Rethinking political parties: part II

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A useful framework for deepening our critique and highlighting the importance of the new methodologies implicit in many of the social movements of recent years is provided by critical realism. This is a philosophical school that was itself a product of the political and cultural struggles of the 1960s and 1970s and provides a necessary alternative to both the limitations of structuralism and the dead ends of postmodernism.

The critical realist Roy Bhaskar makes a useful distinction between four planes of social being: human interaction with nature; enduring social structures; social interaction and relationships between individuals; and the complexity of the personality. The dominant and governing traditions of socialism have focused on issues of social structure, often to the exclusion of the other three. Particularly relevant my argument is their conflation of interaction and relationship between individuals with structure (there is not space here to deal with the political implications of the other two levels).

The traditions of socialism that have been the basis for powerful political parties have tended to treat human beings as the product of social structures to an extent that left little room for the potentialities âe" and pitfalls âe" of human agency. It was as if the complex and dynamic character of Marx's thesis that we make our own history but not under conditions of our own choosing had been forgotten.

The tendency was to assume that structural change âe" nationalization of the leading companies, setting up the National Health Service (NHS) and so on âe" was not only necessary but sufficient to bring about social transformation. This also meant treating structures as rigid constraints on what was possible and produced a conservatism that has become overwhelming in the face of corporate globalization.

But if we distinguish between social structures and relations between individuals, we create a space for agency and the nature of constraints becomes more complex and more historically variable. At any moment in time, structures pre-exist individuals. They create constraints on our capacity for action. They also provide the means, the conditions, of our agency. We cannot act without them. On the other hand, structures cannot endure without the actions of the human beings who use them.

Thus, although we do not at any one time produce structures, we continually face choices about whether to reproduce or to transform them. In other words we can't wake up in the morning and decide exactly what to do or what kind of society to create. But neither are we without the capacity to act as knowing subjects able to act on and alter the structures of which we are part. Dominant socialist traditions have tended to elide structure and agency; indeed one reason for the feeble acquiescence of social democratic parties historically to the hostile pressure from both state and big business has been the fact that they never saw their members and supporters as knowing, creative agents of change, only as voters and supporters.

Closely associated with an understanding of transformative power are the distinctive understandings of knowledge influenced by movement-based politics. In good part as a result of this politics and âe" not unrelated âe" developments in the philosophy of science, we are increasingly aware of the plural sources of knowledge: as tacit, practical and experiential as well as scientific. We are working increasingly with complexity, ambivalence and uncertainty.

This does not imply a postmodern, relativistic notion that anything goes, that there are no independent grounds for judging arguments. On the contrary, it implies that supposedly "postmodern" concepts like "deconstruction" and a recognition of the many perspectives from which a single phenomenon can be understood must be reclaimed as tools for analyzing and changing a complex real world.

These new understandings of knowledge point towards an emphasis on the horizontal sharing and exchange of knowledge and collaborative attempts to build connected alternatives and shared memories. They stress the gaining of knowledge as a process of discovery and therefore see political action, the exercise of transformative power, as itself a source of knowledge, revealing unpredicted problems or opportunities. This implies a self-consciousness of the sense in which actions are also experiments and therefore the need for spaces and times for open reflection on, argument over and synthesis of different experiences.

This recognition of the importance of experiential and practical knowledge deepens the nature of debate. It implies debate driven not so much by the struggle for positions of power as by a search for truth about the complexity of social change, a production of collaborative knowledge that itself becomes a source of power.

The Social Forum process internationally is perhaps the most important and appropriately transnational experiment so far in finding ways of sharing ideas rooted in both experience and different political traditions. Like any experiment it is messy and uneven but contains crucial lessons from which any rethinking of the party and the development of political programs must learn.

Where do these notes on rethinking power, knowledge, agency and structure lead in terms of rethinking political parties? Here all that I can do is to note some pointers and ask some questions.

A first implication of the analysis of power as transformative capacity is that action in and around political institutions is but one âe" albeit crucial âe" sphere of action and struggle for fundamental change. But are there any implications for the direction and content of such action?

In general terms one can say that the goal must move from winning the power to govern for the people paternalistically to being a struggle in collaboration with organized citizens to change political institutions from sources of domination to resources for transformation. What does this mean in practice?

It is an approach best illustrated by experiments in Latin America: Workers Party-controlled local authorities in Brazil, the MAS government in Bolivia and the Bolivarian process in Venezuela, where parties (or, in the latter case, a leader) winning elections have then used their democratic legitimacy to attempt to reach out beyond parliamentary institutions and strengthen popular control over the state institutions, trying to turn them into public resources for change controlled by a combination of participatory democracy and elected politicians.

These experiences are answering the question of what political representation is for with a new model of representation. This is one that, after the struggles against dictatorship or extreme forms of corruption and oligarchic rule, takes elections and representative democracy seriously, not as a sufficient definition of democracy but rather as one part of a strategy for more radical democratic âe" including economic âe" transformation.

A key element in making this possible has been the existence in most parts of Latin America of strong and for the most part highly politically conscious forms of popular democracy or non-state sources of democratic power âe" in neighbourhood organizations, movements of the landless and indigenous people, and radical trade union organizations. (This is one reason why the commercial media have much less effective political influence in these countries than in the global North, in spite of their best and most insidious efforts to influence hearts and minds.)

In these circumstances the distinctive contribution of radical left political parties, at their most innovative, has been to open up the institutions, to redistribute power, to facilitate a sharing of power with organized citizens, and to stimulate and support new institutions of public participation in control over state power. They have sought to straddle the political institutions on the one hand and the conflicts and emergent sources of power in society on the other. The logic is to work both in and against the institutions and with autonomous movements and social conflicts to open up and democratize the institutions. Encouraging non-state sources of democratic power has been a necessary part of this process.

This idea of non-state sources of democratic power is crucial to rethinking the party. The key point is this: while radical mass movements, from those of the 1970s to the recent anti-war movement, have not been sustained, there is widespread evidence of efforts to create lasting sources of democratic power autonomous from the state âe" movements with sustained institutions that have a democratic legitimacy in the face of discredited established political institutions.

Again, some of the most developed examples are from Latin America, such as the landless movement (MST) in Brazil. Other examples include transnational networks like the "Hemispheric Social Alliance" that provide a force for accountability on global institutions and corporations that have escaped the conventional mechanisms of parliamentary accountability.

These organizations are more than ephemeral campaigns. They are trying to create different kinds of relationships here and now, based on principles of participatory democracy, and at the same time building democratic power to challenge and transform institutions driven by private profit or bureaucratic self-interest.

We have to ponder critically how relevant the Latin American experience is for Europe. One problem we face in the North is the way parliamentary democracy and a symbiotically related media has developed an immense capacity simultaneously to incorporate and marginalize all such extra-parliamentary efforts at radical democracy. But as national and local state institutions lose their legitimacy, some are breaking through. The strengthening of these grassroots-based forms of democratic power, including their connection and exchange of ideas and organizational lessons with each other, is essential to the idea of a new, transformative model of political representation along the lines exemplified in Latin America. This political organizing at the base is a priority on which many of us could agree whether we are members of a party or not.

Another lesson we can learn from a critical understanding of Latin American experiences âe" and some European ones too âe" is how electoral activity can be an extension of movement politics. It faces all kinds of pitfalls but also imposes disciplines and provides the stimuli of translating transformative politics into practical and widely accessible alternatives. The conditions may not be of our choosing but through a collaborative and engaged rethinking, inspired by a wide range of historical and present day experiences, we can indeed still make history.

Further Reading

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