Seizing state power hasn’t been a priority for the Left in recent decades. Instead, a weakened left has contented itself with resisting state power or making demands upon it.
But in order to seize the initiative, movements must eventually move beyond demands and resistance, and develop a strategy for winning and wielding power. In recent years, this challenge has arisen in a diverse group of countries — Bolivia, Greece, and Venezuela — where left parties have taken power.
Progressive governments always face severe challenges from capital — both from their own ruling classes and from the forces of global capitalism.
However, they also face the risk that state power will undermine the popular movements that brought them to office, leading either to a rightward drift or to loss of power due to waning mass support.
Marx considered this tension. Commenting on the Paris Commune, he insisted that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” The significance of the commune was that it replaced the old repressive machinery of the French state with a radically democratic one. Such endeavors are not merely utopian demonstrations of what a future government might look like; they are essential components of defending the revolution in the present and maintaining its political course.
When social movements move into the capitalist state, they can be co-opted into the system, losing their radical and critical edge. Something like this happened in Bolivia. When Morales took power, his government lacked the administrative and technical expertise necessary to staff the various ministries, so it brought in leaders from social movements. But rather than radicalize the state, this decision turned the movements themselves into sources of patronage jobs.
Moreover, the very success of the government’s social programs gave rise to a new middle-class stratum that tended to separate its own interests from those of the poor and working classes. This pulled the administration to the right, toward the landowning elite. Similar dynamics can be seen elsewhere, as with the incorporation of the African National Congress into the South African state after 1994.
Among Latin America’s left governments, Chávez’s Venezuela was perhaps the most forceful in trying to avoid this trap. The state encouraged the development of participatory structures in which ordinary citizens directly exercised power, rather than simply handing it off to elected representatives and appointed ministers. Most significantly, this took the form of the 2006 law establishing and funding communal councils. In his 2016 book Building the Commune, George Ciccariello-Maher identifies these thousands of neighborhood councils as “crucial spaces for political participation in Venezuela today,” taking on everything from new roads to drug violence.
But, as he also notes, it would be a mistake to focus narrowly on the 2006 law, or to view the commune simply as something that was created by the Chávez administration. The roots of participatory democracy go back to the “Bolivarian circles” that formed to defend the 1999 Constitution — and even farther to the armed self-defense collectives that formed in poor neighborhoods in the 1980s and 1990s, long before the Bolivarian government came to power.
Today the future of Venezuelan participatory democracy is uncertain. A combination of internal and external factors has plunged the country into political and economic crisis, and the current Maduro government is more hostile toward the communes than the previous regime. But it is precisely the independence of the collectives that makes them robust enough to resist a conservative turn within the state, and potentially consolidate enough power to once again turn Bolivarian politics in a revolutionary direction.
What, then, are the lessons for future left governments? First, there is the need to empower participatory organs as Venezuela did, not just as passive supports for the government but as independent institutions strong enough to weather setbacks at the highest levels. This could take the form of neighborhood councils, but could also include actions such as turning companies into worker cooperatives instead of bailing them out, or encouraging digital economy experiments in “platform cooperativism” that build user- and worker-controlled alternatives to parasitical “sharing economy” companies like Uber.
But there is also a need to prepare popular institutions before the moment of state power. Consider Greece: Syriza was elected on a wave of popular protest, but was unable (and perhaps unwilling) to mobilize it in confrontation with the European Union. Instead it capitulated, leaving a demoralized and disorganized base.
As Andreas Karitzis, a former member of Syriza’s central committee, writes, the Left needs to create organs of popular autonomy. He argues for the need to develop “social economy and cooperative initiatives or community control over functions such as infrastructure facilities, energy systems, and distribution networks.”
Socialists have a somewhat fraught relationship with projects of this sort. From one point of view, such projects can be seen as neoliberalism in left clothing, in which voluntary associations take up basic functions that should be the task of a well-run state. Having “cooperative initiatives” provide basic services seems like it would fit in seamlessly with the designs of a privatization-crazed technocrat.
This is indeed a danger, if such initiatives remain dispersed and disconnected from state power. When linked to a larger political project, however, they can instead ensure that, as Karitzis puts it, “we have the power to carry out our plans under the severe pressure of elites” and thus “we could use electoral politics and a left government to initiate a process of liberating our society.”
Building institutions where people exercise immediate control over their lives is important in itself as a goal of socialist politics. It is also essential because without such radical democracy, left governments cannot win, at least not on socialist terms. The creation of a participatory sphere alongside the traditional contest for electoral power is a crucial part of positioning our movements so that they are, in the title of a widely circulated 1979 pamphlet from the UK’s Conference of Socialist Economists, both “In and Against the State.”