For Jodi Dean, a professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith, the word “comrade” is by no means a simple descriptor, nor is it some dusty relic of the bygone days of actually-existing state socialism. It is a perennial call to action, a challenge to accept one’s responsibility toward others who are “on the same side of a political struggle.”
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For Jodi Dean, a professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith, the word “comrade” is by no means a simple descriptor, nor is it some dusty relic of the bygone days of actually-existing state socialism. It is a perennial call to action, a challenge to accept one’s responsibility toward others who are “on the same side of a political struggle.” In her new book, Comrade: An Essay on Political Belonging (Verso), Dean argues that we are living in an era where the battle lines of a world-historical struggle — a struggle against planetary destruction, forever war, rising fascism, and a global return to feudalism— have already been drawn. And neutrality is not an option. Everyone must answer the questions: Which side areyouon? And what are you going to do about it?
This, according to Dean, is why it’s imperative to examine the figure of the comrade, and to eschew concepts of identity and political organization that leave no room for collective struggle. To be and be called a comrade is to know where you stand and whom you stand with. It is to recognize that we all need to be clear about what we’re fighting for — and what we’re fighting against. As a scholar and a political organizer herself, Dean takes this responsibility seriously.
She spoke with The Chronicle Review about the relationship between political and scholarly work, what it means to be a communist professor today, and what academics could be — as researchers, teachers, colleagues, and even public servants — if they took comradeliness as their primary directive.
Was there something about our political moment, or the arc of your own scholarship, that made you feel that a political theory of “comrade” needed to be worked out?
Oh god, yes. It comes out of contemporary politics, out of a concern with the ways that liberal assumptions of individuality undercut left concerns with collectivity. In the vague, inchoate contemporary left of social media, university campuses, NGOs, and socially engaged art, appeals to individual identity, endeavors to protect individual identity, and vigilance against suspected threats to individual identity displace efforts to build collectivity. My goal with Comrade is reminding leftists of another figure of politics, one that was prominent in the 20th century as a figure for all united in emancipatory egalitarian struggle against racism, sexism, capitalism, and imperialism.
My political and scholarly work are deeply interconnected. They inform each other. Each is better because of the other.
So I have a detailed critique of the figure of the ally and the politics of allyship. It’s strange, isn’t it, that a name associated with sovereign nation states pulling together to protect their own sovereignty, secure their own borders, has become so ubiquitous in sectors that understand themselves as on the left? But this effort to secure borders is the clue to the limits of allyship: Individuals are imagined as like little sovereign states, defending their territory and only joining together under the most cautious and self-interested terms. Those taken to share an identity are presumed to share a politics, as if the identity were obvious and the politics didn’t need to be built.
Should academics see themselves as comrades?
It’s hard. And it’s hard because it indexes a real antagonism in the academy between the university as a workplace and academia as a collection of scholarly practices and intellectual ideals. The relation between comrades is political; comrades are those on the same side of a political struggle. In the socialist and communist tradition, this struggle has been understood as a struggle between the oppressed and the oppressors, proletariat and bourgeoisie, tenant and landlord, oppressed nations and imperialist powers, etc. Were academics to see ourselves as comrades, we would need to see ourselves on the same political side against, say, austerity-oriented, tax-cutting state governments and neoliberal, financialized, corporate-minded boards of trustees.
And this might not always prioritize teaching and research — both of which involve enormous amounts of unpaid labor. Adjuncts and faculty in nontenurable lines carry by far the bulk of this burden. But many in even nominally secure positions are experiencing intensifying precarity, and yet made to think that fighting for better conditions is wrong or suspect because it hurts the students or delays valuable research.
From another angle, we can say that universities are already sites of intense politicization, whether one thinks of, say, the role of Chicago school economists in undermining social democracy and ushering in an era of intensifying inequality or in terms of the various sorts of “studies” (gender studies, ethnic studies, Africana studies, indigenous studies, etc.) fighting to redress the biases of the centuries of scholarly production that buttress forms of discrimination, oppression, exploitation, apartheid, and genocide. But this intense politicization doesn’t point to researchers and teachers in general as comrades. It points to the way that researchers and teachers may find comrades or build comradely relations in the struggles in which they participate.
When people think “comrade,” their minds are probably conjuring some Cold-War image of ushanka-wearing Soviets. So, what does the term “comrade” mean, and what does it mean to consider yourself a comrade to others?
Etymologically, comrade derives from camera, the Latin word for room, chamber, and vault. The generic function of a vault is producing a space and holding it open. This lets us home in on the meaning of comrade: Sharing a room, sharing a space generates a closeness, an intensity of feeling and expectation of solidarity that differentiates those on one side from those on the other. Politically, comradeship is a relation of supported cover, that is, the expectation of solidarity that those on the same side have of each other. Comrade, then, is a mode of address, figure of political belonging, and carrier of expectations for action. When we call ourselves comrades, we are saying that we are on the same side, united around a common political purpose.
Many within and outside academe call you a comrade. Do you feel like there’s a clear distinction between your political and scholarly work?
Maybe we could say that my political and scholarly work are deeply interconnected. They inform each other. Each is better because of the other. I am a better political theorist than I was before I was engaged seriously in organized political struggle because I now think more about audience and addressee, about the collectivities that might engage or respond to my ideas, about the forms of political action and belonging that my ideas presuppose. Who are they for? Why?
To be a communist professor today means to try to find and forward revolutionary optimism in a setting of climate catastrophe.
The comradely scholar is committed, fierce, and resolutely partisan. That means that she is more likely to be hated than loved in the academy. Her commitments are political, not disciplinary or professional commitments, which of course does not mean that she is undisciplined or unprofessional. Think of Angela Davis. Ronald Reagan, as governor of California, tried to prevent her from being able to teach in the state’s university system because she was a Communist.
Is there a difference between a “public scholar” and a “comradely scholar”?
Public scholars are rewarded by the same U.S. academic system that demonizes communists as traitors, cogs, and automatons, that blocks and dismisses them from academic jobs … comradely scholars, not so much.
In the grand scheme of things, we’re not that far removed from the days when people were silenced, hunted, and purged en masse from academe for being communists (or for just being accused of communist sympathies). What does it mean to be a communist professor today?
Over the past few years a number of brilliant scholars have been hounded out of the academy because of their political convictions, their commitments to struggles for Palestinian rights and against white supremacy. At the same time, cowardly administrations repeat right-wing talking points about free speech. It’s indicative of this capitalist, upside-down world that tells us that corporations are people but people are disposable, that we live in a knowledge society but facts, learning, and education are simultaneously devalued and commodified, that success brings freedom when in fact it brings debt and entrapment in the service of the capital accumulation of the very rich. To be a communist professor today means to try to find and forward revolutionary optimism in a setting of climate catastrophe. The source of this optimism is comradeship.