The Committee Room and the Streets: An Interview with Geoff Eley


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.

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

GE: 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.

SM: 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?

GE: 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.

SM: 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?

GE: 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.

SM: 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?

GE: 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.

SM: 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?

GE: 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.

SM: 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?

GE: 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.

Author of the article

is Karl Pohrt Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History at the University of Michigan. Some of his works include Nazism as Fascism: Violence, Ideology, and the Ground of Consent in Germany 1930-1945 (2014), A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society (2005), and Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000 (2002).