Socialist political parties should work to connect rather than direct progressive struggles and organisations.
A mass uprising – one of the largest in the history of the United States – exploded after police murdered George Floyd in late May 2020. While thousands stormed the streets, some seasoned organisers mused on Twitter whether to even support the rebellion. Others were flat-footed at best, doing nothing more than issuing tone-deaf statements. Still others felt immediate solidarity, but stumbled to find a meaningful way to connect with the movement as explicit socialists.
One of the main reasons that so many socialists had a challenging time not only reading the conjuncture but also engaging with the movement has to do with glaring limitations in the dominant ways that socialists are thinking about the meaning of organisation – in particular, how organisations relate to the diversity of mass unrest, the contingency of political time and the temptation of state power.
The basic state of existence in capitalist society is depoliticised atomisation.
Most people will often go through their lives pursuing various individualised survival strategies, even in competition with one another. If there’s a difficulty, chances are very high someone will respond by working harder, cutting a private deal, transferring to a new job, or moving to a new location.
This individualism is a socially conditioned response to the challenges of social reproduction under capitalism. State ideology naturalises the status quo to such a degree that many people resign themselves to the belief that nothing will ever change. Even when there is hope for change, our highly precarious lives dissuade us from pursuing risky actions that might make things worse. And if some are willing to accept risk, uniting in a common cause requires balancing so many different interests, personalities and objectives that many might feel it’s not even worth the effort. So, if they do resist, it will tend to be individualised, maybe showing up late to work, or stealing some fruit from the grocery store.
That said, there are moments, such as the George Floyd uprisings, when people break this pattern. Instead of dismissing themselves as powerless individuals, they reimagine themselves as agents of change. The process through which individuals come together as a collective social force is called composition. In the past, there was a tendency to see this primarily in class terms, with the assumption that the only real social force was one based in some kind of objective class position.
But class is not the only way that social forces can frame their subjectivity. In fact, when individuals come together as a collective, they lay hold of a vast array of compositional determinants, that is, aspects of their lives, most of which are outside their control, that can nevertheless be subjectively activated and repurposed to accomplish certain tasks. These can include everything from gender, race and occupation to age, geography and memory, as well as any combination of determinants.
This does not mean, though, that composition is spontaneous. As Rodrigo Nunes explains:
“Think of how a ‘spontaneous’ action comes to pass. A person talks to another, who talks to another, who talks to another; suddenly, an idea occurs, which will probably be in circulation even before any individual voices it. A meeting is called, the original idea is presented, some people walk out, others point out its flaws, eventually someone proposes a new idea; a short text is prepared, a new meeting is called and so on. Spontaneity, the example shows, does not mean the same behaviour actualising itself at once across a large number of people: it always starts somewhere; there are always some people who organise it.”
In other words, there is no such thing as pure spontaneity. Behind every seemingly spontaneous initiative are countless layers of hidden organisation. Some are inherited, emulating other organisational models, while others are picked up in the heat of the struggle, making truly unique innovative leaps. Without organisation, you have no social forces.
Of course, social forces don’t exist in isolation. At any given moment, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of social forces engaged in struggle.
But just as individuals usually remain separated, so too do social forces usually keep their distance. This is in part because they already face such enormous challenges holding themselves together that even thinking about coordinating with another distinct force seems simply beyond their capacity.
Social forces are so radically diverse in their size, style, composition and goals that at first glance they may appear completely foreign to one another. Different social forces may want to fight a new development in their neighbourhood, or police brutality in this town, or a specific homophobic state law, or the everyday sexism of men in this community, or this college’s admissions policy, or this company’s terrible wages.
That said, despite the structural inertia towards suspicion, atomisation and competition, there are moments when diverse social forces do come together. This sometimes happens, for example, when different forces have adopted similar frames of subjectivation, confront a common enemy, operate in the same locale, pursue related goals, or share some of the same members.
If composition refers to the way that individuals come together as social forces, articulation refers to the ways that social forces combine into forms of unity. And if composition is a daunting process, articulation poses an even greater challenge. Harmonising a multitude of interests, experiences, backgrounds and objectives over a sustained period and building unity while taking into account real differences is incredibly difficult work, which is why articulation of this kind is quite rare, and doesn’t often last for long. But when it happens, the articulated unity substantially increases its capacity to realise transformational change.
In fact, this coming together of diverse social forces is the single greatest threat to the existing capitalist order. It is more terrifying than a recession, a virulent pandemic, or even a war. It is pretty much the only thing that can possibly overthrow the existing state of affairs, and the ruling bloc knows this. That is why, Nicos Poulantzas argued years ago, one of the primary functions of the state is not simply to articulate the social forces that comprise the hegemonic ruling bloc, but also to ruthlessly disarticulate all oppositional social forces.
The state accomplishes this task through a variety of means. Resting on its superior resources, the state can simply wait it out, patiently holding the line until this articulated unity collapses on its own. But if it looks as if this unity of social forces might stick around for a while, the state will actively intervene. It will drive a wedge between the constituent social forces, playing one against the other, tossing some concessions here, throwing a bit of repression there. It will marshal all its forces to isolate this oppositional bloc, preventing it from expanding or linking up with other social forces.
It will cultivate suspicions, raise the specter of outside agitators and exacerbate any possible identitarian divisions. It will recuperate the agenda, control the messaging, domesticate the demands and make empty promises, ultimately reducing autonomous political struggle to technocratic fixes that do nothing. In these ways and countless others, the state will disarticulate the unity of social forces and then decompose the social forces themselves.
Here lies the single greatest political problem for all those who wish to transform the world. The only way to make meaningful change is to articulate multiple levels of unity. But the entire existing order is designed to enforce individualised solutions to social problems, to decompose social forces when people come together as collectivities, to ruthlessly disarticulate any unity of those social forces in pursuit of some larger goal, and to divert the genuine yearning for shared life into passive categories that only reproduce the status quo. If things are left to their own devices, disunity, separation, atomisation and competition are the norm.
Faced with this burning challenge, generations of socialists have asked what is to be done? The historical answer to this question was the “party”.
The “party” – or, more often than not, parties – is an organisation like any other, but one with some special functions.
While all organisations exist to coordinate the collective capacity to act, parties coordinate the vast field of organisations invented through the self-activity of social forces. If the state is the great disarticulator, the party is the great articulator.
A party can certainly help to catalyse the formation of social forces, but as any seasoned organiser will tell you, unless there is already a desire for change, a willingness to come together to struggle, every organising effort will fall on deaf ears. In fact, in most cases, the coming together of individuals into a social force happens largely independently of any party and usually exceeds in creativity anything a party could have imagined. The Soviets, for instance, were not invented by the Bolsheviks but by social forces in struggle.
For this reason, the primary task of the party is not actually to create social forces, but rather to facilitate their coming together into a broader unity. The party, then, acts as a kind of binding element, trying to find a way to bring together diverse social forces and help them stay together, despite the many tendencies pulling them apart.
This is tough work. The party must find a way to creatively unify an enormous diversity of experiences, forms of struggle and political goals into a lasting unity, all while preserving genuine differences. How this happens depends on the specific conjuncture, and there is no abstract formula that can be copied and pasted in different times and places. But one thing is for sure, unity is not something that happens when the party’s central committee somehow calls all the heads of these social forces into a dimly lit conference room to hash out back-door deals. This is how the state articulates a hegemonic bloc out of diverse constituencies.
By contrast, the party’s unity comes from below, and only through struggle. As Amilcar Cabral wrote long ago, the only way to amplify your ability to struggle is by building unity, but “to have unity it is also necessary to struggle”. Social forces only link up when there is something at stake, when their members see that allying with another force is essential to accomplishing their goals. Struggle builds trust, respect and confidence – without this, there can never be any meaningful articulation. The party’s job is to help make this encounter possible, like an agronomist who helps two streams converge into a much more powerful river.
Of course, the way the party does this is by embedding itself in these different struggles. By this I don’t mean cynical entryism with the aim of recruitment, but building organic roots. For if a party has no roots, its bid to unite social forces will be rejected, with organisers laughed out of the room as outsiders who have no clue what they are doing. This is why, even though the party generally does not create social forces, it must always engage with them, join their struggles, take them seriously, with respect and patience, and above all, learn from them. The more embedded a party, the more thoroughly it understands the contours of these social forces, the more deeply it is tied to autonomous organisations and the more compositionally diverse it can become, the more effective of an articulator it will be.
And the stronger a party, the greater its ability to articulate across ever wider social distances, from the town to the region and to the entire country and, eventually, across multiple social formations. After all, articulation is not just a local problem but a global one. Just as the state seeks to disarticulate unity across an uneven domestic political terrain, so too does imperialism work to dismantle unity across national borders, isolating movements and setting struggles against each other. This, then, is the real meaning of internationalism, the process through which distinct social forces from multiple social formations are drawn together into a form of unity, sometimes called an international.
But the party does not just join together diverse struggles across space; it also articulates the struggles of those social forces across time. Composition is a delicate process and social forces are fragile, many of them coming and going, like sand castles built high in the morning only to crumble in the face of the dry evening wind. By combining the strength of multiple social forces, articulated struggles are more durable, but they too almost always come to an end – hitting their limits, losing momentum, succumbing to internal tensions, or drowning in vigorous repression.
In a way, this cyclical pattern is to be expected. “We should not imagine revolution itself in the form of a singular act,” Lenin once wrote. “The revolution will be a rapid succession of more or less violent explosions, alternating with phases of more or less deep calm.” Struggles ebb and flow, organisations come and go.
The dominant social forces in the state, though, seek to go one step further by not only seeing these waves of contestation defeated, but also erasing them from history, pretending they never happened. It will marshal monumental resources to simply rewrite history, tamper with the evidence, marginalise all narratives that don’t fit its official story. Its efforts are so incredible that it will even succeed in convincing those who fought in those marvellous struggles that they never happened, or they were fought for different reformist ends, or that they were bad from the start.
Within a few years, maybe a decade, the memory of this feat will disappear. The history of internationalist Black communists, gone. The history of militant labour unions full of cooperating immigrants in what are now red states, gone. The history of ferocious multiracial struggles against racism, gone.
The party’s second articulating function, then, is to combat this erasure by helping to provide a degree of continuity between different struggles over time. Its work, John Watson, one of the founders of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, once argued, “could provide a bridge between the peaks of activity”. It helps channel the energies of these struggles, preserves their memory, draws balance sheets, creates a space for reflection. The party is the historical memory of these struggles, a depository of all these earlier organisational forms, a Rolodex of vast social networks. It is an archive, but a living one, filled with undaunted activists who fought in these earlier waves and are gearing up for the next one.
The party, then, does not simply articulate diverse social forces during an upswing in activity, in the heat of the battle; it helps keep the torch burning for the next one. While most combat organisations are short-lived, flaring up to solve a problem then dying down, the party strives to be always active, during those explosions when thousands of people suddenly find themselves doing politics for the first time and during those periods of relative stability when things go back to normal, so to speak.
But in the vast majority of cases, these organisational forms will not spontaneously advance a coherent socialist content. Their members likely did not come together as socialists, but as angry construction workers, courageous trans activists, exasperated immigrant youths, or concerned mothers militating against a specific grievance. There might be “socialistic elements” in their struggles, their organisation or their demands, but it would be completely idealist to expect all social forces everywhere to spontaneously gravitate around a socialist project of radical change.
This is largely because we don’t exist in a political vacuum. Competing currents are trying their best to win social forces to their own projects. And behind all these, the many ideological apparatuses of the state are constantly, from our birth to our death, trying to neutralise the political edge of all possible struggles, to reduce autonomous initiatives to processional marches, strident demands for sweeping change into moderate calls for reform, systematic critique of structures into individualised moralism, self-activity into voting. A central aim of all this is to destroy the idea of socialism, to redefine it as terroristic violence, or domesticate it as welfarism. In these conditions, there’s little reason anyone would automatically become a socialist radical.
The role of the party is to advance this socialist project against other competing political currents and, above all, against the ideological obfuscations of the forces of order. It’s crucial to underscore where this content comes from. It does not come from fancy intellectuals writing in their spacious offices, but from the everyday struggles of social forces themselves. Although the socialist programme does not automatically emerge ready-made from these struggles, its foundational elements can be found only there.
The task of the party is to listen carefully to these struggles, to survey this vast ecosystem of organisation, to learn deeply from these many social forces, to extract the rudiments of a historically appropriate political programme. The party then renders this content explicit, clarifies it, deepens it, processes it into a more systematic form then resubmits it to these social forces in struggle for verification. Through their struggles, social forces elaborate on the programme, rejecting it here, revising it there, refining the content that the party rearticulates before returning it again to the struggles, as if in a kind of spiral.
The three articulating functions – connecting distinct social forces, providing continuity over time and giving voice to a common political content – are actually all deeply related. One of the primary ways in which a party articulates diverse social forces, for example, is to elaborate a programme that shows how their struggles are, in fact, interconnected. But one of the primary ways in which a party articulates a coherent programme is by basing it on the inherent dreams of the many diverse social forces it seeks to help unify.
A finite instrument
Like all organisations, parties only emerge through struggle, and so we can never abstractly determine in advance what they will look like, or how they will concretely realise their articulating functions. But if we imagine the party in this way, as an articulator, a few things necessarily follow.
The party is not a fixed entity, but the condensation of constantly shifting articulating functions. Becoming a party is not crossing a certain numerical threshold, or passing certain structural benchmarks, or being recognised as such by the state. It is not something one declares, but something one does.
Indeed, the party cannot focus on a single predetermined kind of organisational form, social force or struggle. Although the party should certainly feel free to make assessments about the tendency for disruptive struggles to emerge in certain places, and even to concentrate limited resources there, it cannot abstractly fixate on a single struggle but must be attentive to any and all possible social unrest. Lenin himself was extremely clear about this: “…communism literally erupts from all points of social life: decidedly it blossoms everywhere” and sometimes “in the most unexpected” places.
Any number of things might trigger a political uprising: underfunded classrooms, a rapist’s trial, a racist police murder, the construction of a pipeline through indigenous lands, contaminated water in a deindustrialised city, a stock market crash, a school shooting, a pandemic. The truth is, no one can really know in advance, so the party must be prepared to act at a moment’s notice. Instead of myopically waiting for some imagined perfect struggle to emerge, or contorting the autonomous actions of people in motion into some preconceived rubric, the party has to keep its ears to the ground. As Louis Althusser wrote, “…it is not a matter of ‘expanding’ the existing politics, but of knowing how to listen to politics where it happens”.
For this reason, the party has to be extremely flexible. It has to be willing to drop a long campaign, to throw itself into a new explosion if necessary. It must be prepared to rapidly embrace entirely new organisational forms, new tactics, new styles of struggle. It has to be willing to jettison its ideas and pick up new ones, depending on changing conditions. It has to be willing to rewrite its programme on the spot if new events demand it.
It has to be willing to compromise, to negotiate, to give social movements the benefit of the doubt. It must be open-minded about all possible tactics, all methods. As Daniel Bensaïd says, paraphrasing Lenin: “Stir up all spheres! Be on the watch for the most unpredictable solutions! Remain ready for the sudden change of forms! Know how to employ all weapons!” But most of all, the party has to be willing to learn, to admit its errors, to reflect on its actions.
Building the party means expanding its capacity to act. That is, increasing its flexibility, enhancing its speed, honing the skills of its members and deepening its roots in social struggles. It means accepting that membership will inevitably ebb and flow and that setbacks will likely happen, but also that there are moments when the party must move extremely quickly, throwing the old playbook out the window. To build the party is not to issue millions of membership cards; it is to make the party as flexible, adaptable, networked and attentive as possible.
All this means that tedious organisational questions about things like membership, centralisation or internal caucuses that set people at each other’s throats are, in fact, secondary. It’s only after a concrete investigation into the existing situation, after serious reflection on the best way to support those specific struggles already happening that a party can determine whether it should embrace a certain structural configuration. To decide these things before actually determining what exactly needs to be done is to descend into the worst idealism, second only to the refusal to swiftly restructure the organisation when different situations, needs and tasks present themselves.
Above all, seeing the party as an articulator means refusing to treat it as a vehicle for governing. There is a temptation, especially today, to focus on elections, passing reforms, one day winning state power. This is sometimes sustained by the belief that it is here, in the state, where real power resides, and that only after conquering state power can we actually change things.
To be clear, this does not mean refusing to engage with the state. In fact, since the many institutions composing the state are always already traversed by political struggles, a position of complete exteriority would amount to writing off the struggles of millions of state workers, something no party serious about playing the role of articulator can afford to do.
Nor does it mean automatically rejecting all elections everywhere. Electoral struggles can galvanise people or popularise demands. Electoral struggles can be effective, but they must be organised for specific ends. The party must have strong mechanisms for holding its elected officials accountable and electoral work must always play a secondary supportive role, fully subordinate to the work of building a vibrant extra-parliamentary organisational ecosystem.
This is the meaning of the autonomy of the party: to recognise that while the party engages with the struggles that traverse the state, linking them with those raging outside, socialism can never be constructed in the state, only beyond it. The goal of socialist politics is not to take over the state – whether through an insurrection or an election – and run it in a better way. It is to disassemble the state by creating mass organisations of counter-power that hive off its functions. It is about finding new ways to ensure safety without the police, to provide education without the public school system, or to resolve conflicts without the state’s criminal justice system. Socialism is not just an end goal but a process, a way of doing politics.
These extra-parliamentary mass organisations – soviets, councils, communes, shop-floor committees, mutual aid societies, self-defence networks, clinics, unions, rank-and-file caucuses, autonomous childcare centres – are the product of social forces in struggle. The party is not, and can never substitute itself for these bodies. Nor can it simply wish them into being with the wave of some magic wand. But the party can help catalyse, develop and protect them – and most importantly of all, it can hold these oppositional organisations together in a deeper unity through its articulating function. The party does not govern, it facilitates the self-government of the people.
This is an edited excerpt of a longer essay published in Viewpoint Magazine.
New Frame is a not-for-profit, social justice media publication based in Johannesburg, South Africa.
This article was first published by New Frame, June 10, 2021
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