Rethinking political parties

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It should be clear by now that movements come and go and cannot be evoked as some self-evident answer to the problem of creating effective agencies of social change.

The need for radical social change is pressing and the desire for it widespread. Traditionally, political parties have been the means of giving shape, leadership and coherence to such desires. But in present circumstances they are simply not up to the task. There's never been a golden age for parties of the left but there have been periods âe" the 1920s until the late 1960s âe" when the majority of people desiring change in a broadly socialist direction would be members or supporters of mass socialist or communist parties.

The situation now is that by far the majority of people actively pursuing goals of social justice, equality, deeper democracy, a social and environmentally sustainable economy and a demilitarized politics are politically active without being members of political parties. I am too.

Like many others, I'm not anti-party. If I lived in Italy, Norway or Germany, for instance, I'd probably join Rifondazione Comunista, the Socialist Left Party (SV) or Die Linke. But I would not see party activity âe" at any rate not in the forms that it conventionally takes âe" as my main focus.

Yet the sum of extra-party, movement-oriented activity does not somehow add up to political change, even if it were more adequately coordinated. We cannot point to "social movements" to get us out of a tight spot. It should be clear by now that movements come and go and cannot be evoked as some self-evident answer to the problem of creating effective agencies of social change.

At their most effective, progressive social movements radicalize public consciousness. Generally, however, they are unable to give these shifts in consciousness a wider political coherence. This means that the desire for change that such movements stimulate can be politically ambivalent, tapped by the right if these hopes don't get political expression and coherent alternatives from the left.

Perhaps we need to experiment with hybrid forms of "movement party" organization, especially in a context in which the nation state, the traditional focus of political parties, can only be one of many focuses of political struggle. It is clear from experience, however, that so-called movement parties provide no simple answer. We've watched in dismay the movement dynamic behind parties such as the German Greens, and more significantly the Brazilian Workers Party nationally, being subordinated to the conservative pressures of conventional electoral politics, state institutions and the financial markets.

This frustration prompts me to stand back and investigate some of the basic concepts involved in our thinking about change. Consider, for example, concepts of knowledge and its social organization, of power and its plural sources, of representation and alternative models and, more fundamentally, of agency âe" how do we now interpret for our own times Marx's famous remark about men making history but not in conditions of their own choosing?

Just as the unconscious mind can determine a person's behaviour, so with institutions: their behaviour can be shaped by unacknowledged assumptions rooted in their history. And just as individuals wanting to break from damaging patterns of behaviour try to subject those unconscious processes to critical analysis, so with organizations: the capacity consciously to innovate requires the identification of assumptions that underlie habitual political responses and their subjection to conscious debate.

Take three examples that have driven me to try to unearth assumptions underlying political behaviour.

First, there is the inability at many levels of the Labour Party (and not just among privatizing evangelists) to recognize that public service workers and users could be driving forces for genuinely radical changes to our public services. I've often found that underlying this blindness are unexamined assumptions about the nature of knowledge that are in essence highly restrictive, elitist and mechanical.

The second example comes from the radical left. Consider the recurrent failure of what could be positive attempts by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) to initiate a broadly based political alternative to New Labour âe" first with the Socialist Alliance and then Respect. A fatal factor here is the SWP's implicit concept of leadership and power, which seems blind âe" wilfully or otherwise âe" to the existence, relevance and potential power of a wide diversity of initiatives and traditions with common or overlapping political values, but autonomous from the SWP.

A third example has been part of my own unconscious in the past: an equation of "parliamentary socialism" âe" the tragic fate of socialism in the Labour Party âe" and electoral politics. Here our unconscious has been influenced by an electoral system that has all but excluded the radical left and the Greens from political representation. The result has been very superficial thinking about what representation is for and a tendency to engage in electoral politics either with gritted teeth as something to be done every so often to gain a propaganda platform, or to be completely intoxicated by the experience of engagement with the public after years in the political ghetto, and to lose one's critical faculties. Both responses have lost all historical sense of the struggles for the franchise and the possibilities for building on these victories with a new model of representation, opening up state institutions to the pressures of movements and conflicts outside the political class.

To begin such a tentative exploration of the political unconscious I draw on what I have learnt from the theory and practice of social and trade union movements over the past 30 years. I should explain at the outset my use of the concept of "transformation," as it has only recently become part of English political debate. It is useful because it refers to forms of change that transform the basic structure of society or the institution under discussion; it also leaves open the means of change, avoiding the problems of the polarization between reform and revolution.

The political thinking influenced by grass-roots movements distinguishes between two radically distinct meanings of power: power as transformative capacity and power as domination, as involving an asymmetry between those with power and those over whom power is exercised.

Historically the major parties of the left have tended to be built around a benevolent version of the second understanding of power: that is, around winning the power to govern and using it paternalistically to meet the needs of the people. This has shaped the nature of politics, concentrating it around legislation and state action. It has underpinned the position and self-conception of the political party as having a monopoly over political change. This in turn has meant that parties have tended to see the political role of movements as subordinate âe" a matter of lobbying, support and mobilizing pressure behind legislative, parliamentary action spearheaded by the party.

The assertion of power as transformative capacity, first by the student, feminist, radical trade union and community movements of the late 1960-70s, and more recently by the global justice movement, broke with this narrow definition of politics. It led to a far wider understanding of the scope of politics, that is of efforts to end injustice and to realize the dignity and potential of all; a scope way beyond the traditional focus on state, government and legislation, pervading all the relationships and institutions of our daily lives. The other side of this opening and deepening of the definition of politics has been an effective challenge to the party's monopoly of the leadership of social change.

This understanding of power as transformative capacity is related to a distinct understanding of social change, implicit in the practice of the movements. Crucial here is the way that we started from our own circumstances and took personal responsibility for change by refusing to reproduce relations of oppression and exploitation âe" in our own lives and in our implicit complicity with it elsewhere, especially in the global South âe" and by struggling to create spaces for transformation and to at least illustrate alternative values.

This understanding was evident vividly in the women's liberation movement, which directed its energies towards mobilizing whatever resources it could to bring about change in the present, both in personal relationships and, closely connected, in the social and cultural environment that had reinforced women's subordination. It made demands on the state for support but on the basis of its own alternatives and self-organization. Similarly in the workplace, for a brief but inspirational period in the 1970s, the shop floor organizations that had developed since the 1950s became the basis for real shifts in the balance of power in the management of factories and for alternative plans for industrial policy and reorganization.

I've highlighted the radical dynamic of this approach to power. It can also stop at the level of personal change without making the wider connections that require a collective exercise of transformative power. This is clearly a central issue in addressing the causes of climate change.

As we know, the Labour Party did not take up these opportunities for radical social change at a national level. Local attempts to experiment with this new politics in the 1980s, most notably with the Greater London Council, were also swept aside. But this was not simply a matter of political ill will or reasoned disagreement; it was the result of a complete incomprehension of a fundamentally different understanding of politics.

The assumption that underpinned traditional parties of the left was that the state, government or party âe" the social subject âe" acted on the rest of society âe" the social object. This traditional but still influential model took insufficient account of the way in which change is coming from within society, the way in which those who were previously considered the objects of change are themselves actors for change, including self-change.

I emphasize this because it is this political philosophy that underlies the inability of social democratic parties âe" and the Euro-communist parties, which essentially adopted their methods âe" to follow through whatever reforms they made in the early post-war period and turn them into a dynamic of social transformation. And the legacy of this traditional and flawed understanding of politics lingers on in the parties of the green and radical left.

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