21 September 2011

The age of the 'party-state'

The Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s continues to fascinate many self-style communists, and that fascination disturbs many non-communists. From the liberal perspective, the Cultural Revolution was a totalitarian nightmare of Mao-suited hordes chanting slogans and waving the "Little Red Book" while subjecting dissidents or "capitalist roaders" to humiliation, torture, or death. Understandably enough, liberals see it as an instance of "astroturfing," not a grass-roots uprising; instigated by Mao to terrorize his "moderate" rivals and restore his dominance. Communists see it differently. They take Mao seriously as a thinker and theoretician instead of dismissing him as a power-mad despot, and they see an authentic revolutionary impulse at work among the "Red Guards." Many self-styled Maoists see the Cultural Revolution as the furthest point of development toward true communism, but Alessandro Russo sees it as the moment when the Communist movement hit a wall of its own erection. Russo is one of the participants at the 2009 London conference on The Idea of Communism, and his contribution portrays the Cultural Revolution as a failed struggle between the philosophy of communism and the fact of the "party-state." He reminds us that the struggle resonated around the world, not only because young people romanticized Mao, but also because the party-state was a global phenomenon that transcended the Communist-Capitalist divide.

[T]he fact that [the Cultural Revolution] proved in the end to be an insoluble question in the framework of that political culture was not the particular consequence of a 'totalitarian' regime: in the mid '60s, all over the world, the party-state was the only conceivable place where politics could be organized. In 1966 in China, to admit or deny the possibility that an unlimited plurality of political seats could fully exist outside the CCP caused an irreversible split, which influenced all the following developments decisively....The demarcation line was, of course, between the party-state as the sole legitimate seat of politics and the claim of the 'Red Guards' to exist as independent entities able to formulate political declarations.

Russo elaborates on the Cultural Revolution in the context of philosophical communism, but his comment here is tantalizing. It may be tempting to equate the "party-state" with the "one-party state," but Russo's description is relevant even to polities where opposition parties were not forbidden by law. If some countries forbade a "plurality of political seats," others have forbidden it, beyond a cosmetic minimum, through mental self-censorship. If some regimes discourage subjects from imagining pluralism, citizens under other regimes seem simply incapable of imagining it. In every case, perhaps, a party-state exists, not only when one party monopolizes government and forbids opposition parties, but when government and politics themselves are imagined only in terms of parties -- when parties become the fundamental organizing principle of political life. Global liberalism encourages this tendency by making the existence of parties the measure of political liberty -- and then being satisfied as long as there's one strong opposition party in any given country. In the United States, acquiescence in the necessity of parties, not only as proof of liberty but as essential building blocks of government, has hardened into acquiescence in the permanence of the Republican-Democratic Bipolarchy that has prevailed since 1860. However dissatisfied Americans profess themselves to be with the reigning parties, they remain incapable, on the most recent evidence, of imagining an "unlimited plurality of political seats," and they remain convinced, despite all evidence, that only the two major parties are capable of governing. Is this Gramscian hegemony at work through the soft power of partisan propaganda, or is it an inevitable consequence of 150 years of party-statism? If the latter, what kind of cultural revolution, on the national or global level, could possibly change things? If communists are asking these questions, why can't the rest of us?

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