The idea of the Communist Party, opposed and slandered by all opportunists, instinctively seized upon and made their own by the best revolutionary workers, has yet often been seen in purely technical terms rather than as one of the most important intellectual questions of the revolution.
— Georg Lukács, “Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organization”
The politics of the beautiful moment is no politics at all… There is no politics until a meaning is announced and the struggle over this meaning begins.
— Jodi Dean, Crowds and Party
The question regarding parties is not whether they have a place in a movement ecology — they exist anyway, so they do — but what kind of relation they have or ought to have with it.
— Rodrigo Nunes, Neither Vertical Nor Horizontal
The party-form, at least in North America, is slowly accruing more discursive weight in left organizational discourse. A sizable amount of time has passed since the great horizontalist experiments such as Occupy, and this distance has begun to clearly show that these events, while having great potential, were failures — even if some still hold onto the dream of a “horizontalism done right.” The dawning of awareness of these failures has coincided with a slough of events that have jarred even some of the most politically neutral out of their complacency: the election of Donald Trump, the COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement, and in Canada, the discoveries of mass graves of children at residential school sites and the brutal repression of Wet'suwet'en and Haudenosaunee land defenders by the Canadian state. Many want to do something, and they want to know the most effective way of getting that something done.
I have seen calls by many communists, in both literature and in organizing spaces, to return to the party. They say that only the party can save us from the failures of horizontalism; only the party can serve as a long-standing institution that allows for communists to preserve and build strength over time; only the party can integrate the struggles of all oppressed peoples. Without the party, there is no organization, and without organization, there is no way of making the change we want to make.
I do not necessarily take issue with calls to return to the party-form, or at least with what they convey on the surface. They are aimed at solving serious problems that a dogmatic form of horizontal organizing cannot: scaling power up from the local to the national to the international, and ensuring that this power has historical longevity. In this sense, I share these frustrations, and I am sympathetic to calls for verticality in organizational spaces. I do, however, question the insistence on the party-form being the only form of organizing that can bring about these effects. If dogmatic supporters of the party-form rightfully critique the idealism of horizontalists, what they fail to examine and critique more fully is their own idealism regarding the party-form. We have to ask a question of the party-form and of organizational forms more broadly, one that Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari posed in Anti-Oedipus: “how do we combat the deadly inclination that makes a group pass from its revolutionary libidinal investments to revolutionary investments that are simply preconscious investments or investments of interest, then to preconscious investments that are simply reformist? And where do we even situate such and such a group?”1 The party-form has failed multiple times to meet its supporters’ demands and expectations for it to be the only reliable organizing form for bringing about and continuing a successful revolution — the gradual bureaucratization of the USSR, for example, shows this quite clearly. It is thus obvious that the party-form is not an inherent solution to our problems. It does indeed bring sorely needed elements to organizing, but those elements need to be actively secured in political struggle, in the very activity of organizing itself.
In light of this conjuncture, I argue for the place of verticality in organizing: to restore a place for the party-form, or at least the elements that it represents to those who hold it as an antidote to the ills of current-day organizing. These positive elements, which include discipline and cohesion, have been paranoically swept away by those who see all invocations of “hierarchy” as spelling doom for social transformation. Some form of verticality, of “organization,” is required in order to increase the collective power of those who wish to transform the world and direct that power towards a revolutionary end. Holding fidelity to this end requires being able to provisionally read the historical totality at different moments, to hold open political ruptures in the everyday. To communicate this importance, I read the work of Hungarian Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács alongside French philosopher Guy Debord and American literary critic Fredric Jameson.
The restoration of verticality cannot, however, function by extinguishing other forms of organizing; that would be hubristic. Numerous organizing forms must at once build their capacity for what Rodrigo Nunes calls the vanguard-function: “the ability to read the situation, interpret its tendencies and potentials, and introduce modulations that are capable of triggering broader effects.”2 This requires some degree of verticality, and while the party-form has traditionally been the bearer of the vanguard-function and remains a necessary part of the organizing ecology, it is not the exclusive site of this capacity.
The Role of Totality in Organization
At the end of his 1923 magnum opus, History and Class Consciousness, Lukács wrote “Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organization,” a comprehensive explanation of the role of organizing in the struggle for communism, and a defense of why the party-form, as embodied by the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution, is the best way to go about achieving effective organization. First, why do we need organization? Lukács says it is necessary because the proletariat, while structurally positioned to be the grave-diggers of capitalism, do not spontaneously come to understand that they hold this position – at least, not all together in a way that can actually pose a threat to capitalist structures. As he notes, “the class consciousness of the proletariat does not develop uniformly throughout the whole proletariat, parallel with the objective economic crisis.”3 This latent political power needs to be actively constituted through politics — to be articulated4 — which is where organization comes in.
For Lukács, the role of organization is to mediate between theory and practice, and to bring both realms into a dialectical relationship. Theory gives direction to on-ground struggles, and at the same time revelations from practice work back on the theory, changing its assumptions and modifying its principles to “better match” the goals ahead, and onwards and onwards. It is this dialectical nature which Lukács says makes organization “[manifest] a much greater, finer and more confident sensitivity towards divergent trends than any other sector of political thought or action.”5 Done right, organization can account for a multitude of openings for future action and can develop revolutionary knowledge; done wrong, it can foreclose assumptions in the name of theoretical purity. For a theory of revolution to have teeth, says Lukács, it needs an organizational arm to unite it with practice; otherwise, it simply remains a set of opinions.6 But not all organized actions are revolutionary in and of themselves; organized actions are a “tangle of individual deeds on the part of individuals and groups”7 which do not have any sort of historical or social “necessity” in their occurrence. They are only legible in their function — revolutionary, counter-revolutionary, and otherwise — when examined within the historical totality: organizational action “must possess a function within the historical process and its mediating role between past and future must be understood.”8 The revolutionary index, we might say, of an organizational action purely has to do with whether it builds class consciousness. Does it bring awareness to the proletariat of their historical-structural position within capitalism and does that awareness drive revolutionary practice — that is, practice that advances the overthrow of capitalism and the abolition of the class society?
Compared to both purely bourgeois and opportunist parties, the Communist Party for Lukács was the first ever site where “the active and practical side of class consciousness directly [influenced] the specific actions of every individual and… at the same time… consciously [helped] to determine the historical process.”9 This is because its structure avoided the reified division between the party and its followers that he saw plaguing other organizational forms. Bourgeois parties do not create real opportunities for the working class to intervene in the class struggle, to see themselves in the totality; instead, their members are “more or less peripheral and never fully engaged observers [who] pass judgment on the fatalistically accepted course of events or the errors of individuals.”10 They see themselves as individuals who cannot intervene in history, and thus do not develop true class consciousness. The Communist Party, on the other hand, enables its members to see themselves as a unified force, and it does so through discipline, through the subordination of the individual wills of its members to a larger collective will for the overthrow of capitalism, something which requires consistent, material intervention, and not a merely contemplative relationship to things. Among the Bolsheviks, “party membership was synonymous with active personal participation in the work of revolution.”11
The hierarchy and discipline present in the Communist Party do several things, according to Lukács: first, they allow for flexibility in revolutionary tactics, as “every change of direction would mean the regrouping of all one’s forces”12 without disruption or delay. Second, they create a powerful affective energy, an “inner atmosphere” of enthusiasm towards action. Third, since party members are, ideally, putting the entirety of their existence into the party, they are putting themselves at risk, and as such have stakes in action that ensure their criticisms and feedback are effective. Accordingly, given the stakes of member investment in the party, leaders will feel an obligation to put significant effort into convincing party members of the “correctness” of their decisions.13 The party, “with its resulting iron discipline and its demand for total commitment tears away the reified veils that cloud the consciousness of the individual in capitalist society.”14 It occupies a space that allows people to seize upon spontaneous actions and give them direction, and it does so not through acting as the representative of the proletariat, but as “an independent organization so that the proletariat may be able to see its own class consciousness given historical shape.”15 Articulation occurs only because a distance exists between the proletariat and the party; “the Communist Party does not function as a stand-in for the proletariat even in theory.”16 Since the Bolsheviks were the only group who managed to put their theoretical basis into successful revolutionary practice, they remain, for Lukács, the prime example of this form of organization.
If Lukács is singing the praises of the Leninist model, why would I not simply cite Lenin? It is because of Lukács’s linkage of organization to the concept of totality: the understanding of society as a sum of interrelated elements, where said elements can only be understood in relation to the sum, and vice versa. Anti-humanist Marxists may cringe at the mention of “totality,” given its associations with a Hegelian teleology where the part merely expresses the essence of the whole, but I think that the concept provides a useful frame for thinking about the role of organization. We can (and I think should) abandon, as Lukács himself later does, the idea of the proletariat as the subject-object of history17, and we should ensure to centre the economic structures of capitalism in the analysis of socio-historical totalities, not the other way around.18 We should also recognize the totality not as a homogenous construction privileging capitalism and the proletariat as the sole drivers in world history, but as a “unity of difference,” a decentred, overdetermined structure where the economy is determinative in the last instance, a la the Althusserian tradition — while still retaining the dialectical understanding of Lukács.
Taking all of these steps is not as difficult as it may appear, as Fredric Jameson’s reading of totality and its Althusserian critique demonstrates. The Althusserian critique of the “expressive causality” of idealist totalities, of which Althusser considers Lukács a central propagator, is that they, through dialectical mediation, collapse all relational levels between planes of analysis and reduce each level’s important differences into one primary difference, distorting one’s analysis. A properly Marxist totality (what Althusser would in some of his later work refer to as the “whole”19), on the other hand, is a decentered structure understood not through idealist mediation, which finds unity in its elements by first identifying an ultimate identity (ie. Hegelian Geist) between all its elements, but in how each element of a structure is relationally different from all the others. In this structuralist understanding, the unity of the totality is thus purely negative, not established through a positive essence.
Reading this critique from a parallax position, Jameson argues that Althusserian “structural causality” is itself a form of mediation and should not be read as an attack on dialectical mediation tout court, but rather as an attack on unreflective homologies that do not take up mediation’s full potential for identifying difference. As Jameson notes, “one cannot enumerate the differences between things except against the background of some more general identity. Mediation undertakes to establish this initial identity, against which then — but only then — local identification or differentiation can be registered.”20 In this way, Jameson suggests that “Althusser's program for a structural Marxism must be understood as a modification within the dialectical tradition, rather than a complete break with it — a kind of genetic mutation in which some wholly new Marxism emerges that has no relationship at all to the classical categories in which dialectical philosophy has been couched.”21 For Jameson, the unification of identification that mediation provides is thus always formal or temporary, a tool to be deployed for the purposes of critique rather than for developing a new ontology.
The totality is an effective tool for combatting what Jameson calls ideological strategies of containment: the construction of coherent narratives through the suppression of untenable contradictions.22 The construction of a totality is also what allows the proletariat, an internally differentiated class, to understand its place(s) in the vast structures of society — which capitalism materially and ideologically works to repress — and thus chart a course for praxis. This is what Lukács can be read as saying when he states that organization has a “mediating role between past and future;” the totality is an essential part of the theoretical half of the dialectical mediation between theory and praxis. Thus, effective organization, whether it is the party-form or otherwise, must play the role of facilitating the construction of totalities; this is part of its articulating function.
And totalization is even more important in the contemporary era of monopoly capitalism, or what Jameson has diagnosed as the age of postmodernity. As technological developments allow for the ever-accelerating production of codes, sign-commodities, and the like beyond our cognitive capabilities, we have (Jameson claims) entered an age whose most appropriate aesthetic model is Jacques Lacan’s notion of schizophrenia: the breakdown of the signifying chain, the inability to map oneself psychically, socially, or otherwise, to a sense of history, the severing of linkage to the past and future. This de-linkage to temporality, a sort of trans- or a-historicism,
suddenly releases [the] present of time from all the activities and intentionalities that might focus it and make it a space of praxis… this present of the world… comes before the subject with heightened intensity, bearing a mysterious change of affect, here described in the negative terms of anxiety and loss of reality, but which one could just as well image in the positive terms of euphoria, a high, an intoxicatory or hallucinogenic intensity.
Detached from a sense of socio-historical totality, individuals are overwhelmed by the space of the present, either paralyzed or swept up by exhilaration in this loss of ground. Jameson says that these effects of “postmodern hyperspace” on the subject are symptomatic of our inability to map it; we can no longer construct totalities. Thus, there is an imperative to “grow new organs, expand our sensorium and our body to some new, yet unimaginable, perhaps ultimately impossible dimensions.”24 We must facilitate new forms of what Jameson, borrowing from architect Kevin Lynch, calls cognitive mapping: the construction of “a situational representation on the part of the individual subject to that vaster and properly unrepresentable totality which is the ensemble of society’s structures as a whole.”25 Thus, organization, in my eyes, is meant to facilitate and hold open the political possibilities for modes of cognitive mapping, which emerge from the mediation of theory and practice.
The question I have for Lukács, then, is this: what is it about the specific form of Communist Party that guarantees all of the benefits he attributes to it? Ultimately, Lukács is fetishizing the form of the Communist Party, falsely attributing its organizational attributes (verticality, discipline) to its form. Surely verticality and discipline are not unique to the party-form. And there are other elements at play demonstrating that verticality alone will not solve organizational issues.
This tension emerges most clearly in the writing of Guy Debord, one of the most influential carriers of Lukács’s legacy of Hegelian Marxism. Debord’s Society of the Spectacle draws from Lukácsian conceptions of class consciousness and reification in its own understanding of the “spectacle,” and thus its conception of effective organization. As Debord states, “the fusion of knowledge and action must be realized in the historical struggle itself, in such a way that each of these terms guarantees the truth of the other… the practical conditions of consciousness must exist, conditions in which the theory of praxis is confirmed by becoming practical theory.”26 Debord, like Lukács, attacks the Second International for having a merely contemplative relationship to history, for having “lost as much of the Hegelian dimension of a total history as it has lost the immobile image of totality in the utopian critique.”27 Unlike Lukács, Debord decries the Bolsheviks for what he sees as their bourgeois orientation towards the proletariat. Instead of maintaining that fundamental gap between the party and the working class needed to generate political action, Debord argues that the Bolsheviks, in reality, closed that gap and became the representation of the Russian working class:
The historical moment when Bolshevism triumphed for itself in Russia and when social-democracy fought victoriously for the old world marks the inauguration of the state of affairs that is at the heart of the domination of the modern spectacle: the representation of the working class radically opposes itself to the working class.
For Debord, the Bolshevik hierarchy devolved into a sort of managerial function and began to monopolize the horizon of communist organizing. Its own representational attitude towards the proletariat paved the way for its own bureaucratic reification and its development into Stalinism — which held onto both the division between intellectual and physical labor and commodity production, and thus for Debord is a form of “state capitalism.” Debord viciously attacks Lukács’s defense of Bolshevik party-form, stating that
[Lukács] described as actual merits of the Bolshevik party everything that the Bolshevik party was not. Except for his profound theoretical work, Lukács was still an ideologue speaking in the name of a power most grossly external to the proletarian movement… the real party whose imaginary portrait Lukács has inopportunely drawn was coherent for only one precise and partial task: to seize State power.
Lukács was clear in 1923 that the Communist Party was not an iron guarantee against counter-revolution, stating that “forces that work towards revolution today may very well operate in the reverse direction tomorrow.”30 But according to Debord’s historical viewpoint in 1967, Lukács has remained too enamored with the power of the Bolsheviks to objectively assess their more counter-revolutionary tendencies; Lukács was too idealistic.
So if the Bolshevik party-form cannot facilitate the building of class consciousness, what can? For Debord, the answer is the workers’ council. The Council, lacking bourgeois holdovers like hierarchical organization, is the only organizational form that actually allows for the building of class consciousness. It refuses the allure of the State; it “no longer [combats] alienated forms with alienated forms.”31 It does not stand-in for the working class, but “a radical separation from the world of separation.”32 And instead of staying around past the moment of revolution, past the moment of the dissolution of class society and the proletariat, the Council too dissolves. These traits ensure that the Council will not lapse into a purely contemplative position.
I have laid out Debord’s arguments against Lukács and the Bolshevik party-form here, not because I entirely agree with them, but because they bring to light an interesting conundrum. Debord and Lukács essentially hold the exact same understanding of the role of organization, which is to develop and actualize class consciousness through the dialectical mediation of theory and praxis — something that can only be done by an organizational form that articulates, not represents, political interests. But they both only see one organizational form as fulfilling this role: the vertical, hierarchical, “iron discipline” of the Leninist vanguard, or the horizontal, non-hierarchical democracy of the workers’ council. Lukács quite rightly argues that political action needs some form of organizational discipline to stay coordinated enough to break and overthrow capitalism, and he warns that there are indeed moments where the verticality of this approach can go wrong. Debord tries to offer a corrective, bending the stick to show that these risks of bourgeois ossification were not paid attention to enough, and that organizational thought ultimately became captured by the party. Both thinkers, however, fetishize a single organizational form as the sole way to build class consciousness. We have ended up at an impasse, stopped dead in our tracks by a dichotomy between the vertical and the horizontal, an either/or conceptualization of organizing. How do we move beyond this formal fetishism?
The Vanguard Function: Against Dualism
Brazilian philosopher Rodrigo Nunes has made great strides in trying to work through this impasse. In his book Neither Vertical nor Horizontal, Nunes aims to shift the debate on organizing from “ought” to “is,” yielding new questions like, how do we understand organization? What is it, what is it in its current state, what are its goals? Instead of asserting, in a moralistic fashion, the “correct way to organize,” we should be thinking about what kinds of organization best serve a networked ecology of actors.
In this ecological understanding of organization, individuals and groups act on and organize each other to different degrees: “while organization is universal, each individual organized thing is both a potential threat to the organization of others and constantly threatened from the outside and inside by a disorganization to which it is fated to return.”33 From this viewpoint, there is no such thing as a purely “spontaneous” or unorganized act or movement.
What is central for Nunes is ensuring that forces, not forms, remain at the centre of discussion. For Nunes, “political organization concerns the assembling and channeling of the collective capacity to act in such a way that produces political effects.”35 Using terminology inspired by the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, Nunes says that organization should build collective potentia against the potestas of the ruling class.36 It is only collective potentia that can face up to the immense repressive power of the ruling class; as such, the subject of politics is always collective.
But this does not mean that the forces exerted by a collective subject are always unified. Nunes states that the collective subject exerts force through two types of political action: aggregate action and collective action. Aggregate action is what happens when uncoordinated actions of individuals accumulate over time and effect a mass of small political changes that gradually produce larger shifts. The subject enacting aggregate action is still collective — these subjects see themselves as belonging to a larger movement — but less centralized and coordinated. Collective action, on the other hand, occurs when the collective subject is more tightly integrated and coordinated; individuals, instead of taking up change at the scale of the personal, “intentionally come together and engage in processes of deliberation, planning, assessing, intervening and so forth.”37 Through this intentionality, individuals can combine and focus their potentia into a force capable of overthrowing institutional barriers. These two forms of action are not opposed to each other, but rather are part-and-parcel of how political change occurs. Borrowing from Deleuze and Guattari, Nunes says that every large-scale social transformation has both a macro (collective action) and molecular (aggregate action) element: “if it can be recognized as a revolution at all, a molecular revolution must inevitably involve the molar, macropolitical inscription of molecular, micropolitical transformations.”38 Aggregate action and collective action are thus both intertwined in the organizational ecology, and thus both necessary for social transformation. The ecology is a space of distributed action: “the common space in which collective and aggregate action combine, communicate, relate and establish positive and negative feedback loops with one another.”39 What we should then focus on is seeing actors and larger movements as nodes in a network, with varying levels of centralization. We should ask ourselves “what exists in the ecology now, is it effective for achieving the ends we want, and if not, how do we work within this ecology to make it so?”
In our current moment, there has been too much emphasis on the aggregate action of individuals; think of the biannual calls for some form of general strike with no organizational basis or concrete future directions for action. The reasons for this are multiple and more complex than I can adequately address in this essay, but I can list a few: further intensified atomization under monopoly capitalism, perceived failures of actually-existing socialism in the 20th century, the victory of capitalism in the Cold War and the resulting stranglehold of capitalist realism. The individual has been privileged as the only meaningful — and non-“totalitarian” — actor capable of political change. Individuals can come together to protest and make mass change, yes, but otherwise change should be about personal growth: read this book and internalize its messages to adjust your own individual action; think about your individual relations with others but not in any systematic way. As Viewpoint Magazine editor Salar Mohandesi has pointed out, this has worked wonders for the state, as it has allowed for them to disarticulate the potentia of collective subjects and retain their potestas:
Where once there were collective subjects fighting to solve shared problems, there will only be separated individuals. For good measure, the state will sometimes recompose these atomized individuals into ersatz collectivities, like “middle America,” or the “white working class,” or “the black community.” Unlike social forces in struggle, these are passive entities where everyone is kept apart, no one has any real agency, and leaders appointed by the state tell everyone else what to think, and more importantly how to vote. These are not groups of people building new subjectivities, but individuals interpellated as a static identity by the state. These are not living collectives working through their differences, but homogenous abstractions that paper over real internal divisions. People are united, but only in their separation.
From Nunes’s perspective, what has played out is an overemphasis on aggregate action to the detriment of collective action. One of the key reasons for why this has occurred, says Nunes, is that increased atomization under capitalism — coinciding with the historical trauma of the failures of socialist organizations abroad and at home — have produced “a mistrust of structure, discipline, and collectivity which… has become permanently woven into the ambient mood of our time.”41 Greater collective potentia appears as more of a threat than its absence, and as such, aggregate action feels safer to undertake.
Nunes is quick to point out that these concerns are not simply to be handwaved away, given that they are a key part of why people organize in the ways they do today. We do have to recognize that potentia can indeed slip into a potestas that seeks to eliminate other organizations in order to consolidate power for its own sake.42 But specific forms are not inherently free from things like ossification, bureaucratization, and the like; to think this way is to ascribe a formalism that Nunes is precisely trying to avoid. A key part of politics is constant struggle within organizations to ensure they remain loyal to revolutionary ends; it is why Lukács warned that revolutionary forces can turn counter-revolutionary in a day, and why Deleuze and Guattari are so invested in understanding the processes that affect the revolutionary fidelity of individuals and organizations. If there is no form that can guarantee freedom from failure, then we have to weigh the risks of adopting certain organizational forms based on how and where they channel force. Form is relevant in determining what organizations to use to perform certain functions in certain areas, given that none of them can do everything. Nunes says that we should “assume a plurality of forms, rather than a universal one, and… distribute them across a diverse organizational ecology, rather than project all of our expectations on a single form or organization.”43
Nunes’s corrective to the organizational weakness of today’s left is to emphasize the production of more organizational forms that can produce collective action — not in place of aggregate action, but alongside it in such a way as to create the necessary potentia required to enact political change. It means producing collective action through institutions that can scale power across local, national, and international levels. So, what does this mean for the party-form?
The party-form is certainly one of these organizational forms that, given its emphasis on discipline and hierarchy, can serve as a strong vertical node in the organizing ecology. In our time, however, it is not the only form that can perform this role. This does not mean that it is obsolete. Rather, it is a form that specialises in a particular set of actions that other organizational forms are weak at, and for Nunes, these are functions related to electoral strategy and the affairs of the state. The party-form is thus an organization whose role should be “addressing the atomised ‘people’ who are not politically active or involved in organizations of any kind.”44 The party brings uninvolved sectors into the fold through electoral politics and articulates their political desire in order to secure hegemony. It does not unify the entire ecology through acting as a sort of meta-ecology, as Mohandesi and others have argued, but works to provide another unique avenue of potentia: “whereas the party offers the ecology the possibility of intervening at the level of the state, the ecology offers the votes and engagement that can give the party a core base from which to build electoral coalitions.”46
So what of the party’s specific role as the articulator, as the organising site where those who wish to change the world can visualise their place in the totality and the direction their work must go? What of class consciousness?
Nunes says that today, instead of total vertical integration, we need “a sufficient number of nodes that can do each [unique function] well and are adept at visualizing their work within a larger whole, eliciting contributions from others and offering theirs in return.”47 This allows for further flexibility as conditions change and the need for specific organizational interventions waxes and wanes. Instead of a party-form leading a coalition of other organizations, there is “distributed leadership:” different organizational nodes take up leadership functions at different times. That leadership function is the vanguard-function mentioned in the introduction to this essay: “the ability to read [a] situation, interpret its tendencies and potentials, and introduce modulations that are capable of triggering broader effects” — a cognitive map, if you will. The vanguard-function is not about revealing a singular, correct direction for struggle to take place, but for opening up the space for a multitude of possibilities “with a view to finding those [paths] that are both viable and could lead farthest in the desired direction.”48 Given that no organizational form is guaranteed to facilitate this articulating function — at least in a homogenous, universal way — multiple organizations should be able to carry out vanguard-functions. This further increases flexibility and accountability between each organizational form. A multitude of organizational forms, then, can build class-consciousness, so long as they facilitate the mediation between theory and practice. This mediation, of course, entails some degree of verticality within the organization. But this verticality of course carries the risk of lapses into pure contemplation or potestas. But these are risks that need to be weighed seriously and still taken if potentia is to be built. Such is politics.
Towards a Pluralistic Verticality
I have advocated for a return to organizational verticality in the midst of horizontalist-fetishist failures. Verticality is sorely needed in the contemporary moment of postmodernity and monopoly capitalism, where an overemphasis on aggregate action due to atomized individualism has debilitated revolutionary organising. In our moment, it is the restoration of verticality that will allow for the scaling of power over time and the increase in potentia that is needed to fight the potestas of capitalist states. Verticality is also the way that class consciousness, against a purely contemplative attitude towards one’s political actions, facilities the mediation of theory and praxis for the creation of totalities — totalities that, through allowing us to see our place(s) in the immense relational network of global capitalism, renew the sense that another world is possible and that our actions on the ground today can bring that world about.
In this sense, I agree with calls to bring back the party-form, to stop demonizing it as an inherent site of bureaucracy and the death knell of revolutionary progress. But I do not call back the party in place of any “horizontalist” forms of organizing or see it as a meta-ecological organization that can necessarily link every other organization together. The party has its place in terms of parliamentary functions, and its relative importance will ebb and flow just as the importance of other organizations will ebb and flow relative to changes on the ground. What is needed now is formal experimentation and willingness to take calculated risks in the name of developing the forces required to overthrow capitalism — and that means an integration of multiple forms of more vertical nodes alongside horizontal nodes. To return to a horizontalist fetish, to avoid thinking totality/ies, to avoid doing the hard and necessary work of struggle within organizational forms, is precisely the opposite of this.
- Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), p. 349.
- Rodrigo Nunes, Neither Vertical Nor Horizontal (London: Verso, 2021, eBook), p. 229.
- Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1997), p. 304.
- For more on articulation, see Salar Mohandesi’s “Party As Articulator” (Viewpoint Magazine, 4 Sept. 2020), as well as the Negation Magazine Newsletters for June, July, and September 2021. For Mohandesi, the party-form has three articulating functions: “connecting distinct social forces, providing continuity over time, and giving voice to a common political content.”
- Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, p. 305.
- This was Lukács’s critique of the non-Russian revolutionaries in the Second International.
- Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, p. 305.
- Ibid., pp. 299-300.
- Ibid., p. 318.
- Ibid., p. 319.
- Ibid., p. 316.
- Ibid., p. 331.
- Ibid., p. 336-7.
- Ibid., p. 339.
- Ibid., p. 326.
- Ibid., p. 326.
- “…the proletariat seen as the identical subject-object of the real history of mankind is no materialist consummation that overcomes the construction of idealism” (ibid., p. xxiii).
- “But whereas Lenin really brought about a renewal of the Marxian method my efforts resulted in a – Hegelian – distortion, in which I put the totality in the centre of the system, overriding the priority of economics” (ibid., p. xx).
- For more on the concept of the whole, see Althusser’s essay “Is It Simple to be a Marxist in Philosophy?” in Essays in Self-Criticism (1976).
- Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious (Milton Park: Routledge, 2006), p. 26.
- Ibid., p. 34.
- An example narrative: “a producer’s payment of a wage in exchange for the labour time of a worker is a fair and equal exchange.” This narrative suppresses the fact that the particular status of labour power as a commodity facilitates surplus value extraction, better known as exploitation — a fundamentally unequal exchange that serves as the fundamental basis for capitalism.
- Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1992, eBook), p. 49.
- Ibid., p. 61.
- Ibid., p. 74, emphasis mine. I emphasize “situational” given the pre-established notion that the totality is a “unity-of-difference;” there is no one “true,” static map that can stand in for the totality. Maps will always be situational, depending on geographic contexts over time, and holding fidelity to these situational differences is imperative for shaping praxis. Despite there being no “true” map, I agree with Jameson that alongside this fact “there can be scientific progress, or better still, a dialectical advance, in the various historical moments of mapmaking” (ibid., p. 76).
- Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit: Black and Red, 1983), aphorism 90.
- Ibid, aph. 95.
- Ibid, aph. 100.
- Ibid, aph. 112.
- Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, p. 311.
- Debord, Society of the Spectacle, aph. 122.
- Ibid, aph. 119.
- Nunes, p. 31-2.
- This point strikes at the heart of the issue of those who advocate either exclusive horizontality or exclusive verticality: they fixate on the party as the sole site of organization, either positive or negative, something to be accepted or rejected outright. “Both ‘verticalists’ and ‘horizontalists’… implicitly [entail] that whatever is not a party or on the way to becoming one is somehow ‘unorganized.’ Any talk of organization can thus be identified with an inevitable slide towards domination, and people will push back against the party even when it is explicitly not the party that others are talking about.” (Ibid, p. 51).
- Ibid, p. 33.
- Nunes defines potentia as individuals’ “capacity to act — their power to do things, to affect and be affected by each other” (p. 33) and postestas as “all sorts of thing that could be described as ‘power over’ or grouped under the vague expression the powers that be” (p. 33).
- Ibid, pp. 34-5.
- Ibid, p. 36.
- Ibid, pp. 38-9.
- Mohandesi, “Party as Articulator.”
- Nunes, p. 51.
- While we can question whether it had any unconscious revolutionary investment, Black Hammer is perhaps a relevant, if not exaggerated, example of this sort of transformation of potentia into potestas, with it swallowing up the collective energy of individuals into a dangerous anti-Semitic project that sought to destroy revolutionary organizations in a COINTELPRO-like manner through Operation Storm of White Tears (OSWT).
- Nunes, p. 55.
- Ibid, p. 262.
- Mohandesi: “The party is not, and can never substitute itself for [extra-parliamentary] bodies. Nor can it simply wish them into being with the wave of some magic wand. But the party can help catalyze, develop, and protect them – and most importantly of all, it can hold these oppositional organizations together in a deeper unity through its articulating function.” Jodi Dean has stated that “the array of classic party organizations — newspapers, literary magazines, clubs, trade associations, sports teams, schools, theater troupes, women’s groups, industry-focused councils, to mention but a few — reminds us that communist parties have always exceeded the binary of state and factory, actively engaging in multiple social, cultural, and economic fronts as elements of one struggle” (Crowds and Party [London: Verso, 2016] 162).
- Nunes, p. 264.
- Ibid, p. 195.
- Ibid, p. 223.