How do we get from here to there? Socialist strategy and political participation

by Dara McHugh on December 23, 2013

Two men in a truck looking alternately puzzled and determinedIs there a clear path to a better world? All too often, the route is set from a single fork in the road; the old polemical division – reform or revolution. For those who emphasise immediate reforms, we go via policy, driven by a competent and committed party, skilled at crafting reforms and winning support for them. For revolutionaries, the vehicle is a movement powerful enough to overthrow capitalism and institute a new society in its place, accompanied by a party to guide them there. For this camp, reforms are, at best, waystones in the development of a revolutionary movement; at worst, dangerous diversions that instil a false faith in the malleability of capitalism.

A mid-way between the revolutionary and the reformist roads was hinted at by Alexis Tsipras, leader of Syriza, when he spoke of the two squares, ‘the one above’ and ‘the one below’. The one below is more politicised, more willing to imagine profound change, more willing to take radical action. But it is not enough. “Burnt out banks and burnt out small properties did not produce political results.”1 The movements from below can organise the people and articulate their grievances directly, but they require a party to occupy ‘the square above’ and enact the transformations they need, a gap that can otherwise readily be filled by opportunistic or populist groupings.

man runs after explosives truck, scene from the Wages of Fear

A political party can convert demands to reforms, so that the surges of struggle cannot be easily driven back. Equally, these reforms must not be confined to material improvements in conditions – a more progressive taxation regime, better public services, etc. The party must also focus on transferring power from the state and private sector to institutions of popular democracy; it must redistribute power, not just wealth.

By advancing participatory budgeting, the development of workers cooperatives, management of public housing by tenant cooperatives and so on, reforms can give people increased remit to run their lives and their society. With more such opportunities, people and movements will further develop their capacity for organisation and confidence in achieving change; they will ‘make the road by walking’.

Participation and Organisation

All of this begs the question – can ordinary people change the world? Can we recreate the sort of mass, participatory political organisations that have dwindled and declined in the developed world? The decline of such organisations provides the counterpoint to the rise of neoliberalism and the hollowing out of the welfare state. By now, they are sharply at odds with political practice, devoted as it is to intricate policy development by a narrow constituency of specialists.

educate, agitate, like!In her essay ‘Voice and Inequality’, Theda Skocpol tracks the decline of mass civic organisations in American politics and the dominance of more professional operations with a largely passive membership base.2 The professionalisation of civil society was a response to the professionalisation of the State, as organisations seeking influence in government policy-making were forced to operate on a similar level of technical detail, leading to a more centralised, professional staff, while the rise of inequality made mass membership less important for funding. Campaigning organisations became less reliant on active engagement and more on passive support. The endless petitions of ‘clicktivism’ today are a perfect example of this trend; sign, share and shut the hell up. Cynicism and clientelism are two sides of the same coin; political enervation, caused by the foreclosure of meaningful involvement.

But this is not the way things have to be. The rise of technocracy is a shift in the orientation of organisations, not a change in the basic capacities of human beings. Examples from past and current practice, such as the dramatic successes of the American ‘organiser model’, show that when people are given a chance to take action, to organise themselves, their friends, colleagues and neighbours, they will take it. And they will be prepared to do it again, to be more ambitious in their targets; it’s not for nothing that organisers call their work ‘raising expectations’.3

In a mass party, this expansion of expectation can help to mitigate a drift towards ‘the art of the possible’; the higher the ambitions of the membership and supporters, the more pressure there will be on the ‘square above’ to deliver. A political project that places organising at its core promises a deeper transformation in the people it touches, to change their orientation to the social environment and bring them into lasting political involvement.

A party that emphasises organisation, campaigning and a participative membership will have other advantages. It can foster strong roots in society, to help it weather electoral storms, as it can continue to advance its vision out of power, offering more to the populace than promises for next time. The ‘square below’ can provide the energy and dynamism needed to drive a movement, to put pressure on the ‘square above’, but only in conjunction can they break down the division and bring power to the people.

  1. Interview with Alexis Tsipras, 30th of December, 2012, translated by Richard McAlevey, Irish Left Review.  
  2. ‘Voice and Inequality: The Transformation of American Civic Democracy’ by Theda Skocpol (PDF).  
  3. A good overview of this model in practice is offered in Raising Expectations (and raising Hell) by Jane McAlevey. See this interview.  

(Originally posted at Spirit of Contradiction)

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Robert Gahtan December 27, 2013 at 3:45 am

Perhaps, you might consider the following:(

939 words)

A Wiki For Social Change

can make a valuable contribution to social change because writers can
contribute and collaborate in real time with the entire planet. For
this and other reasons, wikis are preferable to books. Just look at
the enormous success of Wikipedia.

the following makes sense to you, please let me know so we can
discuss it further. I hope to connect with those who believe that
progressive social change is possible, particularly if activists have
access to what has been learned from past struggles.


some movements have succeeded in achieving their objectives, most
have not (to be mentioned later.) Their successes are well
documented. I do not understand why each new movement has to
re-invent the wheel.

any of the following topics related to SM (1) and you will
be amazed at the plethora of information that is now available.

course, in addition to this, there is a vast literature by long-time
activists that has not found its way into Google. Unfortunately the
information tends to be movement specific, localized, fragmented, or
out of date and also tends to mix opinion with fact and theory.

even greater failing is that many of these articles fail to take
sides, but affect objectivity. I maintain that so-called objectivity
in political matters is sophistry. You are either for the oppressed
or for the oppressor.

addition, tactics and strategies between movements are rarely shared,
although they face many common problems. A good example of this is
the failure of the Occupy and several other movements to discuss Joe
Freeman’s essay, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”.

comparison, very, very few people have written books along the lines

What is to be Done (1902),

Alinsky’s Reveille for Radicals (1989),

Shaw’s The Activist’s Handbook (2001),

Laura Raymond’, and Naomi Klein’s The Global Activist’s Manual

Ganz’s Why David Sometimes Wins (2010),

Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy (2012),

Ricketts’s The Activist’s Handbook (2012).

Playbook for Progressives (2013)

focus on movements comes from the determination that SM can have a
significant impact on the future, and are the precursors to
significant change and even revolutionary/system change.

think where we would be today if it were not for the
movement, Chicano movement,
Civil Rights
movement, Conservation movement,
Cooperative movement,
Disability Rights movement,
Environmental movement,
Fair Trade
movement, Human Rights
movement, Labor movement,
LGBT movement, Non-Violence
movement, Occupy movement, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United
movement, Women’s Liberation movement, and the eighty
other movements that Wikipedia lists as
a partial list.

process by which one becomes an experienced, battle hardened activist
(cadre) with good judgment is long and arduous. Activists are not
born. They are made.

I think
that Social Movements arise when the gap between what people
experience in their everyday life and what they perceive to be just,
fair, equitable, and possible has grown too large to be tolerated.

I also
think that we may well be rapidly approaching such a period now.

To be
effective, your group should have detailed knowledge and positions on
the following topics at a minimum:

agent provocateur



the army





single issue







civil disobedience






coming out

non violent direct action

third parties



transformative organizing

consciousness raising








united front







defensive formulations


worker’s self-directed enterprises


popular front

democratic centralism


direct action


electoral arena




Most of
these issues have been debated at length. Many of them have been
empirically decided by history. Others have not. But, to my
knowledge, there is no school, book, class or tutorial that does the
job of compiling those conclusions and making them readily available.

leaves activists to begin their education by trial and error.

I know of
no craft, profession, trade, or activity that is approached in such a
tortuous way and haphazard fashion. Should you want to become a chef,
concert artist or pipe fitter, schools, books, classes, internships,
mentors, coaches and apprenticeships are available. However, there is
no such support for the person who becomes an activist.

This is a
great shame and leads those who struggle to bring about humane,
positive change, to be less effective than they could be and leaves
them to become demoralized, disengaged or burned out. Actually,
failure is far worse, as it can even lead to imprisonment, torture,
death and counter-revolution or backlash.

There are
many movements that have succeeded. Their history is fairly well
documented. I do not understand why each new SM has to start at
square one all over again.

The same
goes for the person who changes from observer to activist. No one is
born an activist. One becomes an activist through a process that goes
through many stages.

Most, if
not almost all of the relevant guidelines, strategies, tips, and
tactics are available but they need to be organized and condensed and

If you
know someone with the interest and skills to put together such a
wiki, please pass this on to them. If this endeavor makes sense to
you, email me at [email protected] Robert Gahtan

SM should be seen at best as schools for activists

Critique of SM
sociology, Handbook for SM activists, SM that succeeded, Timeline of
SM , Who is interested in social change, Google Books Research Topic:
SM Theory, SM theory and research an annotated bibliography guide, Is
there an idea exchange for SM, Granting agencies for social change,
How do SM begin, Activist’s Handbook




William C Crain December 31, 2013 at 9:59 am

Thank you Robert, nice purview, like everything you said (cept im still am not sure what SM is? sado- masochism ?
The list you made is excellent; so important to have concepts and definitions of all those topics, of course that comes with osmosis activii.
It’s hard to really put a right or wrong on the clicktivism/clientelism sign push send ~ i gotta think that most activists know the weakness of the gesture yet it isn’t hurting anything to give it a shot ~ i’ve seen a number of petitions this year, and couple have saved a life or two. Does it act like a pressure relief valve ~ wel.l yes and perhaps there’s something to be said for that; At least trying something? Does it mitigate reality ? Really serving in a soup kitchen or marching down Pennsylvania Av? No. It’s like donating to charities, will my $10 be of any value? But if everyone pitched in $10 then it will add up…
The Movement will be more than the sum of it’s parts. i didn’t read the book mentioned on Tyranny of no Structure?” and i can safely say anarchy and libertarians breed at the same watering hole and i cannot abide their lack of structure ~ there’d be no parts or sums if their minimal and dysfunctional minds are allowed to take up the stage. Just a world of Darwinismists who detest evolution. And of course our Gov’t is going to be bigger (and better) we’ve lots more people not less, sharing the commons and more commons than we can shake a stick at…if our activist agitator dream comes true


William C Crain December 31, 2013 at 9:02 am

My gawd the Struggle, everywhere for everything every day for everyone (not cnt’ng the %1) There’s a ton of work for the Political Activist/Agitator and the pay , not so much. We struggle to figure out where we are ( i feel this synopsis sums it up succinctly) And then where to begin when you’re up to your ass in alligators?
The jewel of a quip Dara, “the Art of the Possible” that whole paragraph is a jewel ~ But what’s a mother to do? We cannot chide and ridicule the likes of, fellow travelers, like 350* or even GAAAAG MOve Gaaaag On ~ yet i’ll slam every Liberal walking who buy into neo-lib economics (all of them) Dems are just so much more insideous than repugs but i digress:
From the Square Above to the Square Below i don’t think we can reach harmony without Justice for the Crimes on the table in front of us. We can’t build a movement that lacks the will for Justice. (which Liberals have no stomach for). How to bridge, focus and talk between Upper an Lower squares. We cannot just look ahead crime wither it be for Hiroshima or Lying us into a War (ha :) or secret torture prisons and tests on humans etc etc CIA. (Hang Pelosi first and above the GW Crime Family).
Then again we all know Time is of the Essence ~ i’m all for a 3rd or few more parties but we lack something between this rock ‘n a hard place (having figured it out) that mitigates the revulsion of Electoral PolitiX. Something to get us at least campaigning on the same or similar trails … i see a social democracy based on socialist economics all worked out at the ballot box (paper recpts) not with Molotov Cocktails and Drones.


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