Be the Change You Want to See?: A Marxist criticism of prefigurative politicsJuly 1, 2013
This is the transcript to a talk I gave at the Socialism 2013 Conference in Chicago. I’m posting this transcript here for those interested–it is similar to, but different from a previous transcript I posted of a local meeting in Detroit.
My talk at this year’s conference was followed by an illuminating discussion that–for good reasons, but to our misfortune–are not recorded or documented. There were a couple of important comments that were brought up that I believe need to be mentioned here–and will be discussed further in later articles. Briefly, the two points were, 1) that “survival programs,” e.g., kitchens, relief efforts such as Occupy Sandy, urban farms to a certain extent, etc., are a site of politicization for many people and should be seriously assessed by revolutionary socialists, 2) that the relationship between “dreams,” “visions,” “aspirations,” etc., are a part of the “real” or “concrete,” and should not be mechanically separated from a study of the material world, but rather the two should be understood in a dialectical relationship. Mark Fischer’s book Capitalist Realism is helpful here, which I did flip through to prepare for my talk, but didn’t have a good enough grasp of to include in my talk, unfortunately. I plan on revisiting it as I work through these ideas more.
I think it’s important to clarify a couple of points, especially what “prefigurative politics” are and their relationship to the Marxist criticism of so-called “utopian” socialism. I think a strict definition of prefigurative politics are important in light of my previous comments regarding survival programs. I think we should understand prefigurative politics in terms of those projects or practices that intend to reflect the future society, or base their means strictly upon a vision of the future. I think this is important for separating out our criticism of prefigurative politics from projects–such as survival institutions–that may not fit strictly under the rubric of mass collective struggle or prefigurative politics.
Additionally, I think it is important for us to not confuse prefigurative politics with utopianism strictly. These are not necessarily the same thing, e.g. “horizontal” or leaderless movements are not at all utopian in the sense of what Engels wrote about in Socialism: Utopian or Scientific. As a matter of fact, very few movements today reflect those kind of politics. Bertell Ollman limits utopianism to those who use their vision of the future society as the sole raw material of their politics, and I think this is a useful definition. Grace Lee Boggs may be the closest thinker on the Left today to that kind of thinking–but even that is unclear. While I think Boggs has a rather clear skepticism (if not an aversion) to the power of protest and collective mass action (expressed repeatedly in comments urging activists to turn their backs on protest, to limit themselves to small groups, to focus their attention on opening small businesses and community development corporations, and to make material sacrifices, etc.), there are competing interpretations of her work and ideas that don’t think “visionary organizing” and protest are mutually exclusive. I still believe there are limitations to that approach, which I address in my article for the International Socialist Review, but I think it’s important to recognize that this interpretation is not strictly utopian.
The discussion and conversations that followed my presentation encouraged me to re-evaluate how socialists relate to utopianism, prefigurative politics, and related efforts. In particular, I’m of the opinion that socialists need to emphasize the scale and scope of our revolutionary project–and to use this as the basis for evaluating our relationship to other projects. I’d reckon that most people who may often be confused as “prefigurative” or “utopian” don’t seek to limit their efforts or ends to small urban farms and cooperative workplaces, and seek a scale of change identical to our own. I think emphasizing this is a useful point of common ground to begin discussions.
Therefore, while I’ve never been of the opinion that a revolutionary socialist project should be exclusive to those interested in survival programs (that would mean excluding those engaged in the unemployed councils of the 1930s, the Freedom Schools of the Civil Rights Movement, and the Black Panther Party), I’m increasingly of the opinion that there can be more common ground in building a movement today than I previously had–recognizing the capacity for those projects today not directly connected to a vision of a mass movement to be sites of politicization–with the point of common departure emphasizing the revolutionary socialist vision, political organization, the centrality of working-class organization and mass struggle. More will be written about this in the near future.
“A map of the world that does not include Utopia,” wrote the Irish author and socialist Oscar Wilde, “is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, and sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.”
Put another way, humanity has always dreamed of and strived for a future better than the present. And why shouldn’t we? Over the last year we’ve seen the horrors of this sick society crystallized in the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, the Boston Marathon bombing and subsequent campaign of racist fear stoked by the capitalist media and politicians, and almost weekly spree killings and waves of murder in segregated and impoverished inner city neighborhoods.
However, our dreams and imagination alone is not enough to carry us through to that better world.
Luckily, over the last year we have seen several examples of the power we have to change the world. For instance,
- The Chicago Teachers Union and its supporters shut down the Chicago machine last summer in one of the most powerful strikes in the recent history of the labor movement.
- We’ve seen the birth of a growing and potentially powerful new strike movement led by low-wage retail and fast-food workers across the country.
- And of course, we are still witness to the ongoing struggle to overthrow an increasingly repressive government in Turkey.
So while we are faced with massive challenges and huge stakes, there are equally great opportunities for us to fight back and win. The outcome of these challenges depends on how we seize on these opportunities presented to us; and what strategies and tactics we use in our struggle. What we say and do matters.
This is why events like this conference are so critical and why we socialists place so much stock in training ourselves politically. We have to sharpen and become more confident in articulating the politics to carry our struggles forward—through study, discussion, debate in movements, and of course, learning from and assessing our concrete experiences in struggle.
This talk will focus on the topic of so-called “prefigurative politics,” that is, a set of politics that stresses the importance of reflecting the world you want to see through one’s practice today.
During my talk I will broadly outline a description of prefigurative politics, discuss its strengths and weaknesses, and then present an alternative approach rooted in the politics of Marxism and revolutionary socialism.
WHAT IS PREFIGURATIVE POLITICS?
The author and activist Andy Cornell defines prefigurative politics as, “the principle that activists and social-change organizations should model in their present-day lives and work the new values, institutions, and social relationships they advocate for on a broader scale, as part of their strategy for bringing about that change.”
Under the umbrella of prefigurative politics, therefore, can fall a broad number of different institutions and practices, including cooperative workplaces, communal houses, urban gardens, consensus decision-making and “horizontal” leadership structures.
The broad audience for prefigurative politics was clearly on display most recently during the Occupy movement, where many argued that the strength of the movement lay in its prefigurative character—that is, the myriad institutions built in the encampments and the various practices used in meetings.
Prefigurative politics borrows and builds upon various historical and contemporary movements—including the anarchist, pacifist, and environmentalist movements. The arguments for prefigurative politics, therefore, are very diverse. Some see it as a way of ensuring against the reproduction of political and social hierarchies; others as a form of propaganda, proving in practice the superiority of revolutionary politics.
Communes, co-ops, free schools, and community gardens can also offer a sort of safe haven from the abuse of capitalism. They create spaces for people that in one way or another can resemble the possibility of seeing another world in our lifetime. They reflect a sincere desire to overcome capitalism.
Many also see it as an alternative to what they believe is an outdated emphasis on mass collective action and protest. Where we’ve seen massive protests against war, environmental destruction, or right wing legislation fail, prefigurative politics attempts to offer another way.
For instance, during the Occupy movement, the anarchist activist and academic David Graeber argued in an interview with the Washington Post,
“Protest, however militant, is an appeal to the authorities to behave differently; direct action [i.e., prefigurative politics], whether it’s a matter of a community building a well or making salt in defiance of the law…is a matter of acting as if the existing structure of power does not even exist. Direct action is, ultimately, the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free.”
Likewise, the veteran revolutionary Grace Lee Boggs argued in her most recent book that it is becoming,
“clearer every day that organizing or joining massive protests and demanding new policies fail to sufficiently address the crisis we face. They may demonstrate that we are on the right side politically, but they are not transformative enough. They do not change the cultural images or the symbols that play such a pivotal role in molding us into who we are.”
Boggs concludes that “community-based institutions (e.g., co-ops, small businesses, and community development corporations)” offer a more realistic alternative.
“This kind of organizing takes a lot of patience,” Boggs continues, “because changing people and people changing themselves requires time. Because it usually involves only small groups of people, it lacks the drama and visibility of angry masses making demands.”
While these politics present themselves as hopeful alternatives to the current weaknesses of the left and working class organization, however, I think they actually reflect a pessimism in the potential for building a mass movement against capitalist exploitation—resigning themselves to working in small groups of determined radicals attempting to create a revolution “behind society’s back, in private” as Marx once put it. This confuses how people’s ideas are shaped, and how they can be transformed through collective struggle.
The possibility of revolutionizing the current society, overthrowing it, and transforming it into a new one, is seen as an outdated and anachronistic project, therefore. The best we can hope to achieve are small-scale projects and personal transformation—unconsciously confirming the cynical individualism of neoliberalism. Because revolutionizing the present is foredoomed, the emphasis is placed on a moralistic vision of how society ought to be, with the goal of simply trying to impose the future society on the present, often without regard for the limitations that capitalist society places on these model experiments. Prefigurative politics, therefore, constructs barriers to dealing with society, conditions, and people as they really are in the here-and-now—preferring instead to deal only with the future, which still only exists in fantasy.
UTOPIAN SOCIALISM VERSUS SCIENTIFIC SOCIALISM
Far be it from a new model of social change, prefigurative politics repeat many of the mistakes made by the early socialist predecessors of Karl Marx and Frederic Engels.
Like Marx and Engels, the “utopian socialists,” as they were called, were sincerely motivated and moved by the rapid pace and scale of changes occurring in the mid- to late-19th century, as capitalism took hold in Western Europe. Many sought to revert back to an older and simpler time—as many still do today—proposing communal agrarian societies and experiments. Others, sought to embrace the productive potential of industry, but only sought to remove its worst elements by appealing to the hearts, minds and wallets of the capitalists. (One could consider this scheme a primitive form of grant writing).
The utopians looked at society primarily through a strictly moral and philosophical perspective. They saw society, in other words, as a mixture of rights and wrongs. The solution, therefore, was simply to draft a blueprint of a more just and moral society and to spread their ideas through propaganda, and the construction of model experiments. When the working class was given special attention, therefore, it was not because they played any particular role in their own liberation—but because they were the most oppressed. The working class was not to struggle for its own liberation, but was instead to be liberated by the great philosopher who had already figured it all out for them.
It is for this reason that the mid-20th century American socialist Hal Draper called utopianism a form of “socialism from above.”
Marx and Engels, however, took interest not only in the drastic change caused by the birth of capitalism, but also in the contradictory nature of that change. Under capitalism, workers produce enough wealth to feed, house, clothe, educate, and meet the needs everyone in society– yet it also generates unprecedented poverty for the vast majority; constant improvements in technology that could make work easier and shorter, are instead used to make work even harder, faster, and longer; life is more socialized now than it has ever been—with greater urban centers, larger workplaces, and new forms of communication–yet it is simultaneously individualized and privatized; even the bourgeois promises of individual freedom and liberty have been inverted by the pervasive disciplinary threat of poverty, debt, mass incarceration, a militarized police force—or, as we’ve seen, secret NSA domestic spying programs.
Capitalism is contradictory, in other words. It generates chaos and destruction, while simultaneously establishing the precondition for a society that can meets everyone’s needs. What determines the outcome of this dilemma is the organization and determination of the working class to struggle against the capitalists and fight for a better world.
THE LIMITATIONS OF PREFIGURATIVE POLITICS
Advocates of prefigurative politics, however, often (but not always) attempt to transform society, not by actively intervening in this struggle, but by avoiding it. Graeber, for instance, urges activists to act “as if one is already free” instead.
Others, such as Boggs have argued that “living at the margins of the postindustrial capitalist order”—Detroit is used a frequent example, as if inequality, unemployment, and segregation are somehow marginal to capitalism—opens the opportunity to “devote our creative and collective energies toward envisioning and building a radically different form of living.”
But this is not a strategy for changing society, but a strategy for escaping it, attempting to create spaces of harmony in a society determined by struggle and conflict—again confirming the neoliberal assumption that there is no alternative to capitalism, that we must transcend it or find alternatives within it instead.
But class struggle doesn’t go away if you ignore it. Just like gravity will pull you back to the earth, whether or not you acknowledge it—so too will the capitalists poison your rivers and food, foreclose on your home, and throw you in prison.
Using the world “ought to be” as the starting point of our politics becomes a substitute, therefore, to developing a political strategy for present. Projects built from this perspective largely depend upon ideal circumstances with ideal people—not the world as it is: contradictory and ever changing.
Without the proper terrain prefigurative projects become stillborn or corrupted as they’re planted in the hostile soil of capitalist exploitation and competition.
Workers’ cooperatives, for instance, can be a powerful example to others that bosses and managers are socially useless. However, remaining subject to the coercive laws of capitalist competition, cooperatives still have to play by the games of the marketplace. This forces the workers to make a choice to either rule over “themselves with the utmost absolutism” and “become their own capitalist” as the German socialist Rosa Luxemburg argued, or to dissolve if they hold on to their principles.
Likewise, social movements focused on emulating the future (while they may experience a momentary success, if they tap into popular anger and frustration) face similar challenges in navigating the contradictions of politics and consciousness in the present. These movements can often become encapsulated to a small group of committed radicals as they find it hard to build a base—since most people don’t already share a commitment to a post-revolutionary vision—or as they become inward looking and aim to perfect their relations among each other first.
For instance, while the Occupy movement was able to grow very fast—as it tapped into deep bitterness and discontentment—and was able to drastically alter politics and consciousness in the United States, it also suffered from the limitations of leaderlessness and consensus decision-making, which many, such as Graeber, argued were essential to the movement’s strength by modeling the future we want. The notoriously long General Assemblies, run on a consensus process excluded many of the movement’s supporters, however. Likewise, the confusion and disorganization inherent to “structurelessness” made it incredibly difficult to respond to the obstacles the Occupy movement faced following the repression of the encampments—the political center of many local movements.
Arming ourselves with little more than visions of the future world, therefore, makes it difficult to settle scores with the present.
THE ALTERNATIVE: REVOLUTIONARY SOCIALISM AND WORKING-CLASS SELF-EMANCIPATION
Marxism insists, however, that we begin from a study of the world as it is. In a letter to a friend, Marx distinguished himself from his utopian predecessors, writing that,
“We do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.”
For Marx and Engels the key architects of the future socialist society were not to be intellectuals and philosophers, but the working class itself, through its own self-activity. In establishing a socialist society, the working class is not chasing after some abstract vision from the outside, imagined by some philosopher or activist. Rather, the working class is acting out of its own class interests to abolish the exploitation of their labor, and use the product of their labor to their own ends rather than for profit.
While it is in the interests of the working class, however, to overthrow capitalism, no one is born a revolutionary. Capitalist schools, media, news, politicians, parties, etc., establish and reinforce the prevalence of their ideas. Hence, even though the capitalists exploit workers, workers often express and defend capitalist ideas.
Under capitalism, in other words, workers possess a contradictory consciousness—torn between the capitalists’ ruling ideas and their own class interests. Daily life under exploitation and oppression creates the condition for spontaneous rebellion against the ruling class, but those spontaneous energies can quickly dissipate or become contained by the influence of ruling class organizations and ideas.
Those who recognize the need for a radical struggle against capitalism, therefore, cannot be content with trying stand outside the class struggle for want of perfect politics or a perfect vision.
Rather, we must attempt to navigate the world as it is, and work with people as they are under capitalism, recognizing the potential for people to become revolutionary through the experience of struggle, and gain confidence in their own potential power.
It is critical, therefore, that revolutionaries be organized and prepared to intervene in that struggle, to argue against the influence of bourgeois and conservative forces—e.g., Democrats and Republicans, conservative union bureaucrats, etc.—with the aim of eventually organizing the most radical and revolutionary members of the working class into an independent, revolutionary organization (without cutting itself off from the non-revolutionary majority). To negotiate this complex task is the role of the revolutionary party.
MEANS AND ENDS
The revolutionary party, therefore, does not prefigure the future socialist state—a common misrepresentation of revolutionary socialist politics—but is rather an organization specific to capitalism, meant to navigate the rocky terrain of contradictory class struggle in a capitalist society.
Prefigurative politics urges activists to draw the means they use today from their vision of the future. However, means suited for the ideal circumstances and ideal people of the future, are not sufficient for revolutionaries who have to live in the present.
Socialists argue that we fight for socialism by any means necessary, as long as it strengthens the capacity of the working class and oppressed to fight and emancipate themselves.
Therefore, while we refuse to tie our hands behind our back, we also curate our means and methods according to the ends of the self-emancipation of the working class. As Trotsky argued,
When we say that the end justifies the means, then for us the conclusion follows that the great revolutionary end spurns those base means and ways which set one part of the working class against other parts, or attempt to make the masses happy without their participation; or lower the faith of the masses in themselves and their organization, replacing it by worship for the “leaders”… The liberation of the workers can come only through the workers themselves. There is, therefore, no greater crime than deceiving the masses, palming off defeats as victories, friends as enemies, bribing workers” leaders, [or] fabricating legends.
The tactics and methods we use in the movement, therefore, aren’t determined by an abstract and eternal sense of morality, e.g., violence is always immoral, power is always oppressive, leadership is always abusive, regardless of circumstances, but are rather selected on the basis of what unites working class and oppressed people, what raises its political confidence, and builds its power to transform society.
THE STATE AND “DUAL POWER”
United in collective struggle, determined to struggle against the old society, and confident in their power as agents of change, one cannot overestimate the creative possibilities of the working class and oppressed.
The author and activist Greg Sharzer explains in his book No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change the World that, while prefigurative institutions may provide a common sense of solidarity among its participants, so can collective struggle, often on a much wider basis because it focuses on the demands drawn from people’s concrete experiences in the present, rather than a commonly shared vision of the future or lifestyle.
As any revolutionary struggle escalates, the movement of the working class and the oppressed has to face the question of power, and how to finally confront the power of the capitalist class and their state directly.
Historically, this moment of “dual power”—in which the forces of the ruling class and the working class are relatively balanced, with neither one able to conquer the other—reveals the transformative capabilities of the working class struggle in its full brilliance.
During the course of the Russian Revolution of 1917, for instance, the working class and peasantry formed soviets, or workers’ councils, in the midst of widespread general strikes, which were able to manage and plan production directly by the workers, without the interference of capitalists or bosses. They were formed, therefore, with the concrete political purpose of carrying the struggle forward. Nevertheless, Lenin argued they also acted as the “embryo” of the future socialist state, which would eventually smash and replace the capitalist political institutions. Indeed, Lenin’s argument was vindicated when the soviets overthrew the capitalist government in October 1917.
Workers’ councils are not conceived out of the minds of revolutionaries, but rather have formed in other periods and struggles as well at a certain period of escalated class struggle that requires going beyond the limitations of trade unions. For instance, workers have formed similar councils in Paris in 1871 (which Marx and Engels argued was “the political form at last discovered [emphasis added] under which to work out the economical emancipation of labor”), in Germany in 1918, in Italy in 1919-1920, in Hungary in 1956, in Paris in 1968, Chile, Iran and Portugal in the 1970s, and Poland in the 1980s.
These moments of struggle are rare, however. Nevertheless, the struggle of the working class and oppressed reveals its creative powers in any struggle. Sharzer uses the experience of the 2011 Egyptian revolution to illustrate this point,
“demonstrators organized security, food distribution, childcare and medical care on their own. Women, who have long struggled against their second-class status in Egyptian society, were at the forefront of this movement; many reported it was the first time they had been free from harassment by men. The future visions that come out of a democratic, revolutionary process are always more creative and unpredictable than the pre-existing models.”
And there are, of course, other examples as well. Members of the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) in Greece, for instance, are involved in “organizing neighborhood assemblies, maintaining ‘solidarity kitchens’ and bazaars, [and] working in medical social centers” according to one article published in Socialist Worker. Likewise, the Black Panther Party organized programs for “survival pending revolution,” which included the well-known free breakfast program. During the Great Depression, the Communist Party in the US assisted in the formation councils of unemployed workers, and in the 1960s civil rights workers organized Freedom Schools.
Far from trying to prefigure the future (even if some participants may choose to see their work that way), these institutions were responding to the concrete experiences facing activists in their own time, and were intimately connected to building a mass movement.
Huey P. Newton, for instance, the National Chairman of the Black Panther Party, explained that the survival programs, “satisfy the deep needs of the community but they are not solutions to our problems.” He continued, “When consciousness and understanding is raised to a high level then the community will seize the time and deliver themselves from the boot of their oppressors.”
Our struggle will call for all sorts of different tasks, programs, institutions, and organizations: security, kitchens, schools, newspapers and other forms of media, conferences, etc. Nothing about such programs, however, are inherently “prefigurative” (even if some participants may think they are).
We are set out to achieve a task of monumental scale—to remake the world anew, free of class exploitation, and oppression, built upon thoroughgoing democracy, cooperation, and equality.
I think we want to encourage people to think about the future society could look like. While it is misleading to use predictions and blueprints for the future as replacements for a guide to action in the present, I still think we should embrace and find inspiration in our hopes, imaginations, wishes, desires, and dreams of a better world—certainly every great revolutionary we can list has done so.
In What Is To Be Done?, for instance, Lenin chastised the socialists of his time who “boast[ed] of their sober views,” and “their ‘closeness’ to the ‘concrete.’” He quotes the 19th century Russian literary critic Dimitri Pisarev, saying,
“The rift between dreams and reality causes no harm if only the person dreaming believes seriously in his dream, if he attentively observes life, compares his observations with his castles in the air, and if, generally speaking, he works conscientiously for the achievement of his fantasies.”
Marx himself, provided many descriptions of what he believed the future socialist society may look like. To Marx, socialism is a world in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all,” “a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production held in common,” freeing one to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner…without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”
Building such a society however, will requires the radical, revolutionary reorganization of our society from the ground up, where everything we produce is put under our democratic control, to use as we need and see fit. Such a society cannot be “prefigured” under capitalism. You can’t prefigure or approximate an end to poverty, an end to the need for police and prisons, an end to homelessness. As George Orwell once put it, whoever tries to imagine socialism simply envisions “a vision of present society with the worst abuses left out.”
Nevertheless, I think that a key challenge we face now is in articulating a clear and bold vision of the future that can inspire action and organization to a whole new layer of people who are disillusioned with the way things are and searching for an alternative, but to do so without falling into utopianism, and without losing sight of what we need to do here in the present.
To borrow from Carl Sagan, “The earth is where we make our stand.” Before we can settle our score with the future, we must first settle it with the present.