Rethinking Political Parties

Mis en ligne le 21 février 2008

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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