The Committee Room and the Streets

Submitted by vicent on February 17, 2016

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?”

Although this interview was conducted independently of the roundtable, its themes correspond so closely that we have decided to include it here. Please be sure to read all the other contributions: Panagiotis Sotiris, Joshua Clover and Jasper Bernes, Jodi Dean, Nina Power, Immanuel Ness.

Salar Mohandesi: The Left is slowly beginning to reassess its relationship to the State. One of the forms this has taken is a renewed interest in electoral politics – in the US, for example, with the election of Kshama Sawant, and in Europe, to take another example, with Syriza. But the return of such “pragmatic socialists” to this older tradition of Leftist electoral political strategy, it seems to me, is either implicitly or explicitly tied to a certain model of postwar social democracy. Is such a model, given how determined it was by a very specific historical conjuncture, workable today, or do you think that the moment which made such a social democratic electoralist politics possible is simply non-repeatable?

Geoff Eley: Well, it probably is non-repeatable. Because it consisted of so many contingencies of that particular period, the 1950s and 1960s – whether in terms of the Cold War alignments, whether in terms of the consequences of Marshall Aid, in terms of the international monetary system that’s created after the War, whether it’s in terms of those longer run processes of working class formation that I talk about in Forging Democracy, or in terms of Europe’s and North America’s position in the world – it is certainly non-repeatable in each of those aspects. So the idea that one could reconstitute a viable left politics by straightforwardly reappropriating the elements that were so effective in this earlier period is a non-starter. At the same time it does not mean that you cannot take some or even all of those elements – suitably rethought – and combine them in new and creative ways that can have real efficacy for the purposes of the present. You have to begin the argument now rather than in relation to then. You can’t recuperate “then” as a way of restarting “now.”

Nor does an electoralist strategy – or a politics that focuses on elections – have to translate necessarily to some close or exact equivalent of the old social democratic or communist model of public mobilization. There are all sorts of ways of using the electoral process as a vehicle, as an instrument, as a platform, as an arena in which you argue the importance of your particular kind of politics – as opposed to the electoral machinery that the Social Democratic and Communist Parties simply became. During the course of the later 20th century, the whole raison d’être of the party became reduced downwards into fighting an election, winning an election, keeping itself in office, or getting back there. But the classic slogan of the SPD left before the First World War had been Durch das Fenster reden (“Speak through the Window!”), i.e. use the parliamentary chamber as an opportunity to challenge the given rules and boundaries of the politically possible by addressing the people outside, and thereby overcome the gap between the committee room and the street. So the problem isn’t so much the bankruptcy of an electoralist politics as such, but rather the degree to which fighting elections can turn into the sole focus.

The challenge now is to think of viable political purposes and objectives in other ways. So how can you acquire a voice of significance, so that you are actually inside the conversations that determine how policy gets made, or how can you use local concentrations of strength in order to ensure the delivery of services and public goods in effective and just ways. Which then become, actually, the bases for political argument themselves. When people can see that something is actually doable, and may even work, then that’s how movements actually acquire momentum.

Historically speaking, there are lots of examples of a movement or a party, oftentimes on a very local basis, using the opportunities for political voice in order to build solidarities, create continuities over time, that were not simply subsumed under the electoral strategy of a labor party or an SPD at a deradicalized, national level.

So you are saying that elections can still be used as an instrument in struggle.

Yes. It seems to me to be self-defeatingly ultra-left to ignore elections completely. Politics has to begin from the already existing points of access – not least because that’s where the majority of people understand politics to be located. So, democratically speaking, it seems self-defeating just to ignore elections or relegate them to purely instrumental or tactical importance. I mean, obviously there will be occasions, and situations, where you may not want to prioritize your politics around an electoral campaign, but, in principle, it seems to be foolish not to acknowledge that this is where political practice has to occur.

It seems, though, that the example you are drawing on is really of a parliamentary system where it is possible to make coalitions. What about the United States, where the strategic options are rather limited in that you may win at the municipal level, but when you move higher up, it becomes less feasible. So what do you think about the American electoral system?

Well, that does feel like an intractable problem at the moment. I mean, the whole polity is broken, in my view. And not least in how its national instances really don’t work. Nothing seems to work anymore. Nor is there any sign of real possibility of significant electoral reform, it seems to me. This is a state that is completely mired in its own inefficiencies, incompetencies, dysfunctionalities. Now that does not mean you have to abandon congressional elections. But how else do you imagine an effective left politics with some popular, democratic appeal and traction?

I think it has to be city by city and state by state. It has to be built from the ground. There are currently some interesting instances of this, like the minimum wage campaign, which is both a real issue with enormous potential and appeal, and, just in terms of building popular openness and sympathy for a different set of policies, it seems to be doable on a city-by-city basis. And there is a sort of rolling effect to that kind of politics. Something that can accumulate and aggregate. So long as you keep realistic expectations, and an understanding that it has to be a politics of the long haul.

This actually leads into another question. Beyond elections, and you’ve written about this extensively, these parties were really rooted in the everyday lives of masses of people. So there was a kind of reciprocal relationship between the electoral struggle and politicizing everyday life, in the sense that the Italian Communist Party, for example, could at one point have been described as a kind of society within society. Today, for a number of reasons, it seems that way of doing politics is gone. So why do you think that has vanished? Can that happen again?

My way of answering that question is to build up an argument about its conditions of viability in the past. And there is this old article from the 1980s, which I think was by Peter Stearns, called “The Effort at Continuity in Working-Class Culture,” something like that. The idea is crucial. So in order to ensure that fragmentary, decentralized, and quite explosive instances of popular political mobilization are not just that, but create efficacies over time, you need to have answers to that very question: how do you create continuities in working-class culture over time? On the one hand, those Social Democratic and Communist Parties were remarkably successful in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century in accomplishing those important starting conditions for what you describe. How do you build identification with your particular kind of politics that lasts over time?

My way of answering that question has been to look at the process of the emergence of those conditions. It has everything to do with building of communities around those concentration points, growth of the parties around them, and especially including the incremental and steadily accumulating conquest of local government. Because it’s once you start building influence and eventually taking control over local governments that you can gain access to those resources that can begin making a difference in people’s lives, especially in the provision of services and public employment. Jobs. Municipal socialism was created out of an infrastructure of resources and access of that kind in a period when other goods were disbursed from the central state through local government. Now that’s what characterized the political strength of the Socialist and Communist Parties in the early twentieth century, which then carried over into the 1950s, 1960s, and even to some extent the 1970s, and that is what is gone. That’s what has been dismantled at every level. Most importantly via deindustrializtion, reorganization of labor markets, and so on and so forth. And also suburbanization and the dismantlement of local government in the 1970s and 1980s, so that local government does not exist in the old way any more as a source of services, employment, and other resources.

So, backtracking a bit to the point where I mentioned the minimum wage campaign, and city-by-city successes: until the 1980s, cities, especially in Europe, had hugely more resources than they do now in terms of their ability to have a real effect on employment, services, and housing. Well, if I’m not mistaken about the American case, one of the most important and destructive outcomes of the Reagan administration, was essentially to dismantle that system of federal subsidy and funding to cities. There’s been a systematic privatization in relation to federal and state governments as well. This was dramatically the case in Britain under Thatcher in the 1980s. The Thatcher and Major governments basically abolished local government democracy in Britain – at a time when the Left’s principle strength in Britain was in those metropolitan councils, in the Greater London Council (GLC), and other forms of local and regional government. So that in the course of the 1970s there was a steady erosion of the resources local government had available to it. Until Thatcher, whose momentum actually grew from the rightwing grassroots backlash of the 1970s, the principal form of local taxation in Britain was based in the so-called local government rates, the equivalent of property taxes. Building during the 1970s, there was a constant drumbeat of right-wing campaigning against rates as the form of local property tax that essentially funded most sorts of local government services. Systematic efforts on the part of the right to force local governments in the early 1970s to cap the rates was the UK equivalent of the successful campaign for Proposition 13 (1978) in California in the 1970s, which then continued into the Thatcher era in a radicalized form, resulting in the effective dismantlement of funding for local government, the dependence of local government spending on approval from central government, and finally the abolition of any strong basis for local government democracy.

To my mind, that removed one of the essential elements in that historical formation previously enabling the earlier form of left politics to accomplish so much. So it’s easier to answer that question that it is to answer the big one, the one about the present, which is: how do you build something that can acquire and demonstrate that same kind of political efficacy. I think it’s really hard. And you can only imagine doing it from the ground up, but without the kind of resources that this kind of politics was able to take advantage of earlier in the twentieth century. If movements can be built over the longer term, piece by piece and city by city, then maybe that can assemble the foundations for returning to a kind of strong public sector. Who knows? But for a viable Left politics, that’s what you need, it seems to me. You need to be able to reward the political activism based in communities with real gains in terms of resources, services, and some practical and tangible sense that it makes a difference.

You’ve said a lot about local politics, what about politics at the national level? Also, when you had local governments with resources that could be used by socialist movements, you also had a certain configuration of the nation-state, and the state operating within a certain conception of the nation, so that socialist movements could actually put pressure on national governments to win certain things. How has that changed, in the sense that the state configuration that allowed these kinds of socialist and communist movements to function seem to be different?

Circumstances now are profoundly different. Well, that’s partly a result of those processes of privatization that we’ve talked about already. I mean, they have essentially gutted the ability of national government to provide the social services and public goods that characterized the Keynesian welfare state in that heyday of the 1950s and 1960s, which I do think was a very exceptional time. So how has national government changed? An answer has to begin from neoliberalism, and the triumph of that set of politics. There’s also another factor: the redistribution of sovereignties away from a strong national state model and towards a globalized, transnationalized, far more complex system of sovereignty in the world, which complicates, compromises, and seriously reduces and impedes the abilities of national governments to undertake an ambitious program of progressive reform, whether it’s in the form of the IMF-World Bank complex of global institutions, whether it’s the EU, whether it’s the various international trade agreements in North American terms, or in a variety of other ways too, including the brute power of multinational globalized corporations, the leeway available to national governments is obviously seriously compromised relative to earlier moments in the twentieth century.

And certainly national governments believe they don’t have the latitude anymore – and when I say national governments, I mean the civil services, other bureaucracies, and whichever parties that have come into office. All of them are constantly speaking and having to speak in this language of limited capability. Whether it’s in relation to revenue or whether it’s in terms of what government can legitimately be expected to do in relation to society. For 25 years the language of government has been all about the reduction of government. More and more functions of government are displaced away from the state and are subcontracted to types of profit-making organization, whether it’s the health services, prisons, schools or any other institutional sector, and so the single most important priority for any Left, whether in terms of its principled basis for politics or its access to potential popular support, is to start making arguments again, with real conviction and real traction, arguments that can be really effective, about public goods, social goods. During the 1990s and 2000s, the ability to make those arguments in the public sphere was disastrously destroyed. There was no space for that language in politics anymore.

But even if we succeed in changing the language to speak more of public goods, to talk of a commons, and also of social rights, like a guaranteed social wage, what if the state materially cannot grant that any longer? Perhaps social democracy in after the Second World War could only do this because of a very unique conjuncture – reconstruction, imperialism, and so on. So even if we change the discourse, is this model still materially possible?

It seems to me that it becomes possible if resources are imagined differently than now. I mean it is completely impossible for the state, in its present form, to provide those kinds of social services and public goods, and that kind of interventionist, forward policy, in relation to social justice, if you assume the same resource base. Once you start returning to different ideas, like a rational system of redistributive taxation or the creation of resources through a graduated taxation system, then those possibilities necessarily begin to change and return.

Sometimes this is actually not very difficult. One interesting example is Norway. Well, in Norway they decided to put the revenues from oil into public trust, as opposed to, say, spending them all, which is more or less what happened in Britain under Thatcher. That’s established a protected social fund in fact, from which the Norwegian government is, I think, constitutionally prevented from spending the capital. It is from that fund the Norwegian government finances many of its policies. That’s kind of an easy thing. So long as you’ve got an ideal of the good of the whole society at the center of the thinking around which politics is organized, other associated arguments and claims can then be more easily made. Well, there’s nothing remotely like that in this country.

There has always historically been an uneasy relationship between electoral strategies and militant, on-the-street, extraparliamentary struggles. In some ways these two tendencies enabled each other (the Russian and German revolutions after many years of parliamentary activity by the parties on the one hand, and perhaps the election of Sawant after Occupy on the other). How have socialists historically tried to link up these two tendencies, and what might be the nature of this relationship in the future?

This brings us back to the original starting point of this conversation: how do you try to connect the activism and forms of necessary direct-action militancy on the ground with the conventional places where “legitimate” political action and debate are normally deemed to be taking place (in parliaments; city and local government chambers; election campaigns; the recognized public sphere of newspapers and TV)? How do you make those connections, especially when the “extraparliamentary” and the “parliamentary” commonly treat each other as beyond the pale? On the one hand, the advocates of on-the-street militancy easily develop a kind of purist intransigence, in a confrontationalism that can’t see either the practical purpose or the defensible ethics of coalitioning with mainstream party elements, because that kind of collaboration always leads to sellout or compromise, with effects that demoralize and demobilize the energies that first got people and their demands moving in the first place. On the other hand, those progressives who’ve been working away inside the existing left-wing parties, often with tremendous idealism and patience and with lots of genuine sacrifices, can’t see the point of trying to talk to the activists and bring them along, whether because of their own prejudices or from fear of alienating their “legitimate” allies in the center and right. This kind of gap has become all the harder to bridge as the former socialist parties have moved further and further to the right under the contemporary neoliberal hegemony, while any remaining democracy in the national polities has become more and more hollowed out. The old left-wing parties, from the British Labour Party through the SPD to the Italian Democratic Party or any other evolved forms of the Socialist and Communist left, are now rarely anything more than mildly left-of-center in their orientation. So why should activists on the street ever see the latter as potential sources of alliance in the first place? With all of the differences between the respective contexts, this same kind of argument can also be applied in principle to the US and the Democratic Party too.

It’s very tempting to shoehorn this problem into the old adversarial framework of “revolution” versus “reform.” Leaving aside the more extreme case of an insurrectionary politics (whose conditions of possible success profoundly changed between 1917 and 1968, in my view), a confrontational type of Left politics (extraparliamentary, direct-action) now has to face very unfavorable circumstances, in which the forces of the state and political order more generally are lined up against such radicalism and its chances of succeeding, and – just as key – large sections of society are just not willing even to imagine such radical challenges to the system. In fact, the usual dynamics work precisely against the possibility of building majoritarian support for such challenges, and rather tend to isolate the radical groupings instead. In fact, outside the much rarer exceptional situations (the very biggest crises), the Left builds support for itself by persuasion, campaigning, and all the continuities of organization we associate with successful social movements, and this process requires respect for the rights and entitlements provided by the democratic system, however imperfect the latter may be. The ability of the Left to broaden its support outwards from the core constituencies, with the hope of building sufficient confidence across social groupings that might allow it to start speaking credibly and legitimately for society as a whole (and simultaneously to forestall the emergence of reactionary coalitions, e.g. in the form of a military coup), necessitates a practical and principled respect for democratic process and procedures. Moreover, when existing democratic goods are in danger (whether the more specific democratic gains made in earlier periods or the constitution, civil liberties, and the rule of law per se), the priority of building the broadest possible popular support for democratic goals becomes all the more vital. (I should say, parenthetically, that this is a very deliberately “Gramscian” way of coming at the question.)

The priority of preserving democratic freedoms at the level of the polity (in terms of the constitution, parliamentary process, civil liberties, the rule of law, regional and local government, and whatever social policies and public goods can be protected and even enhanced) has in some ways become harder and harder to see, let alone accomplish, because the state and the powers of government have become ever-further removed from accountability. A key part of his has also been the strengthening of the state’s police powers, whether in the forms and extent of the security apparatus and its coercive technologies, the accepted practices of policing, the criminalizing of protest and dissent, the relentless expansion of the carceral state, or the degree of tolerance in the public sphere for violence exercised by police and security apparatuses. All of these now accepted ways of “policing the crisis” make it both all the more important to defend the classic civil freedoms and all the more difficult to achieve. But however hard it’s become, the case for holding on to the democratic rights gained under the law seems to me to outweigh the arguments for maintaining a “purist” commitment to more radical policies that focus only on transforming the system (where the “system” means capitalism plus liberal democracy).

At the same time, this question needs always to be judged carefully in relation to the “present conjuncture” (a good Marxist term!). For example, where crises are quite finely balanced, whether because of the economy or more contingent political crises (or both), it may well be necessary for the Left to undertake more militant confrontational actions in order to ensure that the situation doesn’t start slipping beyond its influence or control. It’s not hard to think of historical cases of this kind where democratic goods are perilously under threat – e.g. Weimar Germany in the summer and autumn of 1932, or France in early 1937, or Italy after the assassination attempt on Togliatti in 1948, or Chile in 1972-73 – and the usual pattern is for the Left to fail to step decisively up to the mark, although of course the circumstances are also always incredibly complex and ambiguous and full of risks and dangers. It may be useful to think of the recent (and still continuing) crises of democracy in Venezuela, Ecuador, and other countries of Central and South America in this way. So in other words, there are certainly circumstances where democratic criteria require a different type of strategy – i.e. one based on militant and even insurrectionary actions rather than the broadest-based coalition-building through elections. But now, realistically speaking, the Left is usually nowhere near as strongly placed any more to imagine mounting that kind of militantly mobilized massed defense of democratic goods. The practical ground of politics has become more defensive, more strategic, and more dependent on the building of coalitions. Until mass mobilizations have been building over a much longer period, with a huge shift of broader popular sympathies inside then public sphere, any effort at pressing direct-action beyond certain carefully strategized limits is likely to meet with a ferocious and unstoppable police response.

In Forging Democracy I tried to show how the most successful democratic movements have always combined electoral and parliamentary with social movement and extraparliamentary strategies – that is to say, all the ways in which “the committee room” and “the streets” need to be moved into acting together. I’ve argued that in the European present, these two aspects of democratic politics have been broken apart as the result of long-term processes of social, cultural, and political change going back to the 1950s and 1960s, whose consequences the recent centrist deradicalizing of social democratic parties has so successfully ratified. There’s now very little connection at all between the parliamentary parties and the grassroots or the more elemental democracy of “the streets.” So the goal has to be one of patiently trying to build up the kind of political trust that can allow each of these necessary spheres of action to be brought into believable and productive relations again. In the US the severity of the difficulties seems all the greater, as the national Democratic Party has never come close to functioning in the same way as the old European Socialist and Communist Parties. But we can find some rough equivalents of the kind of dynamics I’ve been describing – e.g. the peak of the Civil Rights movement and the Black Power/Black Panther politics that followed, along with the forms of social movement politics developing out of the late 1960s into the 1970s, whose history is still waiting to be properly rehabilitated. The two Jesse Jackson campaigns in 1984 and 1988 provide a very good ground for thinking about how these processes of articulation between the street and the committee room can occur. And again: we can see this happening most clearly when we look city by city.

What I’m suggesting involves an underlying argument about how political change usually occurs, based on my historian’s understanding of the later 19th and 20th centuries and a Gramscian approach to political practice influenced over many years by feminist theory and thinkers like Stuart Hall and Ernesto Laclau. It’s an approach that can be applied to all sorts of particular movements and situations, as well as to the larger-scale conundrum of how to develop an overall political strategy for imagining macro-political change. One very concrete example from the contemporary U.S., as I mentioned earlier, would be the current drive for an improved minimum wage, which has been proceeding most effectively on a city-by-city basis, with important articulations between grassroots activism and allies inside parties, assemblies, and administrations, and with cumulative effects across different places that potentially begin to redraw the terms of the overall political climate. In other words, social movement politics of this kind can be shaped in such a way as to outgrow the localism of its immediate context and take on a much wider efficacy and resonance. And at that point it becomes incredibly important that there be a Left that’s active on a larger-than-local level too – spatially across a region or in chains of coordination across other cities elsewhere, in the multiple contexts of publicness (electronic media, internet, and blogosphere as well as press, radio, and TV), in national parliaments and assemblies via parties and the constellations of NGOs, pressure groups, and campaigning organizations, in the transnationally active versions of all these forms of coaltioning, and so forth. It’s precisely in this way, it seems to me, that the environmental movements have built up their collective political agency during the past several decades, both mobilizing action and everyday awareness at the local level and campaigning for change in the national and global institutional scenes of policy-making, in ways that increasingly aggregate to a critically effective set of political capacities. Given the degree to which climate change will be shaping not just the possibilities for policy at the level of states, but all of the practical details of the quality of life all the way down to the ground in societies, it becomes incredibly important that we make ourselves as conscious and experienced as possible in these ways of understanding political practice.