This post looks at if it’s possible to have a coherent strategy for the emancipatory transformation of a complex social system, 5 anti-capitalist strategies and revolutionary strategy.
What does ‘emancipatory transformation of a complex social system’ mean? We currently live in a capitalist society or capitalist social system that is not equal, just, democratic or sustainable. Emancipatory means the struggle for political, economic or social rights or equality for disenfranchised groups or sections of society. So this post is focused on thinking about how we think about the route to ending the dominance of capitalism so we live in an alternative society that is equal, just, democratic and sustainable.
Revolutionary and anti-capitalist strategy is a huge topic that will take several posts to explore. This first post aims to start in the broadest way by considering if it’s possible to have a revolutionary and anti-capitalist strategy and reference a useful framework to help understand the different anti-capitalist strategic approaches.
Is it possible to have a coherent strategy for the emancipatory transformation of a complex social system?
In other words, is it possible to create a desirable social transformation (revolution) through deliberate, intentional action? Eric Olin Wright, sociologist and educator who specialised in egalitarian future alternatives to capitalism, explains that there are desirable objectives of social transformation that are not possible, either because they are not viable (won’t work) or because there is no way to get there. Wright describes how Frederick Hayek, the arch-conservative and key advocate of neoliberalism, believed that a social transformation strategy was a fantasy. This is due to the negative unintentional consequences of such a large social engineering project that would overwhelm the intended consequences. Concern for unintentional consequences is valid, and I agree with Wright when he says:
“It remains the case that capitalism is immensely destructive, obstructing the prospects for broad human flourishing. What we need is an understanding of anticapitalist strategies that avoids both the false optimism of wishful thinking and the disabling pessimism that emancipatory social transformation is beyond strategic reach.” 
Eric Olin Wright in “How to Be an Anti-capitalist in the 21st Century” describes five ‘strategic logics’: smashing capitalism, dismantling capitalism, taming capitalism, resisting capitalism, escaping capitalism. This framework is a useful starting point for thinking about anti-capitalist and revolutionary strategy. But it is simplistic and I explain where my thinking differs in the last section of this post.
This is the classic revolutionary strategy of seizing state power by force. This is known a orthodox or vanguard Marxism.
Wright describes its rationale: The system is unreformable and all attempts to make life bearable will fail. Small reforms improve people’s lives when popular movements are strong but these gains are vulnerable to attack and reversible. It is an illusion that capitalism can become a benign social system so ordinary people can live meaningful happy lives. Capitalism needs to be destroyed and an alternative built. The progress of an emancipatory alternative society may be gradual but it requires a decisive rupture with the existing systems of power to get there.
Critiquing this theory, Wright asks how it’s possible for anti-capitalist forces to build enough power to destroy capitalism and replace it with an alternative. He explains that the power of the ruling classes blocks both reformist gains and revolutionary ruptures. He describes how those in the ‘smashing capitalism tradition’ argue that capitalism is a highly contradictory system that is prone to disruptions and crises, and sometimes these crises make capitalism vulnerable to a serious challenge. There is a further argument that these crises increase over time so in the long term capitalism is unsustainable and ‘destroys its own conditions of existence.’ The role of the revolutionary party is therefore to be ready for this situation and lead a mass movement to seize state power. The revolutionary party then works to ‘rapidly refashion the state itself to make it a suitable weapon of ruptual transformation,’ and also to repress the ruling class opposition and destroy their power structures to allow the new revolutionary state to build an alternative economic system.
Wright describes how this strategy was applied several times in the 20th century with some success, but never created a ‘democratic, egalitarian, emancipatory alternative to capitalism.’ This strategy gave people the hope and motivation to make great sacrifices in the pursuit of achieving such as a society, and material conditions were improved for a lot of people. Examples include Russia, China and Cuba. But, “it is one thing to burn down old institutions and social structures; it is quite another to build emancipatory new institutions from the ashes.”
He describes some of the reasons given for the failures of these revolutions: (1) history-specific unfavourable circumstances; (2) revolutions happened in economically backward societies surrounded by enemies; (3) strategic leadership errors; (4) leaders motivated by power and status rather than the well-being of the masses; (5) failure of these revolutions as being inherent to any attempt to radically rupture a social system – too many moving parts, too much complexity and too many unintended consequences.
This is a key point for me: “attempts at system-rupture will inevitably tend to unravel into such chaos that revolutionary elites, regardless of their motives, will be compelled to resort to pervasive violence and repression to sustain social order. Such violence, in turn, destroys the possibility for a genuinely democratic, participatory process of building a new society.” 
Wright is clear that he does not believe that ‘system-level ruptures’ work as a strategy for social emancipation.
Wright describes this as a transition to democratic socialism through state-directed reforms that gradually introduce socialism from above. He sees this strategy as having ‘revolutionary aspirations,’ because it seeks to replace capitalism with a different economic system: socialism. He explains that in this tradition there is no simple point of rupture when one system replaces the other. Instead, “there would be a gradual dismantling of capitalism and the building up of the alternative through the sustained action of the state.” 
Wright describes how this approach sees a period when capitalist and socialist relations will coexist, such as both private and state-run banks; private and state enterprises in transportation, utilities, health care and some heavy industry; capitalist labour markets and state employment; state-directed planning for investment decisions and private profit-driven investment.
Wright describes the necessary preconditions for this strategy to be possible. “First, a stable electoral democracy, and second, a broad, mass-based socialist party capable of winning elections and staying in power for a sufficiently long time that these new state-run economic structures could be robustly institutionalized. Of course, there would be opposition and resistance, but the belief was that these state-organized socialist economic institutions would demonstrate their value and thus be able to sustain popular support.” 
This strategy had significant support in the 20th century and following World War II, when several governments looked to be implementing this “mixed economy” approach. An example is Sweden. It did not succeed and Wright put this down to the ‘dynamism of capitalism,’ and to the right-wing ideological offensive against socialist ideas in many countries, which, from the 1970s “pushed the expansion of nationalization in mixed economies off the agenda.” He describes the “military overthrow of the democratically elected socialist government in Chile in 1973, along with other setbacks to efforts at democratic socialism, further eroding any belief that democratic elections could offer a reformist path to dismantling capitalism.” By the end of the twentieth century, neoliberalism and privatisation dominated the mainstream political agenda instead of nationalisation, even by large political parties thought to be on the left, such as New Labour in the UK.
This tradition sees capitalism as a “source of systemic harms in society,” but does not look to replace it. It wants to reduce and remove those harms. This was the main strategic approach of social-democratic reformist parties since World War II.
Wright describes that although this tradition identities the harms of capitalism, its response is to work on “building counteracting institutions capable of significantly neutralizing these harms.” This tradition does understand that to achieve this, there will need to be political struggles to reduce the power and control of the capitalist class, and that the capitalists will claim that these redistributions will undermine capitalism’s dynamism and incentives. These arguments are self-serving justifications for the privilege and power of the capitalists.
Wright describes two types of reforms: (1) those that stabilise capitalism (such as banking regulation to reduce system-disrupting, speculative risk-taking), and (2) anti-capitalist reforms that introduce egalitarian, democratic and solidaristic values and principles into how capitalism operates. He explains that these anti-capitalist reforms will also likely stabilise capitalism, and that is what makes them partially possible, but also result in the system working in a “less purely capitalist way.”
Wright describes three types of state policies which change the way capitalism operates to reduce the harms and increases egalitarian, democratic and solidaristic values and principles. Mostly these policies benefit capitalists but some benefit ordinary people:
- Reduce individual vulnerability to risks through publicly run and funded social insurance or a welfare state.
- The provision of public goods – such as basic and higher education, vocational skills training, public transportation, cultural and recreational facilities, research and development – paid for by re-distributional taxation.
- Use the State to develop a regulatory framework to reduce the most serious negative externalities caused by capitalist investors and companies, including regulation of pollution, product and workplace hazards, predatory market behaviour, and property and stock market volatility.
Wright states that during the “golden age of capitalism” in the 30 years after World War II, these policies were used to tame capitalism. Since the 1980s these gains have been rolled back under neoliberalism, leading to reduction of social insurance benefits, reduction in taxes and therefore social goods, deregulation of capitalist production and markets, and privatisation of many state services.
He describes the forces that have resulted in a reduction of the state’s ability to limit capitalism’s harms: “The globalization of capitalism has made it much easier for capitalist firms to move investment to places in the world with less regulation and cheaper labor. The threat of such movement of capital, along with a variety of technological and demographic changes, has fragmented and weakened the labor movement, making it less capable of resistance and political mobilizations. Combined with globalization, the financialization of capital has led to massive increases in wealth and income inequality, which in turn has increased the political leverage of opponents of the social democratic state. Instead of being tamed, capitalism has been unleashed.” 
Wright raises the question of whether the three decades of the golden age were perhaps a historical anomaly; “a brief period in which favourable structural conditions and robust popular power opened up the possibility for the relative egalitarian, social democratic model.” Before this period capitalism was rapacious, and it has become rapacious again under neoliberalism. He suggests that capitalism is not tamable. I certainly don’t think it is.
Wright concludes the section on taming capitalism with a thoughtful paragraph on how the limits of a state’s ability to raise taxes, regulate capitalism and redistribute wealth are based on people’s belief that globalisation imposes powerful constraints. But, he argues, it’s the willingness of voters to be taxed more that is the main factor, not if the capitalists move their capital to avoid taxation. The willingness of the electorate to be taxed depends on the general level of collective solidarity. He maintains that the “limits of possibility are always in part created by beliefs in those limits.” He explains that neoliberalism is an ideology backed by powerful political and economic forces and it is possible to break through the limits set by neoliberalism if there is collective will to do so. He argues that social democratic politics have become less effective and need rethinking, and that the political obstacles to their success are significant, but that it is still possible for the harm of capitalism to be reduced by state action.
Wright explains that ‘resisting capitalism’ could be a broad term for anti-capitalist struggles. Here, he is using it in a narrower sense to identify struggles to end capitalism from outside the state and parliamentary politics, and also that do not want to gain state power. This strategy is different from the previous three that were all aiming to gain and use state power.
This tradition aims to reduce the harms of capitalism by influencing the behaviour of capitalists and political elites through protest and campaigning: “We may not be able to transform capitalism, but we can defend ourselves from its harms by causing trouble, protesting and raising the cost to elites of their actions.” (p50) He lists some examples: “environmentalists protesting toxic dumps and environmentally destructive developments; consumer movements that organize boycotts of predatory corporations; activist lawyers who defend the rights of immigrants, the poor, and sexual minorities. It is also the basic strategic logic of unions that organize strikes for better pay and working conditions.” 
Wright sees resisting capitalism as the most common response to the harms caused by the capitalist system. It is based on civil society and the solidarities that exist in workplaces and the community. Different identities play a part in this approach including class, ethnicity, religion, race, gender, sexuality. Its most organised forms are social movements and trade unions. Even when unions are weak, workers can resist exploitation by withholding their maximum effort and diligence.
Wright explains that this may not have been developed into a systematic anti-capitalist ideology, but it does have a ‘coherent logic’, which is: Capitalism is too powerful to end. It is unrealistic that collective mass movements will form to dismantle or tame capitalism. The ruling class are too strong to remove and they always co-opt opposition and defend their privileges. Also, social systems are too large and complex to control. The best we can do is insulate ourselves from the worst harms. We may not be able to change the world but can escape the circuits of domination and build a micro-alternative to live better lives.
Wright lists some examples of groups attempting to escape capitalism: migration of poor farmers to the western frontier in the 19th century; utopian self-sufficiency communities in the 19th century; worker cooperatives that are managed collectively based on principles of democracy, solidarity, equality, working to avoid alienation and exploitation of capitalist firms; the hippies of the 1960s; religious communities such as the Amish. He also cites the family unit as a “non-competitive social space of reciprocity and caring in which one can find refuge from the heartless, competitive world of capitalism.”
Wright explains that escaping capitalism involves avoiding political engagement. For some, this is the ‘individualistic lifestyle strategy’, which can be contradictory if this lifestyle is funded by wealth that was gained from capitalist activities.
Intentional communities are a good example of a desire to escape capitalism, as well as being a model for more collective, egalitarian and democratic ways of living. In addition, worker cooperatives are an attempt to escape the oppressive nature of capitalist workplaces, and are a model of how an alternative economy to capitalism could operate so as to challenge the current capitalist economic system.
When I use the word ‘revolution’, I mean it in a broad way for the ending of capitalism and the creation of an alternative society – radical transformational system change. In the summary above of Wright’s description of the different anti-capitalist strategies, he labels ‘smashing capitalism’ and ‘dismantling capitalism’ as revolutionary. And I would agree.
The anti-capitalist strategy that Wright advocates is a combination of dismantling capitalism, taming capitalism, resisting capitalism and escaping capitalism. He calls it ‘eroding capitalism’ and I’ll describe this in more detail in a future post (reference). I agree with him on this and that we need both revolutionary and reformist approaches.
My understanding of Wright’s perspective is that he believed that we could end capitalism without a rupture. I don’t agree with this. I think we will need to fight for reforms to rebuild the power of the left but at some point, there will need to be a rupture, so that we would go from a mixed economy with socialist and capitalist institutions to one with only socialist/anarchist/communist ones and the end of private property. But at this dark point in history that we currently live, this is hard to imagine.
I don’t support the ‘smashing capitalism’ (vanguard Marxist) strategy for a few reasons. The main one is because although it has shown itself in history to be effective at ending capitalism, there are no examples of it creating egalitarian and democratic societies. In each case, it has involved a militant minority taking power and dominating the majority, and this can only result in repression. I have asked different people that advocate different versions of this strategy (Leninists, Trotskyists, Maoists, Stalinists), how to use this strategy and not end up with things turning repressive and sometimes totalitarian, but I have not got a clear answer. If you do have an answer, I’d love to hear from you.
There is a lot that needs to be unpacked for the ‘dismantling capitalism’ strategy. Wright states it would be a transition to democratic socialism through state-directed reforms that gradually introduce socialism from above and that it would require a broad, mass-based socialist party. Democratic socialism is a broad term which ranges in meaning between political parties led from the top like the Corbyn leadership, and those parties formed from grassroots movements such as Podemos in Spain. I’m not saying that Podemos is the exact model to follow but we can learn from this experiment and municipalist citizen platforms such as Barcelona en Comú. We have seen from the 20th century that big changes happen when the grassroots of labour unions become militant and make radical demands of union leaders and political parties. Social movements campaigning on specific issues have also made gains and reforms have been implemented.
Two revolutionary strategies do not easily fit into Wright’s framework. The first is the council communism tradition of left communism. This Marxist strategy is based on the worker councils or soviets that formed in Russia during the 1917 Russian Revolution. It has elements of smashing capitalism, especially regarding the belief that there would need to be a clear rupture to end capitalism, but that this will be done from the bottom or grassroots, where different workplaces and community institutions are self-organised and working together in a federated governance structure. This worker control approach is anti-state and anti-parliamentary politics meaning that this tradition has elements of Wright’s ‘resisting capitalism’ strategy. Although this tradition does not seek state power, it does see ordinary people creating a federated system of self-government that would replace the state, so has elements of smashing capitalism and resisting capitalism.
The second revolutionary strategy that does not fit into Wright’s framework is anarcho-syndicalism, which has similarities to council communism. It aims to end capitalism, wage slavery and private property. A new society would be built without hierarchy, based on direct-democracy, workers’ self-management and an alternative co-operative economic system. This alternative society would replace the state with a federated structure of self-run workplaces and community institutions.
In future posts, I want to analyze how the left organises itself into social and political movements, by ideology and how groups operate in practice. Then look at the strategies these traditions follow. I also plan to summarise the different radical and revolutionary strategies that thinkers and writers on the left have proposed. After this I will start to explore the situation we find ourselves in and relate this to “Good Strategy Bad Strategy” by Richard Rumelt (read a summary here) and his three-part framework for developing a good strategy. There is:
- diagnosis, what is going on here;
- guiding policy – outlines an overall approach for overcoming the obstacles highlighted by the diagnosis;
- coherent action – this needs to be consistent and coordinated, and also requires making painful choices about what can be achieved with limited resources.
- How to Be an Anti-capitalist in the 21st Century, Eric Olin Wright, page 37-8
- How to Be an Anti-capitalist in the 21st Century, page 41
- How to Be an Anti-capitalist in the 21st Century, page 43
- How to Be an Anti-capitalist in the 21st Century, page 48
- How to Be an Anti-capitalist in the 21st Century, page 50
- How to Be an Anti-capitalist in the 21st Century, page 52