Rethinking political organisation in an era of movements, war and the global market

20 August 2006
How can social movements and political parties bring about transformative political change in Europe and Latin America? Hilary Wainwright assesses the possibilities, in a wide-ranging lecture delivered as the keynote address to the XXII CLACSO General Assembly.

1.Intro: the importance of rethinking political organisations.

It is a real honour to give this lecture. For me, CLACSO is not simply an academic association of excellent international repute; it is one of several organisations with which I feel a real and special connection through the process of the World Social Forum.

This morning I had a bit of a shock. When my breakfast companion, who had seen the programme, said to me with expectant eyes 'so you are going to talk about permanent war', I looked at the title and realised that a slightly more specific and modest title `rethinking political organisation in the context of movements, war and the global market' had been changed to the more general, more ambitious title that brought you here tonight. I hope I'm not going to disappoint you and leave you wishing you'd been enjoying the nightlife of Rio.

I want to stress the rethinking of political organisation. There is of course a very simple and yet very challenging connection to the threat of permanent war.

How can the US and the UK governments get away with it - what can we learn in answering this for how we stop them? The vast majority of the people of Europe are against the war on Iraq, against the war on Lebanon, against the White House pursuit of global power. Growing sections of the US people against it too. This reflects the crisis of traditional institutions of representative democracy. It is indicative of the extent to which these institutions have become beyond popular control. But it also presents the left and social movements with a huge and urgent challenge because, in many ways, time is not - ecologically, economically and in terms of the degradation of political culture and the destruction of public spaces and resources - on our side. The gap between the depth and extent of popular disaffection in Europe and the relative weakness of left parties and movements - though with important, often momentary, exceptions - is an indictment of our often parochial political imagination and all too self-referential ways of organising. I don't mean this in a breast-beating, guilt-inducing way, but to force us to stand back and look critically but constructively at the ways we organise - not denying the importance of policy, economics especially - but linking it all the time to questions of power and popular organisation.

In Latin America you've lived through - or rather, too many of your comrades have died through - a permanent crisis of representative democracy. Presumably this is why your movements and sometimes parties have been such a rich source of innovations that develop principles of democracy beyond their representative forms.

So on the one hand there is huge frustrations with existing political parties. There is a deep crisis of representative democracy across the world. Even where liberal democratic revolution was most complete, like France, frustration with the political system is, again, so strong that young people take to the streets, organising their own democracy to defend their job security rather than lobbying the political parties.

On the other hand, these movements have won some important victories, including the defeat of the French CPE (Contrat Première Embauche). But movements have not always been enough or, at least, not as they are currently organised. This is especially true when it comes to international issues where anti-democratic pressures are particularly strong. We saw that over the Iraq war.

It is true that we cannot change the world through taking office - 'power' - within the existing institutions. That's the lesson from the exhaustion of liberal and social democracy. Transformative power lies most crucially outside these institutions. It is rooted in the social, cultural and economic relations of everyday life and in the emergence, since the late 1960s, of new movements for emancipation in every sphere of society, augmented by a qualitatively new wave of movements from the late 1990s. But for this transformative power to flourish war has to be stopped, regulative action has to support civic actions for change in the direction of economic growth. In other words, social movements can only go so far. National governments still exist, albeit dramatically diminished in their power and reconfigured in their relation to each other and to international institutions. The dominant economic and political order is reproduced partly through their subservience.

The left is constantly attempting to use every possible lever of power, inside and outside the institutions, to get governments to break from the power of the US, or of international financial and economic institutions, and support new international alliances. It often follows paths prepared by social movements.

Take the French example of defeating the EU constitution, which involved engaging with the institutions. The result was significantly to slow the momentum of neo-liberalism and militarism in Europe. This success was made possible by the sustained work of social movements like ATTAC throughout the cultural, economic and educational institutions of French society, and also by the growth of the European Social Forum, giving life and credibility to the vision of another Europe. The consequent engagement with the institutions to defeat the constitution, in turn, made conditions far more favourable for the movements of young people to defeat Chirac's employment contracts. Thus we can see an open dialectic between movement action and pragmatic engagement with political institutions from a position of autonomy, and further movement success.

There simply isn't time to rely only on the gradual long term building up of alternative sources of power. Such a strategy takes `the long term' for granted; it assumes the conditions - the time - for this steady growth of an alternative society to be possible. We have to work simultaneously on different timetables.

2. The framework of a dialogue.

I want to address the theme of my lecture through the framework of a dialogue between Europe and Latin America rather than simply to speak from the North. In the experience of many leftists in Europe, the engagement with and learning from parties, movements, theoretical and strategic debates in Latin America - without idealising them, I hope - has been especially important in forming our political ideas. It seems now when we are all openly searching for effective strategies and ways of organising for socialism, or whatever we called the struggle for social justice, it would be useful to make this dialogue more systematic.

For me this dialogue began in the corridors of a Sociology Department, bumping into a young academic from the university of Rio doing a thesis comparing the British Labour Party to the PT. In the early 1990s, I was desperate to find models and forms of political organising beyond the options presented in the UK, and also beyond those in the rest of Europe which, though historically more radical in some ways than the British Labour Party, centred on the equally exhausted traditions of the Communist Parties.

I became fascinated to learn more about the PT, which seemed at that time to have invented a form of political organisation more radical than social democracy. It had been influenced by the party's roots in popular movements, radicalised in the struggle against dictatorship, and by traditions of popular education and self-organisation. (The British Labour Party also arose from the trade union movements, but on a very sectoral, economistic basis. Its position was established, in the main, through agreements between the trade union leadership and parliamentarians, in which the unions' mass membership was treated as a passive, inanimate sources of funds and votes.)

Moreover the PT seemed to have invented forms of democracy that broke from the communist parties' instrumental treatment of movements as fronts. Instead, it seemed to respect the autonomy and the distinctive creativity and power of social movements, such as the landless and urban social movements, as well as the trade union movement.

The reality, as we all know too well, has proved to be more complex. Many of the same pressures of state and electoral institutions that worked to marginalise radicalism in the British Labour Party have done the same to the PT, but with the distinctive characteristics of the Brazilian state in the context of neo-liberal international institutions and a leadership particularly vulnerable, in spite of its rhetoric, to the blandishments and pressures of these institutions and the political constraints within which it had to work.

But learning from the problems of the PT is not a matter of repeating with South American colour the same lessons that we have learnt from the experience of the Labour Party or other workers' parties in Europe. It cannot be understood as if it was simply a repetition of a familiar cycle, or a matter of the left actors of the South catching up with the same failures and constraints that have previously faced the left in the North.

Rather, the process of understanding and learning from the experience of the PT requires a real deepening of all our strategies for transformative political organisation. Only with such a deepening can we explain how a party with all the formal requirements of internal democracy, with a distinctively strong culture and local practice of radical democracy, with real experiences of sharing power rather than monopolising it, with strong traditions emphasising the capacities of activists and the people rather than placing faith in a single leader, should end up so corrupted by the process of gaining (limited) electoral success.

One could say that the PT met all of the conditions specified by existing theoretical frameworks for radical political change, and yet not even a dynamic towards such change has been opened up. The experience requires a radical rethink of our theories, learning not only from defeat but also the innovations and strategies of those directly concerned - PT and ex-PT members and movement activists, most notably the MST, which retained a significant degree of autonomy from the PT.

It's not always nice to face up to defeat and failure. There is a strong tendency on the part of the European left not to do so with regard to Latin America, searching instead for evidence of success and inspiration, treating Latin America simply as a source of inspirational highs, especially when things are low in Europe and the rest of the world.

In fact, though, the Brazilian experience challenges us to think more deeply and critically about how to prepare strategies towards state institutions, how to develop forms of leadership more genuinely consistent with the ideal of participatory democracy, and what policies to pursue within institutions which at the same time support the growth of sources of counter-power, including new institutional sources of public power.

I just use this personal experience of a particular dialogue and continuing encounter with the Latin American left to illustrate the importance and challenging character of a dialogue between two experiences that are similar and yet different.

In both Latin America and Europe, a pattern of relations between movements and political representation is emerging, which draws on experiences ranging from those of left governments in Latin America to situations of left minorities within ruling coalitions and other left representation in Europe. Dialogue and a process of cross-fertilisation between the two continents has proven to be a major influence in Europe. And it would be a source of strength, I think, to make this process more systematic.

In both continents, though far more dramatically in Latin America and in a way that is far more central to the political process, there is a constant struggle, sometimes explosive, sometimes beneath the surface, between organisations - both movements and parties - trying to extend popular control and political equality and state, party and economic institutions hostile to democracy. It is a struggle in which new forms of political organisation are being invented and sustained - but also sometimes defeated or proving unsustainable.

The resistance to neo-liberalism and it's consequences for the South has radicalised and surpassed the traditional forms of organisation inherited or imitated from the 20th century European left. This is not simply a consequence of the extremities of oppression. It is also a result of the incompleteness of the liberal revolutions in Latin America, and the fact that large numbers of the population have not been incorporated in the day-to-day way that the majority have, albeit without enthusiasm, in Europe.

It is also a result of the influence of local democratic traditions as expressed, for instance, in the philosophies and practices of indigenous peoples in Bolivia or Chiapas, and of particular intellectual innovations, such as radical traditions of popular education and liberation theology, or the tradition of intellectual engagement which CLACSO represents and which has no strong equivalent in Europe.

I would draw from our shared but different experiences the following urgent problems on which a dialogue would produce deeper insights that either of us can on our own.

A. The problem of how to maintain a transformative dynamic in governments of the left or involving the left, at local and national levels, and the relationship and relative roles of movements and political representatives. This includes the question of what kinds of election campaigns lay the basis for such a transformative dynamic rather than foreclose it, and the kinds of policies which, although they might fall short of socialism, nevertheless continue to strengthen transformative possibilities and democratic popular self-organisation. Linked to this last point is the question of what kinds of policies are supportive of democratic popular organisation in terms of maintaining its autonomous capacity to bring about social change, rather than encouraging clientelist relations with civil society. In fact although I pose this issue in terms of the left and government, the same issues apply to strategies for left political representation in opposition.

B. The importance and possibilities of developing regional/continental strategies and sources of counter power both at governmental levels, at city levels, at the levels of social movements, and trade union movements. Here I mean the development of effective, sustained sources of transformative power based on alternative projects for society and the economy (in Latin America ALBA would be the prime example), not simply conjunctural alliances that defeat the US at particular moments in the WTO, or the UN - although I would not to deny the importance of these.

C. The institutional and cultural strategies for strengthening democracy, in the context of a crisis of representative political institutions, nd the conditions under which more direct forms of popular control are possible and sustainable. What lessons can we share about the conditions under which participatory democracy contributes to the creation of autonomous sources of democratic popular power? And how can we distinguish between such forms and the rhetorical invocation of participatory democracy to legitimise the dismantling or hollowing out of representative democracy, a process taking place through privatisation in the UK, or its reduction to a disguised form of clientelism, which is a danger in some Latin American cases? And what lessons do the experiences of both continents hold for developing the principles of more direct popular control beyond the local level, at which participatory democracy has thrived, to regional, national and international levels?

D. Problems of emancipatory, transformative leadership. How can we develop a form of leadership that helps to fulfil the creative potential of all, and that does not cling to or encourage, Caudillismo-like, its own individual monopoly of power? Caudillismo is not just a Latin American problem. What means of organisation building and what kinds of political culture will address these problems? What can be learnt from the innovations of social movements, from feminism to the alter-globalisation movement, which grew up in response to the dead ends of traditional politics, including left politics? For thirty years or more such movements have been experimenting, with greater and lesser success, with ways to share power, and create non-hierarchical, egalitarian and flexible forms of organisation and leadership.

E. The issue of developing the infrastructure of social movements beyond the trade union movements (but including a transformation of trade unions). How can social movements in an age of precarity and diversity become sustained sources of power and innovation? How are we moving on from the era of mass workers' organisations to discover new sources of collective strength? Here I am thinking of diverse networks of precarious workers, of excluded social groups - migrants, homeworkers, workers facing privatisation, squatters, communities facing property speculation - which are becoming increasingly well-organised and effective, often on an international basis and sometimes in alliance with parts of the trade unions. I'm also thinking of the role of the alternative media, including the way in which the new information technology is helping it to move from a marginal, artisanal phase to one where it provides a flexible means of popular expression for the diversity of the transformative left. And what is the role of movement education and the self-development? It seems here that movements in Europe have a lot to learn from a movement like the MST, although it isn't only in response to landlessness that movements are emerging that seek to create on a daily basis the relationships of a new society as part of their resistance to the dominant order.

3. Introducing the European left

Before a dialogue, however, we need to make introductions. Of course you will all have your experiences and analyses of the European left - probably richer than mine. But if you will allow me I'd like to use this occasion as an opportunity to take stock of the left in Europe, in order to present it to you in all it's diversity, unevenness and messiness - in other words, its `complexity' - as a subject with whom to engage in dialogue and a mutual, analytic exchange of experiences. My focus will be on how the left is remaking itself after the failures or exhaustion of social democracy and actually-existing communism, driven in its innovation and renewal by different generations of new, newish or hybrid new and old social movements.

One reason why such a résumé is useful is that in Europe the left and the workers' movement have been through really serious defeats, as a consequence of neo-liberalism in the 1980s. The victories of Reagan and Thatcher shaped the way the cold war ended - ensuring the impossibility of any renewed social democracy emerging from the processes of glasnost and perestroika in Russia. Looking back, they also broke many continuities in the evolution of new movements, resulting in the loss of many of the emerging ideas and innovations of the late 1960s and 1970s. These were precious innovations born in conditions where `everything was possible' and where people said `all power to the imagination' and meant it.

We now need many of these innovations, not to look at and admire them, but critically to build upon them. These were innovations concerned with creating a popular, participatory left, breaking out of the hierarchies, the instrumentalities, the power monopolies that in the 1950s and 1960s were destroying the left in the popular imagination. Since the defeats of the 1980s, however, it is not only that market ideology has taken over social democracy. Some of the old conservative traditions have also become entrenched on the radical left.

Fortunately, recovering these insights and then innovating further is not a matter of voluntarism or will power, because new movements have already developed new stimuli to the imagination, and new social resources in reaction to the consequences of the dominance of neo-liberalism. I'm thinking here most obviously of the alter-globalisation movement with its creative use of new technology, but also the emergence, with the open software movement, of a critical consciousness amongst those working with new technology. I'm thinking of the anti-war movement, with its roots in Muslim communities; I'm thinking of the movements of precarious young people like we saw in France. Fanon said in effect - I can't remember the exact quote - that `as each group throws off its oppression, it produces new insights about alternatives, previously suppressed.' Of course, the recognition of these insights and innovations has to be a conscious process of research and dialogue and, as Boaventura de Sousa Santos argues, of translation.

So, to introduce the European left. Strictly, we can't talk about a European left in the sense of a coherent organised subject. But we can refer to how a process of making connections and being open to transnational influences - both as part of the search for new ideas and as a more effective means of action in the face of an increasingly transnational enemy - has been central to the remaking of the left from 1968 to the present day. This process has used whatever means of communication and travel have been available - from hitchhiking and pamphlets to budget airtravel (with all its ecological contradictions) and the web. Sometimes it has been mainly about ideas: the influence of the German anti-authoritarian left in the 1970s or the Italian autonomists in the 1970s and 1980s; the international debates within feminism. Sometimes it has been driven by events: Paris 1968, Berlin 1989, Genoa 2000, and the Social Forums from Florence to Athens. Sometimes it has been a matter of using political institutions through strong left alliances in the European parliament; sometimes a question of engaging in specific networks, such as those of European socialist feminists, anti-cruise/pershing missile campaigns, and anti-racist activism; sometimes a process of building upon links within cities. There is now more and more discussion about a self-consciously European subject, including the formation of a party of the European Left.

This thinking about a European subject is not tied exclusively to the European institutions as they presently are. The defeat of the EU constitution was an important moment in the development of a European subject, depending as it did on the insistence that another Europe is possible.

A flaw in this development of a pan-European subject has been the failure to reach out creatively to often-invisible forces of resistance and disaffection in the East. It is partly a symptom of a wider problem of self referentiality apparent on left and partly, too, a sign of conservatism, a tendency to look simply for `people like us', an unwillingness to try to make sense of something completely new, for which very few of our customary categories of analysis have proved very useful.

There was a moment in the 1980s when a pan-European peace movement protesting at the Pershing Missiles of the Soviet State, as well as the Cruise Missiles of the US, produced an East-West civic movement collaboration. This flourished briefly in the late 1980s and held out the promise of being the beginning of a lasting collaboration. But the hurricane of neo-liberal destruction so marginalised the democratic, anti-corporate dissidents of the East that sustained and regular contact become difficult. The situation only changed when alter-globalisation protests exploded on both sides of the old iron curtain, and a new basis for collaboration emerged. It has recently gained a more permanent, though still precarious, existence through the European Social Forum.

We are reaching out to these societies very late, when the more neo-liberal parts of the EU and also the US have already made their state institutions into subservient allies, and when European multinationals have moved production there on a super-exploitative basis. In reality there is a critical consciousness growing in Eastern Europe and in Russia, but there is a high degree of resistance to political institutions. Sometimes this occurs in a very sophisticated way, not ruling them out as channels with which to engage in the future, but stressing first the creation of a public critical consciousness and working with transnational networks in order to consolidate common points of dissatisfaction, such as those involving privatisation and the environment.

The other Europe a border that has been relatively neglected, but which is now taking on a central importance, is that with the South, especially with the Arab world. The left has long taken up the issue of Palestine, of course, but as a matter of solidarity with unjustice, looking at this as a struggle that is `over there', `abroad', rather than an issue which directly concerned our situation in Europe.

The European left had a foretaste of the problem of Islamic fundamentalism - a problem fuelled by the continued injustice done to the Palestinians by Israel, as sustained by the US and, to a significant degree, by Europe too - in the case of the fatwah against the author Salman Rushdie. This later became an issue in a different way during the Balkans conflict, when competing elites manipulated an ethnic origin and low-key identity to the point of constructing new allegiances and causes. Now the permanent 'war against terror' has reinforced and acted as a recruiting agency for fundamentalism in the West, as well as the Middle East. As a consequence, the left's agenda in parts of Europe is expanding to take up not just issues of human rights, in defence of all those persecuted in the name of security, but also the politics of religion.

All these issues are being faced by a left that is being radically renewed, shaken and disturbed by movements led by a generation that is subjectively free of the legacies of the cold war, and creating its visions of an alternative world without a single ideological foundation. This is one of the factors distinguishing them from the movements of the 1970s, which weren't themselves ideological, but which were in constant interaction with influential left organisations that definitely were. These contemporary movements consist of a multitude of networks and initiatives, and it would be risky to make any summary in so short a space of time. But one feature that they have in common, in Europe at least, is an emphasis on the process of organising as itself a way of expressing, illustrating and developing the values of the society they want to create. For this reason, there is among these movements a strong scepticism towards political parties, with all their deeply ingrained habits of instrumentality. But they can also be pragmatic and, where parties are responsive to them, they reciprocate.

There is no simple pattern to the recent evolution of the left in Europe, but there are certain similarities in Western Europe. For example, in the mid to late 1990s, new parties were born, old ones radically renewed and innovative realignments took place in Italy, Norway, Portugal and Scotland. The process took place simultaneously (not by accident) with the dramatic emergence of the first mobilisations and self-identification of the alter-globalisation movement. The result has been new political formations, such as Rifondazione Comunista, the Norwegian Socialist Left Party - with its roots in the late 60s's, Bloco Esquerda in Portugal, and the Scottish Socialist Party struggling towards a new kind of political party. A distinctive feature of their rhetoric and aspirations, and to a varying degree their reality, has been a break from the idea of the party as the leader of the process of social transformation. This was a recognition of reality: that opening themselves to the radicality and, especially, the internationalism of the emerging movements that were setting the pace of a new politics, and recognising that they were simply one actor amongst many, was the only chance for political parties to continue having an effective role.

Now these parties, and the movement activists who have cautiously and pragmatically supported them, are facing new challenges that stem from representing within the political institutions a politics far more radical than anything that could possibly be implemented within the institutions as they currently are. The alter-globalisation, anti-war and other movements are facing problems too - aware, especially since 9/11 and the `war against terror', that they cannot vacate the sphere of political institutions. Questions are facing us on the left in Europe, which have been facing you in Latin America for several years, especially since the setbacks in Brazil and the advances in Bolivia. I'll just leave you with two themes that are becoming increasingly pressing for us and on which we can learn much from deeper collaboration.

The first theme is that of how to develop a relationship between the social and trade union movements and the left in government - and more broadly the left within the institutions - combining critical support with clear and self-conscious autonomy. The importance of this autonomy is that it is the basis of two tasks: first to develop the movement's own long term strategic perspectives beyond the immediate tactical issues of government and, secondly, for the movement to develop and exert its own distinct sources of power to act on some of the constraints that limit the options of the left in government.

The second theme involves deepening the democracy of political parties, beyond the formal institutions. How can democratic consciousness be created? What are the cultural conditions for democracy? Here there is an unexplored relationship between struggles to democratise the state and the state of democracy that exists within a party. (Sometimes in Brazil and, perhaps, in Italy too, there exists a paradox whereby the left's administration of the state is more radically democratic than the organisation of the parties under whose charge these changes have taken place.) The central issue is that both in Latin America and in Europe we are facing the need for a second phase of party democratisation. In other words, we have parties that broke in important ways from both the social democratic and the Leninist models to develop structures that are more pluralist and more open to the influence of movements, and in which leaders and parliamentary representatives are formally completely accountable. But it is now becoming clear - for example in the PT on the one hand and - on a much, much smaller scale, in the Scottish Socialist Party on the other - that these formal structure of accountability, of the rights of tendencies, are not enough, that we need to explore deeper conditions for a real culture of democracy. What can be learnt here from the movements? How far can network ways of organising be applied to parties, thereby breaking up the concentration of power? And would a dose of critical self-awareness - the kind of attention to the power of the unconscious practiced in the women's movement at its best - help to keep in check the elevation of leaders beyond democratic control?

We are addressing these questions against a background in which the alter-globalisation movement has achieved important successes in de-legitimating the WTO and exacerbating the internal conflicts that are bringing about its demise, and in the anti-war movement, which is helping to create political nightmares for Tony Blair and George Bush. Yet our means of political representation, and of following through these partial victories at national and continental levels, remain weak. A self-conscious dialogue between the left in two continents where the political conditions are similar enough for arguments to flow, but different enough to make us stop and think, will help proved the strategic tools that we urgently need.