Comrade or Ally? Book Review of : COMRADE, An Essay on Political Belonging by Jodi Dean

By Karyn Pomerantz, 6-12-2020

The uprisings over the horrendous oppression and killing of black people in the US have united people in ways we have rarely seen. Most protests in the past have been comprised of a single demographic group: mostly white in anti-war marches, Latin in immigration demonstrations, and black in anti-racist protests. The multi-racial and multi-ethnic participation in the rebellions stirred by police violence, disproportionate Covid19 deaths in black and native families, and sacrificial back-to-work decisions creates an enormous potential for working class solidarity and revolutionary change.   

There remain many questions about the role of white and other non-black people in this movement. Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) contend that they are allies while Jodi Dean argues in her book that they and others can be comrades.  Dean addresses the differences in these relationships and strongly advocates for the role of comrade.

Comrades

While the ruling class envelopes the concept of comrade in anti-communist propaganda, i.e. that comrades robotically follow the party line, Dean describes it as the special bond between people “on the same side,” committed to equity and (often to) communism, accountable to one another in sharing risks and responsibilities, and a strong sense of belonging. It is not a supportive, second class position as an allyship is:

“…comrade as a … political relation between those on the same side of a political struggle … for a political purpose. … We have to be able to trust one another.”

Comrades are more than friends. They share goals, consequences, and support for one another in the context of struggling for a better world, essentially for a communist society devoid of exploitation, racism, and the oppression of women. She cautions people to reject and stop repeating anti-communist propaganda, and instead uphold communist successes as seen in the formerly socialist USSR and China, such as increased life expectancy, lower infant mortality, eradication of infectious disease, liberation of women, and expanded education and literacy.

“Rather than remaining stuck in the ruins of communism, we can scavenge the ruins for past hopes and old lessons and put these remnants to use as we organize and build.”

Allies

On the other hand, allyship is grounded in an identity outside of the oppressed group, suffering no consequences from the oppression oneself, such as cis-gendered women supporting transpeople or white anti-racists opposing police brutality against black men.  It demands educating oneself about oppression without discussions with those who live it so the conversations don’t burden the person.  While researching inequities can instill more understanding, it doesn’t replace the heart to heart conversations about personal experiences and political outlooks. Allyship often requires the ally to follow the leadership of the oppressed group even if its politics or tactics are questionable. In the extreme, it’s “show up and shut up” and go organize “your own.”

Identity Politics

Dean decries the popularity of identity politics that promote allyship. This concept makes people’s physical or ethnic characteristics the most important aspect of their behaviors and beliefs, and a likely predictor of one’s politics. Yet former English Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s gender did not make her support the striking miners’ families nor does Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ “race” make him a beacon of racial and gender justice. Dean argues that anti-capitalist political perspectives can be adopted by people who are not the most marginalized or injured by capitalism. Consciousness, such as awareness and identification by class, shapes one’s politics.  Anyone can be a comrade by being on the same side and working for the same goals on an equal footing and not disappearing when the going gets rough. And people who are not comrades are not enemies either.

Robin D. G. Kelley (author of Hammer and Hoe and Freedom Dreams) reinforces this view on identity:

In this era of hashtag politics, branding, and call out culture. When ‘identity politics’ functions more like enclosure than grounds for solidarity, when planetary annihilation is deemed inevitable and racism permanent…Jodi Dean…reveals the power of comrade as a form of revolutionary belonging, a mode of address, a great equalizer, and an expression of disciplined and committed love…Be Comrades!”

Although not referenced by Dean, John Brown, the militant white abolitionist, exemplifies comradeship. He recognized enslaved and freed black people as human beings equal to whites. He developed close personal friendships and fought militantly with them, sacrificing his family’s health and the lives of several sons. Paul Robeson and Claudia Jones, two prominent communists in the early to mid 20th Century, also embody comradeship in their passion to overthrow capitalism with a multiracial, organized party.

Stereotypes of Comrades: Comradeship as White and Male

People often view comrades and communists as white men descended from white Europeans. Dean adamantly refutes this well-ingrained stereotype. She cites the long list of black communist men and women, such as Claudia Jones, Lucy Parsons, and Cyril Briggs, and the authors we can read to learn more about them, such as Carol Boyce Davies, Barbara Foley, Mark Solomon, and Mark Naison.

Racism as a practice and ideology contradicts comradeship. Comrades unite based on shared goals and commitments. Dean writes that comradeship requires white workers to fight for black working class liberation as strongly as black workers do and to be willing to die for it. This solidarity also applies to people’s “personal” lives; comrades need to practice social equality in their friendships and political work. 

Class analysis rejects nationalism. Middle class black elites call for the assimilation of all black people into capitalist politics, such as voting and working within the system. A black communist wrote in the 1920s that these “Negro leaders,” dependent on white philanthropy, such as donations to their organizations and schools, attack labor organizing and radical politics of the black working class. Such people cannot be comrades. Multiracial unity of workers can fight racism more effectively than black people uniting to become part of an oppressive system.

Dean assails the stereotypes of comrades and communists as men (usually white men). Again, she reminds us of the long list of women comrades, such as Rosa Luxemburg, Alexandra Kollantai, Angela Davis, Claudia Jones, Louise Thompson, Ella Baker, and Luciana Castellina. Women joined the CPUSA in large numbers throughout the 1930s, reaching 44% of its membership. She also salutes the large numbers of women involved in liberation struggles around the world.

Before intersectionality became popular in the late 20th Century, black women communists recognized the triple exploitation of black women by class, gender, and “race,” as workers, women and black people. The CP fought for equal pay for equal work, maternity insurance, birth control, free childcare, and anti-discriminatory laws. Furthermore, Dean reports that the Party required white women to fight for the rights and liberation of black women, an issue that shamefully divided some white women suffragist groups in the US.

Dean writes of comradeship:

“Comrade is not masculine (or white, ed.). Comrade is a generic figure operating as an ego ideal. It provides the perspective comrades take when they see themselves acting politically, a perspective generated by their relation to others on the same side of a political struggle. This equality is the utopian element of comradeship.”

Party Structure

Many young activists today prefer a spontaneous, decentralized, leaderless resistance, marked by affinity groups and connections through social media. Instead, Dean views a communist party as essential to overthrowing the state. A party of comrades can collectively make decisions, spell each other when one is exhausted, test strategies and political positions, and provide the discipline needed to be accountable for one’s work. Comrades encourage each other, overcome isolation, and “makes political work possible where it was not before.” She is unapologetic and assertive in urging communism and a communist party. She recognizes errors of previous parties but does not name them or one that she prefers.

Summary

This book has some weaknesses. Dean does not describe how she envisions a communist society or what mistakes the former socialist states made so “we can scavenge the ruins for past hopes and old lessons” (as quoted above). How does she differentiate previous revolutionary socialist societies with a more sustainable and equitable  model? What is the role of wages, the type of governance structure, and the policies that would alleviate and eventually abolish racism and the oppression of women and others? She does not address these questions in Comrades but may do so in her other books. The concepts of egalitarianism, wages, leadership, and organization need to be grounded in concrete examples beyond stating that the USSR freed women from domestic chores, continual child care, and barriers to birth control. How did this happen?

Comradeship can also unite black and white workers because it depends on people sharing similar political ideas, organizations, and commitments regardless of their “race,” gender, or other characteristics. It rejects all class unity of workers and elites based on their common colors and gender: vote for Hillary if you are a woman or for Obama if you are black. 

However, Dean offers no material reasons to explain why white workers need to fight racism and how they benefit by uniting across “racial” lines and borders. She does not document how racism reduces the incomes of white workers and creates trillions of dollars in profit by this pay differential, money that lines the pockets of the corporations and their stockholders, not the people who generate this wealth. She doesn’t demonstrate how many poor white families reject Medicaid because they view it as a handout for black families (see Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness). There is no mention of the ruling class sending soldiers of all “races” overseas to kill non-white people and steal their resources. Comrade does not indict the ruling class for turning black, Latin, Asian, indigenous, and LGBT people, and immigrants into scapegoats for unemployment, disease, and crime to take the heat off of the real exploiters. While these concrete examples may be outside the scope of the book, they would help increase the readers’ understanding and perhaps adoption of the concepts.

Dean writes in academic language; sentences often require reading multiple times (at least, for me). It references people and theories unfamiliar to most people, especially working class people without history and political science education. She assumes her audience knows more than she explains. Her concepts are too important to remain obscure. However, her book and video talks on YouTube given with so much energy and optimism make provocative material for discussion groups to resolve: are you a comrade or an ally?

Dean J. Comrade: Essay on Political Belonging. NY, London: Verso, 2019.

Comrade: A Discussion with Jodi Dean,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lzHdUIgqggI

See also the authors cited above.

One thought on “Comrade or Ally? Book Review of : COMRADE, An Essay on Political Belonging by Jodi Dean”

  1. Karyn,

    Makes many good points but I agree with your criticisms. Assume you’ve received my memoir. Would appreciate your opinion of my next-to-last story, page 329, entitled “Fighting Racism in A Racist Society — An Unceasing Battle,” in which I try to describe my personal battles on this score, many of which are detailed in other stories throughout the memoir. I think my fights against racism were more from a comrade/class stance than as an “ally.” Anyway, what do you think?

    Wally

    Virus-free. http://www.avg.com

    On Sat, Jun 13, 2020 at 5:26 PM The Multiracial Unity Blog wrote:

    > pomerantzkaryn6@gmail.com posted: ” By Karyn Pomerantz, 6-12-2020 The > uprisings over the horrendous oppression and killing of black people in the > US have united people in ways we have rarely seen. Most protests in the > past have been comprised of a single demographic group: mostly white ” >

    Like

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