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Create a Strong People
international | anarchist movement | opinion / analysis Monday April 25, 2022 21:00 by Felipe Corrêa - Institute for Anarchist Theory and History
Contributions to the debate on popular power
To begin the discussion on popular power it is important to return to the idea of a strategy of social transformation, since our political practice, as anarchists, is what could point toward this transformation.
CREATE A STRONG PEOPLE
Contributions to the debate on popular power
THE STRATEGY OF SOCIAL TRANSFORMATIONTo begin the discussion on popular power it is important to return to the idea of a strategy of social transformation, since our political practice, as anarchists, is what could point toward this transformation. The program of the Anarchist Federation of Rio de Janeiro (FARJ) raises the following about the strategy of social transformation:
To propose our strategy of social transformation is what we are trying to achieve in this text. Firstly, reflecting on the first question [where are we?] and mapping capitalism and the State, which give body to the society of domination and exploitation, then; reflecting on the second question [where do we want to go?], trying to articulate our final objectives of social revolution and libertarian socialism. Finally, reflecting on the third question [how do we think we can leave where we are and arrive at where we want to be?] and proposing a social transformation that takes place through social movements, constituted in popular organization, in constant interaction with the specific anarchist organization. All this while taking into account the interests of the exploited classes as a priority. Thus, behind the conception of all this theoretical material, there is a strategic rationale. Therefore, the strategy we conceive of is based on popular movements (mass movements), on their organization, accumulation of force and use of violence with a view toward achieving revolution and libertarian socialism. This process occurs in conjunction with the specific anarchist organization which, acting as a catalyst / engine for this process, acts in conjunction with the mass level and provides the conditions for transformation. These two levels (the popular movements and the anarchist organization) could also be complemented by a third, that of the tendency, which adds a related sector to popular movements. One could say, then, that the path for the construction of this social transformation is related to our conception of concentric circles:
The fundamental concept of the libertarian political organization is concentric circles. This concept is simple and requires different forms of activity and levels of commitment. The political-specific level corresponds to the ideological and concerns the politically organized militants [the specific anarchist organization]. Since this organization is not mass, it does not have an open affiliation. It is understood that the political-social and social levels must be massive and open to all popular militants. The political-social order corresponds to a related sector that shares a style of organizing, but not necessarily followers in the ideological-doctrinal sense [the tendency]. The social, properly speaking, corresponds to the range of oppressed classes, to the generalizable notion of people as a whole. It corresponds to the general areas of the class and popular struggle, that provides the organization to the socio-productive fabric, which is the pillar and foundation of Popular Power [popular movements]. Thus, any discussion about popular power must take into account several premises. First, that capitalism is a class society and that, therefore, the class struggle is a central aspect. Secondly, mobilization of the exploited classes and popular struggles of the masses are essential, since they are basing themselves on needs, will and organization, they expose the contradictions of this class system. Finally, the discussion on popular power must consider the idea that social transformation must be based on the leadership of these movements, that is, on the leadership of organized people, which differentiates this approach from others who conceive of transformation as the work of some vanguard party or as a result of the action of a minority group isolated from the base (as in the case of insurrectionary anarchism— “propaganda of the deed”—or foquismo)
THE POLITICAL QUESTIONPolitics must be understood beyond the State. While many sectors strictly relate politics to the State, we understand that, in a different way, it is much more than that, accounting for the relation of forces in society—which links it directly to questions of power—and the management of social affairs—which includes the issue of decisions and, therefore, of politics. In this case, the political relations of society would include the different forces at play and, for an analysis of contemporary society, it is necessary to understand the main force which is the class struggle, in which a set of exploited classes (urban and rural workers, peasants, precarious sectors, etc.) is in constant conflict with a dominant class (urban owners, rural owners, administrators, etc.), who have the State as one of their allies.
Returning to our strategy in relation to this conflict, we intend to increase the social force of the exploited classes and organize them so that their strength will have an impact in the conflict, that is, to build popular power.
Contrary to what authoritarian sectors emphasize, for us mass movements not only have the capacity for short-term economic struggle. We understand that it is possible, in the economic organization around needs, to develop a struggle that contains political elements that allow for these movements to become protagonists in the construction of a new society.
POPULAR POWER IN LATIN AMERICAFrom the information we managed to consult, it seems that the concept of popular power is relatively new, although its content can be recognized in the classics such as Proudhon or Bakunin, in their analysis of social forces in conflict.
In Latin America we can identify two main sources that have used this expression since the 1960s. First, the Uruguayan Anarchist Federation (FAU), which called for the need to create a strong people since the 1960s and stated in “The Political Organization is Decisive”, around 1970, the following:
The problem of power, decisive in a profound social change, can only be resolved at the political level, through political struggle. And this requires a specific form of organization: the revolutionary political organization. Only through its action, rooted in the masses, can the destruction of the bourgeois state apparatus and its replacement by mechanisms of popular power be achieved. Indeed, the forms of power, the State, are located at a precise level of the current social structure. Although they obviously have interdependent relations with the remaining levels of social reality (economic, ideological etc.) they cannot simply be reduced to them. In concrete terms, this means that political activity cannot be reduced to economic struggle, to union practice. The Movement of the Revolutionary Left [Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria] (MIR) of Chile stated the following in the 1970s:
We conceive of popular power as an independent power of the current government, [...] as an autonomous power that unifies all the social sectors (workers, students, peasants, employees, small merchants) of a given commune, taking this as the cellular organization of every city or region. [...] The task of the working class is to destroy the capitalist state and for this it must develop popular power, which will progressively face the power of the bosses [...] popular power is not created for anyone's pleasure. It is born and strengthened in the heat of struggle. [...] [The problem of accumulating forces must be taken into account. A pre-revolutionary period implies a particular way of joining forces, through the unity of all layers of the people in [...] organizations of popular power. These will forge a solid class alliance throughout the social confrontations, and from there they will mature the situation toward a revolutionary situation that allows the working class to take power. However, at that time, as is the case today, the sectors that proclaimed popular power meant different things with the term. Let's see:
We believe that the idea of Popular Power, so in vogue in the 60s and early 70s, is a true reflection of the persistence of an underground libertarian tradition within the left. Now, it should be remembered that the term 'Popular Power' received different interpretations: while for the more conservative supporters of Popular Unity, Popular Power meant only bases of Government support, since they did not conceive of a process outside the Government, nor against the State (perhaps because they did not conceive of a movement that went beyond mere reforms), for workers' and popular grassroots sectors, and for the Mirista culture, Popular Power meant the direct organization of the people, as opposed to the State and bourgeois power. What meaning was given to it, whether tactical or strategic, is also another discussion. Many sectors that had this understanding of Popular Power assigned it a role only in the fight against the State, but believed that it should assume a subordinate position once the vanguard party conquered power. Now, for the base of Mirismo, linked to experiences of popular construction in communal commands (comandos comunales) and industrial belts (cordónes industriales), these should be the same bases of the future society. In this way we can see that, from the beginning, popular power is a concept in dispute, not unlike socialism or anarchism. For the FAU, popular power should be built within popular movements and stimulated by the anarchist political organization. Another important element that appears, and that will be highlighted by the FAU years later, is the challenge of the base and superstructure framework, denying that the economic transformation could solve the whole problem of power present in other instances. For MIR, popular power is built through the struggle of the exploited classes, independent of the government, with the aim of accumulating forces to overthrow the state and capital, giving the people all power. In both positions we identify the idea, also present in revolutionary syndicalism, that it is within the current society, in the midst of struggles, that the embryo of the future society is built.
THE CONCEPT OF POWERMany anarchists in the past were motivated to say that anarchists were against power, often associating power with the state or domination. However, for various anarchists of our current, who have made theoretical developments in light of authors who discussed this issue in more recent times, power is linked to the issue of social forces at play and can be good or bad, depending on how it’s judged. Consider again two good definitions that approximate what could be understood as power. In a joint document on the subject, the Gaúcha Anarchist Federation [Federação Anarquista Gaúcha) (FAG) and the FAU say:
It is clear that this leads us to the treatment of another concept: power. An indispensable tool. The studies that seem most rigorous indicate some fundamental questions, namely: that power circulates throughout the social body, through the different structured spheres. That is to say, for all social relations. We would thus have power in the economic, legal-political-military, ideological and cultural spheres. We would have power at all levels of society. On a smaller scale, power also acquires importance in light of embryonic formations of the new civilization, represented in various forms of self-organization or self-management. Fabio López, in his book “Power and Domain: An Anarchist Vision,” addresses this question correctly—in my view—and defines power as follows:
A social force has a certain capacity to act. The capacity to act can be understood as the possibility that a particular social force has for producing, when it is put into action by the agent who holds it [...] When the agent has the ability to perform or produce a certain effect, it is said that it has power. It is none of this. The agent may be able to establish a power relationship, but not all that the agent carries out is power. [...] Our work is restricted to power as a social relationship. So, by power we only understand what affects social agents. Nor can power be understood as synonymous with repression: power builds, power creates, organizes and is capable of structuring the whole society. Always in favor of its owners. However, this is not necessarily anti-popular. [...] Power cannot be a simple synonym of social force, because to have power it is necessary to make use of its strength and this, in turn, generates an effect - or at least be able to use this force (at its convenience) and this being sufficient to achieve the effect [...] Power is the imposition of the will of an agent that mobilizes through social force to overcome the force deployed by those who oppose it. Let's take a look at some elements noted by the FAU, FAG and Fabio López. First, a relevant issue is that power circulates through all social relationships, whether between classes, between groups or even between two people who maintain a relationship. Thus, the point is not to end power, since power is linked to conflicts and conflicts are endless. Power can be modified, but never cease to exist. Thus, we can understand that there is no political vacuum, because if one of the parties involved in a conflict does not have power, we can say that the other has it.
Therefore, when dealing with class struggle, the issue is not to discuss how to end power relations, but how to forge a libertarian proposal in accordance with what we consider essential, both for the definition of struggles—from a militant viewpoint—and for the society we want to build.
Another important point: one thing is the ability to act when someone is capable of producing a social force, another thing is when there is a social force involved in conflict, and yet another is when this social force overcomes the other forces at play; that is what constitutes power. Let's address these concepts by quickly applying them to our society: social classes, or even all individuals, have a capacity for action. Take the example of the exploited classes: they have this capacity, that is, an elementary and potential force, but it is necessary to put them into practice to constitute a real social force. As Bakunin stressed:
It is true that there is [in the people] a great elementary force, a force without a doubt beyond that of the government and that of the ruling classes as a whole, but without organization the elementary force is not a real force. It is this undeniable advantage of organized force over the elemental force of the people on which the force of the State is based. Therefore, the problem is not so much to know if [the people] can revolt, but to see if they are capable of building an organization that gives them the means to reach a successful end—not through a casual victory, but by a prolonged and definitive victory. When, as Bakunin puts it, the people organize themselves by putting their force into class conflict and build an organization capable of generating the means to guarantee the desired ends—that is, social revolution and libertarian socialism—they can overcome the forces of the ruling class. Using the concepts of the FAU, FAG and Fabio López, we can say that at the moment when the people manage to invest their social force in this conflict and reach the revolution, they in fact consolidate a power that, by being consummated by the exploited classes, can be called popular power.
But if anarchists are not against power, what do they fight against? Here is another important concept that differs from that of power: domination.
Dominance (or domination) is to have the social power of others (the dominated) and, consequently, their time to achieve ones goals (of the dominator)—which are not the goals of the subject agent—. [...] Domination cannot be the same as power. [...] In domination we find exactly the same elements, but the difference is that in the power relationship, the object controlled by the powerful is different from the subjugated. In the relation of domination, the controlled object is the subject's own social force. In the relationship of domination, the social force of the dominated is no longer controlled by them, but by their dominator. [...] In order for us to consider that the agent is dominated, they will have to use their social force to achieve the dominator's goals. In the case of domination, the difference is that the social force of those who were subjugated in the conflict is used in favor of the one that dominates, where the goals of the dominated are different from those of the dominator, although this domination may or may not be consensual. Applying the concept in the class conflict of capitalism, we can say that capitalist society is a society in which dominance exists, since the owner, for example, through private ownership of the means of production, dominates the workers forcing them to sell their labor power, which is used for the objectives of the owner—obtaining benefits and surplus value. Domination is never popular and cannot be defended by those who want to build a society based on freedom and equality. Therefore, we can say that it is not against power that anarchists fight, but against domination.
Many anarchists argue that building power—which is characterized by the mobilization of grassroots sectors, from the bottom up, and is therefore popular power—is, in reality, the path of transformation. Let's look more deeply at the concept of popular power.
POPULAR POWERHere are some definitions of popular power to continue the discussion. Gilmar Mauro, a member of the Landless Rural Workers Movement [Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra] (MST), has an interesting way of defining popular power, as a new form of power:
Popular power, therefore, arises and is realized with and by the people (as a social class) in a project of building socialism. It is the ability to think, propose and make our own destiny and the destiny of the community, region and country, respecting cultural differences and individualities. Individuality, here, is understood not in the sense of bourgeois individualism, but of the physical and mental capacities and subjectivity of individuals, since every process of building Popular Power will necessarily have to be collective.Juan C. Mechoso, of the FAU, also contributes with the following definition:
The workers and the people, through broadly democratic and participatory organisms, will assume control and exercise popular power, appropriating the tutelary functions exercised from the state sphere. For this reason, a strategy of popular power must have as an essential premise the construction of these organisms. It is a key political task that should already be playing a front-line role in determining whether the revolutionary future will be socialist and libertarian or not. The defeat of the capitalist and authoritarian order by an authentic popular power is being played out every day, depending on how the political and social work is permanently oriented and implemented. From these definitions we can attempt to tie some things together. First, we insist that solving the problem of power, understanding it in terms of social relations, does not mean being a friend of the boss. We are talking about a class society and a process that takes place in the class struggle and, therefore, must always have a class perspective. Therefore, a project of popular power is one that constantly tries to increase the social force of all the oppressed, applying this force in conflict, conquering short-term struggles and maintaining a revolutionary and socialist horizon. At the moment when the oppressed manage to superimpose their force on that of the ruling class, they consolidate their hegemony and popular power, since we believe that this power can only be fully realized in a new society of equality and freedom, that is, a society in which dominance does not exist, in which associations and organizations are voluntary, not alienated, and in which there is no more exploitation and domination; a society in which individual liberties exist, but which exist within a framework of collective liberties.
This necessarily implies an analysis in terms of means and ends, which is also present in the discussion of popular power. In other words, if we want to build a society where freedom and equality are its pillars, we have to choose a path that leads to this end. And anarchists will always demand this coherence between means and ends, arguing that the path we take will determine where we get to. We will not consider taking a road south if we want to go north. Thus, creating popular power, that is, creating a strong people, who are protagonists of both their struggles and the future society, requires that the people take their destiny into their own hands. Therefore, thinking about popular power means thinking about a model of popular organization, a militant style for the struggles that will determine the final objectives. The form of these struggles must build the new world within it, and, within these struggles, we must try to reclaim a culture of the exploited classes and strengthen new social relations, which will contribute to the construction of popular power. To talk about how struggles should be built, we need to discuss a bit about strategy.
POPULAR POWER AND STRATEGYPopular power must be thought of in two distinct moments. One, when it is being built in current struggles, and the other, when it is consolidating in the post-revolutionary moment.
Thinking about popular power today implies thinking about the struggles of popular movements. Therefore, building popular power today can only mean two things: creating movements with a popular base or joining existing ones. In this case, it is a tactical question whether one should do one or the other. In situations where it is possible to act in existing movements, it is the best alternative, but if this is not possible (due to the movement's operating scheme, etc.) or if there are no popular movements, you can choose to create them, remembering that in our conception the movements must be constituted on the basis of needs (employment, land, work, housing, struggle against violence, etc.) and fight for short-term benefits (reforms) which is ultimately what mobilizes. The way in which these reforms will be achieved and the way in which the struggle will unfold will determine whether or not popular power is being created and whether it aims at a new society as we understand it. Let's see what characteristics of social movements point toward a project of popular power. According to the FARJ:
They are as strong as possible, with the largest number of people and a good organization, and they are oriented to the fight they consider a priority. [...] Social movements should not adjust and limit themselves to an ideology, whatever it may be, [...] in the same way we think about the issue of religion. [...] Another important characteristic of social movements is the autonomy that is established mainly in relation to the State, political parties, bureaucratized unions, the church, among others. [...] Their combativeness. By affirming that they must be combative, we mean that social movements must achieve their social gains by imposing their strength and not depending on favors or good deeds from any sector of society, including the state. [...] Direct action, as a form of political action that opposes representative democracy. Social movements should not aim to gain the trust of politicians who operate within the State to represent their interests. [...] Movements are always organized outside the State, with the argument of returning political power to the people. [...] Direct democracy as a method of decision making. Direct democracy takes place in social movements when everyone involved is effectively participating in the decision-making process. [...] Decisions are made equally in horizontal assemblies (all have the same voice and the same voting power), where issues are discussed and deliberated. [...] In this model of social movement it is important to carry out a militant conduct with ethics and responsibility. [...] Social movements are a privileged space for the development of culture and popular education. [...] all those who mobilize strengthen their learning, and the new forms, manifestations, languages, experiences and life lessons reflect the spirit of struggle. [...] Short-term conquests, called reforms, when achieved by social movements, will serve as a strategy to lessen the suffering of those who fight and, at the same time, teach the meaning of organization and struggle. [...] The revolutionary long-term perspective. In this case, the idea is that social movements, beyond having their specific flags (land, housing, work, etc.), can aim at revolution and the construction of a new society. We understand that the short and medium-term struggle is complemented by this long-term perspective and these are not mutually exclusive. Therefore, movements with these characteristics—fostered by a particular style of work that implies a militant process and conduct—will lead to the construction of popular power, that is, to the creation, within the class struggle, of a strong people capable of leading the social transformation.
In the event of a social revolution, popular power, which would be built during the struggle, would have to function as a “transition period”, in the sense expressed by the group Dielo Trudá in the Platform: guaranteeing the destruction of the State and its replacement by generalized popular participation, that is, by self-management and federalism in the full sense. It is in this order of ideas that the Libertarian Struggle collective deals with this topic:
Popular power is also socialist, since everyone will be able to participate in all the planning and decision-making processes of society through the federative mechanism that allows everyone to participate and, if necessary, has a superior decision-making body. In other words, power will be effectively socialized. [...] As for the functioning of Socialist Popular Power, the mechanisms are exactly the same as those we project for political federalism in the anarchist-communist stage: participation of all, collective decisions, revocability of functions, equal access to information and decision-making power, etc. Regarding the organizational structure, the same is presented: councils with deliberative tasks and industrial federations with executive tasks. Therefore, it is in this sense that popular power is built through struggles, at the same time that it provides the development and the path of the future society towards the consolidation of libertarian socialism.
In this discussion of strategy, a series of questions arises that we are not going to be able to develop in this article, but that deserve reflection in the future. These are questions that accompany the discussion of popular power and are really very extensive. We can cite some:
1. The question of the revolutionary subject. In the anarchist conception of popular power no preference is given to a class or class sector—as the socialists who emphasize the working class and the industrial sectors and in the base and superstructure scheme— since for the anarchists, despite recognizing that the economic context is absolutely central, they consider that it does not determine all the other spheres of society and, therefore, a project of power popular must take into account, in addition to the economic sphere, the legal-political-military and ideological-cultural spheres.
FINALIZING AND CONCRETIZING THE DEBATEOne of the issues to be addressed is the level of disagreement around the concept of popular power by those who use it. There is no doubt that our current developed very productive discussions and arguments on the subject. Unfortunately, however, if we broaden the search on this debate a bit, we will see that today popular power, as a concept—like socialism, democracy, freedom, etc.—does not say much on its own. Many other currents, outside of anarchism but still within the field of the left, have been claiming popular power as a project to be built within the scope of government relations with the State and the bureaucracy, while others claim it as a popular project that, at the most opportune moment, should give space to the vanguard through hierarchical structures.
For this reason, when we are in social work within social movements, saying that we defend popular power does not mean much anymore. We always need to give an explanation and debate this concept which, although others defend it, many times in the middle of explanations irreconcilable differences are evident. This can be a positive point, since having an affinity with the term offers possibilities for giving it the meaning that we want.
Today in Brazil, the FARJ, despite using the same conceptual logic described in this debate, so far prefers not to resort to the term popular power to differentiate itself from other sectors. It simply considers that it is not a concept worth arguing about. However, other especifista organizations, in addition to using the term popular power, place it at the center of their strategy for transformation and propaganda. It seems important to me, at this time, to listen to the arguments of both perspectives in the debate, with their respective arguments. This will be crucial for the future. We must be open to arguments, measuring and judiciously evaluating the pros and cons of these claims.
Ultimately, it is necessary to debate and discuss more on the underlying issues that I tried to outline in this article. Certainly, an especifista anarchism at the national level will need to be formed on this issue, which I consider of utmost importance. That is why I invite colleagues from this or other anarchist currents, or from other sectors of the left, to start a debate on the issues presented here.
In conclusion, let us return to the phrase of the revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, used as an epigraph for this text, when he emphasizes that “strong people don’t need leaders.” We fully agree on this. For a project of popular power, in the terms that we try to present in this article—call it what you want to call it—it is essential to create a strong people. Only in this way will the people be the protagonist in the desired social transformation.
Notes1. This article collects some contributions and debates from an internal seminar of the Anarchist Federation of Rio de Janeiro (FARJ) on the question of popular power, held in December 2009. I thank my colleagues Rafael Viana and Gabriel Amorin for their reflections in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, which contributed to this work.
2. Federação Anarquista do Rio de Janeiro (FARJ), Anarquismo social e organização, p. 198.
3. Bruno Lima Rocha, “A interdependência estrutural das três esferas”. What is in brackets was added by me.
4. Federación Anarquista Uruguaya (FAU), “La organización política es lo decisivo”, p. 194. There are parts of this document that were compiled by myself in the article, “A organização política anarquista”, available at http://www.anarkismo.net/article/10387.
5. Víctor Toro, leader of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR), in an interview published in 1971 in number 147 of the magazine Punto Final. You can read the whole interview at the end of the article by José Antonio Gutiérrez Danton “Los libertarios y las lecciones del golpe de Estado en Chile”.
7. Federación Anarquista Uruguaya and Federação Anarquista Gaúcha, “Documento Wellington Galarza y Malvina Tavarez (Trabajo de estructuras)”. It is a working paper for the joint theoretical training of the FAU and the FAG.
8. Fabio López, Poder e domínio: uma visão anarquista, pp. 61-62.
9. Mikhail Bakunin, “Necessidades da organização”, p. 136.
10. Fabio López, Poder e domínio, pp. 83-87.
11. Gilmar Mauro, “Construir o poder popular: o grande desafio do novo século”.
12. Juan Carlos Mechoso, “La estrategia del especifismo: entrevista a Felipe Corrêa”.
13. Federação Anarquista do Rio de Janeiro (FARJ), Anarquismo social e organização, pp. 111-122.
14. Luta Libertária, “Socialismo Libertário: um projeto em construção”.
15. This debate ended up with the militants of the Anarchist Federation of Rio de Janeiro (FARJ) deciding to use and defend notions of power and popular power.
Original article: “Criar um Povo Forte: contribuições para a discussão sobre poder popular”. Firstly published in 2009 at Anarkismo.net website and, after, as a small book by Faísca Publicações (São Paulo, Brazil, 2010).