This Party Sucks


The political mind of the radical is destined to be miserable.

    Paul Mattick


Communists worry a lot about parties. 

As is well known, the broad, internally-riven church of Lenin stakes everything on the formation of a party of disciplined, professional revolutionary cadre to shape the putty of the class and lead it to dictatorship; the general lack of interest amongst both intellectuals and masses in playing either of their assigned roles in this drama demonstrates that we live in benighted times indeed. Their would-be generals meet, re-arrange their acronyms, and worry about where to find their armies.

Many antinomian tendencies of the anti-Leninist faithful worry that it’s precisely the existence of such authoritarian sects of aspiring bureaucrats that is — or more realistically, was — to blame for blunting the essentially revolutionary élan of the class, and leading it astray. Party-building must, thus, be prevented to keep the muzzle off the allegedly otherwise chomping jaws of the autonomous class. 

Then there are all of the intermediate variants, largely born of worried self-reflection on how relatively irrelevant the above polar positions have been for at least seventy years. 

There is the notion of the party as the subjective shape of the class when it has been politically composed through struggles, and so the role of its conscious germs, its yeast, oscillates between, on the one side, the sociologist studying the presently hegemonic ‘figures of the class’ as technically composed by the capitalist labor-process, and, on the other, the architect strategically articulating the recomposition of the class’s struggles — this is the, we could say, ‘modest leninism’ associated with operaismo, autonomism, and their analogues, offshoots, and admirers. There is the Tiqqunistes’ playful détournement of the much-feared notion of party-building, stretched so thin that it means for them, more or less, making friends and learning outdoorsy boy-scout skills. Then there is the (post-)Bordigist notion of the historical party (finding the legitimation of Marx’s invariant dicta in one, count it, one letter), which is to be distinguished from formal parties, the political organizations with programs and funds, central committees and membership rolls of card-carrying cadre, that the Leninist mainstream is devoted to building, the latter forming merely episodes in the history of the party in the broad sense. We needn’t worry too much about building this historical party, because the historical party builds itself, as it were — it springs up naturally in response to capitalist conditions, though it, obviously, also falls back down naturally in response to capitalist conditions, which are not so invariant. Sometimes it’s strong and can don its ‘fighting form,’ the formal party, and sometimes it’s weak, but it’s there. 

Appealing to the authority of that one letter to Freiligrath is rather silly, because this broad historical sense was actually quite common when the young Marx became a partisan of communism, and it makes a lot of sense. Formal, card-carrying membership parties weren’t much of a thing, especially in settings like, say, 1840s Germany, in which there was no parliament that they could even consider participating in or smashing. The documentary evidence of Marx’s early engagement with revolutionary agitation is full of references to the communist party, the proletarian party, the democratic party, the party of order, and so on, which denote not so much formal organizations, as the conscious partisans of those tendencies. The famous Manifesto was the manifesto of this sort of ‘party,’ as, while Marx belonged to a little League, no such organization called ‘The Communist Party,’ of course, then existed. 

We at least owe it to Camatte, DauvĂ©, and other wayward French children of Bordiga, then, for pointing out this obvious fact: the communist party exists. There are people all over the world who think of themselves as communists, though few would agree with one another about much of anything. Some of them wrote this essay. You, who are reading it, are most likely one of them. The party is not an in-itself, an an sich. It is a relational moment. It stands in relation to the class. We needn’t enter here into the hotly-contested matter of what proletarians are, and to what degree the party has a proletarian composition, if it has enough proletarian atoms to make it a proletarian aggregate, and with it the hoary dispute over whether it is the most conscious and militant fraction of the class, or it brings consciousness to the class from ‘outside.’ The dynamic of the party is at work whenever a self-styled communism sets itself over and against the sellers (or would-be sellers) of the labor-power commodity in their internal, self-reproducing relation with the capital of which they form the variable part. 

When one of us recently reflected on awkwardly, frustratingly talking with her coworkers about this society’s desperate situation, and struggling to, and largely failing to, figure out how to express her communist perspective on this situation — that’s the party. It’s miserable. And miserably irrelevant, because she, as a proletarian, is already immediately caught, just like her fellow workers, between the need to work for the wage to survive, and all the needs of life that this need dominates, surfacing weakly as the semi-somatic desire to work less.



Talk of a ‘we’ one identifies with already implies complicity with what is wrong.

    Theodor W. Adorno


The people in our little theory circle (which we’ve called, with more layers of pretentious and embarrassed irony than we can count, an Institute) rarely associate with other communists, because, when we do, though we, of course, avoid those fixated on the task of party-building in the traditional, formal sense, we are overwhelmed by the way in which the dynamic of the party nonetheless constantly asserts itself, and is not really questioned. 

The party appears when communists speak, seemingly without a second thought, of an ‘us,’ an ‘us’ that is worried about what ‘we’ should ‘do.’ What ‘we’ should do about ‘them,’ or for ‘them,’ or even with ‘them.’ Amongst communists who at least don’t have the bad taste to speak of their principled devotion to the people, or how to reach them or teach them, this relation of separation, this political doubling in which we appear to ourselves as something over and against what we are and want and need and are compelled to do in our everyday life, as ideally saved although we’re really as damned as everyone else, appears in more attenuated, ambiguous, and obscure forms. In the simple, antithetical language of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ ‘us’ and the struggles. Maybe we’re too self-effacing to say we want to lead them, or organize them — we have to settle for oblique, mannered phrases like composing, articulating; or maybe we shouldn’t do the composing, or articulating, but it is to be done, and we will at least recognize and record, reflect on it, discuss it amongst ourselves, cheer it on, and then later, dissect its inarticulate decomposition.  

And while maybe we shouldn’t have pretensions of leadership (and every now and then, some firebrand drunk on pdfs of old Prometeo issues and exasperated with ‘our’ impotence, will say fuck it, maybe we should have pretensions of leadership), we should at least do something. What’s going on where you live? communists ask each other to report back. What’ve you been doing? But what counts as doing and what counts as something in these unthought phrases? If pressed, the answer would no doubt contain the words ‘struggle’ or ‘organizing’ (‘activism,’ at least, is thankfully passé). We have to do something to tell the party we’re doing something, do our charity work so that we deserve to ascend one day to the great gemeinwesen to come.

Well, if you must know, we do something. We struggle. We struggle every day to access the means of subsistence. We struggle to walk down the street and live, to look ourselves in the eye without wanting to die. We struggle at the force of our own mutilated constitution which presses down ceaselessly, objectively on us, in us, through us, and between us and everyone we’re locked in this circuit with, which we have no choice but to reproduce… freely. After work, we don’t really want to go to the party. This party sucks. It’s not surprising they don’t want to go either. 

When will the party stop worrying about building (or not building) the party? When the party breaks up, when it dissolves. If that relation which calls the party into being begins to crack at its limits, so will the negative coherence of the party, its spectral double, its vexed observer. Let’s hope we’re not all too partied out to think and act for ourselves. 

A New Institute for Social Research