Placards from a protest against austerity in the UK
A protest as part of the Peoples Assemble against Austerity. Image credit via Peter Damian, Creative Commons.

Comrade. The ‘c’ word. It seems such an anachronistic phrase. The term is associated with fringe left groups, and your weird uncle who never quite left the 70s. Yet Verso Books just released an eye-catching book with the word filling the cover, in all capitals and red. Comrade by Jodi Dean seems designed to grab your attention, and it does.

Comrades against survivors and systems

Dean’s Comrade is attempting to rehabilitate comradeship against two perceived tendencies in modern politics. These are termed survivors and systems. In short, survivor politics is focused on the identities constructed in the struggle to survive. This is contrasted with systems politics, which focuses on large scale processes, such as climate change. Systems politics is creating new terms like hyper-objects to study climate but leaves little to build the agency of people responding. Whilst Dean has some interesting things to say about systems politics, it is clear that survivor politics is her real target. Dean sees the tendency as creating a narrow, individuated allyship. The kind of performative ‘wokeness’ curated by Instagram stars and skinny white boys in indie bands. And this critique seems well founded. Certainly, there is a form of allyship devoid of actual politics, reflecting a warped form of performed care. Dean wants comradeship to take the stage instead of this tendency.

But herein lies my main concern with Comrade. Dean is rightly critiquing a narrow expression of identity politics, one that emerges as a kind of performance allyship. But this is not, nor has it ever been, the core of the ideas of many different thinkers in the politics of identity. There runs through the work a refusal to engage with or acknowledge that some forms of contemporary intersectionality are maybe necessary for comradeship. Being a comrade is clearly about more than narrow allyship. It’s about collective struggle and the need for everyone to contribute to the achievement of a particular future. But this does not mean that the survivor tendency and its many forms of identity-based politics has nothing to contribute, and Dean does little to confront this.

What’s in a comrade?

Comrade has a number of chapters trying to tease out Dean’s ideas about the relationship. The two middle chapters are the most interesting in this regard. Firstly, the chapter discussing what a generic comradeship looks like. Then Dean turns to present her four theses on comrade. The relationship being generic means anyone, but not everyone, may become a comrade. It is not equatable to relations based on sex, gender or race. It brings with it an expectation of working together towards a common vision of the future but little positive content. To elucidate this concept of genericity Dean goes through some of the socialist movement’s history. She looks to the life and work of Alexandra Kollontai, the Bolshevik revolutionary and Marxist feminist thinker, to discuss gender. Dean also looks at the intersection of race and the socialist movement in US south in the early 20th Century. Using these examples Dean argues comradeship is anti-racist and feminist, but is defined separately from identities. The subsequent chapter on the four theses of comrade builds on this further. The relationship is counterposed to individual identity further and Dean argues it materializes fidelity to a truth.

One of the most important theses is the first. Dean suggests sameness, equality and solidarity are the characteristics of comradeship. It is this sameness that sits uncomfortably with me. I am uncertain of why comrade needs to be focused on sameness beyond the sharing of a struggle. I can be a comrade, but I can also be a LBTQA+ comrade and have something different in my politics because of this. The focus on sameness, combined with the unfair characterisation of identity politics identified earlier, makes me nervous. The possibility of a comradeship with identities of difference articulated within it, and how it would operate is not tackled. To build a comradeship for the 21st century, I think this should be done.

Lay down on the sofa, comrade

There is a long tradition on the left of engaging with the thought of psychoanalysts like Freud and Lacan. Dean sits firmly within that tradition. The comrade acts as the ‘ego ideal’, attachment to identity is ‘pathological’, and so on. Often the union of socialist and psychoanalytical terms makes for some of the opaquest reading. However, the use of such language here usually is accompanied by explanations, making it a lot clearer. The book is short, accessible, and could be read in one afternoon. These are the kinds of text the left really needs to consolidate itself and its ideas. Comrade is therefore ahead of many left-wing texts in this regard. It didn’t stop me from feeling uncomfortable after reading it.

In short, Comrade is attempting to rescue the left with a new social relation. However, its characterisation of the politics of identity seems unfair. It is rightly critiquing a narrow politics of allyship, but often presenting this at the total of identity’s political content. The comradeship of today needs more engagement with the different forms of politics within the survivor tendency than Dean allows. I worry that this book will be used by those on the left to attack those rightly demanding intersectionality and respect for identity. I hope this is the start, and not the end of discussions about what it means to be a comrade in the modern era. Dean has a interesting points to make, and they deserve engagement. But, the contributions of many movements for identity struggles deserve the same engagement in return.