On Depoliticization

Raising the Banner (Geli Korzhev, 1960)

Our global situation is one characterized by the increasing politicization of social movements, a flood of young people towards politics, and a sharpening awareness of the traps of political institutions within the status quo. My claim, then, will seem somewhat paradoxical. I propose that our situation should be understood not only in terms of a resurgent radical politics, but also with attention to the perniciousness of its opposite: the frame of depoliticization

What is depoliticization? What is the effect of depoliticization on the growth of movements and organizations? How can tendencies of depoliticization be combatted? 

Depoliticization has as its global and historical condition the failure of the 20th century revolutions and the closure of the revolutionary form of the party and the post-revolutionary form of the socialist party-state. There are also local and contemporary conditions to which we will return.

Let’s be clear about the successes of these revolutions: the overthrow of the old regimes, the expulsion of the imperialists, and the initiation of international revolutionary processes. As Alain Badiou puts it, the revolutions were driven by the “communist hypothesis,” which says: “the existing world is not necessary.” It is not necessary for human life to be subordinated by the state and the market.

Nevertheless, none of these revolutions managed to proceed through the transition to another kind of society. Socialist construction did not yield communism.

Unfortunately, most of the attempts to deal with this history of failure are various forms of denial. There is the standard liberal view that says that any attempt to change the world will end in disaster, and therefore the project of socialism was doomed from the beginning. And this is essentially repeated in certain purist leftist views which criticize the social experiments from the vantage point of an imaginary world: a world in which someone else was in charge and made better decisions, or a world in which a revolution happened in some other country in some other way.

But we can’t rewrite history as we pick and choose; we have to confront history as it happened. We have to be able to simultaneously understand that the great revolutions of the 20th century were major events in human history which fundamentally changed what was possible, and that the efforts to follow through on the consequences of these revolutions ended in failure.

Politics exists in particular sequences which have a beginning and an end; they end when the existing procedures and aims of politics have been exhausted. There are two dangers in this moment.

First, if the end of a political sequence is understood to be an indication of the futility and corruption of the whole project of emancipation, which means various forms of betrayal.

Second, if there is an insistence on continuing the mode of politics specific to a historical situation that no longer exists, which reduces politics to pure nostalgia and wish-fulfillment.

We can describe these as various forms of depoliticization. The historical frame of depoliticization is not a period which is the expression of an overall historical progression – it is rather the consequence of the beginning and end of a specific process, and both the beginning and the end are contingent phenomena. We must emphasize this reality if we are to see depoliticization as something that can be overcome: the end of the revolutionary moment was not preordained but the result of actions, accidents, “circumstances.”

Within the historical frame of depoliticization, the communist hypothesis has dropped out of view, even among socialists. Many contemporary socialists believe this world is “necessary.” A powerful contemporary socialist opinion declares that the state and the market are necessary and human life cannot be conceived beyond them. This is the most serious question for socialists today. It is not a debate around “reformism,” which under our political constraints is very difficult to define. It is a position on the necessity of the existing reality.

Certainly, socialists debate questions of strategy which seem to bear on this question: whether to participate in elections, whether to devote resources to community organizing, whether to form coalitions with other groups. These questions are specific to conjunctures, and their parameters are particularly unusual in the United States, where socialism has been especially weak.

This is why it is significant that a great many people have been introduced to the name “socialist” within the framework of recent bourgeois elections. There is nothing wrong with this in itself; it represents a step forward. The presence of socialists in elections has had the function of “speaking through the window,” as the German Social Democratic Party said: they have conveyed a message to the public in the space within which the dominant ideology has constrained politics (elections). 

At the same time, this is the local and contemporary condition of depoliticization. The terms of politics are set by the state. The failure of the Democrats to prevent the crisis of their party with Trump’s election has scrambled political expectations. They have responded by personalizing the enemy in the body of Trump, allowing them to absorb the stance of opposition and thus circumscribe any other oppositional stance. To be a member of “the Resistance” has for some time been a meaningless proposition; now even the feint of resistance has given way to an opportunism which is as craven as it is useless. It remains to be seen whether the dissent represented by Sanders will be able to continue withstanding the crushing institutional weight of this opportunism. What is evident, especially in light of the recent electoral fate of the Labour Party in the UK, is that if mass political organizing exhausts itself in a single campaign, socialism will be engaged in a grim struggle for survival during Trump’s second term.

Some interpret this scenario as calling for a greater radicalism, and thus take a position beyond the socialist one, even using the word “communist.” But even the posture of greater radicalism does not necessarily mean maintaining the communist hypothesis. Such declared views may still exist alongside a total affective investment in the necessity of the existing world. I will identify four forms of affective investment, though there may be others:

  1. Alignment with factions defined and governed at the highest bureaucratic level, which circumscribes political positions and actions.
  2. The formation of a political ideology on the basis of ad hoc opinions – determined affectively, or on the basis of who might hold these opinions or their opposites, rather than rationally – which subsumes any substantive political or strategic discussion.
  3. The use of social media for the performance of political opinions, delivering internal matters of left organizations to the media apparatus of the enemy and undermining freedom of thought and discussion within these organizations. (I will add, though at the moment it is not possible to develop this point, that this performance of opinion operates at a speed which cannot be aligned with the processes required for political organization.)
  4. Preoccupation with political and social identities, which are effectively no different from one another. One may be either celebrated or condemned for a particular identity, which is obviously discernible when it is related to socially ascribed categories like race or gender, but is also at play in the contestation of political labels which do not refer to any concrete political process – terms like “socialist” or “communist” themselves become little more than identities whose content is policed.

So what are we left with when the communist hypothesis is not sustained?

Let’s call the remaining available position “adjustment.” It can mean modification, adjusting things within the parameters of the existing situation. But it also means adjusting oneself to the world that exists.

In organizations, proceduralism is the primary form of adjustment. Since democracy is the dominant opinion, proceduralism means a formalistic commitment to democracy which does not recognize self-organization as a meaningful principle. Contemporary organizations are independent of any party-state, and state power is not at stake. What remains at stake is the consistency of the organization’s internal bureaucracy, which controls the flow of communication, the disbursement of funds, and to varying degrees dictates decisions determined by representatives who represent factional interests over political positions. In a small-scale iteration of the form of parliamentarism, putatively democratic decision-making is the domain of interest-group brokerage.

Why are we left with only adjustment, with the communist hypothesis seemingly excluded from the outset?

I will give three reasons.

  1. We do not have transmission of the hypothesis. In his history of the Communist Party in 1930s Alabama – which was at this point a nearly all-black clandestine armed cell – Robin D.G. Kelley tells us of an “‘older’ comrade” who was heard telling a young recruit: “There ain’t one of us here was born a Communist; we learned it and it ain’t easy to learn.” Despite great variance in formal education, Communists established forms of transmission: “The Party formed study groups that read works in pamphlet form, ranging from James Allen’s Negro Liberation and Lenin’s What Is to Be Done to Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto. By mid-1934, the Bessemer section of the Party designated one half-hour of each meeting for study – fifteen minutes of reading aloud and fifteen minutes devoted to discussion.” If “socialist” and “communist” do not go beyond identitarian labels, it is due in no small part to the absence of transmission – in a form in which political education is submitted to the specifics of a political practice.
  2. We do not produce egalitarian forms. Egalitarian forms are rare, and they arise from experiments. The bureaucratic conception of organization resists experiments. As Rosa Luxemburg said in her analysis of the mass strike: “The rigid, mechanical-bureaucratic conception cannot conceive of the struggle save as the product of organisation at a certain stage of its strength. On the contrary, the living, dialectical explanation makes the organisation arise as a product of the struggle.” When the organizational form is mechanically imposed, according to the existence of models determined by bureaucratic nostalgia, it forecloses the possibility of the collective form of action which represents everyone’s equal capacity for thought.
  3. We do not conceive of other worlds. To use the formulation of Sun Ra: “There are other worlds they have not told you of.” These are the worlds in which a subjective orientation is possible: in which it is possible to make a decision on an event which brings about something new. This is precisely what is impossible in the world of capitalism and parliamentarism that currently limits our existence.

The contemporary left is mired in circular and disempowering disputes whose material implications are ambiguous, which only seems to amplify the vitriol which accompanies them. What is obscured by the affective intensity of these disputes is that in the absence of a guiding political orientation, they represent little more than forms of adjustment within the existing world, and therefore an investment in what is. It is impossible to genuinely act within this condition of depoliticization. So let’s affirm the absolute necessity of reviving and transmitting the hypothesis that this world is not necessary. Under the guidance of this hypothesis we may begin to determine what new modes of politics are possible.

Author of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint and author of Mistaken Identity: Anti-Racism and the Struggle Against White Supremacy (Verso, Spring 2018).