Strategy and Tactics



Can Frances Fox Piven’s theory of disruptive power create the next Occupy?

Frances Fox Piven at at a national teach-in at Judson Memorial Church in New York in 2011. (Flickr/Pat Arnow)

Frances Fox Piven at at a national teach-in at Judson Memorial Church in New York in 2011. (© Pat Arnow)

By Mark Engler and Paul Engler

Waging Nonviolence, May 7, 2014

Social movements can be fast, and they can be slow.

Mostly, the work of social change is a slow process. It involves patiently building movement institutions, cultivating leadership, organizing campaigns and leveraging power to secure small gains. If you want to see your efforts produce results, it helps to have a long-term commitment.

And yet, sometimes things move more quickly. Every once in a while we see outbreaks of mass protest, periods of peak activity when the accepted rules of political affairs seem to be suspended. As one sociologist writes, these are extraordinary moments when ordinary people “rise up in anger and hope, defy the rules that ordinarily govern their lives, and, by doing so, disrupt the workings of the institutions in which they are enmeshed.” The impact of these uprisings can be profound. “The drama of such events, combined with the disorder that results, propels new issues to the center of political debate” and drives forward reforms as panicked “political leaders try to restore order.”

These are the words of Frances Fox Piven, the 81-year-old Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the City University of New York Graduate Center. As co-author, with Richard Cloward, of the classic 1977 treatise, Poor People’s Movements, Piven has made landmark contributions to the study of how people who lack both financial resources and influence in conventional politics can nevertheless create momentous revolts. Few scholars have done as much to describe how widespread disruptive action can change history, and few have offered more provocative suggestions about the times when movements — instead of crawling forward with incremental demands — can break into full sprint.

In recent years, Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring have created renewed interest in such moments of unusual activity. These uprisings have spawned discussion about how activists might provoke and guide other periods of intensive unrest, and also how these mobilizations can complement longer-term organizing. Those coming out of traditions of strategic nonviolence and “civil resistance,” in particular, can find striking parallels between their methods for sparking insurgency and Piven’s theory of disruptive power.

Zuccotti Park is now quiet. The small, sanitized plaza in lower Manhattan has long since returned to being a place where a few employees in the financial district take their lunch. But when it was the home of the founding Occupy encampment, Poor People’s Movements was one of the most fitting titles to be found on the shelves of its free library. And for those interested in refilling America’s public plazas with defiant citizens, the book continues to offer insights difficult to find elsewhere in the literature on social movements.


Category : Intellectuals | Organizing | Strategy and Tactics | Blog

By Gavin Mendel-Gleason & James O’Brien

January 1, 2014

(Part I of II, for Part II see: ‘The Strategy of Attrition:
Conquest or Destruction of the State?’ further down)


Right from its beginnings in early 19th century, socialism has been bedevilled by debates over strategy in a way that right-wing ideologies have not. Would salvation come, as Fourier dreamed, from wealthy benefactors funding new communist colonies or maybe, as Proudhon envisaged, through workers founding their own mutualist enterprises and bypassing politics altogether? Or perhaps a more aggressive stance was necessary, as advocated by the proto-syndicalist wing of the British Chartist movement in the 1830s, who even then were cognisant of workers’ leverage at the point of production and supported the use of a Grand National Holiday — aka a general strike. Or was the mainstream Chartist emphasis on political action, i.e. taking control of state-power after having won universal suffrage be the centre of socialist activity the best way forward.

These strands and more were already manifest in England, then the most advanced capitalist country, in the 1830s — a long time ago. And they remain with us to this day because the problem to which they attempted to solve, namely minority rule, remains very much with us. The various tendencies correspond to available oppositional niches in a society dominated by capitalist production and therefore elite influence.

It seems obvious that an adroit mixture of the strategies, one which combined the strength of labour, the potential wealth of co-ops and the leverage of mass parties, is the goldilocks of political strategies and indeed that is the position we advocate. However, once we get into the details the obvious quickly becomes very blurry indeed. It’s hardly surprising that socialists have lacked the clarity of the right-wing since they, unlike us, are in driving seat and don’t need to change a whole lot while we are searching for a way to achieve our goals.

And it turns out that a combined arms strategy of unions, co-ops, and political party is not, in fact, the dominant orientation on the radical left, and has not been since 1917, at least in the English speaking world. There are, for example, proponents of an exclusively non-state orientation and there are supporters of political means, but who both deny that co-operatives can play a meaningful role before the working class has seized power and that tightly knit revolutionary groups are the key to success.

In this essay we are going to focus on the political arena and make case for a robust mass party strategy that aims to win political power via democratic elections, and only touch upon the role of trade unions and co-ops.

The Democratic Road

The case for choosing the democratic road is best teased out in comparison with alternative approaches, which for our purposes is going to mostly be the strategy of insurrection pursued by Anarchists and Trotskyists that is common amongst the revolutionary groups in the Anglo-phone world.

If the basic strategic choices first emerged in the 1830s, they became permanent features of the political landscape in the era of the First International (1864 – 1873) when the Anarchists and the Marxists parted ways replete with their own theoretical justifications. The Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, which saw the emergence of workers’ councils, moved the debate from being one that separated Anarchists and Marxists and landed it into the heart of Marxism itself.

Let us lay our cards on the table at the outset: the political strategy advocated here involves attempting to win state power in the advanced capitalist countries through legal means, taking the democratic road if you will. In practice, this involves winning a majority through competition in elections which are broadly considered free and fair.

However, a simple description of this approach isn’t sufficient. In order to evaluate its worth, we need to compare it to alternatives, of which there is no shortage, from anti-consumerism, to back to nature primitivism, NGO lobbying, Third Worldism, and Occupyesque protesting to name some of the lesser lights. For reasons of space, we’re going to limit the alternative to the principal one offered by revolutionary socialists since 1917: the smashing of the existing state and its replacement by participatory workers councils, i.e. the primary strategy offered by both the Trotskyists and the Anarchists. Moreover, we need a way of choosing between the alternatives. As the debate between them has gone on since the days of the First International, it seems likely that both sides have valid points to make. For instance, James Bierly, in a recent article on the North Star catalogued the many practical advantages of electoralism, such as the opportunities to engage with regular people that simply aren’t there when you are hawking the Socialist Worker at a demonstration. On the other hand, the anti-parliamentary left highlights the limitations of parliament in being able to bring capital under control given the strength of the unelected bureaucracy.


Category : Capitalism | Fascism | Organizing | Socialism | Strategy and Tactics | Blog

Eric J. Hobsbawm is a well-known UK-based Marxist academic historian. This article is an adaptation of a chapter that was originally published in his book Revolutionaries (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1973).


Cities and Insurrections

By Eric J. Hobsbawm

Whatever else a city may be, it is at the same time a place inhabited by a concentration of poor people and, in most cases, the locus of political power which affects their lives. Historically, one of the things city populations have done about this is to demonstrate, make riots or insurrections, or otherwise exert direct pressure on the authorities who happen to operate within their range. It does not much matter to the ordinary townsman that city power is sometimes only local, whereas at other times it may also be regional, national, or even global. However, it does affect the calculations both of the authorities and of political movements designed to overthrow governments, whether or not the cities are capitals (or what amounts to the same thing, independent city-states) or the headquarters of giant national or international corporations, for if they are, urban riots and insurrections can obviously have much wider implications than if the city authority is purely local.

The subject of this article is how the structure of cities has affected popular movements of this sort, and conversely, what effect the fear of such movements has had on urban structure. The first point is of much more general significance than the second. Popular riot, insurrection, or demonstration is an almost universal urban phenomenon, and as we now know, it occurs even today in the affluent megalopolis of the developed world. On the other hand the fear of such riot is intermittent. It may be taken for granted as a fact of urban existence, as in most pre-industrial cities, or as the kind of unrest which periodically flares up and subsides without producing any major effect on the structure of power. It may be underestimated, because there have not been any riots or insurrections for a long time, or because there are institutional alternatives to them, such as systems of local government by popular election. There are, after all, few continuously riotous cities. Even Palermo, which probably holds the European record with 12 insurrections between 1512 and 1866, has had very long periods when its populace was relatively quiet. On the other hand, once the authorities decide to alter the urban structure because of political nervousness, the results are likely to be substantial and lasting, like the boulevards of Paris.

The effectiveness of riot or insurrection depends on three aspects of urban structure: how easily the poor can be mobilized, how vulnerable the centers of authority are to them, and how easily they may be suppressed. These are determined partly by sociological, partly by urbanistic, partly by technological factors, though the three cannot always be kept apart. For instance, experience shows that among forms of urban transport, tramways, whether in Calcutta or Barcelona, are unusually convenient for rioters; partly because the raising of fares, which tends to affect all the poor simultaneously, is a very natural precipitant of trouble, partly because these large and track-bound vehicles, when burned or overturned, can block streets and disrupt traffic very easily. Buses do not seem to have played anything like as important a part in riots, underground railways appear to be entirely irrelevant to them (except for transporting rioters) and automobiles can at best be used as improvised road blocks or barricades, and, to judge by modern experience in Paris, not very effective ones. Here the difference is purely technological.

On the other hand, universities in the center of cities are evidently more dangerous centers of potential riot than universities on the outskirts of towns or behind some green belt, a fact which is well known to Latin American governments. Concentrations of the poor are more dangerous when they occur in or near city centers, like the 20th-century ethnic ghettos in many North American cities, than when they occur in some relatively remote suburb, as in 19th-century Vienna. Here the difference is urbanistic and depends on the size of the city and the pattern of functional specialization within it. However, a center of potential student unrest on the outskirts of town, like Nanterre in Paris, is nevertheless far more likely to create trouble in the central city than the Algerian shanty towns in the same suburb, because students are more mobile and their social universe is more metropolitan than immigrant laborers. Here the difference is primarily sociological.

Suppose, then, we construct the ideal city for riot and insurrection. What will it be like? It ought to be densely populated and not too large in area. Essentially it should still be possible to traverse it on foot, though greater experience of rioting in fully motorized societies might modify this judgment. It should perhaps not be divided by a large river, not only because bridges are easily held by the police, but also because it is a familiar fact of geography or social psychology that the two banks of a river look away from each other, as anyone living in south London or on the Paris left bank can verify.

Its poor ought to be relatively homogenous socially or racially, though of course we must remember that in pre-industrial cities or in the giant areas of under-employment in the developing world today, what at first sight looks like a very heterogeneous population may have a considerable unity, as witness such familiar terms in history as ‘the laboring poor’, ‘le menu peuple’, or ‘the mob’. It ought to be centripetal, that is to say, its various parts ought to be naturally oriented towards the central institutions of the city, the more centralized the better. The medieval city republic that was designed on a system of flows towards and away from the main assembly space, which might also be the main ritual center (cathedral), the main market, and the location of the government, was ideally suited to insurrection for this reason. The pattern of functional specialization and residential segregation ought to be fairly tight. Thus the pre-industrial pattern of suburbs, which was based on the exclusion from a sharply defined city of various undesirables — often necessary to city life — such as non-citizen immigrants, outcast occupations or groups, did not greatly disrupt the cohesion of the urban complex: Triana was entangled with Seville, as Shoreditch was with the City of London.

On the other hand the 19th-century pattern of suburbs, which surrounded an urban core with middle-class residential suburbs and industrial quarters, generally developing at opposite ends of town from one another, affects urban cohesion very substantially. ‘East End’ and ‘West End’ are both physically and spiritually remote from each other. Those who live west of the Concorde in Paris belong to a different world from those who live east of the Republique. To go a little farther out, the famous ‘red belt’ of working-class suburbs which surround Paris was politically significant, but had no discernible insurrectionary importance. It simply did not belong to Paris any longer, nor indeed did it form a whole, except for geographers.[1]

All these are considerations affecting the mobilization of the city poor, but not their political effectiveness. This naturally depends on the ease with which rioters and insurrectionaries can get close to the authorities, and how easily they can be dispersed. In the ideal insurrectionary city the authorities — the rich, the aristocracy, the government, or local administration — will therefore be as intermingled with the central concentration of the poor as possible. The French king will reside in the Palais Royal or Louvre and not at Versailles, the Austrian emperor in the Hofburg and not at Schoenbrunn. Preferably the authorities will be vulnerable. Rulers who brood over a hostile city from some isolated stronghold, like the fortress-prison of Montjuich over Barcelona, may intensify popular hostility, but are technically designed to withstand it. After all, the Bastille could almost certainly have held out if anyone in July 1789 had really thought that it would be attacked. Civic authorities are of course vulnerable almost by definition, since their political success depends on the belief that they represent the citizens and not some outside government or its agents. Hence perhaps the classical French tradition by which insurrectionaries make for the city hall rather than the royal or imperial palace and, as in 1848 and 1871, proclaim the provisional government there.

Local authorities therefore create relatively few problems for insurrectionaries (at least until they begin to practice urban planning). Of course, city development may shift the town hall from a central to a rather more remote location: nowadays it is a long way from the outer neighborhoods of Brooklyn to New York’s City Hall. On the other hand in capital cities the presence of governments, which tends to make riots effective, is offset by the special characteristics of towns in which princes or other self-important rulers are resident, and which have a built-in counter-insurgent bias. This arises both from the needs of state public relations and, perhaps to a lesser extent, of security.

Broadly speaking, in a civic town the role of the inhabitants in public activities is that of participants, in princely or government towns, of an admiring and applauding audience. The wide straight processional ways with their vistas of palace, cathedral, or government building, the vast square in front of the official facade, preferably with a suitable balcony from which the multitudes may be blessed or addressed, perhaps the parade ground or arena: these make up the ceremonial furniture of an imperial city. Since the Renaissance, major western capitals and residences have been constructed or modified accordingly. The greater the desire of the ruler to impress or the greater his folie de grandeur, the wider, straighter, more symmetrical his preferred layout. Few less suitable locations for spontaneous riot can be imagined than New Delhi, Washington, DC, Saint Petersburg, or for that matter, the Mall and Buckingham Palace in London. It is not merely the division between a popular east and middle-class and official west in Paris which has made the Champs Elysees the place where the official and military parade is held on July 14, whereas the unofficial mass demonstration belongs to the triangle Bastille-Republique-Nation.

Such ceremonial sites imply a certain separation between rulers and subjects, a confrontation between a remote and awful majesty and pomp on one side, and an applauding public on the other. It is the urban equivalent of the picture-frame stage; or better still, the opera, that characteristic invention of western absolute monarchy. Fortunately, for potential rioters, this is or was not the only relationship between rulers and subjects in capital cities. Often, indeed, it was the capital city itself which demonstrated the ruler’s greatness, while its inhabitants, including the poorest, enjoyed a modest share of the benefits of its majesty. Rulers and ruled lived in a sort of symbiosis. In such circumstances the great ceremonial routes led through the middle of the towns as in Edinburgh or Prague. Palaces had no need to cut themselves off from slums. The Vienna Hofburg, which presents a wide ceremonial space to the outside world, including the Viennese suburbs, has barely a yard or two of urban street or square between it and the older Inner City, to which it visibly belongs.

This kind of town, combining as it did the patterns of civic and princely cities, was a standing invitation to riot, for here palaces and town houses of great nobles, markets, cathedrals, public squares, and slums were intermingled, the rulers at the mercy of the mob. In time of trouble they could withdraw into their country residences, but that was all. Their only safeguard was to mobilize the respectable poor against the unrespectable after a successful insurrection, e.g. the artisans guilds against the ‘mob’, or the National Guard against the propertyless. Their one comfort was the knowledge that uncontrolled riot and insurrection rarely lasted long, and were even more rarely directed against the structure of established wealth and power. Still this was a substantial comfort. The King of Naples or the Duchess of Parma, not to mention the Pope, knew that if their subjects rioted, it was because they were unduly hungry and as a reminder to prince and nobility to do their duty, i.e. to provide enough food at fair prices on the market, enough jobs, handouts, and public entertainment for their excessively modest needs. Their loyalty and piety scarcely wavered, and indeed when they made genuine revolutions (as in Naples in 1799) they were more likely to be in defense of Church and King against foreigners and the godless middle classes.

Hence the crucial importance in the history of urban public order, of the French Revolution of 1789-99, which established the modern equation between insurrection and social revolution. Any government naturally prefers to avoid riot and insurrection, as it prefers to keep the murder rate down, but in the absence of genuine revolutionary danger the authorities are not likely to lose their cool about it. Eighteenth-century England was a notoriously riotous nation, with a notoriously sketchy apparatus for maintaining public order. Not only smaller cities like Liverpool and Newcastle, but large parts of London itself might be in the hands of the riotous populace for days on end. Since nothing was at stake in such disorders except a certain amount of property, which a wealthy country could well afford to replace, the general view among the upper classes was unconcerned, and even satisfied. Whig noblemen took pride in the state of liberty which deprived potential tyrants of the troops with which to suppress their subjects and the police with which to harry them. It was not until the French Revolution that a taste for multiplying barracks in towns developed, and not until the Radicals and Chartists of the first half of the 19th century that the virtues of a police force outweighed those of English freedom. (Since grass-roots democracy could not always be relied on, the Metropolitan Police was put directly under the Home Office in the national government, where it still remains.)

Indeed, three main administrative methods of countering riot and insurrection suggested themselves: systematic arrangements for deploying troops, the development of police forces (which barely existed in the modern form before the 19th century), and the rebuilding of cities in such ways as to minimize the chances of revolt. The first two of these had no major influence on the actual shape and structure of cities, though a study of the building and location of urban barracks in the 19th century might provide some interesting results, and so might a study of the distribution of police stations in urban neighborhoods. The third affected the townscape very fundamentally, as in Paris and Vienna, cities in which it is known that the needs of counterinsurgency influenced urban reconstruction after the 1848 revolutions. In Paris the main military aim of this reconstruction seems to have been to open wide and straight boulevards along which artillery could fire, and troops advance, while at the same time — presumably — breaking up the main concentrations of potential insurgents in the popular quarters. In Vienna the reconstruction took the form mainly of two wide concentric ring roads, the inner ring (broadened by a belt of open spaces, parks, and widely spaced public buildings) isolated the old city and palace from the (mainly middle-class) inner suburbs, the outer ring isolating both from the (increasingly working-class) outer suburbs.

Such reconstructions may or may not have made military sense. We do not know, since the kind of revolutions they were intended to dominate virtually died out in western Europe after 1848. (Still, it is a fact that the main centers of popular resistance and barricade fighting in the Paris Commune of 1871, Montmartre-northeast Paris and the Left Bank, were isolated from each other and the rest of the town.) However, they certainly affected the calculations of potential insurrectionaries. In the socialist discussions of the 1880s the consensus of the military experts among revolutionaries, led by Frederick Engels, was that the old type of uprising now stood little chance, though there was some argument among them about the value of new technological devices such as the then rapidly developing high explosives like dynamite. At all events, barricades which had dominated insurrectionary tactics from 1830 to 1871 (they had not been seriously used in the great French Revolution of 1789-99), were now less favored. Conversely, bombs of one kind or another became the favorite device of revolutionaries, though not marxist ones, and not for genuinely insurrectionary purposes.

Urban reconstruction, however, had another and probably unintended effect on potential rebellions, for the new and wide avenues provided an ideal location for what became an increasingly important aspect of popular movements, the mass demonstration, or rather procession. The more systematic these rings and cartwheels of boulevards, the more effectively isolated these were from the surrounding inhabited area, the easier it became to turn such assemblies into ritual marches rather than preliminaries to riot. London, which lacked them, has always had difficulty in avoiding incidental trouble during the concentration, or more usually the dispersal, of mass meetings held in Trafalgar Square. It is too near sensitive spots like Downing Street, or symbols of wealth and power like the Pall Mall clubs, whose windows the unemployed demonstrators smashed in the 1880s.

One can, of course, make too much of such primarily military factors in urban renewal. In any case they cannot be sharply distinguished from other changes in the 19th- and 20th-century city which sharply diminished its riot potential. Three of them are particularly relevant.

The first is sheer size, which reduces the city to an administrative abstraction, and a conglomerate of separate communities or districts. It became simply too big to riot as a unit. London, which until the 21st century still lacked so obvious a symbol of civic unity as the figure of a mayor, is an excellent example. It ceased to be a riotous city roughly between the time it grew from 1 million to 2 million inhabitants, i.e. in the first half of the 19th century. London Chartism, for instance, barely existed as a genuinely metropolitan phenomenon for more than a day or two on end. Its real strength lay in the ‘localities’ in which it was organized, i.e. in communities and neighborhoods like Lambeth, Woolwich, or Marylebone, whose relations with each other were at the most loosely federal. Similarly, the radicals and activists of the late 19th century were essentially locally based. Their most characteristic organization was the Metropolitan Radical Federation, essentially an alliance of working men’s clubs of purely local importance, in such neighborhoods as had a tradition of radicalism — Chelsea, Hackney, Clerkenwell, Woolwich. The familiar London tendency to build low, and therefore to sprawl, made distances between such centers of trouble too great for the spontaneous propagation of riots. How much contact would Battersea or Chelsea (then still a working-class area electing left-wing MPs) have with the turbulent East End of the 1889 dock striker? How much contact, for that matter, would there be between Whitechapel and Canning Town? In the nature of things the shapeless built-up areas which grew either out of the expansion of a big city or the merging of larger and smaller growing communities, and for which artificial names have had to be invented (‘conurbation’, ‘Greater’ London, Berlin, or Tokyo) were not towns in the old sense, even when administratively unified from time to time.

The second is the growing pattern of functional segregation in the 19th- and 20th-century city, that is to say, on the one hand, the development of specialized industrial, business, government, and other centers or open spaces, on the other, the geographical separation of classes. Here again London was the pioneer, being a combination of three separate units — the government center of Westminster, the merchant city of London, and the popular Southwark across the river. Up to a point the growth of this composite metropolis encouraged potential rioters. The northern and eastern edges of the City of London and Southwark where the merchant community bordered on districts of workers, artisans, and the port — all in their way equally disposed to riot, like the Spitalfield weavers or the Clerkenwell radicals — formed natural flash-points. These were the areas where several of the great 18th-century riots broke out. Westminster had its own population of artisans and miscellaneous poor, whom the proximity of king and Parliament and the accident of an unusually democratic franchise in this constituency, turned into a formidable pressure group for several decades of the late 18th and 19th centuries. The area between the City and Westminster, which was filled by an unusually dense accumulation of slums, inhabited by laborers, immigrants, and the socially marginal (Drury Lane, Covent Garden, St. Giles, Holborn), added to the ebullience of metropolitan public life.

However, as time went on the pattern simplified itself. The 19th-century City ceased to be residential, and became increasingly a pure business district, while the port moved downstream, the city middle and lower-middle classes into more or less remote suburbs, leaving the East End an increasingly homogeneous zone of the poor. The northern and western borders of Westminster became increasingly upper- and middle-class settlements largely designed as such by landowners and speculative builders, thus pressing the centers of artisans, laborers, and others inclined to radicalism and riot (Chelsea, Notting Hill, Paddington, Marylebone) on to a periphery increasingly remote from the rest of radical London. The slums between the two cities survived longest but by the early 20th century they had also been broken into small patches by the urban renewal which has given London some of its gloomiest thoroughfares (Shaftesbury Avenue, Roseberry Avenue) as well as some of its most pompous ones (Kingsway, Aldwych), and an impressive accumulation of barrack-like tenements purporting to increase the happiness of the Drury Lane and Saffron Hill proletariat. Covent Garden and Soho (which elected communist local councillors in 1945) are perhaps the last relic of old-fashioned metropolitan turbulence in the center of the town. By the late 19th century the potentially riotous London had already been broken up into peripheral segments of varying size (the huge and amorphous East End being the largest), surrounding a non-residential City and West End and a solid block of middle-class districts, and surrounded in turn by middle- and lower-middle-class outer suburbs.

Such patterns of segregation developed in most large and growing western cities from the early 19th century, though the parts of their historic centers which were not transformed into business or institutional districts, sometimes retained traces of their old structure, which may still be observed in the red-light quarters, as in Amsterdam. Twentieth-century working-class rehousing and planning for motor transport further disintegrated the city as a potential riot center. (The 19th-century planning for railways had, if anything, the opposite effect, often creating socially mixed and marginal quarters around the new terminals.) The recent tendency to shift major urban services such as central markets from the centers to the outskirts of cities will no doubt disintegrate it further.

Is the urban riot and insurrection therefore doomed to disappear? Evidently not, for we have in recent years seen a marked resurgence of this phenomenon in some of the most modern cities, though also a decline in some of the more traditional centers of such activities. The reasons are mainly social and political, but it may be worth looking briefly at the characteristics of modern urbanism which encourage it.

Modern mass transportation is one. Motor transport has so far contributed chiefly to the mobilization of that normally un-riotous group, the middle class, though such devices as the motorized demonstration (Frenchmen and Algerians still remember the massed horns of reaction hooting Al-ge-rie francaise) and that natural device of sabotage and passion, the traffic jam. However, cars have been used by activists in North American riots, and disrupt police action when on the move, while forming temporary barricades when stationary. Moreover, motor transport distributes the news of riots beyond the immediate area affected since both private cars and buses have to be extensively re-routed.

Public transport, and especially underground railways, which are once again being built in several big cities on a large scale, is more directly relevant. There is no better means of transport for moving large numbers of potential rioters rapidly over long distances than trains running at frequent intervals. This is one reason why the West Berlin students have been a rather effective body of rioters: the underground links the Free University set among the remote and spectacularly middle-class villas and gardens of Dahlem, with the town center.

More important than transport are two other factors: the increase in the number of buildings worth rioting against or occupying, and the development in their vicinity of accumulations of potential rioters. For while it is true that the headquarters of central and municipal government are increasingly remote from the riotous quarters, and the rich or noble rarely live in palaces in the town centers (apartments are both less vulnerable and more anonymous), sensitive institutions of other kinds have multiplied. There are the communications centers (telegraph, telephone, radio, television). The least experienced organizer of a military coup or insurrection knows all about their importance. There are the gigantic newspaper offices, fortunately so often concentrated in the older city centers, and providing admirable incidental material for barricades or cover against fire in the form of delivery trucks, newsprint, and packages of papers. They were used for street-fighting purposes as long ago as 1919 in Berlin, though not very much since. There are, as we all know now, the universities. Though the general tendency to move these out of city centers has diminished their riot potential somewhat, there are enough academic precincts left in the middle of big towns to satisfy the activists. Besides, the explosion of higher education has filled the average university to bursting point with thousands, or even tens of thousands, of marchers or fighters. There are, above all, the banks and large corporations, symbols and reality of the power structure, and increasingly concentrated in those massifs of plate glass and concrete by which the traveler recognizes the centers of a proper 21st-century city.

Theoretically these should be individually as much the object of attack by rioters as city halls or capitols, for IBM, Shell, or General Motors carry at least as much weight as most governments. Banks have long been aware of their vulnerability, and in some Latin countries — Spain is a good example — their combination of symbolic architectural opulence and heavy fortification provides the nearest thing to those town-citadels in which feudal and feuding noblemen barricaded themselves in the middle ages. To see them under heavy police guard in times of tension is an instructive experience, though, in fact, the only champions of direct action who have been systematically attracted by them are unpolitical robbers and revolutionary ‘expropriators’. But if we except such politically and economically negligible symbols of the American way of life as Hilton hotels, and the occasional object of specialized hostility such as Dow Chemical, riots have rarely aimed directly at any of the buildings of large corporations. Nor are they very vulnerable. It would take more than a few broken plate-glass windows or even the occupation of a few acres of office space, to disrupt the smooth operations of a modern oil company.

On the other hand, collectively ‘downtown’ is vulnerable. The disruption of traffic, the closing of banks, the office staffs who cannot or will not turn up for work, the businessmen marooned in hotels with overloaded switchboards, or who cannot reach their destinations: all these can interfere very seriously with the activities of a city. Indeed, this came close to happening during the 1967 riots in Detroit. What is more, in cities developing on the North American pattern it is not unlikely to happen, sooner or later. For it is well known that the central areas of town, and their immediate surroundings, are being filled with the minority poor as the comfortable whites move out. The ghettos lap round the city centers like dark and turbulent seas. It is this concentration of the most discontented and turbulent in the neighborhood of a relatively few unusually sensitive urban centers which gives the militants of a smallish minority the political importance which black riots would certainly not have if the 10 or 15% of the US population who are African-Americans were more evenly distributed throughout the whole of that vast and complex country.

Still, even this revival of rioting in western cities is comparatively modest. An intelligent and cynical police chief would probably regard all the troubles in western cities during recent years as minor disturbances, magnified by the hesitation or incompetence of the authorities and the effect of excessive publicity. With the exception of the Latin Quarter riots of May 1968 in Paris, none of them looked as though they could, or were intended to, shake governments. Anyone who wishes to judge what a genuine old-style insurrection of the urban poor, or a serious armed rising, is and can achieve, must still go to the cities of the developing world: to Naples which rose against the Germans in 1943, to the Algerian Casbah in 1956 (excellent movies have been made about both these insurrections), to Bogota in 1948, perhaps to Caracas, certainly to Santo Domingo in 1965.

The effectiveness of recent western city riots is due not so much to the actual activities of the rioters, as to their political context. In the ghettos of the United States they have demonstrated that black people are no longer prepared to accept their fate passively, and in doing so they have doubtless accelerated the development of black political consciousness and white fear; but they have never looked like a serious immediate threat to even the local power structure. In Paris they demonstrated the instability of an apparently firm and monolithic regime. (The actual fighting capacity of the insurrectionaries was never in fact tested, though their heroism is not in question: no more than two or three people were killed, and those almost certainly by accident.) Elsewhere the demonstrations and riots of students, though very effective inside the universities, have been little more than a routine police problem outside them.

But this, of course may be true of all urban riots, which is why the study of their relation to different types of towns is a comparatively unimportant exercise. Georgian Dublin does not lend itself easily to insurrection, and its population, which does, has not shown a great inclination to initiate or even to participate in uprisings. The Easter Rising took place there because it was a capital city, where the major national decisions are supposed to be made, and though it failed fairly quickly, it played an important part in the winning of Irish independence, because the nature of the Irish situation in 1917-21 allowed it to. Saint Petersburg, built from scratch on a gigantic and geometrical plan, is singularly ill-suited to barricades or street fighting, but the Russian revolution began and succeeded there. Conversely, the proverbial turbulence of Barcelona, the older parts of which are almost ideally suited to riot, rarely even looked like producing revolution. Catalan anarchism, with all its bomb throwers, pistoleros, and enthusiasm for direct action, was until 1936 never more than a normal problem of public order to the authorities, so modest that the historian is amazed to find how few policemen were actually supposed (rather inefficiently) to ensure its protection.

Revolutions arise out of political situations, not because some cities are structurally suited to insurrection. Still, an urban riot or spontaneous uprising may be the starter which sets the engine of revolution going. That starter is more likely to function in cities which encourage or facilitate insurrection. A friend of mine, who happened to have commanded the 1944 insurrection against the Germans in the Latin Quarter of Paris, walked through the area on the morning after the Night of the Barricades in 1968, touched and moved to see that young adults who had not been born in 1944 had built several of their barricades in the same places as then. Or, the historian might add, the same places that had seen barricades in 1830, 1848, and 1871. It is not every city that lends itself so naturally to this exercise, or where, consequently, each generation of rebels remembers or rediscovers the battlefields of its predecessors. Thus in May 1968 the most serious confrontation occurred across the barricades of the Rue Gay Lussac and behind the Rue Soufflot. Almost a century earlier, in the Commune of 1871, the heroic Raoul Rigault who commanded the barricades in that very area, was taken — in the same month of May — and killed by the Versaillais. Not every city is like Paris. Its peculiarity may no longer be enough to revolutionize France, but the tradition and the environment are still strong enough to precipitate the nearest thing to a revolution in a developed western country.

[1] How far such working-class suburbs can be separated from the central city area and still remain a direct factor in insurrections is an interesting question. Sans in Barcelona, the great bastion of anarchism, played no important part in the revolution of 1936, while Floridsdorf in Vienna, an equally solid bastion of socialism, could do little more than hold out in isolation

Category : Strategy and Tactics | Terror and Violence | Working Class | Blog

By Bob Wing*


*Bob Wing has been a social justice organizer and writer since 1968. He was the founding editor of ColorLines magazine and War Times newspaper. Bob lives in Durham, NC and can be contacted through Facebook. Special thanks to my lifelong colleagues Max Elbaum and Linda Burnham and to Jon Liss, Lynn Koh, Carl Davidson, Ajamu Dillahunt, Raymond Eurquhart and Bill Fletcher, Jr. for their comments, critiques and suggestions.


August 1, 2013 – The heartless combination of the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, the House Republicans flatly shunning the immigration bill and the Trayvon Martin outrage should be a wake up call about the grave dangers posed by the far right and may give rise to a renewed motion among African Americans that could give much needed new impetus and political focus to the progressive movement.

The negative policies and missteps of the Obama administration are often the target of progressive fire, and rightly so. But these take place in the context of (and are sometimes caused by) an extremely perilous development in U.S. politics: an alliance of energized rightwing populists with the most reactionary sector of Big Business has captured the Republican Party with “the unabashed ambition to reverse decades of economic and social policy by any means necessary.” (1)

The GOP is in all-out nullificationist mode, rejecting any federal laws with which they disagree. They are using their power in the judiciary and Congress to block passage or implementation of anything they find distasteful at the federal level. And under the radar the Republicans are rapidly implementing a far flung rightwing program in the 28 states they currently control. They have embarked on an unprecedented overhaul of government on behalf of the one percent and against all sectors of the poor and much of the working and middle classes, undermining the rights of all.

The main precedent in U.S. history for this kind of unbridled reactionary behavior was the states rights, pro-slavery position of the white South leading up to the Civil War. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called out the attempts at nullification in his famous “I Have a Dream Speech,” and the movement of the sixties defeated it. As shown in the ultra-conservative playground that is the North Carolina legislature, the new laws and structures of today’s rightwing program are so extreme and in such stark contrast to the rest of the country that I believe both their strategy and their program should be called “Neo-Secession.”

This nullification and neo-secession must be met by a renewed motion for freedom and social justice. The great scholar-activist Manning Marable, the leader of the powerful fightback in North Carolina NAACP President Rev. William Barber II, MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry and others have called for a Third Reconstruction that builds on the post-Civil War first Reconstruction and the Civil Rights/Second Reconstruction. (2)

We are now at a pivotal point in this fight. The battlelines are drawn: Reactionary Nullification and Neo-Secession or Third Reconstruction?

Like the first secession, this second neo-secession is centered in the South even though it is a national movement with unusual strength in the upper Rocky Mountain and plains states in addition to the South. (3) Similarly racism, especially anti-Black racism, lies at its foundation even as the rightwing assaults all democratic, women’s, immigrant and labor rights, social and environmental programs. Progressives in the South are rising to the challenge. But, deplorably, most Democrats, unions, progressives and social justice forces barely have the South on their radar and rarely invest in it. This must change, and change rapidly.


Category : Elections | Fascism | Racism | Strategy and Tactics | US History | Blog

Resistance Is Surrender

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‘Bombard Those in Power with Strategically Well-selected, Precise, Finite Demands…’

By Slavoj Žižek

London Review of Books

One of the clearest lessons of the last few decades is that capitalism is indestructible. Marx compared it to a vampire, and one of the salient points of comparison now appears to be that vampires always rise up again after being stabbed to death. Even Mao’s attempt, in the Cultural Revolution, to wipe out the traces of capitalism, ended up in its triumphant return.

Today’s Left reacts in a wide variety of ways to the hegemony of global capitalism and its political supplement, liberal democracy. It might, for example, accept the hegemony, but continue to fight for reform within its rules (this is Third Way social democracy).

Or, it accepts that the hegemony is here to stay, but should nonetheless be resisted from its ‘interstices’.

Or, it accepts the futility of all struggle, since the hegemony is so all-encompassing that nothing can really be done except wait for an outburst of ‘divine violence’ – a revolutionary version of Heidegger’s ‘only God can save us.’

Or, it recognises the temporary futility of the struggle. In today’s triumph of global capitalism, the argument goes, true resistance is not possible, so all we can do till the revolutionary spirit of the global working class is renewed is defend what remains of the welfare state, confronting those in power with demands we know they cannot fulfil, and otherwise withdraw into cultural studies, where one can quietly pursue the work of criticism.


Category : Capitalism | Marxism | Socialism | Strategy and Tactics | Blog

Historian Mark Solomon looks at the prospects for a new socialist left

By Mark Solomon

Published by Portside March 6, 2013

On February 4, 2010 The Gallop Poll released its latest data on the public’s political attitudes. The headline read: “Socialism Viewed Positively by 36% of Americans.” While the poll did not attempt the daunting task of exploring what a diverse public understood socialism to mean, it nevertheless revealed an unmistakably sympathetic image of a system that had been pilloried for generations by all of capitalism’s dominant instruments of learning and information as well as by its power to suppress and slander socialist ideas and organization.

In sheer numbers, that means a population at the teen- age level and above of tens of millions with a favorable view of socialism.

Why then is the organized socialist movement in the United States so small and so clearly wanting in light of the potential for building its numbers and influence?

That is a crucial question. At every major juncture in the history of the country, radical individuals and organizations in advance of the mainstream have played essential roles in influencing, guiding and consolidating broad currents for social change. In the revolution that birthed this country, radical activists articulated demands from the grass roots for an uncompromising and transforming revolution to crush colonial oppression. Black and white abolitionists fought to make the erasure of slavery the core objective of the Civil War while also linking that struggle to women’s suffrage and trade unionism. A mass Socialist Party in the early 20th century fought for state intervention to combat the ravages of an increasingly exploitative economic system while advancing the vision of a socialist commonwealth. In the Great Depression, the Communist Party and its allies fought the devastations of the crisis – helping to build popular movements to expand democracy, grow industrial unions and defend protections for labor embodied in the historic New Deal.

Small left and socialist organizations in the sixties supported a range of progressive struggles from peace to civil rights to women’s liberation to gay rights and beyond. The limited resources of those groups were effective in galvanizing massive peace demonstrations and in campaigns against racist and sexist oppression. But the Cold War and McCarthyism had eviscerated any hope for a major influential socialist current. Consequently, no large and impacting force existed to extend to the peace movement a coherent anti-imperial analysis that might have contributed to its continuity and readiness to confront the wars of the nineties and the new century. Nor was there a strong socialist organization to contribute to the civil rights struggle by advocating for reform joined to a commitment to deeper social transformation. Had such a current existed, it might have contributed to building a broad protective barrier against the devastating FBI and local police violence against sectors of the movement like the Black Panthers.

There should be little debate today on the left over the need for a strong socialist voice and movement in light of festering economic stagnation, war on the working class, looming environmental catastrophe, a widening chasm between the super-rich and the rest of us, massive joblessness and incarceration savaging African Americans and other oppressed nationalities, crises in health care, housing and education. Such a strong socialist presence could offer a searching analysis of the present situation, help stimulate a broad public debate on short term solutions and formulate a vision of a socialist future that could begin to reach the minds and hearts of the 36 percent who claim to be sympathetic to that vision.


Category : Organizing | Socialism | Strategy and Tactics | Blog


Economic crises do not automatically undermine capitalist power and lead to working class victories. Chris Walsh looks at Antonio Gramsci’s theories about capitalism, hegemony, and an effective working class strategy.


By Chris Walsh
International Socialist Group
Aug 37, 2011

Capitalism is currently experiencing the worst crisis in living memory.  Austerity packages across the Western world are the deepest and most savage for generations.  Millions are being thrown out of work; working conditions are constantly under attack; wages have stagnated (in real terms) for years; the cost of living continues to soar.  Surely the economic conditions are ripe for a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system? Yet seizing the assets of the rich is only on the agenda for a minority of the working class. Why is this?

Consent and Class Leadership

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci noted that since the dawn of capitalism there had been many crises, but very few had resulted in any serious attempt by the workers to overthrow capitalism.  Economic crises, on their own, were not enough to lead to a workers revolution.  Gramsci states that in a class-based society, the dominant class maintains its authority through a combination (to varying degrees) of force and ideological persuasion.  He called this two-pronged approach ‘authoritarian-populist hegemony’.

On the one hand there is the systematic use of force or coercion by the state, what Lenin described as "special bodies of armed men, prisons etc." In this way, the state ensures its domination over the workers.  Even in advanced capitalism, the infliction of violence, or the even the ambient threat of violence, are a continued reality as a means of exerting mastery, e.g. the imprisonment of political activists or the deployment of the police or army to break up strikes.  However the threat of violence is often concealed and social order is maintained through leadership in the field of ideas.

Thus, the dominant class rules by inflicting force where necessary, but winning consent where possible.  Consent is negotiated by convincing the workers that the demands of the present order are ‘natural’ or at least the best case scenario for all.  The ruling class competes, for instance in the sphere of parliamentary politics or journalism, to prove themselves worthy of ‘intellectual and moral leadership’.  This is not the function of the state proper, but of ‘civil society’, the institutions of cultural and ideological production (schools, universities, the media, the family etc.).  Since the ruling class largely controls the institutions of learning, media etc, it is able to win the consent of the subordinate classes and thus maintain the system in its present form.  By these means it is able to ride through economic crises and protect its position as the dominant class in society.

Consent is only achieved by a day-to-day negotiation between the immediate aims of the workers and the ideological leadership of elements of the dominant class.  Gramsci repeatedly emphasizes that the masses are not intellectually passive:

There is no human activity from which every form of intellectual participation can be excluded: homo faber cannot be separated from homo sapiens. Each man, finally, outside his professional activity, carries on some form of intellectual activity, that is, he is a ‘philosopher’, an artist, a man of taste, he participates in a particular conception of the world, has a conscious line of moral conduct, and therefore contributes to sustain a conception of the world or to modify it, that is, to bring into being new modes of thought.

The aim of the ruling class is to persuade the masses that their agenda represents ‘common sense’.  They can achieve this by making analogies – often spurious analogies – between policies and the daily experience of ordinary people.  For instance, British politicians and pundits have successfully convinced some workers that cutting the deficit is the most immediate and urgent problem for any government (e.g. because sovereign debt is "like a credit card").  Actually, this is nonsense.  Sovereign debt is not directly comparable with any form of private debt, least of all credit card debts.  Furthermore, the idea that unleashing harsh austerity upon the working class will directly cut the deficit is highly contestable.  Even many ruling class economists now reject this argument and predict that austerity will only stunt economic growth and produce ‘blowback’ in terms of a double-dip recession.  Thus, the ruling class is perpetually divided between competing strategies: an all out ideological offensive to put a populist spin on austerity; and the incorporation of elements of dissent on particular issues, e.g. new taxes on the bankers and the billionaires.  Ideological leadership thus involves negotiation and brinksmanship, between competing capitalist interests on the one hand, and the workers’ material needs and common sense ideas of ‘fairness’ on the other.

Dominance and Incorporation

We are surrounded by a system of indoctrination that serves to legitimize the backward institutions of the capitalist order, like private property, the family, and wage labour.  From birth, almost everything that a member of the working class is exposed to, from nursery rhymes to school textbooks to newspapers, reinforces either subtly or explicitly the validity and superiority of the current system.  The oppressed masses accept their lot consensually because of the success of capitalist hegemony.  This explains why the majority of people in 21st century Britain do not want, nor recognize the necessity for, a revolution that will overthrow the capitalist system and replace it with a workers’ state.  Capitalist ideology is inescapable.

However, it would be crude to suggest that hegemony is simply ruling class ideology enforced upon the workers in order to make us think the way they do.  It’s more nuanced than that.  Hegemony is a set of contested ideas, constantly in flux, striving for the continued acquiescence of the workers through demonstration of the ruler’s right and ability to rule.  The ideas within ruling class hegemony have to change in order to maintain the popular support of the masses.  This is done by making concessions to the workers and addressing, or at least seeming to address, some of their needs and wants.

Historically, the ruling class have kept workers’ revolts at bay by allowing economic concessions to their needs or popular desires (wage increases, welfare provision etc.) but such allowances have to be made in terms of culture and ideology also.  For instance, the media will play on the concerns or fears of elements of the working class by including them in the cultural output of the ruling class. 

Consider crime.  Many workers have a ‘common sense’ fear of crime, and bourgeois hegemony mutates to reflect and also to lead these concerns.  There are a whole host of television programmes about the tackling of crime and the restoration of law and order: Cops, Crimewatch, Police, Camera, Action, Night Cops, Cops With Cameras, the list goes on, seemingly, ad infinitum.  In showing programmes like these, the ruling class simultaneously stoke the fears of a layer of the working class whilst attempting to resolve these fears by visualizing the victorious reconciliation of social order.  In this way, they can make political capital and solidify their competence as society’s ‘intellectual and moral’ leaders.

If we consider the recent riots in London and other parts of the country, the backlash from the government and the media is a classic case of authoritarian-populist hegemony.  The response of the State can only be described as brutal.  Incredibly harsh sentences were dealt out to anyone having anything to do with the riots, including 2 young men who were sentenced to 4 years imprisonment for suggesting on Facebook that people in their own towns should emulate the uprisings in London.  Had the unrest gone on any longer; the government was prepared to use rubber bullets and water cannons on our streets.  Coupled with the State’s draconian backlash was a hysterical outcry by civil society, particularly the media.  It was almost impossible to find any voice in the media addressing the real causes of the events.  Instead we were subjected to newsreel after newsreel, article after article decrying the moral decay of certain parts of the country and in particular the young people of today’s Britain.

The perpetrators of this particular challenge to the status quo were immediately locked up, preventing them from creating any more trouble for the ruling class and also sending a message to anyone who might consider doing something similar in the future.  As well as being imprisoned, the rioters have undergone a mass character assassination from both the State and civil society.  Cameron has described the communities that rioted as "broken" and "sick", whilst elements of the media have painted anyone involved as simply criminals who took to the streets because they enjoy behaving badly.  It was not uncommon to hear broadcasters suggest that the army be deployed on the streets.

The real issue of the economic crisis and the harsh austerity that has destroyed the communities that most of the rioters came from and robbed them of any real opportunities in life, is deflected.  The uprisings in London should have been a series of events that working class people across the country could sympathize with and rally around; but instead, bourgeois hegemony has allowed for a mass condemnation of those involved and an opportunity for the State to prove its ability to rule because it is "tough on crime" and can keep people safe from such disturbances in their own areas.

Strategy and Power

Having considered the role of both the State and civil society in keeping the workers subordinate to the bosses, it is now useful to consider Gramsci’s military strategy.  Gramsci stated that in any attempt to win state power there are two forms of struggle that revolutionaries can engage in: a War of Movement and a War of Position.  The former is a swift attack, directly upon the seat of state power, with the objective of immediate overthrowing the government and replacing it with a workers’ state.  This strategy is clearly inapplicable to the conditions of Britain or any form of ‘advanced capitalism’ today.  A War of Movement can only be launched if civil society is weak and there is thus popular support from workers for an insurrection.

But a War of Position is a feasible strategy.  This is a revolutionary struggle within and against (and perhaps, to an extent, for) civil society, set over a longer period of time, against the hegemony of the ruling class.  (As long as this hegemony remains stable, a workers revolution cannot even be considered).  In a War of Position, we must recognize that set-backs and retreats are inevitable.  If the War of Movement is a sprint, the War of Position is a marathon; not simply an event, but a process.  It is through this protracted struggle that we aim to create working class hegemony.  We must aim to undermine ruling class hegemony and garner mass support and subscription to working class ideology.

It would be naïve to think that the best strategy for revolutionaries to gain influence and bolster working class hegemony today is to depose the ruling class from the institutions of civil society.  The links between the State and civil society are far too deep and intricate for this to be a realistic possibility.  The heads of the capitalist institutions of hegemony (schools, universities, television stations, newspapers, news websites etc.) are, for the vast majority, of the same class background as the heads of State. 

Such positions are nearly always filled by people coming from a private school background, very often from Oxford and Cambridge, the same as most of the millionaires in the current cabinet.  These positions are rarely open to anyone from a working class background. The recent Newscorp scandal proves just how deeply the connections between the State and civil society run.  To try and fight the establishment to take control of civil society as it stands would be to fight the ruling class on its own terms and its own soil.  This is not a viable strategy to break bourgeois hegemony.  Instead, we must create our own working class institutions, in the workplace and beyond and demonstrate our own abilities as a class and present an alternative to subversion to greedy managers and politicians. In attempting to hegemonize society with working class ideas we must cast the net wide and draw in as many working class people as possible to the struggles that concern or affect them.  By increasing workers’ participation in political struggles, we can promote, and prove in practice, the possibility of working class self-organization and self-determination.  In this way we can prove that, as a class, we are capable of running society and that the bosses are superfluous to our needs.

United Front

As a means of drawing workers into struggles, Gramsci, like Lenin and Trotsky, was a great exponent of the united front.  By drawing working class people together around one particular issue or campaign, revolutionaries are able to have a far greater influence on society than if they only relate to ‘card-carrying’ Marxists.  In terms of today’s struggle: millions of people in Britain are opposed to the cuts but only a handful would describe themselves as Marxists or revolutionaries; they may hold very different beliefs, on any number of issues, to a revolutionary socialist but this is of no importance.  If these people can come together and form a united front around the one issue of opposition to the cuts, then we have a far larger and more powerful oppositional force to the ruling class than if we squabble over whatever petty differences we may have.  Gramsci recognized the centrality of the united front to revolutionary organization.  He believed that the united front was not just a tactic to be utilized in one particular campaign and then jettisoned, but an on-going strategy to constantly draw more and more working people into struggles against the ruling class.  Only through the continuation of this strategy can we hope to build serious influence in society and seek to undermine ruling class hegemony.

We must also seek to spread our ideas to as wide an audience as possible through the media.  The function of propaganda cannot be underestimated.  We have already noted that the mass media is almost exclusively a platform for ruling class ideas to be broadcast.  However, with the recent exposure of corruption and malpractice within news outlets; the constantly growing new forms of media (Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, live blogs etc.); and the realisation by more and more people that institutions like the BBC are far from impartial (note the reportage on Palestine and the recent public sector strikes to name but a few), we have a terrific opportunity to promote our own ideas to a mass audience.  The news outlets of the establishment are losing credibility rapidly and people, in growing numbers, are looking to alternative ways of following the news.  Videos on Youtube can ‘go viral’ in a matter of hours and Twitter is growing at a spectacular rate.  These are just two examples of ways in which radical ideas can be broadcast to the masses and working class perspectives can penetrate a massive audience like never before.

It may seem that we have a considerable way to go before working class counter-hegemony can begin to rival that of the capitalist class, but class struggle develops unevenly.  As Lenin said, "Sometimes decades pass and nothing happens; and then sometimes weeks pass and decades happen".

The capitalist class is in deep crisis.  Ruling class ideology is being questioned by greater numbers of people every day; the bourgeois media is increasingly being seen as the propaganda machine that it truly is; and people are genuinely looking for an alternative to the crisis-ridden capitalism that drives them increasingly deeper and deeper into poverty.  Now is the time to organize and build within workplaces and communities and not allow the capitalists to ride through yet another crisis unscathed.  The ground is fertile for revolutionaries to engage the masses in class struggle against our oppressors, and this is what we must do. The united front must be utilized in a serious and genuine way in the months and years ahead.  It is our only hope for victory.

Category : Hegemony | Marxism | Strategy and Tactics | Working Class | Blog

Gramsci’s Leninism

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The revolutionary left needs Gramsci; now more than ever

By Chris Walsh
International Socialist Group
June 21, 2012

The legacy of Antonio Gramsci is one of the most fiercely contested in the Marxist tradition. Gramsci’s lineage is claimed by myriad schools of thought for innumerable theoretical purposes, both within and out with Marxism. There is scarcely a social science that hasn’t incorporated Gramsci’s key concepts into its literature: often presenting the Italian as an ‘acceptable’ Marxist and almost never confronting the possibility that he was a thinker and activist of the same political ilk as Lenin. In the history of Western Marxism, perhaps the major debate of the last fifty years has been around the question of whether Gramsci’s politics were a continuation of, or a break from, the Leninist tradition.

The major task of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks was to begin to articulate a revolutionary strategy for socialists operating in the advanced capitalist West where the conditions were fundamentally different from those in absolutist Russia. To engage in such a project is enough, for some, to draw a distinction between Gramsci’s politics and Lenin’s. However, this is a shallow conclusion to reach; since in the early 1920s, no one was more acutely aware as Lenin that a different revolutionary strategy would be necessary for the West.

In the 1970s, a new wave of theory which relied heavily on a (mis)reading of Gramsci began to emerge from within the Communist Parties of Europe. This loose variety of perspectives became known collectively as Eurocommunism: centred on the idea that Gramsci’s concept of ‘War of Position’ sanctioned a reformist road to socialism; the Communist Parties that adhered to this new perspective began to see electoral work as their political priority and quickly began to discount much of the politics of their Leninist heritage.

In Britain, Eurocommunism was championed by the Marxism Today journal, headed up by writers like Martin Jacques and Stuart Hall. Such figures had good reason to detach Gramsci from the Leninist tradition: they wanted to drive a theoretical wedge between themselves and the Stalinist USSR’s ‘cult of Lenin’; they were deeply pessimistic from decades of defeats for the hard-left and wanted to articulate a new socialist strategy which jettisoned the unmarketable old verities of their failed Marxism-Leninism, like ‘The Dictatorship of The Proletariat’. Gramsci, they thought, was their ticket to such drastic revision and they purposefully tried to distance his thought from that of Lenin. These were, of course, politically motivated men. Their own conclusions were neither impartial nor strictly scholarly but dictated by their own specific agenda of radical left-wing reorientation and renewal, in a time of deep crisis for the left.

It is important here to clarify some, often ignored but crucial, points: Firstly, the concept which has become synonymous with Gramscian thought, ‘hegemony’, was not an original concept of Gramsci’s, but one that he learned from Lenin and was widely used by leading theorists of both the Second and Third International. Gramsci’s use of the term is not a departure from, nor contradictory to, the Russian’s usage but is in fact a continuation and development of the same concept. Secondly, although it has been popular for decades to characterise Gramsci’s hegemony as an alternative strategy to the increasingly unfashionable concept of The Dictatorship of The Proletariat, Gramsci never intended it thus; in fact the two concepts were, in the Italian’s mind, very much complementary. In fact, Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks was an attempt to carry on Lenin’s legacy after his death.

Lenin and the West

As already mentioned, Lenin knew all too well that a different revolutionary strategy was required for the West. In 1921 he specifically outlined to the Russian communists the necessity of the theorisation of a strategy for Western workers which was suitable to their own conditions. He specifically regrets that the program set out at the Third Congress was scarcely comprehensible to the non-Russian mind:

"At the Third Congress, in 1921, we adopted a resolution on the organisational structure of the Communist parties and on the methods and content of their activities. The resolution is an excellent one, but it almost entirely Russian, that is to say, everything in it is based on Russian conditions. This is its good point, but it is also its failing. It is its failing because I am sure that no foreigner can read it…Second, even if they read it, they will not understand it because it is too Russian. Not because it is written in Russian – it has been excellently translated into all languages – but because it is thoroughly imbued with the Russian spirit. And third, if by way of exception some foreigner does understand it, he cannot carry it out." (Lenin; ‘Five Years of the Russian Revolution and the Prospects of the World Revolution: Report to the Fourth Congress of the Communist International’; Lenin’s Final Fight: 1922-23; p111)

The strength of the resolution was in its detail, specificity and ability to focus on the minutiae of organisational questions. Its weakness was that the specifics of the Russian social and economic conditions were exceptional and thus completely alien to the Western worker. Worse still is the fact that even after dedicated study of the Russian conditions leading to an understanding of the revolutionary organisation and practice of the Russian communists, this knowledge could become a fetter to the Western revolutionary if taken dogmatically since their own road to workers revolution would be so radically different to that of the Bolsheviks. This led Lenin to lament that "We have not learned how to present our Russian experience to foreigners." In order to rectify the oversights from the previous congress, he stressed to his compatriots that, "We Russians must also find ways and means of explaining the principles of this resolution to the foreigners. Unless we do that, it will be absolutely impossible for them to carry it out."

The key task for the Communist International at this point was to ‘translate’ the Russian experience into the many vernaculars of the European workers. No two states have identical form or conditions, and certainly the Russian situation was particularly far removed from those of the more advanced capitalisms in Europe.

War of Manouvere & War of Position

One of Gramsci’s greatest contributions to revolutionary Marxism was his formulation of the dual strategies of War of Manouvere and War of Position. The former, as carried out by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1917, was conceived as an appropriate strategy for socialists operating within societies where capitalism was still underdeveloped. It involved an insurrectionary advance upon the state which is only possible when the ruling class within society maintain their superiority to the subaltern classes by sheer force, with little or no acceptance of their superiority from the masses. In such a situation, the subordinate classes do not consent to the class leadership of the bourgeoisie but are forced into acquiescence by the vast apparatuses of state violence, "special bodies of armed men, prisons, etc." as Lenin outlined in The State and Revolution.

The War of Position, on the other hand, is a more patient and protracted strategy. This involves not just an attack upon the bastions of state power, but a lengthy period building up to this moment in which class alliances are forged and ideological leadership amongst the subaltern classes is strived for. Gramsci explains the differing conditions that demand each respective strategy:

"In the East, the state was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West, there was a proper relation between state and civil society, and when the state tottered, a sturdy structure of civil society was immediately revealed. The state was just a forward trench; behind it stood a succession of sturdy fortresses and emplacements. Needless to say, the configuration of the state varied from state to state, which is precisely why an accurate reconnaissance on a national scale was needed." (Gramsci, Antonio; Prison Notebooks, Volume III; trans. Buttigieg; p169)

In this particular passage Gramsci identifies the state as being the fortress surrounding civil society. At other times he presents the converse, that civil society protects the state. There is no ultimate truth regarding the formulation of advanced capitalist states since "the configuration of the state varied from state to state". The key point to note is that in the West there was a far more mature relationship between the state and civil society. The state in the advanced capitalist West ensures the continuation of the domination of the capitalist class through a far more complex method of governance than the brute coercion of the underdeveloped Eastern state. There is a far more effective deployment of a combination of both coercion and consent. The more advanced that the capitalist state becomes, it utilises less and less force and becomes increasingly reliant on gaining consent from the masses to maintain the hierarchical status quo.

It is important to note at this point that the population is by no means duped into such an arrangement. The ideology of the ruling class purposefully appeals to certain needs, desires or fears that are actually held by the subaltern classes. These appeals are made upon different issues at different historical points and are obviously dictated by the specific conditions in any given society. They can be anything from: the restoration of law and order/domestic security; national security; concerns around the size of the state apparatus; anger at ‘benefits culture’, appeals to fairness. All of these were deployed in Margaret Thatcher’s political project. All of these fears were stoked by Thatcher and her allies, predominantly through the role of the media in endorsing them wholeheartedly and giving little or no platform to any voice of dissent.

When the ruling class ideology becomes so widely accepted that the oppressed classes are willing to subscribe to it; when alternatives cannot be found, or if they exist but can’t gain any traction; this is when the ruling ideology becomes, what Gramsci called, ‘common sense’. This ideological shift in society becomes so stable that even the following political administrations seemingly have to subscribe to it. This is when a political project becomes truly hegemonic. This is what was achieved by the radical project of Thatcherism, so that the next Labour government after Thatcher’s reign completely embraced and continued her neo-liberal project.

The Integral State

In the traditional Marxist duality of state and civil society; the ideological apparatuses such as the media, schools, universities, the family etc. are considered to be institutions of civil society. Gramsci recognized that in advanced capitalist society, such an assignment is not completely accurate. Civil society and the state become so inextricably linked that both must be tackled concurrently. If we consider the influence that powerful figures in society can have upon the state and vice versa: whether it be wealthy donors to political parties having a say in policy or decision making; or media tycoons who have such a vast influence upon the population that they play a decisive role in who is elected to office; it is clear that the power in society does not simply lie within the state proper.

This is why Gramsci formulated the concept of the ‘integral state’. In this formulation, the state and civil society are not two distinct entities but two component parts of the same organism. There is a dialectical relationship between the two parts so that the capacities of the state to act are always dependant upon the balance of class and social forces, and the role of actors, within civil society.

It is a common misinterpretation of Gramsci that the War of Position is fought within civil society, and once hegemony is ensured, the state lies unprotected for the workers to lay hold of. When we consider the concept of the ‘integral state’ it becomes obvious that this is incorrect. The integral state is everything; one unitary ‘state-form’ that encompasses both civil and political society. The state proper and civil society prop each other up in a symbiotic fashion. A working class revolutionary movement must attack both at once. The strategy of the united front must be in constant deployment. The oppressed must be organised and drawn into constant and increasing struggle with the state and the ruling class. This must be given organisational form in the shape of new workers institutions and revolutionaries must always strive to ensconce politics into them, continually raising the consciousness and organisation of struggle in a dialectical interaction.

Civil Hegemony = War of Position = United front

We must understand that Gramsci’s conception of hegemony cannot be comprehended in isolation from his other major prison researches. We are offered the equation: ‘Civil Hegemony = War of Position = United Front.’ The United Front is the strategy implemented in order to unite the subordinate classes in conflict with the state; Civil hegemony (the starting point of, and always progressing towards, political hegemony) is the leadership of the oppressed classes on the terrain of civil society; and War of Position is the steady, incremental advance of the proletarian-led alliance of the oppressed to subordinate the dominant hegemony, and when possible, manouvere for control of the apparatuses of the state. Each component part of this formulation is essential to the unity of the strategic whole.

If any one is discounted, the strategy is rendered unintelligible and certainly un-workable. Leadership (hegemony) can only be established within civil society once the various oppressed classes have forged some form of allegiance (through the United Front) with the proletarian vanguard that will lead the struggle against the ruling class in the fields of both civil and political society. I will argue, and seek to demonstrate through a close textual analysis, that each component part of the equation owes a great deal to the influence of Lenin.

Lenin’s Hegemony (Leadership)

As we have already noted, Gramsci adopted his concept of hegemony from Lenin. We should also remember at this point that hegemony for Gramsci, in any given pre-revolutionary period, simply means leadership of the subaltern classes, brought together in struggle by the United Front. Although Lenin doesn’t often use the word hegemony, this has often mistakenly been interpreted as an absence or irrelevance of the concept from his discourse. As Buci-Glucksmann puts it:

"The majority of commentators, anxious to stress the decisive contribution made by Gramsci, or more subtly, to oppose Gramsci to Lenin, end up by underestimating the place of hegemony in Lenin’s work and remaining almost completely silent on the Third International." (Buci-Glucksmann, Christine; Gramsci and The State; p174)

However, it is not difficult to find examples of the concept in his writings from long before 1917. Let us consider the following passages from Two Tactics of Social Democracy, written in 1905:

"All the usual, regular and current work of all organizations and groups of our Party, the work of propaganda, agitation and organisation, is directed towards strengthening and expanding the ties with the masses." (Lenin; Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in The Democratic Revolution, Lenin: Selected Works; p51)

"In a word, to avoid finding itself with its hands tied in the struggle against the inconsistent bourgeois democracy the proletariat must be class-conscious and strong enough to rouse the peasantry to revolutionary consciousness, guide its assault, and thereby independently pursue the line of consistent proletarian democratism." (Lenin; Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in The Democratic Revolution, Lenin: Selected Works; p85)

As early as 1905 Lenin recognises that class alliances must be made with the other subaltern classes in order to engage in effective revolutionary struggle. This is especially true in countries where the proletariat is not quantitatively the largest class. As well as forging this alliance of the oppressed, the proletariat must establish the trust and loyalty of the other component classes and lead and dictate the form of their revolutionary activities (just as in Gramsci’s formulations). At this conjuncture, Lenin identifies the united front as a tactic, suitable to the specific period, rather than a strategy. One could easily argue that it was suitable for Russia in 1905 but quite ill-fitting to the conditions in which Gramsci operated in Italy. However, the United Front eventually establishes a more permanent role in Lenin’s thought. It wasn’t until much later, specifically at the beginning of the Third International that the united front was recognized as a strategy for the age rather than merely a specific manouvere. I will return to, and address, this point later when dealing with the theory and practice of the ‘last Lenin’ and its significance to Gramsci.

Lenin’s overall strategy for proletarian revolution was evidently vindicated in October 1917. After the October Revolution, the concept of hegemony – class leadership of the oppressed – begins to appear far more frequently in Lenin’s writings, and it appears in a more developed form. In 1918, in The State and Revolution, we read:

"Only the proletariat – by virtue of the economic role it plays in large-scale production – is capable of being the leader of all the working and exploited people, whom the bourgeoisie exploit, oppress and crush, often not less but more than they do the proletarians, but who are incapable of waging an independent struggle for their emancipation." (Lenin; The State and Revolution; Lenin: Selected Works; p281)

No other class other than that of workers has been prepared by its position in the mode of production for such a role; No other class is organized through labour in such large groupings and social conditions; No other class has the skills to continue production and lay the foundations for the new socialist society in the eventuality of the overthrow of the bourgeoisie.

The Dictatorship of The Proletariat (Domination)

At this point, after the revolutionary deposition of the capitalist class, Lenin’s ‘hegemony’ acquires another vital aspect to its overall meaning, one that we also find in the writings of Antonio Gramsci; namely, domination. Now we see hegemony as necessary not just in order to lead the oppressed classes in the overthrow of the bourgeoisie; but also as essential to the proletariat to maintain its class domination and quell the "desperate resistance of the bourgeoisie". This period in which the proletariat assumes the position of society’s ruling class is by no means the completion of the workers’ revolution. It is simply the transitional period of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The workers revolution is only complete when all classes have been abolished from society.

Now, the distinction, falsely forged in desperation by the Eurocommunists and reformists of all shades, of Gramsci’s notion of hegemony and Lenin’s understanding of the dictatorship of the proletariat is exposed to all as wholly inaccurate. Simply put, the dictatorship of the proletariat is the mobilization of "a ‘special coercive force’ for the suppression of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat". (Lenin; The State and Revolution; Lenin: Selected Works; p275) In other words, Gramsci’s understanding of the ‘domination’ aspect of hegemony is identical to Lenin’s ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

In the writings of both Lenin and Gramsci, the proletarian-led, revolutionary alliance of the exploited remained essential before, during and after the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. This working class leadership was coupled with a post-insurrectionary working class domination and suppression of the deposed capitalist class and the counter-revolutionary forces it would mobilise in a furious attempt to reclaim its lost superiority. In Gramsci’s first notebook he writes:

"A class is dominant in two ways, namely it is "leading" and "dominant." It leads the allied classes, it dominates the opposing classes. Therefore, a class can (and must) "lead" even before assuming power; when it is in power it becomes dominant, but it also continues to ‘lead’." (Gramsci, Antonio; Prison Notebooks, Volume I; trans. Buttigieg; p136)

Compare this with Lenin’s outline of the strategic necessities of the revolutionary process, again written in 1918:

"In every socialist revolution, however – and consequently in the socialist revolution in Russia which we began on October 25, 1917 – the principal task of the proletariat, and of the poor peasants which it leads, is the positive or constructive work of setting up an extremely intricate and delicate system of new organizational relationships extending to the planned production and distribution of the goods required for the existence of tens of millions of people. Such a revolution can be successfully carried out only if the majority of the population, and primarily the majority of the working people, engage in independent creative work as makers of history. Only if the proletariat and the poor peasants display sufficient class-consciousness, devotion to principle, self-sacrifice and perseverance, will the victory of the socialist revolution be assured." (Lenin; The Immediate Tasks of The Soviet Government; Lenin: Selected Works; p402)

The overthrow of the bourgeoisie does not herald the birth of a new socialist society; it is merely the transitory stage of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. The socialist revolution is only complete when classes have been eliminated from society and thus the state, whose very raison d’être is the suppression of the subordinate classes to ensure the continued superiority of the dominant, is rendered superfluous. The socialist revolution is only completed when a new, completely unprecedented state-form comes into being: the workers state; "which is no longer really a state." (Lenin; The State and Revolution; Essential Works of Lenin; p301)

The alliances forged before the insurrectionary movement must be maintained and continue to be led by the workers in order to construct the new social and economic conditions for socialism and allow the revolutionary process to progress beyond the temporary moment of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Lenin writes in 1919:

"Classes have remained, but in the era of the dictatorship of the proletariat every class has undergone a change, and the relations between the classes have also changed. The class struggle does not disappear under the dictatorship of the proletariat; it merely assumes different forms." (Lenin; Economics and Politics in The Era of The Dictatorship of the Proletariat; Lenin: Selected Works; p503)

Although Lenin and Gramsci use different language, it is evident that they are describing the same organisational, revolutionary practice. Just as the relative absence of the actual word ‘hegemony’ in Lenin doesn’t denote an omission of the concept; neither does Gramsci’s seldom use of the phrase, ‘the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ in the Prison Notebooks signify its absence from his thought.

The ‘Last Lenin’

The most significant themes of Gramsci’s carceral writings: Hegemony, War of Position and the United Front; as we have seen, were all taken directly from Lenin. Gramsci’s biographer, Alastair Davidson remarks that, "Leninism at its end-point and gramscianism at its beginnings are closely linked." (Davidson, Alastair; Gramsci & Lenin: 1917-1922; The Socialist Register, 1974; p146) This does not go far enough. Gramsci’s prison writings carry Lenin’s theoretical baton after the Russian’s death. They seek to articulate his final strategic thoughts in a period when Leninism had been crudely distorted and Lenin’s true legacy was fiercely contested, if not always openly, within the Communist International. Gramsci formulated his ideas at the same time as the Comintern was committed to the strategic folly of the Third Period and the abandonment of the United Front. In Lenin’s final years, he realised that the United Front was no longer merely a conjunctural manouvere but in fact the only suitable strategy for the age. Gramsci took the minority position of being faithful to this Lenin. Peter Thomas writes:

"The struggle for ‘civil and political hegemony’, the attempt to construct a proletarian hegemonic apparatus, was Gramsci’s attempt to remain faithful to Lenin’s last will and testament and to deploy the qualitative advance in the development of the concept of hegemony in Western conditions. Far from leading away from the classical thesis of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the Gramscian theory of proletarian hegemony posits itself as its necessary ‘complement’. War of Position is now not only the ‘only possible’ strategy in the West; as an application of the mass class-based politics of the united front, it has become the sine qua non of a revolutionary politics that wants to produce a politics ‘of a very different type’ on an international scale." (Thomas, Peter D; The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism; p239)

In light of the evidence, there can be absolutely no question of whether or not Gramsci was a Leninist. His Leninism was far richer and more dynamic than any variant professed by his contemporaries. By crudely cleaving Gramsci from the Leninist tradition, the Eurocommunists and their ancestors present a picture of the man and his theory which is not only historically inaccurate, but opportunistically incomplete. We must reclaim his legacy from its wide-ranging abuse in political discourse and just about every other field of social science.

In the 21st century when much of the left have abandoned Lenin for being antiquated and outmoded, we must look to Gramsci in order to help define what Leninism means today and its relevance to revolutionary struggle in our age. The Leninist left’s dreary re-reading of The State and Revolution and What Is To Be Done?, as if a solution to the many crises that confront us today will magically materialise from within the text, will provide little insight into the questions and tasks presented by the ever advancing and transforming (and increasingly crisis-ridden) capitalism of today. Dogmatism is our enemy within. Gramsci’s dynamic Marxism can aid in undermining the dogma that silently retards us. The revolutionary left needs Gramsci; now more than ever.

Category : Strategy and Tactics | Blog


By Gar Alperovitz and Steve Dubb
Alternet, Jan 15, 2013

Most activists tend to approach progressive change from one of two perspectives: First, there’s the “reform” tradition that assumes corporate control is a constant and that “politics” acts to modify practices within that constraint. Liberalism in the United States is representative of this tradition. Then there’s the “revolutionary” tradition, which assumes change can come about only if the major institutions are largely eliminated or transcended, often by violence.

But what if neither revolution nor reform is viable?

Paradoxically, we believe the current stalemating of progressive reform may open up some unique strategic possibilities to transform institutions of the political economy over time. We call this third option evolutionary reconstruction. Like reform, evolutionary reconstruction involves step-by-step nonviolent change. But like revolution, evolutionary reconstruction changes the basic institutions of ownership of the economy, so that the broad public, rather than a narrow band of individuals (i.e., the “one percent”) owns more and more of the nation’s productive assets.

1. A People’s Bank

One area where this logic can be seen at work is in the financial industry. At the height of the financial crisis in early 2009, some kind of nationalization of the banks seemed possible. It was a moment, President Obama told banking CEOs, when his administration was “the only thing between you and the pitchforks.” The president opted for a soft bailout, but that was not the only possible decision.

When the next financial crisis occurs – and many experts think it will —a different resolution may well be possible. One option has already been put on the table. In 2010, 33 senators voted to break up large Wall Street investment banks that were “too big to fail.” Such a policy would not only reduce financial vulnerability, it would alter the structure of institutional power.

Nor is an effort to break up banks, even if successful, likely to be the end of the process. The modern history of anti-trust and finance suggests that the big banks, even if broken up, will ultimately regroup. So what can be done when breaking them up fails?

Traditional reforms have aimed at improved regulation, higher reserve requirements and the channeling of credit to key sectors. But future crises may bring into play a spectrum of sophisticated proposals for more radical change. For instance, a “Limited Purpose Banking” strategy put forward by conservative economist Laurence Kolticoff would impose a 100% reserve requirement on banks. Since banks typically provide loans in amounts many times their reserves, this would transform them into modest institutions with little or no capacity to finance speculation. It would also nationalize the creation of all new money as federal authorities, rather than bankers, directly control system-wide financial flows.

More striking is the argument of Willem Buiter, the chief economist of Citigroup, that if the public underwrites the costs of bailouts, “banks should be in public ownership.” In fact, had the taxpayer funds used to bail out major financial institutions in 2007-2010 been provided on condition that voting stock be issued in return for the investment, one or more major banks would have become essentially public banks.

Nor is this far from current political tradition. Unknown to most, there have been a large number of small and medium-sized public banking institutions for some time now. In fact, the federal government already operates 140 banks and quasi-banks that provide loans and loan guarantees for an extraordinary range of domestic and international economic activities.

The economic crisis has also produced widespread interest in the Bank of North Dakota, a highly successful state-owned bank founded in 1919. Between 1996 and 2008, the bank returned $340 million in profits to the state. The bank enjoys broad support in the business community, as well as among progressive activists. Legislative proposals to establish banks patterned in whole or in part on the North Dakota model have been put forward by activists and legislators in more than a dozen states.

2. Move to Universal Healthcare

That austerity and failing reform might open the way to "evolutionary reconstructive" institutional change is also suggested by emerging developments in healthcare.

Cost pressures are also building up—and, critically, in ways that will continue to undermine U.S. corporations facing global competitors, forcing them to seek new solutions. The federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services projects that healthcare costs will go up from the 2010 level of 17.5 percent of GDP to 19.6 percent in 2019. It has long been clear that over the long-haul cost pressures are ultimately likely to force development of some form of single-payer system —the only serious way to deal with the underlying problem. 

A national solution may come about either in response to a burst of pain-driven public outrage, or more slowly through a state-by-state build-up. Massachusetts already has a near universal plan. In Hawaii, health coverage (provided mostly by nonprofit insurers) reaches 91.8 percent of adults in part because of a 1970s law mandating low-cost insurance for anyone working 20 hours a week. In Vermont, Governor Peter Shumlin signed legislation in May 2011 creating “Green Mountain Care.” Universal coverage, dependent on a federal waiver, would begin in 2017 and possibly as early as 2014. In Connecticut, the legislature in 2011 authorized a “SustiNet” non-profit public health insurance program, which it aims to launch in 2014. In all, bills to create universal healthcare have been introduced in nearly 20 states.

3.  Build Community Wealth

“Social enterprises” that undertake businesses in order to support specific social missions now increasingly comprise what is sometimes called a "fourth sector” (different from the government, business and non-profit sectors). Roughly 4,500 not-for-profit community development corporations are largely devoted to housing development. There are now also more than 10,000 businesses owned in whole or part by their employees; nearly 3 million more individuals are involved in these enterprises than are members of private sector unions. Another 130 million Americans are members of various urban, agricultural and credit union cooperatives. In many cities, “land trusts” are underway using an institutional form of nonprofit or municipal ownership that develops and maintains low- and moderate-income housing.

In Cleveland, Ohio, an integrated group of worker-owned companies has been developed, supported in part by the purchasing power of large hospitals and universities. The Cleveland effort, which is partly modeled on the 85,000-person Mondragón cooperative network, based in the Basque region of Spain, is on track to create new businesses, year by year, as time goes on. The goal is not simply worker ownership, but the democratization of wealth and community building in general. Linked by a community-serving non-profit corporation and a revolving fund, the companies cannot be sold outside the network; they also return 10 percent of profits to help develop additional worker-owned firms.

A critical element of the strategy points to what is essentially a quasi-public sector planning model: Hospitals and universities in the area currently spend $3 billion on goods and services a year—none, until recently, from the immediately surrounding neighborhoods. The “Cleveland model” is supported in part by decisions of these substantially publically financed institutions to allocate part of their procurement to the worker-co-ops in support of a larger community-building agenda. Numerous other cities are now exploring efforts of this kind, including Atlanta; Pittsburgh; Amarillo, Texas; and Washington, DC. Related institutional work is now underway, too, through the leadership of United Steelworkers, a union that has put forward new proposals for a co-op-union model of ownership.

Another innovative enterprise is Market Creek Plaza in San Diego, a $23.5 million, mixed-use, commercial-retail-residential development. The project was conceived, planned and developed by teams of community members working with the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation. Market Creek Plaza is also a green project, and aims to expand to become a transit-oriented village with 800 units of affordable housing and extensive facilities for nonprofit organizations. The project has restored 1,400 linear feet of wetlands, while generating 200 permanent jobs (70 percent filled by local residents), provided 415 residents with a 20-percent ownership stake in the project, and generated $42 million in economic activity (in 2008).

4. Leverage City Assets

Yet another arena of institutional growth involves municipal development. By maintaining direct ownership of areas surrounding transit station exits, public agencies in Washington, DC, Atlanta and elsewhere earn millions, capturing the increased land values their transit investments create. The town of Riverview, Michigan has been a national leader in trapping methane from its landfills and using it to fuel electricity generation, thereby providing both revenue and jobs. There are roughly 500 similar projects nationwide. Many cities have established municipally owned hotels. There are also nearly 2,000 publicly owned utilities that provide power (and often broadband) to more than 45 million Americans, generating $50 billion in annual revenue. Significant public institutions are also common at the state level. CalPERS, California’s public pension authority, helps finance local community development needs; in Alaska, state oil revenues provide each citizen with dividends as a matter of right; in Alabama, public pension investing has long focused on state economic development.

5. Organize for the Long Haul

You can think of the slow buildup of democratizing strategies as the pre-historical developmental work needed to clarify new principles for larger scale application. Just as in the decades before the New Deal, state and local experiments in the “laboratories of democracy” may suggest new larger scale approaches. The new direction has four aspects; democratization of wealth; community, both locally and in general; decentralization in general; and substantial but not complete forms of democratic planning. Let’s take a look at each of these.

Democratization of Wealth: Institutions like public banks challenge the idea that private corporate enterprise offers the only possible way forward. They also help open new ways of thinking about how to get meaningful larger scale democratization. Historically, cooperatives and other federations also helped establish institutional and organizational support for explicit political efforts in support of specific policies. Critically, they also help stabilize local community economies, since such institutions tend to be anchored locally by virtue of their democratic ownership structure.

Rethinking Community: If you want to alter larger patterns of wealth and power, you have to build a culture that reconstructs “community.” In economic terms, building community means introducing and emphasizing practical forms of community ownership. In the Cleveland effort, for example, the central institution is a community-wide, neighborhood-encompassing non-profit corporation. The board of the non-profit institution includes representatives both of the worker cooperatives and of key community institutions. Worker co-ops are linked to this (and to a revolving fund at the center), and though independently owned and managed, they cannot be sold without permission from the founding community-wide institution. The basic principle is that the effort should benefit the broader community, not only or simply workers in one or another co-op.

Decentralization: Can there be meaningful democracy in a very large system without far more rigorous decentralization than is commonly assumed in the United States? It is a commonplace that Washington is “broken.” But part of the problem has to do with scale. We rarely confront the fact that the United States is a very large geographic polity: Germany could easily be tucked into Montana. The United States is also very large in population—currently more than 310 million, likely to reach 500 million shortly after mid-century.

Decentralization in these circumstances is nearly inevitable, and if the continental nation is too large and most states are too small to deal with economic matters, what remains is the intermediate scale we call the region— a unit of scale that is likely to become of increasing importance as time (and population growth) go on. The question is almost certainly how to regionalize, not whether to do so—what powers to maintain at the center and what powers to relegate to various smaller scale units. The principle of subsidiarity—keeping decision-making at the lowest feasible level, and only elevating to higher levels when absolutely necessary—is implicit as a guiding principle.

Democratic Planning: A well-designed planning system can change relationships between firms, the community and the market. Planning also needs to be democratic at all levels.

Take a look at Brazil’s innovations in participatory budgeting, where citizens determine major public expenditures – an idea that is gaining traction in Chicago. So far these experiments have definite limits since they are restricted to municipal budget decisions. But if the practice can be extended in scope and scale over time, it could provide an important mechanism for increasing meaningful democracy.

High-speed rail and mass transit are another area in which we can think about larger scale planning approaches. The United States has limited capacity to build equipment for any of this. But when the next crisis occurs in the auto or other industries, a public bail-out might restructure firms so that we could use public contracts needed to build mass transit and high-speed rail in ways that also help support the development of quasi-public national and community-based firms—both to produce what is needed and simultaneously to help stabilize local communities.

6. Cut Corporate Power Down to Size

To deal with economic issues, ecological challenges and local community stability, we must also come to terms with corporate power dynamics. Public corporations are subject to Wall Street’s first commandment: Grow or die!” You can’t just wish or regulate that idea away.

In addition to carbon emissions, countless studies have documented growing energy, mineral, water, arable land and other limits to unending growth. Yet the trends continue: The United States, with less than 5 percent of global population, consumes 22 percent of the world’s oil, 13 percent of world coal, and 21 percent of world natural gas. From 1940 to 1976, Americans used up as large a share of the earth’s mineral resources as did everyone in all previous history.

At some point, a society like the United States that already produces the equivalent of over $190,000 for every family of four must ask when enough is enough. As Juliet Schor has argued, one key change is to encourage less consumption and more leisure time. That means reforming unemployment insurance policy to encourage work sharing, changing government labor practices to model shorter working hours, and discouraging excessive overtime. We need to restore balance on a personal level, but we can’t ignore the big systemic challenges. As former presidential adviser James Gustav Speth has observed: “For the most part we have worked within this current system of political economy, but working within the system will not succeed in the end when what is needed is transformative change in the system itself.”

As a matter of cold logic, if some of the most important corporations have a massively disruptive and costly impact on the economy and environment—and if experience suggests that regulation and anti-trust laws are likely to be largely subverted by these corporations—a public takeover becomes the only logical answer. This general argument was put forward most forcefully not by liberals, but by the founders of the Chicago School of economics. Conservative Nobel Laureate George Stigler repeatedly observed that regulatory strategies were “designed and operated primarily for [the corporation’s] benefit.” Henry C. Simons, Milton Friedman’s mentor, was even more forceful. “Turned loose with inordinate powers, corporations have vastly over-organized most industries,” Simons held. The state “should face the necessity of actually taking over, owning, and managing directly…industries in which it is impossible to maintain effectively competitive conditions.”

For many decades, the only choices to many have seemed state socialism, or corporate capitalism. When traditional systems falter and fail, new ideas spring to life. Little noticed by most observers, handholds on processes of potentially important new forms of change have been quietly developing around the country. These changes build upon each other to create an evolutionary process that has the power to transform the way we live – for the better.

Category : Capitalism | Socialism | Strategy and Tactics | Blog

Conquering a New Popular Hegemony: Harnecker on 21st Century Socialism

“In recent years, and in increasingly more countries, growing multitudes have rebelled against the existing order and without a defined leadership have taken over plazas, streets, highways, towns, parliament, but, despite having mobilized hundreds of thousands of people, neither the magnitude of its size nor its combativeness have enabled these multitudes to go beyond simple popular revolts. They have brought down presidents, but they have not been capable of conquering power in order to begin a process of deep social transformation.” — Marta Harnecker.

By Marta Harnecker
Translated by Federico Fuentes, via LINKS

This article seeks to reflect on the issues raised during the roundtable discussion, “State, revolution and the construction of hegemony”, that occurred at the VI International Forum on Philosophy, held between November 28 and December 2, 2011, in Maracaibo, Venezuela. Logically, here I once again repeat some ideas that I have expressed in other writings, but have ordered them differently, while further refining some of them. It was written in July 2012 and first published in English at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission. Now available HERE in a PDF file set up from printing as an 11 x 17 fold-over, doubled sided, collated booklet, in easy-to-read type. Click HERE for a straight-though 36-page PDF document.

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1. Our goal: a different socialism

1) A new socialism, far removed from the Soviet model

2) Returning to the original socialist ideas.

3) Participatory planning: a fundamental characteristic of socialism..

4) Socialism, direct democracy and delegated democracy.

a) Decentralization: essential for real participation.

b) Direct democracy and delegated democracy.

5) A new society that is not decreed from above.

2. Transition to socialism using the government as a lever

1) Neoliberalism bred 21st-century socialism in Latin America.

2) A dilemma: how to advance having only conquered governmental power

a) Using the inherited state to promote the creation of a new state built from below.

b) Transforming the armed forces.

c) A development model that respects nature.

d) Other challenges.

3) The need for a pedagogy of limitations.

3. Constructing a new hegemony.

1) Defining hegemony.

a) Bourgeoisie achieves popular approval for capitalist order

b) Bourgeois hegemony begins to break down.

2) The need for a political instrument and a new culture within the left

3) Political strategy for current situation: a broad front

a) Winning the hearts and minds of the immense majority

b) A new culture of the left

Our goal: a different socialism[1]

1) A new socialism, far removed from the soviet model

1. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Soviet Union, Latin American and world leftist intellectuals fell into a state of confusion. We knew more about what we didn’t want in socialism than what we did want. We rejected the lack of democracy, totalitarianism, state capitalism, bureaucratic central planning, collectivism that sought to standardize without respect for differences, productivism that emphasized the expansion of productive forces without taking into account the need to preserve nature, dogmatism, intolerance towards legitimate opposition, the attempt to impose atheism by persecuting believers, the need for a single party to lead the process of transition.

2. So, why talk about socialism at all, if that word carried and continues to carry such a heavy burden of negative connotations?

3. To answer this question, we need to consider some important issues. On the one hand, just as Soviet socialism was collapsing, democratic and participatory processes in local governments began to emerge in Latin America, foreshadowing the “kind of alternative to capitalism that people wanted to build.”[2] On the other, by demonstrating in practice that people could govern in a transparent, non-corrupt, democratic and participatory manner, the political conditions in several Latin American countries were thus prepared to make possible the coming to power of the left through democratic elections.

4. These beacons that began to radiate throughout our continent were aided by the resounding failure of neoliberalism during the 1980s and 1990s and, more recently, by the global crisis of capitalism. An alternative to capitalism is more necessary than ever. But what should it be called?

5. It was President Chávez who had the audacity to point to socialism as the alternative to capitalism He called it “21st-century socialism,” reclaiming the values associated with the word socialism: “love, solidarity, equality between men and women and equity among all,”[3] while added the adjective “21st century” to differentiate this new socialism from the errors and deviations present in the model of socialism that was implemented during the 20th century in the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries.

6. Aware of the negative connotation associated with this word, Chavez dedicated himself to explaining to his people, through numerous public speeches and interventions, all the benefits that this new society would bring with it, in contrast to the situation created by capitalism. His interventions have been so successful that, according to various polls, more than half of Venezuela’s population prefers socialism over capitalism.

7. However, it is worth remembering that 35 years earlier in Chile, the victory of President Salvador Allende in the early 1970s, with the support of the leftist Popular Unity coalition, marked the beginning of the world’s first experiment in a peaceful transition to socialism. Although it was defeated by a military coup three years later, the experience left us with some important lessons. If our generation learned anything from that defeat, it was that peaceful progress towards our goal required us to rethink the socialist project applied until then in the world, and that it was therefore necessary to develop a project that was more in tune with the reality of Chile and the peaceful path towards socialism. Allende’s folkloric expression, “socialism with red wine and empanadas,”[4] seemed to capture this idea, pointing towards the building of a democratic socialist society rooted in national popular traditions.[5] So I believe that the Chilean experience should be considered the first practical experience that attempted to move away from the Soviet model of socialism and towards what we now call 21st-century socialism. continue

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