Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

William Ayers reviews Comrade

Jodi DeanComrade: An Essay on Policital Belonging. New York: Verso Books, 2019. 176 pp.

Review by William Ayers

18 September 2019

The young barista—pierced, braided, tattooed, and genderbending—took the money and handed me a coffee. As we made the exchange, I said cheerily, “Thanks, comrade.” Leaning in and glancing side to side conspiratorially, the barista whispered back, “How did you know I was a communist?”

I’d just guessed.

But what is a comrade, really? How is a comrade different from a citizen, say, or a friend, an ally, or a brother or sister? Why does one become a comrade, and how?

Jodi Dean takes a deep dive into these questions (and more), looking at “comrade” from every angle, exploring its etymology, its remarkable and twisty history, its contested meanings, and its cultural and political shadings. Dean’s complex and illuminating essay convinced me that now more than ever we need to rescue “comrade” from its many entanglements, and boldly deploy it for the urgent work ahead. 

Comrades stand together, shoulder to shoulder against a common enemy and toward a common goal. They experience a generic egalitarianism—we are all one, instrumentally identical in a voluntary association characterized by discipline and courage as well as enthusiasm and joy that comes with being part of something larger than ourselves. We share a utopian vision. Our relationship—our political belonging—binds us to one another in anticipation of action. The object is to win, and we have each other’s backs. 

Comrades, then, are not allies. Allies function in service to; comrades act in solidarity with. Allies don’t want to be racist (or sexist or homophobic), and from their perch of social privilege, sincerely hope to do good work. Allies offer support to an oppressed group, but that work can carry the whiff of charity—reaching down to lift up the downtrodden. Allies confront prejudice and individual bigotry or backwardness, but rarely state power or the structures of racial, patriarchal capitalism—the field of action is individual and interpersonal, disconnected from social action; the operation is online or in the cafe, only infrequently in the streets. The distinctions matter, even if, to be fair, the self-designation, “ally,” covers a wider swath.

Comrades, by contrast, act collectively and strategically. We despise and oppose bigotry, but we refuse to embrace optics over justice, “multiculturalism” or “diversity” or “nongendered restrooms” over an honest reckoning with reality. Comrades think politically and embrace the discipline of common work. We aim to overthrow capitalism, and to dismantle the capitalist state—that will require sustained mass mobilizations, planning, and disciplined organization. 

The biggest obstacle to authentic comradeship in US history—the third rail of American radical politics—is and always has been white supremacy, and tepid (nonexistent) work toward Black Liberation. Comrade intervenes in this thorny issue, drawing on historical examples—the long tradition of opportunism as well as flashes of principled action. Dean savages the proud, punctilious Marxists (all theory, no struggle) with their implicit embrace of the failed “Black-and-white-unite-and-fight” politics, and their dismissive characterization of “identity politics.” She illuminates with crushing clarity the temptation and the catastrophe of subordinating the Black Freedom Struggle to class struggle. Comradeship in America emerges only from a deep understanding of the super exploitation and particular suffering of Black workers, an unconditional embrace of Black Liberation, and a willingness to sacrifice for Black Freedom.

If we can imagine a world without  predation and exploitation, oppression, abuse, and subjugation—Dean’s Communist Horizon—we must also think through what’s needed to actually accomplish that visionary future against a vicious, nihilistic, and hyperviolent enemy. It will take more than the exhilaration of street demonstrations, more than the exuberance of mass action, more than militancy. It will take a strong force of comrades, thinking, planning, and rising together.