In the final section of my recent article, The Solstice, I raise “the party” as a key conceptual question in the era of riots. The attempt built on previous efforts by the likes of Bruno Bosteels, Gavin Walker, Jodi Dean, Jason Smith and Endnotes, all of whom have recently returned to concept of “the party” in an attempt to sever the term itself from the often repeated equation of party and state or party and delusional leftist sect. All of this has, meanwhile, been occurring in an atmosphere where intellectual forces as disparate as Slavoj Žižek and Tiqqun have been calling for a return to “the party,” at least in the abstract.
But this level of theoretical abstraction has also led to a confusion of the term in practice. For some American Tiqqunistes, “Building the Party,” has meant nothing more than the eternal lifestylist tropes: squatting a house, dumpstering food, and maybe at some point going “back to the land.” For Žižek, Dean and Bosteels, meanwhile, the separation between “the party” and social democratic experiments such as SYRIZA remain vague, tending to reinforce the mistaken equation of “the party” with electoral politics.
In order to avoid these errors, I attempted to explore the multiple and contradictory components of “the party” and, rather than referring to it only in the abstract, intended to link these components directly to examples in the present. An unfortunate side-effect of this, however, has been the risk of abbreviating the concept itself by only exploring its present formulations. I explore the process (by no means that unique) of general social partisanship made more volatile in an age of riots, but I do not explore the process (much rarer) of a thoroughly communist partisanship. The reason for this is simple: there is no actual communist party today.
In the previous article, I reduced “the party” down into several related concepts—not to be seen as different “parties” so much as different moments in the development of “the party” as such, the whole of which exceeds the simple sum of these parts.
First, there is the historical party. This is the most basic form that emerges from the “age of riots,” an era that Badiou refers to as the “rebirth of history.” The historical party is the name for the generalization of some degree of social upheaval across international boundaries, the increase in the rate at which new struggles become visible and the intensity that they are able to reach. All struggles within the historical party tend toward demandlessness, which also often infers that they tend directly toward a generalized becoming-riot. It is through this demandlessness—the recognition in action that the present system is fundamentally impossible, rather than mismanaged—that the specter of communism is resurrected. The “invariant programme” (per Bordiga) of communism is inferred by peoples’ demandless action against the present. But the specter only haunts the riot from its fringes. We cannot say that the communist programme is systematized by the historical party.
The formal party is the name for the emergence of organization from the motion of the historical party—organization here means the confrontation and overcoming of material limits to a given struggle. Whether those involved in this process think of themselves as in “an organization” is irrelevant, though some process of naming is necessary. Bordiga also calls this the “ephemeral party,” and Marx, mocking the far-mongering press of the day, calls it the “Party of Anarchy.” Whereas the historical party refers to content, the formal party refers, precisely, to form, since it is positioned within a contingent array of historical conditions that require practical overcoming. This also makes the formal party itself contingent on these conditions—when they change, the form of organization much change as well.
The formal party is a key transformative element, since it can draw out, consolidate, preserve, extend and coordinate the “specter” or invariant programme of communism inferred by the historical party. More importantly, though produced by one moment of the historical party, the formal party also intervenes back into history at a later point, acting both as an organ of institutional memory as well as a pole of discipline. This also implies that formal parties produced by one high point of the historical party are then reforged in or destroyed by renewed contact with the historical party at a later date. If they are successful at transforming the dynamics of history then they themselves are dissolved, reconfigured, and repurposed.
In one sense, all of this is pretty straightforward observation. There are high points of struggle, and those high points generate coordinating efforts. It is in the details, however, that we discover the importance of the party-concept. Coordination and partisanship themselves are necessary but insufficient here. Highly coordinated organizations can emerge out of a moment of mass partisanship that have nothing to do with the party—we saw this, for instance, in many of the mass movements of the late 80s and early 90s, which, with a few very notable exceptions, upheld very specific demands, often framed within the terms of liberal democracy and just as often acted as a sort of buffer for military coups or other US-endorsed transfers of power. The specter of communism was largely absent in these movements. They did not tend toward demandlessness, did not exhibit a general becoming-riot, and were mostly unable to reach a significant intensity unless endorsed, aided and funded by the US or other entrenched interests.
But this also has geographic qualifiers. The above may hold for Asia and Eastern Europe in these decades, but it could equally be argued, for instance, that much of Latin America throughout the 1990s and early 2000s sustained a localized “era of riots,” and that the historical party was, in some sense, reborn in this period—resulting in the emergence of formal parties that went on to take power, often electorally (note that it’s an entirely different question whether these formal parties would still have any relation to the historical party in its re-emergence today). Nonetheless, there is a qualitative difference between such a localized phenomenon, with its limited spread, and the truly global era of riots that we see today. The global crisis of ’07-’08 provided an entirely new substrate for the transfer and transformation of any given movement, and the riot is the marker of this increased valence. As the crisis of reproduction deepens, it is only more likely that we will see the compounding development of this era of riots globally, punctuated by moments of industrial/financial collapse.
In my original example I used the case of Thailand. In simple terms, the political crisis in Thailand today is similar to various points in Thai history that have seen peoples’ movements facing off against coups and military governments of one sort or another. This is only natural in the country with the highest coups per capita for the 20th century. What makes today’s partisan formation unique, then, is very much its context—both its context within the crisis of reproduction and its attachment to one of the first major events in the critical mass of riots, insurrections and occupations that have been kicking off globally for the past few years. It is also a notable example simply because of the nature of its present defeat, as is covered extensively in the previous article.
But, using this example, we must be careful not to equate the elements too loosely. The red shirts, for instance, are absolutely not a formal party. They are simply one dimension of the historical party. The formal party was a possibility in 2010, but, at least as of today, appears to have been defeated—the closest thing to a formal party being Red Siam, the leader of which is now in jail. It is unclear if other formal parties existed and survived the defeat, or if new ones are presently forming. It is likely that smaller formal parties existed as loose affinity networks, some of which may have survived into the present. Nonetheless, at this point the situation in Thailand appears to be a contest between the Party of Order, represented by Yingluck, and the Anti-Party, represented by the current protestors, affiliated with the People’s Democratic Reform Committee. As of this writing, the Party of Order remains in dominance, and the forces of the Anti-Party have begun another limited retreat, possibly prefiguring a new regroupment around the military in the near future.
But none of these categories are themselves “the party,” nor do they become “the party” when added together. The party proper—i.e., the Communist Party—may be in its early gestation, but this formation can only be verified after-the-fact. The party as such can only emerge through an extensive rupture with the present system, which is to say: through revolution. This point from Endnotes bears repeating: “the party […] is always the party of rupture.” (Endnotes 3, p. 240)
For Bordiga, this means that
in order to achieve victory, it will be necessary to have a party, worthy at the same time of both characteristics, those of historical party and formal party, i.e. to have solved in the reality of action and history the apparent contradiction […] between historical party, then as far as the content (historical, invariant programme) is concerned, and contingent party, that is relating to the form, operating as a force and a physical praxis of a decisive part of the struggling proletariat.
The party itself is thus seen as the fusion of the historical and the formal. When they are severed, even in the era of the “rebirth of history,” the separate components constitute the pre-history of the party. But this itself could mean different things.
Are formal and historical synthesized into a single alloy, in which any attack on the future party constitutes an attack on the class as such? Or do they retain degrees of independence from each other, with the historical capable of severing from the formal and vice versa, as in the “mass line” of Maoist theory? Does the formal absorb the historical like a dinosaur sponge, as so many of today’s “pre-party formations” believe? Or does the historical absorb the formal, as so many anarchists and autonomists might have it?
I suspect that none are true—which is to say that none are valid presumptions for the only viable direction of the party-process today. The party is not the absorption of the formal by the historical, nor the absorption of the historical by the formal, nor the “relative autonomy” of historical from formal, nor the melting of historical and formal into the single alloy of the state. The party process, with the “(non-)subject” as its motive force, necessarily takes a different form in a generalized crisis of reproduction.
This is worth emphasizing: The party is the name for a process of increasingly generalized war against the material community of capital. This process is punctuated by abrupt discontinuities between its various components and stages, and this process does not result in the synthesis of its pre-figurative elements into a unified, flattened “human community” that stands contra the community of capital. The revolution is not a Manichean struggle between the “death” that composes capitalism and the seething, rhizomatic “life” of communism. It is instead the suspension of both terms through their absolute negation.
This means that the party process in the crisis of reproduction is not the simple coordination and unification of disparate demands or identities, but their constitutive abolition—which is to say their generalization without unification. Again, the formal does not absorb the historical, nor vice versa, nor do they simply merge or retain “relative autonomy.”
The party is a centralizing process, and thereby subsumes the competition, antagonism and dispersion inherent in the historical and formal parties. But the centralization of the party is one that bears little resemblance to the centralization common to imperial armies or arcane bureaucracies, which subsume such antagonism under a seemingly disintegrating unity that, in reality, generates also its own shadow—in the form of the secret society, the royal debauch, the criminal syndicate, the “mindless” rabble, and all other forms of “sin” that constitute themselves through (and in fact feed on) the terms of the “law.”
The party is neither the centralization of the law—in the form of the state or the holy text—nor is it the subterranean, decentralized dispersion of sin—in the form of “counterpower,” or “rhizomatic” resistance. The party is instead the centralization of love, which negates law and sin absolutely. In its destructive capacity, this is the centralization of combustion—the wildfire drawing all into itself and extending outward to leave a hollow, black ring at its core. And in that core we find this centralization in its productive dimension, as seeds germinate. The party centralizes its most chaotic, generative capacity in the same way that the plant centralizes its meristem (the undifferentiated tissue, capable of transforming into any type of cell) at its points of extension into the world.
Communism is, fundamentally, a tension—a tension created by the necessity of the generation of something new through the destruction of the present and the seeming impossibility of the creation of anything other than the present—and the party is the form that this tension takes when embedded in highly variable, highly contingent local situations. But there is also a profound difference in this process when it is nothing but a spark or a seedling—more potential than actual. The formal party and the historical party are the party in this highly potential form, while the party of order and the anti-party are attempts to extinguish it before it begins to actualize. The rupture or revolution names the punctuation that begins the actualization of the party proper—not an end to the process of building the party, but one fundamental discontinuity within it. This discontinuity is fundamental simply because it is only in rupture that is becomes possible to speak of joining, building, or being a member of “the party” without sounding like a jackass.