A PDF version of this dossier is available here.
The theoretical question of the party is, for communists in the present moment, a uniquely spectral question. In obvious ways, the question appears decidedly dead in social formations such as the United States and Canada (where the authors of this volume reside). Mass communist parties seem to be a thing of the past, relegated to marginality by the dominance of bourgeois parties. In nations with flourishing (or at least politically viable) communist parties, the question of the party might appear vacuous, answerable only in partisan practice itself – in these cases, the theoretical question of the party is “dead” insofar as theoretical discussions of the party are subsumed by practical questions which force theory to appear as a subservient science to political strategy.
At the same time, for those of us who find the need for change in organizational practice as pressing as ever, the theoretical question of the party has in some ways never been more alive. Would the establishment of new communist parties in countries of the Global North offer weak left movements here a new form of power? Do the existing, often successful communist parties and organizations of the Global South offer universal, practical models, or present us with prefigurations of a future global revolution? What are the existent paths to new forms of organization, and how will they draw upon the history and contemporary existence and influence of communist parties, at local and global levels? How, if at all, does our understanding of the political party as a historical and conceptual form shape the terrain of these questions?
So, in essence, the question of the party lives and dies. The political conjuncture demands we discuss the party, but constrains our ability to do so, at least to some degree. We are able to speculate as to the ideal form of communist organization, but find ourselves constantly running up against the limits of our situation and the remnants of our history. If nightmares of the past weigh heavily on our brains, it is only in spite of strenuous efforts to reconfigure their meaning, to transform the images of a long and confused collective dream into a concrete, immediate form of life. Historically, we find ourselves trapped in a state of relative immobility: the past two years of contagion, mass revolt, and subsequent widespread depoliticization have presented us with a contradictory situation in which everyone is willing to posit what should be done, but a great many of us – perhaps particularly in the Global North – have been as of yet unable to connect an excess of prescriptions with the realities of sustained, purposive mass action.
In this context, we return to the question of the party in order to add our own prescriptions to the expanding pile, but also – perhaps more importantly – to attempt to situate conceptual and practical problems inimical to the current state of communist organization and thought. In recent years, both individuals and organizations have called for returns to the party-form as a guiding vision for reconstructing a socialist movement. Some have derived these arguments from the history of Marxism, while others have attempted to present new theoretical arguments for the importance of the party. Examples for this position include the base-building tendency popular in past and present factions of the Democratic Socialists of America and in the recently dissolved Marxist Center. A form of this argument has also been presented by theorists and organizers connected to Cosmonaut Magazine, who have founded the Marxist Unity Caucus to realize their vision of turning DSA into a mass socialist party. Each of these variations of the party argument has formed a crucial foundation for the ideas we put forth below.
The project contained in this dossier began in Negation’s monthly newsletters from June, July, and September of 2021, written by members of our editorial board. Each editorial board member who contributed to these newsletters has expanded their initial ideas into the broader essays you will find in this collection. The dossier also contains an additional contribution from Allen Jordan. The writers who participated in the writing and editing of this dossier do not all conform to the same positions on the party-form. Each essay contains different aims and positions: some explore the party-form conceptually, others are primarily historical in nature, and still others are analyses of contemporary organizing. At no point, however, does any individual contribution rest neatly within only one of these categories, and each essay contributes to both theoretical and immediately practical discussions, even if only implicitly.
In “Reading the Cultural Revolution’s Unspoken Discourses on Emancipatory Politics and the Party-State,” Allen Jordan situates the Cultural Revolution in China within the larger trajectory of communist politics. Using Alain Badiou’s framework articulated in The Communist Hypothesis, he demonstrates that the Cultural Revolution was the last world-historical event within communist politics following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the Paris Commune of 1871. Following Badiou and a wide array of historians and commentators of the period, Jordan argues that the Cultural Revolution demonstrates the limits of the party-state within emancipatory politics. In the end, the party-state neutralized the very agents that Mao emboldened into taking revolutionary action in the first place. Pushing back against contemporary historiography, Jordan insists that the Cultural Revolution is a complicated event that is critical for contemporary communists to grapple with.
In “May ‘68 and the Party-Form,” Cam W analyzes the party-form through the prism of May ‘68 and the French Communist Party (PCF). In many analyses of May ‘68, writers will not actually focus on the events, and merely offer their own interpretations or arguments. This makes sense for a writer like Badiou or Louis Althusser, who generally wrote for an audience that is well acquainted with what happened. But for those born outside of France decades after the 60s, knowledge of the events is not a given. Cam’s aim in writing this essay is to ground an analysis of the PCF in the events themselves in order to demonstrate the problem of the party-form: how was a mass movement led by students that were largely interested in pursuing revolution, combined with the largest general strike in the history of France, partially neutralized by the actions of a communist party and its affiliated union (the CGT)?
In “Totality and the Vanguard Function,” Andrew McWhinney takes up the question of the party-form by investigating its place in the “vertical-horizontal” understanding of organization. While agreeing with growing calls for a return to the verticality of the party-form, he condemns those who would fetishize the party-form as the sole site of effective organizing or an inherently oppressive organizational structure. Examining the role of totality in the writings of Georg Lukács, Guy Debord, and Fredric Jameson, McWhinney argues that we should understand effective political organizations as ones that facilitate the articulation of social and historical totalities that chart a course for praxis, something which requires a degree of verticality that is mostly absent in contemporary organizing. Drawing on the work of Rodrigo Nunes, McWhinney further claims that this organizing function is not inherent to any particular organizational form, and therefore what needs to be nurtured for communist movements to succeed is the ability for multiple organizations to perform this function at different times.
Tommy McGlone holds a similar position to McWhinney, which he articulates in his essay, “Contra Fortuna.” McGlone continues the critique of a representational understanding of politics started in Negation’s newsletter entries, primarily by way of a more focused critique of Gramsci’s notion of the party-form as a political subject possessing a unitary will. He aims to reframe the anthropomorphic way communists often tend to discuss the actions and practices of the party-form. McGlone differentiates his own critique of the unitary political subject and representation from that of left-populists like Laclau-Mouffe, clarifying that even if the concept of the party-form must be reshaped (and if the role of the historical party-form must be questioned) the necessity of a communist idea of emancipation is essential for a meaningfully anti-capitalist social analysis.
In “Some Assembly Required,” Sean Alderson engages with the work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in order to consider alternatives to the party-form in contemporary organizing. Hardt and Negri advocate for a new form of organization, one which Alderson sees as bridging the divide between rigid structures and a lack of necessary organization. This new idea of organization involves a radical commitment to democratic systems, both within the movement as it seeks to change society and in the vision of the society it seeks to create. The work is not aimed at eliminating organizational options, rather, it is intended to elevate a method that Alderson believes has not been given its due consideration. In promoting this alternative, he engages with proponents of the party-form, aiming not to discredit the party-form but simply to deny that the relationship between communists and the party-form is one of necessity. With a commitment to democracy, aims to dismantle repressive state structures, and the knowledge of organization’s importance, Alderson believes that communists have a second choice with the power to create a system beyond capitalism.
In “Building Power Within the Imperial Core,” Brady A. discusses the challenges of integrated leftist organizing in the contemporary imperial core. They analyze the organizing being done today (tenant unions, mutual aid orgs, and the like) and note their common strengths and limitations. Inserting a party into a broader organizer ecology and discussing what this party's structure should be, ultimately sketching out democratic social relations which may render it responsive to the needs of many contesting liberation struggles. Lastly, Brady interrogates what revolution might look like in America, and concludes it would have to be global, in conspiracy with the Global South, avoiding as best it can the seizure of imperial state mechanisms in favor of the organized withdrawal and reconfiguration of labor-power."
Josh Messite’s “Who Needs A Party?” is an attempt to determine whether or not the Party-Form is compatible with the struggle for a communist society. The essay argues that communist strategy should be oriented around three concepts: power, development, and transformation. Although the Party-Form has been a useful tool in historical efforts to seize/maintain state power and develop strong national economies, no communist party has ever achieved the emancipatory transformation of social relations envisioned by Karl Marx. The essay takes the Chinese Cultural Revolution as a case study, presenting the failure of the Communist Party of China to progress beyond national developmentalism as evidence that the Leninist Party-Form is not conducive to communist social transformation. Rather than using this conclusion to demand that Maoist parties in the periphery self-liquidate, the purpose of the analysis is to call on communists in the imperial core to use the Commune-Form to help create global conditions conducive to the construction of a communist world order.
Each of these contributions is distinct, but distinctness should not be confused for uniqueness or separability. The final products found in this collection are the results of a collective editorial procedure, as well as multiple months of friendly debate and discussion around the issue of the party. As such, each piece, to one extent or another, is in some way connected to a greater process of mutual education and elaboration which itself would not have been possible without the participation of each and every writer involved, as well as many other Negation contributors, friends, and comrades. In no small way, each of the following texts is equally a product of individual study and of collective commiseration, of textual effort and casual conversation. If there is to be a definitive, intended goal for this collection, let it simply be this: that the common process which produced this group of explicitly communist arguments be continued, in some small way, by any discussions which may result from the act of reading them.