A recent study suggests four in ten Americans embrace some sort of socialism. A Gallup poll published in May of 2019 said, “Americans today are more closely divided than they were earlier in the last century when asked whether some form of socialism would be a good or bad thing for the country. While 51% of U.S. adults say socialism would be a bad thing for the country, 43% believe it would be a good thing. Those results contrast with a 1942 Roper/Fortune survey that found 40% describing socialism as a bad thing, 25% a good thing and 34% not having an opinion.”
The Roper/Fortune survey is one of the oldest trend questions measuring attitudes on socialism in the U.S.
In the twentieth century, millions of people across the globe addressed each other as “comrade.” Now, among the left, it’s more common to hear talk of “allies.” In Comrade, Jodi Dean insists that this shift exemplifies the key problem with the contemporary left: the substitution of political identity for a relationship of political belonging that must be built, sustained, and defended.
Dean offers a theory of the comrade. Comrades are equals on the same side of a political struggle. Voluntarily coming together in the struggle for justice, their relationship is characterized by discipline, joy, courage, and enthusiasm. Considering the egalitarianism of the comrade in light of differences of race and gender, Dean argues that if we are to be a left at all, we have to be comrades.
Jacobin recently said of of Dean and the book, “Like a good organizer, Jodi Dean sometimes makes you a little uncomfortable. Reading Comrade: An Essay on Political Belonging is like sitting in the awkward silence of a one-on-one conversation, after the “ask” has been made. If you’re the organizer, you’re resisting the urge to add, “No pressure, obviously,” to the question you’ve just posed. If you’re being organized, you’re evaluating your possible outs against your commitments to building socialism or another campaign, your sense of duty, and your desire to please your organizer.”
Between this book and her previous, Crowds and Party Dean seems to have moved from, or at least bridged, theory with real politics. Dean says what’s changed in the ensuing years has been the sense of urgency and the sense of possibility. “Urgency because of the climate crisis. As everybody knows, climate change isn’t coming. It’s here. And things were bad enough before Trump started rolling back all the (already minimal) Obama era initiatives. Time’s up. And this means that political organizing is more important than ever before,” she says. “Possibility because we’ve seen the enthusiasm that young people have for Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. The kids wants communism. Various surveys report not only that the majority of US Americans under the edge of thirty support socialism but that a strong percentage have a positive orientation toward communism. Yes, Labor lost the recent UK elections. And Bernie has an uphill battle in the Democratic Party. But the trajectory, the tendency, is too the left. We might keep losing some battles, but we will win the war because that’s the only way there will be a future for most people in the world.”
“Sometimes, ” Dean writes in the book, “we want and need someone to tell us what to do because we are too tired and overextended to figure it out for ourselves. Sometimes when we are given a task as a comrade, we feel like our small efforts have larger meaning and purpose, maybe even world-historical significance in the age-old fight of the people against oppression. Sometimes just knowing that we have comrades who share our commitments, our joys, and our efforts to learn from defeats makes political work possible where it was not before.”
From Jacobin: Dean’s latest book captures this desire and the relationships it sustains. In Crowds and Party, Dean made a compelling case for rehabilitating the party as an organizational form for the Left. Comrade offers an extended meditation on the specific relation that characterizes party life: comradeship. Comradeship is instrumental, but is this instrumentality strategic or an end in itself? For Dean, it seems to be both. In Crowds and Party, Dean offered the party as an answer to a strategic problem: How can the Left build power that endures once the crowds dissipate? Against the backdrop of Occupy Wall Street and the movements of the squares, Dean argued compellingly for the centralized, disciplined party as an antidote to the Left’s disorganization.
Dean also argues that comrade is a stronger and more relevant word than the oft throw around term “ally” that has come to be significant only in so far as an identity not an actual sense of solidarity with a movement and all its implications.The notion of Comrade and its implications are far better than ally. I asked Dean why ally became so ubiquitous. “Initially, ally became popular because of high school programs to stop the bullying of LGBTQ kids. It was a way to get straight-identifying kids to stand up for their LGBTQ classmates. Obviously, that’s positive and important. Yet as the term migrated onto university campuses and social media platforms, it merged with a toxic mix of cancel culture, the circulation of outrage, individualism, and their distortions of identity politics. In this new setting, ally became a way to hold onto and police identity categories. Ally was the term for people who wanted to help but were always going to be lacking, not aware enough and so on. All over the internet you can find guides for allies. And what you see with these guides is how politics becomes reduced to a person’s thoughts and attitudes. It’s about feeling the right way, saying the right things – not, say, occupying a building or going on strike. With this turn to attitudes and speech, ally became a weapon for bashing people who weren’t woke enough, who wanted to help – whose intentions were good – but who lacked awareness of the trends and minefields and all the rest. So the idea of the ally let people shield their own identity categories while at the same time calling on others to be on their side AND at the same time trash these others for not getting it right.”
Dean who teaches political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York spoke to #GAYNRD about the book.
You raise this so I know you are aware, but there seem to be two very different and passionate directions on the left. Yet sometimes I get a “cult” feeling from Bernie that I find disconcerting and rarely within that circle do you even hear of other figures that could lead—what’s your take? Haven’t you heard of Alexandra Ocasio Cortez and the squad? Aren’t they being groomed as significant figures for the left flank of the Democratic Party? I think you should ask yourself why you get this disconcerting “cult” feeling. I would attribute it to the way that mainstream capitalist and political culture values irony, critical distance, rapid change. Hardcore political commitment is not lauded in our culture. That Bernie has had the same message for forty years makes the mainstream media tune him out – that and the fact that he is a socialist.
How realistic is to imagine that this notion of comradeship becomes a reality in a time frame where it could be effective? If you recognize that there are two enormous communist parties in India, you realize that in some countries this notion of comradeship already is a reality. As it is in Cuba, and for the hundreds of thousands of supporters of Evo Morales, and the newly elected Socialists in Portugal. It’s a reality for the 60,000 members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), as well as the smaller parties and groups on the left. One of my goals in the book is to get people attuned to the fact that not only are socialism and communism still alive but that they hold out modes of association and political belonging that we in the US desperately need right now.
You talk about how “comrade” as gender neutral and the party’s involution of women and Black people was inherently part of its success; does this equally apply to LGBT folks? Yes – in very exciting ways. First, in contemporary China the Chinese word for comrade, tongzhi, also means gay. It has been a term used in the gay male scene in Shanghai for years. There was even a television series, Queer Comrades. Second, what’s great about “comrade” is that it’s gender neutral. It doesn’t require a gendered mode of address, like Mr. or Miss. This makes it ideal for a generation urging us to drop gendered pronouns and say “they.”
“Lots of times people want to do something but they don’t know what to do or how to do it.” Dean recently said in an essay on comradeship in Jacobin. “They may be isolated in nonunionized workplaces, overburdened by multiple flextime positions, stretched thin caring for friends and family. Disciplined organization — the discipline of comrades committed to common struggle for an emancipatory egalitarian future — can help here. Sometimes we want and need someone to tell us what to do because we are too tired and overextended to figure it out for ourselves. Sometimes when we are given a task as a comrade, we feel like our small efforts have larger meaning and purpose, maybe even world-historical significance in the age-old fight of the people against oppression. Sometimes just knowing that we have comrades who share our commitments, our joys, and our efforts to learn from defeats makes political work possible where it was not before.”
Comrade: An Essay on Political Belonging is available now from Verso books.