Last year, the largest socialist organization in the United States decided to throw its weight behind Bernie Sanders, with some of its leading members going so far as to argue that in the absence of mass radical movements in this country, a Sanders presidency was the necessary key to kickstarting a socialist advance.
Whatever the merits of this decision, hitching DSA’s fate to the septuagenarian democratic socialist’s run for the Presidency meant that the collapse of the Sanders campaign, and with it the prospect of “taking” state power anytime soon, unsurprisingly sparked an important debate about the future of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Some argued that despite the outcome, DSA still gained a great deal, and that socialists should continue to engage with the Democratic Party, and particularly its ballot lines, which would allow them to one day break off a chunk of the Party’s supporters to form the basis of a third party. For others, the whole affair proved exactly the opposite – that it was high time socialists turned their backs on the Democrats to build an independent party as soon as possible.
Despite their real differences, both sides share quite a few similarities. They both want an independent organization. They both see this organization as an indispensable solution to their problems, a horizon for any and all strategic thinking. And while one thinks primarily in terms of a centralized body of disciplined militants primed for some final ruptural scenario and the other imagines a kind of democratic mass party slowly growing its forces to one day become an independent labor party capable of out-maneuvering the Democrats to one day govern, both have come to resurrect the same word – “the party” – to describe the organization they have in mind, effectively conflating (at least) two very different historical experiences.
But the events of the last few months have revealed an even more important commonality shared by the different sides. While they were busy debating different ways to build the “party” that would necessarily lead the masses, none of them anticipated the mass uprising – one of the largest in the country’s history – that exploded right under their noses after police murdered George Floyd in late May. In fact, it is quite telling that with some important exceptions, much of DSA, especially at the national level, was caught off guard.
While thousands stormed the streets, some seasoned organizers mused on Twitter whether to even support the rebellion. Others were flat-footed at best, doing nothing more than issuing tone-deaf statements. Still others felt immediate solidarity, but stumbled to find a meaningful way to connect with the movement as explicit socialists.
At the end of the day, none of these rich debates about the party had prepared the organization to quickly and effectively engage with the uprising. In fact, I would suggest that one of the main reasons why so many socialists, including those not in DSA, had a challenging time not only reading the conjuncture, but engaging with the movement has to do with glaring limitations in the dominant ways that socialists are thinking about the meaning of organization – in particular, how organizations relate to the diversity of mass unrest, the contingency of political time, and the temptation of state power.
In what follows, I’d like to propose a different approach to the party. Instead of treating it as a single fixed entity that tries to conquer state power, either by an insurrection or an election, I suggest we think of the “party” as an organization among others, one defined by its articulating function, as that which unites disparate social forces, links struggles over time, and facilitates the collective project of building socialism beyond the state.
The basic state of existence in capitalist society is depoliticized atomization.
Most people will often go through their lives pursuing various individualized survival strategies, even in competition with one another. If there’s a difficulty, chances are very high someone will respond by working harder, cutting a private deal, transferring to a new job, or moving to a new location.
This individualism is not the expression of some kind of innate human nature, but a socially conditioned response to the challenges of social reproduction under capitalism. State ideology naturalizes the status quo to such a degree that many people resign themselves to the belief that nothing will ever change. Even when there is hope for change, our highly precarious lives dissuade us from pursuing risky actions that might make things worse. And if some are willing to accept risk, uniting in a common cause requires balancing so many different interests, personalities, and objectives that many might feel it’s not even worth the effort. So if they do resist, it will tend to be individualized, maybe showing up late to work, or stealing some fruit from the grocery store.
That said, there are moments, such as the recent George Floyd uprisings, when people break this pattern. Instead of dismissing themselves as powerless individuals, they re-imagine themselves as agents of change. Instead of dreaming of how things should be, they demand that they must be different. Instead of following the old routines, they experiment with new forms of activity. Instead of passively embracing the identity categories imposed on them, they construct a new kind of subjectivity. Instead of dealing with issues independently, they will seek out other people to help confront a shared problem.
The process through which individuals come together as a collective social force is called composition. In the past, there was a tendency to see this primarily in class terms, with the assumption that the only real social force was one based in some kind of objective class position. But class is not the only way that social forces can frame their subjectivity. In fact, when individuals come together as a collective, they lay hold of a vast array of compositional determinants, that is, aspects of their lives, most of which are outside their control, that can nevertheless be subjectively activated and repurposed to accomplish certain tasks. These can include everything from gender to race, occupation to age, geography to memory, as well as any combination of determinants.
In fact, much to the chagrin of dogmatic socialists who can think only in terms of “class consciousness,” in most cases individuals do not come together on the basis of some abstract sense of class unity. This does not make them any less authentic. If poor, black youth terrorized by police decide to come together as a force against police brutality, and do so primarily on the basis of race, rather than their class background, so be it. Composition happens whether socialists want to or not. And it often happens in ways that socialist organizers don’t have much control over.
This does not mean, though, that composition is spontaneous. As Rodrigo Nunes explains: “Think of how a “spontaneous” action comes to pass. A person talks to another, who talks to another, who talks to another; suddenly, an idea occurs, which will probably be in circulation even before any individual voices it. A meeting is called, the original idea is presented, some people walk out, others point out its flaws, eventually someone proposes a new idea; a short text is prepared, a new meeting is called, and so on. Spontaneity, the example shows, does not mean the same behavior actualizing itself at once across a large number of people: it always starts somewhere; there are always some people who organize it. That does not mean they have to (or should be) always the same people, nor does it make it dependent on the genius of superior individuals. The best way to think it probably still is Gabriel Tarde’s microsociology: it takes ‘inventions”’ brought forward by particular individuals for something new to happen, but these inventions are nothing more than the recombination of trends already present around them.”
In other words, there is no such thing as pure spontaneity. Behind every seemingly spontaneous initiative are countless layers of hidden organization. Some are inherited, emulating other organizational models, while others are picked up in the heat of the struggle, making truly unique innovative leaps. But in every case, social forces are organized, and are based in organizations. After all, social forces can only exist in action, struggle, movement towards a specific goal, in response to a specific shared political problem. And the only way to coordinate the capacity to act, to build the power necessary to realize a solution to that problem, is organization. Without organization, you have no social forces.
Of course, social forces don’t exist in isolation. At any given moment, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of social forces engaged in struggle.
But just as individuals usually remain separated, so too do social forces usually keep their distance. This is in part because they already face such enormous challenges holding themselves together that even thinking about coordinating with another distinct force seems simply beyond their capacity.
Social forces are so radically diverse in their size, style, composition, and goals that at first glance they may appear completely foreign to one another. Different social forces may want to fight a new development in their neighborhood, or police brutality in this town, or a specific homophobic state law, or the everday sexism of men in this community, of this college’s admissions policy, or this company’s terrible wages. What could all these things possibly have in common?
That said, despite the structural inertia towards suspicion, atomization, and competition, there are moments when diverse social forces do come together. This sometimes happens, for example, when different forces have adopted similar frames of subjectivation, confront a common enemy, operate in the same locale, pursue related goals, or share some of the same members.
If composition refers to the way that individuals come together as social forces, articulation refers to the ways that social forces combine into forms of unity. And if composition is a daunting process, articulation poses an even greater challenge. Harmonizing a multitude of interests, experiences, backgrounds, and objectives over a sustained period, building unity while taking into account real differences is incredibly difficult work, which is why articulation of this kind is quite rare, and doesn’t often last for long. But when it happens, the articulated unity substantially increases its capacity to realize transformational change.
In fact, this coming together of diverse social forces is the single greatest threat to the existing capitalist order. It is more terrifying than a recession, a virulent pandemic, or even a war. It is pretty much the only thing that can possibly overthrow the existing state of affairs, and the ruling bloc knows this. That is why, Nicos Poulantzas argued years ago, one of the primary functions of the state is not simply to articulate the social forces that comprise the hegemonic ruling bloc, but to ruthlessly disarticulate all oppositional social forces.
The state accomplishes this task through a variety of means. Resting on its superior resources, the state can simply wait it out, patiently holding the line until this articulated unity collapses on its own. But if it looks as if this unity of social forces might stick around for a while, the state will actively intervene. It will drive a wedge between the constituent social forces, playing one against the other, tossing some concessions here, throwing a bit of repression there. It will marshall all its forces to isolate this oppositional bloc, preventing it from expanding, or linking up with other social forces. It will cultivate suspicions, raise the specter of outside agitators, and exacerbate any possible identitarian divisions. It will recuperate the agenda, control the messaging, domesticate the demands, and make empty promises, ultimately reducing autonomous political struggle to technocratic fixes that do nothing.
In these ways, and countless others, the state will disarticulate the unity of social forces, and then decompose the social forces themselves. Where once there was a united struggle, there will be social forces fighting among themselves. Where once there were collective subjects fighting to solve shared problems, there will only be separated individuals. For good measure, the state will sometimes recompose these atomized individuals into ersatz collectivities, like “middle America,” or the “white working class,” or the “the black community.” Unlike social forces in struggle, these are passive entities where everyone is kept apart, no one has any real agency, and leaders appointed by the state tell everyone else what to think, and more importantly how to vote. These are not groups of people building new subjectivities, but individuals interpellated as a static identity by the state. These are not living collectives working through their differences, but homogenous abstractions that paper over real internal divisions. People are united, but only in their separation.
Here lies the single greatest political problem for all those who wish to transform the world. The only way to make meaningful change is to articulate multiple levels of unity. But the entire existing order is designed to enforce individualized solutions to social problems, to decompose social forces when people come together as collectivities, to ruthlessly disarticulate any unity of those social forces in pursuit of some larger goal, and to divert the genuine yearning for shared life into passive categories that only reproduce the status quo. If things are left to their own devices, disunity, separation, atomization, competition are the norm.
Faced with this burning challenge, generations of socialists have asked, what is to be done? The historical answer to this question was the “party.”
The “party” – or, more often than not, parties – is an organization like any other, but one with some special functions.
While all organizations exist to coordinate the collective capacity to act, parties coordinate the vast field of organizations invented through the self-activity of social forces. As that which facilitates the organizational efforts of these diverse social forces, the party was imagined as a kind of meta-organization. If, to put it differently, the state is the great dis-articulator, the party is the great articulator.
A party can certainly help to catalyze the formation of social forces, but as any seasoned organizer will tell you, unless there is already a desire for change, a willingness to come together to struggle, every organizing effort will fall on deaf ears. In fact, in most cases, the coming together of individuals into a social force happens largely independently of any party, and usually exceeds in creativity anything a party could have imagined. The soviets, for instance, were not invented by the Bolsheviks, but by social forces in struggle.
For this reason, the primary task of the party is not actually to create social forces, but rather to facilitate their coming together into a broader unity. Of course, as I mentioned already, some of these social forces may be working independently towards alliances, but their coming together is not inevitable, and in most cases efforts to coalesce will end in failure. The party, then, acts as a kind of binding element, trying to find a way to bring together diverse social forces, and to help them stay together, despite the many tendencies pulling them apart. And different parties will advance different strategies to make this possible.
This is tough work. The party must find a way to creatively unify an enormous diversity of experiences, forms of struggle, and political goals into a lasting unity, all while preserving genuine differences. How this happens depends on the specific conjuncture, and there is no abstract formula that can be copied and pasted in different times and places. But one thing is for sure, unity is not something that happens when the party’s central committee somehow calls all the heads of these social forces into a dimly lit, conference room to hash out backdoor deals. This is how the state articulates a hegemonic bloc out of diverse constituencies.
By contrast, the party’s unity comes from below, and only through struggle. As Amilcar Cabral wrote long ago, the only way to amplify your ability to struggle is by building unity, but “to have unity it is also necessary to struggle.” Social forces only link up when there is something at stake, when their members see that allying with another force is essential to accomplishing their goals. Struggle builds trust, respect, and confidence – without this, there can never be any meaningful articulation. The party’s job is to help make this encounter possible, like an agronomist who helps two streams converge into a much more powerful river.
Of course, the way the party does this is by embedding itself in these different struggles. By this I don’t mean cynical entryism with the aim of recruitment, but building organic roots. For if a party has no roots, its bid to unite social forces will be rejected, with organizers laughed out of the room as outsiders who have no clue what they are doing. This is why, even though the party generally does not create social forces, it must always engage with them, join their struggles, take them seriously, with respect and patience, and above all, to learn from them. The more embedded a party, the more thoroughly it understands the contours of these social forces, the more deeply it is tied to autonomous organizations, and the more compositionally diverse it can become, the more effective of an articulator it will be.
And the stronger a party, the greater its ability to articulate across ever wider social distances, from the town, to the region, to the entire country, and eventually, across multiple social formations. After all, articulation is not just a local problem, but a global one. Just as the state seeks to disarticulate unity across an uneven domestic political terrain, so too does imperialism work to dismantle unity across national borders, isolating movements and setting struggles against each other. This, then, is the real meaning of internationalism, the process through which distinct social forces from multiple social formations are drawn together into a form of unity, sometimes called an international.
But the party does not just join together diverse struggles across space; it also articulates the struggles of those social forces across time. Composition is a delicate process, and social forces are fragile, many of them coming and going, like sand castles built high in the morning only to crumble in the face of the dry evening wind. By combining the strength of multiple social forces, articulated struggles are more durable, but they, too, almost always come to an end – hitting their limits, losing momentum, succumbing to internal tensions, or drowning in vigorous repression.
In a way, this cyclical pattern is to be expected. “We should not imagine revolution itself in the form of a singular act,” Lenin once wrote. “The revolution will be a rapid succession of more or less violent explosions, alternating with phases of more or less deep calm.” A mass uprising one month, then seemingly total demobilization the next. Struggles ebb and flow, organizations come and go.
The dominant social forces in the state, though, seek to go one step further by not only seeing these waves of contestation defeated, but erasing them from history, pretending they never happened. It will marshal monumental resources to simply rewrite history, tamper with the evidence, marginalize all narratives that don’t fit its official story. Its efforts are so incredible that it will even succeed in convincing those who fought in those marvelous struggles that they never happened, or they were fought for different reformist ends, or that they were bad from the start. Within a few years, maybe a decade, the memory of this feat will disappear. The history of internationalist black communists, gone. The history of militant labor unions full of cooperating immigrants in what are now red states, gone. The history of ferocious multi-racial struggles against racism, gone.
The party’s second articulating function, then, is to combat this erasure by helping to provide a degree of continuity between different struggles over time. Its work, John Watson, one of the founders of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, once argued, “could provide a bridge between the peaks of activity.” It helps channel the energies of these struggles, preserves their memory, draws balance sheets, creates a space for reflection. The party is the historical memory of these struggles, a depository of all these earlier organizational forms, a rolodex of vast social networks. It is an archive, but a living one, filled with undaunted activists who fought in these earlier waves, and are gearing up for the next one.
The party, then, does not simply articulate diverse social forces during an upswing in activity, in the heat of the battle; it helps keep the torch burning for the next one. While most combat organizations are short-lived, flaring up to solve a problem, then dying down, the party strives to be always active, during those explosions when thousands of people suddenly find themselves doing politics for the first time, and during those periods of relative stability when things go back to normal, so to speak.
The party plays a final articulating function, and that is to give voice to a specific political content. The autonomous activity of people in struggle identifies important social problems, creates new forms of organization, and in some cases even a positive vision for change.
But, in the vast majority of cases, these organizational forms will not spontaneously advance a coherent socialist content. Their members likely did not come together as socialists, but as angry construction workers, courageous trans activists, exasperated immigrant youths, or concerned mothers militating against a specific grievance. There might be “socialistic elements” in their struggles, their organization, or their demands, but it would be completely idealist to expect all social forces everywhere to spontaneously gravitate around a socialist project of radical change.
In fact, if social forces do elaborate a political project, more often than not it won’t be socialist. African Americans may be furious about racism in their town, but the movement might go in the direction of supporting black capitalists. Workers at a furniture factory in Ohio may be enraged about getting laid off, but they might decide to blame immigrants instead. Recent immigrants may unite to do something about crime in their neighborhood, but they might decide to support greater police intervention against other minorities. There is, in other words, no automatic link between the coming together as a social force and fighting for socialism.
This is largely because we don’t exist in a political vacuum. Competing currents are trying their best to win social forces to their own projects. And behind all these, the many ideological apparatuses of the state are constantly, from our birth to our death, trying to neutralize the political edge of all possible struggles, to reduce autonomous initiatives to processional marches, strident demands for sweeping change into moderate calls for reform, systematic critique of structures into individualized moralism, self-activity into voting. A central aim of all this is to destroy the idea of socialism, to redefine it as terroristic violence, or domesticate it as welfarism. In these conditions, there’s little reason why anyone would automatically become a socialist radical.
The role of the party is to advance this socialist project against other competing political currents, and above all against the ideological obfuscations of the forces of order. At this point, it’s crucial to underscore where this content comes from. It does not come from fancy intellectuals writing in their spacious offices, but from the everyday struggles of social forces themselves. Although the socialist program does not automatically emerge ready-made from these struggles, its foundational elements can be found only there. The task of the party is to listen carefully to these struggles, to survey this vast ecosystem of organization, to learn deeply from these many social forces to extract the rudiments of a historically appropriate political program. The party then renders this content explicit, clarifies it, deepens it, processes it into a more systematic form, then resubmits it to these social forces in struggle for verification. Through their struggles, social forces elaborate on the program, rejecting it here, revising it there, refining the content that the party rearticulates, before returning it again to the struggles, as if in a kind of spiral.
It should be clear at this point that the three articulating functions – connecting distinct social forces, providing continuity over time, and giving voice to a common political content – are actually all deeply related. One of the primary ways that a party articulates diverse social forces, for example, is to elaborate a program that shows how their struggles are in fact interconnected. But one of the primary ways that a party articulates a coherent program is by basing it on the inherent dreams of the many diverse social forces it seeks to help unify.
A Finite Instrument
Like all organizations, parties only emerge through struggle, and so we can never abstractly determine in advance what they will look like, or how they will concretely realize their articulating functions. But if we imagine the party in this way, as an articulator, a few things necessarily follow.
The party is not a fixed entity, but the condensation of constantly shifting articulating functions. Becoming a party is not crossing a certain numerical threshold or passing certain structural benchmarks or being recognized as such by the state. It is not something one declares, but something one does.
And it’s something that is already happening: there are many organizations already realizing some of these “party functions” at different scales, even if they do not think of themselves as a party, and never want to become one, like the Chicago Teachers Union or local chapters of Black Lives Matter. One single formation, say DSA, does not monopolize this question.
Indeed, the party cannot focus on a single predetermined kind of organizational form, social force, or struggle. Although the party should certainly feel free to make assessments about the tendency for disruptive struggles to emerge in certain places, and even to concentrate limited resources there, it cannot abstractly fixate on a single struggle but must be attentive to any and all possible social unrest. Lenin himself was extremely clear about this: “communism literally erupts from all points of social life: decidedly it blossoms everywhere,” and sometimes “in the most unexpected” places.
Any number of things might trigger a political uprising: underfunded classrooms, a rapist’s trial, a racist police muder, the construction of a pipeline through indigenous lands, contaminated water in a deindustrialized city, a stock market crash, a school shooting, a pandemic. The truth is, no one can really know in advance, so the party must be prepared to act at a moment’s notice. Instead of myopically waiting for some imagined perfect struggle to emerge, or contorting the autonomous actions of people in motion into some preconceived rubric, the party has to keep its ears to the ground. As Louis Althusser wrote, “it is not a matter of ‘expanding’ the existing politics, but of knowing how to listen to politics where it happens.”
For this reason, the party has to be extremely flexible. It has to be willing to drop a long campaign, to throw itself into a new explosion if necessary. It must be prepared to rapidly embrace entirely new organizational forms, new tactics, new styles of struggle. It has to be willing to jettison its ideas, and pick up new ones depending on changing conditions. It has to be willing to rewrite its program on the spot, if new events demand it. It has to be willing to compromise, to negotiate, to give social movements the benefit of the doubt. It must be open-minded about all possible tactics, all methods. As Daniel Bensaïd says, paraphrasing Lenin, “Stir up all spheres! Be on the watch for the most unpredictable solutions! Remain ready for the sudden change of forms! Know how to employ all weapons!” But most of all, the party has to be willing to learn, to admit its errors, to reflect on its actions.
In this context, building the party is not about gradually accumulating one’s forces according to a fixed plan. It is not about patiently growing membership, increasing vote share, or augmenting legislative influence. This view of steady growth assumes a kind of predictable linear time, a temporality in which we can expect the future to hold more or less the same, an empty homogeneous time punctuated by anticipated rituals like electoral cycles, which can sustain the march of some slowly ballooning party. This time of “mechanical progress,” Bensaïd once wrote, is a non-political time.
By contrast, we have to treat the future not as one of linear progression, but of erratic breaks, zigzags, reversals, and leaps. Building the party in this context means expanding its capacity to act, that is, increasing its flexibility, enhancing its speed, honing the skills of its members, and deepening its roots in social struggles. It means accepting that membership will inevitably ebb and flow, and that setbacks will likely happen, but also that there are moments when the party must move extremely quickly, throwing the old playbook out the window. To build the party is not to issue millions of membership cards; it is to make the party as flexible, adaptable, networked, and attentive as possible.
This also means building a high level of internal diversity. The party has to coordinate not only a range of social forces, but also a variety of different types of militancy. A party composed entirely of intellectuals, or fighters, or really any single cast of activist is a highly limited party. A strong party is one that is not only diverse, but can smoothly coordinate different efforts, making the most of the particular strengths that each person brings to the table, instead of forcing everyone into a single mold: those who fight fascists in the streets with those who run a canvassing operation, those who write theory with those who organize in Amazon warehouses, those who plan meetings with those who manage social media. But it also finds ways to push people out of their comfort zones, training the theorists to do some organizing work, encouraging the action-oriented union organizers to attend study groups. The party, then, creates an effective division of labor, but one that is flexible, adaptive, open to change.
All this means that tedious organizational questions about things like membership, centralization, or internal caucuses that set people at each other’s throats are in fact secondary. It’s only after a concrete investigation into the existing situation, after serious reflection on the best way to support those specific struggles already happening, that a party can determine whether it should embrace a certain structural configuration. To decide on these things, before actually determining what exactly needs to be done, is to descend into the worst idealism, second only to the refusal to swiftly restructure the organization when different situations, needs, and tasks present themselves.
Above all, seeing the party as an articulator means refusing to treat it as a vehicle for governing. There is a temptation, especially today, to focus on elections, passing reforms, one day winning state power. This is sometimes sustained by the belief that it is here, in the state, where real power resides, and that only after conquering state power can we actually change things.
But as Althusser once noted, the fact that all social forces in struggle have the state as their stake “does not at all mean that politics must be defined with relation to the state. In the same way that Marx consciously presented Capital as a ‘critique of political economy’” rather than a substitute political economy, we have to think a “‘critique of politics’ as it is imposed by the ideological conception and the practice of the bourgeoisie.’”
What this means concretely, he continued, is that when it comes to the party, “it is a matter above all else of not reducing it to the forms officially sanctioned by bourgeois ideology: the state, popular representation, the political struggle over the possession of state power, political parties, etc.” Once we enter this logic, bite into the tantalizing fruit of governing, we are done for. Either the party becomes the state, and we get the USSR. Or we descend into parliamentary cretinism, and we get the sad collaborationist history of social democracy. The only way to avoid this sorry fate is to refuse the trap of the state. Instead of a party of government, we must insist on the autonomy of the party from the state.
To be clear, this does not mean refusing to engage with the state. In fact, since the many institutions composing the state are always already traversed by political struggles, like the conflicts raging right now over public school openings or the fate of the United States Postal Service, assuming a position of complete exteriority would amount to writing off the struggles of millions of state workers, something no party serious about playing the role of articulator can afford to do.
Nor does it mean automatically rejecting all elections everywhere. Electoral struggles can galvanize people or popularize demands. Once in office, elected officials can act as fighters behind enemy lines, jamming up the workings of the state, freeing resources for emancipatory organizations, or removing those obstacles obstructing the self-activity of social forces in struggle. In other words, electoral struggles can be effective, but they must be organized for specific ends, the party must have strong mechanisms for holding its elected officials accountable, and electoral work must always play a secondary supportive role, fully subordinate to the work of building a vibrant extra-parliamentary organizational ecosystem.
This is the meaning of the autonomy of the party: to recognize that while the party engages with the struggles that traverse the state, linking them with those raging outside, socialism can never be constructed in the state, but only beyond it. All societies need to satisfy basic needs like safety, education, clean water, or emergency relief. For a complex set of historical reasons, the state has not only taken over these essential tasks, but has monopolized them to such a degree that we cannot imagine any other way of realizing them. The state makes you believe that there is no other way to reproduce the conditions of your life outside it. Ensnared by the idea of the state, we come to believe, for example, that the only possible way to provide for the safety of the people is through the police. If we abolish the police, then we are left with chaos.
The goal of socialist politics is not to take over the state – whether through an insurrection or an election – and run it in a better way. It is to disassemble the state by creating mass organizations of counter-power that hive off its functions. It is about finding new ways to ensure safety without the police, to provide education without the public school system, or resolve conflicts without the state’s criminal justice system. Creation and destruction go hand in hand: as they eat away at the state apparatuses like termites, these democratic bodies simultaneously elaborate new alternatives for living. Socialism is not just an end goal, it is a process, a way of doing politics.
These extra-parliamentary mass organizations – soviets, councils, communes, shop-floor committees, mutual aid societies, self-defense networks, clinics, unions, rank-and-file caucuses, autonomous childcare centers – are the product of social forces in struggle. The party is not, and can never substitute itself for these bodies. Nor can it simply wish them into being with the wave of some magic wand. But the party can help catalyze, develop, and protect them – and most importantly of all, it can hold these oppositional organizations together in a deeper unity through its articulating function. The party does not govern, it facilitates the self-government of the people.
The party, in other words, is a finite instrument. It is not a hypnotist, compelling individuals to come together as social forces. It is not an inventor, calling into being entirely new forms of organization through cloistered thinking. It is not an omnipotent teacher, bringing consciousness to workers, helping them realize what they already are implicitly. It is not an army that wages war against the state on its own. And most importantly of all, it is not a ruling body, a government in waiting.
It is a specific kind of organization that is called into being to address specific problems based on specific historical conditions. Like all tools, it can be quite effective when used for the right job. But any attempt to make it do more than this would lead to disaster.