Despite its association with sovereign nations involved in wartime alliances, the term “ally” has become influential in activist circles on the US left. Attention to debates over what it means to be an ally reveal the limits of the politics of allyship. They also provide an opportunity to reflect on the difference between allies and comrades. Allyship is anchored in liberal politics. People committed to revolutionary politics need to be comrades.
Over the last decade, there have been intense discussions on social media and among community organizers who can be an ally. Generally, allies are understood to be privileged people who want to do something about oppression. They may not consider themselves survivors or victims, but they want to help. So allies can be straight people who stand up for LGBTQ people, white people who support Black and brown people, men who defend women, and so on. I have yet to see the term used for rich people involved in working-class struggle. Allies don’t want to imagine themselves as homophobic, racist, or sexist. They see themselves as the good guys, part of the solution.
As is frequently emphasized in debates around allyship, claiming to be an ally does not make one an ally. Allyship requires time and effort. People have to work at it. Much of the written and video work on allyship is thus instructional, often appearing as a how-to guide or a list of pointers—how to be an ally, the dos and don’ts of allyship, and so on. The instructions for being a good ally are mini lifestyle manuals, techniques for navigating (but not demolishing) settings of privilege and oppression. Individuals can learn what not to say and what not to do. They can feel engaged without any organized political struggle at all. The “politics” in these allyship how-tos consists of interpersonal interactions, individual feelings, and mediated affects.
The pieces on how to be a good ally that circulate online (as blog posts, videos, editorials, and course handouts) address the viewer or reader as an individual with a privileged identity who wants to operate in solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed. This potential ally is positioned as wanting to know what they can do right now, on their own, and in their everyday lives to combat racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression. The ally’s field of operation is often imagined as social media (in knowing the right way to respond to racist or homophobic remarks on Twitter, for example); as charitable contribution (in donating to and setting up GoFundMe campaigns); as professional interaction (in hiring the marginalized and promoting the oppressed); as conversations at one’s school or university (in knowing what not to say); and, sometimes, as street-level protests (in not dominating someone else’s event). Even more often, the ally’s own individual attitude and behavior is what is targeted. The how-to guide instructs allies on how to feel, think, and act if they want to consider themselves as people who are on the side of the oppressed. Their awareness is what needs to change.
The limits to allyship
Take, for example, this Buzzfeed post titled “How to Be a Better Ally: An Open Letter to White Folks.” The text is from a letter sent by a producer of the Buzzfeed video series, “Another Round,” in reply to a question from a white person about being an ally. “Have you ever had a conversation with a feminist man come grinding to a halt because he starts to complain about how feminists use language that excludes men, even the feminist men? (“Not all men…”) I have! Being a good ally often means not being included in the conversation, because the conversation isn’t about you. It’s good to listen. If you feel uncomfortable and excluded because you’re white, you should own those feelings.” Again, allyship is a disposition, a confrontation not with state or capitalist power but with one’s own discomfort. To be an ally is to work on being a good listener, to step aside and become aware of the lives and experiences of others.
Karolina Szczur’s essay “The Fundamentals of Effective Allyship,” originally delivered as a talk at Tech Inclusion Melbourne, considers allyship in terms of the intensity of the ally’s feelings and whether the ally is willing and able to undertake the necessary self-work: “It’s our responsibility to recognize, identify and act on the privilege we have. One of the ways of doing so is committing to an ongoing act of introspection, reflection and learning. You will find yourself challenged, uncomfortable, even defensive, but the more intense these feelings are, the more likely it is you’re on the right track.” Acting on privilege appears here as something one does to oneself. One’s politics may be entirely in one’s head. In this respect, allyship reflects the shrinking of the space for politics to an individual’s feeling. The field of action has decreased yet the ally feels the need to act, desperately, intensely, and now. They act in and on what is available—social media and themselves.
The online magazine Everyday Feminism provides a list of 10 things allies need to know. Number five on the list is: “Allies Educate Themselves Constantly.” It explains: “One of the most important types of education is listening … (see #1), but there are endless resources (books, blogs, media outlets, speakers, YouTube videos, etc.) to help you learn. What you should not do, though, is expect those with whom you want to ally yourself to teach you. That is not their responsibility. Sure, listen to them when they decide to drop some knowledge or perspective, but do not go to them and expect them to explain their oppression for you.” Of course, study is crucial for revolutionaries. But the vision of self-education associated with allyship is isolating.
Learning is modeled as consuming information, not as discussion, coming to a common understanding, or studying the texts and documents of a political tradition. Educating oneself is disconnected from a collective critical practice. It is detached from political positions or goals. Criteria according to which one might evaluate books, blogs, speakers, and videos are absent. It’s up to the individual ally to figure it out on their own. In effect, there is punishment without discipline. The would-be ally can be scolded and shamed, even as the scolder is relieved of any responsibility to provide concrete guidance and training (let’s be clear, just telling someone to “Google it” is an empty gesture). Once we recall that “ally” is not a term of address—it doesn’t replace “Mr.,” “Ms.,” “Dr.,” or “Professor”; the term ally appears more to designate a limit, suggesting that you will never be one of us, than a designation that enables solidarity. The relation between allies and those they are allies for, is between those with separate interests, experiences, and practices.
The eighth item on Everyday Feminism’s list of things allies need to know is: “Allies Focus on Those Who Share Their Identity.” “Beyond listening, arguably the most important thing that I can do to act in solidarity is to engage those who share my identity.” Identities appear clear and fixed, unambiguous and unchanging. Individuals are 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. Those willing to forward a politics other than one anchored in what can easily be ascribed to their identity are treated with suspicion, mistrusted for their presumed privilege, and criticized in advance for the array of wrongs that preserve that privilege. The very terms of allyship reinforce the mistrust that the how-to-be-better guides purport to address: it makes sense to mistrust people who view politics as immediate gratification, as an individualized quick -fix to long histories of structural oppression.
Because allies join together under self-interested terms, they can easily withdraw, drop out, let us down. We can’t be sure of their commitment because it hinges on their individual feelings and comfort. Item eight in the Everyday Feminism article tells us why allyship has such a hold in progressive circles: Mistrust of other identities becomes functional and gratifying in the name of a politics that maintains and polices identity, our own special and vulnerable thing, shoring up its weak and porous boundaries. Ally keeps attention away from the fearsome challenge of choosing a side, from accepting the discipline that comes from collective work, and from organizing the fight to smash capitalist imperialism and the divisive systems of bigotry and oppression that secure it.
Allyship does not bridge political identities. It is a symptom of capitalism’s attempt to replace politics with the techniques of individual self-help and social media moralism. The underlying vision is of self-oriented individuals, politics as possession, transformation reduced to attitudinal change, and a fixed, naturalized sphere of privilege and oppression. Anchored in a view of identity as the primary vector of politics, the emphasis on allies displaces attention away from strategic organizational and tactical questions and onto prior attitudinal litmus tests, from the start precluding the collectivity necessary for revolutionary left politics. Of course, those on the left need allies. Sometimes it is necessary to forge temporary alliances in order to advance. Communist struggle necessitates an array of tactical alliances among different classes, sectors, and tendencies. The problem with allies isn’t a rejection of practices of alliance building. That would be absurd. Allyship, however, is not the form and model for revolutionary struggle against exploitation and oppression.
Comradeship and collective struggle
As socialists and communists know, politics is always collective. The fiction that it is individual is nothing but capitalist ideology. The attachment to individual identity that underpins the politics of allyship is thus a form of political incapacity. Instead of building and working in organizations capable of revolutionary struggle, allies tend to concern themselves with defending their identities and lecturing others on how to aid in this defense. In contrast, because they embrace collective struggle, socialists and communists cultivate solidarity and comradeship.
Unlike the separate and exclusive identities of allies, anyone can be a comrade. The term is generic. It doesn’t refer to specific races or genders but to those who share a politics, those on the same side who can be counted on. “Comrade” functions in three ways: as a term of address, carrier of expectations, and form of political belonging. As a term of address, “comrade” replaces gendered and hierarchical designations (Mrs., Dr.) with one that is egalitarian; as comrades, we are all the same.
Correspondingly, those who address each other as comrades share certain expectations of each other. Comrades have to be able to count on each other even when we don’t like each other and even when we disagree. In The Romance of American Communism (Basic Books, 1977), Vivian Gornick reports the words of a former member of the Communist Party USA who hated the daily grind of selling papers and canvassing expected of party cadre, but nevertheless, said, “I did it. I did it because if I didn’t do it, I couldn’t face my comrades the next day. And we all did it for the same reason: we were accountable to each other” (p. 110).
Finally, comrade points to a relation of political belonging. Here comrade differs from a term like “militant.” Militant designates a person’s political intensity. In contrast, comrade points to the relation between or among militants. It is necessarily collective, shared.
The comrade relation remakes the place from which one sees, what it is possible to see, and what possibilities can appear. It enables the revaluation of work and time, what one does, and for whom one does it. Is one’s work done for the people or for the bosses? Is it voluntary or done because one has to work? Does one work for personal provisions or for a collective good? Recall Marx’s lyrical description of communism in which work becomes “life’s prime want.” We get a glimpse of that in comradeship: one wants to do political work. You don’t want to let down your comrades; you see the value of your work through their eyes, your new collective eyes. Work, determined not by markets but by shared commitments, becomes fulfilling. French communist philosopher and militant Bernard Aspe discusses the problem of contemporary capitalism as a loss of “common time”; that is, the loss of an experience of time generated and enjoyed through our collective being-together. From holidays, to meals, to breaks, whatever common time we have is synchronized and enclosed in forms for capitalist appropriation. Apps and trackers amplify this process such that the time of consumption can be measured in much the same way that Taylorism measured the time of production: How long did a viewer spend on a particular web page? Did a person watch a whole ad or click off of it after five seconds? In contrast, the common action that is the actuality of the communist movement induces a collective change in capacities. Breaking from capitalism’s 24-7 injunctions to produce and consume for the bosses and owners, the discipline of common struggle expands possibilities for action and intensifies the sense of its necessity. The comrade is a figure for the relation through which this transformation of work and time occurs.
The Bolshevik revolution brought out the utopian and liberating dimensions of comrade. Alexandra Kollontai pointed out that capitalism tears people apart, making them competitive, self-interested, and afraid. Communism abolishes these conditions and creates new ones where all workers are comrades above all else. For Kollontai, comradeship is a mode of belonging characterized by equality, solidarity, and respect. Collectivity replaces isolation, egoism, and self-assertion. It makes people capable of freedom. The Russian word for comrade, tovarish, is masculine, yet its power is such that it liberates people from the chains of grammar (the same word is used for female comrades). A Soviet book on literary language published in 1929, when the revolutionary language was still new, gives the example of “comrade sister.” This sounded strange in Russian but evoked the emancipatory ideals of the revolution.
The Soviet writer Maxim Gorky also associated comradeship with liberation. In his short story, “Comrade,” Gorky presents comrade as a word that “had come to unite the whole world, to lift all men up the summits of liberty and bind with new ties, the strong ties of mutual respect.” His story depicts a city of hostility, violence, humiliation, and rage where the weak submit to the dominance of the strong. In the midst of this miserable suffering, one word rings out: Comrade! The people cease to be slaves. They refuse to submit. They become conscious of their strength. They recognize that they themselves are the force of life. One of Gorky’s examples is a prostitute who feels a hand on her shoulder and then weeps with joy as she turns around and hears the word comrade. With this word, she is addressed not as a commodity to be used by another but as an equal in common struggle against the very conditions requiring commodification. In Gorky’s story, then, comrade marks the division between the world of misery we have and the egalitarian communist world that will be.
Frantz Fanon, the revolutionary and philosopher from Martinique who participated in the Algerian liberation struggle, also brings out the egalitarian and utopian dimensions of comrade. In his conclusion to The Wretched of the Earth (Grove, 2004), Fanon appeals repeatedly to his readers as comrades: “Come, comrades, the European game is finally over, we must look for something else” (p. 236) and, in the last line of the book, “For Europe, for ourselves, and for humanity, comrades, we must make a new start, develop a new way of thinking, and endeavor to create a new man” (p. 239). Comrade is the mode of address appropriate to this task. It is egalitarian, generic, and in the context of hierarchy, fragmentation, and oppression, utopian. It is an invitation to a common project.
In the 1930s, the Communist Party of the United States wasn’t always successful in its efforts to eliminate bigotry and white chauvinism. Yet it embraced an egalitarian ideal of comradeship. The Black communist labor organizer Ernest Rice McKinney tells a story about leaving a meeting in Pittsburgh:
We were walking down the street, black and white together, and there were some black men walking with white women. We were in a tough working class district and as we passed a group of white youth, they said to us, “‘Hello Comrades.”’ Their tone was sarcastic, but not hostile. They assumed we were Communists, because the Communists had made such an impression by practicing social equality. (quoted by Mark Naison, Science & Society, 42, 1978)
McKinney’s story brings home the way the term comrade carried – even for those who weren’t comrades – expectations for practical action, actions that demonstrated a full commitment to full equality. Comradeship manifests in deeds.
Again, US Communists weren’t always successful in practicing social equality. Nonetheless, the expectation of comrades, which was powerful even when it was not fulfilled, was radical egalitarianism. Comrades were those not only courageous enough to practice a mode of belonging deeply at odds with the prevailing culture but dedicated enough to recognize how personal relations help produce political power.
Four characteristics of a comrade
We can see four characteristics of a comrade: discipline, joy, enthusiasm, and courage.
Comradeship is a disciplining relation: Expectations, and the responsibility to meet them, constrain individual action and generate collective capacity. Comrades learn to push immediate self-interest and the desire for personal comfort or advancement aside for the sake of the party, the movement, and the struggle. Discipline negates and creates. It induces the subordination of personal interest for the sake of producing a new force, a force strong enough to endure the long years of revolutionary struggle in order to prevail. Lenin famously and frequently spoke of the need for discipline in the revolutionary party—rigorous discipline, proletarian discipline, iron discipline, socialist discipline, comradely discipline, and so on. Party discipline generally referred to the expectations of unity in action, free discussion, and criticism.
Proletarian, or labor, discipline differed insofar as it pointed to the new organization of labor under socialism, the voluntary organization of class-conscious workers. Through comradely discipline, we make one another stronger. Our commitment to working together toward our common goal works back on us, enabling us to surmount and maybe even abolish those individualist attributes produced by capitalism. We can make mistakes, learn, and change. By recognizing our own inadequacies, we come to understand the need to be generous and understanding toward the shortcomings of others. We develop an appreciation for strengths and talents that we had been unable to see. We become a new kind of collectivity.
Accompanying comradely discipline is joy, the second characteristic of the comrade. In a pamphlet on Communist subbotniks—that is, Saturdays of voluntary labor undertaken during the Civil War—Lenin quotes an article that appeared in Pravda celebrating the enthusiastic, voluntary work done on the Moscow-Kazan railway:
When the workers, clerks and head office employees without even an oath or argument, caught hold of the forty-pood wheel tire of a passenger locomotive and, like industrious ants, rolled it into place, one’s heart was filled with fervent joy at the sight of this collective effort, and one’s conviction was strengthened that the victory of the working class was unshakable . . .… When the work was finished those present witnessed an unprecedented scene: a hundred Communists, weary, but with the light of joy in their eyes, greeted their success with the solemn strains of the Internationale.
The joy of discipline is internal and external, felt by comrades and experienced by those who witness how discipline changes the world. Through the intense collectivity that discipline enables, comrades can do the impossible. They are liberated from prior expectations and constraints. Joy accompanies the sense of collective invincibility. “Together we made it happen – and we did it for purposes larger than ourselves.”
Comrades do their work with enthusiasm, the comrade’s third characteristic. They are praised for the energy they bring to their tasks. In What Is to Be Done?, Lenin repeatedly praises the energy of the German Social Democrats, criticizes his economist comrades for their lack of energy, and calls upon his party to increase its energy. In his conversation with Clara Zetkin, Lenin spoke highly of the energy and enthusiasm of the party’s women comrades, adding “I forget for the moment who said: ‘One must be enthusiastic to accomplish great things.’”
Enthusiasm, energy, is expected of comrades because it is that extra, that surplus benefit of collectivity, which enables them to do more, even to win. What distinguishes comrades from politically minded and hardworking individuals is the energy that accrues to collective work. Because they combine forces, they generate more than each could by working alone. Enthusiasm is the surplus that collective discipline generates.
The fourth attribute of the comrade is courage. Chinese Communist Party leader Liu Shaoqi describes the revolutionary courage of the communist as an effect of comradely discipline:
Having no selfish motives, he has nothing to fear. Having done nothing to give himself a guilty conscience, he can lay bare and courageously correct his mistakes and short comings… Because he has the courage of righteous conviction, he never fears the truth, courageously upholds it, spreads it and fights for it.
The courage of the comrade is not an individual virtue. It’s an effect of discipline, the strength that arises as a result of self-denial in the service of common struggle. Comradely courage includes the capacity for self-criticism, the capacity to admit to being wrong or not knowing and then to correct any errors through further study and work. The Bolsheviks linked courage to being steadfast, unwavering, unyielding, and resolute; to the capacity to endure and prevail under enormous hardship.
Characterized by discipline, joy, enthusiasm, and courage, it’s no surprise that the comrade is the form of political relation necessary for revolutionary struggle. Political work is collective work. Building and maintaining organized collectives requires that we remake our relations to one another so that we produce together the capacities we need to fight and win.
To sum up, comrades are more than allies expressing feelings of solidarity with other people’s struggles. They are revolutionaries committed to stand together on the same side of a common struggle for liberation, equality, and justice, in other words, for communism. This commitment makes comrades strong, and this strength means that together we will win.