Contours of an a-militant diagram

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Från Nicholas Thoburns "Weatherman, the militant diagram, and the problem of political passion".


In order to approach the possibility of a political practice beyond militancy I want in the remainder of this paper to consider some initial contours of an a-militant diagram, or dispersive ecology of composition. To do this I will confine the discussion to the relation between the political group and that which lies outside it, what might be known by militant assemblages as ‘the masses’ - as Guattari implies, it is on this axis that the question of an ‘other machine’ beyond that of the militant should be posed.44 It is instructive to address this question through Marx’s problematic of the party.

Given the dominant twentieth-century image of political Marxism, The Manifesto of the Communist Party has very little to do with the kind of party one might expect. It sets up a ‘Manifesto of the party itself’ to counter the bourgeois ‘nursery tale of the Spectre of Communism’, but the party is not announced as a distinct (much less, timeless) organisational entity:

The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties.
They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.
They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.
The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only:
1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.
2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.45

If not an organisational entity, the party instead suggests a diagram of composition, a virtual set of parameters and orientations, and one that is immanent to ‘the proletariat as a whole’. Though the party seeks to forward certain modes of thought and community - notably, internationalism and the critique of capital - Marx is at pains to stress that it is not a concentrative articulation, but a dispersive one. The party is stretched across the social, dependent upon social forces and struggles for its existence or its substance, and, in an anticipatory and precarious fashion, oriented toward social contingencies and events. As Alain Badiou argues - if to use his work in this context is not to deform it too far - not only is it the case that ‘For the Marx of 1848, that which is named “party” has no form of bond even in the institutional sense’, but ‘the real characteristic of the party is not its firmness, but its porosity to the event, its dispersive flexibility in the face of unforeseeable circumstances’.46 To this should be added that, inasmuch as the party is immanent to the manifold arrangements of capitalist social production, a production that is fully machinic (‘this automaton consisting of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs’), it poses a terrain of alliance and event that exceeds an abstract humanity.47

Given the precarious and anticipatory orientation of the party, there is considerable insight in Jacques Rancière’s argument that Marx’s party - for all its universality - is directed not toward unity but division, that ‘first of all the purpose of a party is not to unite but divide’.48 In Rancière’s reading of Marx, this division names the communist disruption of the modes of identity and security associated with the workers’ movement; one could say that it is the effect of the proletariat as its own overcoming on the workers’ movement as identity.49 Yet Rancière reduces this process of disruption to a mechanism of interminable deferral on Marx’s part, a mechanism that induces Marx’s dissolution of the Communist League and thereafter sets up the science of capital, and the writing of its book, as the proxy of the proletariat forever postponed. In making ‘division’ function in Marx as a selfseparation from politics, Rancière both elides the fundamental innovation of Marx’s dispersive understanding of the party and ignores the dynamic and intensive facets of its division in the practical critique of authoritarian and anti-proletarian organisational practice - vis-à-vis, for instance, the persistence of Freemasonry and the secret society in the workers’ movement, Jacobin models of dictatorship by enlightened minority, utopian efforts to bypass the working class, Bakuninist ‘invisible dictatorship’, and so on.

Jacques Camatte and Gianni Collu’s 1969 open letter ‘On Organization’ (which marked the withdrawal of the group around the journal Invariance from the post-’68 groupuscule milieu and their dissolution as an organised body) approaches Marx’s party in a more productive fashion than Rancière.50 In the left communist tradition with which Camatte is associated, the variable nature of struggle over time and the complexity of forces and problems that make up any historical conjuncture are such that there is no necessary continuity of a ‘formal’ party.51 Indeed, in times when agitation is on the wane, attempts to constitute revolutionary organisations become counterproductive, not least because they substitute organisational coherence and continuity for diffuse social struggle as the object of communist politics (this, as part of maintaining global conditions conducive for the survival of the Soviet economy, having been a key effect of the Communist Party on the international stage). As such, in François Martin’s assessment, ‘The dissolution of the organizational forms which are created by the movement, and which disappear when the movement ends, does not reflect the weakness of the movement, but rather its strength’.52

Camatte and Collu extend this position to argue that all radical organisations tend toward a counter-revolutionary, ‘racket’ form, functioning as anti-inventive points of attraction and solidification in social environments. In a critique that bears comparison with Guattari’s account of Bolshevism, Camatte and Collu argue that the radical group is the political correlate of the modern business organisation, orchestrating patterns of identity and investment appropriate to a capitalism that - in what is an early use of the concept of ‘real subsumption’ - has disarticulated sociality from traditional forms of community and identity and incorporated the workers’ movement in its own dynamic. Operating through a foundational and ever-renewed demarcation between interior and exterior, the group coheres through the attraction points of theoretical or activist standpoint and key members (themselves constituted as such through intellectual sophistication, militant commitment or charismatic personality), and the motive forces of membership prestige, competition for recognition and fear of exclusion. The effect is to reproduce in militants the psychological dependencies, hierarchies and competitive traits of the wider society, constitute an homogeneous formation based on the equivalence of its members to the particular element that defines it, and mark a delimiting separation from - and, ultimately, a hostility to - the open manifold of social relations and struggles, precisely that which should be the milieu of inventive communist politics. Importantly, the problem is not at all one of the relative formality of the group; these tendencies may well be found at the extreme in ‘unstructured’ aggregations or ‘disorganisations’, where informal inter-subjective relations take primacy.53

Some of these aspects of militant group-formation have been seen above in Weatherman, but the pertinent point here is the way Camatte and Collu seek to develop a way out from the organisation. In opposition to the centripetal dynamics of the group-form and its militant subjective correlate, Camatte and Collu assert that communist practice is necessarily characterised by a refusal of all group activity, a kind of warding-off of the dominant social tendency toward group formation. This critique of the group is not followed with an assertion of individual subjectivity - a locus of composition no less able to accrue prestige and authority in opposition to dispersive social struggle. Indeed, the critique of the group has a corresponding subjective unworking in the ‘revolutionary anonymity’ that Camatte and Collu borrow from Amadeo Bordiga, as signalled by their text’s epigraph from Marx: ‘Both of us scoff at being popular. Among other things our disgust at any personality cult is evidence of this … When Engels and I first joined the secret society of communists, we did it on the condition sine qua non that they repeal all statutes that would be favourable to a cult of authority.’54 In place of the group and the individual, the basis of composition instead becomes an immanence with social forces: ‘The revolutionary must not identify himself [sic] with a group but recognize himself in a theory that does not depend on a group or on a review, because it is the expression of an existing class struggle.’55

Camatte and Collu’s anti-voluntarist subtraction of agency from communist minorities is an intriguing and important articulation of Marx’s dispersive and disruptive party. But as it plays out in line with a common dilemma for left communist groupings - whose opposition to the Leninist party can result in a reluctance to engage in any form of intervention for fear of directly or indirectly introducing anti-inventive dynamics and leadership models into proletarian formations56 - it offers only a partial solution to the problem of militancy. Outside a period of agitation, Camatte and Collu leave communist minorities in a rather anaemic position, without a positive conception of the field of political composition other than the development of theory and the maintenance of a small network of informal relations between those engaged in similar work.

Deleuze and Guattari’s approach to the question of the group and its outside shares much with that of Camatte and Collu, not least in their own ‘involuntarism’ - a crucial mechanism in opening a breach with received political practice, identity and authority, and orienting toward the event.57 But out of this shared problematic emerges a more productive sense of the terrain of a-militant composition. In his preface to Anti-Oedipus Foucault rightly draws attention to the way the book invited a practical critique of militant organisations and subjectivities:

I would say that Anti-Oedipus (may its authors forgive me) is a book of ethics, the first book of ethics to be written in France in quite a long time (perhaps that explains why its success was not limited to a particular ‘readership’: being anti-oedipal has become a life style, a way of thinking and living). How does one keep from being fascist, even (especially) when one believes oneself to be a revolutionary militant?58

Unlike Camatte and Collu, however, this practical critique of militancy is characterised not by a withdrawal from groups as such. It initially takes the form of an analytic of groups and a certain affirmation of the ‘subject group’ as a mode of political composition oriented toward innovative collective composition and enunciation, and open to its outside and the possibility of its own death - in contrast to the ‘subjected group’, cut off from the world and fixated on its own self-preservation.59 Yet this formulation, useful though it is in the analysis of group dynamics, is perhaps still too caught up with activist patterns of collectivity and voluntarism. As Deleuze and Guattari’s project unfolds, the model of the subject group thus loses prominence in favour of an opening of perception to, and critical engagement with, the multiplicity of groups - or, in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, assemblages or arrangements - which compose any situation, following their notion that ‘we are all groupuscules’. Guattari thus states in a 1980 interview:

At one time I came up with the idea of the ‘subject-group’. I contrasted these with ‘subjected groups’ in an attempt to define modes of intervention which I described as micro-political. I’ve changed my mind: there are no subject-groups, but arrangements of enunciation, of subjectivization, pragmatic arrangements which do not coincide with circumscribed groups. These arrangements can involve individuals but also ways of seeing the world, emotional systems, conceptual machines, memory devices, economic, social components, elements of all kinds.60

In this conception there is a clear disarticulation of political practice from the construction of coherent collective subjectivity, or a strong critique of groups, but in a fashion that bypasses the anti-group position with an orientation toward the discontinuous and multi-layered arrangements that traverse and compose social - or, indeed, planetary - life. Crucially, the associated political articulations - ‘cartographies’ or ‘ecologies’ in Guattari’s later writings - are machinic in nature. They include, and may be instigated by, material and immaterial objects - technological apparatus, medias, city-environments, images, economic instruments, sonorous fields, landscapes, aesthetic artefacts - as much as human bodies, subjective dispositions and cognitive and affective refrains. As such, they are open to political analysis, intervention and modulation through tactical, sensual, linguistic, technical, organisational, architectural and conceptual repertoires. It would certainly be a mistake to see this ecological orientation as a retreat from a passional practice - if Anti-Oedipus suggests an antifascist ethics, A Thousand Plateaus is precisely concerned with the exploration of modes and techniques of passional composition, often of a most experimental and liminal kind. This is a passion, however, that arises not in a subjective monomania carved off from its outside, but from situated problematics that are characterised by a deferral of subjective interiority and a dispersive opening to the social multiplicity and its virtual potential. This is how one can understand Deleuze and Guattari’s affirmation of ‘becoming imperceptible’ - of drawing the world on oneself and oneself on the world - as a political figure; it is not a sublime end-point of spiritual inaction, but the immanent kernel of a-militant political composition.61

Given the prominence in twentieth-century political culture of visual images of the heroic militant, it is important to note that aspects of this ecological or cartographic approach can also be seen in the aesthetic expressions of political bodies - from the anecdote that the orientations of Italian Operaismo were such that the bedroom walls of activists saw the substitution of diagrammatic maps of the FIAT Mirafiori plant for the iconic images of Mao and Che Guevara, to Bureau d’Études who, mindful of the dangers of the conventional signs of militant aggregation such as the flag and the raised fist, symmetrical with the images of national sovereignty as they can be, have developed a political and pedagogical ecology routed through the aesthetic and cognitive object of the map.62

The exploration of some of these themes is also evident in contemporary problematisation of activist practice. A most striking instance is the Argentinean grouping Colectivo Situaciones, whose figure of ‘militant research’ evokes a knowledge/practice that works without subject or object through an immanent appreciation of encounters, problems and situations, and in a fashion that is particularly attentive to the dangers of transcendent models of political subjectivity and communication.63 The problematic of a dispersive political practice is raised too in the Luther Blissett and Wu Ming projects, concerned as these experiments in the ‘multiple name’ have been with a disarticulation of seduction, style and mythopoesis from the author-function and its associated regimes of property and authority - something of a left communist erasure of militant faciality. But these formations lead to questions of composition that are best approached through an appreciation of their particularity, and that move beyond the specific focus of this paper, the critique of the militant.


One can discern in Deleuze and Guattari’s work an identification of, and a response to, the problem of militant subjectivity. This response posits a deterritorialisation of the self that develops not from a concentration in militant passion (as one finds in Weatherman) or a surrender to revolutionary inaction (the danger that haunts Camatte’s critique of organisation), but from the condition of being stretched across the social in a diffusion and critical involution in the technical, aesthetic, semiotic, economic, affective relations of the world. In resonance with Marx’s understanding of the party, this suggests not a serene unanimity but a complex, intensive, and open plane of composition. The party here is a field of intervention in social relations that undoes identity, not an identity carved off against social relations.

This is not, of course, an actualised politics or programme; it is better seen as the first principle of an a-militant, communist diagram. The interventions, aggregations, functions and expressions that animate and enrich this diagram may well configure environments of a directly insurrectionary nature, but they would be so as the collective and manifold problematisation of social relations and events, not as the invention of militant organisations acting like ‘alchemists of the revolution’.64 For it is in the multiple and diffuse social arrangements and lines of flight that political change emerges and with which political formations - in their ‘dispersive flexibility’ - need to maintain an intimate and subtle relation if they are not to fall into the calcified selfassurance of militant subjectivity. Deleuze’s warning about the danger of marginality has pertinence here too:

It is not the marginals who create the lines; they install themselves on these lines and make them their property, and this is fine when they have that strange modesty of men [sic] of the line, the prudence of the experimenter, but it is a disaster when they slip into the black hole from which they no longer utter anything but the micro-fascist speech of their dependency and their giddiness: ‘We are the avant-garde’, ‘We are the marginals.’65

44. [Félix Guattari, Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics, R. Sheed (trans.), Harmondsworth, Penguin], 1984, p190.
45. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Revolutions of 1848: Political Writings Volume 1, ed. D. Fernbach, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1973, pp79, 98.
46. Alain Badiou, ‘Politics Unbound’, in Metapolitics, J. Barker (trans.), London, Verso, 2005, pp74, 75.
47. Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft), M. Nicolaus (trans.), Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1973, p692.
48. Jacques Rancière, The Philosopher and His Poor, J. Drury, C. Oster, and A. Parker (trans.), London, Duke University Press, 2003, p86.
49. Nicholas Thoburn, Deleuze, Marx and Politics, London, Routledge, 2003, Ch3.
50. Jacques Camatte and Gianni Collu, ‘On Organization’, Edizioni International (trans.), in Jacques Camatte, This World We Must Leave and Other Essays, A. Trotter (ed.), New York, Autonomedia, 1995, pp19-38.
51. See Karl Marx, ‘Marx to Ferdinand Freiligrath, February 29 1860’, n.d.,, where against the accusation of ‘inactivity’ and ‘doctrinaire indifference’ he positively evaluates his non-involvement in political associations in the period after the collapse of the Communist League; and Jacques Camatte, Origin and Function of the Party Form, n.d.,
52. In Gilles Dauvé and François Martin, The Eclipse and Re-emergence of the Communist Movement (revised edition), London, Antagonism Press, n.d., p57.
53. Jo Freeman, The Tyranny of Structurelessness, London, Anarchist Workers Association, n.d.;, Andrew X, ‘Give Up Activism’, Reflections on June 18, no publisher given, 1999; J. J. King, ‘The Packet Gang’, Mute 27, 2004,
54. Cited in Camatte and Collu op. cit., p20.
55. Ibid., pp32-3.
56. Dauvé and Martin, op. cit., p63-76.
57. Jérémie Valentin, ‘Gilles Deleuze’s Political Posture’, C. V. Boundas and S. Lamble (trans.), in C. V. Boundas (ed.), Deleuze and Philosophy, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2006; Ian Buchanan and Nicholas Thoburn, ‘Introduction’, op. cit.
58. In Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia Volume 1, R. Hurley, M. Seem and H. R. Lane (trans.), London, Athlone, 1983, pxii.
59. Gilles Deleuze, ‘Three Group-Related Problems’, in Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974, D. Lapoujade (ed.), M. Taormina (trans.), New York, Semiotext(e), 2004, pp193-203.
60. Félix Guattari, Soft Subversions, S. Lotringer (ed.), D. L. Sweet and C. Wiener (trans.), New York, Semiotext(e), 1996, pp227-8.
61. I have approached some of the many subsequent questions about the nature of such composition - not least with regard to the place of capital - through the figure of ‘minor politics’ in Nicholas Thoburn, op. cit., 2003, and ‘The Hobo Anomalous: Class, Minorities and Political Invention in the Industrial Workers of the World’, Social Movement Studies 2, 1 (2003), 61-84.
62. Yann Moulier, ‘Introduction’, P. Hurd (trans.), in Antoinio Negri, The Politics of Subversion: A Manifesto for the Twenty-First Century, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1989; Bureau d’Études, ‘Resymbolising Machines: Art after Oyvind Fahlström’, B. Holmes (trans.), Third Text 18, 6 (2004), pp609-16.
63. Colectivo Situaciones, ‘Something More on Research Militancy’, S. Touza and N. Holdren (trans.), Ephemera: Theory and Politics in Organization 5, 4 (2005), pp602-14.
64. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works Volume 10: 1849-1951, London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1978, p318.
65. In Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogues, H. Tomlinson and B. Habberjam (trans.), London, Athlone, 1987, p139.