The Strategic Question Revisited: Ten Theses
In 2006 Daniel Bensaïd made a very important call to reopen the debate on the ‘politico-strategic’ question.1 This call was made amidst a series of discussions within the European anticapitalist Left at a moment when signs of hope, such as the new wave of militancy associated with the anti-globalization movement, were combined with strategic contradictions, such as the ones that were already evident in the turn of the Lula government in Brazil toward classical social-democratic policies or in the limits of the ‘broad parties’ approach. What Bensaïd tried to do in that intervention was to remind the richness of the strategic revolutionary traditions that had dominated or even haunted the thinking of militants in the 20th century, the general strike, the armed insurrection and the prolonged people’s war, counter-posing them to either doing away with any revolutionary strategy, exemplified for him in interventions by theorists such as John Holloway or Toni Negri, or remaining within the frame of simply electoral politics. Above all, the importance of this intervention was exactly to reopen the debate and to rethink in strategic terms despite the weight of the defeat that the revolutionary left had suffered in the previous decades.
Thirteen years later, it is obvious that this plea had not been heard. The capitalist crisis of 2007-2008, was combined in many instances with a deeper political, economic crisis. Τhis also took the form of an impressive return of mass politics, in some cases of almost insurrectionary dimensions. It even created in cases such as Greece the kind of crisis of hegemony that had the potential of turning into a ‘weak link of the chain’ situation. Questions of power and hegemony returned to the fore. However, at the same time you could see the poverty of the answers offered and the total unpreparedness of the left for such challenges. The result was a series of defeats, the Greek case being an example, the attempts of the far right to recuperate this sentiment of discontent and the fact that one can see popular uprisings such as Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests in France), being at a certain distance of the left and the left being unable to actually have an ‘organic relation’ with them. Consequently, despite the extent of the crisis, we see the absence of what Gramsci would have called a ‘historical initiative’ of the subaltern.
However, strategic debate is not a luxury and I would like to suggest some points on it, in the form of ten rather dogmatic theses.
Thesis One: We must rethink popular sovereignty in a communist horizon
It is obvious that the common denominator in a series of movements and demands today is a democratic impetus, a demand that politics stops being an endless mystified machination in favour of global capitalist elites and against the simple people. This is combined with a demand for sovereignty, the demand that those living in one of those spatio-temporal singularities that we call ‘countries’ actually have a say, are the ones deciding and not the dynamics of contemporary globalized capitalism, either in the form of the ‘forces of the international market’ or of the more specific regimes of reduced sovereignty such as the European Integration process. That is why it is imperative to realize, especially in the European context, that it is impossible to have any form of radical social change within the context of European Integration and insisting upon the fantasy of somehow changing Europe at the EU level, is a very dangerous refusal to face reality.
Reclaiming popular sovereignty has nothing to do with nationalism. It has to do with democracy, with the ability of the subaltern classes to actually be in position to decide, to oppose and resist the demands of capital and the imperatives of the market, to open up the way for democratic control of capitalist production and a post capitalist horizon. Reclaiming popular sovereignty is not opposed to internationalism or international solidarity, in some aspects it is a necessary precondition. To give one example: to open up the border for those in need, you need to be in control of them in order to open up borders to refugees and migrants and to close them to capital flows.
However, popular sovereignty is not an end in itself. We have to oppose the tendency to delink political forms from the relations of production upon which they are grounded. The erosion of sovereignty and the new extreme form of internationalized authoritarian statism to use the expression of Poulantzas2 or the new bureaucratic caesarism to use the expression of Durand and Keycheyan,3 is a class strategy to sustain the contemporary regime of accumulation. The contemporary demand for democracy and popular sovereignty, itself a result of the extreme insulation of the contemporary capitalist state apparatuses from any popular intervention, can only be answered by a deep transformation and repoliticization of the realm of the economy. In this sense, reclaiming popular sovereignty is also a class strategy. It represents the resistances, struggles and aspirations of a broad spectrum of subaltern classes and groups brought together not only by the anger or indignation against contemporary authoritarianism but also by their common condition of being exploited, of being subjected to the imperatives, the strategies, the exigencies of the contemporary aggressive regime of capitalist accumulation, in all its forms, from the violence of the market, to the explosive combination of increased skills with extreme precariousness, to the constant commodification of basic social needs and services, to the impeding ecological catastrophe, to the articulation of exploitation with the reproduction of patriarchy, racism and colonialism.
“The contemporary democratic revolution can only be strongly anti-capitalist.”
Therefore we need to remake communism our strategic horizon.4 It is imperative to think of contemporary democratic struggles and demands for popular sovereignty as aspects of a drive for communism and to realize the traces of communism inscribed in them. To use an old-fashioned typology, the contemporary democratic revolution can only be strongly anti-capitalist. This is neither an abstract ethical imperative nor an attempt to ‘push’ the dynamic of contemporary struggles. It is about the fact that the limit-form of contemporary resistances and the only way to actually make possible the demands for democracy, sovereignty, justice, fairness, participation that constantly emerge, is to insist upon and at the same time re-invent the communist horizon.
Thesis Two: ‘Left Keynesianism’ is not enough
However, it is not enough to think in terms of increased public spending and redistribution. I would even say that it is not only about reclaiming monetary sovereignty in the sense of an exit from the Eurozone. European Integration, or in general contemporary forms of internationalization of capital and imperialism, have pervasive effects in both the economy and state, expanding the logic of the market and inducing imbalances, forms of industrialization but also de-industrialization, dependencies and forms of international division of labour that are antagonistic to any attempt toward an economy of social needs.
What is needed is a profound transformation of the productive base. Simply waiting for the growth effects that a return to national currency or increased public spending would bring along is not enough. What is needed, from ‘day one’, is a radical process of transformation, both in terms of ownership (for example in an immediate expansion of public ownership) but also for alternative non-capitalist forms of organization of production (such as self-management) or distribution. You need it not only as a strategic horizon but also a means to deal with urgent practical necessities such as the hardship of any process of rupture.
Thesis Three: We need to put transition back into the transitional program
Anti-austerity is not enough. Neither is simply the defence of public services. We need those demands, and those drastic changes that actually change the relation of forces in capitalist production, enable expansive forms of democratic control in the economy and attempt to go beyond the logic of the market.
Josep Maria Antentas has suggested, drawing on C. Wright Mill’s notion of the sociological imagination the need to have a sense of strategic imagination.5 I would add to this the need for strategic experimentation. Creating alternative forms of economic and social organization, including successful forms of democratic planning, requires knowledge and experience, and in this sense many of the practice associated with contemporary movements can be considered forms of experimentation: self-managed factories and companies, co-operatives, alternative distribution networks etc.
At the same time, movements are also learning processes. If you look at movements in the health sector, in education, in other public sector activities, but also at industrial sectors, unions, especially radical ones, also have a much better knowledge about their functioning than ‘managers’. You can even see it in new labour movements and resistances, such as the ones involving platform workers, where people also discuss on how to recuperate such practices and use as means to cater for social needs. In this sense, they have the collective knowledge and ‘collective expertise’ to actually suggest alternatives. This is very important if we want to rethink the very process of the elaboration of a ‘transitional program’. And the only way to deal with this question is to go back to a conception of revolutionary practice as experimentation, inventiveness and collective ingenuity. “Inventing the unknown” as Bensaïd would have suggested.6
In this sense, any attempt to actually proceed cannot be some form of optimal capitalist development but a profound change both in production and consumption patterns, in a sense a more profound social and cultural transformation, a new hierarchy of needs. Moreover, such an approach is the only way to think of ways to avoid the impending ecological disaster, beyond the limits of the ‘Green New Deal’ approach.
Thesis Four: It is not simply about ‘left governance’ even if it might include a left government
Although this process might include a ‘left government’ it is not about left governance. In this sense, despite its ‘nominal’ institutional form, we are talking about a revolutionary process. The other aspect is that any attempt toward initiating a process of change will be institutionally ‘violent’ from day one, in the sense of imposing limits upon capitalist ownership and nationalizing important resources, exiting international trade treaties, annulling debt and defaulting on obligations. Even if this process is carefully organized in order to avoid collapse, it will entail confrontation with both international organizations and apparatuses of the State. And this means that the side of the subaltern cannot simply rely upon the rise to power of governments that are by definition both unstable and prone to capitulation. What is needed is a counter-excess of power from below with expansive forms of autonomous organizations.
In this sense, the very notion of the ‘civil war’ should be revisited, not as the inevitability of generalized armed conflict, but as a reminder of the ferocity of the class confrontation that this process should include, the possibility of violence, or the way that the late George Labica put it: “the impossibility of non-violence.”7
Thesis Five: Insurrection is an art but you also need the science of a prolonged people’s war
By this phrase, I would like to point to a double challenge and difficulty. On the one hand you have all these forms of protest that at least in symbolic terms have an almost insurrectionary character, from Indignados, to the Greek sequence, to Gezi Park, to Gilets Jaunes. On the other, hand these protests are symbolically disruptive exemplified in certain ‘moments’ such as stopping the military parade in Thessaloniki on 2011 or ‘invading’ Champs Elysees in Paris, but mostly not disruptive of the functioning of core activities. It is important to rethink the disrupting character of mass social and political mobilization. It is important that any political change comes on top of a widespread protest of that magnitude that can actually create a condition of hegemonic imbalance, combined with elements of a crisis of the state.
I am not suggesting this in the sense of the neo-Blanquist obsession of tendencies like the Invisible Committee with the possibility to disrupt and blockade logistical processes of contemporary capitalism. Rather, I want to insist on the fact that contemporary mass protests have proven more effective when they can be really disruptive of economic and political processes, in this sense incorporating elements of a general strike strategy. However, this does not mean a ‘fetish’ of insurrection which in the current conjuncture ends up in the obsession with the grand riot, however necessary riots are. The point is to find ways of protest and mobilization that can have real material cost both in the economy and in the functioning of the state. But this is only one aspect.
It is obvious that there is also another temporality, that the long durée of a movement, and it is there that you need elaborating forms of organizing the subaltern classes and groups, have real grounding in them, create collectivities and networks and forms of self-organization that can provide the back-bone of a potential popular movement, recomposing the labour movement, making it open, democratic, inclusive but also political, putting in place cultures of democracy and solidarity. This is not as impressive as launching an electoral campaign or trying to make a political breakthrough, but in crucial moments, this can be the decisive factor and at the same time the means to ensure that any contemporary uprising is combined with forms of organizing that can give the necessary duration.
Thesis Six: We need a fresh conception of dual power
It is here that a renewed conception of dual power becomes pertinent. I believe that we have to think in terms of permanent dual power. I am not suggesting this in a scholastic manner, but rather in the sense that a reference to dual power encapsulates the fact that we want to have an expansive politicization of the subaltern classes, an expansion of their forms of self-organization, a liberation of their potential to impose their demands and exigencies and a liberation of broad practices of collective experimentation. A reference to dual power also points to the fact that is going to a complex, uneven and confrontational process, where struggles against not only the forces of capital and the state but also a ‘left’ or ‘popular’ government will be the order of the day, in a dialectical process with a constituent process that has to transcend the contemporary limits of constitutional legality and impose actual limitations to capitalist ownership or the ability to ‘invest’, along with real forms of popular control of those aspects of state functioning that are traditionally insulated against popular intervention.
Of particular importance would be the ability to have that kind of popular mobilization to ensure changes in the legal and constitutional order that would normally not be possible. Such an ‘institutionally violent’ constituent process remains a prerequisite of further social change along with the ability to resist counter attacks from the state. The case of Catalonia exemplifies this challenge.
Thesis Seven: We need to think in terms of a new historical bloc
All these account to a very particular point: it is not simply about ‘remaking the people’ or running a successful electoral campaign, or forming a government. It is about creating a new historical bloc.8 And the Gramscian notion of the historical bloc points toward the combination of a social alliance, with a political program that expresses the independent historical initiative of the subaltern with the political forms and practices that actually create not relations of representation but practices of democratic mass participation and mobilization, in a process that creates not just a new form of governance but an alternative historical trajectory for a society. But this requires much more than simply addressing the people, it requires much more than promising change to them, it means engaging them, and listening to them, transform them and the same time being transformed by means of the many instances of collective experimentation and struggle.
“We think of the people as the actual unity in struggle of all those who suffer exploitation, domination, patriarchy and the impending ecological disaster.”
And this also means moving from the nation to the people. We cannot think of sovereignty in national terms, even if we are thinking in terms of nation-states as political entities and spatio-temporal entities becoming the ‘weak links in the chain’, but we can think of sovereignty in popular terms. And this means that we think of the people as the actual unity in struggle of all those who suffer exploitation, domination, patriarchy and the impending ecological disaster. It is not simply substituting the nation by means of a post-national demos, rather it is the uneven and complex process of acknowledging history and rewriting history and common identity as part of struggle and within struggle, a history in the present, the history to be of the struggle of the subaltern toward emancipation and self-government.
Thesis Eight: We need a new internationalism
Some the biggest difficulties we have refer to the pressures that any process of change will face today. On the one hand, a ‘weakest link in the chain’ approach is more pertinent than ever, in the sense that only singular conjunctures of hegemonic crisis, based upon broader global dynamics, but over-determined by particular forms of social antagonism can lead to ruptures. On the other hand, the extent of the aggression and the blackmail they will face will be tremendous. In this sense a new internationalism is needed, both in the sense of movements expressing solidarity and undermining efforts to blackmail efforts at social transformation, but also in the sense of the quest of new forms of regional alliances and taking advantage of whatever contradictions exist in the international plane, a certain kind of revolutionary ‘realism’ which avoids turning into revolutionary cynicism. This is one of the most difficult and at the same time more urgent questions today.
Thesis Nine: We need organizations that are laboratories of strategy and hope
Against the contemporary forms of the bourgeois integral state in its combination of ‘public’ and ‘private’ hegemonic apparatuses, the systemic violence of its insulated and in some instances internationalized networks and the disaggregating effects of contemporary ideological apparatuses of the state, contemporary forms of left political organization are structurally inefficient. This explains the contemporary ‘crisis of authority’ of all contemporary forms of political organization exemplified in the mutation of ‘broad parties’ or ‘fronts’ to electoral machines, fully adjusted to the bourgeois – parliamentary mode, of politics and the series of implosions of supposedly ‘Leninist’ micro-organizations either in the form of full dissolution, in some instances over revelations about internal cultures that included pervasive sexism, or of the falling back into petty sectarianism and the ‘business as usual’ of ‘how many students did we recruit this year’.
In contrast what we need is to rethink the very forms of organization of a potential ‘Integral United Front’, the articulation of movements, political currents, sensitivities, theoretical researches, social and political experimentations into a constituent process that creates neither armies nor electoral machines but laboratories of strategy and factories of hope. However, this requires a profound process of self-critique from the part of the contemporary radical left, a doing away with habits and political mannerisms, a desire to learn and experiment, a profound questioning of hierarchies of class, knowledge and gender inside left wing organizations, an attempt to create not the ‘general quarters of the revolution’ but laboratories of new intellectualities and new forms of political discipline, that make it evident that militancy implies a form of sociality that is more open, democratic, inclusive, participative, and egalitarian than the society than surrounds us. Not as isolated islets of communism, but as proof that the new social and political forms are already emerging in struggle and through struggle.
Moreover, rethinking contemporary organizations in terms of neither ‘ideological purity’ nor electoral efficacy, but as political process that enable the production of strategies, the emergence of a new ‘popular culture’, and a new subaltern political civility, is the only way to conceive of organizations as the main instance for the production of a new historical bloc and as an attempt not to ‘represent’ but to help a process of ‘self-transformation’ of the subaltern, to help them assert their integral autonomy as Gramsci would have said. It is also the only way to intervene in the complex and plural temporality of revolutionary politics and to ‘prepare for the unexpected’.
Thesis Ten: We need to learn from defeat
From the SYRIZA debacle to the crisis of Podemos, the inability of the French left to create successful hegemonic projects, even when movements such as Gilets Jaunes emerge, to the fact the best that the North American left can achieve is to rally around Bernie Sanders, provides proof of a series of political defeats, the inability to turn the wave of social unrest and contestation that followed the last capitalist crisis into a coherent political project for emancipation and transformation.
It is high time we learned from defeat, beginning by acknowledging it, in all its depth and extent, in all its various forms and variations, including all the cases when we donot really understand the extent and depth and defeat. And we need to do it not in the sense of embracing some kind of left melancholia or pessimism, but in order to make an actual assessment of the relation of forces. And at the same time we need to always engage in continuing the process of rebuilding, re-founding and recomposing, by means of struggle, experimentation, organizing, creating new public spheres and actually listening and learning from the mistakes of others. Re-appropriating experiences of struggle, but also re-appropriating knowledge, always bearing in mind that actual struggles and actual movements carry more strategic imagination than us, always pose more questions and sometimes more answers than the ones we had already thought, always point to new ways to connect experiences and sensitivities and new ways and new solutions in a never ending dialectic of political confrontation but also collective political creativity.
“Yes, we are talking about a revolution.”
To the above ten theses I would add another one: Yes, we are talking about a revolution. It is impossible to think of social change and transformation as anything other than a revolutionary process. Of course, revolution is not identical to insurrection and it refers to a process rather than a ‘moment’, yet it is obvious that we are discussing political sequences that are ruptural, confrontational, conflictual, sequences that would imply long and hard struggles and which cannot be reduced to the normal functioning of parliamentary process. The very notion of revolution was in a certain manner one of the greatest inventions of modernity, its internal limit and at the same time opening to the future, and still is the best description of the transformations involved in any project of social emancipation.
To conclude: We are still inside the contours of a period of crisis. Not only in the sense of an open crisis of the arrangement of inter-imperialist conflict that was misnamed as ‘globalization’ and surely not only in the sense of new capitalist crisis looming in the horizon after a decade of recovery that failed to answer the structural and systemic aspects of the crisis of globalized neoliberalism, but also in the sense of a deeper political crisis, a lurking crisis of hegemony that sometimes, especially in the European context is expressed in the inability of the political elites to actually understand what is going on with society, to understand the roots and the depth of the anger that is coming forward in multifarious forms and to realize that there are still deeply rooted conceptions of justice, fairness and democracy that express, even in a rudimentary form the resistance and aspiration of the subaltern classes and their potential to disrupt and challenge the contemporary power configuration.
I am not suggesting some kind of false optimism. In contrast, I think that what we need is a reversal of the famous phrase by Romain Rolland that Gramsci used and suggest that what we need is in a certain way an optimism of the intellect to counter the pessimism of the will, a Spinozist insistence on the immanent tensions that run through the contemporary imperium and the potential for change inscribed in them. •
(This article is based on a presentation made at the Historical Materialism Conference, 2-5 May 2019, Panteion University, Athens.)
- Daniel Bensaïd, “On the return of the politico-strategic question,” 2006.
- Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, Verso, 2000.
- Razmig Keucheyan and Cédric Durand, “Bureaucratic Caesarism: A Gramscian Outlook on the Crisis of Europe,” Histrorical Materialism 23.2: 23–51, 2015.
- Isabelle Garo, Communisme et strategie, Paris, Editions Amsterdam, 2019.
- Josep Maria Antentas, “Imaginación estratégica y partido,” Viento Sur, 150: 141-150, 2017.
- “Inventer l’inconnu” was the title that Bensaïd chose for a collection of texts by Marx and Engels on the Paris Commune (Paris, La Fabrique, 2008).
- Georges Labica and Francis Sitel, “De l’impossibilité de la non-violence. Entretien avec Georges Labica,” 2009.
- Panagiotis Sotiris, “Gramsci and the Challenges for the Left: The Historical Bloc as a Strategic Concept,” Science & Society: Vol. 82, No. 1, 94-119.