Reflections on 
“prefigurative politics”

What is “prefigurative politics”?
The Occupy movement has raised the flag of “prefigurative politics,” proclaiming that their movement aimed at prefiguring a future egalitarian and democratic society through its practice of a direct democracy that does away with hierarchies and eliminates the vices of formal, representative democracy under capitalism.

These ideas, however, precede the birth of Occupy, and continue a more than a fifty-year-long political tradition that unfortunately throws out the bath water dirty with the vices of late liberal capitalist democracy and of the bureaucratic Old Left, along with the baby of strategic politics, democratic representation, and centralization that are indispensable to any effective democratic movement, whether reformist or revolutionary.

The most thorough explanation to date of “prefigurative politics” has been provided by Wini Breines, a professor of sociology and former New Left activist. For Breines, “prefigurative politics” centers on “participatory democracy,” understood as an ongoing opposition to hierarchical and centralized organization that requires a movement that develops and establishes relationships and political forms that “prefigure” the egalitarian and democratic society that it seeks to create.1 Breines sees prefigurative politics as integrally connected to the notion of community, by which she means a network of relationships that are more direct, more total, and more personal than the formal, abstract, and instrumental relationships that characterize contemporary state and society. These new relationships meld together the public and private spheres of life and are to be embodied in the noncapitalist and communitarian counterinstitutions forged by the movement. Quite significantly, Breines counterposes “prefigurative politics” to “strategic politics,” at the center of which are “strategic thinking” and the commitment to build formal organizations to achieve major structural changes in the political, economic, and social orders.2

Many of the ideas and practices associated with prefigurative politics have had a positive impact on US left politics ever since the sixties. They inspired, for example, the New Left’s rejection of the bureaucratic rigidity, dogmatism, undemocratic politics, and moral bankruptcy of the Communist Party and much of the Old Left, bringing a breath of fresh air into protest politics. The contemporary supporters of this perspective are no longer reacting to an Old Left but to the decayed and increasingly plutocratic capitalist democracy that maintains the rituals of a political democracy increasingly devoid of content. Their attraction to a democratic, local self-management experiment is understandable and welcome as an essential element of good political practice for today as well as for a future socialist society. The ideas of prefigurative politics have helped to inspire and radicalize thousands of activists that have injected new blood into anticapitalist movements such as Occupy. 

Today’s movement and tomorrow’s society: How are they related?
Going beyond the specific issues raised by Wini Breines, we must raise the question of the extent to which the notion of “prefigurative politics” is valid in the sense of the connection it proposes between the nature of a successful movement and the type of political system that emerges from it. Historical experience shows that movements conducted in an authoritarian and manipulative fashion do not lead to open and democratic political systems and societies. Democratic and libertarian forms of socialism can only come from movements democratically controlled from below.

However, although the forging of an egalitarian and democratic society requires a movement with the same general characteristics, there cannot be a one-to-one correlation between the methods, strategy, and tactics of an opposition movement and those of the socioeconomic and political system that emerges from it. The “good society” assumes an egalitarian distribution of resources and power that allows for the resolution of differences in a peaceful and democratic manner. Today’s society, on the other hand, is characterized by a vast disparity of power and resources between the rulers and their opponents, by rulers who cannot be expected to willingly accept defeat in struggles even over reforms, let alone peacefully hand over their power over society, and who will sooner or later mobilize their power to violently oppose radical social change. It is also true that the more the existing relation of forces favors the insurgents, the less likely the rulers are to put up a violent resistance. But far from this being an argument in support of pacifism or nonviolence, it reinforces the likelihood that an opposition movement will have to confront violence, including armed violence, and needs to be prepared to deal with it. 

As such, it will also have to consider the kinds of violence that can be regarded as compatible or more compatible with its emancipatory politics from below. Take, for example, terror. As V. I. Lenin and other socialist leaders repeatedly pointed out, the use of terrorist tactics tends to replace the organization of a collective mass struggle with an individual act of self-sacrifice. Also, terror often tends to deliberately convert random civilian bystanders into targets, a tactic that is both politically and morally unacceptable because it sends the political message that the random civilian victims are as much part of the enemy as the oppressive system, its leaders, and repressive agents themselves. A similar objection applies to revolutionary governments that in the face of counterrevolutionary resistance repress people on the basis of who they are (e.g., class membership) instead of what they do (e.g., to take up arms against the revolutionary government.)3 

This does not mean that a number of “hard” cases are not likely to arise in the course of the revolutionary struggle both before and after the overthrow of the “ancien regime.” In the aftermath of the October 1917 Revolution in Russia, for example, difficult issues had to be confronted, such as what to do with the Russian royal family, children included, whose very existence was a source of legitimacy and rallying point for the counterrevolution, or whether the revolutionaries should take hostages in response to their enemy doing so. Certain tactics may by their very nature be antithetical to revolutionary politics and morality (e.g., nuclear warfare), or may bring about an immediate short-term practical or military advantage (such as bank robberies, or shooting prisoners), and, at the same time, produce great political damage to the revolutionary cause. Yet, the fact that there are many complicated and impossible-to-anticipate situations that may have to be quickly resolved in “the heat of the battle,” does not negate the need for guidelines regarding what is and is not acceptable.4 

As with violence, in contrast with the “good society” it seeks to prefigure, an opposition movement operates in a capitalist democracy, or even dictatorial and totalitarian systems, where the existence of sharp power inequalities also requires that the ruled deceive the rulers. The weaker the oppressed are, the more they must rely on deceiving the oppressors, just as Black slaves did in the United States and Jews did in Nazi-occupied Europe. Of course, there are political and moral limits to the use of deception. An example is an attempt to deceive the rulers that unintentionally also deceives the oppressed, as in the case of strike leaders who avoid discussing openly the doubts and fears of the workers, in order to keep the employers from using that knowledge to resist the workers’ demands harder and longer. These are also nonprefigurative considerations that an opposition movement has to undertake.

Is a genuine democracy possible without representation, hierarchy, and centralization?
It is significant that Breines’ definition of “participatory democracy” emphasizes its opposition to hierarchy and centralization. “Participatory democracy” of a nonhierarchical and noncentralized kind may work reasonably well only in the simplest types of organizations, like a local commune. But as soon as it becomes necessary to coordinate various local units of self-government, formal representation inevitably comes into play and with it hierarchy. In this sense, it is worthwhile to look at the institutions considered as classic examples of “informal, direct” democracy, established by the Paris Commune and the Russian soviets (before they lost their democratic character during the 1918–1920 civil war.) In order to ensure their representational character, they established clear “formal” procedures for the election and recall of their delegates. In the case of the pre-1918 Russian soviets, these formal procedures included multiparty elections to be held every three months, along with procedures to enforce the right of recall that could be exercised at any moment. Formal means were also adopted to ensure that local differences of opinion were represented in the higher decision-making bodies (a feature that counters the widespread notion that these institutions were examples of “direct nonrepresentative” democracy.) Thus, the delegates chosen by the local soviets went on to represent their electors in higher bodies. Clearly there was a hierarchy. These delegates, along with the leading elements of the soviets or councils, inevitably played a more prominent political role than the rank-and-file members. But the issue is not, and was not, the existence of hierarchy or its destruction. The issue is, and was, to make the existence of this hierarchy open, and its functioning explicit (rather than hidden and manipulative) and to develop the kind of democratic mechanisms to control it and, when necessary, to replace those higher up in the hierarchy. 

What about centralization? Historically, in the case of the United States, the federal courts and governments have generally been far more responsive to popular demands and a more reliable protector of individual civil rights and civil liberties than state and local courts and governments. The same applies in general to the record of European national governments when compared with the smaller feudal political units they replaced. Many centralized movement efforts—take the 1963 March on Washington or the giant national mobilizations against the Vietnam War—have been more effective in attaining their goals and empowering people than if those centralized efforts had not taken place.5 An ecologically “good society” would also require centralized efforts to implement economic priorities and to effectively coordinate production and distribution among different sectors of the economy that avoid duplication of effort and waste of precious resources with their deleterious effect on the quality of life. For example, the outputs of one factory are often inputs for another firm and must be coordinated by some more inclusive entity, and electrical and water services require extended networks to work efficiently and avoid the waste of resources. The same applies to the operation of railways, the most ecologically sound means of long-distance transport. While it is true that a self-managed society would by definition require a substantial degree of local decision-making, the real issue would not be centralization itself, but the type of relationship that existed between the rank and file and the leadership, and whether measures were implemented to ensure that the indispensable centralized efforts and institutions were subject to controls from below that are both democratic and rational in their use of relatively scarce resources.

Is it paradoxical that the advocates of “participatory democracy” often end up with a remarkably narrow conception of democracy: since “participatory democracy” is opposed to the delegation of functions, this often leads to lengthy discussions of trivial matters, displacing discussions of more political import. Democratic practice in this sense sometimes becomes reduced to democratically deciding who will clean up or bring the pizza. A democratic society depends most of all on a thoroughly politicized population, a population that is fully aware that politics affects everybody because it is ultimately about the power to decide over priorities for society as a whole. An opposition organization acting according to such a politicized perspective would be what Lenin called a “tribune of the people,” reacting to “every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it takes place, no matter what class or stratum of people it affects . . . he [the Social Democrat] must be able to take advantage of every petty event in order to explain his Socialistic convictions and his Social-Democratic demands to all.”6 It is this widespread autonomous politicization of a society, that is, public discussion and activity increasingly replacing passivity and apathy, which would create the overall political climate that is conducive to the democratic control of leaders. 

The currently widespread depolitization of the population is not going to be reduced by localized politics obsessed with administrative minutiae. People must be involved in politics at the local places where they work or study—that is a keystone of real, substantive democracy—but their involvement must be inspired by a broader political vision that is national and international in scope. A self-managed factory is constrained by policies that are inevitably national in scope, such as those concerning accumulation, consumption, wages, taxes, and social services. An economy based on completely autonomous, self-managed, local economic units without national democratic planning guided by a thorough national discussion of priorities would inevitably reintroduce many of the vices of capitalism, such as uncontrolled competition and growing inequality, given the unevenness in the capitalization, technological progress, and strategic importance of the various plants and industries. 

Prefigurative politics versus strategic politics
To engage in what Wini Breines called “strategic thinking” and “strategic politics” is not, if we are serious about social change, a matter of political taste, but an imperative forced on us by stark political reality, which includes what the other side, which we cannot expect to be either stupid or foolish, does to prevent any changes that negatively affects their interests. Political reality presents a great number of difficulties and options that continually pose anew the perennial question of what is to be done, involving the political goals to be pursued, and the strategy and tactics of how to attain them. Political action is a skill and even an art that is open to all who are interested and want to work at improving their political practice. As movements develop, they inevitably face the lies and propaganda of the rulers in order to weaken, divide, and confuse, in addition to government surveillance, provocations, and repression. Potential allies are continually subject to the appeals of racism and nationalism that draw their sustenance from real objective divisions in society and cannot be reduced to facile notions about “false consciousness,” or to conspiratorial theories.

The best responses to these obstacles are often far from obvious and require tactical and strategic plans and tasks for which the organizational practices of prefigurative movements such as Occupy have been inadequate. These tasks would require, at a minimum, the democratic election of representative bodies with the right of immediate recall, to develop political analysis and tactical/strategic plans of action to be brought back to the movement as a whole for discussion, approval, amendment, or rejection. Occupy’s conception of “direct democracy” has also tended to limit its actions to particular locations and to recruit people with unlimited time to obsess about process. A democratic representative model concerned with the development of meaningful democratic choices that prioritize what is important is a fundamental requirement for strategic political action; it would also broaden recruitment to include the great majority of people who have work and family obligations. The extraordinary positive response to Occupy from wide layers of the population provided the opportunity for the recruitment of tens of thousands of activists who could have met in hundreds of places and elected representatives to plan, strategize, and coordinate with each other for actions at a local, state, and national level.

Unfortunately, this broad political strategy is not helped by the common tendency among some of the post-Occupy Left to “privilege check,” where they “call each other out” on racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and sensitivities about body image among others, without any sense of how to build a movement that will champion a politics of solidarity with the oppressed (an injury to one is an injury to all). These are the politics of a pure “sect” (to use left-wing political theorist Sheldon Wolin’s term), as against those who want to champion a politics of solidarity.7

The “strategic politics” approach on the left suggests that sometimes we may have the good fortune to engage in higher forms of struggle, which are those that have deep systemic implications and politicize public issues concerning society as a whole that were previously outside the realm of social discussion and control. Among the examples of such higher forms was the “One person, one vote” campaign that SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) conducted in the South in the 1960s, and the mid-nineteenth century successful campaign to limit the workday to ten hours that Karl Marx proclaimed as “the first time that in broad daylight the political economy of the middle class succumbed to the political economy of the working class.” In his defense of what he calls the “diversity of forms of action,” Raúl Zibechi argues that the claim that there are “higher forms of struggle” is a put down or rejection of other struggles as if they were “inferior” (in a derogatory sense). Zibechi also confuses the notion of “higher forms of struggle” with strategic issues such as the choice between the electoral road or the armed struggle road.8

An important consequence of the prefigurative rejection of “strategic thinking” is an approach to historical causation that concentrates on issues of representation and hierarchy at the expense of the larger picture of the social roots of political phenomena. For example, they explain the persistence of reformism in unions and left-wing parties, an issue of concern to them, as the result of centralized hierarchical leadership, instead of the outcome of a dialectical relation between the bureaucratic leadership of those institutions and popular and working-class consciousness, which in turn is influenced by changing material conditions. Serious analyses of the nature of reformism are intrinsic to “strategic thinking” and “strategic politics” that movements ignore at their peril.

Prefigurative politics and revolution: How to escape dilemmas of radical change
For many of the theoreticians of prefigurative politics, the problems presented by revolutionary politics can be avoided by simply redefining them out of existence. Questions involving the relationship between reform and revolution are simply wished away by redefining revolution as no longer involving the actual overthrow of the capitalist system through a set of discrete and relatively short-lived events. As John Holloway, the Irish social scientist teaching in Mexico, and one of the best exponents of prefigurative politics, argues in his Crack Capitalism, “the revolutionary replacement of one system by another is both impossible and undesirable,” and that the only possible way of conceiving revolution is as an interstitial process9 that involves the creation, expansion, and multiplication of cracks—such as the Zapatistas in the Mexican state of Chiapas, and the Argentinian workers takeover of bankrupt factories abandoned by the owners.

“Strategic leftists” appreciate too the self-organization and emancipatory potential of plant occupations and community self-rule, but at the same time underscore the limitations of these important but nevertheless defensive struggles. Occupied plants, to survive, have to function within the economic and political context of capitalist society, particularly under the pressures of a chaotically competitive system, which sooner or later forces many compromises and encroaches on worker self-management. This is why they cannot “prefigure” the future society, even as they may, at least initially, strengthen the independence and self-confidence of the workers involved in those struggles. 

Similar concerns apply to the self-governed communities in Chiapas led by Marcos and the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation). While the Mexican government has decided, perhaps for the sake of political stability, to permit the continued existence of the EZLN self-governed communities in the Lacandonian jungle—one of the poorest and most isolated parts of the country—these communities continue to be subject to the same powerful pressures of capitalism. As the veteran Latin American leftist Guillermo Almeyra points out, they are still immersed in the market, forced to sell their labor for most of the year, to buy tools, fertilizers, and agricultural products unavailable in the Zapatista zones, to sell or exchange their products in town markets outside of their own region, and even to turn to the official health and education systems.10 

For Holloway, however, these movements are the “cracks” whose growth will bring the revolution. Thus, revolution for him is a question of movement, of direction, but not a break. As he puts it, “Movement is what matters. The possibility of the cracks is in their moving,”11 echoing the outlook of Edward Bernstein and the evolutionism of classical social democracy except, of course, that Holloway clearly advocates an evolutionism of struggle, while the “revisionist” wing of classical social democracy placed a great deal of emphasis on the inevitable development of an electoral political majority that would take over the state and eventually introduce socialism.12 

Paradoxical as it may sound, Holloway’s notion of revolution as evolution through struggle is also central to the thought of revolutionary anarchists like anthropologist David Graeber. If, on one hand, Graeber takes a self-styled radical stance supporting the notion of “diversity of tactics” that entitles small minorities of activists to break windows and engage in other similar “trashing” activities,13 even against the express wishes of the sponsors and the great majority of participants in demonstrations, on the other hand, like Holloway, he rejects the notion of a “clean break,” that is, a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system. That is what he does when he speculates on what might have happened had the Spanish anarchists won in 1937. “Spain,” he writes, 

would have ended in a situation similar to Chiapas with a stalemate between Anarchist and anti-Anarchist factions that would have tilted in favor of the Anarchists only after a protracted, long lasting, and arduous effort to win over their [statists’] children, which could be accomplished by creating an obviously freer, more pleasurable, more beautiful, secure, relaxed, fulfilling life in the stateless sections.”14

By redefining revolution as a progressive increase of “cracks” in society, Holloway’s prefigurative politics negates the centrality of the state, and state power as key to the process. As he himself put it in an earlier work, we “can change the world without taking power.” And by negating state power, Holloway is able to avoid the realities of power. For example, the fact that the state will tolerate “cracks” only up to the point when they threaten its power and the power of capitalism. For Holloway this problem simply does not exist. The very examples that he chooses to illustrate his vision are very revealing: the Zapatista movement and its self-governing community in the Lacandonian jungle; a social center in Edinburgh, Scotland; or going to an all-night rave in Berlin.15 The very fact that he creates the impression that they all embody the same revolutionary potential gives away his lack of regard for power. This lack of regard is evident even when only taking into account his example of the Zapatista communities in Chiapas. To the extent that they pose—or have posed—a threat to the Mexican state, they could conceivably be seen as part of a dynamic analogous to what in classical Marxism is known as “dual power”: the dichotomy, in revolutionary situations in modern capitalist nation-states, between competing centers of revolutionary struggle on one hand, and on the other ruling-class power. 

For Holloway, and also for Graeber, who also looks at the Zapatistas as a model to be applied everywhere, including civil-war Spain of the 1930s, this state of “dual power” could go on indefinitely, with the Zapatistas being able to survive in their communities and serve as an example to be cumulatively reproduced elsewhere. He sidesteps, however, the fact that the Zapatista communities survive so long as the Mexican state is willing to live, for conjunctural political reasons, with pockets of power outside its control in what are, from the state’s point of view, areas of marginal political and economic importance. But even if the Zapatistas became a real threat to the Mexican state, the dynamics of dual power that this would generate could not last long, if only because it would severely impact the predictability and security that modern capitalism requires to function. This necessarily leads to considerations of repression, response to repression, and so on, that Holloway wishes away.

Finally, the posture adopted by prefigurative politics towards the state leads them to dismiss, as in the case of Occupy, the need to raise political demands on the government, an essential tool in mobilizing and unifying the diverse movements that may emerge in the multiracial and multicultural environment of the United States.16

Searching for community or building solidarity?
Social movements generate comradeship and the exhilarating and exciting experience of participating in a common struggle for social change. This, however, is different from what Breines described as the prefigurative New Left’s search for community “to unite the public and private spheres of life.” If what Breines has in mind is to reduce alienation or to eliminate the “normal” disjunction found in capitalist parliamentary democracies between what politicians actually think and the contradictory things they say to different people, these would be welcome changes. But if what Breines suggests implies the abolition of personal privacy on behalf of some “communionist” beehive conception of socialism, then it would be a very regressive suggestion.17 The British New Left of the fifties that preceded the American New Left of the sixties featured a similar sort of “communionism.” E. P. Thompson criticized it as representing a return to the “old, cramped, claustrophobic community, which was based on the grim equality of hardship,” and argued that the notion of family privacy and the sense of community were not mutually exclusive. To counter the claustrophobic New Left version of community, he proposed that “if it [community] arises in the present generation, it will be far richer and more complex, with far more insistence upon variety, freedom of movement, and freedom of choice.”18

Jane Jacobs,19 who revolutionized the field of urban studies with her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, strongly criticized planning oriented towards the creation of a “togetherness” which, she wrote, required people with “basic similarities of standards, values and backgrounds,” and demanded of them a “formidable amount of forbearance and tact.” Jacobs concluded that this kind of residential planning that depends, “for contact among neighbors, on personal sharing of this sort, and that cultivates it, often does work socially, if rather narrowly, for self-selected upper-middle class people. It solves easy problems for an easy kind of population…It fails to work, however, even in its own terms, with any other kind of population.” Jacobs insisted on clear boundaries between public and private spaces, and advocated mixed and diverse urban uses to strengthen neighborhoods composed mostly of strangers, meaning people who “do not know each other in an intimate, private social fashion and in most cases do not care to know each other in that fashion” but who, through the creation of mixed and diverse urban uses, short blocks, wide sidewalks, and other indirect methods that encourage a rich and active street life, can behave in remarkably cooperative ways.20

Without explicitly attempting to do so, Jacobs is suggesting the notion of solidarity—the mutual aid and support among strangers who objectively belong to and identify with an “imagined community” of working people. Solidarity can then become a hegemonic value that expresses itself on picket lines as well as in the daily relations among neighbors and street life. Thus, the anonymity inherent in urban life is not identical to impersonality and does not necessarily imply callousness, indifference, or inhumanity to one’s fellow citizens. 

Critique of utopianism and critique of prefigurative politics
Is this critique of “prefigurative politics” related to the critique of utopianism that Marx and Engels developed? Yes, and no. 

Yes, because it rejects the building of schemes of what the future society may look like and the assumption that there is a one-to-one correspondence between the strategies and tactics adopted to fight exploitation and oppression—including the right of the oppressed to resort to force and violence—and those followed by the future society. 

No, because the betrayals of social democracy and the murderous disaster of Stalinism that Marx and Engels did not foresee, have forced us to draw the lessons of these major failures of the Left since Marx and Engels in order to prevent their repetition in the future. The reoccurrence of antidemocratic and bureaucratic tendencies in socialist and communist movements does not prove Roberto Michels’s (1876–1936) fatalistic and ahistorical “iron law of oligarchy,” outlined in his book Political Parties, based on a case study of the bureaucratic practices of the German Social Democratic Party; nor the “prefigurative” arguments against formal organization. It makes, however, more urgent the identification of the specific features of political organization that stand in the way of democracy, such as lack of transparency of political leaderships, organizational bans on tendencies and factions, and the use of full-time functionaries to perpetuate the existing leaders. 

Similarly, the economic problems of Stalinist societies cannot be attributed to socialism, but to the specific nature of Stalinist class society. The Right, however, has been ideologically and politically successful in casting the failure of Soviet-type communism as the absence of any socialist alternative to capitalism, as implied in the widespread Thatcherite notion of TINA (There Is No Alternative). This right-wing challenge has been cast in general, abstract terms as well as in a number of specific notions, such as that competition is the only source of incentives to elicit the individual interest, responsibility, and efficiency among workers and managers that were so sorely lacking in Soviet type economies; that only capitalism can provide the spark for innovation through such mechanisms as the Schumpeterian notion of “creative destruction”21; that economic planning for society as a whole is, as Hayek claimed, structurally unviable.22 There is an extensive socialist and Marxist literature showing the many ways in which competition and capitalism undermine the motivation, responsibility, and efficiency of workers, and how its systemic waste and irresponsible use of resources is bringing the world closer to ecological disaster. But that is not the same as showing, as other socialist analysts have tried to do, how a self-managed and democratic planned society could avoid many of those problems. Arguing in general terms that a socialist society with real workers control and democratic planning would not run into the problems and contradictions that afflicted Soviet-type societies, is too general and abstract. The classical Marxist warning against the construction of detailed blueprints of the future society, while generally appropriate, needs to be modified to address these issues. 

Conclusion
The task at hand is to build a movement to fight against exploitation and oppression so that people can be truly free to create their own lives and institutions, now and tomorrow, and not to engage in “prefigurative” politics, either in terms of our current politics, strategy and tactics, or to determine, in advance, the nature of the future society. The critical issues of the future society are not likely to involve the deliberate creation of community, which is in some ways a contradiction in terms, much less a specific cultural style of life, or the elimination of hierarchy, but the institutional viability and ecological sustainability of a socialism that is truly democratic.

Much of prefigurative politics developed as a reaction to the Left’s failures of the past. However, those historic failures neither prove the validity of romantic, irrationalist, or utopian approaches to social change nor the “prefigurative” attempt to bypass rather than confront the problems of democratic organization. They do demonstrate, though, the need for a new beginning basing ourselves on the revolutionary perspectives of the best of the Enlightenment tradition.23 


  1. Wini Breines, The Great Refusal: Community and Organization in the New Left: 1962-1968 (New York: Praeger, 1982), 6. 
  2. Ibid., 6-7.
  3. Repression is a related but different matter from the overturn of social relations, which necessarily involves class-based measures such as the confiscation of factories and large landed property. An example of the sort of repression alluded to above is the “categorical punishments” that Lenin’s government used against peasants, whether or not they had engaged in active resistance against the government, in the struggle against the “green” rebellion in the Tambov region in 1920. See my book Before Stalinism. The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy (New York: Verso Books, 1990), 122–123. 
  4. It is worth noting in this context that during the guerrilla struggle against the Batista dictatorship in the Cuba of the fifties, the 26th of July Movement developed stringent rules governing the behavior of the rebel soldiers. For example, the rebels had to pay cash for all the goods obtained from residents in the area, the physical abuse of prisoners was strictly forbidden, and any cases of sexual harassment of peasant women, let alone rape, were severely punished. 
  5. It is true that there were violations of democracy in those demonstrations like the censoring of John Lewis’s speech at the March on Washington in 1963. But Lewis’s speech would have also been censored if he had spoken at a smaller, local demonstration of 20,000 (instead of 200,000) people in Washington DC. 
  6. V. I. Lenin, What is to be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement (New York: International Publishers, 1929), 77–78. Lenin’s emphasis.
  7. I want to thank Lance Selfa for this valuable insight.
  8. Raúl Zibechi, ‘Sobre la “forma superior de lucha.”’ Rebelíon, November 30, 2013. http://rebelion.org/noticia.php?id=177552
  9. John Holloway, Crack Capitalism (London: Pluto Press, 2010), 11.
  10. Guillermo Almeyra, “Los vaivenes de los movimientos sociales en México,” Colección CLACSO. Textos Completos. OSAL – Observatorio Social de América Latina, Año IX, No. 24, octubre de 2008, 92. http://bibliotecavirtual.clacso.org.ar/a...
  11. John Holloway, Crack Capitalism, 72. Holloway’s emphasis.
  12. I want to thank Adaner Usmani for his help in developing this comparison.
  13. David Graeber, Revolutions in Reverse. Essays in Politics, Violence, Art and Imagination (London: Minor Compositions, 2011), 17, 26–29. 
  14. Ibid., 28-29.
  15. Ibid., 51, 63.
  16. For a more detailed discussion of this issue see my article “The Art of Demanding” Jacobin, September 7, 2012.
  17. For an insightful discussion of “communionism” as a strain of “socialism from above” see Hal Draper, “The Two Souls of Socialism” in Hal Draper, Socialism From Below, Essays Selected, edited and with an Introduction by E. Haberkern (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1992), 26–27. 
  18. E. P. Thompson, “Commitment in Politics,” Universities & Left Review 53, no. 6 (London, England): 53.
  19. Jane Jacobs (1916–2006) was an urban activist who led the successful resistance to New York City’s plan to build a highway across Greenwich Village that would have destroyed a good part of that neighborhood. She later moved to Toronto to prevent her children from being drafted during the Vietnam War. 
  20. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Vintage Books, 1961), 65, 55, 54 (author’s emphasis). 
  21. Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) was an Austrian-American economist who argued that the disruptive role of individual entrepreneurs was indispensable to economic growth. 
  22. Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992) was a right-wing economist born in Vienna who maintained that lack of information made planning for a whole economy unviable, and that only the price mechanism in “free markets” was capable of rationally allocating economic resources. 
  23. For an illuminating discussion of the various tendencies in Enlightenment thought see Jonathan Israel, A Revolution of the Mind. Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy, (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010).

Thanks to Selma Marks, Lance Selfa, and Adaner Usman  for their invaluable help in writing this essay.  

Issue #95

Winter 2014-15

The political economy of low-wage labor

Issue contents

Upcoming features:

Accumulation by dispossession: A critical assessment by Geoff Bailey
Israel’s war on Gaza and the prospects for Palestinian liberation by Eric Ruder
Palestine, BDS, and the battle against US imperialism by Bill V. Mullen
Thailand’s crisis, coup, and fight for democracy by Giles Ji Ungpakorn
The Fourth Comintern Congress: “A way to claim victory” by Antonis Davanellos
Trotsky: Introducing a life by Paul Le Blanc

Upcoming reviews:

China’s changing working class by Charlie Hore
Not a conflict, but a conquest by Jason Farbman
The class dimension of the new resistance by Kyle Brown
The destruction of the Third World Project by Pranav Jani
The rise and fall of a Mexican drug lord by Héctor Agredano Rivera
How capitalism thwarts technology’s real potential by Brian Lenzo
The historical development of Zionist ideology in Israel by Nolan Rampy
A window into the world of the slave trade by Sarah Blaskey
Filling an important gap in the analysis of disability by Ravi Malhotra
A crash course in class and gender by Rachel Cohen
NAFTA’s gravediggers? by Todd Chretien

WeAreMany.org