The Genre of the Party

This is the text of a talk given at the international conference “Donne Politica Utopia,” in honor of Rossana Rossanda, University of Padova, May 14-15, 2010.

I have chosen “The Genre of the Party” as a title, risking a play on words in French as well as Italian (what is the gender of the party, or which type of party?).1 It seemed impossible not to take advantage of the opportunity to evaluate what is problematic and needs to be rethought in the forms of political engagement tying me to Rossana Rossanda, but also indirectly to Mario Tronti, Luciana Castellina, and many others who might also be here today.2 I would like to briefly return to what might be the central problem of political subjectivity, where Marxist thought encountered its limit and ultimately hit an impasse: the party-form and its conflictual relationship with another “form,” that of the “women’s movement” and, consequently, feminism.

In this approach, a double rhetorical figure will be deployed. It’s a metaphor, since genre is taken here both in the sense of gender, or the social construction of sexual difference, and in the sense of a type of institution, political action, or collective subjectivity called the “party.” But it’s also a metonym, since (again, in French and Italian, because of similarities in our post-war political histories) the common term “party” in truth only designates a single party: the communist party. This restriction might seem arbitrary and anachronistic if we were not witnessing today a renewed interest in the “morphological” singularity of the major 20th century “mass” communist parties, and the contradictions that shaped them. Of course, this interest is inseparable from a more general attempt at thinking the current crisis of politics which presents itself both as a crisis of democracy and as a crisis of citizenship, affecting both “parties” and “movements,” and rooted in both local and universal forms of belonging [appartenance].

Any contribution to this debate that invokes particular figures must be carefully historicized: in other words, situated and dated. I have thus decided to rely on a rereading of several essential texts related to the debates around the “party-form” at the moment when, it seemed, this expression emerged within Marxist intellectual circles, in a conjuncture which was itself critical: the turning point of the 1970s-80s, marked in Italy by the tragic end of the experience of the “Historic Compromise,” and in France by the eventual failure of the “Common Programme” as an attempt at popular unity instigated from above. It was also the moment that appeared to be the last gasp of the energies set in motion by May ‘68 and the “Creeping May” that followed.3 I will be studying three texts that, while nearly contemporaneous, each have very different content: Louis Althusser’s intervention published in Il Manifesto in 1979, “Le marxisme comme théorie finie”;4 Rossanda’s 1979 book, Le altre, which collects a series of her reports conducted between 1978 and 1979 on the program RadioTre, with the participation of militants, intellectuals, and political and union leaders;5 finally, Mario Tronti’s 1980 work Il tempo della politica, precisely where the language of the “party-form” first arose.6 For logical and historical reasons, I will discuss them in the following order: Althusser, Tronti, Rossanda.

Three Interventions in the Crisis: Althusser, Tronti, Rossanda

Althusser does not talk about a “crisis of politics” or its institutional forms, but a “crisis of Marxism,” which for him is essentially a permanent crisis of the relation between theory and practice in Marxism: Marxism is not the theory of its real politics (determined, if not imposed, by the circumstances of its intervention in history, always unforeseeable) and by way of consequence, Marxist politics no longer corresponds to its “theory” (that is, its project of the transition to communism or “revolution”). This critique is aimed at the Marxist tradition in general, whose roots should be sought in certain “limits” of Marx himself, but in particular Gramsci and his legacy: not because Gramsci is a bad Marxist, but because in his heroic effort to think the causes and effects of the crisis, he reinforces the “bourgeois” distinction – of Hegelian origin – between political society and civil society. By contrast, in Althusser’s view, this distinction must be definitively abolished.7 This is why, in the discussion around “Eurocommunist” strategy that followed, he declared himself to be in favor of what Pietro Ingrao called a “generalized politicization,” and stated that this would “end by putting into question the organizational form of the party itself.”8 This crisis is a “crisis of the autonomy of politics,” which I understand to be, in the context, not so much a critique of theories of the autonomy of the political as a critique of the autonomization of politics, its functioning and organizations, its procedures for discussion, etc., in relation to social movements (or “mass movements”) themselves.9 This is why Althusser can, at the same time, advocate for a (mass) communist party that would be autonomous, in the sense of being “situated outside the state” [fuori dello Stato]. A party, in other words, whose political form would be radically foreign to, or exterior to the logic of the (bourgeois) state and independent of its “play.”10

Let’s dwell on this formulation for a moment, as it contains at once all the radicality and equivocations of Althusser’s position. His unpublished theoretical developments from the period, found in the manuscript “Marx in His Limits,” can help us clarify the meaning. In effect, he insists that what characterizes the bourgeois state is its exteriority to class struggle. Taking up a traditional notion in Marxist theory – that of the “autonomization of the state apparatus” – Althusser tries to turn this into a “positive” feature of the state (of the state-form), possessing not only a supplementary degree of alienation but a specific “efficacy.”11

Is this to say that the state finds itself “outside of politics” (while the communist party, by managing to organize “outside the state,” would find itself, at the same time, capable of “doing politics,” fare politica, what the state tries to prevent the party from doing by repressing it or absorbing it within itself)? Rather, it is a matter of inscribing a fundamental equivocity within the very concept of “politics,” whose meanings and practices for the ruling class and the revolutionary class no longer overlap.12 The double sense of “politics” serves to express a conflict of irreducible tendencies that, in his attempt to clarify it in Marxist terms, Althusser relates to the question of “reproduction” (reproduction of the conditions of production, and more broadly the reproduction of social relations). Every site of reproduction is effectively the site of a conflict between social forces, or more precisely, between historical tendencies – with some tending towards reproducing the existing state of things in the same way (or even in an “expanded” fashion), while others tend towards interrupting the domination-effect (and thus manifesting the paradox of a “reproduction” that is a “non-reproduction”).13 The outcome of this permanent struggle would be, at bottom, “aleatory”: the reproduction of what exists is not guaranteed, it can sometimes lead to the break-up of the “ideological state apparatuses,” directed or organized by a “mass party,” which is absolutely singular and radically different from other “parties” inside the machine of the reproduction of hegemony.

It’s clearly justified to ask whether or not this construction (which remained incomplete, let’s not forget) is purely tautological: the communist party is able to take apart the apparatuses of bourgeois class domination to the extent that it operates according to principles opposed to those governing the instruments of this domination, and their distance is thus irreducible…One can also be attentive to the “work” thereby effected on the structural constraints of politics, seeking to (theoretically) localize the point of their instability, the possibility of their overcoming, where the “circle” of reproduction runs into its own limits.

But above all, it should be stated that in this theoretical work, underpinned by a certain political experience, the political [le politique] remains absolutely homogeneous: the heterogeneous dimension, which feminism especially represents, plays no role (no particular role, in any case, as we can always imagine that canonical expressions like the “mass party” or “mass movements” also cover a politics “towards women,” as in the communist organizations stemming from the Third International, which is in a sense the most complete expression of the misrecognition of the problem feminism raises for politics).14 We will resist the temptation to perform a “symptomatic reading” by short-circuiting retrospective biographical considerations with the (sorry) fact of a certain conformism, still largely shared among Marxists at the time. Or rather, we can observe that the symptom is concentrated in the persistent usage of the term “reproduction”; as if Althusser (and his students) were never aware that the word Marx employs to analyze the structural dimension of capital also had another meaning, tied to sexuality and “life,” and consequently to the function women have been principally confined to in historical societies: that of mothers charged with raising producers, warriors, citizens and, if need be, intellectuals, artists, or politicians…It’s worth at least asking whether, at the time, anyone in Althusser’s circle ever mentioned to him that this ambiguity could call his entire conception of “politics” into question.15

Let’s now examine, in an equally schematic fashion, Mario Tronti’s formulations in 1980: he speaks not of a “crisis of Marxism,” but a “crisis of capitalism”; or rather, capitalist crisis.16 To be clear: this does not mean an “economic” crisis, but indeed a political crisis whose “conditions,” as required from a Marxist perspective, stem from the history of the relations of production: it is the crisis of a particular model of how working class struggles are incorporated into capitalist development. Or better, it is the crisis of a mode of “managing” class conflicts that integrates them into the constitution of an industrializing model (mass production and consumption) which originated in the United States during the 1930s (with the New Deal) and was then exported to Europe, especially the “political laboratory” of 1960s Italy. Tronti defines the Keynesian state as the “final classical form of bourgeois politics,” not because it involves a model of the state in the constitutional sense (even understood as a “material” constitution), but insofar as it is a “tactical” model – in the sense of a social war – through which the political capacity of the bourgeoisie could be deployed. Yet it entered into crisis at the end of the 1960s, as evidenced by the resistance movements that everywhere flooded the public sphere:

A social leap not governed by the political always provokes a rupture between generations, a development without a plan always has the effect of ratcheting up the class antagonism. Youth and workers gave the signal of a new possible unity as an alternative to the system. The students left the university, the workers left the factory: this great metaphor was not translated, was not interpreted. Yet our contemporary level of class struggle was already written here: a political centrality in the circle of new forces of social antagonism.17

What does the slogan of the “autonomy of the political” mean in this context?

In my view, it seems to mean two things. On the one hand, it demonstrates the (irreversible? or conjunctural, linked to the moment of “crisis?”) end of the autonomy of the economic, and thus the demise of the illusion according to which economic development – transformations in industry – would constitute a “material base” prior to the class struggle.18 On the other hand, it denotes the political centrality of the only revolutionary subject: the working class. But it is precisely on this point that the crisis transforms its own conditions: it induces a mutation that is subjectively reflected as the “crisis of the workers’ party-form.”19

Tronti tells us this is the effect of a conjunction between the workers’ acquired capacity to subvert the forms of power exercised by capital in the factory, and the radical transformation – a revolutionary transformation, one could say – changing the meaning of the category of “labor”: not merely a new division of labor, but an abolition of traditional divisions between productive and unproductive labor (thus, perhaps between industrial and domestic labor) and between manual and intellectual labor (thus perhaps between production and education). From this point, one more step now needs to be taken, “beyond the autonomy of the political”: when work turns into “non-work” (but also when non-work becomes “work”), work has become a political category.20 And the obvious question arises, of how a “communist party” can still be a “class party”: the party must doubtless come to understand (and organize) this dialectical contradiction of being a “party of the working class” that is no longer, sociologically speaking, a “workers’ party,” but the party of an “expansive” class that constantly transcends its own limits.

Once again, on this point we are tempted to (retroactively) ask Tronti the question: where are women in this dialectic? Where is the women’s movement? In contrast to what we saw in Althusser’s work, women are not at all absent, but included in the category of an “organized movement,” destined to enter into the building of an “open party,” which in a way is nothing other than their very encounter.21 Tronti lists three “movements” of this type, whose importance have been proved after ‘68. Right away, it’s clear this is a matter of political – not sociological – categories, even if one needs to resort to sociology to understand their intersections: the workers’ movement (or the new politicization of workers’ struggles), the collective youth movement, revolting against the authoritarianism and utilitarianism of bourgeois society (and in this sense, “communist” in an intellectual sense), and the women’s liberation movement, the individual and collective revolt against forms of familial (patriarchal) dependence and new (bourgeois) forms of male power, which produces political paradoxes for capitalism (particularly through the entry of women into the workforce, which constitutes an “instance of equality”).22 However, the suspicion persists that a hierarchy of categories is at play here, at least at the morphological level (that of movement or party “forms”): the critique of the bourgeois and patriarchal family is understood in terms of a relation of class and social domination to overthrow, and its organizational forms are thought via a “joint” [unitaire] model whose efficacy was demonstrated by the youth movement. Inversely, one should note the very specific importance Tronti confers to the women’s movement (if not to feminism) to ensure the democratic character of communist politics. This is not outside the concerns underlying the conversations organized at the same historical moment by Rossanda, and thus connects these discussions (apparently more “empirical”) with a reflection on the crisis of the party-form as the “necessity and difficulty of holding together discussions and decisions, passion and discipline, true militancy and true leadership,” whose contradiction is that “today, firmly and critically, the communist movement is face to face with modern democracy.”23

We come now to the third text of the same period: Le altre, published by Rossana Rossanda in 1979, on the basis of RadioTre episodes recorded the previous year. It seems important that it is a collective book, already a political experience in itself, in which the author took part in an encounter between generations, men and women, workers and intellectuals, between different forms of militant activity (communists, syndicalists, feminists). This led her to place the foundations of her past political engagement – in the PCI – into question. But she also clearly says that the experience made it possible to subvert this engagement from within, through the “communist heresy” represented by the work of the Il Manifesto group: “no political group was more full of women, from the top to the base. Incredible women, expert and powerful… They were always the middle of the political group, unrivaled in work but dogged in decisions.”24 One could thus speak of a “practical feminism” in the Manifesto group (not exempt from contradiction, since in a certain way women behaved like “perfect men”), and even of a “theoretical feminism” if the content of 200 Theses on Communism, from 1970 (and itself not devoid of contradictions), is taken into account.25 It seems that this experience – at once conflictual and productive – provides a neat contrast with the idea of a crisis of (democratic) political forms that is mentioned further on, when Rossanda describes the disappointment of women who were engaged in politics in the aftermath of the war and their retreat [reflux] away from parties (not only the communist party), and the growing conflict between the values of the political institution and their own values: “Women retreated from [rifluiscono] the parties, as they had retreated from mine, because they no longer recognized themselves in these forms of relation and communication, which were then the forms of the political, the common rules between exploiter and exploited, governing and governed.”26 We can avoid here a critical application of the argument, coming from Engels, Bebel, Clara Zetkin, and Gramsci too, that makes the participation of women in politics the measure of the party’s democratic development.27 There still needs to be a distinction between a situation in which women are officially excluded from politics, relegated to the rank of “passive citizens,” by violence if necessary, and a situation where, although “called” there, they end up leaving, because they could not make their voices heard or their demands recognized. Note the proximity of these terms: exclusion, retreat, exit.

We can thus grasp a triple dialectic traversing the entire book.

1.) First, what we can call the dialectic of otherness [l’étrangeté]: the position of a woman in politics is one of “difference,” but this position is akin to that of a “secret agent,” introducing feminist interests [intérêt] within communism:

Women leave the parties or they return – and here Lidia Menapace introduces a theme which we will see taken up again by women of very diverse political positions, but all linked to the experience of feminism – in a manner so very different from the past. With a cold secular eye, she says: knowing that they could not achieve their goals as women in the parties, it was nevertheless useful to stay within them to guarantee social ties. We stayed, permitting ourselves a smile, as the secret agents of feminism, without surrendering, remaining vigilant.28

The heterogeneity of emancipatory interests is acknowledged here, whose ground [fondement] is the alterity of women in relation to the political world of men (shaped by masculine domination, including qua revolutionary politics). This is a heterogeneity that must not be defined in either basic economic terms (or by the division of labor) or simply social terms (by functions, roles, hierarchies) but in terms of sexuality and sexual difference – precisely what institutional politics (and thus parties) cannot “bear” but represses, intellectually and practically.

2.) There follows the dialectic of equality and inequality: responding to an interlocutor (Licia Conte) defending the priority of the value of freedom, Rossanda explains that the category of equality is more subversive politically (the “specter” that always haunts discourses of power). It’s also more paradoxical, especially from the standpoint of women, who are habituated to seeing themselves denied effective equality, access to rights, and social activities, and to see egalitarian political discourses (democratic, republican, even communist) as functioning in their turn as denials of the difference between the sexes, which can lead them to see, inversely, a protection of the right to difference in maintaining inequality.29 But in women’s “double distrust” [double méfiance] – which sometimes results in conservatism, other times revolt – there is a crucial question for politics: that of individuality and the indeterminateness it brings.30

3.) And lastly, there is a dialectic internal to “feminism” itself: the division between “first-wave feminism” and “second-wave feminism,” which seems to reproduce an older social division between the public sphere and the private sphere.31 But second-wave feminism, rather than affirming that “the private is political” in a simplistic fashion, focuses on the transformation of transindividual relations, and the way in which they affect individuality itself. In a way, this constitutes another “site” for politics, outside of its official institutions and general definition. However, Rossanda does not back away from defining “politics” in a broad sense as the conflictual sphere of relations between state, society, and parties. At least on the surface, an aporetic problem of discourse emerges here: feminism both changes and does not change the site of politics… is there a way of keeping one’s own distance from the feminism she describes, or with which she is in conversation (“I who am not a feminist”)?32 Or does this indeed mean that feminism, in regard to politics, does not represent so much an actual displacement towards an already existing place, as an “atopic” [atopique]33 capacity of subversion and contestation to power in different institutional “sites” of politics, both from above and below?34 We encounter, then, the metaphor of the secret agent and its function of hidden passage through borders. But we do not know what effects it might yield on the “reproduction” of the classical forms of class struggle.

The Party-Form: Political Genesis and Sexual Structure

At this point, it’s of course necessary to leave behind a simple confrontation between texts that express the uncertainties of a conjuncture (a conjuncture which seems to us today as the “end” of a particular era of politics, if not the end of politics itself).35 It’s necessary to go back to the beginning of a discussion on the party-form as a historical form that produced (and perhaps will still produce) determinate effects, objective as well as subjective. This “form” is doubtless not realized in the same way; it has not remained immutable. Nevertheless, it has a certain logic, and was subjected in the West (and elsewhere, since like the “nation-form” or the “school form” [forme scolaire], it has been exported the world over) to structural constraints. I will limit myself on this point to some programmatic indications, liable to change and reformulation in light of discussion. I will organize these indications around three problems concerning, respectively, the genealogy of the party-form, the features of “party communism” with regard to sexual difference, and finally the contradictory effect of feminism on the attempts to democratize the communist party.

The genealogy of the party-form, as we understand it today, is in fact a whole program of research, driven by the encounter (and perhaps conflict) of two lines of explanation. We clearly see in The Prison Notebooks where this division, one could say, completely controls the usage of the notion of the “Modern Prince,” the means by which Gramsci tries at once to discern the singularity of the communist experience [phénomène] after the Russian Revolution, and to imagine its diversification on the basis of new historical conditions created by the confrontation with European fascism. On the one side, we have the whole reflection on the transition of the workers’ movement from its “economic-corporate” phase to its properly “political” phase, of which the party must be the instrument: the party is that potentially hegemonic force in society, that fosters the emergence of “organic intellectuals” from the working class and leads to the formation of a new collective capacity of reflection on the historicity of capitalist “relations of force.” On the other hand, we have a whole multi-disciplinary inquiry, without fixed limits, on the formation of the institutions of bourgeois national politics, in which the moments of “active” and “passive” revolutions unfold, until the emergence of mass parties, where a particular “democratic” fusion of elitism and populism becomes operative. From this perspective, the communist party “did not invent” its form: it receives the party-form from history, even if it transformed towards its own ends, and sets it in the framework of a certain “material constitution,” of which it is one pole. If we are to then ask how such a divided genealogy could elucidate the “organic” presence of sexism within the party-form, we are directed towards very profoundly different, even heterogeneous, phenomena.36 On the one hand lies the fact – in no way reducible to a sociological deadweight inherited from the past, but which is rather an “invention” of modern industrialization – of what can be called the sexualization of struggles, and thus their “genre.” In particular there is the virility of forms of workers’ struggles (the strike, insurrection), but also the role of indispensable support – I was going to say care – that women play (material, moral, and even sentimental: bringing food and refurbishments to strikes, admiring their heroism, continuing and transmitting the values of solidarity within popular culture, from generation to generation).37 On the other hand, we have all the forms of the masculine monopoly on political representation, from which also follows the masculine character of political actions and rhetoric, what Geneviève Fraisse defined negatively as the prohibition of public representation imposed on women during the bourgeois era (and thus the prohibition of their participation in the “sovereign,” in the republican sense of the term).38 Nothing about this situation fundamentally changes with the entry of the working class (itself made of male workers…much more than women workers) into the democratic political framework.

But it’s no doubt imperative to leave behind this purely institutional genealogy of the idea of the revolutionary party and take into consideration social and historical realities, where anthropological determinations rise to the surface. This is the second problem: we will argue here that the “party-form” in which politics is organized as the formation of a collective will is also, intrinsically, a historical configuration of anthropological differences, insofar as it concerns the division between intellectual and manual labor (studied by Gramsci) as well as the difference between sexes (neglected by him). It is a matter of understanding here what accounted for the historical communist parties’ capacity for insurrection and resistance (one is tempted to call them “actually existing” parties, in the way there was an “actually existing socialism,” with which they maintained organic – although sometimes conflictual – ties). The thread of analysis that seems most pertinent for studying party communism is the dialectic between its functions as a counter-society and its strategy of counter-power. This evidently raises the question of knowing – in an acute fashion – at what point the movement that sought to be potentially hegemonic and might have appeared as a challenge to the existing order was actually “subaltern,” as it sustained and reproduced the social relations and forms of symbolic violence characteristic of the society in which it developed.39 I will for my part distinguish these two aspects, whose role have been invoked in turn by analysts of the history of the French and Italian – and more broadly, Western – communist parties.40

“Counter-society” refers to the ensemble of forms of resistance to exploitation, solidarity in struggles, and confrontations with the state, church, and “social policies” of the bourgeoisie in determinate national conditions. It takes the form of the political party and its (in the famous Stalinist definition) transmission belts – unions, youth organizations, cultural organizations, municipalities – and fosters a model of socialization that opposed to bourgeois socialization, by developing a relatively separate class culture and education. This point is crucial if we want to understand how in reality the class “for-itself” is projected onto the “class in-itself” and reproduces it, not the inverse; this runs against the ideal schema of the formation of class consciousness theorized by Marx (and perfected by Lukács). As Françoise Duroux argues, the ultimate basis for this reproduction is the “family of workers,” in the double sense of the genitive: the worker family, but also the family that the (male) worker “possesses” (and the means by which he also “possesses” women).41 This is why in the actual communist party (despite a few – ever limited and precarious – exceptions, especially among intellectuals) the social structure excludes women from direct political action, any decision making, while making them the guardians of class consciousness (just as in the bourgeois state and family, where they become the guardians of patriotism and religious values). It is not at all surprising that in these conditions, the party-form is radically incompatible with feminism in its different forms, since feminism begins with putting this role of reproducing the collective values assigned to the difference between sexes into question. Feminism is thus not so much the “class enemy” as the “enemy of class” [Le féminisme n’est donc pas tant “l’ennemi de classe” que “l’ennemi de la classe”]: but often, in the dramatic history of the actual communist parties, the second designation was collapsed into the first, and feminists were deemed to be bourgeois agents within the workers’ movement (which, as we have seen, Rossanda and her comrades tried to ironically invert into a revolutionary feature).

“Counter-power” has a different meaning: it is the party’s capacity to oppose itself to the state and the ruling class through the formation of an autonomous political leadership. Lenin theorizes the form of this leadership – halfway between description and prescription – as an organic combination of science and organization. Historically, this combination culminates in the figure of the “leader,” both a theorist and organizer, and I imagine one will easily admit that in the 20th century, this figure in which these two aspects of classical “representation” are bound up is typically male (not to say masculine). There are women, however, who force their entry into this ”club” of theorists and organizers, the most remarkable and tragic being that of Rosa Luxemburg.42 This is why we need to be a little more subtle and not simply repeat feminist generalities on the masculine character of knowledge and power, and reconstruct the analysis of forms of symbolic violence tied the authority of knowledge, its transmission in a specific milieu where the demands of instruction were particularly strong, and their combination with phallocratic modalities of adherence to discipline and the production of “common sense” within organizations.43 Counter-power is not a counter-society, but the result of strategies of counter-power backed by counter-societal forms, those of the “actually existing” communist parties (once again: not without troubles, resistances, exceptions, subversions), which were indeed based on specific forms of patriarchy and intellectual patriarchy, the reinforcement of the family and the consent of women to a “rationally” male authority, as well as a fraternity between militants (comrades) whose beneficiaries were “naturally” men. Women, by this fact, were both included from below in a subaltern position and excluded from the “top” (or placed in an excentric [excentrique] position. This contradictory situation is a historical fact, of course, but it is also a structural trait, expressing the “impossible” relationship that the party-form maintains with the combination of class relations and gender relations, or heterogeneous forms of domination.44

However, a third problem arises: all of this history did not take place without conflict or transformation. Party communism intersects with the social and moral transformations of society. The counter-society is not really external to bourgeois society, or it cannot remain there for long, and it even contributes to its development. But above all, the communist idea, or more broadly, the idea of a “revolution” that would overthrow social domination in all its forms, constitutes a contradictory catalyst [ferment] within political organizations. What seems interesting to me is first of all the permanent tension which follows from the fact that the communist party reveals itself to be in a certain sense less democratic than the society it seeks to bring about, and even less democratic in its internal organization than the liberal society it forms itself within (even if the difference between an institutional, formal democracy and a democracy that would effectively benefit the masses needs to be carefully understood).45 But more speculatively, we can pose the question of how to imagine the anticipation of communism, as collective emancipation, within the movement and institutions or organizations that prepare it. This is the whole question of a self-institution of communism by communists themselves, in their own relations of organization, in the aim of its revolutionary generalization throughout society, which turns the expression “communist party” practically into an oxymoron, or a unity of opposites.46 Just as Lenin discussed a “non-state state,” there needs to be discussion of a “non-party party…” But if we trace the speculative dimension of the problem back to historical experience (particularly that of the 1960s and 70s), we indeed see elements of concrete utopia come to the fore (that is, a utopia that materializes in the immediacy of the present instead of being projected into the future, or thought in terms of its anticipation) and is also one of the modes in which the party-form is placed into question: this is why, subjected more or less profoundly to their heretical influence, the “real” parties fundamentally rejected these elements, or viewed them as elements that intensified their own historical crisis as opposed to renovating factors, anticipating the transition to another period. These elements were not unified, however; or at least, even if they were not incompatible, they did not form the components of a “movement of movements” (as Tronti wanted to believe, as did others, in the extraordinary post-’68 context). Rather than singularize the student and youth movement (and to better identify that which, at the time, held the possibility of a veritable “encounter” between student youth and worker youth), I would say that there was, against the party-form, a resurgence of what has always constituted its “other,” council democracy (often dubbed in France as “self-management” [autogestion]).47 And there was feminism as the broader women’s movement across society, for the right to speak and gender equality, without the reduction of one to the model of the other. Both cases involved what can be called a process of radical democratization, or the “democratization of democracy” itself, in its limited historical forms. And in both cases the initial effect of this democratization was to dismember [démembrer] the “political body,” dissolve the organic (by definition imaginary) unity on which the party continued to recognize itself in order to oppose the power [puissance] of the dominated to that of the dominant, the revolutionary sovereignty of the people to that of the capitalist state. Yet as witnessed in the following years, this dismemberment freed up a heterogeneity; it opened a space of autonomy for a time, more or less, but it did not articulate a political strategy.

Feminism, the Utopian Last Resort of Communism

This is why I would like to end this reminiscence of old discussions, this sketch of a retrospective theorization, with a simple hypothesis, which seems justifiable on the basis of these discussions. To argue that the party-form is not absolutely “finished,” in the sense of a completion of its historical course (which would also certainly be the end of a specific articulation of movement, social conflicts, politics, and theoretical discourse), one could say that the feminism rejected by historical communism has also become, in a certain way, its utopian last resort.48 I’ll return to a wording I’ve used elsewhere, in trying to show that the significance of a political perspective is not so much to provide a “definition” of communism as the reverse image of contemporary society, but to try to answer the question: “‘who are the communists today?,” in a determinate historical situation, and a specific social site, and “what are they doing?”49 Let us remember that this was the way in which Marx himself joined together his critique of capitalism and bourgeois rule at the end of the Communist Manifesto. And I will say this: one of the possible responses (not the only, of course) is that the “communists” are now “feminists” (whether they call themselves such or not), because feminists provide a supplement of revolutionary and democratic politics to historical communism: a supplement it did not believe itself to need, because it believed itself to be self-sufficient (imagined itself as a “totalization” of the “real movement which abolishes the present state of things”), but without which it could not possibly begin again [reconstituer] (although perhaps now, it is the case that one must, in a given conjuncture, consider oneself as a component or element of a new politics, and not as its unifying figure). It is in this sense that I propose to consider feminists as a “utopian last resort”: because who they are and what they do is decidedly incompatible with the closure expressed by the “party” idea, or at least by its historical representation as a “collective” politics (the great Gramscian idea of the “collective intellectual has lost none of its value), but also as “separate,” “homogeneous” (or whose autonomy would be conditioned by its homogeneity). Abandoned to only its class determination, the perspective of revolutionary hegemony ineluctably falls back into the imaginary of purity, while sexual difference constitutes a residue of social, moral, and anthropological – and thus also political – impurity. In order to grasp the fact that feminism cannot be reduced to the idea of a “women’s movement” qua expression of corporative interests, not to mention a “women’s party” (because it does not claim to be another “part” or “position” than that of unassimilable difference), I point to a term Françoise Duroux has recently employed: atopia rather than utopia. But in saying the “utopian last resort for communism,” I am thinking precisely of this disorganization of its self-referential organizational forms, which at the same time is a way of bringing back the question of political practice as such, beyond bygone aims (what we are tempted to call, with Koselleck, its futures past) and historically sedimented forms. “Atopic” in regard to existing forms of politics is not “apolitical”: the exact opposite is the case. And this is doubtless what Rossanda sought to suggest in her commentary on Antigone.50

Translated by Patrick King and Asad Haider

The translators wish to thank Jason E. Smith and Andrew Anastasi for their invaluable comments on earlier drafts of the translation.


  1. Translator’s note: This pun, which Balibar deploys at several points in the text, is almost impossible to render adequately in English. For the major Romance languages French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese the word for “gender” (genre in French, for instance) can refer to both the social forms of sexual difference and more broadly to a “type” or “kind” of x, stemming from the Latin root genus. The title is a prime example: it denotes simultaneously the “gender” of the party (as Balibar asks parenthetically, what is the gender of the party?) and the “type” of the party (or which “type” of party?, as in Lenin’s “party of a new type”). Due to the difficulties in capturing this polysemy, we have left genre in the original French in the places where he deliberately calls on this double meaning, and have italicized its usage throughout. 

  2. I have obviously been inspired by existing titles: “Le genre de l’histoire,” the title of a 1988 issue of the Cahiers du Grif [a French feminist journal] where a translation of Joan Scott’s article, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” appeared; and more recently, Rada Ivekovic, Le sexe de la nation (Paris: Léo Scheer, 2003). 

  3. In recalling the communist experience and criticisms of it, one must not forget the decisive importance of a contemporaneous event in Eastern Europe: the Prague Spring and its crushing defeat by the Warsaw Pact. 

  4. This text was commissioned by Rossana Rossanda to extend and generalize Althusser’s intervention at the 1978 Venice conference on “Power and Opposition in Post-Revolutionary Societies,” (see the English edition, Power and Opposition in Post-Revolutionary Societies, ed. Il Manifesto, trans. Patrick Camiller and John Rothschild (London: Ink Links Ltd., 1979) and launched an international debate, which took place over several weeks in the columns of the Italian communist daily Il Manifesto, before being collected in a small volume that is very difficult to track down today: Discutere lo Stato (Bari: De Donato, 1978). This debate was taken up again and developed by Althusser in an unfinished work: “Marx in His Limits,” in The Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978-1987, ed. Olivier Corpet and Francois Matheron, trans. G.M. Goshgarian (New York: Verso, 2006). Translator’s Note: For the original article Balibar mentions, see Louis Althusser, “Le marxisme comme théorie finie,” in Solitude de Machiavel, ed. Yves Sintomer (Paris: PUF: 1998), 281-96. “Finie” should be taken here in the sense of a “finite” or limited theory, while still carrying the connotations of “finished,” “completed,” or “exhausted,” as suggested by Althusser’s writings in the same period on the “crisis of Marxism.” 

  5. Rossana Rossanda, Le altre: conversazioni a Radiotre sui rapporti tra donne e politica, libertà, fraternità, uguaglianza, democrazia, fascismo, resistenza, stato, partito, rivoluzione, femminismo (Milan: Bompiani, 1980). 

  6. Mario Tronti, Il tempo della politica (Rome: Editori Riuniti, 1980). This text was the first volume in the then-new Tendenze series from Editori Riuniti. Tronti has told me that in this period the language of the “party-form” (as the antithesis of the “state-form”) was in circulation around the intellectual milieu of operaismo (personal conversation). 

  7. Was Althusser correct about Gramsci on this point? I leave this question to the side. To better understand the conjuncture of his references to Gramsci, one would have to reconstruct the whole debate concerning the “fidelity” or “infidelity” of Togliatti and the leaders of the PCI’s usage of Gramsci, but also the “provocation” initiated by Norberto Bobbio’s intervention in the mid-1970s, which pointed out that in the closure of the gap between civil society and political society laid the groundwork for anti-democratic tendencies in the communist tradition since Marx. 

  8. “finisce per mettere in causa la forma di organizzazione del partito stesso,” Discutere lo Stato, 14. 

  9. Ibid., 20. Translator’s Note: Balibar is referring here to Tronti’s work over the course of the 1970s on the “autonomy of the political.” In line with other thinkers of his era, like Norberto Bobbio, Tronti saw major gaps in the political theory of Marxism and its understanding of the state. The autonomous logic of the “political” – the field in which state institutions and class forces respond to economic developments, with the state often taking an active role of command in the process of capitalist reproduction – meant that it was not possible to simply read class struggle as simply a reflection of social dynamics. For Tronti, there are specific forms of “modern bourgeois power” or “political cycles of capital” that do not stand in one-to-one correspondence to the economic rhythms of capitalist accumulation, and which for Tronti assumed a primacy from the Great Depression on. Of course, the practical importance for analyzing this specificity was the question of the party and the workers’ political organization in and against the state. But it there is a strong tendency in Tronti’s work on the topic to substitute the workers’ party for the working class itself (a residue, as Antonio Negri has suggested of the Italian conjuncture and the PCI’s strategy of the Historic Compromise), thus posing the question of whether the need to govern the state effectively overtook the demand to abolish the capitalist state. This would precisely be the autonomization of politics targeted by Althusser, a disconnect of communist organizations from mass movements. See Matteo Mandarini, “Notes on the Political Over the Longue Durée,” from the Viewpoint issue on the state, itself an introduction to Tronti’s 1979 essay, “The Political.” See also Sara R. Farris, “Althusser and Tronti: The Primacy of Politics Versus the Autonomy of the Political,” in Encountering Althusser: Politics and Materialism in Contemporary Radical Thought, eds. Katja Diefenbach, Sara R. Farris, Gal Kirn, and Peter D. Thomas (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 185-203. 

  10. It is on this point in the discussion that I declared myself to be in disagreement; I attempted to deploy the Althusserian conception of the “ideological state apparatuses,” which to me had to include the communist parties, against Althusser himself (Discutere lo Stato, 271 sq.). 

  11. Althusser, “Marx in His Limits,” 70 sq. Althusser’s line of argument is directed specifically against Nicos Poulantzas’s argument that the state “is by definition traversed by class struggle”; which, Althusser says, is “to engage in wishful thinking.” 

  12. Note that Althusser does not say that the bourgeois class is “separate from the class struggle” – that would be a contradiction in terms, as he insists elsewhere on the fact that the act that the existence of classes does not precede their historical struggle. But in order to engage in class struggle and institute what we can call, with Gramsci, “hegemony,” the bourgeois class constructs a machine or apparatus “separate from the class struggle” (the state) through which it can govern in its own interests and which allows it at the same time to “neutralize” the revolutionary class struggle (“depoliticize” it: there is a clear convergence here with Tronti and, by proxy, with Carl Schmitt). 

  13. Translator’s note: The domination-effect [l’effet de domination] is the operative mechanism by which a relation of subjection “works,” or reproduces itself – a relationship of ideological domination, for instance. See Étienne Balibar and Pierre Macherey, “On Literature as an Ideological Form: Some Marxist Propositions,” trans. Ian McLeod, John Whitehead, and Ann Wordsworth, Oxford Literary Review 3, no. 1 (1978): 4-12. 

  14. In discussion at the Padova conference [where this paper was given], Luciana Castellina specifically recalled how, within communist parties, women militants or even “leaders” were charged with implementing a “politics for women” that was in no way a “women’s politics” [des femmes militantes ou même « dirigeantes » étaient chargées de mettre en œuvre une « politique envers les femmes » qui n’était à aucun degré une politique des femmes]. It was not even required that they confront [elles reprennent à leur compte] the positions of the Catholic Church on abortion, contraception, or divorce. 

  15. In her 2004 book, Wayward Reproductions: Genealogies of Race and Nation in Transatlantic Modern Thought (Durham, NC: Duke University Press), Alys Eve Weinbaum relays a conversation that she and I had had in Amherst in 1996 (at the Rethinking Marxism conference) where she asked me why I did not consider this dual sense of “reproduction” when I was seeking to define the historical function of the “genealogical schema” constituting the “nation form”: to which I had responded that the two radically different though homonymous concepts must not be confused…I don’t remember the conversation, but I’m sure she is right: no doubt they must not be “confused” but they should certainly be “articulated” or better: “overdetermined.” 

  16. Il tempo, 43 

  17. Il tempo, 33. Earlier (18), Tronti reaffirms that the movement of ‘68 did not suffer a “defeat.” 

  18. “Society was truly changed, with the crisis and with the exit from the crisis, with wars and with struggles. It was truly the end of civil society, the bürgerliche Gesellschaft, of Ferguson and Hegel, Smith and Marx. It was truly the end of the ideological history of ‘bourgeois society,’ as the separation of the political State, as the world of the individual and of the private against the sphere of public interest, as the market and production distinct from the norm and the decision. Should we not call all this: the birth of the autonomy of the political? Let us call it then: the end of the autonomy of the economic…” Il tempo, 20-21. 

  19. “Where capitalism was weak… the political organization of the workers’ movement has found [historical] spaces of development. Where capitalism was strong, through aggressiveness, through novelty, through the absolute lack of a past, through the unlimited availability of resources… no political form of proletarian organization has even appeared. The rest of the workers’ world will have to adjust to this situation. The form of the workers’ party is in crisis…” Il tempo, 77. 

  20. Il tempo, 71. 

  21. “The concept of an organized movement begins to become possible. It is not the party that must make itself open and become movement. And it is the movement, or better the movements, which must think to give itself, in new, unknown forms, without borrowing from any models, beginnings, principles, experiments of organization…” Il tempo, 102. 

  22. “Because here, unlike everything that Marxism has sustained up to now, we see that an egalitarian instance is brought about directly by the advancement of capitalism – the woman who works and produces and earns and struggles – while inequality remains and deepens and explodes on the terrain of the political, that is on the field of power relations between the sexes, not in the family-factory, but in the family-State, where the division which counts, between men and women, as between fathers and sons, is indeed not the economic one between producers and consumers, but the political one between governing and governed.” Il tempo, 104. 

  23. Il tempo, 101. 

  24. Le altre, 20. 

  25. “In the 200 Theses on Communism, women were presented as complete marginalization, and in the right place, thus as problematization of the idea of the revolutionary subject. They were not imperfect proletarians, aspiring to the centrality of the workers – they were autonomous figures, directly bearers of value… But having said this, between them and other groups not noted to be different, they always left between parentheses that, if women were a product of history, they were of a history long enough to coincide with the time of nature…” (Ibid.). 

  26. Ibid., 30. 

  27. Antonio Gramsci, The Prison Notebooks, Volume 3, ed. and trans. Joseph Buttigieg and Antonio Callari (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 202 (§65). 

  28. Le altre, 178. 

  29. “Other Milanese voices: The positive of inequality is that each of us is different. We are different, and this is a positive fact, and we must realize that. But the negative is the rigid division of roles, of culture. From the mode of educating girls differently, and then assigning them a certain role as adults…this way they manage to reduce all of a woman’s capacities.” Ibid., 109. 

  30. Ibid., 115. 

  31. Ibid., 28-9. 

  32. Ibid., 74. 

  33. Translator’s note: atopic, from the Greek átopos or atopía, meaning “out of place,” or “of no place.” 

  34. Françoise Duroux, “Une classe de femmes est-elle possible?”: Post-scriptum pour une mise à l’heure et propositions pour un essai d’épistémologie du “gender” à la manière de Nietzsche (unpublished text): “But this exit from nature [which is induced by “class racism,” in part comparable to “sexual racism”] nevertheless proves to be impossible, for the plebeians, for the workers, because two correlative conditions are fulfilled: the possibility of giving shape to the group (the possibility of the collective, of forming a group, forming links), [and] the possibility of inscribing this group in the polis (the city) and on the political terrain. It is not insignificant that this second possibility depends on a delimitation of territories: that of the community of men, relative to the exclusion of women…Who is it that we call women in relation to these two possibilities? Through three scenes, I will try to show how the women of the first division, who will doubtless remain the last, encounter the aporia of identity and are forced to push it to its ultimate consequences. Aporias, impasses, the study of “issues” – these terms persist in feminist texts, symptoms of an inadequate relationship of facts to statements. In the system of “representations” and concepts, “solutions” do not exist, except for a return to the initial case: the complementarity of the sexes. Three scenes in which a discrepancy appears: the “exit from nature” becomes the secession from the Acropolis [in the fable of Lysistrata], discontent [malentendu] in the Republic [the repression of “citizens” during the French Revolution], the secession of the “outsiders” [Virginia Woolf’s “Outsiders’ Society”], impossible without abandoning place, identity, and class. Utopia meets atopia…” (10-11). 

  35. See another later text by Mario Tronti: La politica al tramonto, (Turin: Einaudi 1998). 

  36. It would be interesting to examine the ways in which this genealogical dilemma appears, reaching back to Marx. In the Communist Manifesto specifically, there are two clear lines” in competition with one another: the expression “communist party” essentially designates the becoming-conscious and organization of the struggles of the proletarian classes, which is nothing other than the expression of the alienation or internal decomposition of bourgeois society (this is the line that Lukács will take to an extreme with certain formulations in History and Class Consciousness in 1923); but on the other hand, Marx describes the history of class struggles as a succession of forms of antagonism gradually affecting an increasing number of groups (a “polarization” of society, in the course of which the bourgeoisie “schools the proletariat” [enrôle le prolétariat], providing it with a “political education” until it becomes autonomous and turns against the bourgeoisie). And this double line is doubtless present in Lenin’s What is to Be Done?, in which the workers’ “class consciousness” and organizational capacity is organically linked to their capacity to represent “all classes of society.” 

  37. “So it will be as ‘red wives’ [épouses rouges], to employ Clara Zetkin’s expression, that women will be invited to the ‘class struggle,’ included in the class, espousing its interests, collaborating in a historical process that does not affect their place” (Duroux, op. cit., 17). Duroux notes that such subordination oscillates uncontrollably between a development of the division of labor between the sexes and a political instrumentalization of the sexual relationship (or, if one prefers, “love”). 

  38. Geneviève Fraisse, Les Deux gouvernements: la famille et la Cité, (Paris: Folio Gallimard, 2000). 

  39. Nevertheless, this reproduction should not be read in a fatalistic or deterministic manner, as it also contains an aleatory dimension, as Althusser would say. This is no doubt why Rossanda can write that “settling accounts with the biggest [of the political parties], the communist party… is already a way of settling accounts with the state.” Le altre, 30. 

  40. The term “counter-society,” which has taken on a general usage in contemporary sociology, was first employed apropos the French Communist Party by Annie Kriegel (who had been a nearly fanatic militant in the party and who subsequently became a vociferous critic) in a 1968 text: Les communistes français. 1920-1970 (Paris: Le Seuil, 1985 [1968]). Naturally, when taken beyond polemics, this category opens up a problem with no easy solution: between the de facto condition of a worker-workerist culture (which is also, as we see today among immigrant workers, is a strategy for defending traditional familial forms threatened by wage labor) and the anti-capitalist “volonté de scission,” there is an array of historical modalities of “communitarianism” that engender class consciousness. “Counter-power,” on the other hand, is a category of the liberal political tradition (always in force in the idea of checks and balances) appropriated by Marxist political theory, which has inscribed it in a generalized representation of politics as conflict, or even as “war” continued by other means. 

  41. Françoise Duroux, “La famille des ouvriers: mythe ou politique?,” Ph.D Diss., University of Paris-VII, 1982. This question probes farther into the “unsaid” of Marxism, since it forces one to examine how Marx “excluded” the relationship between men and women as a sexual relationship from the schema of forms of domination, which was actually included by the “utopian” socialisms Marx criticized. It is true that this inclusion would have forced him to call into question the linearity of the historical order of succession between modes of exploitation, and also renounce the idea that what characterizes the proletariat is its radical absence of property (Eigentumslosigkeit), and that in a communist revolution proletarians have “nothing to lose but their chains.” Proletarians are always private owners of “something,” namely their wives (corporeally and through domestic labor) and families; thus they have “something to lose,” or at least the moral conditions of revolution does not present themselves in terms that are immediately universalizable. 

  42. In particular, Lenin’s ambivalent stances towards Rosa Luxemburg should be studied, and a fortiori those of Lukács, who was closer to her theoretical positions from the start. But in History and Class Consciousness, Lukács took it upon himself, as it were, to offer criticisms of Luxemburg over the way in which the Russian Revolution liquidated the question of democracy: the response that Lenin was henceforth unable to give. 

  43. The inverse of which might be what Geneviève Fraisse again calls “consent,” which directly reflects the classical problematic of “voluntary servitude.” Geneviève Fraisse, Du consentement (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 2007). 

  44. Marxism proves incapable of “resolving” the logical contradiction which holds that class cannot “divide” the category of women without sexual difference (or “gender”) dividing the class: the bourgeoisie are not workers, and the workers are the bourgeoisie, but the emancipation of the workers in relation to the two forms of domination they undergo calls into question the “neutrality” of the proletariat as concerns gender which spans, in practice, a masculine model of social antagonism (whose extreme form is “social war” or “civil war”). 

  45. The paradox is that social struggles organized by the communist party democratize bourgeois society, but justify (for a certain period of time) a non-democratic discipline and a monopoly of power within the party. We are close here to what Georges Lavau, in an important study of the French Communist Party, called in Machiavellian terms (borrowed not from The Prince, but from the Discourses on Livy) the “tributary function” of the organized workers’ movement. Georges Lavau, À quoi sert le Parti communiste français? (Paris: Fayard, 1981). 

  46. The mere fact of posing this question breaks with the tradition of the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” as it is theorized after Lenin, since it relies on the apocalyptic idea of the advent of absolute democracy that passes through its opposite, and even through its institutional negation. But on the other hand or conversely, the idea of an institution of struggle for communism that must realize it in advance and in itself (or prefigure the communist future) ties back, through the “associations” of utopian socialism, to the messianic politics of the first Christian communities (which were also, in the West, doubtless the first sites where what Alain Badiou calls the “communist hypothesis” took shape). 

  47. But also often within the “system” and its less and less obedient transmission belts, in particular the unions: Cf. Bruno Trentin , Il Sindacato dei consigli (a collection of interviews with Bruno Ugolini, Editori Riuniti, Roma, 1980). One finds a cryptic presentation of the conflict that divided the CGT in ‘68 over this point, and which resulted in the victory of the older, controlling apparatus of the union by the leadership of the party, in the memoirs recently published by Georges Séguy, former secretary of the French CGT: Résister: de Mauthausen à Mai 68 (Paris: L’Archipel, 2008). 

  48. I leave to the side the question of council democracy, which poses other problems, even if they can only be abstractly differentiated. The legacy of the idea of “councils” today principally invites research on the experiences of participatory, non-parliamentary “counter-democracy” (which does not means anti-parliamentary). Cf. Yves Sintomer, Le pouvoir au peuple (Paris: La découverte, 2007). Translator’s note: We have rendered Balibar’s difficult phrase, “recours utopique,” as “utopian last resort,” following Michael C. Behrent’s translation found in a recent interview with Balibar conducted by Nicolas Duvoux and Pascal Sévérac in La vie des idées. Note that Balibar’s use of the term, although not entirely clear, seems closely tied that of a “supplement” – an other scene or modality of politics that needs to be taken into account in its specificity. 

  49. Étienne Balibar, “Occasional Notes on Communism,” trans. Blandine Joret, Krisis: Journal of Contemporary Philosophy, no.1 (2011). 

  50. Sophocles, Antigone, Con un saggio di Rossana Rossanda, trad. Luisa Biondetii (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1987). 

Author of the article

is a French philosopher and currently Anniversary Chair of Contemporary European Philosophy at Kingston University London and Visiting Professor at Columbia University.