Towards a Democratic Socialism

Nicos Poulantzas
Patrick Camiller

One of socialists’ primary aims must be to transform the state — wedding representative democracy to new types of popular power while battling to democratize the authoritarian aspects of the state.

Supporters of Chilean socialist Salvador Allende in 1964. (Wikimedia Commons)

The question of socialism and democracy, of the democratic road to socialism, is today posed with reference to two historical experiences, which in a way serve as examples of the twin limits or dangers to be avoided: the traditional social-democratic experience, as illustrated in a number of West European countries, and the Eastern example of what is called “real socialism.” Despite everything that distinguishes these cases, despite everything that opposes social democracy and Stalinism to each other as theoretico-political currents, they nevertheless exhibit a fundamental complicity: both are marked by statism and profound distrust of mass initiatives, in short by suspicion of democratic demands.

In France, many now like to speak of two traditions of the working-class and popular movements: the statist and Jacobin one, running from Lenin and the October Revolution to the Third International and the Communist movement; and a second one characterized by notions of self-management and direct, rank-and-file democracy. It is then argued that the achievement of democratic socialism requires a break with the former and integration with the latter.

In fact, however, this is a rather perfunctory way of posing the question. Although there are indeed two traditions, they do not coincide with the currents just mentioned. Moreover, it would be a fundamental error to imagine that mere integration with the current of self-management and direct democracy is sufficient to avoid statism.

The Leninist Legacy and Luxemburg’s Critique

First of all, then, we must take yet another look at Lenin and the October Revolution. Of course, Stalinism and the model of the transition to socialism bequeathed by the Third International differ from Lenin’s own thought and action. But they are not simply a deviation from the latter. Seeds of Stalinism were well and truly present in Lenin — and not only because of the peculiarities of Russia and the Tsarist state with which he had to grapple. The error of the Third International cannot be explained simply as an attempt to universalize in an aberrant manner a model of socialism that corresponded, in its original purity, to the concrete situation of Tsarist Russia. At the same time, these seeds are not to be found in Marx himself. Lenin was the first to tackle the problem of the transition to socialism and the withering away of the state, concerning which Marx left only a few general observations on the close relationship between socialism and democracy.

What then was the exact import of the October Revolution for the withering away of the state? Out of the several problems relating to the seeds of the Third International in Lenin, one seems here to occupy a dominant position. For all Lenin’s analyses and actions are traversed by the following leitmotif: the state must be entirely destroyed through frontal attack in a situation of dual power, to be replaced by a second power — soviets — which will no longer be a state in the proper sense of the term, since it will already have begun to wither away.

What does Lenin mean by this destruction of the bourgeois state? Unlike Marx, he often reduces the institutions of representative democracy and political freedoms to a simple emanation of the bourgeoisie: representative democracy = bourgeois democracy = dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. They have to be completely uprooted and replaced by direct, rank-and-file democracy and mandated, recallable delegates — in other words, by the genuine proletarian democracy of soviets.

I am intentionally drawing a highly schematized picture: Lenin’s principal thrust was not at first towards a variant of authoritarian statism. I say this not in order to leap to Lenin’s defense, but to point up the simplistic and befogging character of that conception according to which developments in Soviet Russia resulted from Lenin’s “centralist” opposition to direct democracy — from a Leninism which is supposed to have carried within it the crushing of the Kronstadt sailors’ revolt, in the way that a cloud carries the storm. Whether we like it or not, the original guiding thread of Lenin’s thought was, in opposition to the parliamentarianism and dread of workers’ councils characteristic of the social-democratic current, the sweeping replacement of “formal” representative democracy by the “real,” direct democracy of workers’ councils. (The term “self-management” was not yet used in Lenin’s time.)

The Petrograd Soviet Assembly meeting in 1917. (Wikimedia Commons)

This leads me on to the real question. Was it not this very line (sweeping substitution of rank-and-file democracy for representative democracy) which principally accounted for what happened in Lenin’s lifetime in the Soviet Union, and which gave rise to the centralizing and statist Lenin whose posterity is well enough known?

I said that I am posing the question. But as a matter of fact, it was already posed in Lenin’s time and answered in a way that now seems dramatically premonitory. I am referring, of course, to Rosa Luxemburg, whom Lenin called an eagle of revolution. She also had the eye of an eagle. For it was she who made the first correct and fundamental critique of Lenin and the Bolshevik Revolution. It is decisive because it issues not from the ranks of social democracy, which did not want even to hear of direct democracy and workers’ councils, but precisely from a convinced fighter who gave her life for council democracy, being executed at the moment when the German workers’ councils were crushed by social democracy.

Now, Luxemburg reproaches Lenin not with neglect or contempt of direct, rank-and-file democracy, but rather with the exact opposite — that is to say, exclusive reliance on council democracy and complete elimination of representative democracy (through, among other things, dissolution of the Constituent Assembly — which had been elected under the Bolshevik government — in favor of the soviets alone). It is necessary to re-read The Russian Revolution, from which I shall quote just one passage.

In place of the representative bodies created by general, popular elections, Lenin and Trotsky have laid down the soviets as the only true representation of the laboring masses. But with the repression of political life in the land as a whole, life in the soviets must also become more and more crippled. Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element.

This is certainly not the only question to be asked concerning Lenin. An important role in subsequent developments was played by the conception of the party contained in What is to be Done?; by the notion of theory being brought to the working class from outside by professional revolutionaries, and so on.

But the fundamental question is the one posed by Luxemburg. Even if we take into account Lenin’s positions on a series of other problems, as well as the historical peculiarities of Russia, what ensued in Lenin’s own lifetime and above all after his death (the single party, bureaucratization of the party, confusion of party and state, statism, the end of the soviets themselves, etc.) was already inscribed in the situation criticized by Luxemburg.

The Third International Model

Be that as it may, let us now look at the “model” of revolution that was bequeathed by the Third International, having already been affected by Stalinism in certain ways. We find the same position with regard to representative democracy, only now it is combined with statism and contempt for direct, rank-and-file democracy — in short, the meaning of the entire council problematic is twisted out of shape. The resulting model is permeated by the instrumental conception of the state. The capitalist state is still considered as a mere object or instrument, capable of being manipulated by the bourgeoisie of which it is the emanation.

According to this view of things, the state is not traversed by internal contradictions, but is a monolithic bloc without cracks of any kind. The struggles of the popular masses cannot pass through the state, any more than they can become, in opposition to the bourgeoisie, one of the constituent factors of the institutions of representative democracy. Class contradictions are located between the state and the popular masses standing outside the state. This remains true right up to the crisis of dual power, when the state is effectively dismantled through the centralization at national level of a parallel power, which becomes the real power (soviets). Thus:

  1. The struggle of the popular masses for state power is, in essence, a frontal struggle of maneuver or encirclement, taking place outside the fortress-state and principally aiming at the creation of a situation of dual power.
  2. While it would be hasty to identify this conception with an assault strategy concentrated in a precise moment or “big day” (insurrection, political general strike, etc.), it quite clearly lacks the strategic vision of a process of transition to socialism — that is, of a long stage during which the masses will act to conquer power and transform the state apparatuses. It presents these changes as possible only in a situation of dual power, characterized by a highly precarious balance of forces between the state/bourgeoisie and the soviets/working class. The “revolutionary situation” is itself reduced to a crisis of the state that cannot but involve its breakdown.
  3. The state is supposed to hold pure power — a quantifiable substance that has to be seized from it. “To take” state power therefore means to occupy, during the interval of dual power, all the parts of the instrument-state: to take charge of the summit of its apparatuses, assuming the commanding positions within the state machinery and operating its controls in such a way as to replace it by the second, soviet power. A citadel can be taken only if, during the dual power situation, ditches, ramparts, and casemates of its instrumental structure have already been captured and dismantled in favor of something else (soviets); and this something else (the second power) is supposed to lie entirely outside the fortified position of the state. This conception, then, is still marked by permanent skepticism as to the possibility of mass intervention within the state itself.
  4. How does the transformation of the state apparatus appear during the transition to socialism? It is first of all necessary to take state power, and then, after the fortress has been captured, to raze to the ground the entire state apparatus, replacing it by the second power (soviets) constituted as a state of a new type.

Here we can recognize a basic distrust of the institutions of representative democracy and of political freedoms. But if these are still regarded as creations and instruments of the bourgeoisie, the conception of soviets has in the meantime undergone significant changes. What is to replace the bourgeois state en bloc is no longer direct, rank-and-file democracy. The soviets are now not so much an anti-state as a parallel state — one copied from the instrumental model of the existing state, and possessing a proletarian character insofar as its summit is controlled/occupied by a “single” revolutionary party which itself functions according to the model of the state. Distrust of the possibility of mass intervention within the bourgeois state has become distrust of the popular movement as such. This is called strengthening the state/soviets, the better to make it wither away in the future . . . And so was Stalinist statism born.

We can now see the deep complicity between this Stalinist kind of statism and that of traditional social democracy. For the latter is also characterized by basic distrust of direct, rank-and-file democracy and popular initiative. For it too, the popular masses stand in a relationship of externality to a state that possesses power and constitutes an essence. Here the state is a subject, bearing an intrinsic rationality that is incarnated by political elites and the very mechanism of representative democracy. Accordingly, occupation of the state involves replacing the top leaders by an enlightened left elite and, if necessary, making a few adjustments to the way in which the existing institutions function; it is left as understood that the state will thereby bring socialism to the popular masses from above. This then is the techno-bureaucratic statism of the experts.

Stalinist state-worship, social-democratic state-worship: this is indeed one of the traditions of the popular movement. But to escape from it through the other tradition of direct, rank-and-file democracy or self-management would really be too good to be true. We should not forget the case of Lenin himself and the seeds of statism contained in the original workers’ councils experience.

10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s residence in London. (Leonard Bentley / Flickr)

The basic dilemma from which we must extricate ourselves is the following: either maintain the existing state and stick exclusively to a modified form of representative democracy — a road that ends up in social-democratic statism and so-called liberal parliamentarianism; or base everything on direct, rank-and-file democracy or the movement for self-management — a path which, sooner or later, inevitably leads to statist despotism or the dictatorship of experts. The essential problem of the democratic road to socialism, of democratic socialism, must be posed in a different way: how is it possible radically to transform the state in such a manner that the extension and deepening of political freedoms and the institutions of representative democracy (which were also a conquest of the popular masses) are combined with the unfurling of forms of direct democracy and the mushrooming of self-management bodies?

Not only did the notion of dictatorship of the proletariat fail to pose this problem; it ended by obscuring it. For Marx, the dictatorship of the proletariat was a notion of applied strategy, serving at most as a signpost. It referred to the class nature of the state and to the necessity of its transformation in the transition to socialism and the process of withering away of the state. Now, although the object to which it referred is still real, the notion has come to play a precise historical role: it obscures the fundamental problem of combining a transformed representative democracy with direct, rank-and-file democracy.

It is for these reasons, and not because the notion eventually became identified with Stalinist totalitarianism, that its abandonment is, in my opinion, justified. Even when it took on other meanings, it always retained the historical function in question — both for Lenin, at the beginning of the October Revolution, and, nearer our own time, for Gramsci himself.

Of course, there is no disputing Gramsci’s considerable theoretical-political contributions, and we know the distance he took from the Stalinist experience. Still, even though he is currently being pulled and pushed in every conceivable direction, the fact remains that Gramsci was also unable to pose the problem in all its amplitude. His famous analyses of the differences between war of movement (as waged by the Bolsheviks in Russia) and war of position are essentially conceived as the application of Lenin’s model/strategy to the “different concrete conditions” of the West. Despite his remarkable insights, this leads him into a number of blind alleys, which we do not have space to discuss here.

The Democratic Socialist Imperative

This then is the basic problem of democratic socialism. It does not concern only the so-called developed countries, for there is no strategic model exclusively adapted to these countries. In fact, there is no longer a question of building “models” of any kind whatsoever. All that is involved is a set of signposts which, drawing on the lessons of the past, point out the traps to anyone wishing to avoid certain well-known destinations. The problem concerns every transition to socialism, even though it may present itself quite differently in various countries. This much we know already: socialism cannot be democratic here and of another kind over there. The concrete situation may of course differ, and the strategies undoubtedly have to be adapted to the country’s specific features. But democratic socialism is the only kind possible.

With regard to this socialism, to the democratic road to socialism, the current situation in Europe presents a number of peculiarities: these concern at one and the same time the new social relations, the state form that is being established, and the precise character of the crisis of the state. For certain European countries, these particularities constitute so many chances — probably unique in world history — for the success of a democratic socialist experience, articulating transformed representative democracy and direct, rank-and-file democracy. This entails the elaboration of a new strategy with respect both to the capture of state power by the popular masses and their organizations, and to the transformations of the state designated by the term “democratic road to socialism.”

Swedish mineworkers engage in an illegal strike, 1969.

Today less than ever is the state an ivory tower isolated from the popular masses. Their struggles constantly traverse the state, even when they are not physically present in its apparatuses. Dual power, in which frontal struggle is concentrated in a precise moment, is not the only situation that allows the popular masses to carry out an action in the sphere of the state. The democratic road to socialism is a long process, in which the struggle of the popular masses does not seek to create an effective dual power parallel and external to the state, but brings itself to bear on the internal contradictions of the state.

To be sure, the seizure of power always presupposes a crisis of the state (such as exists today in certain European countries); but this crisis, which sharpens the very internal contradictions of the state, cannot be reduced to a breakdown of the latter. To take or capture state power is not simply to lay hands on part of the state machinery in order to replace it with a second power. Power is not a quantifiable substance held by the state that must be taken out of its hands, but rather a series of relations among the various social classes. In its ideal form, power is concentrated in the state, which is thus itself the condensation of a particular class relationship of forces. The state is neither a thing-instrument that may be taken away, nor a fortress that may be penetrated by means of a wooden horse, nor yet a safe that may be cracked by burglary: it is the heart of the exercise of political power.

For state power to be taken, a mass struggle must have unfolded in such a way as to modify the relationship of forces within the state apparatuses, themselves the strategic site of political struggle. For a dual-power type of strategy, however, the decisive shift in the relationship of forces takes place not within the state but between the state and the masses outside. In the democratic road to socialism, the long process of taking power essentially consists in the spreading, development, reinforcement, coordination, and direction of those diffuse centers of resistance which the masses always possess within the state networks, in such a way that they become the real centers of power on the strategic terrain of the state. It is therefore not a question of a straight choice between frontal war of movement and war of position, because in Gramsci’s use of the term, the latter always comprises encirclement of a fortress state.

I can already hear the question: have we then given in to traditional reformism? In order to answer this, we must examine how the question of reformism was posed by the Third International. As a matter of fact, it regarded every strategy other than that of dual power as reformist. The only radical break allowing the seizure of state power, the only meaningful break making it possible to escape from reformism was the break between the state (as a simple instrument of the bourgeoisie external to the masses) and a second power (the masses/soviets) lying wholly outside the state.

By the way, this did not prevent the emergence of a reformism peculiar to the Third International — one bound up precisely with the instrumental conception of the state. Quite the contrary! You corner some loose parts of the state machinery and collect a few isolated bastions while awaiting a dual power situation. Then, as time passes, dual power goes by the board: all that remains is the instrument-state which you capture cog by cog or whose command posts you take over.

Now, reformism is an ever-latent danger, not a vice inherent in any strategy other than that of dual power — even if, in the case of a democratic road to socialism, the criterion of reformism is not as sharp as in the dual-power strategy, and even if (there is no point in denying it) the risks of social-democratization are thereby increased. At any event, to shift the relationship of forces within the state does not mean to win successive reforms in an unbroken chain, to conquer the state machinery
piece by piece, or simply to occupy the positions of government. It denotes nothing other than a stage of real breaks, the climax of which — and there has to be one — is reached when the relationship of forces on the strategic terrain of the state swings over to the side of the popular masses.

The State as a Battleground

This democratic road to socialism is therefore not simply a parliamentary or electoral road. Waiting for an electoral majority (in parliament or for a presidential candidate) can be only a moment, however important that may be; and its achievement is not necessarily the climax of breaks within the state. The shift in the relationship of forces within the state touches its apparatuses and mechanisms as a whole; it does not affect only parliament or, as is so often repeated nowadays, the ideological state apparatuses that are supposed to play the determining role in the “contemporary” state.

The process extends also, and above all, to the repressive state apparatuses that hold the monopoly of legitimate physical violence: especially the army and the police. But just as we should not forget the particular role of these apparatuses (as is frequently done by versions of the democratic road that are founded on a misinterpretation of some of Gramsci’s theses), so we should not imagine that the strategy of modifying the relationship of forces within the state is valid only for the ideological apparatuses, and that the repressive apparatuses, completely isolated from popular struggle, can be taken only by frontal, external attack. In short, we cannot add together two strategies, retaining the dual-power perspective in relation to the repressive apparatuses. Obviously, a shift in the balance of forces within the repressive apparatuses poses special, and therefore formidable, problems. But as the case of Portugal showed with perfect clarity, these apparatuses are themselves traversed by the struggles of the popular masses.

Crowds in Lisbon, Portugal in April 1974. (Wikimedia Commons)

Furthermore, the real alternative raised by the democratic road to socialism is indeed that of a struggle of the popular masses to modify the relationship of forces within the state, as opposed to a frontal, dual-power type of strategy. The choice is not, as is often thought, between a struggle “within” the state apparatuses (that is, physically invested and inserted in their material space) and a struggle located at a certain physical distance from these apparatuses. First, because any struggle at a distance always has effects within the state: it is always there, even if only in a refracted manner and through intermediaries.
Secondly, and most importantly, because struggle at a distance from the state apparatuses, whether within or beyond the limits of the physical space traced by the institutional loci, remains necessary at all times and in every case, since it reflects the autonomy of the struggles and organizations of the popular masses. It is not simply a matter of entering state institutions (parliament, economic and social councils, “planning” bodies, etc.) in order to use their characteristic levers for a good purpose. In addition, struggle must always express itself in the development of popular movements, the mushrooming of democratic organs at the base, and the rise of centers of self-management.

It should not be forgotten that the above points refer not only to transformations of the state, but also to the basic question of state power and power in general. The question of who is in power to do what cannot be isolated from these struggles for self-management or direct democracy. But if they are to modify the relations of power, such struggles or movements cannot tend towards centralization in a second power; they must rather seek to shift the relationship of forces on the terrain of the state itself. This then is the real alternative, and not the simple opposition between “internal” and “external” struggle. In the democratic road to socialism, these two forms of struggle must be combined.

In other words, whether or not one becomes “integrated” in the state apparatuses and plays the game of the existing power is not reducible to the choice between internal and external struggle. Such integration does not necessarily follow from a strategy of effecting changes on the terrain of the state. To think that it does is to imagine that political struggle can ever be located wholly outside the state.

This strategy of taking power leads on directly to the question of transformations of the state in a democratic road to socialism. Authoritarian statism can be avoided only by combining the transformation of representative democracy with the development of forms of direct, rank-and-file democracy or the movement for self-management. But this in turn raises fresh problems. In the dual-power strategy, which envisages straightforward replacement of the state apparatus with an apparatus of councils, taking state power is treated as a preliminary to its destruction/replacement. Transformation of the state apparatus does not really enter into the matter: first of all the existing state power is taken, and then another is put in its place.

This view of things can no longer be accepted. If taking power denotes a shift in the relationship of forces within the state, and if it is recognized that this will involve a long process of change, then the seizure of state power will entail concomitant transformations of its apparatuses. It is true that the state retains a specific materiality: not only is a shift in the relationship of forces within the state insufficient to alter that materiality, but the relationship itself can crystallize in the state only to the extent that the apparatuses of the latter undergo transformation. In abandoning the dual-power strategy, we do not throw overboard, but pose in a different fashion, the question of the state’s materiality as a specific apparatus.

In this context, I talked above of a sweeping transformation of the state apparatus during the transition to democratic socialism. Although this term certainly has a demonstrative value, it seems to indicate a general direction, before which — if I dare say so — stand two red lights. First, the expression “sweeping transformation of the state apparatus in the democratic road to socialism” suggests that there is no longer a place for what has traditionally been called smashing or destroying that apparatus. The fact remains, however, that the term “smashing,” which Marx too used for indicative purposes, came in the end to designate a very precise historical phenomenon: namely, the eradication of any kind of representative democracy or “formal” liberties in favor purely of direct, rank-and-file democracy and so-called real liberties.

It is necessary to take sides. If we understand the democratic road to socialism and democratic socialism itself to involve, among other things, political (party) and ideological pluralism, recognition of the role of universal suffrage, and extension and deepening of all political freedoms including for opponents, then talk of smashing or destroying the state apparatus can be no more than a mere verbal trick. What is involved, through all the various transformations, is a real permanence and continuity of the institutions of representative democracy — not as unfortunate relics to be tolerated for as long as necessary, but as an essential condition of democratic socialism.

Mass Intervention

Now we come to the second red light: the term “sweeping trans-formation” accurately designates both the direction and the means of changes in the state apparatus. There can be no question of merely secondary adjustments (such as those envisaged by neoliberal conceptions of a revived de jure state), nor of changes coming mainly from above (according to the vision of traditional social democracy or liberalized Stalinism). There can be no question of a statist transformation of the state apparatus. Transformation of the state apparatus tending towards the withering away of the state can rest only on increased intervention of the popular masses in the state: certainly through their trade union and political forms of representation, but also through their own initiatives within the state itself. This will proceed by stages, but it cannot be confined to mere democratization of the state — whether in relation to parliament, political liberties, the role of parties, democratization of the union and political apparatuses themselves, or to decentralization.

This process should be accompanied with the development of new forms of direct, rank-and-file democracy, and the flowering of self-management networks and centers. Left to itself, the transformation of the state apparatus and the development of representative democracy would be incapable of avoiding statism.

But there is another side to the coin: a unilateral and univocal shift of the center of gravity towards the self-management movement would likewise make it impossible, in the medium term, to avoid techno-bureaucratic statism and authoritarian confiscation of power by the experts. This could take the form of centralization in a second power, which quite simply replaces the mechanisms of representative democracy. But it would also occur in another variant that is quite frequently envisaged today. According to this conception, the only way to avoid statism is to place oneself outside the state, leaving that radical and eternal evil more or less as it is and disregarding the problem of its transformation. The way forward would then be, without going as far as dual power, simply to block the path of the state from outside through the construction of self-management “counter-powers” at the base — in short, to quarantine the state within its own domain and thus halt the spread of the disease.

Such a perspective is currently formulated in numerous ways. It appears first in the neo-technocratic talk of a state which is retained because of the complex nature of tasks in a post-industrial society, but which is administered by left experts and controlled simply through mechanisms of direct democracy. At the most, every left technocrat would be flanked by a self-management commissar — a prospect which hardly frightens the various specialists, who are even manifesting a sudden passion for self-management because they know that, at the end of the day, the masses will propose and the state will decide.

It also appears in the language of the new libertarians, for whom statism can be avoided only by breaking power up and scattering it among an infinity of micro-powers (a kind of guerrilla warfare conducted against the state). In each case, however, the Leviathan-state is left in place, and no attention is given to those transformations of the state without which the movement of direct democracy is bound to fail. The movement is prevented from intervening in actual transformations of the state, and the two processes are simply kept running along parallel lines. The real question is of a different kind: how, for example, can an organic relationship be created between citizen’s committees and universal suffrage assemblies that will themselves have been transformed as a function of the relationship?

As we see then, the task is really not to “synthesize” or stick together the statist and self-management traditions of the popular movement, but rather to open up a global perspective of the withering away of the state. This comprises two articulated processes: transformation of the state and unfurling of direct, rank-and-file democracy. We know the consequences of the formal split between the two traditions that has arisen out of the disarticulation of these processes. However, while it alone is capable of leading to democratic socialism, this path has a reverse side: two dangers are lying in wait for it.

Michael Manley, democratic socialist leader of Jamaica. (Jamaica Information Service)

The first of these is the reaction of the enemy, in this case the bourgeoisie. Although old and well-known, this danger appears here in a particularly acute form. The classical response of the dual-power strategy was precisely destruction of the state apparatus — an attitude which in a certain sense remains valid, since truly profound breaks are required, rather than secondary modifications of the state apparatus. But it remains valid in one sense only. Insofar as what is involved is no longer destruction of that apparatus and its replacement with a second power, but rather a long process of transformation, the enemy has greater possibilities of boycotting an experience of democratic socialism and of brutally intervening to cut it short. Clearly, the democratic road to socialism will not simply be a peaceful changeover.

It is possible to confront this danger through active reliance on a broad, popular movement. Let us be quite frank. As the decisive means to the realization of its goals and to the articulation of the two preventives against statism and the social-democratic impasse, the democratic road to socialism, unlike the “vanguardist” dual-power strategy, presupposes the continuous support of a mass movement founded on broad popular alliances. If such a movement (what Gramsci called the active, as opposed to the passive, revolution) is not deployed and active, if the Left does not succeed in arousing one, then nothing will prevent social-democratization of the experience: however radical they may be, the various programs will change little of relevance.

A broad popular movement constitutes a guarantee against the reaction of the enemy, even though it is not sufficient and must always be linked to sweeping transformations of the state. That is the dual lesson we can draw from Chile: the ending of the Allende experience was due not only to the lack of such changes, but also to the fact that the intervention of the bourgeoisie (itself expressed in that lack) was made possible by the breakdown of alliances among the popular classes, particularly between the working class and the petty bourgeoisie. Even before the coup took place, this had broken the momentum of support for the Popular Unity government. In order to arouse this broad movement, the Left must equip itself with the necessary means, taking up especially new popular demands on fronts that used to be wrongly called “secondary” (women’s struggles, the ecological movement, and so on).

The second question concerns the forms of articulation of the two processes: transformations of the state and of representative democracy, and development of direct democracy and the movement for self-management. The new problems arise as soon as it is no longer a question of suppressing the one in favor of the other, whether through straightforward elimination or — which comes to the same thing —  through integration of the one in the other (of, for example, self-management centers in the institutions of representative democracy); that is to say, as soon as it is no longer a question of assimilating the two processes.

How is it possible to avoid being drawn into mere parallelism or juxtaposition, whereby each follows its own specific course? In what fields, concerning which decisions, and at what points in time should representative assemblies have precedence over the centers of direct democracy: parliament over factory committees, town councils over citizen’s committees — or vice versa? Given that up to a point conflict will be inevitable, how should it be resolved without leading, slowly but surely, to an embryonic or fully fledged situation of dual power?

This time, dual power would involve two powers of the Left — a left government and a second power composed of popular organs. And, as we know from the case of Portugal, even when two forces of the Left are involved, the situation in no way resembles a free play of powers and counter-powers balancing one another for the greatest good of socialism and democracy. It rather quickly leads to open opposition, in which there is a risk that one will be eliminated in favor of the other. In one case (e.g. Portugal), the result is social-democratization, while in the other variant — elimination of representative democracy — it is not the withering of the state or the triumph of direct democracy that eventually emerges, but a new type of authoritarian dictatorship. But in either case, the state will always end up the winner.

Of course, there is a strong chance that, even before dual power reaches that outcome, something else will happen — something that Portugal just managed to avoid — namely, the brutal, fascist-type reaction of a bourgeoisie that can always be relied upon to stay in the game. Thus, open opposition between these two powers seriously threatens, after a first stage of real paralysis of the state, to be resolved by a third contender, the bourgeoisie, according to scenarios that are not difficult to imagine. I said third contender, but it will not have escaped the reader’s notice that in all these cases (fascist-type intervention, social-democratization, authoritarian dictatorship of experts on the ruins of direct democracy). this contender is in one form or another ultimately the same: the bourgeoisie.

What then is the solution, the answer to all that? I could, of course, point to the observations made above, to the numerous works, research projects, and discussions underway more or less throughout Europe, as well as to the partial experiences now taking place at regional, municipal, or self-management level. But these offer no easy recipe for a solution, since the answer to such questions does not yet exist — not even as a model theoretically guaranteed in some holy text or other. History has not yet given us a successful experience of the democratic road to socialism: what it has provided — and that is not insignificant — is some negative examples to avoid and some mistakes upon which to reflect.

It can naturally always be argued, in the name of realism (either by proponents of the dictatorship of the proletariat or by the others, the orthodox neoliberals), that if democratic socialism has never yet existed, this is because it is impossible. Maybe. We no longer share that belief in the millennium founded on a few iron laws concerning the inevitability of a democratic-socialist revolution; nor do we enjoy the support of a fatherland of democratic socialism. But one thing is certain: socialism will be democratic or it will not be at all.

What is more, optimism about the democratic road to socialism should not lead us to consider it as a royal road, smooth and free of risk. Risks there are, although they are no longer quite where they used to be: at worst, we could be heading for camps and massacres as appointed victims. But to that I reply: if we weigh up the risks, that is in any case preferable to massacring other people only to end up ourselves beneath the blade of a Committee of Public Safety or some Dictator of the Proletariat.

There is only one sure way of avoiding the risks of democratic socialism, and that is to keep quiet and march ahead under the tutelage and the rod of advanced liberal democracy. But that is another story.

This essay originally appeared as the final chapter in State, Power, Socialism (Verso, 1980), first published in France in 1978 as L’ État, le pouvoir, le socialisme.

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Nicos Poulantzas was born in Athens in 1936 and died in Paris in 1979. His published works include Political Power and Social Classes, Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, Fascism and Dictatorship, and State, Power, Socialism.

Patrick Camiller has a degree in philosophy from King's College and works as a translator into English from a number of European languages.

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