[On October 9, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “From Allies to Comrades” as part of the Fall 2017 event series. The speaker was Jodi Dean (Hobart and William Smith Colleges). Below is a response to the lecture from Benjamin D. O’Dell, English]
“From Allies to Comrades”: What’s in a Name?
Written by Benjamin D. O’Dell (English)
Leftists have long been divided on the subject of whether the diversity of groups within the left’s political coalition undermine or advance meaningful political action. For those who sympathize with a Marxist point of view, categories like race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation are often thought to divert attention away from the material struggles that play a more determinant role in a Marxist view of society. Jodi Dean has renewed this debate in light of our current political landscape. Her talk “From Allies to Comrades,” both identified the limitations of a divided left and made the case for the value of the term “comrade” as a foundation for a more decisive form of political engagement.
Dean— who previously spoke at the Unit for Criticism’s conference on “Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture at 25: Theories for the New Millennium” in September 2013—sees the American left largely divided between “survivors and systems.” “Survivors” refers to the identity politics and theories of intersectionality that animate things like LGBT activism and the work of social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter. “Systems” denote the left’s preoccupation with the apocalyptic dimensions of climate change and environmental devastation. For Dean, the opposition between “survivors and systems” produces a left devoid of a coherent political platform; instead we find either the assertion of particularity, an emphasis on the unique survival of individual groups, or an obsession with the impossibility of survival. Yet more and more, she believes that individuals on the left are recognizing the limits of the political practices that have organized the preceding generation. In addition, new methods of communication including hashtags and memes have become a tool for breaking through the noise of previously entrenched talking points. In her talk, Dean argued that these trends present the opportunity for a renewal of communist thinking via the idea of the “comrade,” a term that signifies a sense of belonging that cuts through the determinations wrought by the present.
Dean presented four interrelated theses in her talk: first, that the “comrade” names a generic relation between individuals that is characterized by sameness, equality and trust; second, that “everybody” (but not “anybody”) can be a comrade; third, that the individual is “the other” of the comrade; and fourth, that the relationship between comrades is mediated by their relationship with truth. The connection between these theses is perhaps best understood in the example Dean provides from Greta Garbo’s role in the 1939 comedy Ninotchka. In that film, Garbo plays a no-nonsense Soviet envoy who is sent to Paris to steer three Russian officials back on track after they become seduced by western capitalism. When Garbo’s character arrives at the Paris train station, the three men who have been told to receive the envoy but not given the name of the person, mill about the platform looking for “their man” before they realize that the comrade they are waiting for is, in fact, a woman. On screen, the men’s surprise is used to invoke just how far they have slipped into the realm of western decadence. When the men apologize for not bringing the envoy flowers, she sternly warns them not “to make an issue” of her womanhood. Shortly thereafter, when they attempt to secure a porter to carry her bags, she rejects their offer and declares that the porter’s labor is a form of “social injustice” (to which the porter humorously replies, “That depends on the tip!”).
In her talk, Dean used this scene to illustrate that, in its purest form, comradeship is not about a personal connection or similarity between individuals. Rather, it is about a fidelity to certain political truths. It involves a rigorous engagement to collectivity and an abandonment of oneself in the unfolding of the consequences of this commitment. Although often confused with certain attributes (such as “the man” the Russian officials await in Ninotchka), “comrade” is a term that refers to a kind of generalized sameness that cannot be marked in terms of race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, or personality. Being a comrade does not require an uniformity of identity but rather an expectation of reliant, consistent, and practicable action in pursuit of a common purpose. The comrade is, thus, in Dean’s view, a figure that facilitates political action.
The Q&A following Dean’s talk found many in the audience questioning the history of the term “comrade” in various cultural contexts. While listeners were intrigued with the idea of a term that could cut through contemporary social divisions, many were unsure that “comrade” could shoulder that weight. How, one audience member asked, can a term like “comrade” be reclaimed in a place like Cuba, where the term has often carried notions of difference, exclusion, and separation, particularly in regards to members of the LGBT community? Others noted the ironic usage that the term has acquired in other Latin American nations. While acknowledging these histories, Dean remained committed to the necessity of reviving the best parts of the emancipatory and egalitarian struggles that are wrapped up in the idea of the “comrade.” She suggested that in a crowded media sphere like today, one cannot simply create new terms. Instead, we must occupy old forms and redeploy them for present struggles.