structures of institutionalized power that continue to impoverish,
imprison, and kill black people everywhere. Protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in the
wake of the murder of Michael Brown, have turned the spotlight on the militarization
of the police and the buildup of state forces for the defense of the wealthy and white
against the proletarianizedpoor, brown, and black. Similar buildups of police
borders in the United States and abroad attempt to push back the many on the move
in response to the catastrophic convergence of decades of violent expropriation and
climate change (Parenti 2011). The demand for climate justice places the economic
inequalities accompanying and constitutive of capitalist development at the center
of global discussions of climate change. Images from New Orleans after Hurricane
Katrina and terms like sacrifice zones help articulate the two. Every time an

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activist reminds us that issues cant be considered in isolation or every time a student
repeats the mantra of intersectionality, the Left is instructing itself to make
connections and formulate a politics capable of grasping complexity and of changing
the world. The party is a form for that connecting. It provides a location where we
see and relate to ourselves as comrades, as solidary members of a fighting collective.

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2
In the rest of this response, I address division.
First, Healys close engagement with the idea of the communist horizon is not close
enough. He omits the key element of my rendition of horizon: namely, division
(Dean 2012). The party is a political form that occupies and maintains the division
that establishes where we are. I emphasize occupying division to mark the political
aspect of the party form. Here I agree with Carl Schmitts notorious characterization
of the political in terms of the intensity of the divide between friend and enemy. In
contrast to Schmitt, however, I reject the presumption of a unified, homogeneous
people as the precondition of a nonpartisan form of constituent power, insisting
instead that division goes all the way down (Bargu 2014, 725). Division itself is
common, a universal and irreducible feature of our condition.5 The communist party
maintains division as it keeps open the gap of collective desire for collectivity. This is
what distinguishes the communist party from other parties (and what explains the
deep sense of betrayal Communists have felt when their parties have failed).
Second and consequently, the locus of disagreement between me and Madra and
zseluk is not whether there is division in communismwe all agree that there is,
that antagonism is fundamental; the question is whether that division is reducible to a
struggle over the surplus. This strikes me as far too narrow to encompass the
antagonism that will persist under communism, and it also presumes in advance to
know which antagonism will present itself as primary. On the one hand, given that
communism should involve the abolition of the value form, surplus will likely need to
be rethought. On the other, given the press of climate change, it seems that a whole
slew of other questions would force themselves on even those already committed to
emancipatory egalitarian social arrangements: What should be done for those whose
habitats become uninhabitable? Do occupants have exclusive claim to the land they
occupy? Which resources may be claimed as commons and how far does this claim
extend? More important, though, is the status of this disagreement. Given the defeat
of communism at the end of the 1980s, worry about the division that persists under
communism is misplaced. What matters here and now is organizing against capitalism
such that we are in a position where the answer to this debate will actually matter.
Third, I want to take up Ramseys call to associate the party with a new and
emancipatory division of labor and to understand this division as the necessary
effect of the party on its activists, the work of division back upon us as we engage in
collective struggle. The perspective of the communist party, then, is the perspective
5. See James Martels (2014) discussion of this element of my account in The Communist
Horizon.

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of collectivity as it cuts through the individuality capitalist society demands. The


communist party doesnt know what this perspective is; it doesnt fill it in with
substantial content. Rather, it maintains this perspective as a gap.
Psychoanalysis helps explain the idea. In his seminar on the four fundamental
concepts of psychoanalysis, Lacan associates the Freudian unconscious with a gap: a
gap where something happens but remains unrealized (Lacan 1998, 22). Its not that
this something is or is not there, that it exists or doesnt exist. Rather, the unrealized
makes itself felt; it exerts a pressure. The party is a political form for this press of the
unrealized, enabling it to be concentrated and directed in one way rather than another.
For example, the party presses forward the opening produced by movements. It may
do this by having personnel in place that can turn a movements opening to legislative or
policy advantage. The party may do this via writers and commentators pressing a
specific interpretation of the movement. At any rate, that the subject of politics is the
collective people means that its actions cannot be reduced to those associated with
individual agency, actions like choice or decision. Instead, the collective subject
impresses itself through ruptures and breaks and the retroactive attribution of these
breaks to the subject they express.6 The punctuality of the subject could suggest that it
is only evental, only disruptive, utterly disconnected from any body, creation,
institution, or advance and thus without substance or content. But this would ignore
the persistence of the subject in the press of the unrealized. This persistence needs a
body, a carrier. Without a carrier, it dissipates into the manifold of potentiality.
Nevertheless, with a carrier some potentiality is diminished; some possibility is
eliminated; some closure is effected. This loss is the subjects condition of possibility,
the division constitutive of subjectivity. Political formsparties, states, guerrilla armies,
even leaderssituate themselves within this division. Although they can be and often
are fetishized (positioned so as to obscure the loss or perfectly remedy it), the fact of
fetishization should not deflect from the prior condition of the gap and its occupation.
The history of communism in the United States supplies an example of the work of
division. In the early 1930s, a publication of the Communist Party USA, the Party
Organizer, filled its pages with articles on how to recruit and retain new members.
Month after month the writersmany anonymous, many district-level organizers
expressed excitement about gains in new members and dismay over the partys
failure to retain them. They worried that their meetings were too long, that they
didnt start and finish on time, that they werent snappy enough (CPUSA 1931b,
169). They advised one another on the best design for a party meeting: no more than
two hours, not to exceed two and a half hours, three hours at the absolute limit.
District organizers were advised to pick up members at their houses and bring them to
meetings. Members were reminded to talk to new recruits. The CPUSA organizers
writing in the magazine sensed the enthusiasm and earnest desire of the workers
but blamed themselves for the fact that workers dropped out: The recruit comes
into the average unit of the Party and finds there a group of strangers speaking a
jargon which he does not understand. No one pays much attention to him and he is
therefore left very much to himself enthusiasm cools, he becomes discouraged,
loses his enthusiasm and finally drops out of the Party (17).
6. I develop this point in my essay Commune, Party, State (Dean 2014).

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Jargon is a symptom of the problem. Jargon means that the people and the
party are not speaking the same language. It marks a division between workers and
party members, even when party members are workers. The language that members
share, the ideas that enable them to see the world in terms other than capitalisms,
enhance and also hinder a sense of belonging at the same time. The very activities
they pursue as Communistsreading, discussing, meeting, leafleting, organizing,
trainingseparate them from the workers. What makes them Communists, what
separates them from capitalisms constraints as it provides them with political
capacity and conviction, inscribes a gap in the givenness of economic belonging. They
are not just economic producers trying to improve their everyday lives; they are
political producers creating collective power.
One recommendation for overcoming this division is imagining oneself as a
comrade, not a professor (CPUSA 1931b, 18). Organizers are advised to speak not
as a soap boxer or a seasoned Communist theorist but rather to be one of the
workers, which indeed you are (CPUSA 1931a). Other recommendations include
better development of cadres and more effort at education. Still others highlight a
kind of transferential relation that can arise from visiting the workers at least two or
three times a week, getting to know them by name and their individual problems, and
have them call you by name and feel you are one of them (Tate 1932, 67).
Imagining oneself as a comrade, particularly when accompanied by instructions to do
what one would normally do, involves a reflexive turn toward the everyday as one
looks at what one does from the party perspective.
The same desire that leads people to join the party separates them from their
everyday practices of provisioning. Once they have become Communists, they see
themselves and the world from the perspective opened up by the party. They look at
the world differently from how they did before. Yet they also have to continue to
imagine themselves as the workers they are, bound to the economic struggle, and
hence the advice: Little by little from the conditions in the shops go on to the speed
up, wage cuts, unemployment and then to the need for organization. Dont appear too
insistent at first (1931a, 19). The organizer has to begin from the perspective of the
worker and guide the worker to a shift in perspective, to seeing from a different place.
Healy speaks of envisioning possibilities and recognizing possibilities. Who is
envisioning and recognizing? My claim is that this who is the party: the unstated
premise of left attention to previously overlooked practices or to the production of
new knowledge is that there is some body, association, or group that will see, know,
and act differently, who will put the insights to work. Without this collective body,
seeing, knowledge, and acting remain individual. Moreover, antagonistic relations
escape from view, displaced by a multitude of possibilities.
For over thirty years, the party has been extracted from the aspirations and
accomplishments it enabled. Even as dogma has been uniformly qualified with
party, dispersed yet ubiquitous left dogmatism has turned the so-called obsolescence of the party form into the primary tenet of its catechism. Every other mode of
political association may be revised, renewed, rethought, and reimagined, except for
the communist party. Its time to put this nursery tale aside and take up the challenge
of actively constructing a political collectivity with the will and mass to fight for an

404

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egalitarian world. The party doesnt prefigure this world but impresses upon us the
gap between the world we have and the world we can desire.

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