Rethinking Political Power and Revolutionary Strategy Today

greek-protests1
Stand­off with the Police, Greece, 2011

We asked sev­er­al con­trib­u­tors to write on the the­me of the state and rev­o­lu­tion­ary strat­e­gy, for a round­table dis­cus­sion revolv­ing around the fol­low­ing prompt:

“In the late 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­turies the social­ist move­ment spilled a great deal of ink debat­ing the ques­tion of state pow­er. Lenin’s work was per­haps the most influ­en­tial, but it also pro­voked a wide range of crit­i­cal respons­es, which were arguably equal­ly sig­nif­i­cant. But whether or not Lenin’s con­cep­tion of the cor­rect rev­o­lu­tion­ary stance towards the state was ade­quate to his own par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture, it is clear that today the real­i­ty of state pow­er itself has changed. What is liv­ing and what is dead in this the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal lega­cy? What would a prop­er­ly rev­o­lu­tion­ary stance towards state pow­er look like today, and what would be the con­crete con­se­quences of this stance for a polit­i­cal strat­e­gy? Does the ‘seizure of state pow­er’ still have any mean­ing? Does the par­ty still have a place in the­se broad­er ques­tions?”

This essay is one con­tri­bu­tion to the round­table. Please be sure to read the oth­ers: Geoff Eley, Joshua Clover and Jasper Bernes, Jodi Dean, Nina Pow­er, Immanuel Ness.


The ques­tion of polit­i­cal pow­er has returned to the fore­front of polit­i­cal and the­o­ret­i­cal dis­cus­sion. This is not a coin­ci­dence. The acute eco­nom­ic cri­sis, its seri­ous social con­se­quences, the open polit­i­cal cri­sis in cer­tain social for­ma­tions, and the very sight of the over­throw of gov­ern­ments and regimes under the force of polit­i­cal mobi­liza­tion – despite, in the case of the Arab Spring, the trag­ic end of such process­es – mean that such ques­tions are again urgent.

This devel­op­ment comes after a long peri­od of retreat, dur­ing which it was more than obvi­ous that the forces of cap­i­tal had the ini­tia­tive and were hege­mon­ic, even in the form of the neolib­er­al “pas­sive rev­o­lu­tion.”1 Dur­ing that peri­od, from the end of the 1970s to the end of the 2000s, social move­ments and the rad­i­cal Left refrained from con­fronting the ques­tion of polit­i­cal pow­er. It was as if the polit­i­cal lim­it of rad­i­cal or eman­ci­pa­to­ry pol­i­tics was a pol­i­tics “at a dis­tance from the State” to bor­row Alain Badiou’s expres­sion, name­ly a pol­i­tics of move­ments from below, of putting pres­sure upon the state, of resist­ing cap­i­tal­ist recon­struc­tion, of open­ing cracks, of giv­ing face and voice to the exclud­ed, but not of aspir­ing to achieve hege­mony, seize polit­i­cal pow­er and ini­ti­ate process­es of social trans­for­ma­tion. In a cer­tain way, this was exem­pli­fied in the whole con­cep­tion of “chang­ing the world with­out tak­ing pow­er.”2 How­ev­er, the very mate­ri­al­i­ty of polit­i­cal pow­er is still with us; it presents an unavoid­able ter­rain of social antag­o­nism, and at the same time an unavoid­able ques­tion.

The very evo­lu­tion of the con­tem­po­rary forms of protest and con­tes­ta­tion — and the fact that in most cas­es, with the excep­tion per­haps of Greece, despite the dynam­ics from below, polit­i­cal devel­op­ments from above have remained with­in the con­tours of a pre­ex­ist­ing polit­i­cal con­fig­u­ra­tion and in most cas­es have had a more reac­tionary trans­for­ma­tion — means that the ques­tion of polit­i­cal pow­er and state pow­er remains a nodal point. I men­tion Greece as a poten­tial excep­tion, because of the elec­toral rise of the Left as a polit­i­cal trans­la­tion of the dynam­ics of the move­ment. In this sense, the ques­tion that unavoid­ably emerges is the fol­low­ing: is it pos­si­ble to have a process of social trans­for­ma­tion that could move beyond the lim­i­ta­tions imposed by cap­i­tal­ist social rela­tions and forms, with­out deal­ing with the ques­tion of what social class­es retain polit­i­cal – and state – pow­er?

How­ev­er, this brings for­ward anoth­er impor­tant ques­tion: what is the rela­tion between social and polit­i­cal pow­er, between social and polit­i­cal rela­tions, forms and antag­o­nisms, and how are what we tend to define as class rule or class pow­er estab­lished, secured, and repro­duced?

It is inter­est­ing here to note that there have been impor­tant devel­op­ments in our under­stand­ing of social and polit­i­cal pow­er.

  1. In con­trast to a tra­di­tion­al view of the econ­o­my as a neu­tral pro­duc­tive process whose exploita­tive class char­ac­ter is deter­mined main­ly by legal rela­tions of own­er­ship guar­an­teed by polit­i­cal rela­tions of force, we now have a more com­plex appre­hen­sion of the impor­tance of social rela­tions of pro­duc­tion, as com­plex and overde­ter­mined social, polit­i­cal, and ide­o­log­i­cal pow­er rela­tions with­in pro­duc­tion, and, at the same time, as social and polit­i­cal matri­ces for cap­i­tal­ist social forms. In this sense, we now have a much more com­plex con­cep­tion of the ground­ing of polit­i­cal pow­er upon social rela­tions and forms. This has been the main point of most rad­i­cal cur­rents with­in Marx­ism from the 1960s onwards that insist­ed upon the pri­ma­cy of the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion and the cen­tral­i­ty of class antag­o­nism, from the work of Althusser3 to the sem­i­nal research­es of Bet­tel­heim on the class nature of the USSR,4 through Ital­ian operais­mo5 and oth­er Marx­ist cur­rents.
  1. In con­trast to a neg­a­tive con­cep­tion of polit­i­cal pow­er as coer­cion and repres­sion, Foucault’s work has helped us real­ize the “pro­duc­tive” aspects of the dis­ci­pli­nary or biopo­lit­i­cal func­tions of the mod­ern cap­i­tal­ist state, and offers impor­tant insights into the social and his­tor­i­cal process­es that sub­sume pop­u­la­tion under the norms of cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion and cre­ate “pro­duc­tive” sub­jects.6
  1. At the same time, ever since the rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ments in the wake of the Octo­ber Rev­o­lu­tion were con­front­ed with the very com­plex­i­ty of pow­er and hege­mony in advanced cap­i­tal­ist social for­ma­tions, we know that we can treat nei­ther pol­i­tics (and polit­i­cal appa­ra­tus­es and insti­tu­tions) nor ide­ol­o­gy (and ide­o­log­i­cal appa­ra­tus­es) as mere epiphe­nom­e­na of the econ­o­my or as sim­ple instru­ments in the hand of the rul­ing class. In con­trast, Gramsci’s the­o­ry of hege­mony and of the inte­gral state offers an abil­i­ty to appre­hend the expan­sive forms of the cap­i­tal­ist state and the com­plex inter­play of the dis­posi­tifs of the hege­mon­ic appa­ra­tus­es.7
  1. In con­trast to any instru­men­tal­ist con­cep­tion of the state, we know from the work of Poulantzas that it is much more pro­duc­tive the­o­ret­i­cal­ly and polit­i­cal­ly to think of the state as a mate­ri­al con­den­sa­tion of social rela­tions of force, as a ter­rain of strug­gles tra­versed by social antag­o­nism.8

At the same time, we live in a peri­od of expan­sion of state repres­sive appa­ra­tus­es, new tech­nolo­gies of sur­veil­lance, and new tech­nolo­gies of killing and repress­ing. In this sense, con­tem­po­rary state vio­lence is both a deter­min­ing and overde­ter­min­ing fac­tor in social and polit­i­cal antag­o­nism, exem­pli­fied in the var­i­ous forms of exces­sive pre­emp­tive and asym­met­ri­cal vio­lence by the dom­i­nant forces. We are liv­ing in a peri­od that is marked by the real­iza­tion of both how many aspects of the work­ing of the state do not have to do with vio­lence, and by the con­fronta­tion of the extreme vio­lence of con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ist states.

In this sense, it is inter­est­ing to go back to the clas­si­cal def­i­n­i­tion of smash­ing the state. We should remem­ber that it was not an easy con­cep­tion to for­mu­late. On the one hand, it referred to the actu­al need to cap­ture polit­i­cal and state pow­er and use state coer­cion in order to expro­pri­ate the cap­i­tal­ists of their own­er­ship of means of pro­duc­tion, to impose mea­sures of social equal­i­ty and pub­lic pro­vi­sion of ser­vices and to ini­ti­ate a process of social trans­for­ma­tion.

Of course, in the begin­ning, this can­not be effect­ed except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of prop­er­ty, and on the con­di­tions of bour­geois pro­duc­tion; by means of mea­sures, there­fore, which appear eco­nom­i­cal­ly insuf­fi­cient and unten­able, but which, in the course of the move­ment, out­strip them­selves, neces­si­tate fur­ther inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoid­able as a means of entire­ly rev­o­lu­tion­is­ing the mode of pro­duc­tion.9

At the same time, this use of state coer­cion was just the begin­ning of a broad­er process of social trans­for­ma­tion that would lead to a soci­ety of full equal­i­ty, with­out any form of exploita­tion and coer­cion, a state­less and class­less soci­ety. This is the main point of the Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo, but also of most of Marx’s inter­ven­tions.

When, in the course of devel­op­ment, class dis­tinc­tions have dis­ap­peared, and all pro­duc­tion has been con­cen­trat­ed in the hands of a vast asso­ci­a­tion of the whole nation, the pub­lic pow­er will lose its polit­i­cal char­ac­ter. Polit­i­cal pow­er, prop­er­ly so called, is mere­ly the organ­ised pow­er of one class for oppress­ing anoth­er. If the pro­le­tari­at dur­ing its con­test with the bour­geoisie is com­pelled, by the force of cir­cum­stances, to organ­ise itself as a class, if, by means of a rev­o­lu­tion, it makes itself the rul­ing class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old con­di­tions of pro­duc­tion, then it will, along with the­se con­di­tions, have swept away the con­di­tions for the exis­tence of class antag­o­nisms and of class­es gen­er­al­ly, and will there­by have abol­ished its own suprema­cy as a class.

In place of the old bour­geois soci­ety, with its class­es and class antag­o­nisms, we shall have an asso­ci­a­tion, in which the free devel­op­ment of each is the con­di­tion for the free devel­op­ment of all.10

As such, this rep­re­sents a deci­sive break with a locus com­mu­nis of the polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy of moder­ni­ty, name­ly the posi­tion that the guar­an­tor of the just and free soci­ety is the state. In con­trast, in Marx’s inter­ven­tion we have the insis­tence that the state is the prob­lem. At the same it attempts to strike a del­i­cate bal­ance between two con­flict­ing posi­tions: on the one hand, the utopi­an insis­tence on an exo­dus from the state, exem­pli­fied in the projects of build­ing social­ist com­mu­ni­ties “out­side” exist­ing insti­tu­tions, and the anar­chist insis­tence on an “instan­ta­neous” abo­li­tion of prop­er­ty, exploita­tion, and any form of state orga­ni­za­tion; on the oth­er hand, the “reformist,” sta­tist view of the state as an instru­ment of social ratio­nal­iza­tion and enhancer of jus­tice, exem­pli­fied in nine­teen­th-cen­tu­ry Ger­many in the per­son­al­i­ty of Las­salle. This bal­ance was not easy to achieve, and Bal­ibar has com­ment­ed on Marx and Engels’s inabil­i­ty to write an Anti-Bakun­in or Anti-Las­salle.

In my opin­ion, one does not won­der enough about the fact that such inde­fati­ga­ble polemi­cists such as Marx and his faith­ful assis­tant Engels turned out to be inca­pable of writ­ing an “Anti-Las­salle” or an “Anti-Bakun­in” which would have been prac­ti­cal­ly much more impor­tant than an Anti-Dühring or even than the reis­sue of an Anti-Proud­hon … What is Marx’s respon­se when Bakun­in sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly asso­ciates the total­i­ty of Marx’s “sci­en­tific social­ism” with Lassalle’s “state social­ism”? He has no oth­er recourse than to reaf­firm the mean­ing of the Man­i­festo’s demo­c­ra­t­ic pro­gram, which, as a mat­ter of fact, had allowed Las­salle to pro­claim him­self in its favor. Con­verse­ly, Marx also pro­claimed him­self, as again­st Bakun­in, in favor of “real anar­chism,” which he sup­pos­ed­ly dis­cov­ered and defend­ed “long before him.” The high point of this “respon­se” con­sists in the affir­ma­tion that Marx­ism and Bakunin’s anar­chism are the oppo­site of each oth­er, which ends up admit­ting an enor­mous con­ces­sion that they are con­sti­tut­ed from the same terms.11

More­over, again as Bal­ibar has stressed, after the expe­ri­ence of the Paris Com­mune Marx felt com­pelled to “rec­ti­fy” the Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo12 by insist­ing that the state appa­ra­tus could not be used as it is after the rev­o­lu­tion. This implies that the process of trans­for­ma­tion, of rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing, of “with­er­ing away” of the state starts at the begin­ning and there can no sim­ple “use” of actu­al­ly exist­ing appa­ra­tus­es, since the dom­i­nant social rela­tions are inscribed in the very mate­ri­al­i­ty of the state appa­ra­tus under cap­i­tal­ism. Bal­ibar sum­ma­rizes this point in the fol­low­ing man­ner:

The fact that is revealed here we can express in the fol­low­ing way: the exploit­ing class­es and the exploit­ed class that, for the first time in his­to­ry and because of its place with­in pro­duc­tion, is in posi­tion to take pow­er for itself, can­not exer­cise their pow­er (and even their absolute pow­er: their “dic­ta­tor­ship”) with the same means and thus in the same form. They can­not not in the sense of a moral impos­si­bil­i­ty, but of a mate­ri­al impos­si­bil­i­ty: the machine of the state does not func­tion “on behalf” of the work­ing class; either it does not func­tion at all, or it func­tions but on behalf of some­one else, that can be no oth­er than the class adver­sary. It is impos­si­ble for the pro­le­tari­at to con­quer, then keep and use polit­i­cal pow­er by using an instru­ment anal­o­gous at that which served the dom­i­nant class­es, or it will lose it nec­es­sar­i­ly, under one form or the oth­er, “vio­lent” of “peace­ful.”13

The ques­tion of the mate­ri­al­i­ty of the state and its effi­ca­cy came into promi­nence after the first wave of rev­o­lu­tion­ary strug­gles in two cru­cial ways. On the one hand, it was the ques­tion of the com­plex­i­ty of the state in “west­ern for­ma­tions,” exem­pli­fied in the “defeat of the rev­o­lu­tion in the West” and the work of Gram­sci. The oth­er aspect of course was the evo­lu­tion of Sovi­et Union, where, in the name of social­ist con­struc­tion, not only did the state con­tin­ue to expand but in the end an impres­sive coer­cive appa­ra­tus was deployed along with a pater­nal­is­tic ver­sion of a “social wel­fare state.” More­over, the trade­mark of com­mu­nist reformism, but also of post-WWII social democ­ra­cy, was to view the state as a neu­tral and even pos­i­tive appa­ra­tus that not only rep­re­sent­ed the pos­si­bil­i­ty for redis­trib­u­tive pol­i­tics, but could also be con­sid­ered an antecham­ber of social­ism (along with the “pro­gres­sive” devel­op­ment of the pro­duc­tive forces).14

In a curi­ous twist of his­to­ry, it was the neolib­er­al coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion with its anti-state rhetoric, evi­dent even today in the almost para­noid char­ac­ter of the Tea Party’s tirades again­st Oba­macare, that led to anoth­er wave of “ide­al­iza­tion” of the state on the part of many mil­i­tants. I am not deny­ing, of course, that the defense of wel­fare, pub­lic ser­vices, and the redis­trib­u­tive inter­ven­tion of the state is pos­i­tive, nor do I deny the urgen­cy of the­se tasks. What I am try­ing to high­light is how all the­se have led to cer­tain retreat of the cri­tique of the state as an inte­gral part of left-wing or com­mu­nist pol­i­tics.

In this sense, we need a new cri­tique of the state and a full appre­hen­sion of the extent of its work­ings. To this end, as we have already stressed, both Anto­nio Gramsci’s con­cep­tion of the “inte­gral state” and his elab­o­ra­tion of the mech­a­nisms of hege­mony, and Michel Foucault’s analy­sis of biopol­i­tics can be of use. They can help us real­ize the strate­gic, rela­tion­al, and in no sense neu­tral char­ac­ter of the state. But what about the “pos­i­tive” aspects of the state that are now under attack by neolib­er­al fun­da­men­tal­ists? Here a more Poulantzian approach is nec­es­sary: if the state rep­re­sents the mate­ri­al con­den­sa­tion of a bal­ance of class forces, then the pos­i­tive aspects of the cap­i­tal­ist state cease to be expres­sions of polit­i­cal and social ratio­nal­i­ty and instead appear as what they are: the uneven and ever-threat­ened expres­sions of the pres­ence of work­ing-class and pop­u­lar strug­gles and demands with­in the state.

How­ev­er, at the same time we must stress that this does not mean that we can have a process of self-trans­for­ma­tion of the state “from with­in,” based upon the mere effi­ca­cy of pop­u­lar strug­gles. There is always going to be an aspect “in dom­i­nance,” and this is the role of the state in the repro­duc­tion of the dom­i­nant social rela­tions of exploita­tion and class dom­i­na­tion, and in enhanc­ing cap­i­tal­ist strate­gies of accu­mu­la­tion. More­over, even main­tain­ing the­se pos­i­tive aspects (such as the pub­lic pro­vi­sion of basic goods and ser­vices), is far from cer­tain if we take into con­sid­er­a­tion the wide­spread use of man­age­ment tech­niques com­ing from the pri­vate sec­tor and indus­try, and the con­stant pres­sure of pri­va­ti­za­tion.

There­fore, what is need­ed is not just to strug­gle so that hos­pi­tals and schools remain a respon­si­bil­i­ty of the state, but also to strug­gle to trans­form them. How can we make them account­able to actu­al human needs, and not the tar­gets set by the gov­ern­ment? What forms of democ­ra­cy with­in the work­place must be intro­duced, forms of democ­ra­cy that should not lim­it them­selves only to the employ­ees in a par­tic­u­lar branch but also the “users” of the­se ser­vices, in an attempt towards self-man­age­ment and actu­al col­lec­tive deci­sion process­es? The­se are impor­tant and urgent ques­tions of a direct­ly polit­i­cal nature, which can­not be answered only in the­o­ret­i­cal terms but also through actu­al exper­i­men­ta­tion with­in par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal and polit­i­cal con­texts.

At the same time, the prob­lem of the repres­sive appa­ra­tus­es of the state remains impor­tant. They are the last line of defense again­st any poten­tial process of social trans­for­ma­tion, and we must expect them to act this way. Reduc­ing their size, smash­ing all par­al­lel struc­tures, and doing away both with the chain of com­mand and their immense mate­ri­al means, impos­ing forms of demo­c­ra­t­ic social con­trol at all lev­els, can be steps in this direc­tion.

All the­se are not just the­o­ret­i­cal ques­tions. One of the most inter­est­ing aspects of con­tem­po­rary devel­op­ments and the com­bi­na­tion between eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal cri­sis is that the ques­tion of a gov­ern­men­tal pow­er is again a pos­si­bil­i­ty as a lim­it case, in “weak links of the chain” such as Greece, where there has been an impres­sive elec­toral shift towards the Left.15 Whether this can indeed be part of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary sequence depends, to a great extent, upon how to deal with the ques­tion of the state. The rea­son is that unless there is a process of actu­al trans­for­ma­tion and, in the last instance, of rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing the state, in the end the polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic strate­gies already inscribed in the state will pre­vail. This has to do not only with the men­tal­i­ties of civil ser­vants, but also with the mate­ri­al process­es with­in state appa­ra­tus­es, their degree of trans­paren­cy but also mys­ti­fi­ca­tion, and the knowl­edge process­es involved.

But what does it mean today to smash the state? Does this mean the abo­li­tion “by decree” of state bureau­cra­cy, spe­cial­ized coer­cive appa­ra­tus­es, the judi­cia­ry? And what will they be replaced by? Rev­o­lu­tion­ary mili­ti­as, people’s courts and ad hoc col­lec­tive deci­sions? In a strange dialec­tic, the answer is yes and no. On the one hand, one could imag­ine that for a whole peri­od some form of pub­lic author­i­ty will remain in place, but it will be “of a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent type.” This will also include insti­tu­tions guar­an­tee­ing full polit­i­cal rights and a pro­tec­tion again­st arbi­trary deci­sions. At the same time, forms of a “peo­ple in arms” should be put in place in order to imple­ment de fac­to demo­c­ra­t­ic social con­trol of coer­cive appa­ra­tus­es, and the same goes for the com­bi­na­tion between pro­gres­sive legal reform, greater empha­sis on par­tic­i­pa­tion in the exe­cu­tion of jus­tice, and a new con­cep­tion of legal­i­ty based not only upon abstract and uni­ver­sal rules, but also upon the con­crete analy­sis of each case in its pecu­liar­i­ties (a prac­tice com­mon to all forms of pop­u­lar jus­tice asso­ci­at­ed with major pop­u­lar move­ments).

Here anoth­er point must be made. It is an open ques­tion whether in advanced cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties with their extend­ed eco­nom­ic, polit­i­cal, and ide­o­log­i­cal state appa­ra­tus­es (or “hege­mon­ic appa­ra­tus­es” of the “inte­gral state”), a “clas­si­cal” insur­rec­tionary open­ing of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary sequence, in the form of an “organ­ic cri­sis” of the state is pos­si­ble, or whether a “demo­c­ra­t­ic road” is pos­si­ble, in the form of hege­mon­ic cri­sis lead­ing to sharp changes in elec­toral rep­re­sen­ta­tion and the achieve­ment of gov­ern­men­tal pow­er, as the expe­ri­ence of Bolivia or Venezue­la and the elec­toral dynam­ics in Greece seem to sug­gest.

How­ev­er, this would be an under­es­ti­ma­tion of the poten­tial of bour­geois coun­ter­at­tack, of seg­ments of the state appa­ra­tus that defend the pre­vi­ous social “sta­tus quo” and of course of impe­ri­al­ist forces that might want to under­mine, sab­o­tage, or even open­ly oppose any process of social trans­for­ma­tion. In this sense, even though the begin­ning of the process can be demo­c­ra­t­ic, its evo­lu­tion will not nec­es­sar­i­ly be “peace­ful” and this must be an aspect that no one inter­est­ed in com­mu­nist pol­i­tics should under­es­ti­mate. In this sense, the ques­tion of pop­u­lar vio­lence, as a demo­c­ra­t­ic, polit­i­cal, non-ide­al­ized, non-instru­men­tal, form of vio­lence, remains an inte­gral aspect of rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics. It is exact­ly the chal­lenge of what Georges Lab­i­ca described as the “impos­si­bil­i­ty of non-vio­lence.”16

This requires a deep­en­ing of and exper­i­men­ta­tion with extend­ed demo­c­ra­t­ic prac­tices. This is in sharp con­trast to the sus­pi­cion of open demo­c­ra­t­ic prac­tices that plagued the his­tor­i­cal com­mu­nist move­ment. Democ­ra­cy means con­tra­dic­tions, dif­fer­ences, strug­gles, con­flicts, not just “voic­ing of opin­ions.” This is not only unavoid­able, but also pos­i­tive; it is the only way to deploy an actu­al “dialec­tic in action,” to exper­i­ment with a dif­fer­ent con­fig­u­ra­tion, to make good use of strug­gles and demands even dur­ing “social­ist con­struc­tion.” It is also the only way to actu­al­ly wage class strug­gle again­st all the forms of reemer­gence of cap­i­tal­ist social forms, prac­tices, norms, and rela­tions, which in most cas­es take the form of “the most obvi­ous solu­tion.” One might even say that only in the con­text of social­ism, of com­mu­nist pol­i­tics, democ­ra­cy can find its real nature. In a cer­tain sense, cap­i­tal­ism is innate­ly unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic, since the demo­c­ra­t­ic impulse, not as the san­i­tized “delib­er­a­tion” pro­scribed by lib­er­al­ism, but as col­lec­tive will or social trans­for­ma­tion, is an expres­sion of sub­al­tern demands and aspi­ra­tions. In a way, the syn­tagm “lib­er­al democ­ra­cy” is a con­tra­dic­tion in terms rep­re­sent­ing both the his­to­ry of strug­gles for demo­c­ra­t­ic rights from the part of the sub­al­tern class­es and the attempt of the bour­geoisie to estab­lish its hege­mony through par­lia­men­tary pro­ce­dures.

More­over, we have to think of this process in terms of exper­i­men­ta­tion. This goes both for polit­i­cal and social forms. In this sense, the emer­gent forms of pop­u­lar self-orga­ni­za­tion, of net­work­ing, of equal voic­ing, of open and demo­c­ra­t­ic deci­sion-mak­ing and in gen­er­al all the forms of con­tem­po­rary “democ­ra­cy of strug­gle” should not be seen in an instru­men­tal way as just ways to orga­nize the strug­gle more effi­cient­ly. Occu­pa­tions of open spaces, with their egal­i­tar­i­an and demo­c­ra­t­ic orga­ni­za­tion, from Syn­tag­ma to Zuc­coti Park and Gezi Park, mass assem­blies, mass coor­di­na­tions of broad­er move­ment, are also emerg­ing forms of pop­u­lar pow­er from below, of exper­i­men­ta­tion with new forms of democ­ra­cy; they can be con­sid­ered emerg­ing con­tem­po­rary forms of dual pow­er. In a sim­i­lar way, con­tem­po­rary forms of sol­i­dar­i­ty, of self-man­age­ment, of alter­na­tive non-com­mer­cial net­works of dis­tri­b­u­tion, of open access to ser­vices, are not only ways to deal with urgent social prob­lems. They are also exper­i­men­tal test sites for new social con­fig­u­ra­tions, for new non-cap­i­tal­ist social rela­tions, based upon the “traces of com­mu­nism” in con­tem­po­rary social resis­tances and col­lec­tive demands and aspi­ra­tions. Rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics is also a learn­ing expe­ri­ence, a process of learn­ing through the expe­ri­ence of strug­gles. In this sense, “smash­ing the state” is a process of col­lec­tive exper­i­men­ta­tion with new polit­i­cal and social con­fig­u­ra­tions, based upon the expe­ri­ences of strug­gles and self-orga­ni­za­tion which emerge long before the nom­i­nal seize of pow­er.

In the long run, this exper­i­men­ta­tion needs to deal with social rela­tions and forms that can act as ter­rains of repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions of pro­duc­tion. One side has to do with the attempt to over­come the com­pul­sion of the mar­ket. The mar­ket is not just a mech­a­nism of exchange. It is also a form or social­iza­tion of pri­vate labors and an expres­sion of the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal­ist forms. More­over, it is also a pow­er­ful ide­o­log­i­cal mech­a­nism which con­stant­ly com­pels us to treat cap­i­tal­ist social forms as “nat­u­ral.” The exper­i­men­ta­tion with non-mar­ket forms of coor­di­nat­ing eco­nom­ic prac­tices is there­fore an impor­tant aspect of any attempt towards social­ist trans­for­ma­tion. Anoth­er side has to do with the social divi­sion of labor. An impor­tant aspect of the Marx­ist tra­di­tion has been that the tran­si­tion to com­mu­nism also entails the abo­li­tion of the divi­sion of man­u­al and intel­lec­tu­al labor. More­over, the very expe­ri­ence of class strug­gles in the USSR and oth­er social for­ma­tions of “actu­al­ly exist­ing social­ism,” has shown that the repro­duc­tion of the cap­i­tal­ist divi­sion of labor and work­place hier­ar­chy lead, in the end, to the repro­duc­tion of state-cap­i­tal­ist forms of exploita­tion even under the abo­li­tion of pri­vate prop­er­ty. This was also the main thrust of the cri­tique of the Chi­ne­se Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion.17 There­fore, the attempt to social­ize knowl­edge and tech­ni­cal exper­tise, to offer full access to sci­en­tific study and train­ing in all sec­tors, and to imple­ment forms of demo­c­ra­t­ic deci­sion at all lev­els of in the work­place still remains some of the most impor­tant exi­gen­cies of any process of social trans­for­ma­tion.

More­over, only such an attempt towards exten­sive demo­c­ra­t­ic par­tic­i­pa­tion in all lev­els of social life, includ­ing the sup­pos­ed­ly closed ter­rain of the econ­o­my, is a nec­es­sary step towards over­com­ing the bour­geois sep­a­ra­tion of the eco­nom­ic and the polit­i­cal. The divi­sion between eco­nom­ic agent and cit­i­zen, so fun­da­men­tal in bour­geois pol­i­tics, must be super­seded in any process of social trans­for­ma­tion through a nec­es­sary re-politi­ciza­tion of the econ­o­my. This is exact­ly the mean­ing of a new form of pol­i­tics, a new polit­i­cal prac­tice, based upon extend­ed democ­ra­cy in the work­place, new extend­ed forms of par­tic­i­pa­tive democ­ra­cy, forms of rep­re­sen­ta­tion from the work­place (an impor­tant ele­ment of the ini­tial sovi­et vot­ing sys­tem), and lim­its again­st the cre­ation of a pro­fes­sion­al polit­i­cal class.

The­se aspects are impor­tant exact­ly in the attempt to actu­al­ly smash the state, decrease the need to resort to state coer­cion, estab­lish demo­c­ra­t­ic deci­sion and self-orga­ni­za­tion (the very mean­ing of “free asso­ci­a­tion”) at all lev­els, and actu­al­ly cre­ate a much more equal and free soci­ety. This will be the result of strug­gles, but also of exper­i­ments

In light of the above, we can see that the notion of “dual pow­er“18 acquires a broad­er sig­nif­i­cance. It is no longer a ques­tion of just a peri­od of organ­ic cri­sis and cat­a­stroph­ic equi­lib­ri­um, dur­ing which there is an antag­o­nis­tic coex­is­tence of two com­pet­ing state forms. Dual pow­er refers to the emer­gence of new social and polit­i­cal forms. as part of the ele­va­tion of strug­gle and the fight for pow­er and hege­mony on the part of an alliance of the sub­al­tern class­es. It is not a polit­i­cal “stand-off”; it is a process of intense strug­gle, but also of learn­ing and exper­i­men­ta­tion. More­over, dual pow­er is in fact the best way to describe the actu­al social and polit­i­cal bal­ance of forces after the seizure of pow­er, espe­cial­ly if we are talk­ing about a poten­tial­ly “demo­c­ra­t­ic” process. In such a case, we will face the new forms of pop­u­lar pow­er, self-man­age­ment, worker’s con­trol, the attempts to insti­tu­tion­al­ize new social and polit­i­cal arrange­ments and the con­tin­u­ous resis­tance of impor­tant parts of the state appa­ra­tus – along with the attempt from the part of the forces of cap­i­tal to resist the attacks again­st cap­i­tal­ist prop­er­ty and cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions of pro­duc­tions.

To put it in Gram­s­cian terms, when we attempt to dis­cuss the ques­tion of rev­o­lu­tion­ary strat­e­gy in con­tem­po­rary terms, we are in fact always fac­ing a com­bi­na­tion of war of posi­tion and war of maneu­ver. In fact, a war of posi­tion, name­ly an attempt to con­struct hege­mony, is nec­es­sary both before and after the seizure of pow­er. This should not be read as a ref­er­ence to some “cul­tur­al” hege­mony or “prepa­ra­tion,” as it was the reformist read­ing in the 1970s. Rather it refers to this con­tin­u­ous process of strug­gles, col­lec­tive exper­i­men­ta­tion, cre­ation of new forms of pop­u­lar pow­er and work­ers’ con­trol. “Smash­ing the state,” there­fore, is not opposed to an attempt to build hege­mony; rather, the two are part of the same dialec­tic of social trans­for­ma­tion.

This dialec­tic of hege­mony and the need for a process of cul­tur­al rev­o­lu­tion can also be seen as the only way to cre­ate the ide­o­log­i­cal and cul­tur­al con­di­tions for the nec­es­sary politi­ciza­tion of every­day life and social­iza­tion of the polit­i­cal process that “smash­ing the state” and even more “with­er­ing away of the state” entails. This requires mak­ing peo­ple think and act beyond the com­pul­sion of the mar­ket, but also beyond rely­ing on an imper­son­al and benev­o­lent state appa­ra­tus. A rev­o­lu­tion­ary process also entails a new col­lec­tive ethos of par­tic­i­pa­tion and col­lec­tive respon­si­bil­i­ty in order to avoid the dan­ger of an alien­at­ed rela­tion to social and polit­i­cal process­es that can eas­i­ly lead to the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal­ist social forms and norms.

All this means that the ques­tion of the polit­i­cal pro­gram is impor­tant, espe­cial­ly in coun­tries such as Greece where the Left is fac­ing the chal­lenge of polit­i­cal pow­er. What is need­ed is a set of demands that not only bridge the gap between imme­di­ate demands and social­ist trans­for­ma­tion, but actu­al­ly artic­u­late a nar­ra­tive of tran­si­tion, point to the nec­es­sary rup­tures that can begin a rev­o­lu­tion­ary process. Such a pro­gram can­not be lim­it­ed to demands for “redis­tri­b­u­tion”; it must also point to an alter­na­tive eco­nom­ic and pro­duc­tive par­a­digm, include demands for the rup­ture from process­es of inter­na­tion­al­iza­tion of cap­i­tal such as the euro, for mass nation­al­iza­tions of banks and strate­gic enter­pris­es, for self-man­age­ment and alter­na­tive dis­tri­b­u­tion net­works, and sug­gest a new ori­en­ta­tion away from “export-ori­ent­ed growth” (includ­ing see­ing ser­vice sec­tors such as tourism in coun­tries such as Greece as “heavy indus­try”), and con­sumerism, towards a new hier­ar­chy of eco­nom­ic pri­or­i­ties based upon actu­al social needs and envi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­i­ty.

There­fore, “smash­ing the state” entails a con­fronta­tion with all the major ques­tions of rev­o­lu­tion­ary strat­e­gy and the actu­al attempt to ini­ti­ate a process of social trans­for­ma­tion; it should be seen as a high­ly orig­i­nal and open process of social trans­for­ma­tion.

A final point refers to the ques­tion of polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion. What kind of polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions do we need in order to be able to attempt such a rev­o­lu­tion­ary process? The tra­di­tion­al mod­el that viewed, in a schemat­ic and mechan­i­cal way, the con­fronta­tions with the ques­tion of pow­er in terms of a mil­i­tary log­ic, plac­ing all the empha­sis on dis­ci­pline, is of course inher­ent­ly inad­e­quate, and more­over runs the risk of imi­tat­ing the mod­el of the bour­geois state. It is nec­es­sary to think that in the strug­gle for a dif­fer­ent soci­ety, based upon prin­ci­ples and prac­tices antag­o­nis­tic to the bourgeois/capitalist log­ic, we need orga­ni­za­tions that reflect the emerg­ing new social forms. In con­trast to the tra­di­tion­al view – accord­ing to which the exi­gen­cies of the strug­gle and the need for dis­ci­plined com­mit­ment to the rev­o­lu­tion­ary process jus­ti­fy lim­its to intra­party democ­ra­cy, sup­pres­sion of free dis­cus­sion, and rigid hier­ar­chy – we want polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions that are at the same time lab­o­ra­to­ries for the col­lec­tive elab­o­ra­tion of new projects and new mass forms of crit­i­cal polit­i­cal intel­lec­tu­al­i­ty, and exper­i­men­tal sites for new social and polit­i­cal rela­tions. In this sense, they have to be more demo­c­ra­t­ic, more egal­i­tar­i­an, more open than the soci­ety around them. Gram­sci was one of the first to stress this con­cep­tion of polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion as lab­o­ra­to­ry:

One should stress the impor­tance and sig­nif­i­cance, which, in the mod­ern world, polit­i­cal par­ties have in the elab­o­ra­tion and dif­fu­sion of con­cep­tions of the world, because essen­tial­ly what they do is to work out the ethics and the pol­i­tics cor­re­spond­ing to the­se con­cep­tions and act as it were their his­tor­i­cal “lab­o­ra­to­ry” … The rela­tion between the­o­ry and prac­tice becomes even closer the more the con­cep­tion is vital­ly and rad­i­cal­ly inno­va­to­ry and opposed to old ways of think­ing. For this rea­son one can say that the par­ties are the elab­o­ra­tors of new inte­gral and all-encom­pass­ing intel­lec­tu­al­i­ties and the cru­cibles where the uni­fi­ca­tion of the­o­ry and prac­tice under­stood as real his­tor­i­cal process takes place.19

How­ev­er, this should not be con­sid­ered an abstract exi­gen­cy, but as an urgent task which also entails the whole process of recon­struct­ing and rein­vent­ing polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions.20 Con­tem­po­rary rad­i­cal polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions do not reflect only the dynam­ics of the con­junc­ture and cur­rent strug­gles; they are also the result of a whole peri­od of cri­sis and retreat of the com­mu­nist and rev­o­lu­tion­ary social­ist move­ment. This is also evi­dent today in the lim­i­ta­tions of the main orga­ni­za­tion­al forms sug­gest­ed: the “hor­i­zon­tal coor­di­na­tion” of move­ments, which is indis­pens­able in order to cre­ate alliances and open spaces of strug­gle, but at the same time does not aid in the nec­es­sary elab­o­ra­tion of polit­i­cal pro­grams, and usu­al­ly does not per­mit any dis­cus­sion of ques­tions of polit­i­cal pow­er and hege­mony; the left-wing “elec­toral front” that usu­al­ly is based on a min­i­mum pro­gram of imme­di­ate anti-neolib­er­al reforms that can eas­i­ly take the form of a reformist agen­da for pro­gres­sive social demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­er­nance; the clas­si­cal mod­el of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary group or sect (along with the respec­tive inter­na­tion­al cur­rents) that tend to repro­duce frag­men­ta­tion, sec­tar­i­an­ism, and parochial author­i­tar­i­an ver­sion of an “imag­i­nary Lenin.” In con­trast, “repeat­ing Lenin” today means think­ing in terms of max­i­mum orig­i­nal­i­ty, of try­ing not just to repro­duce some mod­el but to cre­ate lab­o­ra­to­ries of new polit­i­cal projects. This can be accom­plished nei­ther by sim­ple elec­toral coali­tions nor by an antag­o­nism between groups for “hege­mony” with­in the rad­i­cal Left. We need demo­c­ra­t­ic polit­i­cal fronts, based upon anti-cap­i­tal­ist pro­grams that can also act as process­es that can bring togeth­er dif­fer­ent cur­rents, expe­ri­ences in the move­ment, polit­i­cal sen­si­tiv­i­ties that can actu­al­ly act as lab­o­ra­to­ries of new and antag­o­nis­tic polit­i­cal projects.

All this should not be seen as the result of our pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the sin­gu­lar dynam­ics of the Greek expe­ri­ence, the depth of the cri­sis and the poten­tial for rad­i­cal left pol­i­tics there. A more strate­gic approach, an attempt to ground our pol­i­tics in the “traces of com­mu­nism” of today’s resis­tances, how­ev­er minor or small-scale they might seem, a new empha­sis on artic­u­lat­ing alter­na­tive nar­ra­tives and not just “demands,” an attempt to cre­ate fronts and net­works that bring togeth­er dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences and cur­rents – all are equal­ly indis­pens­able both in social for­ma­tions where the Left is fac­ing the chal­lenge of pow­er, and in social for­ma­tions where the process of rein­vent­ing a rev­o­lu­tion­ary sequence must start again after a peri­od of dis­in­te­gra­tion.

Rethink­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary strat­e­gy is no longer a polit­i­cal and the­o­ret­i­cal lux­u­ry. The cur­rent eco­nom­ic cri­sis is in fact one of the most impor­tant tran­si­tion peri­ods in the his­to­ry of cap­i­tal­ism. We are wit­ness­ing a new his­tor­i­cal cycle of move­ments, of almost insur­rec­tionary char­ac­ter, and – at the same time and in a dialec­ti­cal rela­tion of mutu­al deter­mi­na­tion – of deep polit­i­cal and in cer­tain cas­es hege­mon­ic cri­sis (expressed also in the rise of the far Right). It is impor­tant to start think­ing in terms of strat­e­gy again, if we do not want to miss the oppor­tu­ni­ties offered. After all, we must nev­er for­get that his­to­ry has more imag­i­na­tion than we do.


  1. On the notion of “pas­sive rev­o­lu­tion,” see Anto­nio Gram­sci, Selec­tions from Pris­on Writ­ings (Lon­don: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971). 

  2. Cf. John Hol­loway, Change the World with­out Tak­ing Pow­er. The Mean­ing of Rev­o­lu­tion Today (Lon­don: Plu­to, 2002). 

  3. Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brew­ster (Lon­don: Pen­guin Press, 1969); Louis Althusser and Éti­en­ne Bal­ibar, Read­ing Cap­i­tal, trans. Ben Brew­ster (Lon­don: New Left Books, 1970); Louis Althusser, On the Repro­duc­tion of Cap­i­tal­ism, trans. G.M. Gosh­gar­i­an (Lon­don: Ver­so, 2014). 

  4. Charles Bet­tel­heim, Class Strug­gles in the USSR, 2 Vol­umes (New York: Month­ly Review Press, 1976-77). 

  5. Mar­io Tron­ti, Operai e cap­i­tale (Roma: Derive Approdi, 2006).  

  6. In this sense, the series of books and cours­es of Fou­cault on puni­tive soci­ety, La Soci­eté Puni­tive. Cours au Col­lege de France 1972-1973 (Paris: Seuil, 2013); on dis­ci­pli­nary soci­ety, Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish (New York : Pan­theon Books, 1977); on biopolitcs, Soci­ety must be defend­ed. Lec­tures at the Col­lege de France, 1975-1976 (Lon­don: Pic­a­dor, 2003), Secu­ri­ty, Ter­ri­to­ry, Pop­u­la­tion, Lec­tures at the Col­lege de France 1977-1978 (Lon­don: Pal­grave Macmil­lan, 2007) — remain indis­pens­able ref­er­ences and a dia­logue between Marx­ism and the work of Fou­cault more than nec­es­sary. On this see Stéphane Legrand, “Le marx­is­me oublié de Fou­cault,” Actuel Marx 36, 2004/2: 27-43; and Pier­re Macherey, “Le sujet pro­duc­tif.” 

  7. Christine Buci-Glusks­mann, Gram­sci and the State, trans. David Fern­bach (Lon­don: Lawrence and Wishart, 1980); Peter Thomas, The Gram­s­cian Moment. Phi­los­o­phy, Hege­mony and Marx­ism (Lei­den: Brill, 2009). 

  8. Nicos Poulantzas, Class­es in Con­tem­po­rary Cap­i­tal­ism (Lon­don: New Left Books, 1975); Nicos Poulantzas, State, Pow­er, Social­ism (Lon­don: Ver­so, 1980). 

  9. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Man­i­festo of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty, in MECW, vol. 6, (Lon­don: Lawrence & Wishart, 1976 [1848]), 504. 

  10. Ibid., 505-6. 

  11. Éti­en­ne Bal­ibar, Mass­es, Class­es, Ideas. Stud­ies on Pol­i­tics and Phi­los­o­phy Before and After Marx (Lon­don: Rout­ledge, 1994, 134). 

  12. “One thing espe­cial­ly was proved by the Com­mune, viz., that the work­ing class can­not sim­ply lay hold of the ready-made state machin­ery, and wield it for its own pur­pos­es,” see The Civil War in France: Address of the Gen­er­al Coun­cil of the Inter­na­tion­al Work­ing Men’s Asso­ci­a­tion (Lon­don, Tru­elove, 1871), 15; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Pref­ace to the 1872 Ger­man Edi­tion of the Man­i­festo of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty,” MECW, vol. 23 (New York: Inter­na­tion­al Pub­lish­ers, 1988), 175. 

  13. Éti­en­ne Bal­ibar, Cinque Études de Matéri­al­is­me His­torique (Paris: Maspero, 1974), 95-6; my trans­la­tion. 

  14. On the rela­tion of social democ­ra­cy and Stal­in­ism to the State see Christine Buci-Glucks­mann and Göran Ther­born, Le défi social-democ­ra­te (Paris: La Décou­verte, 1981). 

  15. On the­se chal­lenges see Pana­gi­o­tis Sotiris, “From Resis­tance to Hege­mony: The Strug­gle again­st Aus­ter­i­ty and the Need for a New His­tor­i­cal Bloc,” Social­ist Project, E-Bul­let­in No. 988 (May 26, 2014). 

  16. Georges Lab­i­ca, “De l’impossibilité de la non-vio­lence. Entre­tien avec Georges Lab­i­ca.” 

  17. Charles Bet­tel­heim, Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion and Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion in Chi­na. Changes in Man­age­ment and the Divi­sion of Labor (New York: Month­ly Review Press, 1974). 

  18. For the ini­tial for­mu­la­tion of the notion of “dual pow­er” see V.I. Lenin, “The Dual Pow­er,” Col­lect­ed Works, vol. 24 (Moscow: Pro­gress Pub­lish­ers, 1964). 

  19. Anto­nio Gram­sci, Selec­tions from Pris­on Writ­ings (Lon­don: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), 335; trans­la­tion mod­i­fied. On my read­ing of the­se ques­tions, see Pana­gi­o­tis Sotiris, “Hege­mony and Mass Crit­i­cal Intel­lec­tu­al­i­ty,” Inter­na­tion­al Social­ism 137 (Jan­u­ary 9, 2013). 

  20. On the ques­tion of orga­ni­za­tion see Peter Thomas, “The Com­mu­nist Hypoth­e­sis and the Ques­tion of Orga­ni­za­tion,” The­o­ry and Event 16, no. 4 (2013). 

Author of the article

has taught social and political philosophy as an adjunct lecturer at the University of Crete, Panteion University, the University of the Aegean, and the University of Athens. His research interests include Marxist philosophy, the work of Louis Althusser, and social and political movements in Greece.