Rethinking Political Parties

The membership and influence of political parties is declining throughout the western world, and most quickly in Britain. Hilary Wainwright examines the role of the party in transformative politics and asks how the left might reimagine this crucial instrument of political change.

By Hillary Wainright

The need for radical social change is pressing and the desire for it widespread. Traditionally, political parties have been the means of giving shape, leadership and coherence to such desires. But in present circumstances they are simply not up to the task. There’s never been a golden age for parties of the left but there have been periods – the 1920s up till the late 1960s – when the majority of people desiring change in a broadly socialist direction would be members or supporters of mass socialist or communist parties.

The situation now is that by far the majority of people actively pursuing goals of social justice, equality, deeper democracy, a social and environmentally sustainable economy and a demilitarised politics are politically active without being members of political parties. I am too.

Like many others, I’m not anti-party. If I lived in Italy, Norway or Germany, for instance, I’d probably join Rifondazione Comunista, the Socialist Left Party (SV) or Die Linke. But I would not see party activity – at any rate not in the forms that it conventionally takes – as my main focus.

Yet the sum of extra-party, movement-oriented activity does not somehow add up to political change, even if it were more adequately co-ordinated. We cannot point to ‘social movements’ to get us out of a tight spot. It should be clear by now that movements come and go and cannot be evoked as some self-evident answer to the problem of creating effective agencies of social change.

At their most effective, progressive social movements radicalise public consciousness. Generally, however, they are unable to give these shifts in consciousness a wider political coherence. This means that the desire for change that such movements stimulate can be politically ambivalent, tapped by the right if these hopes don’t get political expression and coherent alternatives from the left.

Perhaps we need to experiment with hybrid forms of ‘movement party’ organisation, especially in a context in which the nation state, the traditional focus of political parties, can only be one of many focuses of political struggle. It is clear from experience, however, that so-called movement parties provide no simple answer. We’ve watched in dismay the movement dynamic behind parties such as the German Greens, and more significantly the Brazilian Workers Party nationally, being subordinated to the conservative pressures of conventional electoral politics, state institutions and the financial markets.

The unconscious foundations of political behaviour

This frustration prompts me to stand back and investigate some of the basic concepts involved in our thinking about change. Consider, for example, concepts of knowledge and its social organisation, of power and its plural sources, of representation and alternative models and, more fundamentally, of agency – how do we now interpret for our own times Marx’s famous remark about men making history but not in conditions of their own choosing?

Just as the unconscious mind can determine a person’s behaviour, so with institutions: their behaviour can be shaped by unacknowledged assumptions rooted in their history. And just as individuals wanting to break from damaging patterns of behaviour try to subject those unconscious processes to critical analysis, so with organisations: the capacity consciously to innovate requires the identification of assumptions that underlie habitual political responses and their subjection to conscious debate.

Take three examples that have driven me to try to unearth assumptions underlying political behaviour.

First, there is the inability at many levels of the Labour Party (and not just among privatising evangelists) to recognise that public service workers and users could be driving forces for genuinely radical changes to our public services. I’ve often found that underlying this blindness are unexamined assumptions about the nature of knowledge that are in essence highly restrictive, elitist and mechanical.

The second example comes from the radical left. Consider the recurrent failure of what could be positive attempts by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) to initiate a broadly based political alternative to New Labour – first with the Socialist Alliance and then Respect. A fatal factor here is the SWP’s implicit concept of leadership and power, which seems blind – wilfully or otherwise – to the existence, relevance and potential power of a wide diversity of initiatives and traditions with common or overlapping political values, but autonomous from the SWP.

A third example has been part of my own unconscious in the past: an equation of ‘parliamentary socialism’ – the tragic fate of socialism in the Labour Party – and electoral politics. Here our unconscious has been influenced by an electoral system that has all but excluded the radical left and the Greens from political representation. The result has been very superficial thinking about what representation is for and a tendency to engage in electoral politics either with gritted teeth as something to be done every so often to gain a propaganda platform, or to be completely intoxicated by the experience of engagement with the public after years in the political ghetto, and to lose one’s critical faculties. Both responses have lost all historical sense of the struggles for the franchise and the possibilities for building on these victories with a new model of representation, opening up state institutions to the pressures of movements and conflicts outside the political class.

To begin such a tentative exploration of the political unconscious I draw on what I have learnt from the theory and practice of social and trade union movements over the past 30 years. I should explain at the outset my use of the concept of ‘transformation’ as it has only recently become part of English political debate. It is useful because it refers to forms of change that transform the basic structure of society or the institution under discussion; it also leaves open the means of change, avoiding the problems of the polarisation between reform and revolution.

Rethinking power

The political thinking influenced by grass-roots movements distinguishes between two radically distinct meanings of power: power as transformative capacity and power as domination, as involving an asymmetry between those with power and those over whom power is exercised.

Historically the major parties of the left have tended to be built around a benevolent version of the second understanding of power: that is, around winning the power to govern and using it paternalistically to meet the needs of the people. This has shaped the nature of politics, concentrating it around legislation and state action. It has underpinned the position and self-conception of the political party as having a monopoly over political change. This in turn has meant that parties have tended to see the political role of movements as subordinate – a matter of lobbying, support and mobilising pressure behind legislative, parliamentary action spearheaded by the party.

The assertion of power as transformative capacity, first by the student, feminist, radical trade union and community movements of the late 1960-70s, and more recently by the global justice movement, broke with this narrow definition of politics. It led to a far wider understanding of the scope of politics, that is of efforts to end injustice and to realise the dignity and potential of all; a scope way beyond the traditional focus on state, government and legislation, pervading all the relationships and institutions of our daily lives. The other side of this opening and deepening of the definition of politics has been an effective challenge to the party’s monopoly of the leadership of social change.

This understanding of power as transformative capacity is related to a distinct understanding of social change, implicit in the practice of the movements. Crucial here is the way that we started from our own circumstances and took personal responsibility for change by refusing to reproduce relations of oppression and exploitation – in our own lives and in our implicit complicity with it elsewhere, especially in the global South – and by struggling to create spaces for transformation and to at least illustrate alternative values.

This understanding was evident vividly in the women’s liberation movement, which directed its energies towards mobilising whatever resources it could to bring about change in the present, both in personal relationships and, closely connected, in the social and cultural environment that had reinforced women’s subordination. It made demands on the state for support but on the basis of its own alternatives and self-organisation. Similarly in the workplace, for a brief but inspirational period in the 1970s, the shopfloor organisations that had developed since the 1950s became the basis for real shifts in the balance of power in the management of factories and for alternative plans for industrial policy and reorganisation.

I’ve highlighted the radical dynamic of this approach to power. It can also stop at the level of personal change without making the wider connections that require a collective exercise of transformative power. This is clearly a central issue in addressing the causes of climate change.

As we know, the Labour Party did not take up these opportunities for radical social change at a national level. Local attempts to experiment with this new politics in the 1980s, most notably with the Greater London Council, were also swept aside. But this was not simply a matter of political ill will or reasoned disagreement; it was the result of a complete incomprehension of a fundamentally different understanding of politics. The assumption that underpinned traditional parties of the left was that the state, government or party – the social subject – acted on the rest of society – the social object. This traditional but still influential model took insufficient account of the way in which change is coming from within society, the way in which those who were previously considered the objects of change are themselves actors for change, including self-change.

Structure and agency

I emphasise this because it is this political philosophy that underlies the inability of social democratic parties – and the Euro-communist parties, which essentially adopted their methods – to follow through whatever reforms they made in the early post-war period and turn them into a dynamic of social transformation. And the legacy of this traditional and flawed understanding of politics lingers on in the parties of the green and radical left.

A useful framework for deepening our critique and highlighting the importance of the new methodologies implicit in many of the social movements of recent years is provided by critical realism. This is a philosophical school that was itself a product of the political and cultural struggles of the 1960s and 1970s and provides a necessary alternative to both the limitations of structuralism and the dead ends of postmodernism.

The critical realist Roy Bhaskar makes a useful distinction between four planes of social being: human interaction with nature; enduring social structures; social interaction and relationships between individuals; and the complexity of the personality. The dominant and governing traditions of socialism have focused on issues of social structure, often to the exclusion of the other three. Particularly relevant to the argument of this essay is their conflation of interaction and relationship between individuals with structure (there is not space here to deal with the political implications of the other two levels).

The traditions of socialism that have been the basis for powerful political parties have tended to treat human beings as the product of social structures to an extent that left little room for the potentialities – and pitfalls – of human agency. It was as if the complex and dynamic character of Marx’s thesis that we make our own history but not under conditions of our own choosing had been forgotten. The tendency was to assume that structural change – nationalisation of the leading companies, setting up the NHS and so on – was not only necessary but sufficient to bring about social transformation. This also meant treating structures as rigid constraints on what was possible and produced a conservatism that has become overwhelming in the face of corporate globalisation.

But if we distinguish between social structures and relations between individuals, we create a space for agency and the nature of constraints becomes more complex and more historically variable. At any moment in time, structures pre-exist individuals. They create constraints on our capacity for action. They also provide the means, the conditions, of our agency. We cannot act without them. On the other hand, structures cannot endure without the actions of the human beings who use them.

Thus, although we do not at any one time produce structures, we continually face choices about whether to reproduce or to transform them. In other words we can’t wake up in the morning and decide exactly what to do or what kind of society to create. But neither are we without the capacity to act as knowing subjects able to act on and alter the structures of which we are part. Dominant socialist traditions have tended to elide structure and agency; indeed one reason for the feeble acquiescence of social democratic parties historically to the hostile pressure from both state and big business has been the fact that they never saw their members and supporters as knowing, creative agents of change with society, only as voters and supporters.

Changed understandings of knowledge

Closely associated with an understanding of transformative power are the distinctive understandings of knowledge influenced by movement-based politics. In good part as a result of this politics and – not unrelated – developments in the philosophy of science, we are increasingly aware of the plural sources of knowledge: as tacit, practical and experiential as well as scientific. We are working increasingly with complexity, ambivalence and uncertainty.

This does not imply a postmodern, relativistic notion that anything goes, that there are no independent grounds for judging arguments. On the contrary, it implies that supposedly ‘postmodern’ concepts like ‘deconstruction’ and a recognition of the many perspectives from which a single phenomenon can be understood must be reclaimed as tools for analysing and changing a complex real world.

These new understandings of knowledge point towards an emphasis on the horizontal sharing and exchange of knowledge and collaborative attempts to build connected alternatives and shared memories. They stress the gaining of knowledge as a process of discovery and therefore see political action, the exercise of transformative power, as itself a source of knowledge, revealing unpredicted problems or opportunities. This implies a self-consciousness of the sense in which actions are also experiments and therefore the need for spaces and times for open reflection on, argument over and synthesis of different experiences.

This recognition of the importance of experiential and practical knowledge deepens the nature of debate. It implies debate driven not so much by the struggle for positions of power as by a search for truth about the complexity of social change, a production of collaborative knowledge that itself becomes a source of power.

The Social Forum process internationally is perhaps the most important and appropriately transnational experiment so far in finding ways of sharing ideas rooted in both experience and different political traditions. Like any experiment it is messy and uneven but contains crucial lessons from which any rethinking of the party and the development of political programmes must learn.

New models of political representation: Latin America

Where do these notes on rethinking power, knowledge, agency and structure lead in terms of rethinking political parties? Here all that I can do is to note some pointers and ask some questions.

A first implication of the analysis of power as transformative capacity is that action in and around political institutions is but one – albeit crucial – sphere of action and struggle for fundamental change. But are there any implications for the direction and content of such action?

In general terms one can say that the goal must move from winning the power to govern for the people paternalistically to being a struggle in collaboration with organised citizens to change political institutions from sources of domination to resources for transformation. What does this mean in practice?

It is an approach best illustrated by experiments in Latin America: Workers Party-controlled local authorities in Brazil, the MAS government in Bolivia and the Bolivarian process in Venezuela, where parties (or, in the latter case, a leader) winning elections have then used their democratic legitimacy to attempt to reach out beyond parliamentary institutions and strengthen popular control over the state institutions, trying to turn them into public resources for change controlled by a combination of participatory democracy and elected politicians.

These experiences are answering the question of what political representation is for with a new model of representation. This is one that, after the struggles against dictatorship or extreme forms of corruption and oligarchic rule, takes elections and representative democracy seriously, not as a sufficient definition of democracy but rather as one part of a strategy for more radical democratic – including economic – transformation.

A key element in making this possible has been the existence in most parts of Latin America of strong and for the most part highly politically conscious forms of popular democracy or non-state sources of democratic power – in neighbourhood organisations, movements of the landless and indigenous people, and radical trade union organisations. (This is one reason why the commercial media have much less effective political influence in these countries than in the global North, in spite of their best and most insidious efforts to influence hearts and minds.)

In these circumstances the distinctive contribution of radical left political parties, at their most innovative, has been to open up the institutions, to redistribute power, to facilitate a sharing of power with organised citizens, and to stimulate and support new institutions of public participation in control over state power. They have sought to straddle the political institutions on the one hand and the conflicts and emergent sources of power in society on the other. The logic is to work both in and against the institutions and with autonomous movements and social conflicts to open up and democratise the institutions. Encouraging non-state sources of democratic power has been a necessary part of this process.

Non-state sources of democratic power

This idea of non-state sources of democratic power is crucial to rethinking the party. The key point is this: while radical mass movements, from those of the 1970s to the recent anti-war movement, have not been sustained, there is widespread evidence of efforts to create lasting sources of democratic power autonomous from the state – movements with sustained institutions that have a democratic legitimacy in the face of discredited established political institutions.

Again, some of the most developed examples are from Latin America, such as the landless movement (MST) in Brazil. Other examples include transnational networks like the ‘Hemispheric Social Alliance’ that provide a force for accountability on global institutions and corporations that have escaped the conventional mechanisms of parliamentary accountability.

These organisations are more than ephemeral campaigns. They are trying to create different kinds of relationships here and now, based on principles of participatory democracy, and at the same time building democratic power to challenge and transform institutions driven by private profit or bureaucratic self-interest.

We have to ponder critically how relevant the Latin American experience is for Europe. One problem we face in the North is the way parliamentary democracy and a symbiotically related media has developed an immense capacity simultaneously to incorporate and marginalise all such extra-parliamentary efforts at radical democracy. But as national and local state institutions lose their legitimacy, some are breaking through. The strengthening of these grassroots-based forms of democratic power, including their connection and exchange of ideas and organisational lessons with each other, is essential to the idea of a new, transformative model of political representation along the lines exemplified in Latin America. This political organising at the base is a priority on which many of us could agree whether we are members of a party or not.

Another lesson we can learn from a critical understanding of Latin American experiences – and some European ones too – is how electoral activity can be an extension of movement politics. It faces all kinds of pitfalls but also imposes disciplines and provides the stimuli of translating transformative politics into practical and widely accessible alternatives. The conditions may not be of our choosing but through a collaborative and engaged rethinking, inspired by a wide range of historical and present day experiences, we can indeed still make history.

Hilary Wainwright’s essay was first presented at a Transform! Italia seminar in Rome

Source : Transnational Institute – 11 février 2008

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