Yearning for Power, Research Time, 31/05/2014

My angry posts about the Ontario NDP have gotten some interesting reactions, not only on the blog, but on my personal Facebook and Twitter feeds as well. For those needing a quick refresher, I have concluded from watching Andrea Horwath’s campaign that she is abandoning central principles of the NDP for the sake of an ideological triangulation, using empty populism more often associated with Rob Ford and Tim Hudak to capture a socially conservative voting demographic. One such reaction came from someone who accused me of ignoring what must be done to win elections.

Two years ago, MacLean's magazine documented me
awkwardly trying to avoid looking at the camera while
seated directly behind Nathan Cullen, one of Canada's
major political leaders.
It’s an interesting critique, because the last leadership race for the federal party found me frustrated with many traditional New Democrats who accused the politicians I supported, Nathan Cullen and Thomas Mulcair, of abandoning the party’s principles for the sake of election victory. In particular, some critics of Mulcair from inside NDP ranks were suspicious of him precisely because he planned to win any elections at all. A popular image of the NDP is as a permanent opposition party, a kind of continual conscience in Canada’s parliament, constantly suffering for standing up for what was right over what was politically expedient. The inevitability of its defeat was a sign of its never having compromised its values. Always being crushed by the powerful implies that you would never sell out your principles for power.

This idea, which I’ve heard being mocked just as often, if not moreso, than I’ve heard it levelled at me, actually has quite a pedigree. Well, really, it’s more of a sad, corrupted offspring of an originally radical idea of the left that appears pathetic as it has come to occur in the context of electoral politics alone. The idea is in the work of Antonio Gramsci. It describes how a truly revolutionary party is supposed to act. Basically, the revolutionary socialist party does not organize itself and its apparatus to take state power in elections. The whole purpose of taking state power should be anathema to revolutionary socialism.* Gramsci’s conception of the state, at least in some of the mid-WWI-vintage papers where I came across this notion this week, is that it’s basically a giant system of elite control.

* This may seem especially weird to some of my conservative friends who equate socialism with the state control of absolutely everything. Few people understand the anarchist ideals of some of these political philosophies anymore. 

State elections, and the parties that contest them, he understands as vehicles for the peaceful competition and exchange of power among various factions of a society’s elites. Writing about 100 years ago, Gramsci is able to critique the Chomskian left for their view that the ruling class of society is entirely uniform and operates conspiratorially. No, the rich and powerful bicker among themselves just as much, if not more, than the radical left. 

You can't write a Gramscian
handbook for winning elections.
But democratic elections enable a society’s elite factions to alternate power over the economic and military monopoly of a region without mounting constant coups. Elections are improvements over open dictatorships in this sense, but do not go far enough for the genuine democratization of a society. After all, the leader who most insults democratic values is the one who only pays attention to what his country’s citizens say on election day.

Because winning power through elections only welcomes you into the circle of elites who now have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo to keep its regular access to power, a genuinely revolutionary party should not be interested in winning state power at all.** This concept is the only thing I’ve come across so far that sensibly fleshes out the old Marxist adage that the state ‘withers away’ under communism.

** Alain Badiou once wrote an opera about this very notion, of a revolutionary leader purposely abandoning state power because his goal was to destroy dictatorship itself, not replace the dictator with himself. I mention this detail for two reasons. One is to show that Badiou is not as original as he thinks, as this idea is blatantly in the work of Gramsci. Second, I’ll let that sink in a bit, that Alain Badiou wrote an opera. Yes, I am looking for decent footage. I may post some later.

Taking over the state would immediately corrupt a political movement whose goal was to neuter the coercive power of the state in its military, police, and surveillance apparatuses. It would make the revolutionaries just one more ruling class interest competing for a temporary relative advantage over its fellow elites. I think this is what motivated the fear of Mulcair in the old guard of the NDP: that if the NDP ever gained state power, it would become just another political party.

Politics that is truly effective over the long term is not
about elections, but movements.
I think the actual situations of politics are more complex than this, though in his original form, Gramsci’s ideas are potent and insightful. Indeed, Gramsci’s idea here has come true: every time a socialist or communist party gains state power, it abuses that state power to become fascist or totalitarian. I think the mistake lay in fashioning the revolutionary movement as a party at all. 

Political parties, by their essential structure, have an inescapable relationship with state government, as the logistical apparatus for electoral contests themselves. Movements, meanwhile, should be grassroots organizing of people who think about social and political issues differently. Idle No More is a wonderful, and ongoing, example. They were a group of people very publicly campaigning for an end to an unjust political system of relationships. 

One central goal was to change the way settler-descended people understood the natures of indigenous peoples and the state system that resulted in those injustices. Contesting elections and gaining state control wasn’t even part of the agenda. What mattered was changing people themselves. 

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