Fortuna’s Prisoners

In the year 523 CE, a man sat alone in a prison cell and wrote a book. A former consul of Rome and scholar of philosophy, this prisoner recorded the story of his imprisonment as a poetic dialogue, a story in which he is lifted from his despair by the words of a wise and magisterial embodiment of reason, the supernatural Lady Philosophy. The prisoner is instructed by Philosophy to reject the horrific appearance of his situation, to refuse the idea that his incarceration is without meaning, and to seek solace in the belief that even his dire predicament is in truth a gift from God designed to bolster his spiritual and intellectual health. “Although you cannot understand the way things are ordered in the universe,” Lady Philosophy explains, “you can rest assured that a good governor does indeed keep order and has a plan.”[1] The initial fear of the prisoner—that his fate had been surrendered to the mendacious and inconstant goddess of chance, Fortuna—is assuaged by the firm but ultimately consolatory teachings of Lady Philosophy, who reveals the divine reason grounding all things.

The prisoner, Anicius Boethius, was executed by his king only a year after he wrote his book, which came to be known as The Consolation of Philosophy. What degree of consolation the writing of the book actually provided the condemned Boethius is not known. We do, however, know that Boethius’ account of Philosophy and Fortuna, of reason’s supersession of whim, was viewed as a consummate example of spiritual consolation for centuries to come by clergy, poets, artists, and philosophers across Europe. That God was all powerful and entirely rational was a truism, that his rule was total, a solace. The inescapable horror of the long Middle Ages could be endured so long as it was not arbitrary, not meaningless, not grounded in the ephemeral desires of Fortuna. For the Christian masses, this form of religion could be more than an opiate—it could be a rationality in a world founded on ceaseless and irrational pain. 

By the time of early modernity, however, some had grown quite skeptical of this sort of story. In 1512 ACE, a Florentine diplomat, himself recently subjected to imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Medici, retreated from the city to his home in the countryside. No doubt ruminating at length on the successes and failures of his own political life, he too began to write a treatise on Fortuna, on the relationship between virtue and circumstance. However, consolation was inconceivable for this diplomat. The life of the human individual, of the political subject, was a life of struggle, of confronting challenges borne of unforeseeable conditions. Fortuna was for the diplomat not a mere appearance, but an embodiment of the genuine unpredictability of the world. The diplomat’s task was to say what all could see, but would not believe—that anyone with political ambitions and the means to achieve them, a true prince, could not simply submit himself[2] to God’s goodness, but must instead intervene into the chaotic political world in particular (and if necessary immoral) ways.

This diplomat was Niccolò Machiavelli, and his book was called The Prince. The text of The Prince itself focuses as much on the specific, minute problems of princely rule as it does on more broad questions of the prince’s ideal disposition and relation to Fortuna. Ultimately, however, knowledge of specific political problems is a means which may allow a prince to expand and maintain his power. An ideal prince’s adaptability and virtue (political courage, skill, and forcefulness) provide him with a fighting chance to prepare for Fortuna’s wiles and to act with confidence in moments of rapid change and crisis. Machiavelli even goes so far as to analogize the necessary boldness of the prince to the assault of Fortuna: “it is better to be impetuous than cautious, because fortune is a woman; and it is necessary, if one wants to hold her down, to beat her and strike her down. And one sees that she lets herself be won more by the impetuous than by those who proceed coldly.”[3]

The aggressive, gendered act of violence Machiavelli icily describes above does not, however, provide an analogy for how a prince might permanently master his own fate. Even if Fortuna’s chaos can be evaded by bold action, future crises and eventually death prohibit a meaningfully permanent political success. No matter the prince’s ability to plan and decide, he is still but a mortal, and his reign ends with his life. Of course, the prince still may exercise conditional power over Fortuna, and even though certain forms of catastrophe cannot be prevented, others can — the ideal role of the prince is to act and react in a manner which utilizes crises to his own benefit as much as possible.

Machiavelli’s individualist portrayal of the relation between Fortuna and the prince was not uncritically adopted by his successors. In fact, one of his most prominent heirs, Antonio Gramsci, appeared to reject the notion of Fortuna entirely, focusing his energies instead on formulating a Marxist concept of the prince. Gramsci drew heavily on Machiavelli’s work, as well as prominent Italian philosophers such as Benedetto Croce, as he attempted to outline a Marxist theory of collective political subjectivity from his own prison cell in Turi throughout the 1920s and 1930s, under the close watch of his fascist jailors.[4] In a particularly famous essay from this period, “The Modern Prince,” he outlined his Marxist-Machiavellian notion of the democratic centralist party as a new, collective prince.

Machiavelli, Gramsci argued, had effected a major advance in political science by analyzing the practices of politics through an anthropomorphic account of the concrete individual.[5] Machiavelli’s convenient anthropomorphism cannot hold for an account of the party, however, at least not entirely. Instead, this “modern prince” can in reality “only be an organism, a complex element of society in which a collective will, which has already been recognized and has to some extent asserted itself in action, begins to take concrete form.”[6] While Gramsci rejects the individualist concept of the prince, the forceful will present in the Machiavellian prince’s virtue is maintained. Contra Benedetto Croce[7], Gramsci maintains that the existence of parties and the successes of their plans indicate the actuality of this will and of the possibility of a continuous, unitary political passion.[8]

The democratic centralist party itself, while possessing a unitary will, is internally complex. It consists of three elements: 

  1. A mass element, composed of loyal and dedicated “ordinary, average men.”[9] It is only a meaningful force if it is centralized and disciplined by another element. 
  2. A principle cohesive element, the centralizing force of the leadership body, which provides direction for the mass element akin to a group of generals in an army.[10]
  3. An intermediate element of mid-level organizers which articulates the first and second element, essentially serving as the basis for communication between the masses and the centralizing leadership.[11]

For each given set of political conditions, Gramsci argues, there exists an ideal proportion between these three internal elements.[12] The balancing of these elements determines the correlation between the party’s will and its ability to act, and plays a crucial part in the ongoing development of this will. 

The will is arguably the most crucial element Gramsci adopts from Machiavelli. All efforts made by the party en masse are functions of its unified will, which in turn provides purpose to all political analyses of a given society’s material conditions.[13] The will of a party is formed by this ongoing process, but it first emerges from the initial efforts at purposive analysis instigated by members of the party’s cohesive, centralizing leadership.[14] Such a will enables a party to possess and enact aims: “to produce certain results it creates the necessary preconditions, and indeed devotes all its forces to the creation of these preconditions.”[15] The possibility of a coherent political practice is in fact nonexistent without this form of voluntarism, according to Gramsci, for the realization of collective political subjectivity requires a unity of desire which tends towards shared short and long-term ends. In this notion of a party united in purpose, we see what amounts to an expanded, complex concept of Machiavelli’s willful prince. The active enforcement of will is what allows the modern prince to “dominate and transcend” its immediate conditions by creating new ones of its own accord.[16]

From Boethius to Machiavelli to Gramsci we see the conceptual evolution[17] of a relationship between a unitary actor—initially Boethius’ prisoner, then Machiavelli’s prince, then Gramsci’s democratic centralist party—and some concept of social conditions, whether anthropomorphic (Boethius and Machiavelli’s Fortuna) or a more concrete (Gramsci’s social conditions to-be-conquered). However, while Gramsci’s final, collective image of this actor and his de-anthropomorphized notion of social reality is quite distant from the theological necessitarianism of Boethius, his work still shares a number of assumptions with Boethius and Machiavelli’s work—the most important assumption being that political relationality is best understood as an opposition between conditions and a cohesive political subject seeking to conquer them. 

In what follows, I critique this vision of political relations and organization. Certainly, any account of political relationality requires a notion of subjects or agents acting upon and within their circumstances. However, I want to problematize the commonsensical idea that individual subjects operate in a way homologous to political organizations, especially the party. By combining a reappraisal of the Gramscian presentation of the political subject as internally unified with my prior party-form writings on representational versus immanent concepts of political organization, I advocate for a view of the party as a non-representational social entity which is best analyzed by its functions and effects, rather than its will or intentions. This process, I argue, necessitates that we envision politics other than a dualistic opposition between a unitary political subject and the conditions it seeks to conquer—in other words, that we free our analyses of all remnants of Fortuna, and understand political work as occurring amidst as well as against social conditions. 

World Without Will and Representation

Since I’ve already addressed some problems within the party as representational in my three prior Negation party-form essays, “Party (as Concept),” “Party (as Relation),” and “Party (as Prefiguration, and the Unity of the Diverse),” I’ll briefly summarize the arguments of each before I continue.

Party (as Concept) 

In my first essay, I argued that in What Is to Be Done? Lenin doesn’t have a general concept of the party as such, but only a positional concept relating directly to his immediate circumstances.[18] To be clear, Lenin thinks nominally “representative” institutions — or more properly speaking, mediating institutions — are often practically necessary[19], yet his immediate concern is not whether the working class is represented in microcosm, but whether the party can produce effects which are conducive to universal emancipation. The party Lenin outlines here must be relatively autonomous from the class (though not entirely separate from it) so that it might incite the class to behave in particular ways and unite the class with non-labor struggles. This reading of Lenin suggests “that all party ties to working class institutions cannot be regarded as steps on a teleological path towards forming a truly representative party, but in fact must be taken as they are, as organizational relationships existing in the here and now which have immediate practical implications.”[20]

This concept should be “taken as a recognition that the universality of emancipation is never achieved by a particular which is already universal — in less jargony terms, universal freedom can’t exist before it is won.” I argued that “what can be generalized, at some level of abstraction, is the recognition that the party can never be a particular representative of the general but rather only exists as a social body which exists in direct, immanent relation to the masses, a relation which is always simultaneously interior and external.”

Party (as Relation) 

Bourgeois parliamentarianism, I argued, relies on a notion of representation which obfuscates its own nature. Lenin criticizes this obfuscation in State and Revolution but goes on to argue that bourgeois parliaments are actually not representative enough. His formulation relies on a concept of political representation as the representation of either a group’s will, a group’s interests, or both, as they might be combined in something like a general will.

Problematically, however, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the original thinker of the general will, argues that a “representative” government never actually represents the general will of the people — the creation of a group of representatives is in reality the creation of a group of relatively autonomous agents who inevitably depart from the pursuit of the general will over time. For Rousseau, this decay can only be delayed by particular social practices which reproduce beneficial customs and incentives among both the representatives and the people more broadly. A Rousseauian view of the communist party qua government would understand the party as a kind of social relation (realized in variable concrete manifestations throughout history) which must be subject to specific conditions if it is to achieve the aims it endorses in its programs. 

Rousseau’s arguments, while often flawed, help us to understand that “the party-form is itself distinct, that its distinctness warrants careful study, and that we will fail to understand the histories of Communist parties when we conform to a generalized notion of the Party as a more-or-less perfect, more-or-less realized representation of an abstract set of interests.” Drawing on one of Andrew McWhinney’s party-form essays[21], I argued that it is essential to study specific parties/so-called “pre-party formations” as they emerge so as to understand their specific features and conditions of existence. I additionally argued that it is essential to understand the party-form as a factor of the history of capitalism, since it became internationally dominant only in the capitalist epoch.

Party (as Prefiguration, and the Unity of the Diverse)

In Lenin’s famous smashing-the-state argument, he draws on Marx to assert that “1) old forms of power must be destroyed, 2) new proletarian forms of democratic but centralized power must be constructed, and 3) these new proletarian forms of centralization naturally tend towards their own destruction as egalitarian and emancipatory principles are realized in the flourishing of communism.” The failure-laden history of socialist organization seems to force us to conclude that either revolutionary forms of organization do not naturally tend towards their own destruction or that the revolutionary forms which have hitherto existed in socialist organization did not fall away because they were not in actuality revolutionary. I argued that this rigid dichotomy does not account for “the notion of a prefigurative politics, one in which certain existing social forms presage communist society while other existing [social] forms hinder prefigurative ones.” 

To address this possible view, I drew on Nicos Poulantzas’ account of the state as a site of contestation. For Poulantzas, socialist organization is never truly isolated from the many apparatuses of the state. Consequently, I argued, “a state cannot be ‘smashed’ in a singular revolutionary moment, as it is constituted by [‘interior’ and ‘exterior’] practices which must each be transformed before the capitalist, oppressive nature of the state and of society in general is fully abolished. Even social processes developed seemingly outside of the old state may revive (or even invent) pervasive practices of domination.” 

While I pointed out that Poulantzas’ critique of Lenin could simply slide into a tepid social democracy, I still maintained that his account, which focuses on existing terrains of struggle and interrelated but distinct forms of socialist organization, provides us with a means to understand the party as a potential articulative organ of diverse struggles, as Salar Mohandesi has proposed.[22] In relation to the party-form, I write that “in order to understand a potential party as an articulator of social struggles, the job of organizers should not be to attempt to locate emancipatory processes and practices which may provide beginnings for the creation of the party, but rather to direct whichever resources are at their disposable towards the organic unification of related but disparate emancipatory practices, without discounting the possibility that these articulations may in time produce [or necessitate] something resembling [. . .] the classical [form] of the party.”

Poulantzas, I argued, possesses a somewhat restrictive view as well, however, when he claims that there must necessarily be a relation between socialist organs of all kinds and mass movements for progress towards socialism to be made. I argue that on the contrary, “the role of organization is not to unify processes [. . .] after they have already been raised up by mass movements, but rather to unify processes which already possess organic links to potential catalysts for mass action.” Social activity in genuinely emancipatory mass movements is essential, but in the absence of truly mass movements, communist organization should still articulate existing particular struggles, even if they are unable to do so in relation to active and politicized mass struggles.

The challenge, I argue, is to identify potentially emancipatory struggles and to figure out ways to connect them in a productive rather than stultifying manner. The process which is fundamental is not the party, which can be a powerful means of articulating struggles, but articulation itself: “articulation is more than an innovation of new forms of life: it is a communist process which does not merely bind together existing organizing practices but transforms each of them through this binding, generating new kinds of relations to the state and to the under-organized sections of the masses. The specificity of each articulated practice is both intensified by this process of unification and is simultaneously transformed by its encounter with other practices.”


In my three essays, I essentially made/implied three main arguments:

  1. All existing parties are and have been particular organizations rather than representative ones. The masses may have a more-or-less strong set of relations to a particular party, of course, but these relations speak to the strength of the network of articulations in which the party plays a variable role, rather than to an isolated entity’s ability to consistently mirror the interests of the proletariat, the masses more broadly, etc. Consequently, discussions of the party-form should focus on the particular relations concomitant to a given party and the categorizable types of relations which make a specific group a party in the Leninist or Maoist sense. Reverting to the concept of representation as a means of discussing parties obfuscates the set of relations and effects which actually constitutes a given party organization. 
  2. A group should be understood as a “party” in the Marxist and/or Leninist sense only when it is constituted by certain relations or effects. Andrew McWhinney’s contributions to our party-form writings are admittedly more clear on this matter than mine, and I concur with his argument that a group can be understood as a party in the Leninist sense when it performs a “vertical” or “vanguard” function characterized by discipline and some form of organized command structure — though the communist party-form does not, as Andrew notes, have a monopoly over the exercise of this function. I would add that Gramsci’s distinctions of the three “levels” of the party effectively encapsulate the typical relations between mass party members, intermediary organizers, and high-level leadership as they have generally appeared in historical Marxist-Leninist parties.
  3. Groups articulated into a network of emancipatory struggles (tenant unions, democratic/radical labor unions, antiracist and anticolonial networks, feminist organizations, queer liberation organizations, socialist, anarchist, and communist groups, etc.) continually transform one another as the process of their articulation unfolds. What I mean by a process of articulation is not a process of individual groups extending nominal “allyship” to one another, but rather a sometimes amiable, sometimes fractious process through which separate struggles clumsily conjoin, revealing the impermanence of the borders which render them particular in the first place. In simpler terms: articulation binds groups through nominal alliances as well as through disagreements, debate, long and short-term collaborations, and even overt conflicts. This process of articulation doesn’t efface the distinctions between particular organizations or individuals involved in one (or more) of these organizations, but it can have the overall effect of rendering each struggle more universal through its connection with and internalization of the others.

What may immediately strike readers about these three points is that none of them appear to contradict my earlier outline of Gramsci’s conception of the party. Gramsci understands the party as an entity that wills itself towards what he terms “progressive” ends. In more concrete terms, this means that the party is a will which tends towards the good of the masses; this does not necessarily make the party a metonymic representation of the proletariat or the masses more broadly, but merely an agent which acts for its good and with its input.[23]

Why, then, do I think it’s important to augment this critique of political representation with a critique of Gramsci’s conception of the party? Because – and I think this is crucial – it is quite easy to move past the problem of representation and immediately become mired in the problem of will. When we reach the correct conclusion that the notion of political representation is at best a helpful shorthand and at worst a misleading illusion, it is quite natural to assume that political organization is in reality nothing more than the compression of individual wills into collective wills—that is to say, a number of people who believe in a certain cause are brought together and their beliefs and shared desires for certain ends combine to form a mass will. It is this ongoing consensus, a group synthesis of desire, action, and intention, which allows us to speak of particular groups possessing particular wills, governed by a continuous unity. 

Through what process can individual wills combine to form an overarching particular will containing the desire and force of the entire group? For Gramsci, it is clear that the collective will is both a product of group formation and its predicate. The centralizing element of a given party – its leadership or command structure – is for Gramsci the initial source of this will. The leadership’s determinate desire for social change is necessary to direct the more vague and changeable desires of the mass element, which can in turn communicate their own desires back up to the leadership. In time, the will comes to pervade the entire structure, as each element of the party structure is effectively integrated with all others. 

However, is this really a “collective will” in the sense that the party as a totality can be regarded as intentionally propelling itself continuously towards the aims of its program, at each level of organization? Or is the concept of will standing in for something else here? 

For Gramsci, I assert, the will of the party plays a kind of obfuscating or even suturing function. In his reply to Croce’s account of political passions, Gramsci argues that the existence of a party that puts forward a program and achieves its aims proves the existence of said party’s will — what is the will of the party if not its tendency to exercise its intentions, after all? However, the concept of the will itself here is essentially void of content – it is nothing but a word meant to describe the already recognized unity of a series of disparate effects. Gramsci basically argues that if a group tends towards a certain aim or appears to serve certain functions, then the collective apparatus does so because it wants to do so, wills to do so. This move obscures the social relations which actually make a social organization function: the diverse desires and motives, disparate and improvised practices, and consistent forms of concrete interaction which make it possible for us to perceive a unitary organizational direction, even as the individual wills and heterogenous practices which compose the totality of the party remain stunningly diverse. 

We might also add that parties have rarely mirrored the level of unity suggested by their programs in practice, and that assigning strategy to a grand leadership and tactics to mediating organizers seems to obscure the extent to which ideological and even strategic differences can coexist within an apparently unitary group. In his Ethics, Baruch Spinoza famously criticized those who “conceive man in nature as a dominion within a dominion [...] they believe that man disturbs, rather than follows, the order of nature, that he has absolute power over his actions, and that he is determined only by himself.”[24] Gramsci commits a variation of this error by assuming that the party can exist immanently among social conditions while simultaneously determining its own trajectory unproblematically. No party is a proper “dominion with a dominion” either – it is instead, as Rodrigo Nunes writes, a concentrated node[25] within a shifting and complex social ecology.

Of course, to point out that a party isn’t a unitary entity that possesses a singular, homogenous will is an argument with its own problems. Even if a communist party is ultimately directed by a multitude of causes (and produces a multitude of effects), there’s no denying that it appears to us as meaningfully distinct from, say, an anarchist collective or a single-issue activist group. What’s more, the coexistence of divergent elements within a party doesn’t erase the fact that Leninist parties traditionally have an observably vertical command structure and a certain degree of ‘discipline’ among their members. How do we account for the coexistence of disparate elements in a political organization without embracing a concept of unitary collective will? How do we formulate the unity of any organization at all without lapsing into an uncritical nominalism? 

Poulantzas, once again a powerful resource for us, offered a version of this critique, one directed at the notion of the will of the state rather than the will of the party. In State, Power, Socialism he writes, 

the State does not constitute a mere assembly of detachable parts: it exhibits an apparatus unity which is related to the fissiparous unity of state power [...] the unity of state power is not established through the cohesive will of the bearers of monopoly capital or through their physical hold over the State. Unity-centralization is written into the capitalist State’s hierarchic bureaucratized framework as the effect of the reproduction of labour within the State…

Poulantzas’ argument is designed to show that the individual wills of members of the state apparatus are ultimately only one aspect of the state’s existence, and as such, any attempt to simply fill the seats of power with individual wills which possess sufficiently communist consciousnesses is necessarily problematic. Because Poulantzas’ argument concerns the state, it cannot be neatly adapted to the party – members of communist parties are ideally not “bearers of monopoly capital,” and the “reproduction of labour” within the state is of course quite distinct  from the social relations specific to the party-form. However, Poulantzas’ basic argument here is clear: that it is particular social practices and their unity which determine the basic effects produced by a group, and this broader argument can be applied to both the state and the party.

What I present here is not, in my view, a total anti-voluntarism which would invalidate discussions of decision or choice within political groups. I’m just situating individual wills within a network of overdetermined relations. This network is constituted by distinct practices which tend to produce specific effects, even though these tendencies are accompanied by exceptions and counter-practices. By treating these practices as nothing but the products of the determinate wills of the party leadership merging (via mediating mid-level organizers) with the less concrete wills of the masses, we ignore the fact that each level of party organization is itself reproduced by the mediations and internal articulations which make relations between practice and will possible.

Ultimately, by countering the Gramscian model of collective will we also counter the Machiavellian logic of the prince and Fortuna, of the political creature and its constant opposition to an independent embodiment of political circumstance. Political analysis is destined to lack determinacy if it insists on viewing social revolutions as oppositions between a universal, organized representation of class interests and an anthropomorphized totality of social relations producing domination and exploitation. The movement to end the present state of things will very much involve problems of will and desire, but will and desire only as they operate as part of ongoing social relations, not as we imaginatively perceive them as monolithic forces.

Proper political analysis does not oppose an independent will to an intransigent obstacle, but understands that in many ways our wills and desires are themselves implicated in the obstacles we face, and that the movement which abolishes the present state of things is, as Marx pointed out so long ago, immanent to social relations as they currently exist. Insofar as all politics involves a will positing an ideal, a communist politics must do so, but for those who make themselves a part of the forces which tend towards the abolition of capitalism, the aim should not – in my humble view – be to universalize the will, but to universalize the relations which play a crucial role in producing our desires.

The debate over the party-form and over vertical versus horizontal forms of organization should not be a debate which contrasts activity with passivity or will with dispersion, but a debate over different forms of relations which tend to produce specific effects, effects which vary depending on a given iteration of the form of organization. To understand the nature of these effects, it is necessary to understand them not as compelled by transcendent, awe-inspiring wills, but as the products of a social world which shapes us as we shape it.

After the Prince

It must be admitted that the post-Gramscian populist approach of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy offers, at times, a compelling version of this very same left critique of will and representation. In fact, the duo’s adoption of the concept of articulation from Gramsci has (indirectly, perhaps) influenced a number of the contributions to the Negation party-form discussions. The essay you’re reading right now to some extent endorses their assertion that the party be understood not as a representation of “historical interests” but rather as a “concrete agent” possessing its own specific relationships with other social groups.[27] However, Laclau and Mouffe’s account is insufficient to the problem at hand for two main reasons which I feel compelled to discuss before I conclude my comments: 

  1. Laclau and Mouffe’s normative account of articulation as the formation of a chain of equivalents[28] is reflective of their problematic rejection of the essentially correct traditional Marxist argument that certain social phenomena possess a strong tendency to reproduce themselves, while others do not. Consequently, for Laclau and Mouffe it becomes functionally impractical to connect specific political organizations (socialist groups, anti-racist groups, feminist groups, etc.) to the social tendencies (capital, white supremacy, patriarchy) which produce the conditions for organized struggles. This chain of equivalents is in essence a homogenous chain, in which the only principles differentiating one link of the chain from another are those of identity and discourse. The impossibility of any of these groups having simple or complex relations to social mechanisms forecloses the possibility of strategizing around more-or-less consistent relations between social groups and social mechanisms.[29]
  2. In Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, the sidelining of the concept of emancipation and the elevation of the concepts of radical democracy and a vague “socialism” amount to a basic rejection of communism tout court. It makes little difference, in my view, that Laclau and Mouffe claim that the impossibility of a truly universal harmony does not make it any less “a harmony which should nonetheless constitute the ideal towards which we strive”[30] when the heart of their politics is predicated on the dogmatic assertion that politics can be nothing but an ongoing process of renegotiation. This, I would argue, has to do with Laclau and Mouffe’s untenable dichotomy between universal emancipation as total, rational consensus (which they reject) and radical democracy as a continuous process of ongoing articulative renegotiation without breaks (which they endorse). Their concept of democracy as an uninterrupted motion of shifting relations makes it impossible to conceive of a significant change in relations between particulars, one which would extricate the reproduction of particulars from exploitative and dominative mechanisms, i.e. capital, patriarchy, white supremacy, etc. In other words, for Laclau and Mouffe relations between groups are always changing, but they are never changing in so fundamental a way that conflicts and mediations between particulars take place under radically new circumstances, as we might expect them to with the abolition of capital, patriarchy, white supremacy, etc.[31]

The shortcomings of Laclau and Mouffe are perhaps more informative for our purposes than are their successes, for while the duo are capable of envisioning a concept of politics that does not rely on a misleading notion of representation or will, they are not capable of explaining how a process of articulation might interact with social conditions in such a way that its internal relations to itself and its relation to the social as a whole might be fundamentally amended so much so that social antagonism might no longer exist in the form it has adopted during the capitalist epoch. They are also incapable of understanding how a party organization or even a less rigid vanguard-function might hold a place in a revolutionary network, as they rather dogmatically understand the Marxist party as inherently conducive to “authoritarianism.”[32]

Such a tendency indicates a marked contrast between Laclau-Mouffe and the less dogmatic and essentialist formulations of thinkers such as Salar Mohandesi who recognize the possibility of a party coexisting within a network of groups even if it does not represent the emancipatory ends of the networked whole.[33] It is clear that for Mohandesi, a party is not a unitary will but a particular organization among others[34] which potentially serves certain functions in certain political circumstances. In other words, the party is not a self-animating will, but a relational entity which can be recognized in its effects.

Mohandesi’s understanding of the party as a finite instrument[35] is of particular value here, for it provides us with a means of pushing back against a conception of the party as the apparatus 1) with which the state can and must be smashed, 2) which would best direct the transition from capitalism to communism, and 3) which necessarily dominates all other emancipatory political organizations. Instead, the party’s paramount function for Mohandesi is articulation. That a vertical organization structure contains a form of (ideally democratic) hierarchical command is obvious; that the existence of this internal command structure grants the party a hierarchical priority over other organizations is not immediately apparent.

This approach can give us a new way to understand the historical role of the party within the real movement. If the purpose of the party should be to facilitate unity between these disparate particulars and to grant them all a universal character in this unity, then the final cause of the party must be reassessed. In the past, the prevailing notions have been that 1) the purpose of the party is to eventually assume a position of representation in which it, as a prime agent, can best direct social conditions towards its inherent aims, and that 2) the purpose of the party is to hone itself into a singular (if internally complex) entity capable of imposing its unified will upon social reality. Now, unmoored from these assumptions, we are called to ask what purposes the party generates for itself as a result of the forms of relations which constitute it. The final cause of the party is not a cause which is revealed by the intentions that form it, but is instead revealed only in the actuality of its existence as it develops, and, in time, becomes something new.


  1. Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, trans. David R. Slavitt (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2008): 129.
  2. I maintain Machiavelli’s use of gendered language here because the opposition between the masculine conqueror Prince and the feminine conquest Fortuna provides us with a clearer view of how concepts of political subjectivity have been and are often restricted (or produced) by gendered tropes and misogynist discourses. For more on this aspect of Machiavelli’s work specifically, see Hanna Fenichel Pitkin, Fortune is a Woman: Gender and Politics in the Thought of Niccolo Machiavelli (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999).
  3. Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield, Second Edition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998): 101.
  4. Gramsci’s prison in Turi was roughly 550 miles from the location of Boethius’ city of imprisonment, Pavia, and 440 miles from Machiavelli’s city of imprisonment, Florence. Pavia and Florence are themselves only about 180 miles from one another. In a sense, the story I tell here is quite parochial.
  5. Antonio Gramsci, “The Modern Prince,” in Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971): 125.
  6. Gramsci, “Prince,” 129.
  7. Benedetto Croce (1866-1952) was a highly influential, essentially liberal Italian philosopher and politician whose work was a key touchstone for Gramsci’s own writings.
  8. Gramsci, “Prince,” 138-139.
  9. Gramsci, “Prince,” 152.
  10. Gramsci, “Prince,” 152-153.
  11. Gramsci, “Prince,” 153.
  12. Gramsci, “Prince,” 190-192.
  13. Gramsci, “Prince,” 185.
  14. Gramsci, “Prince,” 194.
  15. Gramsci, “Prince,” 158.
  16. Gramsci, “Prince,” 173.
  17. My argument here is not a historicist or contextualist claim that Machiavelli was directly replying to Boethius or that Gramsci’s notion of the prince was a deliberate attempt to reply to weaknesses in Machiavelli’s work. Rather, I’m just pointing out what the conceptual differences between each thinker’s work can suggest in the context of the party.
  18. I am aware that Lars Lih’s important contextualist scholarship on Lenin’s What Is to Be Done has highlighted that Lenin’s concept of the party in this text is not an original formulation, but an adaptation of the Erfurtian/Kautskyite party model to Russian social conditions. However, my reading, to be quite clear, is not a contextualist or historicist one, but a reading of the text itself, taken at its word and its word alone. In the text, taken in its solitude, representation plays an extraordinarily minor role, with the word appearing only a handful of times in Lih’s own translation, usually not even being used to refer to political representation. In Lih’s commentary on the text, he nevertheless emphasizes the importance of political representation in Lenin’s overall outlook (Lars Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? in Context (Chicago: Haymarket Press, 2008): 556). Even a glance at Kautsky’s The Class Struggle (Erfurt Program) (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Co., 1910; recovered from shows that Kautsky eagerly, even naively accepts the logic of representation. Lih may be quite right to note that this would be an important contextual influence for the historical Lenin, but the object of my analysis–the Lenin of the text–intentionally heeds it little mind.
  19. V. I. Lenin, What Is to Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement (New York: International Publishers, 1973): 138.
  20. All quotations in these three subsections are from my original essays unless explicitly marked otherwise.
  21. See: Andrew McWhinney, “Against The Dualism of the Party and “Spontaneity,” Negation Newsletter, June 2021.
  22. Salar Mohandesi, “Party as Articulator,” (Viewpoint Magazine, 2020):
  23. This element of Gramsci’s work likely has helped inspire the popularity of his thought within the ‘post-Marxist’ trend, which criticized political representation on anti-dogmatist grounds. However, their own understanding of the party-form and certain massive areas of Marxist thought as inherently conducive to authoritarian power is itself its own form of dogmatism.
  24. Baruch Spinoza, The Collected Works of Spinoza, Volume I, ed. and trans. Edwin Curley (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985): 491.
  25. Rodrigo Nunes, “The Scale of Things to Come: The Local, the Global, and Organization” (Viewpoint Magazine, 2021):
  26. Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, trans. Patrick Camiller (London & New York: Verso, 2014): 136.
  27. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London & New York: Verso, 2001): 119.
  28. Laclau and Mouffe, Hegemony, 176.
  29. Inexplicably, Laclau and Mouffe appear to take it as a given that their project involves the abolition of capitalist relations of production (Laclau and Mouffe, Hegemony, 211) but do not explain how a chain of equivalents might understand its own total or partial relationship to such a task, nor (as I reference in point two) do they have any concept of how such an abolition might alter the relations internal to the chain of equivalents itself, instead only weakly claiming that whatever results such an abolition might produce do not include the total elimination of social inequality.
  30. Laclau and Mouffe, Hegemony, xvii.
  31. Interestingly enough, Laclau seems to have at least implicitly understood the ways in which his and Mouffe’s work rejected the concept of emancipation, and chose to embrace them. In his essay “Beyond Emancipation,” he presents what amounts to a caricature of the concept of emancipation as a notion of a pure emancipated human essence, an eschatological discursive framework, and a whole host of other definitions. He finds in emancipation’s “radical foundation and radical exclusion” a pseudo-theological aporia, while I believe it is more helpful to view the notion of emancipation as simultaneously reliant on continuities and breaks. (Ernesto Laclau, “Beyond Emancipation,” in Emancipation(s) (London & New York: Verso, 1996): 6) Laclau’s formulations are extremely vague, and he claims in one of his more concrete moments that “a democratic society which has become a viable social order will not be a totally free society, but one which has negotiated in a specific way the duality freedom/unfreedom.” (Laclau, “Beyond Emancipation,” 19) With all respect due to the late Laclau, his refusal to posit any determinate concept of emancipation or even non-domination appears to me not as judicious presentism, but rather as indeterminate theoretical cowardice. A proper analysis of this problem in his and Mouffe’s work would require a more extensive examination than I can provide here.
  32. Laclau and Mouffe, Hegemony, 59.
  33. Mohandesi, “Party as Articulator.”
  34. Ibid.
  35. Ibid.