Reimagining socialism, reinventing democracy

BARRY WINTER finds much to admire in Hilary Wainwright’s book Reclaim the State, but says she is still romantically optimistic about the prospects of new left parties.

My interest in Hilary Wainwright’s recent and, I think, important book initially came from a desire to discover more about the practical ‘experiments in popular democracy’ indicated by her sub-title. She provides a detailed and informed survey of four attempts to create grass roots democracy, one from Brazil and three from Britain. More specifically they are:

  • Participatory budgets in Porto Alegre, Brazil. This involves a rich, ambitious and complex process in which the city is administered by the Workers’ Party but where local communities actively shape and monitor the distribution of financial resources and services.
  • Local involvement in running regeneration funds arising from Labour’s New Deal for Communities located in east Manchester, Luton (which involved the Exodus collective), and Newcastle (involving community groups and trade unions).

What will be reviewed here, however, are her broader reflections on these experiences, allied to a particular model of social change, one that aims to ‘reclaim the state’. The theoretical issues raised by this approach, particularly in the chapter on knowledge, power and democracy, together with the conclusion, provides a valuable basis for re-imagining the socialist perspective.

For, whatever differences the ILP has with Hilary Wainwright on the Labour Party, she is one of the few people on the left trying to map out a similar terrain to ourselves. She focuses on how to achieve social transformation through both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary struggles for grass roots democracy, against private capital and ‘in and against’ the state. Or, as she writes, the search is for more vigorous forms of democracy through which to struggle for social justice.

Her advantage is that she occupies a relatively privileged position in these matters compared to many. She is able to travel extensively and to publish her experiences and has a history of doing so: wherever the ‘action’ is, she is. That’s not meant to be cynical; rather, it is to acknowledge the importance of engaging constructively with her analysis.

Wainwright can sometimes slide into over-optimism about the shorter term potential for change which, perhaps, is influenced by the time she has spent in activist circles. However, this is not a major problem. And, I feel, there is something of the outsider about her although, oddly, she seems more at home in northern Brazil than in east Manchester. Far more importantly, however, her work highlights the potential for radical change in people’s practical activities, particularly when combined with other political factors – and that is worth holding on to.

The flavour of change

To capture the flavour of the political changes taking place, she begins on a positive note citing new forms of activism during a five-month period in 2002/3: the World Economic Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil; the European Social Forum in Florence; a youth activists’ meeting in Norway; the first conference of New Political Initiative in Canada which brought together ‘a dense network of social movements’; and the activities of the democracy movement in Taiwan.

All these developments, she argues, are a response to the ‘abject failure of mainstream left parties to fulfil their promise’. Elected governments have failed to challenge anti-democratic pressures from big corporations. Her purpose, therefore, is to search for ‘stronger forms of democracy’ capable of doing that. How can we turn the loss of legitimacy of the old order into an opportunity to establish local and international forms of democratic power, she asks?

Her answer is to find out more about the activities of people who are ‘currently reinventing democracy against the odds’; to see the working principles they are developing, the obstacles they meet, and to consider the lessons we can learn from all this.

To frame her perspective, Wainwright cites Tom Paine’s Rights of Man, and what she calls ‘the foundation stone’ on which he ‘built his arguments for democracy’. Writing during the early years of the French Revolution, Paine argued that within the people there is ‘a mass of sense lying in a dormant state’ which, unless aroused, descends with them into the grave. The aim should be to ‘bring forward’ their capacities which, he argued, appear without fail at times of radical social change.

Wainwright uses this notion of people’s ‘mass of sense’ to measure the kind of democracy that followed historically, the situation today, and the kind of democracy we might build in the future.

The democratic breakthrough for the majority in British society in the first half of the 20th century, she says, was met by the persistent efforts of those in power to narrow its scope and blunt its consequences. By the time of the Cold War, representative democracy had been reduced to competition between elites with popular participation kept to a minimum. This weak form of democracy was no match for the growth of private business.

The 1960s saw the emergence of movements, however messy and nascent, that challenged these arrangements and which provided a basis for regenerating democracy. These pressures for democracy ‘shook up established social democratic parties and parts of government’, she says. While elites across the world reacted with alarm, social democratic leaders proved themselves unable to understand this ‘new democratic groundswell’.

Wainwright asks an important question: why has the radical edge of parties of the left become so blunted? She looks at several possible explanations: that complacency in office saps political ambition; that concern about career or party generates reluctance to face the conflicts and uncertainties caused by radical change; that patronage tames people’s radicalism; that the state is not neutral but run by those who favour the existing social order; and, not least, that capital deploys considerable bargaining power.

While accepting the validity of each of these accounts, she argues that, in themselves, they do not provide the answer. She sees them as indicative of the pressures acting on left parties but not as the basic reason why they compromise.

The source of that problem, she says, is the in-built flaw in conventional social-democratic thought: the assumption that the state, under control of the party, is the prime agency of social change. The assumption that the state itself is the means for the party in office to act upon society relegates the labour movement and the wider society to acting as supporters. Their role is to get the party elected into office. From there, party leaders can steer the state in the appropriate direction.

This leads to a consideration of what she describes as ‘the politics of knowledge’ which, for her, is the foundation for rebuilding democratic politics. Here the crucial question is what kinds of human creativity count as the source of relevant knowledge, or know-how? Or, put another way, whose knowledge is recognised as valid in public decision-making?

Four perspectives

To answer this, four political perspectives are evaluated: neo-liberalism, social democracy, ‘the third way’, and the participatory left’s alternative. For neo-liberals like Hayek, the social order is the haphazard outcome of history, refined through the evolutionary process of trial and error. The state should not interfere in this ‘spontaneous order’ but protect it from political intervention. Accident is the main mechanism for social evolution. Knowledge is not a social process – where people can learn collectively about their actions – but an exclusive, individual quality. Creativity is achieved by narrowly pursuing self-interest.

Social democracy has a less explicit theory of knowledge, she argues. It rests on the view that managing the state is primarily a matter for those with valid forms of knowledge: experts, scientists, professionals, leading business people, consultants, academics, and so on. Such knowledge can be codified and centralised and it can be appropriated and distributed by a single institution: the state. Social democratic governments have, says Wainwright, ‘unconsciously relied upon the practical knowledge of those who manage the status quo’. Expert-based forms of knowledge are seen as neutral, as beyond partisan or vested interests. Implementing policy is seen as a ‘value-free, machine-like process’ to be decided by elected politicians and implemented by impartial civil servants.

In this way, social democracy wastes the resources of those who provide its mass base, ‘the massive force for change which exist[s] beneath [its] eyes’, she argues. Yet, ironically, the rigid hierarchies in state institutions are inefficient, partly because they deny the insights and knowledge coming from below. Wainwright does argue, however, that strong state institutions are needed to ensure social redistribution and equality of provision.

She argues that Bill Clinton and Tony Blair have produced a ‘third way’ that is a deceptive political hybrid. They have abandoned the social-democratic tradition and given up on social transformation. Instead they seek ‘meagre social amelioration’ drawing from the language of the radical left but relocating the public sector in the market. One of the weaknesses of new Labour’s variant of neo-liberalism is that it lacks a coherent understanding of knowledge. It reproduces the social engineer’s desire for predictability and centralised control but almost romanticises the tacit know-how of the business person and grants the market ‘magical powers of co-ordination and efficiency’.

In contrast, Wainwright argues that for the participatory left a genuine third way politics recognises the value of practical knowledge and sees it as being both social and sharable. It thereby replaces the social-democratic view of knowledge with a more open, networking approach. It is built upon people sharing their practical, everyday knowledge and experience. Such knowledge is, by its nature, fragmentary. It’s rooted in emotions as well as ideas, in the things that people do, and not only in what is written down. It has ‘to be discussed and pieced together first’, and it can then draw upon other kinds of theoretical, statistical and historical knowledge.

Collective enterprise

Combining the social nature of knowledge with the goal of democracy, in Tom Paine’s sense, provides the way to create and develop people’s capacities, she argues. Creativity and innovation, so vital for social change, come first from practice, and the priority should be to investigate critically the activities of people who are seeking to establish new democratic institutions.

From this perspective, the development of a genuine third way is a vast ‘collective enterprise … in which every individual desiring change has both a creative and critical role to play’. Here, it seems, she is not applying traditional left notions of class but is being inclusive of all who desire progressive social transformation.

This collective enterprise of creating popular power beyond the ballot box is already underway, she argues. It generates a series of questions: for example, how to strengthen local control without also being parochial?; how to balance the need for centralised power, to redistribute wealth and limit private interests, with people’s need to have access to power locally?; and how to sustain stronger forms of democracy given the powers of global corporations and the global superpower, the United States?

In the final chapter, Wainwright says that the people whom she met on her travels were aware of losing the tug-of-war over local public institutions – housing estates, city finances, local council departments and services. They saw that elected politicians had neither the means nor the will to save them. However, through different combinations of political parties, community movements and active trade unions, people are beginning to construct new forms of democracy. Here, I can only hope that her assessment is right.

In what she describes as a journey of political discovery, based upon the belief in the creativity of practice, she offers three sets of linked ideas that she hopes will be useful in furthering democracy:

  • the idea of developing bargaining power for democracy
  • the political follow-through from this to make sure the power generated by such actions percolates upwards
  • the emergence of an international movement committed to democracy and linked through global networks.

By developing new and multiple forms of bargaining power she means widening and deepening engagements with state and private institutions across a wide range of issues (and not just workplace relations ‘important as they are’). The aim is not to replace parliamentary democracy but to complement it with arrangements that allow popular participation. Behind this approach, Wainwright recognises that democracy is not something that is ever settled but involves ‘a constant struggle’.

Given the crisis in liberal democracy, this means that participatory democracy not only needs to secure legitimacy for itself, but should also seek to reinvigorate representative democracy. Not only must the participatory processes secure results, but they must remain autonomous from the state. This complex relationship better enables public institutions to withstand the pressures of private capital because they have won some popular support. In addition, this implies the need for alliances with the social economy, such as co-operatives and mutuals, as well as trade unions.

By political follow-through, Wainwright argues that participatory democracy requires political pluralism, fair electoral systems, freedom of information, and the effective scrutiny of power. A momentum for extending the reach of democracy, whereby each new assertion of power allows for further gains, means that is an escalating process.

A new kind of party

Central to this is the need for a new kind of political party, she argues, one that is committed to the participatory process in terms of its structure, culture and policy-making process. Here the Workers’ Party in Brazil is favourably contrasted with the operations of the African National Congress (ANC). She also notes that there are a number of parties emerging that, in effect, are the electoral voice of coalitions of social movements. These hybrid movement/party organisations raise various issues about social change but it is important that, while they sustain dialogue, mutual learning and co-ordination, there must be a division of labour between them.

This is because there will be a necessary tension between electoral parties and social movements, not least about the time needed for taking decisions. They will operate with different time-scales, with movements stressing the need for people to argue, to make mistakes and to learn from them. Of course, the political process envisaged here is not a tidy one but that is what makes it so creative.

This brings us to Wainwright’s third point, about international developments. She argues that, as she was researching her book, an extraordinary movement was coming into being, beginning with the World Social Forum in Brazil in 2000. We are seeing a global movement which combines diversity with unity and which has ‘an intensity and density of activity for democratic change of society’. What is taking shape, she argues, is a movement that, in line with Tom Paine’s beliefs, can effectively draw upon people’s creative capacities.


This attempt to summarise the book’s main arguments raises many more issues than can be dealt in this review. It has not been possible, for example, to assess the case studies themselves. Instead, it is the merits of the wider political perspectives found in Wainwright’s account that can most usefully be explored here.

She provides us with a greater awareness of international developments, particularly the social forums that have taken place across several continents. We do need to have a better grasp of what is taking place at these levels and to try to engage with them. She is not alone in finding them a heady and exciting prospect.

I am perhaps a little less confident about their longer-term prospects while I welcome their emergence.

Wainwright’s analysis of the politics of knowledge raises ideas that have not been explored in much detail but they have much to commend them. She is right to argue that it delineates the different political perspectives about valid knowledge, and who should play a role in shaping and determining human life itself. These are notions that can be developed much further.

What I want to stress, however, is how close she is to the ILP’s general perspectives on social change. We share an emphasis on continuing democratic processes; on the social, political and economic alliances that can be constructed; on the linked but separate character of left parties and movements; and on the need to learn by doing through trial-and-error in a practical, creative but untidy process of development.

Particularly significant is her engagement with the practical politics of the here-and-now; the attempt to reclaim the state and to open up state institutions to democratising pressures. This shows her – and our – political distance from the insurrectionary left, whose incantation, ‘only solution, revolution’, she dismisses.

However, despite her concern with seeking practical reforms through the state, as part of a process of social change, there is still a gap between us when it comes to whether we see the Labour Party as potentially important in that process.

Ironically, it is new Labour’s seriously flawed attempts to revive communities (of which Wainwright is rightly critical) that provide most of her study’s examples of local attempts at democracy. This suggests to me that Labour remains, not only an important arena for political action and policy formation, but that the local struggles which she writes about might be more effective if they found reflection within the party itself.

Interestingly, her work drew an early response from within the party and from what some might see as an unlikely source. Catalyst, the left-of-centre think tank published a working paper on democracy by Angela Eagle MP, which is clearly influenced by Wainwright’s account. The pamphlet is critical of new Labour and seeks ways of expanding democracy and going beyond the market mechanism. Angela Eagle belongs to the ‘New Wave’ Labour group of MPs and, while she identifies herself as a social democrat, she openly accepts Wainwright’s critique of traditional social-democratic views about the neutrality of the state.

She also says that the political process in Britain runs on very outdated views about whose knowledge is valid; that Labour politics has been exclusive rather than inclusive; that it allocates a passive role to the wider party membership; and that it ‘wastes the experience and creativity inherent in most people to organise a change for the better’.

Eagle argues in favour of what she calls ‘quantum politics’, the acceptance that the world is complex and not entirely predictable. She advocates a deeper democracy and draws on five years of experience as a minister to argue that current processes are creating cynicism among party activists who feel excluded from decision making. She argues: ‘There is much merit in considering how the process of administering policy and programmes can be opened up and allowed to proceed in a bottom-up rather than a top-down way’ based on ‘genuinely empowered citizens.’

Admittedly, one Eagle does not of itself make a summer, but her pamphlet shows that there are people within the party who are willing to go beyond the constrictive politics of the present and value democratic politics. The question is how to welcome, support and strengthen these developments as an important part of the wider process of social change itself. Arguably, it also shows that new forms of political co-operation and understanding are gradually taking shape within the party. This seems far more tangible than waiting for the emergence of a new party of the left to emerge.

Where I am least enamoured of Hilary Wainwright’s analysis is her consideration of the reasons why parties of the left lose their radical edge. It is not that the ideas she examines are invalid, far from it, although I might give them a different emphasis. Her argument about the significance of social democracy’s misguided view of the state is also crucial, but perhaps more as part of a package of explanations that both interact and reinforce each other.

Social conservatism

What most concerns me is the absence of a sufficiently explicit acknowledgement of the electoral constraints acting upon all left parties. For, while it is vital to see the potential within people when it comes to social change, it is also important to recognise that winning elections deals with actually existing social conservatism within the electorate. In addition to the pressures of capital, this conservative outlook seriously impedes Labour – as it would any new party of the left.

Electoral considerations shorten political horizons and encourage great caution among party leaders in particular. Put crudely, there is a dynamic at work here: social conservatism reduces political radicalism among left parties which in turn often reproduces social conservatism, and so on. Of course, on some issues significant sections of the public can be ahead of parties, but they can also lag far behind.

That is why electoral politics alone can never be enough to generate social change. Left parties seeking office through elections are vital, but they are likely to be the slowest boats in the flotilla. Progressive social movements will often be the political pioneers of change, better equipped at challenging established ideas and social practices, and creating new ones. Each needs the other but there is bound to be considerable political tension – sometimes open conflict – between them. Each has a different political role that has to be recognised and respected by the other, even though many people will, of necessity, belong to both. The critical question is, where and how are these arguments to be aired and, if possible, resolved?

Wainwright recognises this. Yet her oft-stated desire for a new party somehow obscures these problems and relocates them somewhere in the future (and to the issue of different time-scales). In doing so, she undermines one of the strengths of her account – that she is offering a relevant politics for the here-and-now based on existing conditions.

In contrast, far left politics are basically propagandist – they are for a future that neglects or devalues the present, one that provides few practical steps forward that can engage large numbers of people. Their answer to most issues is to swell their own ranks in readiness for the revolution.

By placing an emphasis on new parties of the left Wainwright neglects what we can and should be doing today in the UK. We should build with and through the institutions that are available, learning how to use them to the best effect. This requires skill and political dexterity, and it also keeps us in touch with the world as it is.

The future starts today, not in anticipating the arrival of a new party. We have much to be grateful for in her book. It may even be possible to seek forms of co-operation on the broad areas where there is agreement.

But in waiting for the new party to materialise, Wainwright is adopting the role of one of the disempowered characters in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot. This is a fine drama, but it is neither a practical nor a political manifesto.

Hilary Wainwright (2003) Reclaim the State: Experiments in Popular Democracy, Verso.
Angela Eagle, MP (2003) A Deeper Democracy: Challenging Market Fundamentalism, Catalyst.

1 Comment

  1. […] her book Reclaim the State (see Barry Winter’s review), Hilary Wainwright describes a number of ‘experiments in popular democracy’ from different […]

Comments are closed.