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How do we get from here to there? Socialist strategy and political participation

Two men in a truck looking alternately puzzled and determinedIs there a clear path to a better world? All too often, the route is set from a single fork in the road; the old polemical division – reform or revolution. For those who emphasise immediate reforms, we go via policy, driven by a competent and committed party, skilled at crafting reforms and winning support for them. For revolutionaries, the vehicle is a movement powerful enough to overthrow capitalism and institute a new society in its place, accompanied by a party to guide them there. For this camp, reforms are, at best, waystones in the development of a revolutionary movement; at worst, dangerous diversions that instill a false faith in the malleability of capitalism.

A mid-way between the revolutionary and the reformist roads was hinted at by Alexis Tsipras, leader of Syriza, when he spoke of the two squares, ‘the one above’ and ‘the one below’. The one below is more politicised, more willing to imagine profound change, more willing to take radical action. But it is not enough. “Burnt out banks and burnt out small properties did not produce political results.” 1The movements from below can organise the people and articulate their grievances directly, but they require a party to occupy ‘the square above’ and enact the transformations they need, a gap that can otherwise readily be filled by opportunistic or populist groupings.

man runs after explosives truck, scene from the Wages of Fear

A political party can convert demands to reforms, so that the surges of struggle cannot be easily driven back. Equally, these reforms must not be confined to material improvements in conditions – a more progressive taxation regime, better public services, etc. The party must also focus on transferring power from the state and private sector to institutions of popular democracy; it must redistribute power, not just wealth.
By advancing participatory budgeting, the development of workers cooperatives, management of public housing by tenant cooperatives and so on, reforms can give people increased remit to run their lives and their society. With more such opportunities, people and movements will further develop their capacity for organisation and confidence in achieving change; they will ‘make the road by walking’.

Participation and Organisation

All of this begs the question – can ordinary people change the world? Can we recreate the sort of mass, participatory political organisations that have dwindled and declined in the developed world? The decline of such organisations provides the counterpoint to the rise of neoliberalism and the hollowing out of the welfare state. By now, they are sharply at odds with political practice, devoted as it is to intricate policy development by a narrow constituency of specialists.

educate, agitate, like!In her essay ‘Voice and Inequality’, Theda Skocpol tracks the decline of mass civic organisations in American politics and the dominance of more professional operations with a largely passive membership base2. The professionalisation of civil society was a response to the professionalisation of the State, as organisations seeking influence in government policy-making were forced to operate on a similar level of technical detail, leading to a more centralised, professional staff, while the rise of inequality made mass membership less important for funding. Campaigning organisations became less reliant on active engagement and more on passive support. The endless petitions of ‘clicktivism’ today are a perfect example of this trend; sign, share and shut the hell up. Cynicism and clientelism are two sides of the same coin; political enervation, caused by the foreclosure of meaningful involvement.

But this is not the way things have to be. The rise of technocracy is a shift in the orientation of organisations, not a change in the basic capacities of human beings. Examples from past and current practice, such as the dramatic successes of the American ‘organiser model’, show that when people are given a chance to take action, to organise themselves, their friends, colleagues and neighbours, they will take it. And they will be prepared to do it again, to be more ambitious in their targets; it’s not for nothing that organisers call their work ‘raising expectations’.3

In a mass party, this expansion of expectation can help to mitigate a drift towards ‘the art of the possible’; the higher the ambitions of the membership and supporters, the more pressure there will be on the ‘square above’ to deliver. A political project that places organising at its core promises a deeper transformation in the people it touches, to change their orientation to the social environment and bring them into lasting political involvement.

A party that emphasises organisation, campaigning and a participative membership will have other advantages. It can foster strong roots in society, to help it weather electoral storms, as it can continue to advance its vision out of power, offering more to the populace than promises for next time. The ‘square below’ can provide the energy and dynamism needed to drive a movement, to put pressure on the ‘square above’, but only in conjunction can they break down the division and bring power to the people.

  1. Interview with Alexis Tsipras, 30th of December, 2012, translated by Richard McAlevey, Irish Left Review.  
  2. ‘Voice and Inequality: The Transformation of American Civic Democracy’ by Theda Skocpol (PDF).  
  3. A good overview of this model in practice is offered in Raising Expectations (and raising Hell) by Jane McAlevey. See this interview.  
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About Dara McHugh

Dara is an amateur social critic and a professional pedant. He enjoys punctuation, science-fiction and beer.
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